Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Political Shibboleths

The man who sat on the mall bench next to me was in his late 70s, maybe, or early 80s, no doubt taking a break, as I was, after having been outshopped by his companion. I had taken Jayden out of the stroller to stretch his legs, and he sat on my lap behaving like an exceedingly cute 1-year-old.

So that was the scene when the man sat down and made conversation with Jayden, said he'd retired from the Air Force, mentioned his recent back surgery; we exchanged the names of our home towns; and casting about for another topic of conversation, he said that the government spends too much money.

I had turned Jayden around on the bench, and he was watching with fascination the people go by below. The man, thinking I had missed his topic, tried again: "Congress spends too much of our money."

Thinking about it later, I realized that there were many things I could have said: "Preach it, brother!" or "What programs do you disagree with?" or "It seems to be what the voters want them to do." Or even, "I don't talk politics [although it's not "politics," strictly speaking, but policy; anyway] with strangers; pick another." But what came out was, "..."

My first thought was why am I such a loghead? But if he had had a specific policy issue, we might have had a conversation. But too often, these entrees aren't about conversation; they're about finding out if the other person is one of us or one of them. I suspect that I might have been "us" to the man, but I hate being "us" that way even more than I hate being "them."

I know a man who plays this game with every person he meets -- and he meets a lot of people. I'm among "them" to him, and when he finds a kindred political soul, they ramp up the rhetoric together in a sort of bondng ritual. It's not persuasive -- there's no need to persuade, because the assumption is that being "us," we already agree; if we had to persuade each other, we wouldn't be "us."

I wonder how much the state of our political discourse comes back to the inanities people proclaim when they're trying to find fellow members of their political clans.

How much more appealing just to stare over the railing at the many fascinating people walking about below.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

We need a little (more) Christmas

"Happy Holidays!" the chirpy voice rang out the last weekend of November. "Welcome to McDonald's."

Well, happy holidays to you, too. Any particular holiday? Arbor Day? Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist? Of course, I didn't say that, just gave my order and drove on through.

I sat out the Chrismas wars this year, though I saw with some gratification that the secularists made a few strategic retreats. I don't put much stock in corporate-designated holiday greetings; I'd rather hear what bubbles forth from the clerk's heart, whether it's Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or Bah Humbug.

But it's been an interesting season. The late Oriana Fallaci declared herself a "Christian atheist." Dennis Prager, a Jew, gets himself lambasted for defending the civic and cultural importance of the Christian Bible. Seattle puts the Christmas trees back into the airport. "Tidings of comfort and joy" -- or are they?

I don't want to belittle any of the efforts and sacrifices of our fellow combatants for freedom of religion in the public square. But I think it's necessary to note that the Christmas of the public square -- with or without the permission of the ACLU -- is not all there is. And the fact that someone needs to note that shows how far, perhaps, the secularists have encroached on Christmas.

One example: Steve Ely of Escape Pod (an SF audio magazine that is a weekly favorite of mine) introduces the Christmas podcast -- a story about how Santa solves some management problems -- with a brief anecdote about how he's not religious but his son has shown him the value of Christmas. If I can give joy and fun and sparkly things to my son, he said -- not in those words, but that's the gist of it -- then why should I deny it to him because of my temptation to think of it as humbug. And by giving it to him, I get a little of it back myself. It's a wise and deeply true statement and yet it reveals the gap between Christmas revealed by angels on a night some 2,000 years ago and Christmas as it's come to be practiced some 2,000 years later.

We think of Christmas as a Hallmark special -- when wandering adults come home to aging parents, enemies reconcile, children get the miraculous gift that they most dearly need. And although all those things are good, and one can find scriptural bases for all those stories -- at the end the stories are too frequently cut off from their moorings, like buoys marking the location of sunken treasure whose ropes are cut, leaving searchers wandering dark waters to find bobbing indicators pointing to nothing.

"Peace!" "Joy!" and "Hope!" the Christmas cards say, and who can argue with peace, joy and hope? Except "peace" is defined as an absence of botherment; "joy" as the Christmas mood, manufactured by weeks of songs about snow and Christmas, some pine-scented candles and a lot of red and green decorations; "hope" as that present -- profound or trivial -- that Santa brings.

I don't mean to denigrate any of that. "Christmas is for children," the secular Christmas celebrators say, "and for the child in all of us," some of them add. And again, who can argue with such a profound truth? Except that, again, it's cut loose from the moorings. Yes, Christmas is about literal quiet, punctuated by songs, marked by the smells that hinge to memories in the human mind, the red and green colors pointing to life, and the gifts pointing to the gifts the Magi or the Gift that is Christ himself. Everything we do is for the kids -- to make clear to them what the holiday means and to remind ourselves year in and year out what the holiday means. God became incarnate -- God became meat (go 48 minutes into the linked podcast for a five-minute-long SF story that captures the wonder, the scandal of Christmas without apparently even being aware of it), with all the botherment, pain and suffering, and despair of earthly success that entailed for Him.

No wonder people get angry, frustrated, cynical, and depressed about Christmas. They go into the season expecting a Hallmark Christmas; they pull up the buoys and find nothing attached. The buoys aren't bad or wrong, but the ropes have been cut. If Santa represents neither the historical St. Nicholas nor the Gift of Love from God to us, then he easily becomes a Bad Santa, hating children and mocking everything good. If Christmas light isn't the Light that enlightens every human soul, then Christmas can become Black Christmas, a time of fear and death.

The old civil celebration used to help maintain the ropes -- the Nativity scenes, the old carols. They weren't enough alone, but combined with the religious practice of ordinary people they were a net benefit. But now we feel as if we've gotten away with something when a school choir gets to sing "We Need a Little Christmas," when we can put a Nativity scene in public, casting Santa Claus among the Wise Men, when the Salvation Army gets to ring bells outside a shopping mall. Again, not bad, not bad, not bad, but not enough. And not enough even to indicate that there's more.

In fact, that's the saddest part of it. Not that people hear and reject, but that they don't hear, that they think they comprehended Christmas when they were 8 years old and waiting for that special doll or baseball glove, that they don't understand that Christmas is a feast for the intellect as well as for the body and for the senses, and that the totality of it is a feast for the spirit.
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shown to the world the light of wisdom,
For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star
To adore you, the Sun of righteousness,
and to know you, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to you.
Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all creation,
And the earth gives a cave to Him who is unapproachable,
Angel and shepherds sing Your glory,
And Wise Men journey with star,
Since for our sake, He has come as a newborn child, who from all eternity is God.

Merry Christmas to all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Best-laid plans

So I get home from work Monday fully intending to be useful and productive the whole evening long. It's the first day of our Christmas vacation from court-reporting school, and so it's the first Monday evening I've been home in months.

I thought I'd cook a real dinner, do the Christmas cards, read a little bit, go to bed early.

Then I get a call from daughter No. 2, panicked and crying. She had been rear-ended at a red light in Oregon City, and she needed me to come and get her. So I turned off the burners on the stove and swung into action. Her back and neck hurt, and so we needed to go to the emergency room and have it checked out.

Four hours later the problem has been determined to be whiplash, and daughter No. 1 and grandson No. 1 are determined to be uninjured, and we're driving through McDonald's on the way home.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be of service, and I'm glad that everyone is well, and all that. But these events tempt me just to sit back wait for the next crisis, rather than attempt to do anything that will take thought and effort and concentration.

I've heard the old saying, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," and I believe it, but if everyone put all their emphasis on that definition of "life," nobody would ever accomplish anything extraordinary. "Balance," of course -- as so often -- is the answer, which is a quick and easy way of saying, "negotiating hard decisions and coming up with unsatisfactory answers." Welcome to life, Jan.

And the folks who are waiting for our Christmas cards will probably get them in time for Old Calendar Christmas -- sooner if I drop the annual Christmas letter; later if not.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Schultze Gets the Blues

It's a little late for a relevant review, but I just watched the 2003 German movie Schultze Gets the Blues. If you're in the mood for a fast-paced action-adventure thriller, it's probably not the best time to watch it. But if you loved the slower-paced, blossoming (in the sense of layers unfolding and revealing themselves) movies, this is a good one.

I've told my friends that it's The Straight Story meets Babette's Feast.

Schultze is a German salt miner, forced into retirement and casting about for what to do with his life, who hears Louisiana zydeco music on the radio late one night. He pulls out his accordion and imitates the song, taking the simple folk melody he heard and playing it faster and faster until he's got the tempo but not quite the feel of what he heard. He shares the sound with his friends at a local concert with mixed results.

He sells everything he has and goes on a voyage, on a quest, for the music, taking a boat through the coastal waterways, canals, and bayous from Texas to Louisiana.

SPOILER ALERT: If you want to go rent the movie and come back, I'll wait. Take your time.

All right. Back now? Good.

So his quest takes him from German music in Texas, to Billy Jones and the Czech Boys to classic Cajun music to the zydeco he seeks. In fact, he ends up at a joint where he has an opportunity to dance to the same music he heard on the radio.

He has adventures and misunderstandings along the way -- I laughed out loud when the hunters landed a duck in his boat -- and the black woman at his last stop gives him water, a meal and the kindest of hospitality. We don't see her go through the process of figuring out about the music he was looking for; we only see him dancing at the joint. And then he goes short of breath and they take him home. He goes to sleep under a bright full moon, dreaming about Cajuns dancing to music he can't hear. And then a black cloud goes across the moon.

The next scene opens with a musical funeral procession moving through a graveyard. I had been wanting Schultze to triumph, to learn to play the music and to go home and share it with the people there. So I'm watching the procession, thinking, "Did he die? Can't be. Maybe he's visiting a Cajun funeral." And the procession takes its slow cinematic time arriving, so that the viewer can consider all the possibilities.

But the musicians in the procession are the people from Schultze's home town, and they've gathered with their accordions and brass instruments to give him a good sendoff -- something like a Cajun funeral.

So he has triumphed, and he has, in some small way, transformed his community.

Like the painter in Tolkein's Leaf by Niggle, Schultze has had a glimpse of the beauty of another world (in this case, a continent away), a beauty he can only barely capture and not replicate. He goes on a journey to acquire that beauty, and it's a journey that takes his entire life to comprehend. And yet, even in his seeming failure, his all is enough.