Friday, May 29, 2020

Rattling in my brain-pan

  • Over at Sojourners Courtney Ariel lays down six things we can do to be stronger allies.
  • By all accounts, even revisionist ones, Ishi was a mensch: patient, friendly, curious, upright. He weathered the sort of radical and traumatic change that would destroy most of us, and he did so with an unflappable calm that, as his joking and frequent delight suggested, had nothing to do with stony-faced stereotypes of native imperturbability. There was a charm to the man that radiates throughout his story, throughout time even, which is partly why print-outs of his image are now stapled to that signboard at Grattan.Erik Davis has a newsletter — even if you choose not to subscribe, do yourself a favour and read his latest.
Ishi Obscura
  • Lefsetz interviews Kendziorfor two hours. I haven’t heard it yet, but Sarah Kendzior is a terrific interview with anyone. Her book is waiting for me at Blue Heron, so I will give this a listen there and back.
  • Jonathan Haidt is trying to heal America’s divisions — I read Peter Wehner’s profile of his psychologist friend earlier this week. Hard to believe five days ago seems like a more hopeful time.
  • “How did I meet Larry? He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine” — Anthony Fauci reflects on his beloved friend and nemesis Larry Kramer.
  • “I have to say that my better judgment does not get a lot of exercise these days” — surprisingly, shock-novelist and inveterate pot-stirrer Lionel Shriver proves capable of understatement.
  • Finally, a little over a month ago I nervously linked to David Cayley’s contemplation of what Ivan Illich might have made of the pandemic response. A week went by and nobody commented on it. I breathed a sigh of relief. Alas, a week later Paul Bowman informed me that the wags at Solidarity Hall were gettin’ into it, big-time — enough so to coax Cayley out of the study and into the square to deliver further rumination on the matter. My thoughts, yet again: a hot-take on what has, possibly, been sacrificed from human community in our hasty embrace of the atomistic contemporary is maybe not the best way to determine, “What is to be done?” But, hey — for them what’s got to contemplate on it, keep on it contemplatin’.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lesson 3: Maybe DON’T write what you want to read...

I don’t recall writing assignments from my early days in school — it is safe to assume they were a tortuous requirement. By sixth grade, however, I was enjoying writing and illustrating short adventures that riffed off the book descriptions I read in Scholastic Book Club flyers.
Actually, this one I still have a copy of. Somewhere.
The 'rents were cool toward this outfit — likely for the same reason they were cool toward television (worldly influence). Since I rarely set eyes on the advertised product, necessity dictated I conjure up these forbidden adventures on my own. I also did this in the family back yard, physically elaborating plot elements gleaned from the TV guide, energetically spilling rivers of villainous blood that would have made Conan the Barbarian recoil in horror.

Lotsa fun, lotsa fun...

English classes were dubbed “Language Arts” in those days of Trudeau-and-all-his-hippie-cronies-playing-the-pipe. Mr. H__, my grade 7 LA teacher, required a creative one-pager at the end of every month. On Friday he’d take the collection of foolscap pages home, and on Monday he’d read his favourites to the class. To my astonishment my pulpy descriptions of starships eliminating hideous alien threats, or MENSA teens exacting poorly-conceived revenge on their jock tormentors, were frequently read aloud to my less-than-ecstatic classmates.

This is a good time (for me, at least) to tip the hat to Alan Dean Fosteryou were my Proust, sir.

By grade 8, coinciding with Joe Clark’s brief tenure as (Conservative) PM, “Language Arts” was bluntly reduced once again to ENGLISH. Mr. L__ — a man of very different temperament to Mr. H__ — announced in September there would be only one “Creative Writing” assignment, due in January. The rest of the year would be devoted to sober discussion of serious texts, and disciplined mastery of spelling and grammar.

Needless to say, Mr. L__ was nowhere near as moved as Mr. H__ might have been, had the latter been given opportunity to read my crackling story of an international team of space agents dispatched to assassinate an evil genius in his orbital station.

The winning story that year was an account of a girl who, against the wishes of her caring but religiously austere parents, gets her long, lustrous hair cut to a more fashionable length, then comes home to face the consequences. As Mr. L__ read it aloud to us, I was surprised to find myself actually quite moved by what I initially thought was a rather pedestrian struggle common to us all, really, in one form or another. I also couldn’t help but notice the author was in possession of a well-brushed, cared-for, and very lengthy mane of hair.

Lessons learned: 1) make it personal; 2) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Research vs. "Research"

My godson is a stand-up guy — he does good work, building houses in the DR, among other things.

Last summer he told me about a weird encounter. During one of his “let’s help” projects a pair of American dudes from the midwest joined the team for a day. They kidded and kibbitzed with the larger group, but mostly committed to a back-and-forth with each other, extolling the virtues of the 45th POTUS, who according to their narrative was accomplishing one outlandish feat after another — feats that even Fox News wasn’t covering, never mind the MSM.

Dude 1 grinned at the godson. “We freakin’ you out yet?”

Godson: “Well, I’m just wondering: what do you make of 44?”

Dude 1: “Obama? Great for the gays!”

Dude 2: “Had to be, if he was going to get his own marriage legalized.”

Godson: “What are you talking about?”

Dudes 1&2: “Michelle’s a man!”

Godson: “... ... Wheeeere do you get this stuff?”

Dude 1: “Do the research, friend. Do the research.”

A part of me died when I heard this story, a part of me I did not know was still at that point alive. I realized then that we were collectively treading very deep and dark waters.

One year later I’d rather not meditate on what might have changed in that time.

The thing is, I believe in conspiracies. It’s just that I think the way conspiracies actually work is not through cunning (although a little goes a long way) but through adept on-the-fly improvisation. The Bezoses and Zuckerbergs and Gateses and Cooks and Pichais of this world are finally, for all their conceptual thinking, rapidly fluid responders. I won’t ever buy that they’ve initiated the COVID Crisis. But will they capitalize on it in potentially de-humanizing ways? That’s where the smart money is, you might say.

But none of those guys can capitalize on a chaotic situation quite like 45.

“Do the research.” Well, there’s research, and then there is actual research. I prefer the latter, though I am as lazy a sod as any. If this is the standard, I’d say I’m up for the second tier, but rarely the third, and never the first.
"Reception's bad... better in the theatre, maybe?"
But I will defer to those who manage all of the above — to wit Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. Lefsetz turned me on to them — here and here. Now I’m catching up on Gaslit Nation, and I’ve got Kendzior’s latest book on order with my (gratuitous virtue signalling alert!) favourite local independent bookstore.

On the matter of scary reading

“You know, if you’re having troubles sleeping, you might want to take a break from scary books.”

Dad gave me back my extracurricular reading, and I headed off to school.
Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators did not make for scary reading. The plots were variations on the Scooby-Doo template. An extraordinary phenomenon was, more often than not, generated as a smoke-screen for nefarious doings. And three pre-teen lads from an unnamed suburb of Los Angeles solved the crime before true harm was done.

The truly scary reading I was engaged in was in the pages of the Holy Bible. Pop took several attempts at helping me sort it all out. But when all was said and done, the element freaking me out was the terrible uncertainty of life. And nobody escapes that.

So he pointed me toward the volume of Martyrs’ Mirror in the church library, and suggested I start with Elizabeth’s martyrdom. I read her story, and a few dozen others. Horrible stories, presented in sombre, yet triumphant tones.

Elizabeth got off relatively lightly.

Re-reading it now, it almost seems like her inquisitors have something approaching affection for her. Even Hans the executioner is rooting for her to do the right thing and recant.

She has a Latin Testament so she must be a woman of considerable learning. Perhaps Elizabeth is a refugee from the convent, as many of the early Anabaptist women were. She has a keen intellect — her inquisition is a verbal sparring match in which the reigning Lords are entirely out-gunned. Perhaps this inflames their concern for her. C’mon — you’re smart. Surely you can make some superficial concession and get yourself out of this. Help us help you!

This isn’t Anneken Heyndrix, who had a hateful enemy in her murderous neighbour, the underbailiff Evert.

Anneken, Elizabeth, scores of others. Their stories as predictable as the Scooby-Doo adventures I consumed during recess. The martyrs were to a person resolute in their devotion to their understanding of Scripture, surpassing all tortures and hideous means of execution.

I still don’t know what to make of it all. It strikes me that these creatures demonstrated a greater faith in God than He did in them. But then who am I, that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Anyway, dad’s parental instincts on this matter proved to be correct. Coupled with mom’s own, I eventually calmed down and regained a capacity for a better night’s sleep.

Further reading:
  • “Even now I can hardly bear to open it. I know too much and too little about the big book that always leaves me feeling small.” Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs’ Mirror in the New World is an excellent contemporary meditation for The Conrad Grebel Review.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Martyrs' Mirror: Elizabeth, A.D. 1549

Back when I was losing sleep over the Revelation of St. John the Divine, my father pointed me toward Martyrs' Mirror, and the account of Elizabeth:
Elizabeth was apprehended on the 15th of January, 1549. When those who had come to apprehend her entered the house in which she lived, they found a Latin Testament. 
Having secured Elizabeth, they said, “We have got the right man; we have now the teacheress,” adding, “Where is your husband, Menno Simons, the teacher?” 
They then brought her to the townhouse. The following day two beadles took her between them to prison. 
She was then arraigned before the council, and asked upon oath, whether she had a husband. 
Elizabeth answered, “We ought not to swear, but our words should be Yea, yea, and Nay, nay; I have no husband.” 
Lords: “We say that you are a teacher, and that you seduce many. We have been told this, and we want to know who your friends are.” 
Elizabeth: “My God has commanded me to love my Lord and my God, and to honour my parents; hence I will not tell you who my parents are; for what I suffer for the name of Christ is a reproach to my friends.” 
Lords: “We will let you alone in regard to this, but we want to know whom you have taught.” 
Elizabeth: “Oh, no, my lords, let me in peace with this, but interrogate me concerning my faith, which I will gladly tell you.” 
Lords: “We shall make you so afraid, that you will tell us.” 
Elizabeth: “I hope, through the grace of God, that He will keep my tongue, so that I shall not become a traitoress, and deliver my brother unto death.” 
Lords: “What persons were present when you were baptized?” 
Elizabeth: “Christ said: ‘Ask them that were present, or who heard it.’ John 18:21.” 
Lords: “Now we perceive that you are a teacher; for you compare yourself to Christ.” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, far be it from me; for I do not esteem myself above the offscourings which are swept out from the house of the Lord.” 
Lords: “What then do you hold concerning the house of God? Do you not regard our church as the house of God?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, for it is written: ‘Ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, “I will dwell in them, and walk in them”’ II Corinthians 6:16.” 
Lords: “What do you hold concerning our mass?” 
Elizabeth: “My lords, of your mass I think nothing at all; but I highly esteem all that accords with the Word of God.” 
Lords: “What are your views with regard to the most adorable, holy sacrament?” 
Elizabeth: “I have never in my life read in the holy Scriptures of a holy sacrament, but of the Lord’s Supper.” (She also quoted the Scripture relating to this.) 
Lords: “Be silent, for the devil speaks through your mouth.” 
Elizabeth: “Yea, my lords, this is a small matter, for the servant is not better than his lord.” 
Lords: “You speak from a spirit of pride.” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, I speak with frankness.” 
Lords: “What did the Lord say, when He gave His disciples the Supper?” 
Elizabeth: “What did He give them, flesh or bread?” 
Lords: “He gave them bread.” 
Elizabeth: “Did not the Lord remain sitting there? Who then would eat the flesh of the Lord?” 
Lords: “What are your views concerning infant baptism, seeing you have been rebaptized?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, I have not been rebaptized. I have been baptized once upon my faith; for it is written that baptism belongs to believers.” 
Lords: “Are our children damned then, because they are baptized?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, God forbid, that I should judge the children.” 
Lords: “Do you not seek your salvation in baptism?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, all the water in the sea could not save me; but salvation is in Christ — Acts 4:10  and He has commanded me to love God my Lord above all things, and my neighbour as myself.” 
Lords: “Have the priests the power to forgive sins?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords; how should I believe this? I say that Christ is the only priest through whom sins are forgiven. Hebrews 7:21.”  
Lords: “You say that you believe everything that accords with the holy Scriptures; do you not believe the words of James?” 
Elizabeth: “Yea, my lords, why should I not believe them?” 
Lords: “Does he not say: ‘Go to the elder of the church, that he may anoint you, and pray over you’? James 5:14.” 
Elizabeth: “Yea, my lords; but do you mean to say that you are of this church?” 
Lords: “The Holy Ghost has saved you already; you need neither confession nor sacrament?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, I acknowledge that I have transgressed the ordinance of the pope, which the Emperor has confirmed by decrees. But prove to me that I have transgressed in any article against my Lord and my God, and I will cry woe over me, miserable being.” 
The foregoing is the first confession. 
Afterwards she was again brought before the council, and led into the torture chamber, Hans, the executioner, being present. The lords then said, “We have thus long dealt with you in kindness; but if you will not confess, we will resort to severity with you.” The Procurator General said, “Master Hans, seize her.” 
Master Hans answered, “Oh, no, my lords, she will voluntarily confess.” 
But as she would not voluntarily confess, he applied the thumbscrews to her thumbs and forefingers, so that the blood squirted out at the nails. 
Elizabeth said, “Oh! I cannot endure it any longer!” 
The lords said, “Confess, and we will relieve your pain.” 
But she cried to the Lord her God, “Help me, O Lord, Thy poor handmaiden! For Thou art a helper in time of need.” 
The lords all exclaimed, “Confess, and we will relieve your pain; for we told you to confess, and not to cry to God the Lord.” 
But she steadfastly adhered to God her Lord, as related above; and the Lord took away her pain, so that she said to the lords, “Ask me, and I shall answer you: for I no longer feel the least pain in my flesh, as I did before.” 
Lords: “Will you not yet confess?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords.” 
They then applied the screws to her shins, one on each. 
She said, “O my lords, do not put me to shame; for never a man touched my bare body.” 
The Procurator General said, “Miss Elizabeth, we shall not treat you dishonourably.” 
She then fainted away. They said to one another, “Perhaps she is dead.” 
But waking up, she said, “I live, and am not dead.” 
They then took off all the screws, and plied her with entreaties. 
Elizabeth: “Why do you thus entreat me? This is the way to do with children.” 
Thus they obtained not one word from her, detrimental to her brethren in the Lord, or to any other person. 
Lords: “Will you revoke all that you have previously confessed here?” 
Elizabeth: “No, my lords, but I will seal it with my death.” 
Lords: “We will try you no more; will you voluntarily tell us, who baptized you?” 
Elizabeth: “Oh, no, my lords; I have certainly told you, that I will not confess this.” 
Sentence was then passed upon Elizabeth, on the 27th of March, 1549; she was condemned to death, to be drowned in a bag, and thus offered up her body to God.

The drowning of Mattheus Mair (not Elizabeth)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The bloodless Bible

My children were churched by the United Church of Canada. This means the subject of Jehovah’s murderous rages was touched upon lightly, if at all. Nor was there much attention devoted to the river of blood and viscera that runs from Genesis to Revelation, all spilled by human hands, from Cain to Saul of Tarsis.

I am not sure what I think of this gentle approach. I suppose it strikes me as a deficit, if not an impoverishment, though I find it difficult to locate exactly why.

If I reflect on my childhood, these were the stories that made me want to attend Sunday School. The book of Judges had an especially direct appeal. You can deny me G.I. Joe, but you cannot deny me Samson and his Action Team.
Judy Garland in the time of Judges: commission by "Uncle Arthur"
These were all rotten people who deserved to die — horribly. Surveying the general assembly of children around me, it didn’t take much imagination to discern there were probably a few meanies in the older grades fated to a similar course correction.

Right — a child will skew any story told to fit their particular self-prescription. As will their parents. Or any thinking adult, really. But I think the Bible and its fabulously bloody messiness offers a particular challenge for anyone with ears to hear. These are ancient, difficult stories to get any sort of grasp on at all. But you’ve got to take a stab at it — 'cos like everyone named in the Bible, yer gonna die, too, and you know it.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Bible vs. Walt Disney: my Scylla and Charybdis?

"First, we take Manhattan..."

Walt Disney:
Have you ever been to Kansas City, Mrs. Travers? Do you know Missouri at all? 
P.L. Travers: I cant say I do. 
Walt Disney: Well, it's mighty cold there in the winters. Bitter cold. And my dad, Elias Disney, he owned a newspaper delivery route there. A thousand papers, twice daily; a morning and an evening edition. And dad was a tough businessman. He was a "save a penny any way you can" type of fella, so he wouldn't employ delivery boys. No, no, no -- he used me and my big brother Roy. I was eight back then, just eight years old. And, like I said, winters are harsh, and Old Elias, he didn't believe in new shoes until the old ones were worn through. And honestly, Mrs. Travers, the snowdrifts, sometimes they were up over my head and we'd push through that snow like it was molasses. The cold and wet seeping through our clothes and our shoes. Skin peeling from our faces. Sometimes I'd find myself sunk down in the snow, just waking up because I must have passed out or something, I don't know. And then it was time for school and I was too cold and wet to figure out equations and things. And then it was back out in the snow again to get home just before dark. Mother would feed us dinner and then it was time to go right back out and do it again for the evening edition. "You'd best be quick there, Walt. You'd better get those newspapers up on that porch and under that storm door. Poppa's gonna lose his temper again and show you the buckle end of his belt, boy." 
[Travers looks noticeably unsettled by his story] 
Walt Disney: I don't tell you this to make you sad, Mrs. Travers. I don't. I love my life, I think it's a miracle. And I loved my dad. He was a wonderful man. But rare is the day when I don't think about that eight-year-old boy delivering newspapers in the snow and old Elias Disney with that strap in his fist. And I am just so tired, Mrs. Travers. I'm tired of remembering it that way. Aren't you tired, too, Mrs. Travers? Now we all have our sad tales, but don't you want to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn't dictated by the past?
I don’t know if the real Walt Disney spoke a single word of this monologue — it’s from Saving Mr. Banks, screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith — nor if it holds any semblance of his lived life. I haven’t read so much as the Disney Wiki (will amend that oversight once this is posted, I promise). BUT. It does a great job of summarizing the Walt Disney World View I absorbed as a child.

Anyhow, I’m having trouble wrestling a post into submission, so I will break it down into (hopefully) digestible chunks. Some more Disney related thoughts:

Thursday, May 07, 2020

I read the news today...

...oh boy.

Two bits:
"Conjecture! Your Honour, this is PURE CONJECTURE!"
  • I posted this link on FB, checked out some of the author’s other work, then went back and deleted my post. His obvious passion informs the writing, you might say (and I do). I am happy enough to let it have its way with me in Tinker, Tailor, Mobster..., (reads like James Ellroy when he’s on a roll) but much less inclined when he gets excited by, say, a lead-pipe-cinch Biden victory. I just do not see the latter happening.
  • “Covid 19 is showing us what a real First-World problem looks like,” says Colby Cosh. Mark Twain springs to mind in retort, but who knows? Might be so, might be so...

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Whither “THE Culture”?

This is the question I’ve probably asked for as long as I’ve been a story-telling entity, though I could not have framed it so until quite recently.

Andrew Unger at The Daily Bonnet gave me yet another nudge in this direction, when he posted The Mennonite Literature Quiz!
It all looks so ... good ....
My results were about 70%, which is too good to be true — there were questions I took a lucky guess at, since “I honestly do not know” was never an option.

I mulled over the results, then shared it on FB, with the following comment:
This immediately netted me the expected “What about Miriam?” grenade. I dodged it, or tried to, by saying she was the exception to most of the others mentioned in Andrew’s piece insofar as I’ve never had trouble finishing a book by her. She writes well, in other words. But if you seek further explication, go here.

Then Christian Humanist Michial Farmer weighed in with an anecdote of having an appreciation for Julia Kasdorf rejected by an academic rag on grounds that he CLEARLY did not have a firm enough grasp of Mennonite literature “as a whole.”

To which I replied, “I can sum up Mennonite Literature in four words: ‘We’re Not That Good.’

I posted, but meditated on it afterword. My response seemed a bit half-baked to me, so I created a new post and laid down the challenge for others:


I threw down four examples to prime the pump:
  • We’re not that good.
  • We’re actually really mean.
  • There is no God.
  • God’s actually really mean.
Summaries from others include:
  • Trauma, dysfunction, pain, buns (for memoirs)
  • Trauma, persecution, pain, buns (for history)
  • Life consists of suffering.
  • Difference, shunning, leaving, life.
  • Village, university, arrogance, publish. (It should be quietly noted the submitter of this one has a family member who features in Andrew’s parade of literatischje).
And finally my favourite. My conked buddy in the north (NOT a Mennonite) weighed in with an Office meme:

Seems about right.

So many different ways to shun, of course, and we all have to figure out who or what we’re about to build the wall against in order to retain those properties and qualities we deem essential.

I said goodbye to an academic career nearly three decades ago, and a literary “career” some two decades later. There are reasons for both, but the main one — for both — is: I don’t want to read shit I don’t want to read.

More anon.

I’m sorry

It’s a conviction I’ve had since at least this past November, but I’m putting it out here for the record today: I cannot imagine the 45th POTUS not getting a second term. What happens four years after that, I cannot imagine — period.
I'm sorry.