Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Leave the Driving to Us"

I was having dinner with a good friend the other night and we started talking about our shared interest in the idea of "the great American vacation." I've mentioned this vacation before on the blog . . . a trip that involves piling the family and possessions into the car for a weeks-long orgy of traveling the country's back roads in search of classic "Americana" and the best of roadside kitsch. Several friends and I have also discussed a mutated version of the trip in which it becomes a dads-only road trip of epic proportions, equal parts driving, sightseeing, and binging on beer and diner food. Our wives tend to cast a dubious eye on this endeavour, probably with some justification, because the trip would a) leave them with the kids, b) expose us to far more alcohol, trans-fats, and free time than our 40-something bodies can handle, and c) leave them with the kids! So the chances of this trip actually happening are pretty minimal. (However, we're definitely having a dads-only camping trip in Summer 2008.)

But back to the other night . . . Our talk turned to long-distance bus travel, which is something of a lame-duck form of transportation in this country. Prior to World War II, one could take a bus to just about every town in the United States. Between the larger bus lines, like Greyhound, regional, and local carriers, one could go nearly anywhere. But after World War II, with the development of the interstate highway system and the auto empowerment of a majority of Americans, bus travel declined at a steady rate, mirroring the decline in train travel. Still, my parents talk of taking long bus trips in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the ease of having someone else drive while enjoying the opportunity to "see" more of the country. By the 1980s, however, many bus companies had folded or were bought out by larger carriers. Today, there's Greyhound and a few regional lines, like Peter Pan buses in the northeast. Compared to that pre-war golden age of bus travel, comparatively few communities can boast intercity bus service now.

I started wondering: Who uses buses for long distance travel? A majority of Americans either drive or grab a seat on one of the low-fare airlines. Indeed, within current popular culture imagery, bus stations and bus trips are usually relegated to the seamier underbelly of travel, a mode of transportation left to ex-cons, the poor, and minorities. Is this demographic profile a reality, or just a product of pop culture stereotyping? (I remember from my years living in Tennessee that the Greyhound terminal in Knoxville appeared to confirm this depressing conclusion that bus travel had become the resource of the disadvantaged and marginalized.)

Having been to the famous Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan many times, I've witnessed the continued popularity of regional bus travel, with long lines waiting at gates for destinations throughout New England. One can still catch Greyhound buses for distant points across the nation. The people waiting for these buses always seem to represent a cross-section of the populace, with considerable ethnic and racial diversity defining the crowds. Why do they take the bus? Have they been priced out of the marketplace for air travel?

So here's my idea: a book on current bus travel in the U.S., with a working title like "Leave the Driving to Us: America By Bus in the 21st Century." It would look at bus travel in a historical and sociological context, but the heart of the book would be chapters based on taking several long-distance bus trips, including some cross country trips, like New York City to LA. The more esoteric information of the introductory chapter would be followed by chapters of anecdotal stuff and photographs. Is this a workable idea? Would anyone read it? At the urging of friends, I've been tossing around several book ideas in the last year, but hadn't settled on anything definitive. Given the recent popularity of books on rail excursions and highway travel on roads like Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, one would think that a book on bus travel would prove equally interesting. Any feedback? I'd also love to hear about your bus travel experiences.

Merry Christmas

A belated "Merry Christmas" to everyone. After last Friday I was too caught up in Christmas preparations, last-minute shopping, and family activities to get near the blog or even check email. (And I have to admit there were moments when I experienced symptoms of blog withdrawal. Nearing the one year anniversary of this endeavour, I find this blog has become a hard habit to break . . . not that I'm trying to break it, mind you.)

In the end we managed to put the tree up by Saturday, have the kids decorate it, wrap the presents, attend a Christmas eve service on Monday, and settle into bed by 1:00 a.m. Christmas morning. As always my wife and I were doing the wrapping late on Christmas eve and, as part of our yearly routine, watched the televised services from St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Vatican. (Although neither of us is Catholic, we both have Episcopal backgrounds and recognize most of the Catholic liturgy. Oddly, we both concluded that the St. Patrick's and Vatican services seemed flat and joyless, lacking that Christmas spirit of celebration. Perhaps this was a product of the highly choreographed nature of these services, for they just seemed to be "going through the motions" or "phoning it in." Or perhaps the participating clergy were just exhausted, having reached the end of the Yuletide charisma for the next time they celebrate a Christmas mass.)

Thankfully, the kids slept in until 8:00 a.m. For those of you who don't think of that hour as "sleeping in," realize that my kids usually awaken around 6:30 or 7:00 and we were most grateful for the extra hour of sleep. We sifted through the gifts from "Mom and Dad" and "Santa" and while the boys were happy with the "loot" they had scored, we detected a sense of disappointment that they hadn't received every item enumerated on their Christmas lists. So, we had to explain that Santa never satisfied every wish, nor would he deliver items that might be deemed inappropriate. Grumbling quieted, the rest of the day was spent playing with the bounty of Santa's great generosity, while Mommy and Daddy lazed about for much of the afternoon. A merry Christmas was had by all.

On Friday we travel to Virginia to visit my family until New Year's day. With luck and some free moments, I'll have photos to post during the trip. (By the way, the image of Santa is an 1881 rendering by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly. It represents the genesis of the modern American interpretation of Santa Claus from which our present images were derived. I actually prefer this Santa over some of the more sterile characterizations presented in cartoons and the well-known "clay-mation" holiday shows. Over the centuries there have been countless versions of the "Father Christmas," "Kris Kringle," and "St. Nicholas" myths, but it's the American version - with its graphic roots in the Nast imagery - that has proved dominant since the end of World War II.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life

I had originally written a long post in response to a bit written by my friend over at "Open Doors." She raised an interesting point about the direction our society has taken in recent years, a seasonally appropriate theme since it involves Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Sure, jaded critics like to point out how corny Capra could be - hence the derisive term "Capra-corn" - but the director was a great storyteller. Moreover, his populist vision of America reflected a very important element in the national psyche during that period. But, alas, a computer malfunction caused me to lose two-thirds of what had become a rather curmudgeonly post on the effects of sprawl and how it is analogous to the depiction of George Bailey's alternate reality - Pottersville - in the movie. (If you've read this blog for very long, you know how I feel about sprawl!)

Last week I managed to watch bits and pieces of Capra's classic on NBC, making sure I saw that unforgettable ending. It's a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite Christmas movies, along with Miracle on 34th Street (the original), A Christmas Story, The Bishop's Wife, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (just kidding . . . maybe). And I still manage to shed tears at the end, when they're singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Why do I love this movie? First, I've always been a big Jimmy Stewart fan. That "aw shucks," "everyman" quality is perfect in this role. (One also has to admit that Donna Reed was hot as George Bailey's wife.) I also enjoy the contrasting visions of the town, between the quiet, friendly Bedford Falls, and the frenetic, noisy Pottersville. The ugly truth for most of us in America today is that we live in scattered equivalents of Pottersville. So it's nice to think there could be idyllic towns like Bedford Falls in which one has neighbors like George Bailey. Moreover, who wouldn't want to be hailed as the "richest man in town," not by virtue of our bank balance or political influence, but measured by the friends and family one can count on in good times or bad. And finally, one has to enjoy the idea of a "do over" or the opportunity to witness how the world would fare without one's presence, thanks to a visit from Clarence the angel.

Jimmy Stewart always said this was his favorite role in a lengthy film career. I think if one possesses a mere gram of Christmas spirit, it has to be a favorite for many people. With its talk of savings and loans, runs on the bank, and possible suicide, it may prove a little dark for my kids. But having experienced Dickens' Christmas Carol this year, they may soon be ready to discover the joys of Bedford Falls and the Bailey family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Dickens Christmas

(Only a week until Christmas Eve. Alas, so much yet to do, just to realize what most of us consider the "basics" of the holiday: put up the tree, buy some more presents so Santa will visit the kids, make a gingerbread house with the boys, and perhaps walk around to check out some of the city's decorations.)

On Saturday night our family attended a Dickens-themed Christmas party, appropriate given our efforts to read through A Christmas Carol for the first time this year. (As I've already noted here, it's a bit of heavy lifting for the kids in terms of vocabulary, but I think their exposure to Dickens' narrative and richly portrayed characters will prove an invaluable experience. At least they will be able to say they've been exposed to Dickens!) The party featured authentic foods from Victorian England, with parallel passages from Dickens' novels accompanying each item. Obviously the menu was heavy on little meat pies and pastries, shortbreads and ham. But the hit of the night was the flaming Christmas pudding - ceremoniously paraded into the room as everyone sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The whole affair prompted me to reflect on the simplicity of the Christmas experience as described in Dickens. Sure, there was feasting and celebration, and even dancing in Mr. Fezziwig's warehouse. But it was still a decidedly simple occasion, in which familial ties and the bonds of friendship constituted the glue holding the celebrations together. And while there's an emphasis on the characters maintaining a "Christmas spirit" in their lives, Dickens' tale isn't overtly religious. Indeed, even the non-religious among us can buy into those Christmas ideas of "giving" and "fellowship" without troubling oneself over the more miraculous episodes associated with the occasion. Moreover, it's nice to know that early Christian leaders failed to eradicate entirely the more pagan, pre-Christian rituals now associated with the Christmas holiday. As in so many other areas, they realized that co-opting existing practices proved a more successful route to conversion than more heavy-handed tactics. Frankly, I think the pagan enhances the Christian, and both belief systems - at least in the context of Christmastide - enunciate some similar concepts. This is certainly clear for Dickens, in which a world incorporating the supernatural exists comfortably in an avowedly Christian society. One should realize, too, that by the middle of the 19th century, much of English society was only nominally Christian in belief and practice, despite the existing state-controlled church infrastructure. Enclosure, concomitant destruction of traditional village life, the Industrial Revolution, and construction of England's "dark, satanic mills" only hastened the decline of popular faith - ironic in a society that had once spent so much energy and spilled so much blood over matters of Christian dogma.

Standing there on Saturday night, listening to the traditional carols of the season, I realized that Christmas should instill in us a lightness of heart - in the way Ebenezer Scrooge's epiphany transformed his spirit. On the surface, it might seem an easy charge: Go forth and spread Christmas cheer throughout the whole year, not just in Advent or in the days immediately following December 25th. Nevertheless, we get bogged down in the extraneous details of the season. We lose sight of the simple joy in giving, because we're too often engaged in games of "oneupsmanship" in the gifting process. We become too concerned about the price tag or the tax write-off. And I have been guilty of these failings too many times to recall. This year, however, as I've struggled to find the spirit of Christmas within the barrage of commercials and appeals to buy, spend, and save, I think I've recognized more of that simplicity in the season, and thus haven't been driven to "shop 'til I drop." (For a guy who loves to shop - yes, something of a rarity - this can be a difficult urge to suppress.)

No doubt I'll join the family on Christmas Eve for a service at the little Lutheran church around the corner from our apartment. The church will be decorated beautifully, as always, and the familiar carols will remind me of Christmastides past. But will I be able to muster my usual Christmas spirit?

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Over the River and Through the Woods" - Christmas Travel

Of my childhood Christmas memories, some of my favorite recollections involve travel to see family. Every year on December 26th we'd pile into the car and drive the 100 miles to see my paternal grandparents on Virginia's "Eastern Shore." This was always an adventure - as was any winter trip to see them - because the bathroom in their house was unheated. (To this day I still don't understand why they didn't keep the door open so some of the heat from other parts of the house could warm the room up. I guess they were trying to keep the main rooms as warm as possible for a house that was underheated and had no insulation.) So any trip to the facilities involved putting on a coat. If you had to sit down, one's rear end was treated to a chilling awakening, perhaps similar to the icy grip of a hospital bedpan. Still, the Arctic bathroom experience couldn't diminish the occasion, an affair defined by a dinner that perennially included my grandmother's seafood recipes, supplemented by piles of buttery cornbread. (The giant pile of clam and oyster shells in the back yard was testimony to decades of delicious meals.) At the end of the day we'd load up the car and drive the two hours back home, with my brother and I usually falling asleep to the rhythmic thump of the car tires bouncing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel's pavement sections.

Within a few days of that trip - at some point before New Year's Eve - we'd bet back in the car to visit my great-grandmother. This excursion, involving a three-and-a-half to four-hour drive, always began in the dark. My maternal grandfather, whose mother we were going to see, would arrive at the house around 5:00 a.m., his Ford Galaxy 500 loaded with food, gifts, and my complaining grandmother. We'd load our car and then start across Route 58, which runs along the southern border of Virginia.

We would drive west through little towns and burgs, finally stopping for breakfast around Emporia or South Hill, finding one of those "mom and pop" family restaurants that once flourished along America's byways before the fast food franchises wiped them from the map. Then off we'd go again, heading for South Boston and eventually Brookneal, in the heart of Virginia's tobacco-growing counties.

My great-grandmother's house in winter was, unfortunately, like my grandmother's house - a study in contrasts between icebox-like rooms into which no heat was allowed, and sweltering rooms that could have doubled for saunas once large pots of food started boiling on the kitchen stove. I remember dashing outside to cool down and breathe fresh air, playing on the giant millstone of pink granite that rested in the front yard, a great stone circle that I guess served as a lawn decoration near the front porch. I would also brave the cold bedrooms upstairs to peruse the nursing textbooks left behind by my great aunts, several of whom had served in the Second World War. For a nine-year old boy, these dusty volumes offered photos of every imaginable medical malady - from cancers to wounded soldiers missing various body parts. Oddly, I'll never forget the photos of goiter patients, something so rarely seen today thanks to our diets rich in iodized salt.

I remember one year we drove in the snow and got to the intersection for the country road down which my great-grandmother lived. At that point, the snow became too deep to drive, so my grandfather parked the car right there, grabbed some bags of gifts, and marched a mile to the house to see his mother. We waited - my grandmother and I in the Ford, and my parents and brother in the Dodge. An hour later, my grandfather returned, we all turned around, and drove home. (I don't know why we all didn't get out and walk. If this happened today, I wouldn't hesitate to bundle the kids up and have them march a mile in the snow, particularly if I had just driven three or four hours. As New York City kids they're accustomed to walking long distances in all kinds of weather. I guess my parents thought it would be too much for us.)

Sleepy, and fortified with another incredible holiday meal, we'd pack up the car in late afternoon and start on the long drive home. Passing back through those little Virginia towns, paralleling the old railroad line that once linked these communities. Seeing the little abandoned stations in these towns, I always wondered what it would have been like to take the train out to my great-grandmother's, an experience my mother has always mentioned with fond memories. (Years later I would discover the photography of O. Winston Link, who spent countless hours in the 40s and 50s photographing the last of the great steam trains in this very part of Virginia.)

Now most of my family in that area is gone, most dead, the rest having followed my grandfather's lead and abandoned the life of the tobacco farmer. Still, I have those magical Christmases when we almost literally went "over the river and through the woods" to visit grandparents.

"Many Are Called"

I was sitting on the subway this morning, riding uptown, and noticed my reflection in the opposite window - dark glasses, bow tie, rumpled blazer and overcoat, punctuated by an expressionless mouth. I was immediately reminded of that great Walker Evans book, Many Are Called, which was reissued a couple of years ago after years out of print. Between 1939 and 1941, Evans clandestinely photographed New York City subway riders, hiding a Contax camera under an overcoat with a shutter release fed to his hand via cable. Leafing through Evans' images one is struck by the diversity of riders for pre-war New York. Even then the subway could be a multi-cultural petri dish into which a higgledy-piggledy solution of riders was stirred. Yet one wonders how Evans would react to the heterogeneous mixture of people one encounters today.

I know people who refuse to ride the subway, preferring taxis (expensive) or buses. Arguing that it's dirty and dangerous, they're missing one of the best shows in the city, all for only a $2 admission charge. Besides, it's pretty safe and is no dirtier than any other place in New York City. Moreover, with the "Poetry in Motion" program and the subway art series, a ride on the train can be an educational experience - and I don't mean in a sociological sense.

One thing strikes me in a comparison of Evan's images and the scenes I witness each day: The expressions on riders' faces haven't really changed in 65 years, which I guess shouldn't be surprising. Sure, the ladies usually wore hats and gloves and the men sported fedoras or caps in their underground travels, but most simply sat expressionless, waiting for their stop, remaining largely anonymous in the herd of New Yorkers being shunted about. The visage staring back at me this morning could have been pulled from Evans' book with no incongruity.

It's funny how the subway can reduce us all to a humming hive of workers and drones. I'm also often reminded of scenes from Fritz Lang's monumental silent film epic, Metropolis. But if that's an apt analogy, I wonder if we're all that brainwashed and unhappy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Planet Christmas

We're settling into orbit around "Planet Christmas," with its moon "New Year's" plainly in view and I can already tell this is going to be like one of those NASA missions in which one tries to fit as many experiments as possible into the shortest amount of time. We've already had parties, concerts and shopping, and the next three weeks promise more of the same. Mind you, I'm not complaining. In my family, I'm usually the one most imbued with that child-like sense of Christmas, an enthusiasm I always shared with my mother and maternal grandfather. My brother and father seemed only to tolerate the fuss, preferring to let others decorate the tree and wrap presents. But this year even my mother has complained that she's suffering from the holiday blahs, finding it difficult to muster the usual excitement that accompanies hanging ornaments and baking cookies. Indeed, she worries that she's becoming a "Scrooge" like my grandmother, who for years has perennially spent the Christmas seasons fussing about the mess and extra work. Even she, however, always managed to brighten on Christmas morning and rediscover some of that youthful lightness of heart, enjoying Santa's visit vicariously through grandchildren and then great-grandchildren.

On the homefront, I've started what I hope will be a new Christmas tradition for the kids: a reading of the original Dickens version of "A Christmas Carol." I hadn't read the book in many years, so it was a joy to encounter afresh Dickens' rich prose. I realize that my boys may not understand all of it - and there are moments when I change words to more readily understandable synonyms - but I think they'll understand the main idea of the story. At some point I'll probably add a film version of the story to give them some of the visual clues, and of course there's only one decent version to show - the 1951 English production starring Alastair Sim. (Considered the definitive interpretation of Scrooge's character, Sim's effort conveys more of that Dickensian spirit and gothic darkness than perhaps any other version. No doubt the black and white medium enhances the film. We'll try hard to avoid some of the more dreadful characterizations, including Kelsey Grammar's memorably horrific 2004 made-for-TV debacle. Whoever greenlighted that project must have been stoned.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Emily Dickinson

This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
And lads and girls; Was laughter
and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls;

This passive place a
summer's nimble mansion,
Where bloom and bees
Fulfilled their oriental circuit,
Then ceased like these.

My friend over at Open Doors reminded me that Monday was the birthday of Emily Dickinson, who entered this world on December 10th, 1830. It's hard to express how I felt the first time I encountered Emily Dickinson, at around age 13. I recall that it was really the first poetry I could appreciate and understand, the first poetry that seemed resonant with my adolescent anxieties and longings. Miss Emily also proved an unknowing catalyst to my own angst-ridden poetry - unless that impulse was her sainted spirit nudging me from the eternity over which she so often puzzled.

As a depressed, death-obsessed teen it was easy to find the appeal in so many of her works. Even her correspondence underscored a curiosity with death and the hereafter. Given her ruminations on the subject, one wonders how she regarded her imminent mortality in 1886. That, of course, we can never know.

In my 20s I set her aside, favoring the edgier voices of Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries. Just as they railed against the excesses and inequalities of post-war America, I found kindred voices in my own attempts to escape the homogeneity of suburbia and sprawl. More recently, however, I've begun reacquainting myself with the "Belle of Amherst," and I find that in my 40s I tend to approach her with a keener understanding of the emotions from which her verses sprang. Indeed, having spent most of my previous career as a historian immersed in 19th century American culture, I recognize now - which I didn't as a teen - that Dickinson was very much a product of her age, an era in which death punctuated one's years in the way birthdays, holidays, and the seasons demarcated one's passage from month to month. And, having focused a good deal of time on women's correspondence from this period, I realize now that Emily Dickinson's "voice" echoed the feminine experience of her time, with its obvious limitations and rigid expectations.

On the surface, it might seem odd that she lived what most of us would consider a reclusive life. (And one wonders how travel to more distant locales would have affected her poetic voice.) Yet it's obvious from her letters that her intellect and introspective character allowed her to exist in a world not defined by purely physical distance. A small part of me actually longs for that isolation - with the attendant opportunity to engage in the kind of thought and self-examination that doubtless served as a muse for Miss Emily. That realization reminds me that my happiest times as a scholar were spent surrounded by books, delving into a bit of research in the way the anchorite retreats to his cell, accompanied only by his thoughts, prayers, and religious texts. Being no St. Anthony, however, I doubt I'd survive for long as an academic ascetic, connected to the broader world in the way Emily Dickinson's spirit flourished through correspondence.

So happy birthday Emily. I hope your spirit found the answers it so earnestly sought.

Monday, December 10, 2007

More Craptacular Photos

Well, if I was having trouble generating any Christmas spirit last week, the weekend helped dispel a bit of the seasonal malaise. First, there was the annual Christmas party for the non-profit where I work . . . a decidedly family affair that included lots of food, kids running about, and even a visit from Santa. Then Santa and I greeted the homeless guests to our Friday/Saturday shelter . . . a fun experience, since many were surprised to see Santa at the door. (Many joked with Santa about being "good" or "bad" - the latter jokingly imploring Santa to forgive their transgressions over the past year.) All in all, it was a fun affair, made more enjoyable by the presence of good friends and a bit of wine to "lubricate" the conversation. On the walk home I snapped this photo of the Empire State Building, decked out in blue and white lights for the celebration of Hanukkah. (Not having my regular camera on hand, I snapped this with my cellphone - hence the poor quality.)

On Sunday we attended the annual "Holiday Brass" concert at Lincoln Center, featuring the Philharmonic's principal brass players plus the members of the Canadian Brass. It proved a fun concert, with a mix of holiday and classical favorites rendered in a lush brass fashion. I'm not always a fan of pure brass ensembles - they can be a bit strident - but these musicians are among the best in the world and played brilliantly. Their rendering of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" made the price of admission worth every penny. They concluded with an encore of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," one of my all-time favorites, particularly the versions recorded by Bing Crosby in the 1970s, and a recent interpretation by James Taylor. The kids managed to keep the squirming to a minimum, given the concert's two hour length (with a brief intermission). And even my older son engaged in a bit of "conducting."

We also got to see Lincoln Center's beautiful Christmas tree. (I know, I know, it constitutes the killing of another live tree, about which I've already expressed serious reservations. And I made note of my disappointment to my wife, who concurred. Why can't they use a large artificial tree? The fake ones have become so lifelike now. I just don't think anyone would complain too vociferously.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Spirit?

So here I am at age two, happy and carefree, posing in my little winter suit, doubtless anticipating - eagerly, despite the dubious look on my face - Santa's Christmas visit. (Yes, little boys were dressed up like this in 1966.) I remember being so excited about Christmas that falling asleep on Christmas eve always proved nearly impossible. By December 24th I had watched the litany of Christmas specials - from Charlie Brown to the Grinch - with rapt attention. Santa had been visited and my wishes revealed. All I had to do was wait - albeit impatiently - for the 25th.

Now my kids, at ages seven and eight, are at that stage of Christmas excitement. Every day they ask, "When's the tree going up?" and "When are we visiting Santa?" I enjoy their excitement and naturally see myself as a child mirrored in their behavior. But this year I'm having a hard time feeling that Christmas spirit. Mind you, I'm no Scrooge, awaiting the visit of Marley's ghost. But I'm likewise not "keeping Christmas" in my heart in the manner of Scrooge after the three hauntings. I simply haven't felt "Christmasy" yet, which is an odd feeling for someone who has always enjoyed thoroughly the trappings and rituals of the season. (I also enjoy the realization that many of our Christmas practices tap into that pre-Christian culture of Europe as a source of inspiration.)

Perhaps it's my frustration with the whole commercialization issue, which I've discussed here ad nauseum. There's also the religious hemming and hawing attendant with the season. And the painful fact of sensory overload, from overdone decorations to the never-ending loop of Christmas music blaring at my corner market, likely plays a role as well. The only bit of Advent or Christmas expression that has elicited the joy characteristic of the season has been a piece of music by Paul Manz: "E'en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," a modern piece that sounds ancient, like one of the lovely Medieval Christmas hymns many of us invariably sing at Christmas eve services. I know, I know. Isn't that an awfully religious work for someone whose doubts about the "miracles" of Christmas run quite deep?

For me, however, the tune means much more. Ten years ago I spent the week after Thanksgiving lying in a New York hospital, recovering from a bit of gastrointestinal trauma. That first Sunday after Thanksgiving happened to be the first Sunday of Advent. My wife - my fiancee at the time - sang in the choir of an Episcopal church and left my bedside for rehearsal and a church service. Knowing I loved this song, she used her cell phone to call my room during the service, at the moment the choir was singing the Manz piece. So I lay in my hospital bed and listened as she and the choir sang, the phone resting on the bench next to her. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced. I lay there and sobbed through the whole piece. Now, ten years later, this song still grabs me, regardless of the season. More than anything else perhaps - Santas, trees, decorations, or TV specials - this song instills a meager measure of the Advent and Christmas spirit amidst my doubt and uncertainty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Amo, Amas, Amat

A recent New York Times editorial, "A Vote for Latin," which discusses the value of studying Latin and laments declines in enrollment for the subject, reminded me of my own experience with the language and prompted some reflection on one of the more painful but rewarding episodes in my academic life. I studied Latin in the 8th and 9th grades, having a teacher, Mrs. Hall, who must have been 80 at the time. I even remember how we joked that she must have been alive at the time of the Punic Wars, a popular subject for translations. I also recall, painfully, how those first few months were such a struggle - learning a new vocabulary, cases, conjugation, gender. For an 8th grader it was all a bit overwhelming. And more than once the students in my class would recite that bit of damning doggerel: "Latin is a dead language, it came across the sea. It killed all the Romans, and now it's killing me." But once I had a sense of Latin's structure - and how it behaved - it became fun, like solving a puzzle. Accurately completing a translation was cause for celebration.

Of course, by the time I came along in the late 1970s, Latin was no longer one of those bedrock subjects that defined one's years in school. An education in the Classics, at least in this country, had become a rare thing indeed. Yet as the Times article points out, Latin scholarship proved valuable for several reasons. It taught one academic discipline, a necessity when trying to master any new language. It also exposed one to the history and culture of Rome, and thus offered the student a very different perspective on the world. Studying Latin also gave one a better understanding of our own language, since so many words in English have Latin roots. And finally, tackling Latin made it easier to pick up other languages later. (I remember finding German easy after having trudged through Latin textbooks.)

When I was an editor with the Papers of James K. Polk, I would regularly pick up letters to and from President Polk that were sprinkled with Latin phrases and allusions to classical texts. (Polk himself graduated from UNC with a degree in classics.) A quality often clear in these letters was the authors' broader understanding of history, particularly in the ways their own political experiences reflected the legacies of Athenian democracy and the later Roman Republic. Moreover, they seemed to possess a keener sense of the power of language. In this age before the "lowest common denominator" attitude of radio and television, the printed word could change the world. In our own national experience, for example, just look at the language - and impact - of Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence," the U.S. Constitution, or Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." These were "revolutionary" texts in the full sense of that word.

Recalling the bits and pieces of Latin vocabulary I can still remember, one word sticks out, a word I've remembered from 30 years ago: laudere, the infinitive for the verb "to praise." After reading the Times article, I have to look back and praise Mrs. Hall for having shared that knowledge and experience. And, honestly, I hope my kids have the opportunity to experience that painful epiphany of Latin's beauty.

Monday, December 3, 2007

It Snowed!

Ok, so it didn't snow three or four inches as I had hoped. And the rain washed it all away by this morning. Still, it snowed, perhaps a little more than an inch in the city. It was just enough to cover the sidewalks and the parks, while making the trees and fire escapes beautiful for a few hours. There was enough on the ground to have the kids run around the playground, throw a few snowballs, and slip and slide through a bit of tossing the football. Not bad for December 2nd.

If we don't have a white Christmas (always doubtful), it was at least nice to see the Christmas decorations on neighborhood businesses sporting a dusting of the white stuff. Unfortunately all I had was my phone and its craptacular little camera, so the photo quality here leaves much to be desired. You'll notice the tree holding on to much of its fall color - testimony to how warm our fall has been. Here we are in the first week of December and there are many trees in the City just now reaching a point they would usually hit in late October. Global warming anyone?