Summer of '69

 Dates are important, man. I've heard people say "History is more than just dates," but those dates are the map, the topography. History is the art of feeling What It Was, and the calendar-map is the skeleton key to the feeling.

I say this because this summer I was looking at the map of 1969 and realized something: within a month, a single month, we had the Apollo landings, the Manson murders, and Woodstock. And you can throw in Chappaquiddick for good measure. One month.


That's the Sixties in one word. Whiplash. Explosion piled on explosion, political, cultural, military, scientific, at home and around the world. No one knew where the next bolt would come from, and it seemed that things would get wilder and wilder until the whole world flew apart. Many people were waiting for just that, some in hope, some in despair, some in both.

So the decade ended.

As it turns out, the pace of events was in fact slowing down, even in the summer of '69. The explosions started to space themselves out, attaining some modicum of peace, until eventually the nation hit the calm (perhaps stagnant) pool of the mid-to-late Seventies. The whiplash started to recede into the past. Gradually at first-when I first became aware of the Sixties as a child in the 80s, the trauma was barely scabbed over. But it's been another twenty years on top of that. As of January, the Sixties will begin to shift to 50 Years Ago Today. Time flows, eroding pain, smoothing the corners of the present into the safety of the Past, where it can be contemplated without fear.

I sometimes wish I had never written this blog. In terms of my career as a writer of fiction, it was a tremendous waste of valuable time. But I still read it. Late at night, when I should be working on a story, I distract myself with hippies and India. Every time I do so, there's a little more distance between me and the writing.

It has been two years since "40 Years Ago Today." It is now 42 years since 1967. It will soon be fifty years since the Sixties, then one hundred, then five hundred, then one thousand. We look back, trying to understand, unable to look away. To use the Fitzgerald quote that closes William Manchester's "The Glory and the Dream," (the book that first taught me much about the Sixties), :"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."



There is nothing quite deader than a dead livejournal, but if anyone happens to be looking about here for the first time, the most important posts are the Charlie series from the first week of June 07.

The Lucan Journey, pt 2: The Angel

During the time when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife's name was Elizabeth; she also belonged to a priestly family. They both lived good lives in God's sight and obeyed fully all the Lord's laws and commands. They had no children because Elizabeth could not have any, and she and Zechariah were both very old.

One day Zechariah was doing his work as a priest in the Temple, taking his turn in the daily service. According to the custom followed by the priests, he was chosen by lot to burn incense on the altar. So he went into the Temple of the Lord, while the crowd of people outside prayed during the hour when the incense was burned. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar where the incense was burned. When Zechariah saw him, he was alarmed and felt afraid. But the angel said to him, <<Don't be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You are to name him John. How glad and happy you will be, and how happy many others will be when he is born! John will be great in the Lord's sight. He must not drink any wine or strong drink. From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; he will turn disobedient people back to the way of thinking of the righteous; he will get the Lord's people ready for him.>>

 Zechariah said to the angel, <<How shall I know if this is so? I am an old man, and my wife is old also.>>

 <<I am Gabriel,>> the angel answered. <<I stand in the presence of God, who sent me to speak to you and tell you this good news. But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true.>>

In the meantime the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he was spending such a long time in the Temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them, and so they knew that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Unable to say a word, he made signs to them with his hands.

             When his period of service in the Temple was over, Zechariah went back home. Some time later his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and did not leave the house for five months. <<Now at last the Lord has helped me,>> she said. <<He has taken away my public disgrace!>>
            (Luke 1:5-23)

Having gotten past the Greek opening, suddenly we’re hip-deep in Judaism again.    This story is unique in the Gospels, and it has echoes of two events in the Old Testament: Abraham and Sarah (old, infertile people having babies) and the birth of Samuel (infertile women blessed with babies on the requirement they be dedicated to the Lord).  Lucan does not actually clue the presumptive Greek reader into these parallels. 

Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah are “Don’t be afraid!”  Angels are not pudgy babies or androgynous longhairs or John Travolta; they are scary, scary things.  We might have fewer books on angelology in the bookstores if they were required to have pictures of six-winged, thousand-eyed beings on the covers.  But the scariest thing about them is they bring news from God.  The angel says it’s good news, but God’s definition of good news is not our definition.  “You’re going to have a son!” the angel says.  “He’s going to be a complete freak, live like an animal in the desert, endure the hatred of the authorities and the hypocrisy of his followers, then be murdered like the other prophets before him!”  The way of the truthteller is not a pleasant one, and the pain of the child is felt by the parents.  I’m happy that John the Baptist was born, but I don’t know if Zechariah and Elizabeth always felt that way.

The Lucan Journey, pt 1

A gloomy, rainy Ash Wednesday.  Appropriate weather for beginning the Lenten journey.

I guess I should begin with some context.

Tradition holds that Luke’s gospel was written by Luke, a physician, companion of St Paul and friend of the early apostles, who worked from their eyewitness.  I myself hold the view of modern Biblical scholarship that the gospel was written by a second-generation Christian, probably sometime after the year 80.  Luke, along with Mark and Matthew, are the three Synoptic gospels.  These gospels have many similarities, and it seems that the texts are related in some way (the study of these relationships being an industry unto itself).  Technically speaking, the term for the person who wrote the gospel is “the Lucan author,” but since I’m going to be typing this out repeatedly, I’ll just use “Lucan.”

As you might guess from the above, I do not hold Scripture to be ‘inerrant,’ without mistakes one way or another.  That’s not how I was raised, and it seems uncompelling to me.  But I do want to stress that I do not plan to indulge in a tendency common to ‘progressive’ Christians, the idea that since the gospel is not a monograph straight from the Lord, is therefore a pulsing mass of lies and propaganda that must be carefully sifted by the Academy before it is safe for public consumption.  My attitude toward Scripture is that the authors are my friends, my co-religionists, part of the great cloud of witnesses that now surrounds me and the entire Church.  As with anyone else in Church, they were not perfect.  They made errors and compromises; they committed sins.  But they were doing their best, in love, and by reading their efforts, I find out something about them as well as God.

So Lucan began:

Dear Theophilus:

Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message. And so, Your Excellency, because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.
         (Luke 1:1-4)

This is all very Greek.  Matthew begins with Jesus’ Jewish family tree; Mark begins with a stirring prophecy from the prophet Isaiah.  But Luke begins with an address, using forms found in Greek literature and written in polite Greek, to a person with a Greek name (whether there really was a specific Theophilus or Lucan meant all “Lovers of God” is debated).  In Luke, we see the beginnings of the dialectic of Judaism and Greco-Roman culture that became Christianity as we know and Western Civilization in general.  Lucan was probably a Gentile Christian, writing for other Gentiles, trying to build (or at least expand) a bridge between two very different worlds.  Being a gentile myself, this means a lot.  And as a wannabe historian, it warms my heart to hear him talk of writing out an orderly account, trying to make a narrative out of a clamor of sources.  Note the last sentence: “that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.”  This reminds us that the New Testament was written to edify people who had already become Christians, not as a tool to convert them in the first place. 

Eighteen and one

New England remembers what the pain felt like.

Remember what I said here, that the region was losing its character with all this victory?  It is said that when Nietzsche's mother received the stricken philosopher after his collapse, she said "God has given my son back to me."  It's like that.

The golden age of New England sports is over.  The Celts will not win.  The Sox will fall this season.  The Pats will soon go 5-11 again.  Like all golden ages, the era just passed will linger in the souls of those who saw it, unrecoverable and yet as near as one's own breath.

Coming Blogtractions

I don't know how many folks are still watching this space, but if you are, you've undoubtedly been disappointed recently.  Well, as of next Wednesday, you will get a full share, shaken and sifted and patted down: as part of my Lenten devotions, I will be blogging bible study of the Gospel of Luke.  At 24 chapters in 40 days, that will make for plenty of entries.  Whether I will say anything worth reading is, of course, another matter.

Starting Feb. 6th, next week, the unusually early Ash Wednesday.  Yule love it! (wait, wrong liturgical season).

Revenge Of The Crocodile Hole

The man who put away Bung Karno has gone to join him.  Suharto, dictator of Indonesia from the anti-Communist massacres of 1965 to the financial meltdown of 1998, died today

I tend toward a view of universalism, the idea, loosely, that everyone is going to heaven.  It's how I was raised, and it fits in with my theology.  But Suharto is one of those men who makes it hard to keep that stance.  He rode to power on a wave of blood, invaded East Timor and oversaw the death of a quarter of the population, looted, along with his family and friends, billions of dollars from the Indonesia people, and then died peacefully in bed.  True, he underwent the humiliation of being removed as president, but that blow was softened by getting to keep most of the money he stole.   If there is no justice in the afterlife, he got away with just about everything.

Just to further complicate the matter, it's possible to make a case that Suharto's crimes were outweighed by his benefits.  Outside of East Timor, provided one wasn't a subversive, Indonesia was a much better place to live in 1985 than it was in 1965.  That includes the vast majority of the Indonesian population.   And what, really, could have been done to him?  His crimes were of such a magnitude that there really could be no just punishment in this world.  How could one find a pain that would equal the death of 200,000 East Timorans?   How could one pay back whole industries looted?  You can only kill a man once.  You can only torture him so long.  Especially if he's in his eighties. 

Maybe the most fitting hell for Suharto would be to have him tied back-to-back with Sukarno for eternity.  They could argue for eons about who damaged Indonesia more, and if you're familiar with Bung Karno's rhetorical skills, I'm sure you'll agree this would be a properly Dantesque punishment.

The president of East Timor has asked his people to forgive Suharto.  A good and Christian course of action.

Saikaku Songsmithing

Among my Christmas presents was a copy of Ihara Saikaku's This Scheming World(Thanks, Chani and Kurt!).  I asked for it as part of my research for my Edojidai novel.  The book is a series of vignettes, all centered around New Year's Day.  In Tokugawa-era Japan, New Year's Day was the major occasion for settling debts, much as Michaelmas traditionally was in England.  Every story shows chonin, the urban merchant class, scrimping for money, begging for money, scamming for money.  In story after story, Saikaku lightly shows how the need for cash overcomes all else, twists every aspect of human life, causes people to lie to themselves and each other.     

Wait a second-a witty, urbane voice with a decidedly cynical viewpoint? That reminds me of a band!

This Scheming World
(to the tune of The Smiths' 'This Charming Man')

Empty moneysleeve
And my future's desolate
Will fortune make me beg for rice yet?

Poor in this scheming world
This scheming world

How can I thrive
When silk costs so much per half

I would go out tonight
but I haven't got a
mon to spare
My landlord
is outside
He's intent on getting his share

A broke-ass
chonin boy
With a valuable
He says "I'll hock the strings"
It costs too much to buy my things
It costs too much to buy my things

I'm Just Wild About Harry

So sometime last week I opened "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"1 and was introduced to Harry Potter, a little boy who, to his horror, was trapped in a Roald Dahl novel.  It took me a little while to get past that, but I did, and by the end of the first book I had hit the toboggan.  On Saturday I got the last three books out at once, so I could just grab them one after another, and this morning at 12:30 (baby was up, so was I), I finished.

They're wonderful!  I should have done this years ago.  Rowling has a great talent for puzzle construction and red herring placement and a keen eye for the adolescent mind.  I liked how she made clear-went to some pains to show, in fact-that even the good guys had character flaws and annoying sides.  The series is excellent.

Undoubtedly there are many people who would describe the books as escapist.  Fantasy usually gets tagged with that.  But they strike me as quite the opposite; they added tension to my life, not subtracted.  I found my stress level rising and falling with Harry's, and it got worst as the series went on and the situation grew darker.  I'm rather glad it's over.

Reading the books confirmed what I had long suspected: the 'magic' is the books has absolutely nothing in common with real-world occultism and my fundamentalist brethren have no idea what they're talking about.   In fact, I was surprised at how few motifs from the real-world occult were present.  There were the mention of the Philosopher's Stone (although no details), one reference to the Hanged Man tarot card, and two mentions of a Hand of Glory.  Some of the herblore was taken from life, but that's not quite occult.  Hardly anything else.  Any tweener who goes to the local chapter of the Brotherhood of the Golden Dawn looking for their Patronus is going to be sorely disappointed.

As I said, I liked them, but I'm still not sure how this lovely little series of books became THE HARRY POTTER EXPERIENCE.  Barry Hughart wrote some lovely little books too, but no one ever showed up at midnight waiting for the new one (more's the pity).   I'll have to mull it over some.

1: I did not realize the Americanized version was "Sorcerer's Stone" until my wife pointed it out to me-after I was finished.  Through the entire book, every single time I saw those words, my brain inserted 'Philosopher's Stone.'  It's actually sort of worrisome.