Tuesday, December 30, 2003

A (Birth)Day in the Life

Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...

Not quite. I was up at midnight with Alison, who is colicky. We've been up with her a lot lately (on Christmas night--not Eve, thank goodness--we didn't get her to fall asleep until we locked her snug in her car seat and I took her for a drive all around Jonesboro at 4am). Last night was mostly my job, as Melissa has the flu, and went to bed around 9pm with a terrible case of the chills; I dug out the heating pad and piled on the blankets to help her stop shivering. Fortunately, she was able to nurse Alison around 10pm, after which I was slowly able to rock her to sleep, and actually managed to get her down by about 11pm. Megan, our oldest girl, woke up with a headache, and so I gave her some Motrin and put a cold washcloth on her head (she really likes that) and rubbed her back until she fell asleep again. That allowed me about 45 minutes of shut-eye. But then it was midnight and Alison was screaming again, and so we were both up. We can't let her scream in her crib, since Caitlyn, our second oldest, shares a bedroom with her, and Caitlyn doesn't sleep well as it is. Alison seems to have a problem similar to one Caitlyn had when she was an infant: she can't poop, at least not very well. The pressure builds up insider her little body, and it prevents her from relaxing. So, when all else fails, we will sometimes put Vaseline on the tip of a baby thermometer (which is inserted rectally, if you didn't know), and insert it in Alison's little behind in the hopes of "coaxing" something out. She hates it, and sometimes causes some inflammation, but it really helps on occasion. We tried it last night around 1am, and boy did we get a lot of crap out of her. Well, after that there was another half hour or so of slowly calming her down, while Melissa nursed her again and we both kind of half-watched The Two Towers extended edition dvd (I haven't seen Return of the King yet, and want to review both of the LOTR dvds before I do). We hit the sack, and Alison stayed down, by 1:30am. But around 5am she needed to be fed again, and plus she wouldn't go to sleep afterward (which is unusual: she's generally slept well in the early morning hours). Melissa had sweated all night and was still very tired, so I got up and rocked her in my arms until she fell asleep around 7am. By that time Caitlyn had woken up, but I'd managed to get her some juice and send her back to bed. That meant the house was quiet as it grew light outside. I've always enjoyed the early morning hours: I grew up on a farm, milked cows, and was regularly up at 5am most days for most of my adolescence. But I must admit, I never really imagined when I was a boy facing the dawn in the state I did this morning, or have so many so many mornings, since Melissa and I began having kids.

It's December 30th, and I'm 35 years old today.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, still is their strength labor and sorrow; for they are soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:10)

I play little numerology games with myself. I pick out dates and find ways to imbue them with significance, to tell myself they are milestones, after which (or by which) much will be accomplished, or dangling issues will be resolved, or conflicts will be settled, or everything will change. It's a bad habit, since it allows me to rationalize away my days, filling them with excuses and promises ("Well, I needn't worry about that now; it's on my list of things to do once this/that/the other thing happens"). But it's a habit that I'm, mostly, able to keep under control; rarely these days do I allow my obsession with completed lists, clean breaks, fresh starts, do-overs and all the other strategies by which we impose a temporal order on our lives to actually get in the way of getting things done. In any case, I do it, though I'm not proud of it.

My latest milestone was my 35th birthday, since, as the scripture says, it puts me halfway toward the end of my life (or at most five years away from the halfway point, if I'm lucky). Do I believe that's true? I believe it's meaningful, which in subjective self-evaluations like these is much the same thing. I'm 35; I'm a thirtysomething. By no means a bad age; it's a good one, really (youth is overrated, your 20s especially so). It bothers me how far I'm from where I feel I ought to be though. I told myself that this was really the do-or-die-year: I'd have a tenure-track offer in hand by the time I was 35, I promised myself, or else. Well, no such offer has been made. Still a visiting professor; still renting a house; still living on the edge (no savings, no life insurance). Ten years of marriage, three children, a (paid off, thank goodness) 98 Ford Escort in the driveway. Living in Northeast Arkansas, and deeply confused and divided in how I feel about the place. I haven't been able to provide a home of our own for my wife and children, something they want more than probably just about anything else (in ten years of marriage, we've rented and lived in a total of nine separate homes and apartments, not one of which she's been free to paint or significantly redecorate or even plant a garden around, all of which she longs to be able to do). My first book should have been done a year ago, and I've only just managed to get a single article out of my dissertation; how can I ever expect to make tenure, to create any lasting scholarship, become a truly fine teacher, much less provide well for my family, when I already find myself so far behind where I ought to be?

I'm whining, of course. And I hate the fact that I whine. Ridiculous: many people--most people--are worse off. I see them at church, I see them in my classes: people with deaths in the family, jobs that disappear, bodies broken in accidents and ruined by disease, minds cast into depression by divorce and abuse. I'll probably never make it to a top research university: I don't work (and perhaps don't want to work) that hard, not with all the costs involved, and besides, I started too late, too far from the action, and I faced (and embraced) too many distractions along the way. But that's a pathetic thing to concern oneself with on one's birthday. My children are healthy (mostly). My wife is happy (I hope). My students (some of them, anyway) have learned some things in my classes. We live in a good community, and the folks from our neighborhood and church (most of them, anyway) are good people who have shared their time and hospitality with us. I have an office, and shelves full of books, and a blog and friends that I talk with by e-mail every day. Alison will be blessed in church next Sunday, and all six of my brothers, plus my mother and father, plus my younger sister and her new fiance, plus Melissa's mother and father and younger sister, will be making the journey for the big day (plus all us Fox brothers will all go see Return of the King together on Saturday night). There's a great deal more that a 35-year-old could ask for than all this, of course, and when I look around the blogosphere, and invariably compare myself to all the immensely accomplished, intelligent, ambitious, decent and influential people out there, all of whom seem far further along their chosen lifepath than I am along mine, at a far younger age, the ressentiment boils up. Thankfully however, it rarely stays at a boil. I'm 35, and my many lists are incomplete, and there is probably no more likelihood that things will dramatically and effortlessly change for the better tomorrow than there was yesterday. Most things, I suppose, will remain undone, and most of my days will be ordinary days, this day included. I know that, and am happy with that more often than not: and when I remember at the scriptures, which remind us to "take no thought for the morrow" (Matthew 6:34), and when I look around me, and see so many consumed by an envious, selfish and prideful pursuit of ever-better tomorrows, I realize that the fact that I can be happy with my day is perhaps my greatest blessing of all. The philosophical libertine, who thinks life is simply there for the taking and believes limits are for chumps, will no doubt find my birthday reflections maudlin. And of course, they are. But there are worse things to be.

Melissa was finally able to get herself out of bed around 9am this morning, by which time both Megan and Caitlyn were up and watching tv, which is usually frowned upon around here (in the morning, that is; we try to ration out tv time in the afternoons), but since its vacation and no one really had a good night sleep, I figured what the hell. Hopefully Melissa's flu is passing, though she still has a bad cough. Alison slept until 9:30am, and we all had cold cereal for breakfast. I need to do some shopping, in preparation for all the family which is coming to visit, but thought I'd come up to the office for a few hours this morning, and try to bang out this book review for The Review of Politics which I was supposed to have finished two weeks ago. Then Megan shouted "The toilet's overflowing!" Out came the plunger and the mop. We need to clean the place before the guests arrived, so it was as good a time as any to wash the bathroom floor. After that was done, and Melissa started the laundry, I came up to my office, and wrote this (what did I say about my embracing distractions?). Later today, we'll open some presents, and we'll have some cake and ice cream. The girls will put the big "3" and "5" candles on my cake, and I'll blow them out. What will I wish for? More days like today, I think, though perhaps with slightly more sleep.

Happy New Year, everyone. And many happy returns.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Eddi's Service

This is my favorite Christmas poem. It's funny, and bittersweet, and captures very well, I think, the transcendent point of the humble event at the heart of this holiday, a point powerfully expressed in the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" when we sing:

What can I give Him / Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd / I would give a lamb.
If I were a wise man / I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: / Give my heart.

That is, we give whatever we can, to whomever we can. He will always receive it (Matt. 25:40).

Also, as someone who grew up on a farm and milked cows on many Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings, I appreciate the reverence of the animals in the poem; for of course, as we all know, at midnight on Christmas Eve all animals can talk. Enjoy, and have a merry and blessed Christmas holiday.

Eddi's Service, by Rudyard Kipling

(A.D. 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

"Wicked weather for walking,"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted --
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word.

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend."

Monday, December 22, 2003

A Christmas Carol Review

There is no Christmas story I love more than Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In my mind it is practically scripture, a story whose truth-telling power is comparable to that of the parable of the prodigal son. Why? This article puts the story’s appeal succinctly, but there's more to be said regarding each point. To wit:

Moral resonance. Well yes–it's a powerful tale of redemption, and a chilling ghost story too. The moral force of A Christmas Carol, the language of dread and relief which Dickens worked into his little book, often strikes contemporary readers as strange, since for us all the 19th-century signs and elements of death and the grave which Dickens employed–the white shroud, the rattling wheels of the hearse–appear distant and therefore easily denied. But Dickens's world was one that still knew very, very well how close the other side is, how a chill or a cough could send one on to one's reward. The medieval morality, mystery and passion plays all depended, to one degree or another, on the nearness of the unseen world, of the judgment which stood ever present as we make our way through the world. Modern day ghost stories generally fail to call up an awareness of mortality, which is our loss. To the extent that Dickens, through the power of his plot and his words, can get 21st-century readers to remember, in the words of scripture, that "if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of edarkness wherein there can be no labor performed"–then his book is worth its weight in gold.

Victorian truisms. I won’t go too far into philosophy here: suffice to say that it is not unreasonable to have a view of history which allows one to discern in particular moments of historical development truths that last–not just for material reasons, but because, embedded as they are in particular historical and cultural constructions, they nonetheless are a kind of "epiphanic truth": a revelatory insight into something which was always there and always will be, even if apart from our language and perspectives we cannot see it entirely for what it "really" is. (Charles Taylor is the best exponent this kind of expressivist theology, though he is only refining what the Romantics discovered first.) What’s my point? My point is that a Victorian Christmas is just one of hundreds of possible Christmases from across the whole breadth and history of Christendom: and yet, it is not unreasonable to say that those busy-body Victorians–and most especially Charles Dickens–got something about Christmas right. The Ghost of Christmas Present is perhaps the closest approximation we are likely ever to get of that gift-giving figure who haunts all our stories about the holiday: a spirit of charity, full of laughter but also a hard work ethic, with a kind of reforming earnestness, resulting in the consecration of that revelry which once typified Christmas into a force for spreading cheer and doing good. One can get Marxist and talk until endlessly about how Christmas was domesticated, turned into a private merchandising opportunity, but in the end that misses something essential–that there is a spiritual force behind the sharing, the giving and receiving, of the goods of the earth.

Theology. While it is true that Christ makes no appearance in A Christmas Carol, at least not as the Savior. But there is far more God and heaven in Dickens’s story than one might at first suspect: Jacob Marley laments that he never raised his eyes "to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode"; the Ghost of Christmas Present condemns those who act selfishly in God's name; and Scrooge himself, after his encounter with the last spirit, falls to his knees in prayer. Most importantly, there is something powerfully true about the vision Scrooge is shown out his bedroom window by Jacob Marley: thousands of condemned spirits, no longer able to interfere with the living, bound in fetters (some singly, others linked together: "they might be guilty governments," Dickens perceptively added), condemned to make this world their abode forever, and never rise up to a higher place. Secular audiences today take such scenes in stride, as part of some pop-horror story mythos; but of course, those with a Christian bent can readily respond to the scriptural imagery: this the earth will become a hell, a prison, for those who place their treasure within it.

Well, all that and more can be said for the book. But most of us know the story through it’s many adaptations. How do those stack up? I can think of five worth mentioning:

The Muppet Christmas Carol. Yes, I'm serious. One of the problems with adapting A Christmas Carol is that Dickens wrote the book to a great extent as if it were to be read aloud; and, in fact, for many years afterward he did do public readings of the book, and he made great use of the descriptive action and imagery he had larded into the text. The problem is that so much of that imagery simply doesn't work outside a narrator describing and commenting upon it; there's only so far you can go in putting those words into characters' mouths. That's what makes makes this version so good, completely aside from the various characterizations the muppets artists were able to pull off and the wacky humor without: Gonzo, playing Charles Dickens, gets to narrate the story to a certain extent. While this particular adaptation takes great liberty with the text (obviously!), the presence of a narrator means some of Dickens's beautiful and sharp language gets to be preserved. (I love the line about Scrooge being "solitary as an oyster.") And by the way, Michael Caine's is wonderful--while this version doesn't get the transformation of his character especially well (preferring humor instead, of course), the opening scenes are great, with Caine's wicked grin digging into lines like "Christmastime is harvest season for the money lenders." Good stuff.

A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version. Some people consider this the definitive version; I don't. There's much to like about it--it goes farther than many adaptations do insofar as capturing the theology behind the story. And I like some of their additions to the story (like making Scrooge's long lost love Belle--for some reason renamed "Alice"--into a Salvation Army-type missionary, working among the poor whom Scrooge is taken to visit by the Ghost of Christmas Present). But some of the others are distracting (a very 1950s pseudo-Marxist subplot on how Scrooge embraces the "modern economy" and turns against the "old ways," for example). And frankly, I can't get a bead on Alastair Sims's Scrooge--what kind of person is he, and how he fits the story. There are, as I see it, basically two possible interpretations of Scrooge which can work within the tale Dickens told; the first is best exemplified by...

Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. This is a great musical, with superb and touching songs ("Happiness" is a great love ballad; my sister sang it at a recital she gave years ago) and wonderful acting. Just about everyone in the movie is some sort of Cockney, and the harsh accents nicely contrast with the beautiful waifs they cast as children. (The Timy Tim in this version is heartbreaking.) I dislike Alec Guiness's Marley intensely; he seems to be winking at the audience throughout, and the whole "Scrooge goes to hell" sequence is just silly. But Finney, and the design team who dressed him and created sets for him, absolutely nailed one possible reading of Scrooge: namely, that he's a horrible, wretched, lousy little man, a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," as Dickens wrote. Finney's Scrooge is a pathetic, bottom-feeding crook, fussing about the binding on his ledgers, double and triple locking everything, driving people to despair over a pound here and a pound there, all while wandering about and chanting the song "I Hate People." Rich, delightful stuff. The only problem with this approach, when you reflect upon it, is that such a hideous old man has no stature, and consequently his salvation seems to come at little cost: there is no real tragedy is such a Scrooge. Perhaps those responsible for the adaptation realized this, and thus were consistent when they ended the musical with basically a big party, with Scrooge running about in a Father Christmas outfit, handing out presents left and right. In any case it works, though it's not my favorite.

A Christmas Carol, Patrick Stewart version. This version certainly has a lot going for it, most particularly Stewart's performance. I wish I could have seen his one-man show of the story. Stewart's Scrooge has something of the creepy miser about him, but he doesn't take it as far Finney did. What Stewart does to very, very well is show the emotional and psychological transitions very well: this adaptation gives Scrooge a chance to interrogate himself as he goes along, wondering if things really were so much better when he was younger, and then condemning the man he has become that much more when honesty forces to him to realize all that he had lost. His "reborn" Scrooge throws himself into his new life with energy, but also doubt: he doesn't know how to be good, and so he is always apologizing, looking around him, laughing at his own confusion. In this sense the Stewart adaptation does better than any other at capturing a point often missed from the conclusion of the story: the fact that "some people laughed to see the alteration in [Scrooge], but he let them laugh, and little heeded them...his own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him." In other words, there are other Scrooges, and people who will judge and mock those who repent and change; Dickens knew this, and acknowledging it is an important part of the story. Unfortunately, the rest of the production pales beside Stewart, I think: the special effects are poorly edited and inconsistent; the effort to spread the story out, to capture a lot of the breadth Dickens packed in there, make it seem rushed to me. I just don't think the people behind it had much vision of how to tell the story besides keeping the camera on Stewart. This is in direct contrast to the adaption I consider the greatest...

A Christmas Carol, George C. Scott version. Just about perfect. The other great interpretation of Scrooge is the opposite of the wheezing miser approach: you make Scrooge a competent, indeed masterful, capitalist, a man of force and pride. Dickens signalled this possibility from the very first page of A Christmas Carol, when he noted that "Scrooge's name was good upon Exchange, for anything he chose to put his hand to." Scott's Scrooge is not angry with the world; rather, he wearily and condescendingly mocks it, confused (and delighted) at its willingness to babble on about all this Christmas nonsense. He drives hard bargains at the stock market, refusing to budge on the price of corn, demanding cash payments. He is, more than any other Scrooge in any other adaptation, genuinely horrified by the way his personal belongings will be disposed of after his death, should be go ahead and die hated and unmourned. Some may find this version too austere and serious, perhaps full of itself. (Bob Cratchit and his family are an awesomely dignified lower-class bunch.) I adore it, however, because it underscores the seriousness of the story. (Also, such stiffness is kind of necessary for the dramatic conventions of the story to work: how else could Scrooge not know that it is signs of his own death--or, as is implied in this version, delude himself into thinking otherwise--unless Scrooge himself is to a degree willfully blind?) It builds the tension, I think, and draws you in, so that when Scrooge leans over his own grave and stares up at the skeletal Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, imploring "Let me sponge away the writing on this stone!" I can't help but weep. I mean it--this version is Christmas television at its very, very best.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Thoughts on the EU

Since I've written before on the issue of Europe and its "identity crisis," I'd thought I'd chime in a little bit on the recent collapse of talks on finalizing the proposed European Union constitution. My thoughts were crystallized by a couple of intriguing posts; one by Maria Farrell over at Crooked Timber, the other by Nick Barlow at A Fistful of Euros. Nick's piece is better I think; while Maria's comments provide an interesting take on some dynamics internal to life in the divided patchwork of nations which is Europe today, Nick's puts the larger issues which are at the heart of the struggle over the EU into what I see as their appropriate context.

For Maria, the big story is that Italy blew it, demonstrating once again that the European Union is often more hurt than helped by the excessive involvement of larger states (namely, France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany) who are "always running off in triumvirates, or quadriviates or what have you every 5 minutes and declaring themselves the engine of Europe." Maria doesn't get into the particulars of the debate in Rome, which dealt at length with the relative voting weights of countries of different sizes within the constitutional structure, but it surely must be part of her thinking when she emphasizes the need to recognize "the big role that smaller countries play in greasing the wheels of the European machine." As she concludes, "as of 1st May next year, small countries will be in the majority of EU member states...and we're here to stay." Her attitude is certainly an admirable one, one that fits well with the aggressive stance taken by some of the larger "small" countries, such as Poland and Spain, in defending the agreements by which they first entered the EU. One might even attribute to it a kind of "republicanism" of the sort which informed the original creation of the U.S. Senate: namely, that every body of citizens, in their separate states, has a sovereign standing on the basis of their particular identity and the particular contributions they can make to the union overall. Unfortunately, Maria uses that discomforting word "machine" when referring to the EU in general, and I don't think that's an innocent term. There isn't anything organic to Maria's interest in working out the relations between smaller and larger European countries; the problems facing the EU, and their resolution, exist for her on what seems to be an essentially organizational or institutional plane. And looking at the U.S. Senate, or any kind of federal arrangement within a single union, without also thinking theoretically about the "identity" (historical, moral, cultural, even spiritual) of that union is simply begging for trouble. (The fact that such a common understanding of the res publica is no longer a particularly strong feature of American constitutional thinking is one of the reasons why such nominally or outwardly "republican" arrangements like the senate, or the electoral college, strike so many as unfair and incomprehensible: absent an organic perspective on the polity itself, all that remains is internal democratic struggles, in which case why not just level out all particular differences under a single system?) (This is not, by the way, to expressly defend these arrangements; it is only to point out what is necessary to appreciate and evaluate them.)

Nick does a better job of appreciating and evaluating the real nature of that "trouble" which as-yet-somewhat-identity-less Europe actually faces in its efforts to build a better union. Quoting at length an article by Max Hastings, Nick talks about why it is imperative that Europhiles like himself present an "alter-European" argument: one that, in other words, defends the idea of the EU, but backs away from this particular manifestation of it. "The problem comes," he writes, "from the fact that while there is a growing sense of a common European cultural identity, it's in danger of being swamped by an overly techno-bureaucratic notion of integration being imposed from above....at some point in the future, there will be [a] belief [in a common European identity] present, but that it is not plausible to assign that belief and expectation now." Nick also correctly notes that the "Europe" on behalf of which its member states will ultimately be willing to rethink their own sovereignty in relationship to must offer something positive, something which is essentially a cultural and popular affirmation, rather than an elite declaration of what Europe isn't (i.e., Bush's America). In this context, I would agree with one of Nick's commentators, who asks just "what is so terrible about a 'two speed' Europe" in the first place. I think this is an important question. Many dislike this idea; the notion that France and Germany (various described or self-described as the "core" of the EU, the "avant-garde" of Europe) would go ahead with further integration, without necessarily drawing other European nations into similar arrangements, seems to many as a recipe for bullying. No doubt lingering bitterness fire much of this suspicion; so do the legitimate fears of smaller European countries. On the other hand, it must be noted that this isn't just a "big power" European pact: it is widely understood that Belgium, Luxembourg and perhaps the Netherlands would join France and Germany in any such arrangement. In other words, what we're talking about here is the French-German-Benelux--that part of Europe which already has gone farthest in developing what might be considered a "nationality." Forget about Maria's focus on Europe's strategic machinery; think about this instead, for example, in the context of the debate over the appearance of some reference to Christianity in the EU Constitution: for better or worse, hostility and sympathy to the idea breaks down very neatly along various existing national lines, with France, Belgium and Luxembourg being among the idea's strongest opponents. Now, as I just wrote, I'm not very impressed with secularism as a cultural marker of identity--but one can't dismiss its presence as a real cultural commonality. Simply put, some parts of Europe are much closer to being able to pull off a historical embrace of a kind of "European nationality" than others; why should one object to the further development of a union in such places, where the necessary identity is at least plausible? That may depress some Europhiles, for whom the whole idea is to go "post-political," and be "united in diversity." Good Herderian that I am, I don't think such unity is impossible. But it is far more likely to be possible when there is some communal--or go ahead and say it: national--identification with what that public "unity" substantively is. Consequently, if the current failure of EU talks sparks a greater desire to build on the substantive unity that already exists in (some) places, rather than waiting for it to appear in all places, I wonder if this debacle won't turn out to have a very important silver lining after all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

No, Not Fraternity Either...

I was going to write on President Jacques Chirac's wrong-headed (and perhaps irrational as well; see below) decision to endorse a proposed ban on "blatant" religious garb or symbols in French schools (and perhaps hospitals and other venues as well) anyway, but Jacob T. Levy managed to find someone to hold his place in line for The Return of the King (which, alas, recent obligations prevent me from seeing opening night) long enough for him to thoroughly denounce it. Jacob and I have disagreed on more than a few things, but here I couldn't agree with him more. As he points out:

"The proposed law is really quite repressive. One item that hasn't been much mentioned in the English-language press is that it also prohibits wearing any visible political symbol (buttons and badges and so on). One article I read about that proposal in Le Monde last week made quite clear how arbitrarily that will be enforced, with school administrators drawing their distinctions between what is and what isn't political. An AIDS ribbon? An anarchist's A button? A button in support of SOS-Racisme? One administrator said that that wouldn't be prohibited, because anti-racism, isn't a political value but a republican value. But the ban clearly isn't restricted to a bright-line rule against partisan affiliations, either. It is going to leave tremendous discretion in the hands of principals to ban what they dislike and allow what they like."

You could really go on for a while in response to that, trying to figure out the best way to make sense of the claim that some position may be "republican" but isn't "political." (Clearly it has at least something to do with the current French desire, common to many Western Europeans, to see its polity as somehow "postnational," or even "postpolitical".) Regardless, Jacob has hit the nail on the head: the idea of liberty (personal as well as religious) will be profoundly harmed by the passage of this legislation. (His comments about the consequences of this law, in terms of the actual burdens it will place of faithful Muslims and Jews as opposed to Christians, as well as the dismissiveness its language shows towards real and presumably visible differences between varieties of Islam, are dead-on as well.)

But what about the other two values of the revolution: equality and fraternity? Jacob expresses dismay at what he takes to be the knee-jerk collectivism of both supporters and opponents of this legislation:

"People say, in all apparent good faith, things that I just can't imagine a reasonable person believing. [Their] understanding of separation and religious liberty is compatible with state action in support of Christianity, like public Christmas displays on government property. It's compatible with the creation of official government-sponsored governing and lobbying bodies for the major religious communities. But it's incompatible with individuals manifesting their religious faith in any noticeable way....It is, always, all about France and the French state, never about the conflicting obligations in conscience felt by committed religious believers."

As a religious communitarian who is willing to reflect on the point of (mild forms of) establishmentarianism, one might think that I would defend France here. And I do--up to a point. To President Chirac--and, apparently, a large majority of French citizens--an individual commitment to a certain kind of secularism is part of the nation's identity, it's "soul." The affective ties of Frenchness, in other words, have been historically constructed around personal anti-clericism: the idea that it is simply wrong to be able to, as Chirac put it, "immediately see what religious faith [a person] belong[s] to" by virtue of their appearance or actions. State involvement in, or even sponsorship of, religious organizations or rituals is perfectly compatible, and perhaps even forms a reasonable compromise with, such a personal ethic of assimilation. In that sense, should communitarians respect this decision as a proper defense of French fraternity?

No, for two reasons. First, because it may not even be reasonable; on the contrary, it may be a foolish way to shore up French identity. France is now about 8 percent Muslim, with probably over 6 million practicing Muslims in the country (and some observers believe the number is likely much higher than that). That is, the context within which individual French citizens may express and see reflected their identity has changed. Contexts always change, of course (which is why the better national communitarians, like Johann Gottfried Herder, refused to tie the idea of a people's "essence" to anything historically permanent), but this has been a especially dramatic one, and for better or worse it is the political reality of France. Chirac in his speech spoke of "equality of opportunity" being furthered by this recommitment to secularism, but he also denounced "communalism"--that is, that different communities might develop so that they become French in different ways. Since what is plainly at issue here is one very significant demographic and religious change in the context of French identity-formation, Chirac's refusal of communalistic approaches is hardly an equitable one; it is, on the contrary, one step away from simple majoritarianism, which as far as I'm concerned those who support the development of actual communal virtues should oppose. Perhaps there is more to the law than that; perhaps there is something there besides a desperate demographic response to the (legitimate) threat of Islamic fundamentalism. But I suspect not.

Second, even if the law is a reasonable articulation of French communitarian goals (which I doubt), their goals themselves are lousy. Simply put, secularism always has been a poor tool for solidarity. One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly, but far more relevant (to my mind at least) is the simple truism that religious identity is almost inevitably communal: even mystics gather in groups. Of course rival groups can lead to Balkanization, but still: religion (even when the habits of faith are "merely" ethical or social, rather than pious, for any particular individual) directs the inner person outward, towards an engagement with others, and why would anyone want to premise their social existence on an ideal which rejects personal manifestations of that public fact? This is a lesson as old as Tocqueville's writings on civic religion, and the evidence in support of his old thesis is plentiful; it's remarkable that France, of all places, was so desperate to reject the Catholic establishment that they forgot all about the insights of their native son. No, religious communities are not necessarily "better" communities, but an aggressively irreligious community--especially one which actually goes so far as to label, as Chirac did, individual expressions of religious faith to themselves be "an aggression"!--is a dubious accomplishment, at best. So the fact that this particular response to one aspect of France's (and to a certain extent, all of Western Europe's) identity crisis is so popular among French citizens is doubly distressing: because it is likely a poor way to negotiate that crisis, and because it moves, I think, in the wrong direction entirely anyway.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003


Still more on the Christmas theme...the Invisible Adjunct reluctantly confesses that, try as she might, the old Rankin-Bass stop-motion production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which lurked so large in her childhood memory, turned out to be "embarrasingly unwatchable" when she put it on for her husband and child (who, wisely, ignored it, instinctively recognizing that other Rankin-Bass stuff must be much better than their Rudolph nonsense, which is true). Much discussion about pop culture Christmas memories ensued. Read it, especially all the comments.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

A Christmas Stories Review

Following up on my post on some of my favorite Christmas recordings, I wanted to list some of my favorite Christmas stories (and, when appropriate, editions of those stories). Of course, these are even more innumerable and varied than Christmas songs. Moreover, perhaps even more than music, holiday stories exist on a wholly sentimental plane--between the words and plots and the characters, and the way they work upon our memories, our hopes, and our perceptions of our environment, we find ourselves moved, or not. Musical recordings, even of carols, can be critiqued to a degree, but what can you can you say about Christmas tales? That they're badly written? That the moral of the story was inadequately supported? Almost by definition, when you're talking about a genre like this (equal parts inspiration and folk), such criticisms are besides the point. So take that as a warning: this is simply a list of fine Christmas stories, all of which have helped, and still help, me get into the spirit of the season. And consequently, I'm not going to talk about them, the way I did about musical recordings. Rather, I'm going to quote passages. Either you'll get it, or you won't.

(Also, a second warning: Melissa and I have kids, and we've been reading to them since they were tots, so many of the following are usually classified as "children's literature." Not that that should keep you away from them.)

1. Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Match Girl.
"The little girl stretched out both her hands towards the candles--then out went the match. All the Christmas candles rose higher and higher, till she saw that they were only the twinkling stars. One of them fell and made a bright streak across the sky. Someone is dying, thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had ever been kind to her, used to say, 'When a star falls, a soul is going up to God.'"

2. Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory.
"'Buddy, are you awake?' It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. 'Well, I can't sleep a hoot,' she declares. 'My mind's jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?' We huddle in the bed, and squeezes my hand I-love-you. 'Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you're grown up, will we still be friends?' I say always. 'But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo papa gave me. Buddy'--she hesitates, as though embarrassed--'I made you another kite.' Then I confess that I made her one too; and we laugh."

3. Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
"And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: 'How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!' And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!'"

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Santa Comes to Little House.
"Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty. Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure. And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny! They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny! There had never been such a Christmas."

5. Raymond Briggs, The Snowman.
[There are no words in this beautiful, whimsical picture book, which is certainly not only for children. The story only remotely has to do with Christmas (the video version adds a bit more Christmas stuff, along with a haunting piano tune from George Winston), but it is magical, warm, and ultimately deeply sobering. A warning if you have a sensitive child: a four-year-old I used to babysit would bawl uncontrollably when we turned the final page of this book.]

6. O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi.
"At seven o'clock the coffee was made and the frying pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops. Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: 'Please God, make him think I am still pretty.'"

7. Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express.
"The North Pole. It was a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made. At first we saw no elves. 'They are gathering at the center of the city,' the conductor told us. 'That is where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas.' 'Who receives the first gift?' we all asked. The conductor answered, 'He will choose one of you.'"

8. Irene Trevas, Emma's Christmas.
"On the twelfth day of Christmas a very weary Emma climbed up to the hayloft for some sleep. But over the snowy hills she saw: twelve leaping lords, eleven dancing ladies, ten drumming drummers, nine piping pipers, eight milkmaids with cows, seven laying geese, six swimming swans, five pages bearing five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and--just behind the pear tree and its partridge--the prince himself, smiling his funny smile. In spite of herself, Emma was enchanted."

9. Rudyard Kipling, Eddi's Service
[A beautiful, humble, wise poem, available in many collections. Perfect for Christmas Eve. "The altar-lamps were lighted / An old marsh-donkey came / Bold as a guest invited / And stared at the guttering flame. / The storm beat on at the windows / The water splashed on the floor / And a wet, yoke-weary bullock / Pushed in through the open door. / 'How do I know what is greatest / How do I know what is least? / That is My Father's business' / Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest. / 'But -- three are gathered together -- / Listen to me and attend. / I bring good news, my brethren!' / Said Eddi of Manhood End."]

10. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
[Available in more editions than can be counted. Perhaps the greatest secular (or is it?) Christmas tale of all time--and one important enough to me that I'll need to do more than just quote from it. But that's for another post.

Fatherhood, Again

Thanks for the kind comments and congratulations from so many of you. The last few days have been, as you might imagine, rather exhausting. Melissa and I have managed to have our three children far enough apart (there is an average of about 3 years, 7 months between them) that we have felt as though we were relearning everything that we should have figured out (at least once, if not twice) before. Not that it all seems "new," necessarily: just, well, unexpected. As if we were going around saying--when fitting the baby into the car seat, or changing her diaper, or trying to get her to burp, or rocking her in our arms, trying to get her to go to go back to sleep after a 2am feeding--Oh, wait, this again?

For what it's worth, yes, I get up with Melissa for those 2am feedings, maybe rubbing her feet while she nurses Alison, though admittedly I often fall right back to sleep. I take my turn at rocking our little baby, cleaning her up, keeping the other girls from pouncing on her and treating her like a doll, and so forth. Does that make ours an egalitarian, "modern" marriage? Beats me. I know it's not how my father did it (I grew up in a family of nine kids, and for most of it my mother was very much on her own); but at the same time, it's how just about all of my brothers approach child-rearing duties with their wives. We're all a bunch of early rising, diaper-washing, bottle-warming husbands, though I hardly mean to imply that we perfectly shoulder our share of the responsibilities. Still, the trend is consistent enough to suggest that fatherhood, for many of us of my generation at least, means something much more egalitarian than it used to.

I suppose I could write a lot on this topic (and may later, sometime when I'm getting more than 3 hours of sleep a night), but for now, just about everything I can think of saying has already been said, in a fine essay published in First Things by a close friend of mine, Damon Linker. The essay, "Fatherhood, 2002," is a wise, reflective, incisive look at the needs and hopes of most of those who are becoming parents (and particularly fathers) at this moment in our history. While Damon and his wife Beth are just rookies at the parenting game, I've yet to read any single essay that expressed my own aspirations, and self-understanding, in regards to being a father as well as this one did. Enjoy.

(Oh, and given that Damon's vision of fatherhood is not only a relatively egalitarian one, and includes a nod towards the need for more and better family-friendly policies in our society, the essay came in for a fair amount of criticism from the many conservative readers of First Things. While several of the correspondents made interesting points, more than a few charged Damon, essentially, with being a (forgive the crude language, but its accurate) unmanly, pussy-whipped, New Agey drip, singularly ignorant of the "real world" of masculine parenting. Not only can I testify that such isn't the case, but Damon ably demonstrated such in his response to his critics, here. Nothing like a little intergenerational argument to liven up your day.)

Friday, December 05, 2003

We've Been Busy...

Just to explain my most recent absence...Melissa gave birth to Alison Edra Fox at 2:36pm this afternoon, CST. She weighs 7 lbs. 9 ounces, has a lot of hair, and all her fingers and toes. Melissa is doing fine, and we're all very, very happy. More reports as they become available....

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Times and Seasons

I'm not sure any of the 20 or so people who somewhat regularly check out this blog come by for commentary on Mormon matters, but just in case any of you do, you probably won't see any more of that here. I've joined a group blog named Times and Seasons dedicated to exploring Mormon theology, faith, and culture; all my Mormon-specific religious musings (and perhaps more general religious thoughts as well) will henceforth be posted over there. This blog will remain, as the blurb says, devoted to matters philosophical, political, and personal. Enjoy!

Monday, December 01, 2003

A Christmas Music Review

Spend any time around Melissa and I, and you'll discover pretty quickly that, when it comes to day-to-day family things, we're a pretty sentimental and traditional couple. This is never clearer than at the holiday season, during which we and the girls delight in all sorts of rituals and kitsch. We kick off the family Christmas season on November 30th, St. Andrew's Day, by getting out all the Christmas decorations and spending a few hours transforming the house. Go ahead, be cynical; doesn't hurt me a bit.

One of the things I enjoy most about getting into all those boxes is pulling out the holiday music which I haven't listened to in a year. Some of it is, I'll admit, mediocre, but some of it is fantastic stuff. And it occurred to me that, while I'm sure plenty exist somewhere on the internet, I've never read a list of favorite Christmas recordings. And so, I determined to sit down and write one. Take it for what it's worth. In no particular order, the best holiday music we have (and the recordings I'd happily recommend to anyone) includes the following:

1. Wassail! Wassail! Early American Christmas Music, by John Langstaff and the Christmas Revels. Not everything on this delightful collection of folk music is holiday-related, or even seasonal, but it all holds together. A great celebration of Americana, including early Native American, African-American, colonial, and frontier folk songs and poetry, ranging from the Igulik in the far north, south to Kentucky Appalachia. It includes a haunting rendition (Langstaff's solo baritone, accompanied on dulcimer) of one version of "The Cherry Tree Carol," a beautiful and rarely sung Christmas tune.

2. December, by George Winston. I've heard some people call this the single best-selling "new age" album of all time. Could be. It's only available in a new, 20th anniversary special release now. My version is an old cassette tape, printed in Korean: I got it from a fellow missionary (who had received it from a Korean friend) fifteen years ago, while I was serving in South Korea. Why that other missionary didn't appreciate Winston's piano solos I'll never know. Beautifully spare and elegant at times; shinning with sound at others. My favorite is his classy, restrained treatment of another humble and rarely sung folk carol, "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head."

3. Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. This cd was an instant hit among just about everyone I knew when it came out in 1992. And what's not to love? While very much a late-1980s pop/gospel production, the producers saw fit to bring in artists of nearly every stripe to tackle portions of Handel's masterwork. Thus we have Al Jarreau cooking with a big band on "Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage?," Stevie Wonder and Take 6 sliding luxuriously through a honey-smooth "O Thou the Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," and my favorite, Patti Austin's powerful and righteous vocal work on a funky "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" Worth the price of the cd alone.

4. The Bells of Dublin, by The Chieftans. More than a fine collection of carols and seasonal Irish folk music, this recording--which begins and ends with the chimes of the twelve bells of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, recorded live--aurally transports you into a distinct and delightful Christmas world, filled with piety and gaiety, good drink and good food, and few arguments as well (see Elvis Costello's contribution, "St. Stephen's Day Murders"). Jackson Browne melds well with the Chieftans in "The Rebel Jesus," his secular contribution to the season; the high point, however, is the Renaissance Singers gorgeous choral performance, accompanied on the organ of St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, of "Once in Royal David's City," possibly my favorite religious carol of them all.

5. Christmas, by Rockapella. Not everyone is a fan of a cappella music, I know, especially when it comes to Christmas songs. What makes this collection of vocal arrangements stand out? Well, I'm not sure. I mean, Rockapella is good, but are they that good? Maybe not. But they're fine pop-jazz vocalists, every last one of them. And this cd does have, hands down, the best, funniest, most rocking cover of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" I've ever heard, so at least it has that going for it.

6. A Christmas Together, John Denver and the Muppets. A sentimental favorite? Yes, but that doesn't mean you can't make a good case for its music. Somehow, Denver's aw-shucks-folks demeanor melded about as well with Jim Henson's and Frank Oz's lovable Muppet-mania as any performer who ever showed up on their show; no wonder he was their first and only choice for a Christmas album. The result is magic: the treacle in Denver's "Alfie: The Christmas Tree" and "It's in Everyone of Us" is so thick you could cut it with a knife, but it still goes down sweetly. And I insist that Denver's duet with Rowlf the Dog, in his piano man mode, on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is just about the definitive rendition of the song: reflective, spare, and melancholy, but whimsically upbeat all the same. A must-have.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I've looked and listened, but still, I've yet to come across a Christmas jazz record which touches this one. Every piece on here, from "O Tannenbaum" to "Greensleeves" is a gem. As the reviewers say, buy it for the nostalgia, but keep it because it is, holiday aside, very nearly a masterpiece.

8. A Very Special Christmas. There have been so many sequels to this great collection, and many of them have some pretty good stuff on them, but the original is still, I think, the best of the bunch. It's dated, but so what? The Sting on this album (giving us a dark, brooding cover of the rarely sung carol, Gabriel's Message) is the moody, oh-so-burdened, long-haired Sting of the late 1980s; on the other hand, Run-DMC's pitch-perfect "Christmas Rap" joyously and raucously serves up the whole hip-hop banquet, long before the genre became a parody of itself. The most original arrangement has got to be the spooky, synthesized, cool (literarlly) pop treatment which the Eurythmics give "Winter Wonderland." A confession though: I love this recording partly because my copy of it is an old tape, copied from another tape, with various other recorded-off-the-radio bits on it--and the highlight of all that errata is a recording of Bruce Springsteen's cover of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," which is, I believe, only available on a hard-to-find single Springsteen released in 1985. In case you've never heard it, I assure you: it rocks.

9. Christmas, by Mannheim Steamroller. There is something to be said for all of Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas albums; everyone has their own favorite. Their third Christmas recording, Christmas in the Aire, includes a haunting, slow, distorted bass-heavy arrangement of "Jingle Bells," as well as a whimsical take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" via electronically souped-up toy instruments. Melissa's dad adores their second album, Fresh Aire Christmas, because of its touching choral arrangement of his favorite carol, "Still Still Still." But I prefer their first effort, because of the simple perfection of their take on "Silent Night." It's always the last thing I listen to before I blow out the candles on Christmas Eve.

10. A bunch of random stuff. We have The Osmonds Family Christmas--what Mormon family doesn't? Our copy is (again!) a tape that's been handed down for years. I won't tell you to go out and buy it, but Jimmy's song "It Never Snows in L.A." is really kind of cute. Of course, we have one of the innumerable Elvis Presley Christmas collections--we live in the South, after all. Forget the knock-offs; his "Blue Christmas" really is solid gold. We haven't given Harry Connick Jr.'s new Christmas cd a listen yet, but his When My Heart Finds Christmas has some good songs on it--his big band stuff doesn't swing as well as he imagines it does, but his more intimate, bluesy jazz numbers, like the gospel-tinged "I Pray on Christmas," are wonderful. And while I'm put off at how she frequently drops the more Christ-focused lyrics (such as the middle passages of the wonderful carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter") from her recordings, I do very much like Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies, if only because of her sweet, light renditions of "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Little Road to Bethlehem." Charming.

There. That'll get you started.