Puzzling Traditions

Like most families, we have tried over the years to develop our own holiday traditions.  These, like all things, evolve.  When I was a professor the semester break meant, after a flurry of grading, a month of a more relaxed schedule.  We would travel to family outside of Wisconsin every year, and worked on what a “usual” holiday might look like for our small family in the remaining time at home.  Now that I work for a company, and my wife works for a company, the holiday break is severely curtailed, but it has allowed us the opportunity to invent our own traditions.  One of them is to put together a quality jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day.  (Two of these puzzles were destroyed in the flood that ruined so many books, and will need to be replaced eventually.)

I’m aware how nerdy puzzle-solving might sound.  I’m not spending the day out riding an ATV through the woods, discharging a firearm, or watching sports on television.  Piecing together a puzzle is a quieter pursuit, and the puzzles we have are of quality artworks, and completing one makes it feel like all is right with the world for a little while.  As with most things on this blog, it also serves as a metaphor.  Yesterday as we watched the movie The Man Who Invested Christmas (which portrays very well the life of those who try to write; the exception being that Dickens had little trouble finding publishers and the benefit of early success), it occurred to me that as we put together the puzzle of our lives, we do so with the box top missing.  We don’t know what the picture is.  Slowly some sections start to come together, but overall, we don’t know what we’re doing.

Long ago I learned the folly of planning out a life.  Moving forward is good, yes, and making plans wise.  You cannot, however, know the way those plans might fit elsewhere in this decades-long unfinished puzzle.  There’a a fairly large section of mine called Nashotah House.  I would never have planned that intentionally, and thinking back, it was being there that renewed my interest in horror.  I thought I’d be at a university where I might continue my research into ancient deities and how the world of biblical Israel developed its own conception of that world.  That’s what I thought the cover of the box would look like.  Instead I’ve found myself editing the books that others write and using the scant time left over to write my own, on a topic far different than that in which I earned an advanced degree.  As the last piece slips into the puzzle, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much, but I’ve used the limited time off to step back and try to take, however briefly, the larger view.

Solstice Musings

Should my posts of late be castigated as against the Christmas spirit I would rely on Andy Williams’ song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in my defense.  “There’ll be scary ghost stories,” the crooner sings amid images of cheer and celebration.  What may not be appreciated by my less sober celebrants is that the long nights of winter have as close an association with ghosts as they do with the numerous religious holidays that fervently pray for the return of the light at this time of year.  In merry old England, which along with Germany developed the modern concept of Christmas, the holiday was observed with evening ghost stories as is well represented by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (likely the source behind Williams’ lyric reference).

So I read about ghosts when the light begins to fail.  Or at least that’s my excuse.  When Ghost Hunters took to the air in 2004 the world became aware that electronic devices can pick up anomalies and other ghost-hunting groups began to appear.  Alan Brown, apparently curious about this development, wrote Ghost Hunters of New England as a field guide of sorts to paranormal investigators.  The book divides the region by states and includes the answers to survey questions asked to each of them.  The result isn’t especially inspirational, however, as these groups share in common the obvious absence of scientists.  It may be that professional scientists fear the career impact of such associations, but as is the case in many academic disciplines, their lack of participation simply erodes the credibility of science in the eyes of many.

Human investigation of the world has reached a point where many academic specialists can no longer communicate effectively with the average person.  I work in academic publishing and it is clear that many specialists simply do not recollect the level at which those without advanced training read.  We therefore see the rise of hoi polloi as self-appointed experts.  If scientists won’t investigate ghosts, plumbers will.  And since, no matter what science declares, many people experience ghosts, they will listen to those who at least seek answers.  The problem with books like Brown’s, of course, is that if a fad fades the groups disappear leaving the information outdated.  A couple of the groups were interesting enough to send me to the websites listed only to find the domain name for sale and the ghost hunting shingle removed from the door.  Still, the book had some useful information for those willing to consider the possibilities.  After all, the nights can be awfully long in December.  And there’ll be scary ghost stories…

Remembering Catherine

Literature has been on my mind lately. Although I’ve not read all of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, he’s been in my consciousness what with the new movie and somewhat older book, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Those who analyze literature sometimes claim Dickens invented the modern novel. In my unprofessional opinion, however, the roots go back a bit further than Boz. Still, it’s an enviable position to hold, even if it’s just in the minds of admirers. Dickens came back to me yesterday in one of those apparently random emails from WikiTree. WikiTree is a genealogy website to which I’ve contributed from time to time. I have no famous ancestors, so WikiTree sometimes helps me borrow them. Turns out I’m 28-degrees separated from Charles Dickens.

Perhaps their algorithms are getting better, or perhaps one of their robots is reading my blog (goodness knows few actual people do!) but the connections are getting closer. I posted earlier that I’m 37-degrees separated from Bob Dylan and 43-degrees from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m closer to Dickens than to either of these famous individuals. This is the beguiling aspect of genealogy—it shows how unexpected connections can be part of our unknown background. The maze back to Dickens is through my grandmother on the Tauberschmidt line. This is the one of the four grandparental lines for which I have the least information. Nobody in my family even knows my great-grandmother’s name. She died young and, as with women in that era, was known in census records only by her husband’s surname. I may never learn who she was.

Although the reason for women changing surnames makes sense in its historical context, it is one of the great injustices of both gender equality and history. Signs are indicating that society is finally waking up on this point: women are half of the human story. As a dabbler in fiction writing, knowing that half the story is untold is a troubling phenomenon. Reading about Dickens I learned that he left the wife of his youth for a younger woman. Although such things are common, my reaction was to wonder who Catherine Thomson Hogarth might’ve become, had women had the opportunities they’re starting to have today. She was, after all, from Edinburgh. She has biographies, but not nearly as many as her feted husband. And if my math’s correct, I’m only 29-degrees separated from her. And this may well be the more important connection; the story untold.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

The Morning After

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Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.