Culture Warriors – Give Me Lactobacillus or Give Me . . ?

OK, that’s probably not what most people think of when the term “culture warrior” is tossed around, but it would certainly fit the lady I overheard opining with great vehemency and intensity – but relatively quietly – from the dairy section at the Organic, Fermented, and Free Range grocery store (of which we have two in town). I was getting tea. I think she was Kirmhilde Schmidt’s spiritual sister, based on the firmness of her opinions about certain brands of fermented stuff. Apparently certain bacteria are better for you than others, and certain brands have higher concentrations of microbes.

[As an aside, some years ago, I got called for a medical flight just as I had removed a carton of yogurt from the fridge. Off I went, and returned some hours later to discover that the “live and active cultures” had gotten very, very lively and active. A blueberry volcano now flowed over my counter. The pressure of fermentation had forced the yogurt out of the container, under the foil and plastic lids, and it was merrily wandering across the formica.]

When most people hear “culture warrior,” we tend to think of, um, someone who writes books, or has a podcast, or a TV or radio show, and who talks about modern culture and what’s good and bad about it. I’m not sure the term is used outside of the Anglo-sphere, although there certainly are active groups in other places, notably Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria, and France to an extent. I’m not sure if you’d say that Russians are defending Western Civilization or Russian national culture. There’s some overlap, but also some clear differences.

So, what about a culture is worth defending, fighting for? I’m pretty sure everyone around the world, including westerners over a certain age, can list things about their particular way of believing and living that they’d defend and that they value highly. I’m equally certain that not everyone else would agree with those things. I can respect a lot of things about, oh, Japanese imperial culture prior to the 1900s, or certain aspects of Arab Muslim culture, and Iranian/Persian culture, without wanting to protect and defend them. I respect Mathias Corvinus and Vlad III Tepes, Mehmed the Conqueror, and Elizabeth I. I would never invite any of that worthy company over for dinner and conversation. Ditto Oda Nobunaga and Tecumseh. Certain cultures have aspects that I admire, or respect, and acknowledge that those facets made survival possible. I don’t have to want to keep those things around, or to have them imposed on me!

What is culture, anyway? Besides the stuff that ferments yogurt, and sauerkraut, and beer, or that appears on long-ignored food in the back of the fridge, or in petri dishes? “I know it when I see it.” OK – carpets and miniature paintings and wine poets? Weapons and armor and fighting styles and martial arts and the faiths that encourage or discourage those things? Foods and architecture? Is Middle Eastern culture kebobs and shawarma and hummus and belly-dancing? What about tribalism, and religious intolerance (often linked with tribalism), and deep suspicion of outsiders and outside technology? Is Western culture Christianity and Judaism, and Renaissance art, and classical music, freedom of speech, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding or pizza or CFS*? Is it “Dancing with the Stars,” and Facebook, and hip-hop, and fiery protests, and pink pussy-cat hats? Yes? No? All of the above?

How you define a culture, and the people who follow that culture, shapes everything that follows. If culture was “what grows in the lab or in yogurt,” life might be simpler. Probably not. Three people, four opinions, to paraphrase several religious jokes. You can agree that Western Culture is worth protecting without agreeing on all the details. Likewise other things.

Except Icelandic fermented shark. That can go away, far away, and stay there, thank you.

*Chicken fried steak, as opposed to chicken fried chicken.

Yes, I’m Going to Read Both of Them.

The clerks at the regional B&N probably stopped raising their eyebrows at purchase combinations a while ago. I got a copy of Victoria and a copy of Medieval Warfare Magazine.

I’ve been buying Medieval Warfare and its sister publications since I first found them. They are from the Netherlands, in English, and are great resources. The writing is not quite academic-level in terms of jargon and complexity, but it’s not dumbed-down, either, and the authors of the articles assume that their readers are adults who know the basics of, oh, the Roman civil wars, or the War of the Roses. Some of the issues I don’t take to Day Job, because the blunt coverage of the subject matter might be a little much.

I discovered Victoria when I was in high school, and my homeroom teacher had a few in the room. I devoured them. Lacey things, beautiful houses, gracious living, soothing essays about domestic pleasures, articles about stately homes in England or cozy retreats in France and northern Italy, tranquil places to visit in the US, lovely food and decorating ideas . . . It was a wonderful escape, a bit like Southern Living at the time. Then Victoria disappeared, and Southern Living got watered down and turned into a slick pop-culture-with-drug-ads magazine (and the reading level dropped from 8th grade to 4th, but that’s a different rant.)

Ten or so years ago, maybe more recently, a woman in the publishing business who had loved the old Victoria revived it, more or less duplicating the original. It is still here, and seems to be thriving. Same format, same essays and letters and artist-in-residence and gardening and food.

I buy it whenever I can. It is pure escape. I have no time, place, or patience for the beautiful painted dishes and leaded-crystal table-settings, for the gracious bedrooms draped in soft silk and alpaca blankets and bedding. Going to the South of France and spending weeks doesn’t appeal all that much, unless it is to go hiking and travel to the prehistoric and Roman and early medieval sites. As much as I enjoy looking at the English gardens and stately homes, I can’t afford to stay there, and I’d probably stand out (or perhaps not. Given how my wardrobe inclines toward Victorian-inspired and English-country-shooting-party). Many of the recipes require ingredients not easily found in the Texas panhandle. But oh, it’s fun to imagine, and to look at the pictures!

Escape. The magazine is pure, 100% escape. It is a few hours in a different world, full of different people. No politics, no current events, nothing of what I deal with daily appears between the covers. It’s just attractive and entertaining. It’s the magazine version of a cup of tea (or really good coffee) and cookies or a slice of cake on a cold, wet day after a cup of wonderful home-made soup. Sort of a mental refuge, I can look at the pictures, read about places I probably would not want to spend a lot of time in during tourist season, and hide from the world. The publication features small businesses, often run or founded by women, and neat, feminine stuff that I don’t need but that’s fun to imagine having (fancy stationary, an alpaca-wool blanket, the proscuttio-stuffed black figs).

It’s as escapist as popcorn fantasy novels and formula romance books. And that’s fine. We all need an escape, some days.

Folksongs in Rock: Eversleeping by Xandria

I’d never really sat down and listened to the song before. A pattern caught my ear. “Wait, seven? Seven seas, seven years, seven rivers? Hmm, that’s a folksong pattern that goes back to the Bible and a few other places.” Places like the song “Greenwood Sidie-O [The Cruel Mother]” among others . . .

The lyrics to “Eversleeping” (single version):

Once I travelled 7 seas to find my love
And once I sang 700 songs
Well, maybe I still have to walk 7000 miles
Until I find the one that I belong

Once I crossed 7 rivers to find my love
And once, for 7 years, I forgot my name
Well, if I have to I will die 7 deaths just to lie
In the arms of my eversleeping aim

[Chorus]

I will rest my head side by side
To the one that stays in the night
I will lose my breath in my last words of sorrow
And whatever comes will come soon
Dying I will pray to the moon
That there once will be a better tomorrow

[Bridge]

I dreamt last night that he came to me
He said: “My love, why do you cry?”
For now it won’t be be long any more

“Eversleeping” Writer(s): Marco Heubaum, Elisabeth Middelhauve, Philip Restemeier, Gerit Lamm, Elisabeth Schaphaus From the album Ravenheart (2004)

The motifs of seeking a lost love, of traveling over multiple obstacles, of dreaming of the lost love . . . Can be found all over the place. I grew up with “Siúil a Rún,” “The Wars of High Germany,” “Scarborough Fair,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” and a lot of other folk songs. Folk tales too include people traveling long distances over mountain and ocean to track down a lost love (“East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” several Russian stories . . .) And of course, the dead lover (“Hills of Shiloh,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Bitter Green,” “Hills of Loch Lomand.”) https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLostLenore

Xandria plays with those folk-song ideas a fair amount, at least in some of their albums. “Rose on the Grave of Love” is probably the most obvious (“Barbara Allen,” and a host of others). Xandria tends to be more melodic than some other Goth-rock groups, which also fits the folk-motif borrowing. And of course, mourning over a distant or deceased lover is a staple in Goth-y stories and romances and characters and so forth. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” the premise behind some of Behind the Black Veil‘s songs from Dark Sarah . . . The tropes are common, and ancient. It’s just intriguing to find them used in new ways, by new genres of music. Part of me wonders if some of this is the influence of groups like Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, and the folk-rock side of rock, blending with the Goth and metal sides.

Since Xandria appears to have broken up [ah, band dramas!], I can’t exactly ask them, but it’s fun to speculate.

Kipling and . . . Dante?

The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.

The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)

For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.

“Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling.

The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.

Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.

I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.

Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!

Twenty Years On

I’m not really sure what to say. Most of what I’ve been thinking has been shrouded in cold anger laced with sorrow. The abyss has been looking back at me recently, and that part of my personality needs to stay quiet and under control. Meditating on September 11, 2001, and events since then inclines me to loosen the chains binding that . . . anima . . . and allow her free rein. Those around me don’t need to see that.

The United States was attacked. In the years that followed, Great Britain (London bus bombings) and Spain (Madrid train attacks) were also hit. Almost 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93. Others likely died because organ transport flights were grounded with all other air traffic. Air ambulance flights were permitted on the 12-13th, under very, very strict limits, then other types of aviation returned to the skies. The Hudson River corridor even reopened, much to the surprise of a lot of us in aviation. the DC area remains in effect a no-go-zone for the average Sunday flyer.

The United States was attacked. Don’t forget that. No matter what the current pundits claim, or insinuate.

We’ve been critiquing and rehashing everything that came after ever since. “No Blood for Oil.” “Not in my name.” “Don’t Invade Iran.” (That one always left me scratching my head – no one WAS talking about invading Iran.) Now . . . I’m staying away from current events for a reason.

Don’t forget. Tell younger people where you were, what you were doing, what you thought. Tell them the truth as you remember it. Tell them about the bravery and courage, the sacrifices and the efforts that followed. Tell them also about who celebrated the attacks, and why.

Lest we forget, lest we forget.

[Actually, I think I can say one thing I’ve decided on. I’m not one of the Winged Hussars. I’m one of the ones inside the Gates of Vienna, doing everything I can to hold onto civilization and what’s of value, and to help the defenders, so that there’s something left when the relief forces arrive.]

Those who know will know.

Nocturne or Matins?

There are days when you wake up earlier than you need to, and just know that returning to sleep is impossible. It was one of those nights/mornings. Two texts, both sent hours before they arrived, had kicked my fight/flight overreaction into gear, and midnight had passed before sleep arrived. At 0430 I woke from a rather odd dream – dreaming that I was dreaming about something – and after ten minutes gave up. At 0530 I tied my walking shoes and headed out, walking staff in hand.

A mild breeze stirred the cool, damp air. Not quite humid enough for dew, the morning still felt misty, enough that I could see the beams of headlights. Clouds, the remnants of storms overnight in New Mexico, hurried across the sky, hiding then revealing the waning moon and Orion. False dawn faded into true dawn, but sunrise would not come for another half hour or so. No colors save silver and dark, dark blue-black graced the sky. The air smelled of growing things now tired, of sweet flowers, a whiff of fresh asphalt, and moisture.

I had the sidewalks and roads to myself, more or less. The early-shift people had already departed, and the people who need daylight to labor were not yet on the road. I heard a few dogs, and a motorcycle or something else with a high-pitched engine racing along the straight stretch of road where people do that (much to the irritation of everyone else.) One bicycle commuter hurried past, his headlight flickering with each pedal stroke. A solitary jogger plodded along, thudding his way through the quiet morning.

Two or three birds chirped their opinion. The doves sleep in this time of year. A few cardinals are early risers, and anything that disturbs the grackles is greeted with loud, harsh dismay. The kites have begun moving south. I saw one toward the end of my stroll, warming up in a tree and waiting for heat and thermals. The cicadas stayed quiet. They favor afternoons and evenings for their conversations, harsh and whirring and loud, louder than lawn equipment, rising and falling in the heat, the droning sound of summer. A western kingbird perched on a road sign, waiting for cars to stir up the bugs in time for breakfast.

A bat fluttered past, darting and dodging ahead of my path. I see one or two bats a month during the summer, if I’m out early enough. The fox, another early riser or late-goer, crossed my trail last week. We avoid each other, after the little surprise as I was moving the neighbor’s newspaper. The fox was on the front stoop. I froze, he froze, I backed away, he departed. A bit like the Cooper’s hawk perched above the neighbor’s door two weeks ago. A younger hawk had found something in the chaos of ivy flowing down the front of the house. The senior hawk observed from the dormer peak. I opted to leave the paper on the windowsill and return later to put it in the basket.

Enough sunlight rounded the curve of the earth by 0630 that grey-white cloud towers appeared in the southern and western sky. Only a little paler than the fading night around them, they warned of another showery day in the offing. No one is complaining, not this year. The wheat is in, the cotton needs the rain, as do other crops, and the ranchers almost always want rain – at least until the first hard freeze. The southwest breeze, taking strength from the pending sunrise, teased my hair and face as I rounded the corner for home. As I unlocked the front door, I glanced over my shoulder. Orion had faded away, leaving the slender moon alone in the blue-grey sky.

Blogging, Current Events, and So On

You have probably notices that I have not commented on many of the recent events, aside from weather, fires, and the like. There are a few reasons for that.

One, so much is tied in with US politics, and this isn’t a dedicated political commentary blog. There are other people who have a lot more background and interest in the political system and what it does.

Two, I’m a historian by training. We generally try to follow the thirty-year rule. This “rule” comes from two sources: classification time-limits in the US used to be thirty years, and the idea of a generation. What you live through is current events. What your parents lived through is history. Distance is supposed to allow 1) greater access to sources from a wider span of view points, and 2) dispassion. I have no personal dog in the fight over whether Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was a well-meaning, decent ruler or a tool of the AntiChrist and incompetent to boot, so I can opine away and show sources and documents. The legacy of the Presidents Bush? No, staying out of that.

Three is the language limit on this blog. Right now, I’m inclined to voice uncharitable thoughts using Anglo-Saxon and related verbiage.

Four, this blog is, when it comes down to cases, about selling books and stories, and entertaining my readers. People read fiction to get away, to escape into the lives of people different from they are, to get a happy ending where the forces of evil are defeated, the guy and the girl get hitched, and everyone can pay their bills in full and on time. Even if Arthur is losing to the computer 2:3, again. Sometimes I will wander into personal musings and views, but I’m trying to keep things lighter, or at least more diverting. My job is to divert my readers from current events, after all.

Choice or Privilege or Something Else?

A new ad-campaign for a federal nutrition program caught my eye. It shows a family sitting down to supper, and says, “Because a well-balanced meal should not be a privilege.” My first reaction was, “It’s a choice, especially this time of year.” I can choose to eat junk food, or choose to eat veggies and a good protein and fat source, or toss it all out the window and go ice cream all the way. So can most people. Granted, some face much tighter constraints, as I did when I was flying charter in Flatter-Than-You’d-Think state. One month I made all of, oh, four hundred dollars. Rent was $370 a month. Plus utilities. I had some savings to scrape by on, but I ate a lot of “discount protein and dented can stew.”

But yes, there are some people for whom this federal program is a very, very good stop-gap until things improve and other resources become available. And there are some people who never learned how to cook, and others who live in true utility apartments or hot-bunk and don’t have a place to store perishables or time to cook them.

Still, the description of a balanced meal as “privilege” implies that it is actually a right. That’s where I hit a mental wall. It’s the same wall that rises up before me when I hear non-emergency medical care called a “right” or fast internet access as “a right.” Who is taking whom to give to whom? Because, with a few exceptions, routine medical care costs someone. Even if the doctor is donating his labor and knowledge, or is a nurse in a religious order that provides health care to the truly desperate, someone has to pay for the lights, and the supplies, and so on. Someone has to pay for the wire or cable, and the router, and computer equipment, and other things to make the internet flow.

“Privilege.” From privas lex, later privilegium, private law. These were rules, or exemptions from rules, that only applied to one individual or one small group. Later it came to mean special rights belonging to a group or an individual, then the idea of a special advantage. In early English legal writings, privilege had a negative connotation. It was unfair, and the law should apply to all equally.

“Right” Recht, in German, a straight line, a legal entitlement that follows a straight and proper path. That goes back to the Proto-Indo-European sense of a good, straight path or road (or piece of wood.) The older sense was a piece of property, later more intangible things – fishing rights, justice no matter one’s weregeld or social position so long as he was free-born.

Interestingly, the Latin still has a whiff, strong whiff, of negative connotation. Food of some kind should not be only for the favored few. It is correct and straight dealings for people to have [noun].

More and more, I hear things described as “a human right.” Clean water, clean air, internet, free medical care, private housing with air-conditioning and comfortable furnishings and all the amenities. A smart-phone. Internet access, presumably whenever the person wants it, so she doesn’t have to go to the library and use a public-access terminal. In other words, a late 20th Century, middle class or upper lower-class standard of living, with the diet to match. The person declaring this often also declares that materialism is evil and we should all live simply, with fewer possessions and amenities (air conditioning) and spend more time in public spaces because that’s where true inner peace and satisfaction come from.

My brief taste of a greatly simplified, much harder laboring, lifestyle cured me of any desire to live that way, or to impose it on others. There was no bucolic, rural Arcadia outside of Romantic paintings and Rousseau’s fevered imagination.

Life, liberty, and property. Those are rights. The right to defend yourself and your family. The right to clear title for what you purchased. The right to relocate when I choose, to where I choose, so long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights. The right to determine, as far as possible for your time, place, and talents, how you will earn your living and what hobbies you pursue. The right to believe or not believe as your conscience commands. And even with employment choices, one might be limited by the rest of the people around you. I have a right not to have my goods stolen, so you don’t have a right to make a living as a thief. Most people also oppose human sacrifice, so no Aztec revivalist religion, either. Your rights stop where mine start. Where exactly is that line? Well, we humans are still sorting out a workable, consistent answer. If there is one.

None of those depend on other people giving you anything, or paying you simply for existing. Or for the government providing things. Actually, what our activist above called rights – internet, housing – are actually privileges in the legal sense. A private law and grant is made, consisting of a service or a good.

I have no problem with encouraging people to eat balanced meals. I will happily donate produce, or help sponsor cooking and nutrition classes for people who want and need them. But if someone chooses to make decisions about how and where to spend their funds that lead them to living on pizza, burgers, fried chicken, or mac-n-cheese, or tacos and burritos . . . That’s their choice. Especially if someone has tried to help the person make better choices.

It’s not fair that I can afford canned tomatoes and corn more easily than some, and have the time to find discount meat at the grocery, and can cook. Or that I have time to cook big batches so I don’t have to cook later, and the cost is lower per serving. But those are my choices. Not a privilege. My privilege is living here, now, when all these things are so amazingly cheap and plentiful compared to 100 years ago.

Leo Lionni’s Frederick

A repeat from 2017.

There are a few illustrated children’s books I grew up with that left a very deep mark on me. Tomi di Paola’s books, Ashanti to Zulu about the peoples of Africa, dinosaur and paleontology books, Three Trees of the Samurai, Holling C. Holling’s books, and one called Catundra about an overweight cat and how she slims down.

Leo Lionni’s story Frederick was one of these. The book is fifty years old this year, and is a wonderful story about the importance of Odds in societies. The author was Dutch, and did many children’s books, a lot of them about mice, including Frederick. I discovered it as a audio-tape and read-along book Mom and Dad got at the library. Continue reading

Smite, Smote, . . . Smitten?

So, frustration reached the point earlier this week that I had to either kill something (on paper) or write about someone who had been asking for it getting a lesson in “why you stop arguing before your hair stands on end and the sky turns black.” I chose option B, since it would go into what I’m supposed to be working on anyway.

Which led me to trying to decide what the passive past tense of “to smite” should be. And I found it, but it has become one of those words that, at least in American English, doesn’t mean that anymore.

“To smite” comes from the same family of verbs as “to write.” Everyone is aware of:

I write, I wrote, I had written. Or “The letter was written with a quill pen.” No one blinks at the construction.

However:

The gods will smite him. Lightning smote the tree. He was smitten by the wrath of Zeus.

To begin with, most of us don’t use “to smite” in everyday speech. It is somewhat archaic, often considered formal, and we’re more likely to use strike or hit to describe the action, unless a deity is involved, or we are being poetic.

When we use “smitten,” it most often refers to a romantic infatuation, or a quasi-romantic infatuation. “He was totally smitten with her.” Sort of like “besotted,” but with a milder, less negative sense. At core, the meaning is the same. One person is struck with an emotion the same way trees are struck by lightning. The modern sense is restricted to love, infatuation, puppy-love, and the like. “She was smitten by his charms” calls to mind a young woman sighing dreamily as an attractive young man walks past her table at the cafe, completely unaware that she’s staring at him. Or more humorously, a young man staring at a bar-maid, and the rest of his table knows darn well that he doesn’t have a prayer of getting her phone number.

So back to the original problem. I can’t end the scene with one character staring at a pile of ash and declaring in awe filled tones, “He was smitten by the gods!” My readers are going to fall out of their chairs (or off their couches) laughing, because the modern meaning collides with the scene in the book.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a writer!