My Cat’s a Hussite!

She takes treats sub utraque specie.

OK, to explain the joke for those who are not far, far too deeply versed in Central European history for their own good . . . When the preacher Jan Huss in Prague in the 1410s raised some complaints people had with the behavior of the Church as an administrative unit, one of the objections was that people could only partake of communion/eucharist in one kind – the body (wafer), not in both kinds (sub utraque species). Those who, after Hus’s followers broke from their local bishop, insisted that laity should be allowed to partake of both elements were called Utraquists.

Athena T. Cat gets two kinds of treats. One is a special formula to help her joints. The other are the little crunchy cat nibbles most cats like. Athena decided to stop eating the joint goodies, for reasons she does not deign to discuss. Mom finally tricked her into eating them by alternating a bit of joint food with a real treat.

So, the other day, I did the same thing. The joint supplement went into the cat, followed by the “real” and we were all happy.

When Mom came back, I informed her that Athena is an Utraquist. MomRed blinked a few times, then grinned.

(Alas, I can’t find my terrifying picture of the statue of Jan Zizka, the scariest Utraquist in the Czech lands. You walk into the museum in Tabor and he’s looming over you, war hammer in hand.)

EDITED: Ah, Found it!

Author Photo, June, 2019. Tabor, Czechia.

Keeping the Peace

One of the two main plots in P— Familiar centers on a growing conflict between Arthur and Skender. These things happen, and we’ve seen hints (OK, in one case a flashing neon sign) that the brothers do not always abide in brotherly love. Marius and Florian also had their moments. When you have a group of young men not yet ready to marry, who are trained and somewhat genetically selected to be hair-trigger, and are prone to settling philosophical disputes with more than pillow fights, society has to have an outlet. Venting on abyssal creatures or bad magic users is an acceptable outlet. But that’s not always available.

Sometimes, a guy just needs to get away for a while. The clans are not large enough to have something like “going a viking,” where a group of overly-energetic young males can be sent out to go earn/trade for/steal resources and burn off that energy on someone else. As an interesting historical aside, the Scythians and a few other nomadic horse-riders in the Chalcolithic and Neolithic seem to have had similar practices, which is part of what led to the Greek stories of Amazons. The young men went away to go inflict themselves on enemies or just on people in the way. That left the women and older, mature men (with a lot of skills and survival sense) to defend the herds. Alas, perhaps, the clans don’t have that outlet today.*

In the case of a building interpersonal difficulty, most of the time older, calmer heads will take both parties aside and see what is going on. It might be that a carefully refereed fight or two between the hot-heads will clear the air and fix the situation. It might be that a third party [*coughcough*girl*coughcough*] will be encouraged to stop playing the two off of each other. Or it might be that someone needs to step away from the group, without doing so in a way that leads to more suspicion.

The River County clan has a chapel to the Great God, the Son, and the Lady and Her Defender. It isn’t obvious to outsiders, and it is not large enough to hold everyone at the same time. Many of the clan’s devotions are private, or family-centered, and so can be done at home or in smaller groups. The priestess and some of the other Elders oversee the chapel.

Should one approach the altar and the images of the Lady of Night and Her Defender, one will observe a sort of shelf under St. Michael’s statue. Perhaps “box in the wall” might be a better definition, because it has sides and a back, and is of the same golden oak as the kneeling rails and other furnishings. Most of the time, the niche remains empty, and gets dusted** so it stays that way.

When a Hunter decides that he (rarely she) needs to get away for a while without raising suspicions that he’s actually waiting in ambush for someone, he leaves his Hunting knife in the niche. The pommels are all slightly different, and a quick glance will tell those who need to know that a Hunter has departed in peace and will come back in peace. He’s not lurking in the shadows, biding his time. He’s off on his own, seeking discernment or just getting away from everyone in order to cool off. His family probably knows where he is, but that’s their business. The Elders won’t ask. To leave one’s Hunting blade with the Defender is a clear signal to all, and is respected. The other half of the conflict will also stand down. No one touches the blade (aside from dusting around it) until the owner returns, or is confirmed dead.

The last time a Hunter abused this tradition, he lived long enough to regret his action. To regret it intensely. And to serve as a multi-generational horrible warning. No one wants to be That Guy. Among other things, the malefactor lost all recourse to blood price, and his family turned their backs on him. What happened after that? Well, suffice it to say it was lingering and eventually lethal. The point was made.

So, for example, if Ladislu and Florian have a falling out, and it seems to be growing to the point of danger, Florian might leave his blade in the niche. Ladislu will stay away from Florian’s workplace and his family’s home. For his part, Florian will avoid clan gatherings and events. Should a Hunt arise, Ladislu won’t call in Florian. If Florian appears of his own volition, the moment the Hunt concludes, he will depart without saying anything to the others. In turn, if Florian discovers something that requires Hunting, and Marius (his twin) can’t help, Florian will call for back-up. The others will disperse after the Hunt as if they’d never been called. That lasts until Florian reclaims his knife. A true emergency, like a forest fire, major flood, or tornado strike, would probably also lead to the absent Hunter returning to help, but the same rules would apply.

*Yes, a very, very few of the young men and women do join the military. Deborah picked up on one of those veterans, and how much he “felt” like a cross between her father and her bunicot.

**We will not mention the exclamations of feminine horror uttered by the church ladies when we were cleaning up a sanctuary in preparation for decorating for Advent and found, among other things, a fossilized fern left from a funeral, and layers of dust in places that were supposed to be dust free. A two-hour task took four-and-a-quarter hours, a lot of rags and elbow grease, and the Board of Deacons got an ear-full. Coincidentally, people stopped sneezing during the service. Truly an Advent miracle.

Food and Taboos

“Fish is brain food.”

“Fish will make you cold and slow and will block medicine power.”

“If it doesn’t have fins and scales, it is unclean.”

Don’t compliment a baby or you will bring down the evil eye. Don’t sit so that the sole of your shoe or the bottom of your foot is pointed at someone. Don’t touch someone on the head lest you interfere with their chi. Don’t eat within one hour before going swimming. Women shouldn’t bathe during . . .

Every culture has things that Must Not Be Done. Some of them seem odd to outsiders, and on occasion, even those inside the culture can’t explain precisely why you Don’t Do That. When anthropologists and folk-lore students start finding patterns, well, then it gets interesting.

Many Plains Indian peoples had taboos about fish – don’t eat them. Either they are just bad luck, or their are bad for medicine power, or they will make you slow, or . . . Up and down the Great Plains of North America, freshwater fish were taboo. Which made ethnographers wonder what the connection was, since these groups all moved to the Plains at different times, and had somewhat different cultures. What probably made fish bad news was the lack of fat. Most parts of the Great Plains, especially the western parts, lack carbohydrates but have lots of lean-meat protein sources. Eating too much lean meat without access to fats and carbohydrates can lead to medical problems, and that may be the origin of the prohibition. Season-dated Paleoindian bison kills show a preference for females in the fall (when they are fattier than males), but males in the spring (when females are far leaner than males.) Some archaeologists have speculated that rules of hunting might have included taboos, although we can’t tell.

The Jewish and Muslim rules about not eating pork are probably the best known food taboos in the western world, although they are not identical. Jewish rules hold pork to be unclean, but pigs may be raised and sold to outsiders. In an emergency, pork may be consumed if the alternative is starvation. Finding a package of bacon on the front step of a synogogue does not render the place of worship ceremonially unclean. The same is not true of a mosque. Pork and pigs are abominations in Islam, and are to be avoided at all costs.

Many food-related taboos are tied in with ideas of ritual purity and cleanliness. Insects and things that creep on the ground may be “dirty.” Likewise many cultures have a ban on consuming carrion eaters, because they eat decayed (and thus corrupt and unclean) flesh. For the Comanche, fish are unclean, and they won’t eat dog because Coyote is close to dogs. Other Indian peoples have no problem with consuming dog meat (the Cheyenne and Maya, for example) but the Kiowa eschew bear meat.

Ritual cleanliness also places a lot of limitations on women of child-bearing age. A woman having her menses is often ritually unclean, or might have the unfortunate ability to break medicine-power or certain blessings. In some cases, women were strictly confined away from sunlight and the rest of society, under the strict care of a post-menopausal woman, until their cycle had finished. In other cultures, the rule was that women of child-bearing age could not go near where the shaman or medicine man lived. Sometimes, women were to avoid hunters for a set number of days before a major hunt, to ensure that hunting magic would remain strong, and that the “scent” (real or spiritual) of blood would not contaminate the hunters and scare away the game.

Some cultures have a lot more taboos than do others. Entire slices of society might be under strict limitations because of a caste system, to the point that if the shadow of a certain person touches the possessions of a different person, the offender is to be executed for polluting the one of higher rank or spiritual authority.

The west doesn’t have as many religious taboos as many cultures, although we certainly have unspoken customs and limitations. Don’t talk about your income or job. Don’t tell dirty jokes or swear in mixed company. Certain cuts of clothing are not suitable for daytime or business attire. Don’t forget to leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, unless the service has been truly terrible. Men should remove their hats when entering a place of worship unless that faith requires the head to be covered. Don’t talk about sex, religion, or politics at the supper table. (Note that “religion” can include college or professional athletics in some parts of the country.)

And never, ever comment on a no-hitter baseball game in progress, or a smooth ride on a flight, or say anything like, “Boy, this equipment test is going really well!” Every fan, pilot, and tech or engineer will turn well-deserved wrath upon thee.

For an intriguing academic look at food taboos around the world:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2711054/

Why Sacred Harp Sounds Strange

For people who grew up with “four-square” hymns and classical music, the American (and English) style of vocal music found in hymn book such as Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp sound very different, even unpleasant. The chords have been described as “open” and the tone “primitive.” Part of this comes from the modes used by composers, the keys and the frequently minor melodies. However, even major tunes can be off-kilter to some ears, even before you hear them done in a Sacred Harp Sing.

Just to really mess with you, musically, keep in mind that one of the greatest early-American composers, William Billings, was writing at the same time as Mozart. The sounds of the two are, let us say, somewhat different. William Billings came from an English popular tradition sometimes called “West Choir” music, because rather than singing as part of the formal choir in the chancel, people used the west choir in the church for unofficial spiritual and popular music singing when the service was not being held.

The composers and arrangers of many of the hymns in Southern Harmony, The Sacred Harp, and similar songbooks/hymnals were aiming for a harmonious setting of three or four parts. The groups of notes in “concord” or peaceful harmony, were fifths (do-so) and octaves (do-do). Thirds (do-me) and sixths (do-la) were lesser concords, used to add variety. However, discords, combinations of notes that were deliberately dissonant, added variety to the music, or could help emphasize a textual point. If the text is about the pains awaiting fallen sinners who do not repent, then lovely, sweet chords are probably not ideal. Or if the text is about spiritual warfare (“Oh When shall I see Jesus” aka “Morning Trumpet”), harsher sounds make more sense. In many ways, Sacred Harp music is text-driven almost as much as plainsong.

However, even though concords dominate in Sacred Harp, the sound remains different from, oh, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the type of hymn harmony popularized by Lowell Mason and used in many churches since the 1820s. This is because of how the chords are “stacked.” The Do-fa-ti (one-four-seven) combination is very common in Sacred Harp, far less so in main-line hymn harmonies. The sound strikes the ear as “open,” as if it is both dissonant and missing something in the middle. Fourths are used much, much more in Sacred Harp than in other styles of American hymnody.

[For a very detailed music-theory article, go here.]

Having three rather than four parts also lends an “odd” tone to the music, since everyone picks the line that fits his or her voice the best. The top line is “soprano” but you will find other voices there. The melody is generally in the tenor* line, but not always. Even four-part Sacred Harp harmonies can be strange-sounding to ears accustomed to other modes and ways of arranging tunes.

This is not to say that Sacred harp is always simple. William Billings “I am the Rose of Sharon” is a complicated setting of the text from Song of Songs. He also has a lot of “fuguing tunes,” where the melody appears, then a round, or fugue, form the core of the hymn, before resolving into a unison once more. The link takes you to a small professional ensemble doing “Rose of Sharon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OFnfWtIa10

So, for a bit of compare and contrast:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOwq3HLMKLY

The above is a trained early-music group doing “David’s Lamentation.” Below is a Sacred Harp sing doing the same setting and text.

Below is another of my favorites. Note that the text is an exultation, but the mode is minor, which seems a bit of a disconnect. You can certainly hear the “openness” in the chords.

Below is a professional chorus doing another famous Sacred Harp tune, arranged in a more conventional style:

If you don’t like the sound of “raw” Sacred Harp sing, you are not alone. As a fellow shape-note singer once said, “I’ll drive five hundred miles to sing it, but I won’t cross the road to listen to it.”

*Think of the Statler Brothers “Daddy Sang Bass (Mother sang Tenor).” That’s what they are describing.

Little Square Churches

You find them all over the Panhandle, and elsewhere. Generally small, brick or wood, and often square or rectangular, only the stained glass windows and/or cross in front tells passers-by that they are not old schools or businesses. Around here they are usually Methodist, Baptist, or Church of Christ (if Protestant.) The Catholic Churches generally have a steeple. There are traditional “church-shaped” churches around, but also a number of little square churches, all standing firmly in small towns, holding down the corner of a town lot and defying fashion, time, and weather.

The Methodist Church in Claude, Texas is a solid example of the type.

First Methodist, Claude, TX. Creative Commons Fair Use: https://res.cloudinary.com/faithstreet-production/image/upload/c_fill,h_286,w_286/v1533670557/vck7bciyfyzsufkomykz.jpg

As soon as you had a few families, and a traveling minister, a church was built. Sometimes denominations shared, sometimes you had a (brief) monopoly. Below is the Methodist Church in Channing, TX, north of the Canadian Breaks.

Stucco over brick, and sturdy. http://www.texasescapes.com/Churches/Images/ChanningTXUnitedMethodistChurch308TJnsn5.jpg

Perryton, Texas just had to be a bit different, and went neoGothic.

From the northeastern corner of the Panhandle. https://live.staticflickr.com/1004/928639389_5a5d6e775a_b.jpg

Although the Methodists were one of the first Protestant denominations in the area, The Church of Christ was not far behind, and in some cases arrived first. Here’s the Church of Christ in Panhandle, TX.

Photo by Tyler Brassfield. Creative Commons Fair Use, from: https://is5-ssl.mzstatic.com/image/thumb/Purple123/v4/d6/8c/4f/d68c4f13-6e9a-32fe-74c9-66860c354a25/source/512x512bb.jpg

And in some cases, the Baptists were first on the scene for the Protestant side. Catholic priests and missionaries had been active in the area since the early 1600s, with mixed success until after 1873. The area is still considered a mission area, but the Catholic Church is solid and trying to expand, like the others.

St. Ann’s in Canyon Texas. Another solid church. https://bgrarchitects.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/StAnns1_web.jpg

If you get the sense that churches in this part of the world are built to withstand a lot, you’re right. But the building is just part of the story. Some buildings are newer (like St. Ann’s), some have been around since the beginning, almost (First Baptist’s old building in Amarillo, the Methodist Church in Channing, Jenkins Chapel in Amarillo) but all have endured drought, flood, depression, war, the 1960s and 70s, and changes in ecclesiastic fashion. They’re still here, as are their parishioners. Some churches are fading, others are growing, but the little solid churches remain important to the community. They are a living link to the past, to the saints who have gone before, to harder times and better times.

There are a few places where only the church remains of a once living town. Ranchers and farmers around the church keep it repaired and “alive,” using it for special services, weddings, funerals, and gatherings.

Little square churches. Solid and serene, they weather the storms inside and outside, providing a reminder that “upon this rock” a church was built, one that will outlast scandal and success. Good times, hard times, little square churches are there, ready, waiting.

The Utopia Problem

There’s been a larger-than-usual wave of utopian ideas and Millennialism running around the world in the past decade or two. Granted, utopian ideas never go away, because someone always has dreams of a perfect world, not just a World To Come in the theological sense, and a smaller number of someones want to put everyone else into their personal idea of paradise. Most utopian ideas never get past books, or a very small and limited group that eventually gives up, or dies off without harming anyone else (or in a rare case, without benefiting anyone else). These ideas tend to come in waves, usually associated with some sort of serious social stress.

Millennialism takes its name from the 1000-year period associated in some Christian theologies with the Second Coming. When used in history, it describes a religions movement that has a very, very strong End Times component and either seeks to undo major social and religious crises, or to bring the New Creation sooner. The Münster Anabaptists, the Ibo cattle-cult, the Ghost Dance among some of the Plains Indians in the US, Extinction Rebellion, are all examples of Millennialism. The Ghost Dancers sought to call the spirits of the bison to return, the dead would rise again, and the Anglo-Americans would be driven away. Things would go back to the glory days when the Plains peoples had horses, some trade goods, and lots and lots of buffalo. Justice would be done and a new world arise from the ashes of the old. Extinction Rebellion sought [seeks?] a reversion to a world without internal combustion and petrochemicals, where small numbers of humans live in harmony with Nature and are no longer in charge of the environment. Some E.R. folks go to the extreme and see the world as so terribly broken that nothing save the elimination of all humans can possibly right the terrible wrong. Then a new, perfect world will arise from the old and justice will be done.

Millennialism by definition is religious. Not necessarily Christian or Jewish, but there’s a religious core to the movement, and it behaves as a faith. Utopian ideas often incline toward religious language, but they can be secular, or at least work very hard to be “post-religious” in today’s language. A perfect world can be made here, on earth. And have people in it. Which for me right there means utopia is not going to happen.

My utopia is far, far different from yours. My paradise is another person’s “I’m-dying-of-boredom.” You want a tropical island paradise of easy living and warm climate, with lots of friendly people and things to do with people. I want a place where it’s always autumn and there are lots of books to read and stories to tell and there’s frost some evenings, and chilly rain on occasion, and people leave me alone. Utopia – Nowhere – because there’s no place on this planet that is autumn all year round.

When peoples start trying to impose a utopia on others . . . it gets ugly. Workers’ Paradise! Kingdom of [Deity] where all worship and live according to religious teachings! The General Will of the People where true freedom is obedience and you can be forced to be free! A world where everyone lives “small,” and has only a few possessions and lives in an apartment and finds self-worth and happiness by, um, following their bliss? Working for the state? Doing what gives them joy and somehow getting paid for it by the State? Or, combine several of those, and everyone will live at a a very low level of physical subsistence, work for the state, and be very happy eating protein made from insects and other things because the People don’t have to/can’t compete for stuff and status. And a small group of wise people will run everything and the planet will heal.*

That utopia is close to my idea of an infernal plane. There’s no room for variation or chance (the 5 Year Plan always works, da, Tovarish?) There’s no room for stories other than those approved by the small group of wise people. There’s no place for my books, electronic or hard-copy. There’s no room for the individual in that utopia. And it is static. Static states . . . tend to become un-static in messy and sometimes catastrophic ways. Even when I agree with the ideals of the utopia, the thought of trying to impose one on other people makes me back away slowly while reaching for a large stick or a can of bear-spray.

Human nature always defeats utopias. New Harmony. The Shaker colonies. Those are the most benign examples that come to mind. Jonestown. Münster and the fiery end of the Anabaptists there. Unless you have an outlet for the Odd, the stubborn, the determinedly individual, and also for social tension, well, utopia turns into something else.

In the 1960s-70s there was a trend for sci-fi where computer chips and supercomputers allowed for the creation of a tech-topia. Everyone had a chip in their brain (or something similar) and so bad thoughts and impulses were muted or burned away by the super-wise computer and the world was perfect. Until it wasn’t. Today it is social programming through the internet and government control of assets (with a government run by a small group of wise, kind people who will know what is best for everyone.)

No, thanks. Millennialist movements sometimes end quietly, other times they end in blood and fire. They almost always hurt someone, if only the group members. Utopias imposed on people are not paradises. Any time someone starts promising a wonderful, better world on earth, I start to twitch. I’ve read about those. No, thanks.

*Heal from what? The last time a large civilization declined and shrank in Europe, that being the end of the Western Roman Empire, some of the worst environmental degradation and erosion before 1800 happened. Why? No one was around to do flood control, to maintain canals and drainage systems, to keep fields from eroding. I’d wager similar things happened in the 1300s, albeit on a less obvious scale. There’s some serious speculation that the CO2 in the atmosphere, in addition to making plants happier, is keeping at bay the global cooling that should accompany the current solar minimum. I don’t want to “heal” back to a Pleistocene climate for most of the Northern Hemisphere, thanks!

Memento Mori

I was sorting through pictures and found several from 2015, when I saw three different Totentanz scenes, one in a museum and two in situ, still in the churches or charnal houses where they had first been painted. They are one of many forms of memento mori, reminders of death, created to encourage viewers to remember that they, too, are mortal and will pass from this life. What waits beyond? Well . . . That’s why one is to meditate and consider one’s deeds and thoughts.

Some saints are depicted with memento mori. St. Jerome is often shown with either a lion, or a skull, or both.

Remember, that Thou Art Man . . . Used under Creative Commons Fair Use. original source at: http://www.albrechtdurerblog.com/melencolia-st-jerome/

Many years ago, I read a humorous comparison of the US and Great Britain. The author argued that one large difference was that Americans assumed that death was optional, and if you keel over, you did something wrong. You should have eaten more bran, or jogged, or taken more multi-vitamins, or something. Ever since reading that, I have moments where I wonder if the author was a bit closer to the truth than I gave him or her credit for. Certainly, when I listen to popular medical news, or read articles about this or that nostrum, or how “a cure for cancer” is just around yet another corner, a slightly tired smile appears on my face. Or when I hear solemn intonations of Covid numbers, almost like monks chanting vesper psalms, I wonder, “Don’t you remember that death is not optional?”

At the moment, life has a 100% mortality rate. There might be four? exceptions to that, depending on one’s belief system, but otherwise, everyone who has lived on this sublunary sphere has died of something or other. Awkward that. At least, awkward for those who insist that age and mortality can be postponed indefiniately. (A friend of the family has spent considerable worry and funds trying not to age, seeking medical solutions for what comes from the passing of time. I sometimes want to tell this person, “Look, you’re just getting older! Accept it and go on with life.” But I won’t.)

“Pssst. More carrot juice won’t cure this.” Memento Mori. Fair Use: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/104497653841375931/
“As we are, so shall you be!” Fair Use: http://kantorei-eschwege.de/event/todentanz-op-12-nr-2-hugo-distler-mit-jungem-theater-eschwege/historisches_museum_basel_totentanz_25102013_e

Many of the Totentanzen include the Holy Roman Emperor, a pope, cardinals, kings, queens, and everyone down to beggars and servants. No one is safe from death. The pattern of the people dancing with the dead comes from the Black Death, at least as best as art historians can tell. The command to remember the coming of the afterlife has been part of several religions before that, but the artistic design first appears in the late 1300s, and bloomed in the 1400s-1500s. It fades away for a while, but returned to popular art in the Twentieth Century with the world wars and aftermath. There is no confidence or joy in a Totentanz, unless it is the grinning skulls of the half-decayed dancers, laughing at the follies of the living.

“As we are, so shall you be.” All of us die. Most of us don’t spend too much time thinking about it, most days. Some subcultures are more interested in death than others, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. The Goth subculture has been blamed for suicides, and looking funereal is part of the culture, at least for some. The Victorians romanticized death, not so much dying, and sometimes seem to have wallowed in grieving and funerals and the trappings the living sported around the dead. Women, at least those who could afford it, had mourning dresses, and social convention commanded certain periods of strict mourning, half-mourning, then returning to mourning on anniversaries of people’s death. When you see how much a good black dress cost, yipes. The poor and working folk didn’t have the luxury of wearing black all the time, like Queen Victoria and the heroines of Gothic novels. And black shows fuzz, fur, dust, and a lot of other things. Not coal soot, no, but black also fades.

There are times when I look at parts of current society and wonder if I’m seeing a Totentanz of sorts, but reversed. People with no faith in an afterlife, often with no children or no hope for grandchildren, claw and fight to protect “my legacy,” “my creation.” They cannot or will not accept that life always ends in death, and that immortality doesn’t come from a piece of legislation, or a work of digital art, or a social cause. A frenetic, wild dance of proclamations and “you dare not touch my creation, my legacy!” fills the air. They stare at the dancing skeletons around them and refuse to accept the natural course of things. One more medical procedure, one special cosmetic pomade, and youth will return or at the very least death will retreat.

I do not seek out death. I don’t long for it, or at least have not since the last time I was really, really “Oh G-d take me home please because everything hurts even things that can’t hurt and I’m sick as a dog” sick with influenza. A little Edgar Allen Poe goes a long way. But I’m not terrified of it, either. I’ve nodded to the Grim Reaper in passing, but he’s kept going, thus far.

Memento mori. You don’t have to keep a skull on your desk (although there are moments when I’ve considered it, either natural or artificial. I have a raven instead.) We’re not all St. Jerome, for which I give thanks. He didn’t sound like a fun guy to hang out with – a bit too intense for my tastes. But a little less society-wide panic about, well, whatever everyone is supposed to panic about this week might be good. Would be good.

(If you have seen Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, you saw a Totentanz acted out.)

What Exactly Do You Mean?

The church I attended during Christmas is very active in working in the surrounding community. They have health programs, scholarships, music outreach, a food pantry, and a clothes closet, and other things. Individual members volunteer with a number of local and regional charities and mentorship programs. So I wasn’t surprised when the invocations and prayers asked for “justice to be done” and “for help doing justice” and “help others achieve justice.”

What did the minister mean by “justice?” Who defines justice, or mercy, or goodness, or charity? That’s what always pokes me when I hear someone asking that justice be done, unless the meaning is absolutely clear already. I have a suspicion that a lot of “justice” is a bit different from what the speaker thinks it might be.

Justice is one of those words that get tossed around so often that they turn into the main ingredient in word salad. “It means I get mine.” “It means that the letter of the law is followed in all cases.” “It means that what I want to happen . . . happens.” These tend to be mutually exclusive assumptions. Sort of like the people who demand redress for ancestral wrongs, and then flee when I start asking how many generations back the redress should go. Who was the first to displace whom? Anglos moved this tribal people out, but this tribal people had already driven out that tribal people, who seem to have massacred this other group, who may have beaten up members of an unnamed cultural complex, who moved in after . . . Eastern Europe is pretty clear, when you trace Germanic speakers, Slavic speakers, the Romano-Celts, the pre-Celtic people, then the Indo-Europeans, but once you get to the pre-Proto-Indo-Europeans, things get muddy. And that’s just language, not genetics or “culture doesn’t mean ethnic conquest.” Got a headache yet? What is justice in this case, and for whom?

There’s a really good reason that several religions incline toward praying for individual mercy from the Most High far more often than praying for individual justice. We know what we’ve done, or not done. Depending on your starting theology, mercy might be the only thing saving any man, woman, or child from pure deserved divine wrath. Who wants justice in that case? Not me!

“Justice.” “Equality.” “Fairness.” “Freedom.” What do they mean? There’s always the Oxford English Dictionary (print edition, please) to settle the meaning, yes? No? Who does the defining? It all reminds me of Karl Lueger, the famously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Austria in the early 1900s. When someone pointed out that he had a Jewish individual working for the city, Lueger said, “I define who is a Jew.” Lueger was a politician, so I doubt many people would be surprised by that response, although at the time it was a bit of a shock to some. “A word means what I say it means,” according to Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. So too with “justice.” How the minister defined justice I do not know, but it sounded nice. However, I’m wary of praying for justice until I know what is meant. Mercy I will always ask for.

Vienna 1: “Old Stones”

A re-post from 2014. It is based on a visit in the 1990s.

Paris is the city of light, the city of romance, the heart of all culture and art. And it sprawls, has too much traffic, and do not get me started on the crowds in the Southern European side of the Louvre. Or how “wonderful” and “romantic” it is to walk from the Louvre to your hotel on a 100 degree F afternoon in June when you can’t find a cab. I’ve seen what I wanted to see: the Musee de Cluny and the Northern European art at the Louvre. Send me back to Vienna, please.

Ah, Vienna. It’s a little too trite to talk about “faded splendors” and “an air of nostalgia, wistful yearning for past glories, like a faded beauty,” and all those other things people say about the city. Once you take off the Empress Elizabeth-tinted glasses, there’s a  great deal more to Vienna, which may explain why I enjoy spending time there.  I am aware of the dark side, Karl Luger and the anti-Semitism of the 1900s-1940s. I’ve seen the soldiers patrolling Judengaße and Salztorgaße, protecting the synagogue and Simon Wiesenthal’s offices. The century or so between 1848 and 1955 were not happy years in south central Europe for a number of reasons. But Vienna’s history goes back much farther than the unhappy postcard painter and the sad story of Empress Elizabeth.

Here’s a little piece I wrote some twenty-eight years ago, after my first visit. At the time I had no idea I would end up making what would be eight trips to the city.

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Being Needed

Maybe it’s just my off-kilter wiring [waits for chorus of “Yes, it probably is” to fade away], but I get a little bump of happiness when someone says, “We’re probably going to need you on {date}. Can you be here by {time}?” It means I can put my skills to use, for a good cause. It’s not a big deal, it just happens that I have some training and abilities that can help fill a gap or two on short notice. Sort of like being able to move snow for a neighbor, or filling a maintenance need at Day Job when someone was sick and we had a big shindig looming.

I’ve never quite understood characters—real or imagined—who depend on everyone else all the time. Not people with physical or mental disabilities, no, those folks often do as much for themselves as they can, and sometimes try to help others as well. I’m thinking of the Blanche DuBois attitude of “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Sometimes it is emotional manipulation, in which case you can get some seriously pathological relationships. Other people seem to believe that being helpless is a good thing, a positive virtue. It’s not as obvious today as it used to be, and the weak, fainting, delicate female character of faux-Victorian stereotype seems to have fallen out of favor in the fiction I read. But the idea that you need to sit where you are, hands folded, and wait for an Authority to come and do . . . something . . . has never quite gelled in my brain.

Having pride in a skill means being able to use that skill. It may be construction, or operating a piece of equipment, or knowing where to find information, or how to navigate an environment in less than ideal conditions, or how to fill in for someone in a pinch so that a problem doesn’t become a minor crisis (or a major one) . . . Sometimes just being calm, steady, and knowing what and who should go where is the single most important thing at the moment. Skill at matching need to service or material is vastly underrated, until you need someone who knows where the ‘dozers are wanted, and who has the size eight months diapers. Or which routes are open to what kind of vehicle, or . . .

Some days, I think a lot of our current culture’s problems are off-shoots of “don’t do anything until an Authority arrives/makes a decision/gives instructions.” We’re getting conditioned to sit and wait for . . . something or other, be it rescue, or advice, or the rent check, or whatever. Yes, there are times when “don’t just do something, stand there!” really is important, but when standing there means you die of exposure, well, better to follow someone with a clue, a plan, and some local knowledge.

Alas, there are people who love helping others, and insist on “helping the poor victim” for their own egoboo. That’s not what I’m talking about. I tend to grit my teeth when I hear peans to the “caring professions” meaning social workers, welfare workers, FEMA-type administrators, professional charity administrators (United Way, national Red Cross, national animal shelter groups . . .) Some – not all – of the people in those categories who I have met remind me of some .gov employees who spend their careers looking for ways to do nothing but get more people hired so their own GS* level rises. “I brought in twelve more clients!” should not be a bragging point if your job is to find people ways to get off of government assistance, in my opinion. (That the system for getting even short-term, emergency help is so convoluted** as to require people who do nothing but help others navigate the system is a rant for another time. Any system that complex is . . . not great.)

Stripping people of pride in a skill leads to backlash. That might be a dearth of people with the needed skill. It might be drug addiction, suicide, depression, retreat into fantasies of some kind or another. It might also be a shift in attitude so that when the Authorities decide that they are needed, they arrive and find that the problem is 90% solved and that no one one the ground will work with them unless forced.

There’s something in people that needs to be needed. Even an introvert like yours truly, who spends a lot of time in her own head, likes to get a call to service. I may grumble a little, and that’s a part of my personality that I am slowly trying to jettison, but there are skills I like to use. There are also skills I hope I never, ever have to use, plans I never want to put into place. But I have those, too.

Here’s a toast to the ones who see a need and fill it, who bring personal ‘dozers, or a spare bag of diapers, or who know how to find flashlights and organize people to keep calm in that part of the building when the power goes out.

*GS levels are civil service “ranks” in the US government. They are based on a lot of things, including education, time working for the government, type of work done, number of people working in the individual’s department or office . . . .In general, the higher the GS level, the more benefits and higher wage a person gets.

**I’d say Byzantine, but the Byzantine government and social systems had an internal logic and actually did what they were supposed to do, even if people found them frustrating as all get out.