Our poor, tainted political system

I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren. In fact, I think that just the idea of being a “fan” of hers or not is symptomatic of our deeply disturbed political system at the moment.

I think she’s a perfectly acceptable candidate among the 20-odd choices, and I will vote for her if she ends up the official nominee of the Democratic Party. Until such time I will withhold further support. I want to wait and see how the issues unfold.

However, she already seems to be the choice of the political disruptors. I’m seeing more and more gratuitous mentions of her Native American heritage fiasco (on which, see Snopes.com). It has become a trope, bordering on the magnitude of Clinton’s emails, and just as irrelevant to her qualifications for the job of President.

I said as much in a comment on a Tweet recently, in (I thought) a reasonable tone. I got two or three responses telling me why I was wrong, again, in a more or less reasonable (for Twitter) tone.

Then, all at once, dozens of comments popped up, and I mean all at once. Some of the comments could be construed as in my favor, and others against, almost all much more insulting in tone that the original exchanges. I’m not a big Twitter user. I rarely get a thread going with more than about six or seven comments, and never over about 20, even when I’ve been getting piled on, and even then, they have accumulated gradually, as you’d expect.

Nowhere in all of this fusillade was there a mention of her ideas on policy, her other qualifications, or even a suggestion of an alternative candidate.

This tells me three things:
1. at this point, the opposition considers Warren the most likely to survive the nominating process,
2. they consider her the most dangerous in terms of running against Trump, and
3. the bot network (Russian or homegrown) is up and running already.

As they say, buckle up.

City boy

I grew up in a close society of immigrants, clannish, insular, distrustful of their new country and the people in it, all the while reciting its praises. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Every adult was allowed to, and did, monitor and even punish every child, though generally they only reported misbehavior to parents. As a teen, my time was strictly regulated, with one curious exception: while any time spent with my American friends was subjected to the minutest scrutiny, when I was with Latvian friends, the gates were flung open and no questions asked. Naturally, I exploited this loophole at every opportunity, drinking at laxly run taverns well before coming of age, and getting into trouble in general, always forgiven, as long as no Americans were involved.

Still, it was stifling. The social strictures, and, above all, the religious impositions, might as well have been physical chains. I longed for something outside these limits. I devoured Kerouac and Baldwin, read Ferlinghetti and Corso as if they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I spent hours staring out the front door window, imagining a completely different life.

But I lived in the city, and the city was my escape, my safety valve. For 27 cents, I could hop on a bus a half block from my house, and within minutes be in another world, one of libraries, book stores, and coffee shops, and above all, anonymity.

Years later I would find myself living in a sleepy little town, a county seat with a high opinion of itself, and all the insularity of my immigrant community. Right next to it was a company coal town, and the miners and their families provided the underclass that seems so necessary to maintain that peculiar superiority of big fish in small ponds.

The heartland, they called it, but someone had built a university where the favorite hunting grounds used to be. Some of the locals cashed in big as they sold off farmland, and others were bitter in the self-righteous way of those who had missed the big payoff. Either way, it was the beginning of the end for the inbred insularity the town was known for. With the university came a preference for urbanism, and connections to the nearby city, long resisted by the locals, began forming and strengthening.

Nowadays, we’re a suburb, and the older residents pine for bygone days. But there are restaurants, several grocery stores to choose from, coffee shops to sit in, and the feeling that everyone knows your business and disapproves of it has all but disappeared.

People talk about the failure of small-town America, but I see another story, that of the transition from ruralism to urbanism. Lots of small towns have emptied out, to be sure, but many others either joined larger nearby metroplexes or grew into cities in their own right. Along with that inevitably came the cosmopolitanism beloved of the city-bred like me, and despised by the unrecostructed rural. And both, as so often happens, for the same reason: the decline of big-fish smugness.

What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

The voice in the wilderness will not be human

Walking through a local supermarket, scanning the shelves and hoping that would help me remember what it was that I went there for in the first place, I suddenly heard a voice.

“How can I help you?”

I looked around.  No one was there.

My first impulse was to look upward, as if God had finally gotten around to answering my childhood prayers; too late, I thought. Hell, I no longer even had a Mr. Potato Man with a broken nose tab. I imagined a voice, “Please hold, your prayer will be answered in the order it was received. You are number 4,897,672 in the queue.”

Nope, that wasn’t it. Probably something over the PA.  Then I heard it again, more clearly this time.

“How can I help you?” It was coming from an odd sort of post on a base, something like one of those Smoker’s Outpost things you see next to the dumpsters behind buildings.

And it was blinking.  Now, I’m not a luddite by any means, but I found this a bit disconcerting, so since I had no idea what it was I was looking for anyway, I moved away a few feet.  The damned thing followed me.  In the end I had to move to an entirely different aisle to get away from it.

There’s a lot in the news these days about immigrants taking our jobs, or if not immigrants, then off-shoring by manufacturers.  Yes, it’s true our jobs are disappearing, but it’s not foreigners who are causing it.  You are more likely to lose your job to a walking Smoker’s Outpost than a Mexican.

Some people say, fine, robots are taking over manufacturing, and more power to them, our economy has long since moved into service as a basis. On which, see above.

Automation isn’t anything new.  Futurists in the mid 20th century used to wax eloquent about how much leisure time we’d have by the 21st. The only thing they missed was that we’d be broke.  We need to find a way to pry some of the wealth from the hands of the owners of the robots.

 

Christmas among the alien hordes

I’m an immigrant. A friend recently asked me what Christmas was like in my family. What started out as a short answer kept growing longer and longer. Here’s the result.

When I was growing up, I lived in two countries at once; outside the doors was America, inside was Latvia. It was a permeable border, at least in one direction. We children tracked in a lot of America, stuck to our shoes, so to speak; very little went out in the other direction.

Latvian culture is peasant culture. Every tradition we hold dear, every quirk of character or demeanor, every inexplicable Latvian habit, beloved or belabored, ultimately relates to the fact that we’ve been under someone else’s thumb for centuries, right up to recent history. I won’t go into detail; it’s readily accessible on Wikipedia, and this is a Christmas story.

You’re already familiar with one of our traditions: cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside, and decorating it with ornaments and lights, candles in the old days, electric lights now. That was a Latvian thing long before it caught on elsewhere. If you’re skeptical that such a tiny backwoods place could affect the great imperial cultures of Europe, remember that most of them tramped their way through there at one time or another, leaving their own distinct footprints, but also taking one or two habits back home.

As a result, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much in our living room that was different from yours. Dig a bit deeper, though, and things get a bit odd. There was a Latvian version of Santa Claus; I think “Old Man Christmas” would be an adequate translation. He was not significantly different from the American version, except that to get the presents he left under the tree, children had to sing a song, recite a poem, or otherwise entertain the adults. In our house, thankfully, that didn’t happen much. In fact, there was no Santa nonsense of any kind. I once got into big trouble at my school in the first grade for telling the other children there was no Santa. Sister Paul Marie, who spent a considerable part of the day admonishing us to always be truthful, scolded me for ruining their Christmas. I was mortified and confused.

We were Catholics, due to an accident of history that had my father’s region of Latvia under the control of Poland at the time the rest of the country, run mostly by Germans, was busy converting to Lutheranism. Before either of them, Latvian religion was essentially animistic paganism. Our gods were forces of nature.

My father took to Catholicism like a fish to water; my mother, still secretly a believer in the old religion, barely went through the motions. She also had Rom ancestors somewhere in her line and indulged in tarot cards and the like. She often “didn’t feel well” when it was time for church.

Except Christmas. Christmas had midnight mass. If you’re Protestant, you missed out on one of the great ritual pageants of religion, especially in my day, when it was all done in Latin. The music was magisterial: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven with an enormous, magnificent choir that materialized out of nowhere at Christmastime and dissolved again for the rest of the year, accompanied by an organ that could compete with arena rock for room-filling capacity. The mass itself was performed by three priests in their most ornate vestments, embroidered and gilded affairs that would be the envy of Liberace. They were attended to by a squadron of altar boys, including some older boys returning especially for the privilege. It was a solemn high mass, and the liturgy was sung by the priests, a rare treat when it happened to be Father Frey, who had a beautiful tenor voice. It was later rumored, when he disappeared from the parish, that he had run off with one of the nuns at the school, probably not true, as they were all accounted for. All the same, we took great comfort from the possibility that even he might be human.

Every year we bundled up at about 11:30 PM and trundled out the door for the long walk to the church, always in deep snow (at least in my memory). Once I had heard that a friend’s father had been found frozen to death the night before, after passing out on the sidewalk on his way home from the bar. The place where he had been found happened to be right on our usual route to the church. On that occasion we walked solemnly past the spot, which I was surprised to learn looked no different from normal, then continued on as our spirits slowly lifted again. By the time we got to the church, filled to the rafters with warmth and light, we were ready for the spectacle. It was a full hour and a half later when we slowly walked back home, tired and bedazzled.

But the real story of a Latvian Christmas is the food. If the living room looked as American as anyone else’s, it was full-on old country in the kitchen.

There were piparkūks, which were ginger snaps with a nip to them. It took three days of fermenting the dough before they went in the oven. There were pirāgi, often translated as bacon rolls, a woefully inadequate description of something that was half pastry, half bacon and onion with lots of salt and pepper. There was cottage cheese cake to munch on between the piparkūks and pirāgi and a huge bowl of nuts by the tree just in case you foolishly wandered a bit too far from the dining room.

The centerpiece was the truly transcendent goose, basted with sweet vermouth and roasted to crisp perfection by my mother. She later told us she had gotten the recipe from the Reader’s Digest cookbook, but it was Latvian all the same. No real Latvian cook would pass up a mouthwatering recipe from anywhere, or fail to transform it into something undeniably Latvian.

This was accompanied by sauerkraut stewed with a hambone, sweetened with apples, and fermented several days in the back porch, in short, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the kraut you may be familiar with from the supermarket. Boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga mixed together with butter formed a delicious dish I remember as being called something like “chivich,” but none of my friends or acquaintances, Latvian or not, finds that name familiar; perhaps another cookbook inspiration.

Dessert was incomparable. Usually bubert, a billowy, eggy pudding enhanced with ķīsel, a luscious sweet fruity sauce, made with rhubarb when it was available.

Then, out the door past the dormant-for-the-day snowshovel to the white, snow covered park, our personal tundra, with the sledding hill in the middle, where we slid recklessly down the slope and across the road at the bottom, almost never all the way into the frozen creek on the other side.

And, that, my friends, was Christmas among the wicked foreigners.