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.

A Christmas message

Philosophers, mystics, and even cognitive scientists seem to agree that there is no reality, that it’s all an illusion.  The vague, ambiguous category of persons called neuroscientists will take it a step further, and insist that consciousness itself is an illusion.  If you ask them what, exactly, is it that’s having the illusion, if not a consciousness, then you’re subjected to that look that combines disappointment, concern, and pity.

And yet, If I’m driving my illusion down the road, I can’t steer it into your illusion coming the other way without resulting in the two of us having substantially the same illusion about the outcome.

On the other hand, if the whole thing is my illusion only, conscious or not, I am, in effect, God. In which case I refuse to generate a Son just to send him down for you to torture to death and then coopt for your own purposes.

Merry Christmas.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.

 

My country, your country

Things are more complicated than they used to be.

It used to be that conservatives would advocate for a return to some idyllic, unfettered free society, unburdened by excessive constraints of what they called a “nanny state.”  Liberals would then argue that there never was such a society, at least not in the US, and what was derided as the nanny state was simply a means of redress for the injustices suffered by less fortunate citizens.

Now, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has systematically destroyed any vestiges of conservative ideology among the party faithful in favor of the kind of personality cult we used to cluck at in other places.  There’s no longer even any serious attempt at lip service to these values.  What we get instead is a naked power grab, no holds barred.

Ironically, this finally allows us to resolve the classic debate between liberals and conservatives.  We now have to concede that the Republican party is indeed trying to restore the country to some previous state that the country was actually in.  They want to go back to the 1950s.

For those of you too young to remember that time, let me clarify things.  It was a time when African Americans were still occasionally being lynched with impunity, when police would routinely beat confessions out of the usual suspects whenever it was expedient, when anyone even suspected of communist sympathies was blacklisted from desirable jobs, when the term “domestic violence” didn’t exist and it was considered a man’s prerogative to beat his wife and children, when “no” was seriously thought to mean “yes,” and when it was everybody’s business to enforce conformity.  Women were expected to stay home and cook, and if they were allowed to work at all, it was at a fraction of the salaries of equivalent jobs for men.  LGBTQ? Forget it. It was open season on people like you.

And this wasn’t the worst of our history.  From the infamous Alien and Sedition Act to the Jim Crow laws, we have been a country of, at best, enablers, and at worst, criminals.

Trump’s ideals are no foreign intrusion, friends.  They are a dream of his youth, the good old days in the US.  You can see it through the clenched teeth of his supporters.  At least no one’s pretending any more; what you see is what you get.

Happy Fourth.

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Family values and me

For many people, family means refuge, a warm, inviting place where they will always be welcome, where there will always be unconditional support. Throw in a strong religious conviction, and they just add God to the list of familiars they can always count on.

For me, family was always about suffocation. Religion was there, a very strong presence, and stifling. The two together seemed absolutely crushing.

This had nothing to do with lack of love and support. That was always there, too, in abundance. It’s just that the totality was overwhelming, with no room left for the kind of soul-stretching I yearned for. I spent hours looking out doors and windows, dreaming of escape.

How to account for the difference? Hard to say, but I suspect it is rooted in the style of upbringing. Mine was very rigid and inflexible, and the same can be said for my religious upbringing: twelve years of Catholic school, ironically much more flexible than my father’s idea of what was appropriate for children. Still, the razor-wire was there all the same, just a bit further out.

These days, only three of us remain from the family, siblings. We live thousands of miles apart. We get along very well. Words like love and support are bandied about so often nowadays that I don’t trust them; basically, we live our own lives, and are interested in each other’s lives, and would undoubtedly rally to each other in case of a crisis. Let’s leave it at that.

As for religion, I’ve left it far behind. The still faithful erroneously think that’s because of a grudge against God. True, anger and rebellion initially caused me to examine the tenets of Catholicism, but once the cat was out of the bag there was no going back. Occasionally, protestants of various flavors tell me the problem is Catholicism, that their particular variant is more loving, more forgiving, etc. They miss the point. Nowadays, I’m no more angry at God than I am at Santa for not bringing me Christmas presents.

God, in the form of an omnipotent creator who nevertheless tinkers with his creation at the request of believers, is an insupportable idea. Once you start questioning dogma, and persist at it, this is inescapable. God was created wholly in the image of man: spiteful, loving, patronizing, generous, egomaniacal, vengeful, forgiving, take your pick; it’s all there to reinforce your decisions wherever your personal inclinations lead you.

Do I miss any of that? Rarely. The more I think about things like eternity and immortality, the more I realize we’re already there.

Non Credo

In unum deum, but that’s another story. Lots of people go on at length about the things they believe; I thought it might be useful to list all the things I have trouble believing:

• In the piety of people who spend all their time making sure we know it
• That anyone is actually made happier by all those inspirational quotes
• That when I hear the words ‘this is for your own good’ it actually is
• That corporations are benevolent and are looking after our interests
• That corporations are evil and are trying to control the world
• That we are all brainwashed except for all the people telling us we are
• That everyone who disagrees with me is stupid
• That everyone who agrees with me is smart
• That everything I believe is true
• That everything I believe is consistent with everything else I believe
• That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
• That it’s possible to become a billionaire honestly
• That you can be anything you want to be if you want it badly enough
• That giving money to some church will save my immortal soul
• That I have an immortal soul
• That whenever one door closes one door opens
• That poor people are just lazy
• That rich people just work harder than everyone else
• That just being yourself and ignoring what others think is a great idea
• That this list is anywhere near comprehensive