Family Life in America

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, first of all, it’s a big family dinner with all the trimmings in which all the participants are openly delighted with one another. And they’re actually listening to one another. Where’s the strange uncle wearing the red MAGA hat? Where are the scowling teenagers? On the plus side, there isn’t any food on the plates yet, though there’s a big turkey at the far end of the table waiting to be carved. So perhaps there’s still time for the expression of discontent.

Martine and I both agreed that we liked Halloween better than Thanksgiving or Christmas. There was no need for any pretense of a closely-knit family. One just pretends to be someone else and pigs out on candy. Americans don’t do family well. We talk about it a lot, but most families at best have the appearance of an armed truce.

Read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or Tara Westover’s Educated to get an accurate picture of family life in America. Oh, I’m not saying that the disaffection is universal, just that it’s dismayingly prevalent.

It wasn’t that way for my own family: but, being Hungarians, we did not care that much for American holiday traditions. Except my brother and I really got into the Halloween sugar rush. We never had turkey for dinner in Cleveland, as both my father and I did not like it very much, and I still don’t. We usually had Christmas dinner with my aunt and uncle in Novelty, Ohio, but it was usually as much Hungarian as it was American. Come to think of it, back then we enjoyed the holidays without feeling in any way obliged to grin and bear it.

We now usually go out for Thanksgiving with friends. But over the last several years, Martine and I celebrate Christmas with home-cooked beef stew served with a Hungarian red wine, preferably Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood of Eger).

The Glorious Fourth

As I sit at the computer writing this blog, I am hearing a series of small explosions as firebugs everywhere are setting off illegal fireworks. Did all this happen because of our national anthem with its “rocket’s red glare,” or is it just some universal male incendiaries’ attempt to see how much of a bang they could get out of life without losing their fingers and toes?

I tend to ignore most holidays. The closest I came to celebrating the Glorious Fourth was to serve corn on the cob for dinner. No barbecue. No firecrackers. No patriotic movies or songs. No flags. No red, white, and blue.

[BANG! A particularly loud explosion just went off nearby.]

It is ironical that the people who most clothe themselves in the American flag are people who want to destroy what our country stands for. On January 26, 2021, the insurrection in Washington looked from a distance like a patriotic gathering. It was only when you zoomed in closer that you found just how appalling it all was. I’ll bet the attendees at that particular hullabaloo are second to no one in setting off fireworks and waving the flag—that is, those who are not serving time in prison.

So here I am, a guy who loves his country but doesn’t feel he has to prove it to anybody.

How (Not) to Celebrate New Years

A traditional way of celebrating New Years Eve in France is by setting cars alight. According to the BBC, as of some 12 hours ago, a total of 874 cars have been set on fire. I’m sure that’s kind of like a firecracker, but multiplied out, that’s got to be about 10 million dollars in damages.

Far better is a series of two cartoons from Brooke McEldowney in his “9 Chickweed Lane” series. The first cartoon ran on December 31 and was a bit confusing:

It all came clear with today’s cartoon:

I loved this set of images. We make a jump from one reality to another. Actually, it’s the same reality: Just a different template overlaying it. BTW, the look on the little girl’s face is priceless.

So let’s take that leap without incinerating any automobiles, if you please.

Allhallowtide

If you were to look closely at the word Halloween, you may notice that it means the Eve of All Hallows Day, November 1, which is also called All Saints’ Day. In fact, the period from October 31 through November 2 is sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide. In a way, the period is a kind of liturgical trifecta, in that November 2 is All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.

The idea of All Saints’ Day was primarily to commemorate the nameless martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of certain Roman emperors who persecuted them. Perhaps the largest single group is the Theban Legion, commanded by Saint Maurice, who was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to defeat rebels in what is now Switzerland and, in the process, to make sacrifices to pagan gods. Maurice and his men refused. As punishment, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, to have every tenth man executed. After two rounds of decimation, it was decided to execute the entire legion, which consisted of some 6,700 legionaries. Their martyrdom took place in AD 286.

Above is a painting by Fra Angelico of various saints and martyrs, not including the entire Theban Legion. In fact, none of the saints depicted look particularly like Roman legionaries.

All Saints’ Day (November 1) is still considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, during which all Catholics are required to attend Mass or commit a mortal sin for failure to comply.

Although I continue to hold warm feelings about my Catholic upbringing, I am pretty much a lapsed Catholic and am probably doomed to the fires of Heck.

Flirting With Death

It seems that, as time goes on, Halloween is becoming an ever more popular holiday. It has moved from being a children’s celebration to one that is equally observed by adults. In the Catholic liturgy, it is merely the eve of All Saints Day, which continues to diminish in importance as Christianity slowly recedes. The next day, All Souls Day—November 2—is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

What with all the horror films and Stephen King novels and Jack O’Lanterns, Halloween tends to flirt with death without really facing it. As a culture, we tend to stay in the outskirts of death without descending into the center of it. The skulls and skeletons we affect are free of putrefaction and stench.

When I was a student at Dartmouth College, I spent four years in the remote Middle Wigwam dormitory (later re-christened McLane Hall). To get to the center of campus, I had to pass along the northern edge of the Hanover, New Hampshire cemetery, which has tombstones dating back to the 18th century, as Dartmouth was founded in 1769. It was an eerie experience, especially when walking home at night after a movie, play, or visit to Baker Library. Yet it looked nothing like the fantasy cemetery pictured above. Even the much older Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston, where Cotton and Increase Mather are interred, is nowhere near as nasty as a typical horror film cemetery.

We like to keep our cemeteries on the neat side else no one would want to visit them. That’s because we are forced to acknowledge death, but we’d rather not think about it. And when we do, we use typical horror themes to frighten ourselves before returning to normality. Among these are vampires, zombies, Frankenstein monsters, ghosts, hauntings, mummies, shock operas like Hitchcock’s Psycho, demons, goblins, and so on. In fact, most of these themes are wildly fictional and outside the experience of most everyone.

Absent from most of these themes is the real sting of death: a numbing sense of loss of our loved ones and the realization that we will not escape the same fate.

So celebrate Halloween by all means. I certainly do. This month I read Thomas Ligotti’s stories in Grimscribe and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And I just started Sheridan LeFanu’s Uncle Silas (1864).

Glorious [Bang!] 4th

We Celebrate Our Independence by Playing at Terrorism

As I write these words, the air is full of explosions. Dogs and cats are whimpering as they hide under beds, tortured by their pet-loving owners who celebrate our independence with backyard barbecues and playing at being terrorists. I’m not sure that many Americans are giving any attention to the Declaration of Independence from King George III.

Ultimately we got our independence, but mainly because of help from France. You can read all you want about American history and not find a word about George Washington ever winning a battle. France helped us at a horrible cost to the French monarchy: their assistance bankrupted the treasury and was a major contributor to the French Revolution, which began shortly after we won our independence. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette paid for helping us by being publicly beheaded in Paris’s Place de Grève.

Ingrates that we are, we tend to downplay the French role in winning our freedom. When the British under Cornwallis were tied up at Yorktown, it was because Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, Marquis of Grasse-Tilly was backing up the Continental Army led by Washington and Lafayette.

Don’t think I’m feasting on escargots, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, and Pouilly-Fuissé because of this. I’m not celebrating at all, especially as it sounds like my street is being bombed.

Return to Normal? Fat Chance!

A New Calendar Does Not a New Reality Make

We always tend to make too much of holidays like New Years. Let’s face it: All it means is a new template overlaid on the same old time period. Although I will probably still be awake at midnight, it is only because I am usually still awake at midnight. I don’t really care about somebody dropping the ball on Times Square, and I certainly will not watch any Year in Review shows or other New Years specials.

When I was a little kid, I marveled that in the year 2000, I would be 55 years old. That seemed so old to me back then. Now that I am twenty years past that milestone, or should I say millstone, I am not so quick to generalize about the passing of time. That what time does. It passes.

As William Butler Yeats wrote in his play The Countess Cathleen:

The years like great black oxen tread the world,
 And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
 And I am broken by their passing feet.

Despite everything, I wish all of you well. May the New Year bring you peace, health, and prosperity. And if it doesn’t, just soldier on.

Reinventing Thanksgiving

This Is Not What My Thanksgiving Will Look Like

In a way, the coronavirus seems to wreak the most damage on people who are intent on going on with their lives the way they were before. The big danger points come around the major holidays, when people risk everything for the appearance of normalcy.

But what if, like me, you don’t really give a hang about the holidays? No, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness: I just don’t like the idea of holiday-induced stress. Whenever I think of Christmas and Thanksgiving, in particular, I think of a custom among certain Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest of “an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.”

Plus I don’t really like turkey. For the most part it is a dry bird that has to be well-greased before imbibing. For my Thanksgiving, Martine and I will have a more simple feast (though, in her heart of hearts, I know Martine would prefer the turkey): A good beef stew accompanied by a bottle of Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, a pleasant Hungarian red wine.

Knowing how much I prefer to avoid poultry, Martine can understand that it wouldn’t help to have me cook something I don’t like—and I do all the cooking in the household.

We will probably do something similar for Christmas. Why not? We are not afraid of offending the Yuletide Police.

Happy Halloween!

In this truly ghastly year of 2020, I sincerely wish all of you a happy—and safe—Halloween. It happens to be one of the more meaningful holidays on my own calendar. Unlike Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, or even Christmas. I mean all of us are on a journey, and the holiday commemorates the destination of that journey, for all of us, even for “billionaires” like Trump.

It’s followed on November 1 by All Saints Day and on November 2 All Souls Day, known in Mexico as the Dia de los Muertos.

Mexican Folk Art with Skeleton

Although no kids have come Trick or Treating at my place for over thirty years, I’ve always liked Halloween. (Kids don’t like to climb stairs, even though I’m only on the second floor.)

The Best Laid Plans…

Chace Park Seen from the Air

In my post of July 3 entitled “Plotting a Holiday Picnic,” I wrote about my plans for a 4th of July weekend picnic for two (Martine and me). It’s sometimes laughable how circumstances can change. I decided to choose today, Sunday, July 5, for the picnic—because I suspected that there would be too many people with too many fireworks on Saturday.

Martine wanted to go to Chace Park in the Marina because, regardless how hot the weather was near us, it always had a comfortable sea breeze. Originally, I thought of getting a picnic lunch at Chick-Fil-A, but I forgot that the restaurant is closed on Sundays. So we headed to Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica, but saw a humongous line waiting to get in. Ditto for Trader Joe’s in Marina Del Rey. So on Martine’s suggestion, we got our lunches in the deli and produce sections of a nearby Ralph’s Supermarket.

The only real negative about going to Chace Park was that parking cost ten dollars on this holiday weekend. No matter, I paid the fee and resolved to make myself comfortable with the peninsula’s sea breezes. There were no seals in evidence today, but we were able to eat our lunch and take a walk around the peninsula.

There were a lot of young males who flouted the social distancing rule, but we managed to keep our distance from them as they attempted their abortive “herd immunity” practices. I kept thinking back to my days working with U.S. Census data. In the United States, there are 21 males born to every 20 females; but, by around the age of 18, the number of females exceeds the number of males. Why? Because young American males find their way to an early grave through sheer stupidity.