Monday, March 27, 2006

A Nice Place to Visit, But They Wouldn't Want You to Live There

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that this weekend evangelical Christian teenagers rallied in San Francisco. The rally, "Battle Cry for a Generation", was held by a group called Teen Mania whose goal is to guide teenagers away from the negative influences of pop culture. Not surprisingly for an evangelical group, they also want to create more youth who are evangelizers, helping other young people with problems and trying to bring them to Jesus.

A San Francisco Assemblyman said of the evangelicals, "they're loud, they're obnoxious, they're disgusting, and they should get out of San Francisco." I suppose rallies of any kind are bound to get loud, but funnily enough, the article does not mention even one act by the rally attendees that might earn them the designations "obnoxious" or "disgusting". Could it be there were unreported incidences of rude behavior or crimes by the attendees that made the Assemblyman hostile to them?

According to the article I linked, the city's Board of Supervisors "earlier in the week"--i.e. before the teenage evangelicals got to San Francisco--passed a resolution condemning the gathering. Hmm. The city officially condemned the evangelicals before they had a chance to do anything. That makes it sound as if the problem the city has with them is their presence--perhaps even their very existence--not anything they've actually done.

I don't have a problem with the private citizens who protested the rally (even if they do bring out the rather tired epithet "fascists"), because I would expect it and because I support freedom of speech and assembly--even by people assembling for speech I disagree with. But it seems kind of odd for city officials to say these things. As long as the rally members are law-abiding, gathering peacefully, and not endangering the community by committing or encouraging others to commit dangerous & illegal acts, shouldn't the city be neutral?

I don't necessarily agree with everything the rally organizers and attendees believe. For one thing, I find their referring to the filth of much pop culture as "virtue terrorism" distasteful. For another, I'm neither an evangelical nor a fundamentalist. I'm a Catholic. I consider the people at that gathering fellow Christians--what many Catholics call "separated brothers and sisters"--but at least a few of them probably think I'm a heathen statue-worshipper, so needless to say there's some theological differences. But we're more alike than we are different.

I guess that means San Francisco wouldn't want me either. Maybe I should be impressed by myself. Considering some of the pictures I've seen of various protests & gatherings (none condemned by the city, as far as I know), being too "disgusting" for San Francisco is quite a feat.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Two Kinds of People...

I'm rereading the Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. The best thing about them (after those wonderful charcoal or soft pencil illustrations by Garth Williams; as a child Little House on the Prairie was my least favorite of those books because it was the only one I had in an edition without the illustrations) is that you get to see people making things. Making a garden, making cheese, making bullets, making straw hats, etc. Sometimes you ask yourself questions like, If I were alone somewhere, two days from a town, and I needed a secure door for my house, would I be able to figure out how to make one?

I'm not all that big fan of the "two kinds of people in the world" thing, but... I think there's two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy the challenge of figuring things out and "making do" and those who don't. My father is one of the first; just as one example, I introduced him to (purchased) vine charcoal, and the next time I saw him he'd made some on his own. My mother is one of the latter. I knew her on several occasions to make a fairly clever substition in cooking due to being out of an ingredient, but she seemed to regard it as degrading and I never saw her take any pleasure in figuring things out generally.

As it possibly is with any of these "two kinds" divisions, people in one camp may not understand people in the other camp. I know I'm one of those who enjoy figuring things out on my own and making do, and I can't understand why anyone wouldn't. When I figure out how to do/get/make something without resorting to a trip to the store, I not only have the pleasure of problem-solving, I get a little charge out of being independent enough to do it on my own.

Something I've Never Understood

Cake mixes. They're supposed to save you so much time; I've heard women say they won't make scratch cakes, only mixes, because scratch cakes are "too much trouble". But what time does a cake mix save you? You dump the mix in a bowl, and you still have to measure out oil or butter, milk, and eggs. The mixing takes the same amount of time, so all the work the mix has saved you is measuring and pouring your flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and, assuming this isn't a plain butter cake, flavoring--or if you use self-rising flour, only the measuring of the flour; the dumping of it in the bowl would be the same as dumpting the cake mix in. You might also have to wash an additional couple of measuring spoons and possibly an extra measuring cup. All in all, a mix saves you maybe two minutes of time. Maybe a carrot cake mix would bump it up to nearly five minutes, since you no longer have to grate a carrot, but the point is mixes don't actually save you much work; they cost more (unless we're talking double coupons on top of a loss leader sale or something like that), they don't taste as good, most of us don't know what some of the ingredients are, they're less versatile than the ingredients for homemade cake, and yet they still don't save you any significant amount of effort. Why bother?

I haven't bought a cake mix since a day or two before I was married, a little over eleven years ago, and that was only because I wanted chocolate cake in what was still a bachelor's kitchen. If I want cake, I make one from basic ingredients I keep on hand. It's bucking a trend though. As I said (read "overgeneralized") to my husband, if women in my grandmothers' generation wanted cake, they made one from scratch; if women in my mother's generation wanted cake, they used a mix (possibly jazzed up with apricot nectar or something); and if women my age want cake, they go to the store and buy a cake. Maybe making any food at home is weird nowadays. I'm only an adequate cook (defined as "no one will starve around me"), but some people nowadays apparently can't cook at all; I have seen many grocery carts filled with nothing but frozen meals, deli items, and things like Pop Tarts.

Other things I don't understand include anti-Semitism and why people who say Shakespeare is "too hard" are sometimes the same people who insist on using only the King James Version of the Bible.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

And the Blogger Rambled On-- A Post About Cooking, Sewing, Advertising, the Cult of Experts, and Possibly the Kitchen Sink As Well

You know how you occasionally read something that really strikes you and leads you to read something else and something else? PatternReview had an article (and follow-up discussion in the forum) nearly two weeks ago that was like that for me--and I don't even know why, since I didn't really learn anything wholly new from it. It was an article by Sarah Jacobs, called "Quick Cheap Sewing"; I almost didn't read it because I figured it was just a few timesaving and thrifty hints, but it turned out to be more interesting than that. (I'd link to it, but the articles are only available to PR members--to free members for 7 days only.) Basically, the article draws some analogies between cooking and sewing.

Most of us who do much cooking have sort of mental slopers (a basic design that more complex designs can be built on) or master recipes for various dishes. For example, we know basically what to do to get a casserole, so we can just look in the kitchen and cobble together a casserole from whatever we have on hand; or, even more simply, we know the basics of roasting a chicken, so we can follow those basics every time to get a dish that is recognizable as roasted chicken and doesn't give us salmonella, but by varying details such as seasoning we can make that dish have a wide range of tastes. For dishes that we seldom cook and so don't already have a mental sloper for, we can look in cookbooks at one or several recipes for the dish to get the basic proportions of ingredients and then build our own version, based on our own preferences and on which ingredients we actually have. This is my main way of using cookbooks--as general reference, rather than explicit directions--and I was pleased to see the article's author saying she uses cookbooks that way too. A more formal version of this practice--which led to a more formal (i.e. written, not mental) master recipe--would be the Tightwad Gazette lady's description of how she came up with her Universal Muffin recipe.

Ms. Jacobs talks about enjoying browsing cookbooks, especially the 1943 edition of The Settlement Cookbook. (I'd never heard of it before, being from the South rather than the Midwest, but the story of this cookbook is pretty interesting, as cookbooks go--you could see it as a womanpower success story. The earliest versions are public domain, and the 1903 edition has been reprinted by at least two different publishers and is available from Amazon and scans of the 1901 edition can be viewed online for free.) Ms. Jacobs said that as a girl she was amazed at the existence of recipes for things we normally buy, like marshmallows; nowadays, some people are amazed if you make cake, let alone marshmallows, from scratch. The Settlement Cookbook had recipes for plain, everyday sort of cakes, as opposed to a Martha Stewart sort of cake. Ms. Jacobs gave us her version--Quick Plain Cake--of a Settlement recipe called Cheap Plain Cake, which is exactly what both of its names say it is. I've already adapted it into a cranberry upside down cake that pleased me; I don't do much making of sweets because I discovered early in my marriage my husband prefers storebought candy, but this recipe is going in my file because it is so easy, quick, and adaptable. (I'd long been thinking of working out a recipe for a tiny cake--just enough for one big or two small servings--and this may become my basis for that.)

The point of the article is that, while many of us approach sewing like the cook who always looks up fancy recipes and follows them exactly, sewing can also be like this everyday kind of cooking. The author cites the early '50s Sewing Made Easy that told its readers how to take a basic commercial pattern and alter it to get many styles of skirts (like altering the flavoring of Plain Cake to get different cakes); people measuring hips and waists to make a skirt (you know the basic shape so you only need the details, like with making a quick casserole you only need to know what you have in the cupboard and how many people you need to feed); and the Jamaican woman who showed the author how to cut around an existing garment to get the pieces for a new one. This version of sewing or cooking can be plainer and quicker and cheaper than the close- following-of-recipe version--cheaper, if for no other reason than you buy fewer patterns. It will definitely reflect the creator's personality more, as she decides for herself which details she wants--from outer appearance to construction methods.

Perhaps most important is that this approach makes the seamster ("sewer" never looks right in print) less dependant upon experts. In the forum discussion of this article many people said that their grandmothers sewed this way, but that the method had not been passed on. Two people specifically said that, although grandma had done it, mother had not had the confidence to deviate from a pattern or recipe; the first said she wondered if the post-WWII advertising had been to blame. I read this right after reading in Crunchy Cons (book and blog) speculations about 1950s advertising convincing people that storebought convenience food was better--cleaner, more scientifically wholesome--than homegrown and/or homecooked food. I think the 1950s, even if it was a Golden Age in some ways, encouraged an over-reliance on "experts" and "convenience" that has only snowballed. Many traditional skills have been lost. I don't just mean obsolete skills (like, say, plowing with a mule) or nearing-obsoletion ones (shade tree mechanics have become relatively rare as cars have acquired more and more electronic parts that you really do need special tools to work on.) Utne Reader had an article a decade or so ago about the dying of food knowledge--many people with teen girls in the '60s and '70s didn't bother to teach their daughters how to cook or even how to select produce and meat, so that these girls had to learn for themselves or rely on convenience food as adults, then they generally had less knowledge to pass on the their teenagers, and so it goes. The Home Ec classes that in at least some cases tried to teach people to ignore the traditional peasant cooking of their Italian immigrant or poor Southern mother in favor of "scientific" cooking (a euphemism for upper middle-class WASP cooking?), then reliance on a basis of convenience foods, are now, it is my understanding, sometimes not taught at all, because why learn to cook when you can live on frozen dinners (or sew when you can go to a store or clean when you can hire an "undocumented worker"). Many people today not only don't know how to sew on a button, it's apparently never occurred to them that they could figure it out if they tried. Many people call a plumber or repairman for even simple jobs, without even asking themselves if they could fix it themselves; on TV much sitcom hilarity can be counted on if a character dares to think he can repair something himself. If you need some item around the house, the "right" thing to do is to go buy one, not figure out how to make the item or a substitute yourself; only an eccentric or a hick makes his own toilet paper dispenser. A mother whose small child received only homemade toys for Christmas would probably find her acquaintances muttering darkly about "abuse" because everyone knows children "need" new, storebought toys--i.e. toymaking is best left to the experts....Okay, I'm rambling now. And maybe this is being mitigated somewhat by the surge of interest in crafting, DIY television programs, and cooking programs, but I think the over-reliance on experts to feed, clothe, educate, and entertain us is still going strong. I think there's still a lot more people watching food programs than making food.

The person who has basic skills and, perhaps more important these days, the attitude that it is okay to figure things out yourself and do it your own way is less reliant on experts than people who don't have skills or this attitude. And that, as expert Martha Stewart might say, is a Good Thing. (Then again, she might not, because it might make you less likely to buy her magazine.) Rural (not to say backwoods) Southern women of my grandmothers' generation put pictures on their walls wherever they felt like it, but ones of my mother's generation learned they must place them artistically; the increased sophistication may have been a good thing overall, but I'll bet the earlier generation had more confidence in their picture placement choices--"I like it there, so it's good" vs. "Is this really the way the [women's magazine, Home Ec text, TV show] said it should be arranged? Maybe it should look more like that living room I saw in that movie." And that's not even getting into the fact that societies in which people lack basic skills--i.e. more highly specialized societies, i.e. societies in which experts hold sway--are more easily destroyed; ask a survivalist or possibly an historian.

It's also not touching on other things that came up in the article and subsequent discussion--even if only for me. Like how many people around the world don't use patterns for sewing: Indian tailors measure their clients and make salwar kameeze or other traditional garments based on those measurements and their own mental slopers; traditional kimono were sewn just from the person's measurements marked out on cloth; there are few patterns for home sewers in Africa or, it is my understanding, Asia; presumably there are no commercial patterns for pygmy loincloths, and so on. The history of patternmaking is actually pretty interesting; I've found interesting tidbits at the McCall's (or was it Butterick?) website, in a children's book called Design It, Sew It, and Wear It by Duane Bradley, and several adult sewing or clothing books. Thanks to the article & discussion, I have several additions to my mental "pick it up if you see it in a thrift store" booklist and I'm now rereading the Little House books. This little article may be reverberating in my mind for a while.

(Okay, so I didn't actually get in anything about the kitchen sink, but it's past midnight and I'm really sleepy--not to mention drained--so I'll have to get back to it some other time.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Richard Cory in Japan

I read in the news the other day that there's been an increase in group suicides in Japan--mostly young people who meet online to discuss dying, apparently. This is a very sad thing. I understand that Japan has different cultural attitudes toward suicide than we do in the West (though we have our own strand of suicide-romanticization--Goethe, Plath fans, Goths, etc.), but it is sad nonetheless. Japan is a very prosperous country with a heritage to be proud of, yet nowadays the Japanese as a whole can't summon up enough hope in the future to replace themselves and some of the young people they do have can't summon up the nerve to keep living.

I'm very familiar with the phenomenon of Westerners who go on about how the East is more spiritual than the West, Easterners are more holistic and less materialistic, etc. I don't tend to buy this, because I think people are people wherever you go--i.e. human nature is the same, no matter the shape of the eyes, color of the skin, or texture of the hair. You wouldn't get Hong Kong or modern, commercial Japan if people of the East were automatically less susceptible to greed than the West, would you? Anyway, I think these suicides in Japan and its very low birth rate come in part from a spiritual problem. (It's probably a psychological problem too; humans just don't seem to do as well in prosperity as they do in adversity. Not to mention a multilayered social problem.)

When people decide to live only for themselves, it never satisfies. There is a spiritual emptiness. It's good for the economy (short-term), because the less you have in your life that matters the more distractions you need to buy, but it is not good for people. When vast numbers of people in a society decide that there is nothing bigger than themselves worth living for, nothing more important than themselves and the gratification of their own immediate whims and desires, it is very bad for that society's long-term future. Why go on living and working and producing if nothing matters? A man isn't going to die for a country he thinks is worthless and corrupt. A woman isn't going to be willing to lose her figure and her free time for children, if she thinks the next generation isn't as important as her own good time. Why go to the trouble of building families and communities when it's easier to shop and watch TV and have a string of affairs? And when you realize the continual gratification of your appetites never ends because it never really satisfies, why even go on living? If there's nothing bigger than you and all the distractions you're supposed to want because they're so fun and so luxurious don't satisfy, why not give in to weariness and end it all?

I'm not picking on Japan. This "nothing bigger than me" attitude that I think may be contributing to the group suicides is pervasive in Europe and the Anglosphere too. Unless there's a radical change, I expect to see more of this sort of thing in the West. Based on various things I've read over the past fifteen years or so, it seems we're already seeing at least a small rise in suicides.

And I think that is a very bad thing.

I have sympathy for the kind of unhappiness these people may have had in their lives and I understand clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, because I've been there, but I think I lost whatever tendency I may have had to romanticise suicide a good many years ago. (I definitely decided it wasn't an option for me.) And if I did have any residual feeling along those lines, I lost it several years ago, when I first came across these lines by Chesterton:

"Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil,
the refusal to take an interest in existence....There is not a tiny creature in
the cosmos at whom [the suicide's] death is not a sneer."

I hope I never look at henbit or a sparrow and sneer. Or my fellow human beings.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

One Woman Can Make the World Better

To commemorate the UN-designated International Women's Day, today's NRO has a list of women who make or made the world better. On a somewhat related note, Uncle Pookie and I started working our way through all of Babylon 5 a few weeks ago (he saw most of it before & I saw perhaps the majority of the middle episodes, from mid-season two to mid-season four; FWIW I highly recommend B5 for its excellent writing), and one of the things creator Stracynski says multiple times on the DVDs is that he wanted to refute the all-too-common idea that one person can't make a difference. These two things make me think of a woman I knew who made her little corner of the world different.

Mrs. A trained as an English teacher, and after graduation she and her schoolteacher husband (who'd left a more lucrative job selling insurance because he wanted to do something meaningful with his life--how's that for "crunchy" ?) moved to a small town. Mrs. A soon began to realize that she really enjoyed making bulletin boards for her classes. She decided to go back to college to qualify to teach art. I believe she started out teaching art at the elementary school, but later this soft-spoken woman convinced the school to start an art department at the high school. Actually she WAS the art department. Mississippi is a poor state and everyone knows art classes are the first to go when there's a tight budget, but that small, mostly working class town school had a full-time art teacher and students could choose art as an elective every year if they wanted. Mrs. A taught basic drawing and painting and a little 3-D art in the form of papier-mache sculptures or painted wooden shapes, and she brought in her own art books and magazines to teach a bit of art history to her students.

She tried to keep improving her offerings over the years. She saw to it that the department got new supplies, including while I was there an air-brush gun and a table saw. To raise funds for the department she oversaw the creation of "historic sites of our town" calendars featuring pen-and-ink drawings by the art students--a project that must have taken up a lot of her leisure time; this proved very popular and was repeated for several years. She arranged displays of student work at various places around town. She arranged field trips to an art museum. Equally important, she tried new techniques herself and would teach them to her students.

In addition to her HS art classes she oversaw the running of the school newspaper. That high school--which, remember, was not a well-off one--had the only weekly school newspaper in the state, and I believe received some state awards. She also began teaching evening art classes for adults.

Mrs. A was interested in improving not just the school, but the town. The most visible way she did that was to convince a number of people in the town to allow her and volunteer students to paint murals or faux windows and doorways on their blank walls. This not only improved the look of a number of walls, it gave the town a better, more unique feel. I believe she was also involved in other community spirit activities (such as an old-fashioned election day town party), as well as being a member of a Methodist church, making many improvements to her old house, maintaining what seemed to be a close marriage, and raising three pleasant, well-behaved children.

These things may not sound important to most people, and it is true that she didn't do anything worthy of UN recognition. But think about it. She exposed hundreds of kids, some of whom would have had no other exposure, to art. She tried to get the town interested in art, or at least the HS art department. At least one of her students went on to become an art teacher herself. Through her adult students, she helped (and continues to help, last I heard) people, some of whom (like my father) had no opportunity for any kind of art training in their youth, acquire skills and a fulfilling hobby--or at least broaden their horizons a little bit. She also made her town look better. None of this happened because she was an innately talented artist. To be honest, her level of talent is pretty modest. But she kept working at it and trying, so that she made the most of what had been given her. Plus she shared her skills and enthusiasm with others, and in the end she really did make her town better. How many of us can say as much?

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Post About Religion and Cartoons That Doesn't Even Mention Denmark

This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent--the Ash Wednesday without which Fat Tuesday would not exist. (It's surprising the number of people who know about the Tuesday, but nothing about the Wednesday; Mardi Gras, as a character remarked in Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume, has become just one more party, not a somewhat poignant feast before fasting.) There's a lot that can be said on the subject of Ash Wednesday, fasting, repentance, sin, etc., but here's my slight contribution: I think a good, if not the best, Ash Wednesday comic strip is one from Pearls Before Swine.

(Rat and Goat are sitting together)
Rat: I think I'd be much more likely to be religious if it wasn't for all that 'love your neighbor' stuff.
Goat: And why is that?
Rat: Because I hate my neighbors...They have barking dogs and car alarms and sometimes they even try to talk to me.
(Goat stares at Rat for a long time)
Goat: Your soul's so dark it smudges mine.
Rat: Hey... maybe I could love your neighbors...I never have to see them.

Okay, I probably am only associating this with Ash Wednesday because of that "smudge" (I went to an early AW mass year before last and had people telling me I had a smudge on my head the rest of the day; one nice lady was going for a kleenex before I explained!), but the fallen human nature and spiritual laziness it points to are Ash Wednesday themes. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we have all fallen short. The strip also points to the year-round difficulty of loving our neighbors, who--bless their hearts--have also fallen short. I think the best hope of humanity lies in praying for our enemies and trying to love our neighbors (and that it would still lie there even if the God-stuff weren't true), but nobody ever said it was going to be easy. And I won't say how much I resemble Rat.

Lent leads up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. A question I've been asked is, "Why did Jesus have to die?" I guess the answer is that he didn't have to, that that is just the way God chose to do it. Which just leads to another why, and I can't really answer it. I know a bit about sacrificial lambs atoning for sin and the Suffering Servant and Messiah prophecies, but this is a deep question that has troubled wiser people than I. I don't mean to trivialize any of this when I suggest that a Bloom County cartoon may suggest a possible partial answer.

(Opus, the orphan penguin who yearns for a mother, has been calling Dial-a-Mom to listen to loving advice, and on this call he interrupts to yell into the phone)
Opus: Mom, get out of my life you narrow-minded, meddling busy-body!!
Dial-a-Mom: Okay, but always know that I would gladly rip both my legs off and feed them to crocodiles to save your life.
Opus: (looking at readers) God, how I need to hear that now and then.

Maybe that's part of the reason Jesus had to die? We are all orphans who yearn for our True Parent and who sometimes need to hear that that Parent loves us so much He'd endure even a bloody death to save us. The Crucifixion shows not just that He would but that He already has.