Monday, December 29, 2008

41 F in our non-sybaritic house, or On the GRE



"Ninety percent of the game is half mental." - Yogi Berra

"I might just fade into Bolivian, you know what I mean?" (meaning to say, oblivion) — former professional boxer Mike Tyson


It's 41 degrees fahrenheit in our non-sybaritic house, 9 degrees celsius.

That's the only sentence I wrote in a blog entry I abandoned on December 16. I was sitting at my desk and I could see my breath puffing in the air. I was so happy: a goal achieved. Phaedra and I continue our enterprise of living without heat in the house. So far we've had to cheat only twice: once when our nieces came to visit and the first thing Bronwyn, age 3, cried when she walked into the house was, "I'm cooooold," and we figured we'd spare her the experiment; and once, actually, last night. Phaedra had injured a muscle in her neck (while toweling off her wet hair) and we didn't see any reason to compound bodily pain with a shivering body.

Austin climate really is moronic. On December 9 we awoke to a temperature of 78, and slightly, Zeus be cursed, muggy. Sweaty muggy! Later that night we crawled into bed as the temperature sunk to 34. That's a forty-four degree change. It's a wonder Texans don't go crazy en masse. La coquetta mercurial, that's what our weather is. And today the evil cedar allergens have descended upon the city.

I'm taking the GRE tomorrow morning. Today I test-drove the route to south Austin to see how I'd fare in early morning traffic. I did fine, thank God. The ProMetric testing center was standing exactly where the map had promised. A month ago I put myself on a study plan. In the first week I fulminated against the stupid thing. Seriously, what does my ability to do Algebra have to do with my ability to research 16th-century Anglicanism? Nothing. It's ridiculous.

In the second week I chose Zen; I relinquished my passions. Nothing was to be gained by my complaining every morning and evening to Phaedra who, God bless her, endured my constant interruptions to tell her how wonderful it was to know how to find the area of a triangle again. The GRE was a game that disguised itself as a test and I might as well learn it.

Then I came across these "GRE vocabulary" lists and promptly forsook my Zen in order to shake my fists at the ETS gods. I had copies of both Princeton's and Barron's study books on my desk. Each had compiled a vocabulary list--one of 500, the other of 3,500--it deemed essential for the beavers who wished to ace the test. One of the words was "sybaritic." True confession: I've never noticed that word in my life. I've likely read it. But I had no clue what it meant when I first stared at it on my flash card.

And then the gall. I'm at Barnes & Noble flipping through Sports Illustrated's Year in Pictures and there it is: a photo with an image of a sexy Monte Carlo Formula One race-car on the left with two sunbathing "sybarite" beauties on the right. In Sports Illustrated no less! Sybaris is an ancient Greek city that was destroyed in 510 BC. But before it was destroyed the residents lived in and were renown for their luxury; and then they were destroyed.

And the funny vocab words just kept coming: die and wag and toady. There was martinet. There was tyro, that made me think of my happy visit in 1985 to the state of Tyrol, Austria, but it had nothing to do with the snow-skiing that made its capital Innsbruck famous. There was desuetude. But that just sounded like a lot of unnecessary bluster to say "disuse." There were the four cousins: panegyric, paean, eulogy and encomium, all which were very popular in the days of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. There was demur which was not to be confused with demure. There was quaff. With that I thought of Tom Bombadil--as well as all of Ireland. Meretricious derives from the Latin "meretrix," or prostitute. And jejune sounded like a Japanese-Brazilian martial art, but it really meant vapid--or nugatory--and I memorized it by thinking of the movie American Pie.

How can you not love good words.

But I do worry about our English language. This morning on NPR I heard a scientist say "irregardless." On national public radio. I yelped in the car. Speaking back to the radio I said: "It's either regardless or irrespective, not irregardless. Lady, that's like saying very unique. I know J.D. Salinger used it that way once, but mostly unique is either one of a kind or it ain't. It can't be very one of a kind. It's the only-one-of-its-kind." And I've virtually given up on the hope that people, including journalists, will keep their subject-verb agreement straight. "There's three men over there." "There's a lot of wars going on." And me is crazy. And forget about the who/whom deal. It's a lost cause.

William Safire, whose column "On Language" ran for over twenty-five years in the New York Times Magazine, tells this funny but truly sad story about Mick Jagger at Super Bowl 40 in 2006:

"During halftime at Super Bowl XL (Extra Large? No, 40), Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones performed "Satisfaction," their 1965 hit. He pointed out in his introduction to the song that it could have been sung at Super Bowl I, adding, 'Everything comes to he who waits.'

"That was a verbal malfunction more shocking than a previous Janet Jackson halftime. Because he is the subjective case of the third-person male pronoun, it cannot be the object of the preposition to. The pronoun must be the objective case him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in an 1863 poem that called up the image of a patient falcon carved in wood, had it right: 'All things come round to him who will but wait.'"

My linguist scholar friend, Amy Hamilton, rebuked me once for my grammatical puritanism. She said language was organic, not ossified. She said there was a difference between correct speech and understood speech. A regional dialect might not match the Queen's English, but folks understand each other just fine and with that understanding comes relationship--which is awesomely unique. For instance, I recently heard in the library a very tall man ask a very pregnant woman, "How pregnant are you?" That's an example of understood speech. "How far along are you?" would be an example of correct speech. But it's much more fun, I think, to say the former: How pregnant are you? Very, rather, magnificently pregnant, thank you for asking.

This makes me think of Eugene Peterson's story of William Tyndale. Working in the 1520s, Tyndale, a uncannily gifted polyglot, had a long-standing desire to translate the Bible out of the Latin into the English language, indeed so a plowboy could understand. It was not a popular sentiment. He was forced to flee to Hamburg where, in 1526, he finally completed the New Testament. Copies were smuggled into England, only to be condemned and ordered burned. Ten years later Tyndale was charged with heresy. He was strangled to death then burned at the stake. And that, boys and girls, is a lesson to us all not to mess with the English language.

Some seventy years later King James' best minds translated Genesis 39:2 in this way:

"And the LORD was with Joseph and he was a prosperous man."

It's a fine translation. But Tyndale, with an ear to the ground, to the way people actually spoke and related to each other, wrote, I believe, a more colorful and perhaps accurate translation:

"And the LORde was with Ioseph and he was a luckie felowe."

And, yes, Lord is translated LORde, perhaps in a nod to the two-syllabic pronunciation of so many preachers. In the end the King's men made use of 75% of Tyndale's work, but coming under the influence of an aristocratic culture that preferred high poetry to the people's poetry the KJV dropped the luckie felowe for the prosperous man and the English-speaking world has ever since struggled with how we should be talking to God. Or He to us. William Tyndale maybe one of the fathers of English literature, as the latest Economist avers, but he's a sober reminder that words are never just words.

Ok, enough blogging for today. I need to drive over to the central library to take my last GRE practice test. I'm at Wholefoods right now. The cedar pollen seems to have subsided. There's Pythagorean problems to take down. And Phaedra, her is so awesome and pretty, even if her does drink up all the hot chocolate in our non-sibaritic cold house.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Restiveness of Desire

(Note: While I began this entry on Saturday the 20th, I wrote the bulk of it on Tuesday the 23rd.)

"For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives just as we are and in the neighborhoods in which we live, not the ascent of our lives to God whom we hope will approve when he sees how hard we try and how politely we pray."
-- Eugene Peterson, Eat This Word

"Those who think they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons. An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. In the long run, some voluntary penance becomes necessary to help us remember that we are not yet fulfilled. A good criticism, a frustrating day, an empty stomach, or tired eyes might help to reawaken our expectation and deepen our prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come."
--Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

HUMMINGBIRD ANNUNCIATION
...I've often shrunk the world to my desire
That everything will be all right,
A crude defense meant to exclude whatever
Is uncontrollable. I turn away, afraid to be
Empty enough for something to enter.
-- Robert Cording


I've often told artists that the worst thing that could happen to them is instant wealth or instant poverty. To be struck with either would be cruel. Humans are adaptive creatures but they're not machines, and for even the saintliest among us instant wealth or poverty--waking up one day as a spectacular multi-millionaire or utterly destitute--would be an unkind, temptation-addled experience. I will probably never doubt the truth of the first. Instant wealth, if accompanied also by fame and power, would jack with our brain. Without the ability gradually to grow character muscles to handle that kind of weight we'd go crazy, as if somebody had injected two pounds of undiluted caffeine into our bloodsystem.

But I'm beginning to think that near instant poverty might not be a bad thing. I don't mean a Jobian instant poverty with a house burned to the ground, family taken by fatal accident, loss of all possessions and the contraction of an incurable disease--all at once. That would be, well, cruel. I mean a more garden-variety near instant poverty. This could include the temporary loss of job and income. It might be a prolonged illness. We might suffer the near fatal accident of a loved one. Or maybe it'd be a nasty bout with depression or an extended period of loneliness. What I have in mind are experiences that severely limit us. They force upon us a radical simplification. We cannot go on with life as usual and are compelled to stop.

It's what the old mystics called purifying fires. It's what we might call a very effective Master Cleanse.

Why are they desirable? Because they can wake us up out of the stupor into which we might have fallen. Bedeviled with feelings of boredom and fatalism, the twin feelings of the anti-Garden, we find ourselves rolling in and out of our days in a mindless way, numb to the deepest, subterranean desires of our souls because we no longer trust God. We haven't given up on everything, we've only given up on the things that pain us most deeply. Our subconscious thought pattern is this: "I'll always be this way. You'll always be this way. Life will always be this way. God will always be this way. Don't try to change anything, don't hope, it's too big and too much, just keep going."

This of course is the perennial lie of the Satan. Lucifer cleverly tricks us into accepting a false cantus firmus for our lives, a false base line: you're stuck and you'll always be stuck with these burdens and fears; it's too hard to change; it's not worth it and you'll unquestionably be pathetically alone if you do try.

When we experience a near instant poverty (NIP), or what Nouwen calls a voluntary penance, our foggy-headed life comes to a stop. We wake up. I've got the symptoms of a NIP. Finances are tight. The job is uneven. Our first year of marriage is teaching me how able I am at being selfish. And the questions visit me daily. Do I really trust God with the unknowns of my life? Am I loving well the people around me, or do I just think I am? What's grounding my sense of being a man? My ability to accomplish? People's approval of me?

I'm sitting at my home desk in a very, very cold house. The temperature is around 48 degrees--inside. Outside it hovers in the middle 30s. My fingers are blanched and numb. Three white candles keep me company while KMFA, our local classical station, broadcasts its marvelous "festival of carols" in the living room. Phaedra is wrapping presents for the nieces and nephews, turning a prosaic activity into a magical art that would make Martha Stewart proud.

Bread dough is rising on the kitchen island. A chocolate satin pie I made last night sits in the fridge. My PG-Tips tea loses its fight against the cold air. Earlier in the morning I read a devotional entry by Annie Dillard. In it she talks about her visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and I think her point is to say "See how glory comes out of debasement," but mostly she comes across cranky. It's like she wrote the piece in a bad mood.

The day outside my window is overcast and quiet, with a clammy fog drifting through our back yard. It's the last week of Advent.

In the world thousands of miles away from our home there is unrest. Forbes announces another plunge in home prices. Proposition 8 seethes on the western coast. The Illinois governor confirms our cynicism about what politics really is about. Christmas in Orissa, India, will be bleak, we're told. Fires burn on the streets of Athens, Greece. The Virgin Mary is portrayed as a drag queen in a street theater stunt hosted by the city of Amsterdam. Evangelicals resent Rick Warren for agreeing to give the invocation at Barak Obama's investiture. Countless families are about to get into a fight on Christmas day, overcome with their various disappointments and resentments.

And the stores and the TV commercials tirelessly plead with us that this is a season of peace and goodwill to men--and would you mind buying our product. But they've got Jesus wrong so they've got Christmas wrong. And the Church comes to our rescue by offering us Advent first, what it has nicknamed the Little Lent. Perhaps, though, it's the Little Unrest before our true rest can be won. "Sometimes we forget that God comes to us," writes the Catholic priest John Powell, "not only to give us peace but also to disturb us." So much of our holiday frustration comes, I think, from a frustration of our expectations. I expect one thing, somebody in my family expects something opposite and our clashing expectations drain and dishearten us. Again the Church extends to us a life vest. It offers us a song we can sing endlessly for four weeks in Advent, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus."

From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.

Let us find our rest in thee. It is a good prayer for us to be chewing on. And there is the other Advent hymn that teaches our hearts to desire rightly, "Love Divine, All Love Excelling." The second verse reads:

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled heart.
Let us all in thee inherit; let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.

The 17th century German Lutheran Valentin Thilo spiritedly reminds the Christian of his part in this work of heart-cleansing. He has him sing, in his hymn "Ye Sons of Men, Oh Hearken," the line: "Put the desires of your heart in order, O human being!" Advent is a time when we as Christians get to examine closely the gunk in our hearts. Last night Phaedra and I got into an argument about money. Our voices raised their loud and insistent acclaims--me the fiery Italian, she the dogged German, both of us blessedly stiffnecked and endowed with exceptionally strong emotions. After the durm und strang had settled, we realized we'd both gotten our feelings hurt. And we were both afraid. But gunk got out. Unrest was purged and a sober-minded, humbled rest returned to our hearts.

As I go into an afternoon of eating an Italian feast with my family and the wild west of opening presents with kids I am comforted by something Brennan Manning once said about Christmas. He said Christmas was for people who know they are shipwrecked. Those who know that every day is a day in which they wake up and acknowledge their poverty of spirit are those who can experience the sweetest happiness of Christmas.

I leave you here with Manning's words and pray that you will know the warm, tangible, reassuring presence of Jesus in the days to come. When things start feeling like they're spinning out of control or a little tinge of disappointment threatens to steal your joy, remember, this is Advent. It is a season of unrest and rest. It is the descent of God to your neighborhood, your house, your family with all the good and the bad. It is a season for you to struggle, with all the grace of God, to keep yourself empty enough for something, for Someone to enter.

May the peace of Christ guard your heart and mind this day and evermore.

"Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don't order "just a piece of toast" when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don't come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don't be contented with a 'nice' Christmas when Jesus says, 'It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.'

"Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

--Brennan Manning, "The Shipwrecked at the Stable," in Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus
(PHOTO: Phaedra takes a picture of me, Skye and Bronwyn making peanut-butter and chocolate chip cookies for the family feast.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Chilly Housekeeping


This entry was to be about untidy praying with a small preface about chilly housekeeping, but the preface turned into way too much fun so I've decided to postpone the untidy prayers and enjoy instead the chilly housekeeping all on its own.

Phaedra and I have been experimenting with ways to save energy. There's the usual "Turn off the lights when you leave the room," "Take short showers" and such. Last week we asked the city, finally, to exchange our mid-sized garbage can for the small can, and it's pretty small, not a "30%" small, more like a 14% of the original volume and it's forcing us to think more practically about how much garbage we (want to) produce.

This year we decided to try a bold new measure. We're not turning on the heat. And we're going to see how long into the winter we can last--and how many guests we can trick into wearing their coats inside our house. "No, no, please keep your coat on. You look great in that coat. Burlington Coat Factory, yes? No? Hugo Boss? Of course. Perfect. No auf wiedersehen from us. You make the coat! And besides, did you know that it's all the rage in New York City to wear one's coat inside? Oh sure. Everybody's doing it. Coats aren't just for outside anymore. Oh no, that's so cliche."

Granted in Texas you can get away with a lot more than in the north. In the north winter usually comes to stay. In Minnesota, it comes to stay and stay and stay. In Texas it comes like a tease--or as we'd say in Guatemala, like a "coqueta." One morning she, winter, bursts in, all 35 degrees of shivery insouciant charm, like a socialite immediately demanding your attention--"Love me!"--"Here!"--"Now!"--instantly taking over your home as if it were hers and promising you all the cozy pleasures of hot cocoa and wool sweaters. By afternoon she's gone. Ditch the woal. Pretend if you wish, but you'll only be pig sweating. In a flurry she's left her poor, haggard sister, summer, to resume her seasonal watch. It's 72-degrees outside; tank-top weather. Of autumn we see very little--of her. Yes, all the seasons are female, beautiful and tempermental. Perfectly so.

But still, it gets cold in Texas. Eventually the temperatures remain at the bottom side of the mercury. A few nights ago the temperature dropped to 31, the freezing mark. We covered all our plants and the backyard garden with beach towels, hand towels, tea towels, pillow covers, blankets and sheets. Inside we covered ourselves with, well, winter clothing. We stacked the bed with down-comforters. Phaedra boiled water for a hot water bottle. I slipped a heating pad under my back for a twenty-minute heating session. And we lit the house with candles as if it were a 13th-century medieval castle.

This past Wednesday morning I crawled out of bed and tip-toed over to the thermostat. Phaedra drowzily stared at the ceiling. I looked over at her excitedly, "Hey, guess what?" "What?" she mumbled. "It's a record! It's 49 degrees in this house!" She smiled, then said, "So go make some tea."

We're totally loving it. I don't know how long we'll last, but one thing is sure: There's very little sluggishness happening around our house these days. Our mental faculties are sharp. And as Providence would have it, there are plenty of natural occasions for heating. There's your metabolism. There's the pale mid-winter sunlight. There's the oven. In fact, at this present moment Phaedra is pulling out freshly baked bread from the oven and I'm in the middle of preparing a chocolate torte for 45 minutes of oven time. The oven generates prodigal amounts of heat.

Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes once said: "I like these cold, winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood." Our experiment is not so much license to savor bad moods as to savor the preciousness of warmth. We're saving pennies, yes, but we're also coming alive and paying a lot of attention to what it takes to warm our house or what it would have taken to warm a 19th-century Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer home or 13th-century medieval, small-sized, or maybe very petite, castle.

Tonight Phaedra was upset that preparations for a dinner party were not turning out as she was wanting them to turnout. I in a well-intentioned effort sought to comfort her with positive speech: "It's not as bad as you think. Folks will love whatever you do. You have too high expectations; it'll be ok and probably more than ok. And besides, I love you." Foolish, I know. What she really needed was sympathy. She needed me to say: "I'm sorry things aren't turning out as you'd imagined. That stinks. I know you had great plans. They're good plans. Don't lose heart. I'm with you." Sym-pathos: feeling with. I'm reminded of that very strange passage in the Proverbs: "As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart" (25:20). What the heck is nitre?

Whatever it is, it involves cold weather and inappropriate songs. Phaedra and I are waking up these days with a lot of garments in mind. There's no pajama lounging around our house. But there is a greater sense of noticing very simple things that can easily be taken for granted: cold and warm, coats and no coats, the privilege of modern Utilities and the absence of Utilities, and the money to be able to pay or not pay for them. It's a silly exercise perhaps. No Nobel prizes awared for our efforts, and none needed. But I guess you can say it's our way of slowing down and trying, by God's grace, to pay attention to the details of our lives. Staying awake. Being alert. And countering as best we can the temptation to take (American) life for granted.