Saturday 29 November 2014

Shoes and Bags: Goblin Fruit?

Yes, I am including a Hermés Kelly bag in my list of beautiful things. My mother will clutch her throat. I am sure she would tell me that there is no way any handbag is worth $16, 500, and that I would be merely paying for the label. She might even add, "And where would you wear it?" for good measure.

I would most definitely wear it to church. And on holiday to Italy.  And on mini-break to London. And home to Toronto. And anywhere I would bother to wear eyeliner and foundation. So not Tesco or to the former Historical Killing House* where I take the Historical House recycling.  I am sure I would be invited to the New Club more often if I had such a bag, for then my host would be seen, not with a mere woman, but with a woman with a cobalt blue Kelly bag.

My mother is now rolling her eyes, so I will try to defend the longing to own a Kelly bag on grounds superior to mere snobbery and unfulfilled desire to be asked to the New Club. I will point out that although nowhere can you see an explicit Hermés label (the H on the lock is the gentlest hint), any handbag afficionada would recognize this handbag at once. The design, the leather, the hardware, the stitching--all top-notch. Each bag is made by one artisan who has years of training. The Kelly bag is a wearable piece of art. Yes, celebrities buy them. Yes, they are hard to get. Yes, they are Girardian objects of mimetic desire. But they are also beautiful examples of the craftswoman's (or craftsman's) art. I mean, look at them!

My eye was caught the other day by a magazine headline asking if I was a "shoe woman" or a "bag woman", and although naturally my highly trained intellect was outraged by the reduction of womankind to "shoe women" and "bag women", I knew exactly what was meant. I busily examined my psyche and concluded that I was a "bag woman." For one thing, bags last longer.

I have a theory that the reason why women love shoes, other than that we are told that it is feminine and attractive to love shoes, is their symbolic value. A pair of pretty shoes, especially if they have impractical heels, suggests that your necessities of life are assured. If you can afford to drop $100 (or 65 quid) on a pair of pretty shoes, then this means that there is a roof over your head, a coat on your back and breakfast in your belly.

One of the sacrifices I make for Polish is shoes, alas. (A term of Polish night school costs as much as two beautiful pairs of Irregular Choice pumps.) Fortunately, though, in the days before I fell in love with Polish, I bought some  pretty shoes, and I keep them very carefully, storing them in their original boxes and never wearing them outdoors. Outdoors is for my flame-orange Hunter wellington boots, which I got on sale, flame-orange apparently having gone out of style.

I am not tempted to look higher than Irregular Choice, for I object to spending more than $100 (or 65 quid) on shoes, no matter how beautiful they are. It's not just that freelance writers do not actually have the price of a pair of Manolo Blahniks in our wallets. It's that shoes wear out if you are so foolish as to wear them out of doors.

But I must say that I am tempted by BAGS. Currently I am running around town with a canvas tote bag big enough to carry my medium-sized Polish dictionary. I bought it for six quid at a charity shop, and it is a far cry from my dream bag. It is not at all an example of the craftswoman's art, and the lining is all ripped, and as long as I am seen with it, nobody will ever invite me to the New Club, weep weep.  Amusingly, or touchingly, if you are touched by middle-aged love, I did buy B.A. a proper tweed-and-leather messenger bag from Walker Slater.

Speaking of Polish dictionaries, it occurs to me that I must be more of a "Polish dictionary woman" than a "bag woman", for  I own FIVE Polish dictionaries, including the Pradziadek of them all, the two volume Oxford/PWN English-Polish, Polish-English. My next Polish dictionary will be one for Polish children, without any English in it. But now I see that I have strayed from the subject.

Are shoes and bags goblin fruit? I think not. I believe it is possible to collect nice shoes and bags without becoming a wan-faced addict. I would suggest, however, that the true shoe or bag collector is not the woman who buys any old shoe or any old bag any (or every) weekend, but the woman who is willing to go without many shoes or many bags to save up for the shoes or bag of great quality and price.

That said, unless we win the lottery, I do not think you will see me with the above bag anytime soon.

*The Historical House, like most genteel houses of its era, had a home farm and raised its own pigs. They were killed roughly where the recycling now goes. I lead a very interesting life.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Skill is Beautiful

he Ancient Greek word "techné" popped into my head this morning like a plank from the shipwreck of my classical studies. If I remember this rightly, it means "skill", especially artistic skill, and so that is our subject today.

Skill is beautiful.

I was treated to different examples of skill yesterday. In the morning I reread a little Harry Potter in English, so as to better understand Harry Potter in Polish, and I was struck by the liveliness and pace of J.K. Rowling's style, not to mention her inventiveness. In the afternoon I met my young Polish tutor for coffee and conversation, and as she happened to pronounce some French words, I was impressed by her excellent accent.  I was also struck by her look of deep concentration as she pondered how to make my latest pages of Polish prose sound well. She studies translation, so there was some serious training behind those distant eyes. In the evening I went to swing dance class and was impressed by the teachers' complementary techné--the preciseness of the woman and the fluid movements and comic timing of the man.

I confess I was rather dreading swing class this week. The dance hall hosts different teachers from month to month, so the amazing teachers I first encountered were replaced by ones who put me off the whole idea, so dull were they. However, November's teachers, it turns out, were quite good. "It's not the subject, it's the teacher," a Jesuit classmate once told me, and this very much holds true for dance class. Both teachers danced with me during the after-class hop, too, which I thought was very kind and conscientious of them.

Having been brought up on Jane Austen, I can't shake the feeling that my dancing days are essentially done, and my role is sit comfortably and beam upon the young men who ask my younger female friends to dance. And I was indeed pleased that several men asked my younger female friends to dance, and meanwhile I was asked often enough that I did not feel like a bump in a log. But what I liked most after the social success of my friends was watching the excellent dancers, the enthusiasts, people who had put in years of practice. They were as good as a show, as the saying goes.

On one airplane journey, I read The Tipping Point--an airplane book if there ever was one--and its  suggestion that 10,000 hours of practice separates the beginner from the master. Elsewhere I have seen scorn heaped upon this claim, but it seems very likely to me. A little native skill, a lot of positive reinforcement and hours of practice a day--say two hours--and within fourteen years, you will be amazing at whatever it is.

Meanwhile,  Malcolm Gladwell was talking about concert pianists and other musicians. I suspect that you can develop wonderful skills in fewer years than fourteen, if you work at them and never give up. I suppose I should keep on going to swing dance in that case; the enthusiasts seem to have so much fun.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers, a greeting with a string attached. Yes! Tomorrow is Black Friday when we all begin to buy Christmas presents, and what better Christmas present for the thriller-readers on your list than my marrrvellous Graham Greenesque Ceremony of Innocence?

Things blow up, so it is suitable for men, and Ignatius Press cut out all my English swear words, so it is suitable for the sensitive. It is full of bitter seething older women like me and open-hearted idealistic young girls somewhat like yourselves, and the most handsome German male philosophy undergraduate in the whole entire world. It also has a mysterious, shadowy figure someone thought was based on Karla in the works of John Le Carré but is actually based on an innocent German Jesuit theology prof who once treated me to lunch. I am sure he has no idea.

I hope the most handsome German male philosophy undergraduate in the whole entire world also has no idea. Really, it was a mistake to rent me a room in that seminary, and possibly they figured that out for women are not allowed to stay there anymore. Just about the only seminarian not in my book is R***. Dear R***  I wonder if he became a Jesuit after all? My guess is no.

All royalties will go towards buying a nice home for B.A. and me, once our sojourn in the Historical House comes to an end.

Update: Orthogals sponsoring Holiday Singles Cliché Bingo for the single girls!

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Embra is Beautiful

mbra, apparently pronounced AIM-brah, is a local word for the city of Edinburgh. I would never dare call it that myself.  I stick to "ED-in-bur-ah." Only tourists call it ED-in-BURG, as if it were next door to Pittsburgh, PA. In Polish class we call it ED-in-boorg (or Edinboorgu, Edinboorga, Edinburgi-eh, depending on the case.)

Edinburgh is a beautiful European city.

I am Toronto born and bred, and I confess there are moments when I find my very 20th century, very North American birthplace beautiful. These are always in winter when it has been buried in snow. On visits home, I enjoy tramping about the older downtown neighbourhoods with my friend Trisha, getting a hipster vibe from whichever pre-1950 shopfronts allowed to survive. The University of Toronto has some delightful Victorian Gothic vistas, also improved by the snow. Toronto has a population of 2.5 million.

Montréal is a bit more European in feel, in large part because of all the French, but it still strikes me as 20th century North American, with some 19th century hangovers.  I love to wander down the rue St-Denis, looking in the shop windows, buying a notebook, sitting down for the cup of coffee I  order, heart thumping, en francais. And my brother's and belle-soeur's old neighbourhood, with its amazing pastry shop, was very handsome though also improved by snow. Montréal has a population of 1.6 million.

Glasgow is not exactly beautiful, but it is a hoot. No Edinburgher worth the name ever praises Glasgow, but I am quite fond of Glasgow. Glasgow looks like Toronto with the skyscrapers and almost all the post-WWI immigrants thrown out.  Glasgow is a Toronto stuffed under a force field and forced to continue being British. It has the same Victorian Gothic buildings and the same crumbling mid-century buildings. I suspect that whoever designed Toronto up until 1962 designed Glasgow, too (or vice versa). It kind of plays to Edinburgh what Toronto plays to Ottawa. Yeah, it's not a capital city, but there's a lot more going on. Glasgow has a population of just under 600,000, and wouldn't be improved by snow: anything weatherish in Glasgow is sheer misery.

Edinburgh has a population of just under 500,000, except in August, Festival month, when it almost doubles. And it is absolutely beautiful--at least in the parts that the Festival visitors see. It is so beautiful that after the bus take me through various slums, I forget all about them as soon as I see the Royal Mile, or Arthur's Seat, or the Old Town from Princes Street, or find a crumbling-yet-charming street of Victorian tenements huddled below St. Anthony's Chapel.

There are so many wonderful walks in Edinburgh. There's the promenade along Portobello beach between lovely Georgian houses and the Firth of Forth. There's the paths beside Georgian and Victorian building and parks at the University of Edinburgh. There's the stately, planned, Georgian avenues of the New Town, culminating in the Stockbridge streets of shops and cafés. There's the hike up the hill known as Arthur's Seat which makes you forget you're in a city at all. There's the long ravine in which you can follow the Water of Leith, or drown fictional characters from time to time. There's cheerfully chic Morningside and shabbier chic Dalry. There's smart Dean Cemetery with its carefully tended rows of the respectable dead, and there's forgotten Dalry Necropolis with its ruins hiding the names of the lowly. There's the mediaeval riotousness of the cobblestoned Royal Mile: down through Canongate towards Holyrood Palace, up the High Street towards Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh was built on seven hills, and depending where you are, you can see higher hills--the Salisbury Craigs, the Pentlands, Berwick Law--and the Firth of Forth stretching out towards the North Sea. When I go for a walk in the fields behind the Historical House, I can see the Firth, with the Kingdom of Fife on the other shore, villages, planted fields, fallow fields, and prehistoric Arthur's Seat.  When I wait for the bus home across the street from the Waitrose in Morningside, I can see the Penland Hills in the distance to my right. There is just so much variety in the landscape: town, fields, hills, forest, sea.

"I'm so glad you married me so that I get to live here," I often say to B.A. as our bus rattles above Canongate Kirkyard. And this needs to be said because I also moan about the public behaviour of various Edinburghers, particularly on the bus although--so far--not on that particular bus.  The truth is that the young foreign traveller who sticks to the Old Town and the New Town, to Morningside and to Stockbridge, to the University and Portobello (if they take a cab to Portobello) is unlikely to see any trouble.

I am sure that Edinburgh is ONE of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but I am not as confident that it is THE most beautiful city in Europe, for I have seen Kraków and Kraków is very, VERY beautiful, crumbly bits and all. And Wrocław deserves a mention, too, despite having been bombed to smithereens during WW2, just for Ostrów Tumski. But those are cities deserving of blog posts of their own.

Meanwhile I regret to say that Edinburgh is not at all improved by snow. Snow is, of course, very beautiful in itself, but Edinburghers do not know how to drive in it. They don't know how to walk in it. They don't know how to shovel it. They don't know how to dress for it. In all my life, I have never come across a people so ignorant of the ways of snow. Knowing what I know now, I would never wish a White Christmas on poor Edinburgh. I just look forward to seeing the stuff when I go to Canada in February.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Benediction is Beautiful

enediction is our topic today.

I did not know that there was such a thing as Benediction until I was 19 years old and I heard that the school chaplain wanted to include one in our Graduation ceremony. That was the year I asked my history teacher how the Church was different before the Second Vatican Council, and he admitted that he didn't know. (One of the changes to Catholic schooling in the 1980s was the hiring of non-Catholics.)

At any rate, Benediction featured rather more in the lives of Catholics before 1965 than after, although in my parish (surprise!) we have it every month and it pops up after the Cathedral's first Sunday Polish Mass when one least expects it. (The Cathedral has two Polish Masses on Sunday.)

Here is what I wrote for the Prairie Messenger about Benediction, infuriating the feminist daughters of farmers.  I called it "The Gates of Heaven":

When I was studying graduate theology in the USA, my favourite class was Christian Latin. My classmates were all undergraduates, and most of them translated rings around me. However, the challenges of the course created bonds of sympathy among us all, and some of my classmates invited me to join them at evening Benediction.

Pious devotions were not what one expected from that school, so I was surprised to hear that Benediction was offered. I was even more surprised when, on the appointed evening, I walked into the old stone chapel and saw so many undergraduates on their knees. Two dozen? Three dozen? I don’t remember. I do remember that there were many of them and that they all sang “O Salutaris Hostia” (O Saving Victim) and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” (Down in Adoration Falling) from memory. Not knowing these hymns, I felt old and slightly out of it.

The Franciscans claim that St. Francis of Assisi began the devotion of venerating the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. If true, this means the custom began before Francis’s death in 1226. Certainly the custom of elevating the Host during Mass dates from the early 13th century, inspiring a firm and popular belief that there is special merit in gazing at the Blessed Sacrament.  After the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1246, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in processions became so popular among the people that bishops had to step in and regulate them.  

There are many forms of Eucharistic adoration, and there are many variations in the details of the Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Through the centuries and across the world, the common elements have been candles, incense, singing the “Tantum Ergo,” and blessing the people with the monstrance. Traditionally an afternoon or evening devotion, Benediction is said immediately after the 11:30 Mass at my parish every last Sunday of the month.

First, several candles—the required minimum was once ten—and a monstrance are placed on the altar. The priest takes a Host from the tabernacle and places it in the monstrance while the assembled, kneeling, faithful sing “O Salutaris Hostia.” Then we pray silently in the quiet or while the Gregorian chant choir sings. Contemporary guides suggest prayers, scriptural readings and even a homily, but my parish priest sticks to prayer and hymns.  The important thing is that we have a chance to be truly open and present to the True Presence on the altar.

After this adoration, the kneeling priest takes the thurible, bows deeply and censes the monstrance while the choir and congregation sing “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum.” Then, after a short silence, the priest sings “Panem de caelo praestitisti ei” (Thou gavest them bread from heaven), and the people respond, “Omne delectamentum in se habentum” (Having within it all manner of sweetness).

Oremus,” sings the priest and prays the prayer of the Blessed Sacrament. Then, wrapped in an ornate piece of cloth called the humeral veil, he picks up the monstrance through the ends of the veil, turns to his right towards the people, and slowly and silently makes the sign of the cross over us. He turns to his right again to place the monstrance on the altar and genuflects.  Then he backs away and kneels on the lowest step.  Finally he leads the congregation in the Divine Praises, a devotion in reparation for profane speech. He utters each praise first, and we repeat it:

Blessed be God.
(Blessed be God.)
Blessed be His Holy Name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Blessed be the name of Jesus
Blessed be His most sacred Heart…

After the Divine Praises, the priest gets up, takes the Host out of the monstrance and puts it back in the tabernacle while the choir and people sing “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes” (Praise the Lord, all people) or another suitable hymn.

Benediction is one of my favourite devotions for many reasons. First, it fosters a sense of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament in a time when it is handled by almost anyone and taken for granted. Second, the Divine Praises empower us to do something to make up for all the foul language and blasphemies we hear or say. Finally, the devotion reminds me of the night I went to a chapel and saw the next generation on its knees before the Blessed Sacrament.  At that moment, I saw the future. 

Okay, I admit it was naughty to invoke the future. which we all know inexorably belongs to the Sixty-Eighters. But as a matter of fact, I certainly saw my future, which was to hang out with increasingly younger-than-me trads and make them soup. 

And a letter has arrived from one of them, so I shall skip like a bunny down to the office to get it.  

Monday 24 November 2014

A Week of Beauty

To counteract my tendency towards writing about sad things, these days, I've decided to publish only happy things on my blog this week. And as I have already written a column this morning, I will reprint for your enjoyment a column I submitted to the Prairie Messenger in 2009. It is about the Asperges. My working title was "Hyssop, Snow and Water."

The very funny thing about my column in the Prairie Messenger is that the PM was so left-wing it was almost a cartoon, but the editor thought it would be cool to have Something Completely Different in it. I suppose it helped that I offered to name the column "Mad Trad Corner." 

To the editor's surprise and horror, my Trad Corner made an awful lot of people, including her old priest-mentor, really Mad.  

Well, enough advertising! Here 's my beloved "Hyssop, Snow and Water."

 s it takes over an hour to reach my beloved Extraordinary Form of the Mass on Sunday mornings, I am glad that it does not begin at once. Breathless, I need time to calm down and inwardly prepare. 

Most Sundays our Mass is preceded by the Asperges, the solemn sprinkling with holy water. This is a beautiful ritual recalling our baptism, Jewish purification rituals and Moses sprinkling the Israelites with the blood of sacrifice.  Dating from the ninth century at latest, the Asperges was performed before principal Masses on Sundays until 1970.

In the Asperges ceremony, our priest comes into the nave dressed in a cope, but not his chasuble or maniple, as the Asperges is not part of Mass. He follows a thurifer to the altar; the thurifer carries a vessel of holy water and the sprinkler, called an aspergillum. The sanctuary party genuflects while the priest bows low. Then all kneel. The MC takes the aspergillum from the thurifer, dips it in the holy water and gives it to our priest. The priest takes it and, in 13th century plainchant, sings Asperges me (“You will sprinkle me…”).

As he begins to sprinkle the altar and the sanctuary party, the choir and congregation burst into the rest of the verse: … Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor  (“…Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be clean; you will wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”) This is Psalm 51:7; the organist alone sings Psalm 51:1:  Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (“Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercy”). The choir and people then sing a doxology and, as the priest starts down the aisle to sprinkle them, repeat Psalm 51:7. When the priest has finished sprinkling, he returns to the altar.

Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam. (“Show us, O Lord, thy mercy”), he prays.

Et salutare tuum da nobis (“And grant us thy salvation”), add the people.

The priest sings, Domine, exaudi orationem meam (“O Lord, hear our prayer”).

We sing, Et clamor meus ad te veniat (“And let my cry come until Thee”).

Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you”), sings the priest.

Et cum spiritu (“And with thy spirit”), we reply.

Oremus (“Let us pray”), directs the priest, and then in Latin sings, “Graciously hear us, O Holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God; and vouchsafe to send down from heaven thy holy angel, that he may watch over, foster, safeguard, abide with and defend all who dwell in this house. Through Christ Our Lord.”

“Amen,” we sing, and then sit as the priest puts on his chasuble and maniple for Mass.

In Eastertide we sing the Vidi Aquam (“I saw water”) instead of the Psalm 51 verses. It derives from Ezekiel 17:1 and alludes both to the water that poured from the wound in the side of our crucified Lord and to our baptism.  The music dates from the 10th century. 

As we have both Latin and English nicely typed out in the red missals available at the back of the church, the ritual is easy to follow.  And I love it for many reasons. It is a way of cleansing the mind and heart before approaching the mystery and awe of Mass.  The holy water cleans off the dust, as it were, and the distractions of the world outside. The hyssop of Psalm 51, a forerunner of the aspergillum, was used to sprinkle water in ancient Jewish purification rituals, and so I think of the ancient Hebrew faith.  The prayers to be cleaned of and protected from sin remind me both of my failings and of God’s mercy.  Finally, as I sing and feel the water on my forehead, I feel a deep connection to all those Catholics who, for over a thousand years, sang and felt the same things.

The Ordinary Form of the Mass contains a Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Water. Although I have never seen this done, the Sacramentary of 1975 allows for its use in lieu of the Penitential Rite.  What I have seen in the Ordinary Form is the Easter Sunday sprinkling after we renew our baptismal vows. The priest often uses a pine branch, which strikes me as a fitting, Canadian substitute for hyssop; for us the smell of pine, like the sight of new snow and running water, suggests refreshing cleanliness.

If you would like to see and hear the traditional Asperges, you can find it easily on   

I believe my final, tempting, line was cut from the column before it was published. 

Our red softcover missals have been since replaced by hardcover blue missals, a bequest from a late parishioner. And we didn't have Asperges yesterday, for we had Benediction at the end of Mass instead.

Sorry--Delay on Sad Story

Oh cherubs. You will have to wait for my story after all, for I have just written it out and sent it in to my Canadian paper. I'll link to it if they publish it without the firewall. If it's impossible to link to, I'll tell you about it later.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Children, Sexuality, the Internet

Rape story involved.

I have been frozen with horror at two tales that were brought before my consciousness this morning, one by Yahoo News and one over Facebook.

The first featured "heartwarming" texts from a thirteen year old boy to his best friend (a boy) about how he liked boys the way other boys liked girls. His best friend assured him that there was nothing wrong about "being gay" and that he'd stand by him, etc.

The boy-liking boy's sister was so impressed by their "maturity" that she widely publicized their "heartwarming texts"  on the internet. Hey, world! Vulnerable thirteen year old boy right here! Yoo hoo!

I can't bear to see if any of them have been identified. I seriously hope not. When I was a child, vulnerable boys were not told to be frightened of "homophobes" but of male child molesters.  And when I was a teenager, there was this concept of "just a stage," not to mention "gay till graduation." I suppose that by 20, many a boy who "liked boys" at twelve or thirteen will now like girls. Some will not.  But you would never guess this from the industrial-entertainment complex.

I thank my lucky stars that the adults around more or less ignored my long-term crush on an older teenage girl (for which she was unfairly blamed) instead of slapping the lesbian label on my unformed mind. I wonder if that happens to thirteen year old girls today. Personally I was not at all disturbed by myself, for my guides to life, the Nigel Molesworth books and Seventeen magazine, wrote about how girls got crushes on older girl and even teachers.

The second featured texts from a twelve year old girl to her best friend (a girl) about how she was running away from home to move in with a man. The best friend, presumably also twelve, wanted to know how this girl could go away and leave her. The would-be runaway then changed her story to say, okay, she wouldn't go but feared being kidnapped. The best friend changed her tone to caring and said not to worry as the man--whom the first girl had met online-didn't have her address.  But--

"Um yea I told him where I live," texted the girl, and sure enough, Jane Doe was later found  21 miles away. She told police she had been sexually assaulted twice by her thirty-two year old kidnapper.

Jane Doe was found as quickly as she was because of a thick trail of internet crumbs, including her "Xbox Live gamer tag, her Apple iCloud acccount, and her social media chat accounts." So on the one hand, her life online helped the police find her. But on the other, they led to her kidnapping and rape.

Several thoughts come to mind. The first, of course, is the betrayal of children by older people. The sister who publicized her brother's most personal thoughts to his best friend. The exploitation of a girl by an adult man. The failure of her parents--and Chatty Cathy's parents--to adequately supervise their daughters' online behavior. Who is/was paying for all these apps and devices?

The second is, of course, the promotion of homosexuality and/or underage sex to children as an unproblematic lifestyle choice fate. My schoolyard was unusually nasty, so I see the good in thirteen year old boys not rejecting their friends, let alone beating the living hell out of them, for revealing their sexual/romantic feelings for boys.

Of course, again because my schoolyard was unusually nasty, I note that the boys with sexual feelings for other boys should have it made very clear to them that forcing their attentions on other boys, especially the ones smaller than themselves, even the ones whom they suspect also "like boys",  is unwelcome and illegal. And at the same time, they should be warned that a public identity as "gay" leaves them much more likely to be the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Children are not little adults. Children are not these amazing moral and intellectual giants whose sagacity dumb, hulking adults can learn from. When Our Lord told us to be like little children, He meant in terms of our relationship to God. You know that wide-eyed, blissful, happy confident look children have when they look at a trusted adult, or their look of frank, undisguised panic and fear of your reaction when you catch them at something naughty? That is how we should be towards Almighty God. But in all other ways, and in all other relationships, we have to be grown-ups, and part of being a grown-up is understanding that children are CHILDREN.

Children are lumps of proving human dough, unable to fend for themselves in a very nasty world in which many, many would-be bakers want to have the shaping of them. Educators in love with a theory. Governmental officials with quotas to fill. Advertisers with targets to meet. Whoremongers who want to have sex with as many young, attractive people as they can, as soon as they can. Clergymen who long to be liked. Childless couples (or "couples") who want to add a little children to their lifestyle décor. And the two people most responsible for protecting their little rounds of proving dough from all these interested people are the children's PARENTS.

It must be so tough to be a parent now. I will have to talk to my brother about this. My parents very strictly monitored our TV watching, and the idea that we might have had our own TVs makes me laugh. Naturally we did not have our own phones, and when my brother got a hand-me-down computer from my father, he used it to learn programming and play games, not communicate with people.

My parents were also very strict about how much money we were allowed to have and somewhat strict about what we were allowed to do with it. (My brother and I tended to spend our allowance on records.) They were so uncompromising on "Never Talk To Strangers" that it was many years before I stopped being frightened of people who asked me for directions.

And, I am very proud to say, my mother had no time at all for priests who used curse words. I started arguing with priests when I was fourteen, and to my amazement and relief, my mother took my side against a "cool" priest  who thought (wrongly) that the strong-man tactics he used with youth in American slums transferred easily to a suburban Canadian parish.

"But he's a priest," I said.

"I don't care if he's a priest," said my mother, pillar of the Catholic Women's League. "If any man uses bad language, hang up on him."

So even at church, unfortunately a haunt of predatory men in the 1970s and 1980s, as we now know, we kids were reasonably safe. Oh, and my mother was also of the opinion that various of our elementary school teachers were dumb, so I took their opinions--when they were as unprofessional as to voice any--with a grain of salt.

So actually, now that I ponder this, my parents made sure that the biggest influences on our childhood lives were themselves, their tastes, their religion and their philosophies. Anything that threatened this was treated to a loud black propaganda campaign by my noisy mother.

Friday 21 November 2014

Translated Polish Poem

My sleeping patterns were thrown off kilter by the busy weekend, and I have been sleeping through my daily Polish Hour. I dreaded what effect this would have on my performance in Polish class last night, but I didn't do too badly. Of course, it helped that the highlight of the class was a translation exercise, and the text to be translated was a beautiful Polish poem I had looked at over supper.

(Note to self: hamburger and booze before class a much better mental booster than coffee at Brew Lab.)

Originally I thought the assignment was to write a Polish poem ourselves, which would be darned challenging, if not actually horribly presumptuous. So relieved was I that all we had to do was translate "Sad, styczeń" (lit: Orchard, January) that I convinced my classmate-partner Roz that we should try to replicate the rhyme and rhythm. 

Here's the Polish first:

Sad, styczeń (Jerzy Harasymowicz)

Oto zimą, jabłonie 
Oto gil w pąsie tonie
Gil ma jak peska serduszko
Gil--zimowe jabłuszko.

Na korę jabłonek głupiutke zajączki
siekazczami nakładają ślubne obrączki
Jest nieruchomo i cicho dokoła
czasem tylko gawron jak marszałek coś zawoła. 

You can take it from me, homesick for snowy landscapes, that this is absolutely beautiful. Wah. Meanwhile, even if you understand no Polish at all, you can see that the ends of the lines have rhyming pairs: AA, BB, CC, DD.

So here is what Roz and I came up with (well, no, I have worked on it since):

Orchard in January (trans. DCM, Roz)

In his winter apple bed
here's a finch drowned crimson red.
His pip-like heart an apple splinter,
Mr Finch, small fruit of winter.

The silly hares do make their mark
with sharp wee teeth upon the bark 
of wedding rings 
and everything's
and silence lies,
till just one rook 
shouts marshal's cries.

If you hate it, don't blame innocent Roz, for I think her one surviving contribution was "the sharp wee teeth". I sort of ran over her, in a metaphorical fashion, the bit being between my teeth. I live for this kind of thing.

Meanwhile, here is a literal translation: 

Orchard, January (trans. DCM)

Here in winter, an apple tree. 
Here a finch in crimson drowned.
The finch has a little heart like a pip. 
The finch -- a little winter apple.

On the apple's bark the silly little hares 
with little sharp teeth put wedding rings. 
It is still and quiet around. 
Sometimes just a rook like a marshal something shouts.

Bill Murray on the Mass

Taken from a recent interview with American actor Bill Murray in the Guardian. And I will take this opportunity to remind gentle readers that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is still available worldwide.

One new saint he [Bill Murray] does approve of is Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963). “I’ll buy that one, he’s my guy; an extraordinary joyous Florentine who changed the order. 
I’m not sure all those changes were right. I tend to disagree with what they call the new mass. I think we lost something by losing the Latin. Now if you go to a Catholic mass even just in Harlem it can be in Spanish, it can be in Ethiopian, it can be in any number of languages. The shape of it, the pictures, are the same but the words aren’t the same.”
Isn’t it good for people to understand it? “I guess,” he says, shaking his head. “But there’s a vibration to those words. If you’ve been in the business long enough you know what they mean anyway. And I really miss the music – the power of it, y’know? Yikes! Sacred music has an affect on your brain.” Instead, he says, we get “folk songs … top 40 stuff … oh, brother….”

 I will take this opportunity to remind gentle readers that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is still available worldwide. Here's what it looked like in 1944!

Notice how the soulful young lady is not wearing mantilla but a chic-for-then hat!

Thursday 20 November 2014

Free Speech on Campus

I was often frightened as an undergraduate; most of the time too frightened to wear my pro-life button on campus. I was certainly too frightened to apply to join the staff of the Varsity, the university newspaper which launched the careers of, for example, Stephanie Nolen and Naomi Klein. I remember walking into the office of the Varsity rather as Frodo crept into Mordor: longing to get something done there, but needing to steel myself against running away. The Varg printed my letters to the editor, but its loathing of pro-lifers was all too obvious.

I blamed myself very much for my cowardice; it took me a long time before I realized that keeping my mouth shut and my head down was the only way to survive an environment so opposed to the values I cherished most: Catholic Christianity, chastity and the right to life. If my core values had been anything else--anything else--I would have coped better. Before I joined the pro-life movement I was a devout Catholic, but my core value had been literature story-telling romance words. If I had stuck to the poetic sounds of words, and cared only about repeating them, in whatever fashion or form, I would have been fine.

When I was a child of 12 or so, my father took me to U of T to see a performance of Doctor Faustus. He regretted this treat, for it was an all-male cast and there was a homo-erotic tinge to the whole thing, but, innocent that I was, I didn't notice that. I thought the play was dramatic, deeply Christian and awesome, and Marlowe's cadences grabbed my imagination:

O Faustus lay that damnéd book aside and gaze not upon it lest thou lose thy soul and heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!

Although technically Marlowe belongs to the Renaissance, I had fallen in love with mediaeval Christian drama, and I decided in the deepest part of my very undeveloped adolescent brain that I would go to U of T and join that magical mediaeval drama society. And despite other, subsequent, plans and wishes, that is exactly what I did.

Amusingly (now), I believed I could have it all: I imagined the University of Toronto to be a place where I could study beautiful things in beautiful surroundings as I advocated for the right to life of unborn children, promoted chastity and sought creative inspiration in the medieval drama society that so enthusiastically promoted the cultural artifacts of the medieval Catholic world.

Ha. It turned out I was the only believing Catholic in this medieval drama society. That said, I do not regret the experience for through it I met my dear friend Trish and some other very good people, and the host of liberal Protestants, atheists and gays was very nice to me, probably because I resembled a sleepy baby bunny. I was really very young.

Sadly I broke with this drama society over a "queer" production of a morality play by a famous (and gay) local director. It turned the tale upside down so that the principal Vice was a good chap at heart and the Christian Virtues who put an end to his shenanigans were dressed in Nazi uniforms with crosses where the swastikas would be. The costumes, which pronounced Catholicism=Nazism, were the last straw: I went.

I remember that the motherly costume mistress, whose lair of wonderful costumes and props I adored and rummaged through whenever I could, was very angry with me for leaving them temporarily in the lurch. But I couldn't have done anything else. How could any Catholic have participated in that? Meanwhile, it never--not once--in fact, I only thought of it now--occurred to me to organize a protest among the campus Christians, let alone try to get the play shut down.

And I write this today as a response to this very good article by the (atheist) columnist Brendan O'Neill about the lack of freedom of speech on British campuses. It has become de rigeur for certain students, presumptuously speaking for all students, to claim the right to feel comfortable on campuses and not have to hear ideas they disagree with--ever. 

They talk about "safe space", but I can tell you that I VERY RARELY felt "safe" or "comfortable" at the University of Toronto in the 1990s.  As a Roman Catholic, I was shocked, offended and frightened on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. I don't remember being shocked, offended or frightened by my polite, professional professors. I was mostly shocked, offended and frightened by groups enforcing Political Correctness and mocking Catholic icons. Now that I am over forty, the photograph of a banana balanced on a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary doesn't strike me as so horrible, but when I was 20--whew!

The one truly "safe space" for yours truly was my architecturally ugly Catholic college, and the dominant power of PC was doing its best to make it unsafe, too.

-- All the U of T orientation kits included condoms, so the St Michael's College student council spent hours taking them out of our kits--and a very good thing they did, too, for I wouldn't have lasted a day if they hadn't.

-- There was a long-running battle between the college newspaper and the organizers of "the Homo Hop" to allow advertisements for "the Homo Hop" at Saint Mike's; the lamp posts around St Mike's were frequently festooned with such ads, and they were just as frequently torn down.

-- One of my atheist friends went to the University Ombudsperson to complain that a professor at Saint Mike's prayed aloud before class. (She had spoken to him about it, and he said he was sorry that it disturbed her, but he would continue to pray briefly before class. As a matter of fact, I knew this prof tolerably well, and he didn't pray before every class, but only on important feast days.)

-- In my last year, an underground paper appeared at Saint Mike's, mocking Catholicism and demanding change. To the great surprise of my mentor of the time,  a Catholic professor, I burst into tears. She was inclined to see the paper as an exercise of freedom of speech, but I saw it as just one more attack by the huge PC forces on the small Catholic minority.*

The forces of tolerance were  thus deeply intolerant of the existence of a Catholic college daring to uphold Catholicism there on the westernmost border of the St George Campus. And why? Because they thought they were the rebels fighting for justice and we were "the oppressor."  (Incidentally, since 2001 the college has l  given into the dominant campus ideology on several points.)

One of the insanities of the PC movement is that, no matter how rich and powerful it is, it strongly believes that it is the underdog and that anyone who disagrees with it is a tyrant who must be strongly resisted, even if that tyrant is a shy 19 year old girl wearing a button that reads "Save the Baby Humans" or a powerless foreign student at a Jesuit college who argues with a tenured Jesuit priest-professor's call to end compulsory Sunday Mass.

And this is one reason why I am so committed to freedom of speech. (I am not, incidentally, that interested in freedom of imagery--I would censor all kinds of photographs, drawings and cartoons in a heartbeat.) I know perfectly well that people who hate Catholic Christianity--or conservatives of any stripe--would love to shut us Catholic Christians--or conservatives--up forever, and the fewer concessions we make to these people, the more they long to shut us up.

*What did for SMC as a "safe zone" for gently brought up Catholic girls like me was not any outside pressure but the college itself with the hiring of a left-wing professor, Dr. Mark McGowan, a very charming, personable scholar whom I like very much, and I know has always liked me, too. (I was in one of the classes he taught in his first year at SMC.)  However, I was very disappointed by his administration's behaviour over the Kreeft Lecture Scandal of 2002-200, for it severely compromised freedom of speech for Roman Catholics who are, in fact, Roman Catholics at SMC. The Kreeft Scandal plunged SMC in an open state of civil war, and I am amused to see published in the link above many names of old friends and professors fighting for Catholicism at SMC.

I was at that lecture myself, by the way, and there were obviously hostile elements in the crowd before the visiting Professor Kreeft even opened his mouth. One young lad, well-attended by equally colourful friends, was clad in a rainbow coloured (pink, says Hilary, below) feather boa . Professor Kreeft was clearly very nervous (he wasn't, says Hilary, below). The lecture hall at Saint Michael's College was certainly not a "safe space" for him that day.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Thai Girl Refuses to Sell Self

Yet another article about Bust-and-Bum turned up on my computer, but this one involved a young woman of character, who refused (in a very polite way) to be bought as a pet.

If the story is to believed, the young woman did not know that the rich lady who wished to take her away from her home owed her [the rich lady's] money and fame to a sex tape. So it is not even a question of a young Thai woman refusing to live on the avails of prostitution, but of the girl choosing love and work over gaudy and fantastic images of "the West."

This story illustrates a lot about what is very sick about "the West". Meanwhile, I am trying to imagine what would happen if a Saudi sheikh or a Qatari appeared in an Edinburgh slum, cameras rolling, and attempted to adopt "an outstanding scholar" thirteen year old boy.

The Smile of Insincerity

Does anyone know how to deprogram phlegm?

I'll explain what I mean, but I hope nobody takes advantage of this, for I cannot stand any more crazy.

The definition of a lady, in some circumstances, is a woman who knows how to make a guest feel at home, even if he walks into the bathroom when she is in the bath. I think this was the worst thing a gently raised Englishwoman could imagine back when this definition was minted. And as there is no lock on our bathroom door, I have cause to think about this often.

As a matter of fact, I am much more of a shower woman; thanks to the bizarre behaviour of our hot water system I can never run a tubful of hot water. But I know perfectly well what I would do if an unexpected guest walked in on me as I splashed happily away under the suds (for what is the point of a bath without bubbles?): I would immediately sink down to the neck and say in tones of great cheer, "Hello, my dear! Need the loo? I'll be right out."

But this will not be because I am an English lady (alas) but because this is how I react when I am in a state of acute dismay.  Only later will the embarrassment of the moment occur to me, and then I will brood about it for hours on end. For example, I hate very fast driving, but when a female friend drove me to a bridal shower at 160 km an hour on Ontario's Highway 401, I uttered not a word of reproof. I was much too terrified. But eighteen years later, I am very cross indeed. How dare she? We could have been killed!

This tendency towards delayed rage has its good side and its bad side. The good side is that it got me a job with a Canadian government department, which could have eventually led to a very high position in the civil service had I not been too much of a flibbertigibbet to want one. There were three tests, about which I probably cannot tell you about as I seem to recall some talk about the Official Secrets Act. But I will say that one of the tests involved my future boss pretending to be an unhappy customer and slamming down his mobile phone before me.

Later he told me he had been very impressed, for although he had ranted and raved and shouted, I never flinched or lost my expression of frozen calm. I vaguely seem to recall saying such things as "Well, sir, you are absolutely right to be angry, and I will certainly put this right." Ironically I was at the time in a verbally abusive relationship, so facing crazy with frozen patience and polite insincerity was all in a day's work, as it were.

But that is a example of how phlegm is not always helpful. I would have been a much happier woman if, instead of being endlessly polite and insincere to crazy-acting men, I had told each and every one to **** off.  But, you know, to this day I have never told anyone to **** off.

However, I have come to the conclusion that the best and most effective reaction to crazy is "Don't do that." It would be much better to say "Don't do that" and have a short quarrel than to pretend nothing bizarre is going on and brood about it for hours or days or weeks.

Fortunately, all this this does not apply to B.A, and I think it is due to the miracle of marriage, or because B.A.'s craziness is limited to a morbid fear of vinegar and his own unique rules about eating food in front of the television, not that I would ever admit that we ever do such a thing. True love, I see, means always being able to say "Stop putting egg and cream in every pasta or rice dish," even at the risk of momentarily hurting the loved one's feelings. But how weird that in my life absolute frankness is restricted to the most intimate relationship, and thus "Don't do that!" is tantamount to saying "I love you."

But this is an absolutely ridiculous situation. Oh how I hate being an Anglo-Saxon sometimes. I am sure it would be more comfortable to be Italian or French. (I suspect being German, Russian or Polish is not comfortable at all.)

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Societal Death Spiral

Every morning when I check for my email, I am subjected to incredibly stupid trivia masked as "news." Too often it is "news" about this woman whose first, last and only claim to fame is that she behaves and dresses in a crudely sexual fashion. From some freak of nature, all her body fat has landed on her breasts and buttocks, a circumstance she underscores in photo after photo.

As a Catholic and a pro-life activist, I have been frequently told that I "hate women", and yet it would never occur to me to publish photographs and articles about this woman, and women who, like her, are known only for their crude, bathroom graffiti-style sexuality, over and over again. In fact, I think it is actually dangerous to American and British and European women that such women are shoved so often in the consciousness of the entire world. Simple men whose only window to our societies is mass media get the impression that we are all like that.

I find myself thanking Britain's lucky stars that the British press is equally obsessed with the Duchess of Cambridge who, although famous only for having married a future king, having had his children, managing to stay model-slim and smiling through her royal duties, provides an alternative model of womanhood to the masses.  

Ah, Georgette!

 Sir Richard sighed. "Rid yourself of the notion that I cherish any villainous designs upon your person," he said. "I imagine I might well be your father. How old are you?"   
"I am turned seventeen."  
"Well, I am nearly thirty," said Sir Richard.  
Miss Creed worked this out. "You couldn't possibly be my father!"  
"I am far too drunk to solve arithmetical problems. Let it suffice that I have not the slightest intention of making love to you.”

Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian

My life at seventeen was really quite dull by Georgette Heyer's standards, I must say.

Diamonds as Overpriced Carbon

Gentle readers will never have heard of Ann Barnhardt and may cry if they read her posts about Pope Francis, so be warned about reading anything further than this excellent piece on diamonds and her link to The Atlantic.  I read the Atlantic piece last night, and all I can say is that it proves my mother's attitude towards advertising right yet again.

My mother brought her children up to be anti-consumerist not because she is a Sixty-Eighter but because she is a Catholic. And she always said that if some toy was advertised on television, we would not get it for Christmas. This was a perfect way to make us shun and distrust advertising--which can be difficult to do as advertising often looks fantastic.

You should see the ads the British supermarkets have on television right now, preparing us all for Christmas. Food, food, glorious food. Forget about baking your Christmas cake or mixing up your glorious Christmas pudding. You can get them, and everything else, from Lidl and your very large and happy family will think you bought it at Marks and Spencer (cue angel choir) or Waitrose (awed hush, all fall to knees).

(Incidentally, Polish Pretend Son thinks I am obsessed with the British Class System. Well, I would not say obsessed, but you have to admit that it is fascinating how people define themselves by their choice of supermarket. My dear husband, being caught by a co-worker with a reusable Waitrose bag, by-product of some visit to Morningside, found himself having to explain it away, lest he be thought a snob or a class traitor or whatever it is co-workers might think you for having the wrong shopping bag. Crikey, on the Toronto subway, if I see someone with, say, a Chanel bag, I don't think "A la lanterne les aristos!" but "Oh, lucky GIRL! I wonder what she got!"*)

Anyway, I love glittery ads for diamond rings as much as the next woman, but I am very proud of B.A. that instead of going into hideous debt at a jeweller's for a diamond solitaire engagement ring, he went to an antique shop and got emerald-eyed Ringzilla. And now that I know the history of the advertising of diamonds, I am even prouder.  Apparently we could all bring the diamond cabal crashing to its knees by glutting the market with our grandmother's engagement rings. What a hoot!

Update: If you are young and beautiful and were planning on financing your old age with diamond jewellery thrown at you by besotted admirers, all this will come as a terrible shock.  Yes, Marilyn Monroe lied to you, for diamonds are most assuredly a girl's best friend. But fear not! There is still hope, and it is gold. Gold is stable. If you are among the very small minority of women who get expensive presents just for being fabulous, try to influence your suitors towards gold. Or silver.

*That said, I have been disappointed by the Chanel window on Bloor Street West for years.

No Humanae Vitae, No Priests

This morning I read this article with interest. Bishop Remi "Racehorse" de Roo certainly rocks his civilian suit.

Unless you are a Canadian Catholic or hard to port on the American Catholic spectrum, you probably have no idea who Bishop de Roo is. On the other hand, you may have seen him in one of those amusing Giant Puppet Liturgy videos. In short, Bishop de Roo was ordained a bishop at the tender age of  thirty-eight and thus at the age of 88 is one of the youngest episcopal veterans of the Second Vatican Council. Although no friend to the patriarchy, Bishop de Roo prides himself on being one of the Council Fathers. He has had an interesting and colourful career. When he bankrupted his diocese through rather crazy investments, he begged his flock to pay off the debt, and lo, they did.  Hearing the news from the other side of the country, I was awed at the generosity of my fellow Catholics.

Apparently Bishop de Roo has written a memoirs and the article details his meeting with Saint John Paul II. Bishop de Roo emphasizes how St JP2 ate his lunch--heartily and like a man, not that Bishop de Roo said that. Anyway, Bishop de Roo began to whine at him about married priests and, since St JP2 wasn't interested in the topic, Bishop de Roo bided his time and then addressed him en francais. St JP 2 banged the table and shouted "Deus providebit!"

You can just see Bishop de Roo rolling his eyes at that one.: God will provide ??? Hoo boy. Are we in trouble.

The article (did Hilary write it? No, Patrick Craine.) also chooses to mention Bishop de Roo's participation in the Winnipeg Conference. Some Canadian Catholics fear "the Winnipeg Statement" caused a silent schism between the Catholic Church in Canada and Rome, for it basically told Canadian Catholics that Humanae Vitae could be safely ignored.

Bishop de Roo was all for Catholics deciding for themselves whether or not to use artificial birth control, and--lo! By the time I went to elementary school, large  families were viewed by my Catholic classmates as freakish. Since I had no idea that birth control was wrong, and only a hazy idea what it was and how babies were made anyway, I was incredibly thankful that my classmate Nancy (whose parents were from Portugal ) had even more brothers and sisters than I did.

My classmates thought pregnancy was a huge, slightly obscene, joke, and when someone asked me if my mother was pregnant, I denied it angrily with, "No, she's just fat."  As a matter of fact, she was pregnant. Hey, you should have heard my classmates on breastfeeding. Did I mention this was a Catholic school?  Thanks, Winnipeg Conference!

So I have to laugh at the thought of Bishop de Roo bothering John Paul II about the poor old Mass-deprived contracepting rural Canadians while the saint was eating his obiad, most important meal of the Polish day. Bishop de Roo thought the solution was ordaining married (probably contracepting) married men, when the priest shortage is quite obviously caused by CONTRACEPTION. No critical number of Catholic boys, no Catholic priests. DUH.

"God will provide" said Saint John Paul II, and yet God has given us free will, so we can reject His provisions in several ways. One way is through rejecting and suppressing our ability to have more than one or two children. Another is by running down the priesthood to the children we do have, if we have them. Still another is by turning away very good candidates from the seminary on the grounds that they are too pious or too interested in liturgical vestments, rubrics,the whole beautiful art of saying Holy Mass and the traditions of the Holy Catholic Church stretching back past 1962.

It would be enough to make me weep if my own parish didn't regularly attract men with embryonic vocations and send them out again to various seminaries. These are generally converts to Catholicism, mind you, so they did not grow up in soi-disant Catholic homes and  thus were not inoculated against the real thing.

Dear me, if I ever do, through some miracle, have a baby son, I will certainly do as one priest pal thinks his grandmother did to him, and take him to the altar in a basket and offer him up for a priestly vocation. But you can be very, very sure that B.A. and I would think very, VERY long and hard about into which bishop's or order's care we would put our child.

It is a total irony that, at the end of the day, after two hundred years of woman's struggle to be treated as equals to men,  and forty years of women studying theology alongside men, I realize that the best things women can do for the Church, besides going to Mass, as we have always done and always will, is, if women religious, to pray for her constantly and, if married women, give birth to and educate sons.

Oh how shocking.

Monday 17 November 2014

Overcoming Linguistic Inhibition

"Żywy!" quoth I wittily this morning when Polish Pretend Son appeared outside the kitchen. "Dzień dobry!"

"Dzień dobry," said PPS and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

That was my Polish conversation for the morning until I perceived that PPS had made himself some breakfast.

"Czy masz ochotę kaa---aa--wę?" I inquired.

"Tak, poproszę. Dziękuję," said PPS.

"Okay," I said, courage failing, and made the coffee.

And that is basically it, for I fell down badly (so to speak) after asking PPS what he wanted to do today, and then trying to tell him that I had a bad dream, which was pretty sad, as this morning I had just been reading about Harry Potter having a bad dream. Why I blocked out zły when I could remember gorzy is no doubt a question for linguists.

Alas, I did not take advantage of  two parties and limitless booze to discover how much alcohol is best to help my ability to communicate in a second language. However, I was quite pleased during Saturday's party, in which all guests were Polish, to get a general sense of what the conversation was about, the guests being encouraged to keep on speaking Polish when I (but not B.A.) re-entered the dining-room. So that was very cheering and hope-inspiring.

Will to Scour

One of the drawbacks of housewifery in the attic of a three hundred and thirty year old house is the lack of hot water. For some reason unknown to me, we do not have hot water in the kitchen on demand. Although there is always hot water in the bathroom, one can only be absolutely sure of hot water in the kitchen at 9 AM and at 5 PM. However, there is a button to push to request more hot water, and usually there is hot water at 10 PM, too.

So imagine my horror when there was no hot water after 5 PM on Saturday evening, and none after 5 PM on Sunday evening either. On Saturday evening, we had four people to supper, and on Sunday afternoon we had four people to lunch, and this meant an awful lot of dishes.

On Saturday evening, I scraped the plates and rinsed everything and discovered, quite by chance, that there was hot water at 1 AM. So, mindful that I had to cook for Sunday lunch the next morning, not to mention that looking  at a dirty kitchen is among my least favourite ways to begin a day, I got stuck in. Washy washy washy. I went to bed at 2 AM, and was terribly grateful to my Saturday self when at 8 AM  I went into the kitchen to start the soup.

On Sunday afternoon after lunch, when all the remaining company were looking at holiday snaps of Anglo-Catholic shrines, I had a little nap. And when I woke up at 6 PM, I discovered that there was no hot water. None. Zip. And this distressed me, for I was not sure when I would have the energy again to tackle the dish-and-pot covered kitchen,  So I pushed the special button, which did not work the night before, and started boiling pots of water.

B.A. came in looking guilty and, having had a skinful, began to fuss about bits of food falling down the sink drain. I threw him out. (See pet peeve, below. It goes for washing dishes, too. Nothing that happens in the kitchen is fun. Being in the kitchen is not fun unless there are other women in the kitchen, and then it can be fun. But kitchen - other women is not fun but WORK to be ENDURED and got over as quickly, painlessly and accurately as possible.)  Boil, boil, boil, Wash, wash, wash.
Boil, boil, boil.

I got through it all through sheer momentum, and the thought of how happy I would be the next day when I saw that my Sunday self had left me a tidy kitchen. I thought a lot about the act of will, and how important acts of will are in getting anything done. And I got everything done by 9:15 PM, and returned to the sitting-room where the remaining company were now talking about the survival of traditional Catholicism in Scotland.

I went to bed at 11, and got up at 7:25. When I went into the kitchen to make coffee, I was intensely pleased with my Sunday self. And I have now finished the Monday hoovering, for which my Tuesday self will thank me.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Christmas Cake, the Recipe

One of my biggest pet peeves is a man in the kitchen when I am cooking, and B.A. is in there right now caroling "Down Among the Dead Men" as he grinds up smoked mackerel and cream cheese into a paste. Thus, I am taking a break between barszcz (the soup) and uszka (the dumplings). Uszka are a bit tricky, so for the sake of everyone's sanity, I will wait until the man is out of the kitchen. In my mind's ear, I can hear De Guter (from my book) fleeing my kitchen in Boston while wailing "If you don't like men in the kitchen, how will you ever get married?

Here in the meantime is my mother's Christmas Cake recipe, handed down from her to me. I am not sure where she got it from: neither her mother nor her grandmothers were keen home cooks from anything I've ever heard. My grandma was a champion at ironing (even socks), but cooking was not her thing.

The one thing that marks out this recipe as from times past is its cautious, penny-pinching attitude towards butter. Once upon a time it was expensive or something. I can't find Crisco or any other all-vegetable/tout-végétal shortening in Edinburgh, so I just use butter.

Cummings Family Christmas Cake
1/2 lb. seeded muscat or lexia raisins (or whatever raisins you can find--SS)
1/2 lb. seedless raisins
1/2 lb currants
1/4 lb. soft butter
1/4 lb. soft shortening (or use all butter; I do--SS.)
1 C sugar
1 1/2 Tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
6 eggs
1/2 C brandy
1/4 C honey
2 1/4 C unsifted all-purpose flour (get the hardest you can find, perhaps bread flour)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 lb pitted dates, cut up
1/2 lb chopped mixed candied peel
1/2 lb candied cherries, halved
1/4 lb blanched almonds, halved (or if you can't find them halved, chuck 'em in whole--SS)

Use tube pan 10" x 4".  Line pan with thick brown paper; grease well with unsalted shortening (or butter).

Wash raisins and currants, dry thoroughly between paper towels. (At this point I diverge from the recipe and soak the raisins and currents overnight in 1/4 C brandy, covered)

Beat butter and shortening together thoroughly; when smooth and fluffy add sugar gradually, beating continuously.  Blend in vanilla and almond extract.  Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each  addition.  Beat in brandy and honey; they may cause batter to appear separated, but it will not affect the results.  Mix prepared fruits and almonds in large mixing bowl  (and I do mean LARGE);  add sifted dry ingredients, and mix well to coat pieces.

Scrape butter and egg mixture into bowl, and, using hands (woo hoo), combine very thoroughly.  Fill pan 3/4 full.  Preheat oven to 275F. Bake cake 3 1/2 hours.  After first hour or so, place pan of water on bottom of oven to prevent cake from drying out.  When tested done, remove from oven, and let the pan stand on a rack until the contents are completely cooled. (I leave it out overnight--SS.) Remove from pan, peel off paper wrapping.  Wrap it well in brandy-soaked cheesecloth and place in a cookie tin (if you have one), or wrap the cheesecloth packaged cake in tinfoil.  Store in cool place (not the fridge) for 4-5 weeks.

If your cake pan isn't big enough, line a bread tin with greased brown paper and bake the leftover batter in that.--SS.

Friday 14 November 2014

How Languages are Learned

Scientifically proven to improve pronunciation of  rz and szcz.
As long-time readers know, my family has a passion for languages. That is to say, most of us dabble in them and get rather good at one, two or three. I was a terrible dabbler as an undergrad, when I had no work ethic. It took work to get a work ethic.

And even after that it hurt. I can still remember long hours of toil in the one very handsome hall at Boston College, working away at translating St. Augustine. Christian Latin was my favourite class, and 100% heresy free.  Oh heavens, and there was some Early Church Father I elected to study whose work on the Holy Spirit was available only in Greek,  Latin and French, so that meant sitting down and reading pages and pages of theological French. What a killer.

Now that I am out of school, the two languages in which I am immersed on a regular basis are Polish (every day for at least an hour, usually more) and Christian Latin (Mass). Polish has a reputation for being the most difficult language for English-speakers to learn, and that may be well-deserved. I suspect that if  I put this much effort into my Italian, I would be fluent in Italian by now.  It would help that I have been studying Italian, on and off, since I was 15 years old, of course. Taking up Polish at the age of thirty-nine was wonderfully optimistic.

For, alas, I have been reading an interesting book called How Languages are Learned, and if you want to speak a language without a foreign accent, you really need to move to that country as a child and learn to speak it there. However, this can stunt the adult development of your native language, depending on how much interest your parents take in it. That said, the very best, most efficient learners of a foreign language are teenagers.

I cannot go back to being a teenager, so I am heartened by the news that adult learners can indeed achieve fluency in a language through sheer hard work. Says the book:

some of history's most successful learners of multiple languages...their unusual talent was also associated with a willingness to work hard at tasks that many would consider too boring or difficult, such as using word cards to study vocabulary. (p. eighty-three).  

My dad, who teaches linguistics, told me that this book was an easy read, which it undoubtedly was for him.  However, even a non-linguist  can profit from its amusing and heartening information. For example, the ridiculous letters I send off to amuse Poles are not written in pidgin after all but in something called an "interlanguage."

 Polish is the "target language", and what I am creating as I learn Polish is my own "systematic" and "dynamic" interlanguage. It is dynamic in that it changes and becomes more like proper Polish the more data about Polish I absorb.  And what is very neat is that interlanguage follows the same stages for almost everyone.

Interlanguage involves "bursts of progress" and also plateaus. One can expect to hit a plateau eventually, and then something "stimulates further progress." Sadly, the book did not suggest what the something might be, although in my experience getting a new email in Polish is a great boost.

The book is very hot on vocabulary, although one needs only 1,000 - 2,000 words to get by in ordinary life. However, you may need as many as SIXTEEN "meaningful encounters" with a word before it is "firmly established" in your vocabulary.

The best source of vocabulary growth is reading for pleasure, although the book argues that to learn words passively, you need to understand 90-95% of the text already. This is bad news for me, diligently reading Harry Potter in Polish while understanding perhaps 50%. However, eventually I will start making flashcards out of Harry'a Potteriego, and then we will see. Meanwhile. "vocabulary development is more successful when...fully engaged in activities that require [students] to attend carefully to new words and use them in productive tasks." This is where writing letters, stories and mini-essays comes in handy.

The book recommends  keeping a notebook, looking up words in a dictionary and reviewing what has been learned. And this very much reminds me of when I was a child of eight, diligently keeping a diary, writing stories, looking up words in the dictionary (with some prodding by my mother) and rereading what I had written. I was also a terrible bookworm and constantly read storybooks. And I had many people to whom to speak English, as my parents kept giving me new brothers and sisters.

That was an advantage of childhood I don't have now, for I am gravely inhibited in my speaking of Polish, whereas very little could stop me from chattering away to my family in English. Inhibition is  indeed a serious problem, according to How Languages are Learned. Fortunately, it turns out that inhibition can be lessened and pronunciation improved through the drinking of small amounts of alcohol. Larger amounts of alcohol, however, ruin pronunciation, and I am disappointed that the book did not suggest how small is "small." I suspect that one cocktail is not enough and two cocktails are too many, but I will research this when Polish Pretend Son arrives tomorrow.

One advantage I have now that I did not have as a child or a teenager is the ability to take, and even welcome, correction. I used to show teachers extra writing in a "look at ME" kind of way, in English and in Italian, and be greatly distressed when instead of simply admiring my efforts, they covered them in red ink. Naturally they were just doing their job, but instead of learning from corrections, I  wept or sulked and never showed them anything extra again. And that's too bad, for if I had kept on writing in Italian from the age of 16,  I might be a Joseph Conrad by now--or a second-rate imitator of Alberto Moravia, whose work we were reading at the time.  On ne sait jamais, as we did not say in Italian class.

Truly, there is no room for ego or hurt feeling in language learning. You just have to face up to the fact that it took you at least six years to speak your native language with any sophistication and it is probably going to take you just as long to speak your second (or third) language as flawlessly as a native six year old. But fortunately you are more intellectually developed than a six year old, so you will at least be having adult conversations, even if you sound like the anglophone version of Balki Bartokomous. And everyone liked Balki anyway.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Is It Really All Right to Cry?

I have a theory that babies cry because that is all they can do. Poor things. There they are, helpless and hungry and/or uncomfortable , and most probably bored. No wonder they cry. I would cry. In fact, I am sure I did cry. There I was enjoying non-existence, insofar as one can enjoy non-existence, when suddenly I had being, which was okay for the first nine months, if a bit cramped for the last two or three, and then there I was in the bright, cold and scratchy world, feeling hungry and with no-one to talk to for most of the day except this frightened 24 year old girl.


The 24 year old girl probably cried, too, although I am not sure because the only public crier in the family over the age of 10 is your humble correspondent. This may be because, as far as I know, I am the only one who ever saw a  therapist and my therapist was keen on crying. The theory was that I was pretty messed up and could not be tidied down until I cried out all the mess. Of course, it wasn't that  I should cry in public, but that I should cry at all. Apparently crying is good for you, even if the social norm in Commonwealth countries is to cry in private. And apparently never crying is a sign of great mental distress. Crying, therefore, is a sign of mental healthiness, the natural response to anger or grief.

The last time I cried was on Sunday during the homily. It was Remembrance Sunday and the day began with the BBC playing "O Valiant Hearts". The homily was on the young men of the parish who were killed in the First World War. The priest had looked up their obituaries and addresses, etc. He mentioned, by the by, that some of their mothers hadn't long outlived them. Indeed, perhaps being bereaved had killed them, motherhood being a very powerful and special thing, as the Church has always taught...

Sniff, sniff, sniff. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Poor old Mrs McAmbrose began to search her pocket for a tissue. We know she is a nice lady, but we didn't know she was so compassionate that she would cry along with long-dead suffering mothers. 

In fact, she isn't. She was crying for herself because she has no children and therefore will never discover what a powerful and special thing motherhood is. Sniff, sniff, sniff. She thought perhaps she might flee the church and just go to the Polish Mass at 1 PM. But that would be Making a Scene in Church and her mother husband would be greatly annoyed. Weep, weep, weep.

"This is self-indulgent nonsense," thought poor old Mrs McAmbrose, dabbing away with her tissue, so oblivious to the collection basket that she didn't remember she was supposed to put something in it until an hour later in George Street. "I am not the only childless woman in this church. I can think of five just off the top of my head." Sniff, snort, sniff, snort. Honk. 

Too much crying is from neither grief nor anger but plain old feeling sorry for oneself. I learned that in therapy, too. Authentic crying (in the opinion of my therapist) came from deep in the gut. Inauthentic crying, which really means poor-me-I-feel-so-sorry-for-myself-you-should-too was shallow, coming from the top of the chest. She may have said that to goad me into authentic, deep-gut wailing, of course.

During the homily, I was never in any danger of authentic, deep-gut wailing, so running away would have been very self-indulgent indeed. (Deep-gut wailing in Church is, however, 110% against my cultural norms, so if there had been any danger of that, sneaking out as if to the loo would have been the right thing to do.)  Ladies are allowed to sniffle and weep a bit at Mass, after all, and I think elderly men are too, on Remembrance Sunday at very least, although perhaps they are only supposed to mop  their eyes a bit. 

When it is truly appropriate to cry is, in fact, a very important question, for as we have unfortunately found out, emotional incontinence does indeed bring civilization to a crashing halt. The facts that over 40% of Britain's children are born out of wedlock, and thousands of others are killed before they are born, are not because the British have such wonderful emotional discipline.

The British--and I include myself among them--are inwardly bestial savages painted blue who need as many checks as possible to our natural inclination to live entirely for war, booze, sexual excitement and pretty foreign objects. Helped by Christian missionaries, we developed self-control beautifully over the last two thousand years and were greatly respected by all the world (except the Irish) for it until 1997, when Princess Diana was killed and the island disintegrated into a great bathetic puddle.   

Do away with the stiff upper lip, the phlegm, the false cheer and the sexual hypocrisy, and what you get is a large, bald, drunk, sunburnt, shirtless man with a painted face chanting "Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland. Ingerland, Ingerland, IngerLAAAND" at a quiet tram of passing Germans. 

I do not entirely blame Princess Diana for this. She was, after all, born in 1961, after the rot was already setting in, and she was only two when the brakes came off the roller coaster that plunged us all into.... But I digress. 

Our subject is crying, and my therapist convinced me that it is natural (and even healthy) to cry when we are angry or sad. Crying just because we feel sorry for ourselves, however, does not occupy the same moral plane. Indeed, it can be deeply manipulative, especially if we do it in public. 

I have seen my brothers cry as little boys, but I do not remember them crying to manipulate. They were actually splendid little boys, as I am proud to remember. One had a particularly sunny disposition, so the evils of the school playground were a terrible shock to him, and when he cried it was out of real disappointment, grief and loss. The other was born frowning and suspicious and so was better equipped for this vale of tears.  

I have never seen my father cry. I have never seen my brothers cry as adults. Well, okay--one did at my grandmother's funeral and at B.A.'s and my wedding. But as far as I know, that was it for any of them crying in public. Possibly they all enjoy a good weep behind locked doors, but I may never know because they were all brought up strictly in the Men Are Not Women school of thought. Oh, and they are not manipulative so-and-sos.

Because I have indeed seen men, men not as manly as my father and brothers (or my husband), weep and wail before me, and it was not because they were overwhelmed by grief, loss, anger or their sister getting married, but because they felt deeply sorry for themselves. Often they were crying to stop me from doing something I wanted to do or to move me to do something I didn't want to do. And once I figured that out, I despised them for it. 

I also despise scriptwriters who still think it is ground-breaking to force men to cry on television and in the movies. Once upon a time (i.e. before 1963) it was considered a terrible imposition to show an Englishwoman crying on television. Now it is de rigeur to get anyone and everyone to do so. The baying mob who regressed to 54 BC upon the news of the death of Diana even demanded that the Queen herself--the mother of the man Diana publicly humiliated on multiple occasions--burst into sobs. How ridiculous, and what a betrayal of Britishness. Never mind the poor migrants--why can't UKIP do something about all the English crying on the screen?

It was once (and still is in isolated pockets like my family) considered unmanly to cry, and although women were always allowed to cry in public on the grounds that we were not men, it wasn't exactly encouraged in British countries, either. Private howls were quite alright, as long as nobody was made uncomfortable by them. If you mentioned them to anyone, you made a joke of them. The whole point of keeping crying private was not to indulge your own emotions at someone else's expense. That was, and is, the true hallmark of an English gentleman and an English lady. 

I do think it was a bit much to expect English-speaking men never to cry, or to suppose that they were letting down the entire nation by crying like Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, et alia,  But I quite agree that crying in public was a sign of "unmanly weakness", except at funerals and weddings (NOT sporting events). Men have many privileges--excellent shoes that can be kept in good repair and worn for twenty years or more, the right to wear the same suit every day, the freedom to walk through the woods after dark without once thinking about sex maniacs--so I think, in general, they ought to leave public (or, really semi-public) weeping to us.