Monthly Archives: December 2013

Past My Bedtime

Woman blowing a horn for New Year's EveIn some ways a New Year’s party is like Mardis Gras, but I mean from a theological point of view. Mardi Gras precedes (theoretically, that is) the sober restraint and denial of Lent. A drunken butter blowout before you go dragging off to church to repent on Wednesday. Similarly, following the frantic bacchanalia woohoo of New Year’s Eve, do we not (theoretically) slump toward a virtuous future of resolutions and improvements?

The new year, I’ve heard, is a chance to start all over, as if that would help. Nice myth, though if I myself had a chance to do things again, I’m pretty sure I’d come up with completely new ways to screw up pretty much everything. I mean, the stuff I did wrong, I know how that went. I want to do it wrong in new ways.

In the meantime, New Year’s parties come along, and this week my friend Salina Robinella Cocachella told me that she was invited to a New Year’s Eve party. Unlike some such parties that require nothing more than a willingness to consume with enthusiastic abandon, this party was to include costumes.

“I’m wondering how to dress up,” Salina said.

“Maybe as a pop star,” I suggested. I didn’t mention that Salina is a Unitarian minister, so she’s kind of an abstract thinker.

“Ah,” she said, “like Renée Fleming.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Renée Fleming. She’s an opera singer. One of her roles was Lucrezia Borgia. I could dress up as Renée Fleming doing Lucrezia Borgia.”

“Opera singer?” I said, “Didn’t I say pop star? How would anybody know you were an opera singer? Wouldn’t they just think you were Lucrezia Borgia?”

“I could sing everything I said at the party,” Salina answered.

“Yeah,” I replied. “That probably wouldn’t suck all night. Why don’t you just go as a historical figure without the singing?”

“That’s even better. I could go as Søren Kierkegaard.”

“Holy moly!” I scratched parts of my body that were itching. “Who the hell was that?”

“You don’t know Kierkegaard? He was a Danish philosopher, probably the first existentialist. Or maybe not actually the first in reality, but the first to—”

“What if you went as someone people have actually heard of?” I asked.

“Or maybe the Indian king Ashoka, who helped spread Buddhism.”

“Exactly what I had in mind. Because who doesn’t like…know some Indian chief or whatever?”

Salina’s face was lit up with enthusiasm. “I like the idea of someone who helped spread Buddhism.” She paused in her headlong rush through obscurity. “Or maybe I could dress up as an idea,” she said.

I put my head in my hands because Lord, what was there to say to that?

“No, really,” she said. “Like the idea of free will.” She stopped and frowned. “But how would I dress as free will?”

“You could go naked,” I said.

“Oh, but it’s in January. Or what if I dressed as the idea of skinny dipping? Ha! I know how I would do it. I’d wear a flesh colored body suit, then I’d tie some branches on over the top of it. I could hang items of clothing from the branches. So it would look like I was undressed behind the branches.”

“But you’re a minister,” I said.

“A Unitarian minister. Can I borrow some of your underwear to hang on the branches? Mine are too nice.”


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Merry Christmas

Santa on Sistine Chapel ceilingAs part of the liberal war on Christmas (so carefully documented by Fox News), let’s look at the language of some of our mythology. Because this is a blog that covers language and writing as thoroughly as a good warm quilt, let’s consider where some Christmas words come from.

The word “Christmas” is obviously derived from “Christ”. Although we’re used to saying Jesus Christ as a proper name, the word “christ” was really an adjective to begin with. In spite of being treated now as a name, it was not capitalized on a regular basis until the 1600s. The word “christ” comes from ancient Greek “khristos” meaning “anointed”, and was a kind of description of who Jesus was, someone special.

The ending “-mas” on Christmas is an abbreviation of the word “mass”, showing a Catholic origin to the name. As a religious service was celebrated for the birth of Christ, the “Christ mass” was eventually shortened into one word. The same phenomenon, by the way, can be found in the name of the holiday Michaelmas, celebrated for the archangel St. Michael.

For us the word “Christmas” has multiple meanings, from high holy day to major cultural holiday to secular extravaganza and family burden. Since the holiday has no direct Biblical basis, for some religious groups (i.e. those grim, unpleasant Puritans) the word meant an invented nonsense that should not be celebrated. Of course the Puritans weren’t the last word in grim, unpleasant religious groups. You can go now to a website put up by Last Trumpet Ministries—and with a name like that you can see what’s coming, right?—to read about the horrors of Christmas. Of the word “Christmas” they say that the Catholic mass means “death sacrifice” (who knows where they got that?) so that Christmas means “death of Christ”.

From the very beginning, the Catholic church did indeed try to use Christmas to take over pagan holidays like the winter solstice (and thus the birthday of Jesus is celebrated at the end of December). With such a history, it really shouldn’t be such a surprise that Christmas would have a strong secular element, to the point that even nonreligious people throw themselves into singing, eating, drinking, and cutting down trees. Which Last Trumpet Ministries considers the decadent sign of sin run amuck.

Speaking of running amuck, the Christmas shopping season began back around, I don’t know, Labor Day. This is also non-Biblical. Even as early as the Middle Ages the mythology of the gift giver St. Nicholas was well established, leading eventually to Santa Claus. The name “Santa Claus” comes from Dutch “Sinterklaas”, which is basically a Dutch form of the name “St. Nicholas”. We still allude openly to that origin with the name “St. Nick”, and—I search my soul whether to say this, but I’m giving in—that’s Santa’s nickname.

Christmas might also be said to have a nickname with the word “yule”. The word isn’t used extensively, but it’s certainly common enough that everyone knows it. “Yule” also comes from pagan practices, originating from a German word designating a winter festival. We can see the winter solstice connection here, a celebration to invoke light on the darkest day of the year.

So it’s a festival. We should be happy, celebrate, be merry. As the very first Christmas card  in the world, printed in London in 1843, said, “A Merry Christmas”. Or if you follow Last Trumpet Ministries, when you say this you are actually saying “Merry death of Christ”. Some people have souls like chunks of granite.Christmas ornament

When I say Merry Christmas, I mean sing, eat, drink, and cut down trees. Have a lovely Christmas. And bring me a figgy pudding.

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We Are Imposition

map of Burkina FasoPossibly you gained your great wealth in the usual ways, bribery, theft, cajolery, but some people want the money just handed to them without that kind of effort. No doubt you’ve heard of the emails that come from Nigeria, hoping to trick greedy but utterly stupid people into sending money. Recently I received an email giving me a chance to share in $10.5 million “without any trouble”. I knew it was legitimate, because it came from Burkina Faso, a completely different west African country. And money without any trouble, who wouldn’t go for that?

I also knew it was legitimate because Mr. Samunu Dawel works for a bank, and he has a real title with three words in it. He’s the Audit Account Manager. Furthermore, he showed his credibility by telling me that he had found my contact information “from a reliable web directory”. If it had been unreliable, well, that would have been a completely different matter, but fortunately we weren’t faced with that.

As Mr. Dawel informed me, “We are imposition to reclaim and inherit the sum of US ($10.5) Million”, which is more money than I currently have. It was reassuring to know that the owner of the account has been dead for 7 years, and just as I was wondering whether we might be depriving the rightful family of the money, I read that the poor soul had “died without trace of his family to claim the fund”. What luck. So $10.5 million (or Million) was just lying there, waiting for the first random stranger in America to pick it up.

It turned out, though, that my selection was not completely random, as Audit Account Manager Dawel had investigated and discovered that the deceased was from “Atlanta America”. Since I happen to live in Atlanta America, the deceased and I were neighbors, might have even been acquaintances in utterly different circumstances. Practically next of kin. I deserved that money.

Just in case I might have had any slight hesitations, seeing as how I had never met, or heard of, or suspected the existence of, the deceased, or of Samunu Dawel, or the bank he worked for, I was completely reassured by the professional manner of Mr. Dawel. He engendered trust with his professional manner, informing me that in case the money was too much to put into my account all at once, it could be transferred to me “bit by bit after approval”. I appreciated that.

He had even very professionally worked out the financial details of who got how much. The money was to be divided 40% for me, 40% for him, and—imagine the professional attention to details—3% more for me in recompense for the trouble. What about the remaining 17%? Tears come to my eyes just to think of what a good man Mr. Dawel is. That 17% was to be given as a “free will donation to charity and motherless babies homes” in both countries! My God, I wanted to round it up to 20%, until I thought that it really would be trouble for me to do this, and I could use that extra 3%, and babies don’t actually need that much money.

Because he was so professional, Mr. Dawel made this transaction easy for me with a list of the information he would need to complete the deal. He asked me to send him my full name, telephone number, age, sex, occupation, country and city (maybe that was just in case I had moved away from Atlanta America), and photo or ID card. He also gave me his private email, and I was thinking he might enjoy hearing from any blog readers who want to tell him what a good man he is for helping motherless babies:

If you happen to be one of those cynical types who don’t trust decent people who just want to do good in this world by sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to total strangers in America, I’ll point out that Mr. Dawel ended his kind letter with the reassurance that “this transaction will never in any way harm or foiled your good post or reputation”. I certainly do value my good post and reputation and would not want them foiled, so I was glad to hear this.

I’m waiting to hear back. And I’m feeling pretty good about helping those motherless babies.

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Show Me Yours

virtue film posterLast week in the planning for mass food production, so that we could eat insanely to show how thankful we are for life, I learned that two of my sisters-in-law had been asked to bring dishes to toss into the bacchanalia. When I heard that they were asked, I wondered why I had not been. The answer, I’m sure, was the assumption that women cook. Cooking is what women do, yes? Along with the assumption that men don’t. (I made collards anyway.)

Of course I don’t expect my elderly relatives to be up on the barricades waving flags of social change. But someone needs to be up there. Gender roles are social prisons. When we say to a person, “Here is what you are supposed to do” based on that person’s genitalia, there is something so existentially fucked up in such a notion that it cannot be fixed. Such an idea can only be destroyed.

All of our ideas, be they noble or reprehensible, come through in our language even when we don’t realize we’re expressing them. Openly sexist language—the kind no one with a brain uses anymore—is usually easy to recognize, except by the kind of men who go to Hooters and vote for certain Republican candidates. More subtle, and harder to recognize, are those ways of using English that simply assume men own the world. Even so, people have been addressing this kind of language for several decades now, with words like “policeman” and “chairman”, or the use of “he” to refer to any unknown person (the doctor tells his nurse).

The idea that our role in the world is determined at birth is a straightjacket of stupidity and obsession with the physical world. I’m not saying we’re smart about it. We’re not. Clearly we are obsessed with the physical world, even if we don’t belong to a fundamentalist religion. The idea that we are spiritual creatures beyond our body is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all.

Maybe a time will come when we deal with other human beings on the basis of their minds and spirits, instead of always seeing a person as a physical object. Even if we do reach this point, language can bury old ways of thinking—and importantly, it can affect thinking. Take a modern word that’s used only in fairly academic writing, the word “seminal”. It means something new that is so important, it causes other things to follow, as in the sentence “Johnson’s seminal work led to the field of kinetic studies”. There is logic with this word in the idea of producing something new, as it comes from the Latin for “seed”, but notice that it is also related to the word “semen” (also logically inferring “seeds”). What we see here is that novelty and creation are described with an implied reference to maleness. And yet it is women who give birth. Why aren’t new ideas described with a reference to the womb? “Martin’s wombic work has greatly influenced social policy.”

Some older examples of etymology may be even more interesting. Generally it’s a good thing to display virtue. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, virtue is “morally good behavior or character.” We could notice several things in that definition, but start with “morally”. The implication there is that virtue begins on an ethical level, going on to involve both behavior and the state of a person’s character. That’s a lot. Where does all this noble goodness come from? The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word “vir” meaning man (compare “virile”). To have virtue is to act like a man.

Maybe this kind of thing makes you crazy. Maybe you’re feeling hysterical by now. We all know what “hysterical” is, a wild display of uncontrolled emotions. Where does that one come from? In ancient Greek the word ὑστέρα (hystera) meant uterus. It was the uterus that was thought to cause uncontrolled bursts of emotion, and thus—you see the logic here? beautiful, huh?—only women could be hysterical.

We might not be surprised that primitive societies, gaping up in fear at the sky, shaping their deities out of clay and stone, would imagine that male and female are irrevocably different creatures. They were primitive people, after all. But we’re modern. We’ve come so far. We invented sports bars so men would have a place to drink beer and scream at glass boxes. The women, as you know, are home cooking. One group is hysterical, the other is virtuous.

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