I Visit her in my Dream

I visit her in my dream
Melting down the inside of her right thigh
Like a soft drink, a languorous kiss on full lips;
A taste of honey with nostril flare.
Like a supine goddess she yields, pushes back and scales
The Everest of her desire
Until she, like a bird in flight lets go
To find herself born aloft
On a thermal of ache and longing
On the wings of her first flight.

Social Conservatism and Engaging with the World

A high school friend who has devoted his life to “seeking God in his creation” and to community service recently sent an excerpt from the book The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christian Values in a Mass Media World. I took the excerpt as a challenge, first because the text was in Portuguese and I needed to prove to myself that I could still read and master ideas in Portuguese. Secondly, after 17 years in secular France I no longer feel the need for God as an affirmation of Life, Love or purpose and this chapter offered an opportunity to think upon “engagement”, “conformity” and “coming out from this world” in the sense proposed by Paul to the Romans, by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2).

[To begin, and to keep matters simple, I did find the text in English and suggest that if you are not familiar with Portuguese you might want to read the chapter in English. Have a look at Who Stole Our Culture?, which you will find on the World Net Daily website, www.wnd.com.]

There is nothing to recommend about the author William S. Lind, unless you consider that he has coined a media-friendly moniker and is successfully exploiting this simplification among those who long for aesthetic and philosophical certainty.

Just what then is “Cultural Marxism”?

According to Lind, “cultural Marxism” is a subversive ideology, with a “deliberate agenda” to undermine Christianity and in so doing, destroy American culture.

In his chapter, Lind traces a plausible connection (loosely and with considerable license) between the Marxist observation of tension between social classes caused by competing social and economic interests and Marxist atheism. Starting from the vantage of class struggle (as if this were the only path to change) he traces the ideology through anarchist movement to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci and the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs, to the Frankfurt School of social thought uprooted by the National Socialists in Germany and transplanted to New York. From New York, Lind traces the ideas of Western Marxism through Herbert Marcuse to the “counter culture movement” of the 1960s, concluding

That generation, which runs every elite institution in America, now wages a ceaseless war on all traditional beliefs and institutions. They have largely won that war. Most of America’s traditional culture lies in ruins.

Of course, Lind continues with his own prescription for “taking back our culture” which is nothing less than “Coming out from this world” (II Corinthians 6:17).

I have several problems with this article. First and foremost, the logic and the reasoning in this article work only if you reason from the standpoint that we live in an “us versus them” world, populated by conspirators who would “defeat” another, in short, a video-game world. This is all very Star Wars, very Manichean, simplistic and reductive. It is the case of good versus evil, where, if I am right, you must be wrong. If I believe in God (or do not, as the case may be) anyone who disagrees or challenges my deepest belief is against me.

The second problem I have with this piece is the unspoken belief that “Marxism” is bad and is diametrically opposed to … well not even capitalism, but Christianity. The dichotomy of Marxism and Capitalism I can understand. But Marxism and Christianity…? Maybe if you consider that anarchists and socialist revolutionaries were bent on overthrowing the capitalist order to ensure social justice. But surely, those are not the Marxists we see everyday who, in small ways work for social justice and to alleviate human suffering.

Finally, I dislike this article because it is prescriptive invites me into a world of belief that I cannot abide, the world of the socially conservative. It would have me agree about things I reject completely and absolutely and the public evangelist ideal that what I believe should be a matter of community record. I will not profess my faith except as a community act. I will not bear public witness but would expect those who “seek God in his creation” to have patience with me and see the spirit of Life, Truth and Love in me.

It is as if the need to believe in and affirm a purpose for life precluded any possible argument for millions of years of biological experimentation, as if it was foreordained that we should occupy the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder, and that God will show his chosen species a way out of the evolutionary mess we have created for ourselves.

Here is the text from an excellent review I also found on-line, at a website calling itself, Armchair Interviews:

“The authors have a biblical world view that says that the purpose of man is to know, love, and serve God. Therefore anything that moves someone closer to that end is good. If it does not—it is not good. It is that simple.

“This would explain why Pat Boone would lead his family out of a viewing of the movie, “Paint Your Wagon” in the early seventies. Why? Because the premise of the movie was that the town would be a better place if there were more woman of a certain type—a prostitute. And much of the movie focused on how to get these women to town.

“Many people would say that this is simply entertainment, point to the number of awards the movie garnered, and say that Pat Boone was narrow-minded and out of touch with the times. Pat Boone’s response would be that the movie did not cause people to know, love, and serve God—and therefore should be avoided.” (Bob Pike, “The Culture-Wise Family”, a review published in Armchair Interviews)

In my own life, I have preferred to live as Paul counseled the Romans (Rom.12:2), that they should not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind so that I might prove what is that good, and acceptable and perfect will of God.

40 years to make a good feijoada

Forty years ago, well 41 years, 2 months and 10 days ago, I sat in New York harbor on the SS Pedro Teixeira (a midsized freighter registered at 12000 DWT operated by the Brazilian steamship company, Netumar) waiting for a berth and the start of my new life as a repatriated American. I remember this clearly because it was the day Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong took the small step he characterized as a giant leap for mankind.

Man was walking on the moon and so was I, only it felt more like being stuck in New York Harbor.

Our first months in a rental on Vine Street in Broxville went smoothly (I think it was number 25, a duplex, on the right, midway up the street from Midland Avenue, across from the Sorensen’s). School started. Mom and Dad bought the house at number 17, across from the McVicars and we settled into a routine, or at least tried to find a routine amidst the lingering anger over the unwelcome disruption of a forced repatriation. This was before I went off to University, before Bruce became friends with Steve and Dave and a soccer star in his own right (well kind’a), before Gary left home for boarding school, and, I’m sorry to say, before I had any thought as to what might be going on in Nancy’s life.

During those first few months after move-in, Mother and Dad did what they could to provide stability and continuity, including, you may have guessed, fixing rice and beans and ultimately feijoada. Mother’s rice was awful, a gooey paste that no amount of salt margarine could quite repair and her beans were bland.

In fact, the rice and beans situation got so bad that Mom and Dad called in the experts, João and Nancy Nascimento, and got us all invited down to number 2 Stuyvesant Oval in New York. What a great time we had with the Nascimentos, with Dona Nancy singing Brazilian classics and Dr. Nascimento encouraging Tibério on the guitar and flute and Tobias on the Trombone. Nanstars…, the Nascimento family were in fact “Nan Stars”.

I moved to New Orleans for college, a Brazilian-American in a sea of privileged Latinos: Woll, Owen, Baumann, Karaa, Escabi, Bernal, the names are long gone. Among the identity traits that remained were language, cultural curiosity and a determination to make a mean plate of red beans. Of course I was greatly encourged by the fact that in New Orleans, red beans, rice and collard greens (“couve“, or kale) are staples of what was then becoming known as “soul food”. (That plus greasy fried chicken and “dirty rice” eventually found their way into the Popeye’s Fried Chicken franchise.)

To make a very long story short, over the years I have experimented with red beans and black beans, with all different sorts of sausages and meats (smoked and salted) and have gradually evolved a mean recipe for black bean “feijoada”, with “farofa” and out-of-this-world “garlic rice”. And it just happens to be the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Bronxville Highschool.

What is the secret ingredient? Gary actually made this recipe with a few local (to Florida) adaptations and said it was great. Here, then is the product of 40 years’ of on-again, off-again experimentation for your gustatory pleasure.

1 kg (approx 2lbs of black beans for 12 people)
Ground cumin (two handfuls)
Three good-sized onions
A sprig of bay leaves

The following meats.
Quantities are variable and subject to the amount of water, beans and meat your pot will hold.
You should probably figure about 250 g/serving or 2kg total (4.5lbs)

Smoked pork shoulder (1 – 1½lbs)
Salt Ham hocks (X3) (these need to be boiled to eliminate the salt)
Kielbasa sausage (figure 75g/person) (1kg=35oz)
Salt beef 200-300g (8-10oz)
(Brazilians use “carne seca” or “sharkey” which is generally a salt-cured, low quality cut of beef.
In France I use (200g/8oz) “viande de grisons” for flavor. Viande de grisons is a much higher quality meat (and very expensive about $35/lb) and does not require denaturing.
If you use a “block” of sharkey you must denature it by boiling the salt out.
)
One medium-sized beef tongue (probably between 2½ and 3 lbs)
(this is a key ingredient because it becomes extremely tender as it cooks down. Beef tongue is a muscle just like rump or sirloin so don’t be put off by what organ it is. Buy a small beef tongue (probably about 2½-3lbs). Boil it for half-an-hour. Take it out of the water, let it cool and then peel it. Once peeled cut into thick slices and mix into the beans.)

I find that Chorizo (Linguiça) – is not necessary. If you do add Chorizo be careful not to use sausage that is greasy or or overly salted or spicey.

The key is the sequence you follow in assembling the beans:
Soak the beans overnight.
Do not drain the beans. Set aside.
Chop the onions and put into your cooking pot with (two handfuls) of ground cumin. Let the onions sweat until they are translucent.
Add the kielbasa, the chorizo, the pork shoulder and ham hocks.
Add the beans
Prepare the tongue, salt beef and ham hocks prior to adding.

Cover and place in a hot oven (approx. 270/300 degrees).

Cook slowly and stir occasionally.

Serve with rice, farofa (coarsely ground manioc flour or what the Hatians might call “semoule de manioc”) and stir fried collard greens.

And bonne apetit.

Ultimate questions

A recent article on the website www.spirituality.com suggests that the choices one makes reflect one’s model of living. In the words of Mary Baker Eddy, “Life in and of the Spirit… is the sole reality of existence”.

What is your model?

People make choices according to the prism of their existence, a system of values regarding what is known (consciousness) and beliefs and projections about what is not, about what is beyond consciousness. We in the West project the “beyond consciousness” as an affirmation of the “purpose of man as being the end of history”. A grand idea, of course, and one that we have nurtured collectively over 4000 years of Western Civilization.

We consider that life has purpose, that we exist to find it, explore it, share it and even, to harness it in the interest of progress. We even export purpose as an assertion of “truths which are self-evident”. And in this respect we have a long history of colonialism dating at least to the beginning of the fifteenth century, if not to paleo-christian times and the institution of the “church militant”.

Christian Science—not just an alternative

This sense of purpose, along with a Spirit of Enquiry forms the very basis of our Western “world view”. It is this combination of determinism and curiosity which led to the crowning of Western Civilization with rational science and a self-proclaimed “enlightenment”.

But are we truly enlightened? Have we by understanding the physics of nature to the point of deconstruction, reached the threshold of yet another dark age?

This article in Spirituality.com provokes a reflection about man’s ultimate achievement. It makes me wonder if progress is now or can ever be a shared idea.

If we live in the present and share stories from the past, we can only go forward alone…, for where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. (Science & Health, pg 451:14-16)

Democracy and Truth

If you look closely at the stream of information emanating from China, some of it looks suspiciously “complacent”, which is to say, looks like PR spin. Where is the critical view, where the alternative, competing views?

Newspapers speak of the environment but do they go far enough? Are they, perhaps, simply writing for link-minded readers, perhaps a form of window dressing for general viewing.

The difficulty in cultivating a national democratic culture lies in encouraging vigorous, outspoken debate without fear that factions will gain the upper hand tearing asunder the “hard won” polity as it was following the Cultural Revolution, and as it might have been had the regime not suppressed the student demonstrations and occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Wherein then lies authority? With capitalism at its doorstep and modernisation a preordained outcome, how might the Chinese nation have encouraged national debate without unleashing sectarian violence?

Topography and Geomorphology: environmental debate in China

The following OpEd piece is reproduced in its entirety from the August 20, 2010 issue of The China Daily. This opinion by a senior editor of the “national English-language newspaper” may be read as a reflection on Chinese environmental sensitivity. The writer argues for placing “conservation” at the center of an ecological approach to the stark geographical and environmental realities that confront the PRC.

This article helps allay one’s fear that the Chinese pursue growth policies without regard to environmental consequences. Everywhere we visited there was evidence the Chinese are discreetly aware of the environmental cost of their success. But, while there may be no point in being alarmist, the issues are pressing.

Whatever success the Chinese may have in building a more just and equitable society, whatever the challenges of soil and water conservation, the Chinese are tributary to a “youthful” geomorphology characterized by frequent earthquakes, flooding and progressive “natural” desertification.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop

By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-20 06:10

Asia is home to half the world’s population yet it has the least volume of freshwater of any other continent, except Antarctica if we discount its ice sheets.

And among all Asian countries, the situation in China is perhaps the gravest: It’s home to more than 20 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of global water resources. Worse still, its per capita freshwater availability is one-fourth the world average.

Till the heavy downpours triggered floods and landslides, killing hundreds of people across vast stretches of South, East and even Northwest China, a large part of the country had been under the grip of drought or drought-like conditions. The blame for this unusual weather rests primarily on global warming. But the tragic developments – drought one moment, floods the next – teach us a lesson, too.

That lesson is not necessarily [that we should build] huge dams, diverting water from South to North, although such measures might in the short term, solve the problem. By far the most important lesson to be learnt is how to conserve water.

Almost half of China’s more than 660 cities face, what in modern terminology, is called a water crisis. Beijing, unfortunately, sits somewhere at the top of that list.

As if that was not enough, Beijing’s underground water table is said to be receding, and receding fast. China’s capital doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being situated on a major river. It has to depend on underground water for a large part of its freshwater supply.

The problem is that the more water it pumps out from the ground, the faster the water table recedes and the drier the city becomes. That’s an invitation to desertification, which has been checked, at least for the time being, by the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees in the northern part of Beijing and its neighboring provinces. But these trees, or afforested areas, as hardy as they may be, need a certain amount of precipitation to survive. And precipitation depends partly on the water table of an area, which tragically is receding.

Studies have shown a large percentage of the cities’ groundwater and a majority of rivers and lakes are polluted. The result: millions of people have to make do with contaminated drinking water. Beijing residents are not among such people. But the signs are ominous.

There’s a saying among Indians, irrespective of which of the many Indian languages they speak: Tiny drops go on to make a pond. Every drop of water is precious, every drop of water counts – more so in China.

That’s precisely why one is surprised to see tree trunks on streets beautifully guarded by immaculately paved tiles, with just one-meter-square of bare soil. The rest of the pavements, as the term suggests, are paved. And shockingly enough, the moment a tree is chopped off or uprooted for some construction project or the other, even that one-square-meter of bare soil is covered with tiles.

Beijing has all the trappings of a modern city: glitzy high-rises, wide, tar-bitumen carpeted roads, beautifully laid-out pavements and paved walkways (as we see in the Olympic Green). None of these surfaces allow the little rain (and snowfall) that Beijing receives to seep into the soil. The precious water flows into gutters, and ultimately into the nearest sea or river, which, in turn, flows untapped into a sea.

It’s no secret that groundwater tables are replenished by water seeping through the soil. But the logic of human beauty teaches us to keep cities (and if possible, the entire country) dust-free, and thus “concretize” every possible inch of space. The tragedy is that nature doesn’t follow our logic.

A 2006 UN report says: “There is enough water for everyone” and “Water insufficiency is often due to mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of investment both in human capacity and physical infrastructure”.

China neither has enough (fresh) water nor smart management to harness freshwater (harvest rainwater for instance), which otherwise flows into seas.

If we cannot build reservoirs in which rainwater can be drained into, can we at least let as much water as possible seep through the soil, especially in cities like Beijing?

For further information, the reader might take a look at the website “China’s Environmental Issues” (http://library.thinkquest.org/07aug/01561/), a site produced by students for students and hosted by the Oracle education foundation, ThinkQuest (www.thinkquest.org). Alternatively, one might have a more detailed look via the website, Facts and Details

Elise’ First Steps

Françoise and I spent Monday with Elise and Liam. We played soccer, spent a long time on the swings, played under the hose and… helped Elise with her walking. The following is a first for me and you will probably agree, leaves much to be desired. But I will do more and better over the next few weeks.

Expectations

It’s only six days until we board a train for Paris and begin our outbound trip for China. I continue to experiment with my blog and the possibilities the Arras template (a WordPress template) affords for media integration

Just how does the “Chinese awakening” constitute a “catalogue of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability”?

Contemporary Chinese culture is the expression of 4500 years of cultural learning. The virtue of continuity arises, not so much from the continuous occupation of an unusually rich biotope but in sustained interaction with that space and vigorous competition for the honor of ruling with “Heaven’s Mandate”. In this sense, China’s history is a long history of upheaval and renewal.

What is unusual is that the inventive spirit functions so well in this “old nation”.The Chinese are credited with many firsts–paper, gun powder, the compass, iron foundries, the crossbow. One innovation that is sometimes overlooked however, is their grasp of the social narrative as a tool for nation building. It was the Chinese who invented the professionalized civil service, admission to which was by competitive examination. China may be justly recognized as first among bretheren, simply because we could not have invented a narrative of continuity extending over 4000 years, or spatial scales and social organization adapted to a population of 1.3 billion people. These are products of time and cultural learning and cannot be invented.

I look forward to exploring how the Chinese inhabit their landscapes as well as the cities and monuments they have grown out of their rich geography. Our trip will take us from the Ming capital, Beijing, across the northern rim of the Yellow River Valley and through coal mining country to Xi’an on the Wei, a tributary of the Yellow River. It was here that the Qin finallly wrested power to themselves, transforming forever zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom) into China.

From the “uplands” of the Yellow River we will travel across the lower Yangtse to the historic city of Suzhou, the oldest continously inhabited city in the Yangtse Valley (2500 years), home of the Wu clan (one of three kingdoms competing for Heaven’s Mandate) and today, a city of 5.5 million people and an important center for China’s silk industry. Suzhou is located on the Grand Canal, a public works project begun 486 BC.

From Suzhou we will travel the last 100 km to Shanghai, that XIXth century port city whose role in international trade was consecrated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. There, of course we will be dazzled by glass and steel skyscrapers, a bustling Bund and the 2010 Shanghai Exposition.

In addition to the “built” environment, I look forward to Chinese railroading and to verifying (however superficially) the credibility of reports that the Chinese are destroying their environment. Such reports are pervasive in the European press even while there is no shortage of bucolic, beautifully lighted photographic cliches of the countryside under snow, of cherry and apple blossoms. How are these facts reconciled?

Finally, of course, I look forward to exploring market places and menus.

I approach this trip with a certain humility. I anticipate problems with language but do not anticipate resolving these simply by opening my wallet. I anticipate a certain amount of physical discomfort due to knees and joints with no obvious relief beyond anti-inflammatory medication. I anticipate self-restraint and an otherwise ascetic experience of an unfamiliar environment. This will be a first.

China, summer 2010

In July 2007 I wrote that the Chinese “great awakening”

might be apprehended as a mirror of Western society and a unique opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. There are perhaps as many ways to tell a story as their are stories to tell. But for those who listen and observe, the Chinese awakening is a catalog of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability.

This summer Françoise and I will travel to China to meet Katie and her travel companion, Pauline on their return trip from Sydney. Katie and Pauline arrive in Beijing on the 8th. From there we will travel to Pingyao, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai spending two-plus weeks in China. We return to Aix via Moscow and Paris on the 22nd of August.

In the three years since I wrote that entry, China has emerged as a world power. 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty and a vast middle class has emerged. China hosted a dazzling media event, the 2008 summer Olympics and is hosting the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, a world’s fair on par with anything the West ever organized. And yet, desertification continues in China’s far west, torrential rains and flooding dog Hubei province and the mid-Yangtse, and coal remains the fuel of necessity.

The image we in the West hold of China is that of a proud country in a rush to claim its place in the comity of nations. This is inevitably only a small part of the story and undoubtedly the story told by well-meaning and thoughtful men and women, news and assignment editors who decide which stories will get underwritten and published.

We all live in an attention economy where the rule is that “change originates beyond the pale of consciousness”. In visiting China we will meet Chinese people from all walks of life. We will sample the infinitude of spaces in which the Chinese live and move and we will get a glimpse the magnitude of their national project. But it will be a challenge to reconcile the tourism imperative–buildings, monuments, museums, landscapes, temples, mausoleums and parks–with the spontaneous exploration of people, places and community enterprise.

But even these obey the laws of the attention economy in a material marketplace, where the question “whence my next meal” trumps poetry, and where the ruckus of public life is but an note in a natural harmonic scale.

A Refreshing Voice

I ran across the following poem, “Chop”, in a blog post by Julia Moulden Better Business: Can a 500 year vision help save the world?. The poet, Kay Ryan, has a trenchant way of dealing with meaning. The poem is delightful.

Julia Moulden’s blog post takes the form of an interview with Joel Solomon who through his work has tackled a couple of “big” questions relating to the future of humanity and how we can be better stewards of planet earth. (These words are my own and draw on my own Presbyterian cultural heritage, I believe they address the same values expressed in Joel’s thinking.)

In the interview, Joel refers to the work of two non-profit organizations with whom he has been involved, the Threshold Foundation and the Social Venture Network. These foundations, in working to articulate a five-hundred year vision (the idea crystallized in 1992 with the five=hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America) by fifty-year strategic increments, akin to the average person’s adult life, challenge the reader to consider a lifetime in perspective.

The poem is a perfect complement:

CHOP
The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp –
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.
– Kay Ryan, Continue reading “A Refreshing Voice”