Saturday, 25 November 2006

Sailing on the wide accountancy - a Christmas story

(Apologies to Monty Python - but 'sailing on the wide accountancy' is probably not the worst pun you'll hear from me today. If you wish to see more profound words about Advent and Christmas, click my archives for November and December of 2005.)

Yes, it is awful but inevitable - with one month till Christmas, I once again am pining for boughs and holly (the latter not to be brought in because it would be the cat's snack). I long for stacks of presents (more for the love they show than their financial value, but one who is in my state of life, and relatively poor, just loves having a few items which are not bare necessities but are fun. The first thing I bought with my inheritance money was a cheese.) I'm already figuring out how to most lovingly, tastefully decorate my tiny tree and wreaths with the cherished ornaments I've collected through the years, many of which are attached to memories. Yet this week was already ruined, because, for the first time in 2006 (undoubtedly the first of many), I heard someone say that "Christmas is only for the children."

Of course, as my readers know, I have no addiction whatever to children, but I do think it unlikely that they understand the Incarnation or parousia, so I'm wondering how Christmas could be 'just for them.' I do know, and this with certainty, that none of them could possibly cherish their presents as much as I do. For me, time with friends, being remembered, perhaps having a friend with greater means give one a treat they know one would love but cannot afford, calligraphing Christmas cards to send blessings to those whom one loves, all are very important to the Advent and Christmas seasons. I do not have nostalgia over a bunch of (to borrow my late friend John's term) sticky little bastards who are pretending to believe a mythical creature brings them all they want... because who could disappoint them if they really believe this?

Admittedly, I'm an oddity for my family. (Maybe that was already obvious, but bear with me as I explain.) Their approach to Christmas, as to everything else, had an extreme degree of pragmatism - common to southern Italian peasants, who have refined the pragmatic to an art. Sorry to say, though they indeed were very concerned with family, and generous people when someone was in serious need (they'd have worked three jobs if their kids were needy), holidays and gifts were pure bother and obligation.

I shall explain the details, for the sake of the uninitiate. (Excuse me - I coin words when I am upset, and few things get my romantic back up more than that old "Christmas is for the children.") We did receive some presents (including underwear in our stockings) from our parents, but other family members (1)gave only to children, with one becoming disqualified once one was of age to be employed, (2) gave only money gifts, which were immediately turned over to one's father, never to be seen again, and (3) had a dreary system of accounting which not only took any spirit of love and joy from giving but... which I shall explain.

Presents were in no way based on love, what item might delight the recipient, or that poor Aunt Lizzie might go into gushes of pleasure over a cheese. There were no 'gifts' - only loans. So, if you are my sister and have three children, I owe a certain amount per head to the kids (depending on the family, there may not be anything given to one's siblings who are past employment age), and 'you' owe my kids that same amount back. Deplorable! Had there been a concept of Father Christmas, I suppose an accountant might have donned his costume to manage the books. (Of course, if there were anything left over... that would be capital.)

My generation of the family, some of whom ended up comfortably middle class, sometimes were a source of distress, purely because they messed up the balance sheet. My dad's family had no taste for the aesthetic, certainly no love for luxuries (by "luxury" here I mean a bar of Yardley soap when another brand was less expensive by pennies). Anything that was not an absolute necessity was a 'waste.' Presents they might receive, useful and appropriate though they were, became a burden. First, the value had to be calculated to determine how much was 'owed back.' Second, the gift might be worth more than one had intended to give, and therefore was seen as placing the recipient under an excessive obligation. (Little things could unbalance the system. Bring someone a box of strawberries, knowing she loves them, at a time when no account receivable was on the books, and this caused undue stress until the perceived debt was paid.) Third, and this perhaps worst of all, Melillos (excepting a few... one of whom writes the blog) had an attitude of "if I have a cardigan already, I do not need another, much less a pretty shawl." Ergo, the person who gave them the lovely cardigan or shawl was seen as giving the recipient the burden of taking it back.

I was just looking about my flat, thinking of a few presents which I cherish, so much so that just looking at them warms me with the glow of friendship (and I haven't even had a sherry today.) One friend, who knows I love royal memorabilia, has sent me items from every monarch from Victoria's day onward. I have a wonderful medieval plaque another gave me for a housewarming gift - and which my friend knows full well I could not afford to have in my payables section. I have lots of things I love, which most of my family would have considered wasteful. In fact, just those remembrances I cherish most would have prompted my dad to tell a friend, "don't send me anything." He would have thought this was proper, so no one had the obligation to reciprocate.

On another note, I believe that adults tend to greatly overestimate the delight they think they remember from childhood, or which kids experience now. (Well, granted, I doubt too many kids fall asleep with visions of underwear dancing through their heads...)There is an Internet forum on which I participate, and I'm sure within a week or two there shall be the annual whinge contest ("I don't need all the presents, people should just give them to charity where they would do some good.." - as if the love for friends is worthless.) Others will want to eliminate adult presents so the children have everything - though those who start this usually make it obvious that their kids have a great deal coming to them already. Others, thinking their kids have too much, will want to ruin the kids' Christmas by having no presents or dinner and spending the day in a homeless shelter. (Yes, I spent seven Christmases cooking for the homeless, but I was a middle aged Franciscan Sister.) I wish they'd focus on gratitude rather than guilt.

Do they really think it's 'all for the children'? (I hope not - I'd like a few presents this year...) Or is it just nostalgia for a time when (at least in memory) one had a chance of getting something one wanted? Most of the people who go on like this are in a situation totally foreign to me: there seems to be nothing at all they need, and nothing much they want (at least, not that they could not obtain if they wished.) The few things for which they might pine (a new Rolls, perhaps?) obviously are not going to be in their stockings, so they resent the gifts which others' love might prompt because they 'have no value.'

My family was far from over-privileged. Yet they did not even have the joy of appreciating what they were given, because it was turned into a dreary obligation. The well-heeled depress me all the more. My family's approach was not joyous, but, in their simple way of seeing things, it meant guidelines for obligations. Hearing people moan 'give it to charity' when the reason behind this is that they have a great deal and have no hopes of getting the Hope diamond in their stockings is somehow all the more bleak.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

So little is really in records

One with my passion for history always would be sadly aware that there is a good portion of it that one can never know, because the majority of people affected would not have been so important that there words would be recorded. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I often wish I had a gift for writing fiction. There is much I could have treated of in a novel (pretending, of course, that no one in it was 'real') about the religious life in my earlier years. Much, which I heard at 'workshops,' read in articles one could never locate in an archive, or, most of all, observed personally and heard in conversations with many Sisters and friars, one would not find in official documents.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail about a blog entitled John One Five, which is maintained by a priest in California. I am not acquainted with him, and, though his blog is interesting, some of the views expressed would differ from my own. There are matters of which he writes of which I would have no particular knowledge. Yet I did want to note here that it is worth a visit, to see (for example) the struggles of one who is dealing with a crisis within his sister church. I'll comment no further on the content - but did admire the soul searching expressed.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Generation gaps

The heading on this post is not to suggest that I believe there ever have been anything except generation gaps. Since ancient Rome (at least, as far as documents to which I have access show - I cannot read cuneiform, but it must be there as well), each generation fears a moral collapse of the next, and cries out how dreadful things have become. The business about "our children" needing protection is much later in its current incarnation, but the sentiments must predate Alexander the Great. And now ++Rowan is saying children are forced to mature too quickly. (Well, I suppose I'm sympathetic, being his contemporary. Our generation showed little desire to mature at all, and I'm not sure we have.)

The trouble with many of my own generation, and even more so with those who are perhaps in their 30s today, is that many of them got started late with having children. Too many are so fearful of their children being corrupted or harmed that they create a magical, idyllic view of childhood, from which no one should emerge until it is time to receive one's Masters, and tremble to think that their son of 12 does not believe in Santa Claus, or that their teenaged daughter has noticed the existence of boys. I gather that many people have such paranoid fears that everyone past puberty is a paedophile that they fear having kids (including those who of the age when, in my mother's day, they may have been married) out of their sight for ten seconds.

My life has been light-years away from being wild. Yet, compared to the over protective, 'let her be a child' (at 16), standards of some parents today, one would think I was something bordering on licentious. (I am a shocking example for children, of course - especially when I do not happen to be in church or the library, where I am about 75% of the time. I smoke, drink a bit of wine, do not consider Shakespeare or Chaucer to be offensive.) Then again, many of my generation indeed were involved with much wilder pursuits than my own, and I suppose that they have mental pictures of how their mistakes (who has made none?) harmed them.

The Victorians made much of childhood innocence, of course - I suppose that the little ones, just having come from heaven, resembled a pretty version of angels or nymphs and could satisfy romantic visions. Yet I'm surprised that the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is in my age group and who, like myself, has been known to retain religious commitment and respectability) recently preached on not letting children 'grow up too fast.' I would hate to see this ever happen again, but, again in my parents' time, many a youth of 14 was already employed in the factories. Amongst lower class people, marriages before 20 were hardly unusual. My own impression, frankly, is that too many of the youth today are not 'growing up too fast' - they are not being permitted to grow up at all.

When I was very young (in fact, before I even was a teenager), I often discussed neighbourhood happenings or items in the news with friends. Unless I have lapsed into senility and my memory is totally gone, the young could converse about the less-than-pretty side of life with a realism which those who want to paint them as flower faeries would deny. I was - and am - more innocent than average (more because of my own romantic inclinations towards the ethereal than because of ignorance), yet I was not troubled by knowledge of the full scope of the human condition. In fact, those who pretended to be shocked at everything often were the ones to watch - it was calculated, to win the approval of adults.

I'm inclined to agree with Augustine - if children get into fewer messes than adults, it is more weakness of limb than purity of heart. Kids can be very cruel, deceitful, delighted with others' misfortune, etc., etc.. The childlike innocence seems more a cherished myth of adults than anything about reality.

I'm going to be silly for a moment, and recall my own fearful mother's steps to keep me from turning into what I believe at one time was called a 'flaming youth.' (It's funnier if one realises that, then as now, my pursuits were cultural and intellectual, and I spent a good deal of time in church. I later would become a nun.) I had a curvy figure - the sort which resembles a sack of cantaloupes at 50, but quite attractive in one's first youth - which I sought to flatter when I made my clothes. Chip, who (without understanding or seeing their inadequacies) occasionally dipped into the 'wisdom' of armchair psychologists, was troubled because, according to said charlatans, a young woman is supposed to be embarrassed about, and try to hide, her breasts. Though mine were hardly on display, indeed my clothes were designed to set off the curves - so I suppose that tagged me as one who was looking to bonk the neighbourhood.

I smiled, when I read Susan Howatch's "Glamorous Powers," at how well she captured how generation gaps can be huge in relation to fashion. Jonathan Darrow, hero of that novel, enters his second marriage when he is well over 60, and his new wife is slightly younger than his own children. Jonathan, prior to meeting Anne, spent 17 years in a monastery, which followed time in military service in India. He has not been in the company of women for a full generation - and styles in 1938 are drastically different from those in 1915. Anne, whom he initially takes for 45 (she is 30), is intentionally frumpy because she's had a bad time at the hands of men after her money. Ruth, Jonathan's daughter, is dressed fashionably - but Jonathan finds Anne to be elegant, where Ruth's high heels, lipstick, and curled hair he finds 'cheap.'

My own mother, though well dressed and impeccably groomed, had a fashion sense which stopped around 1940. (Her only concession to later developments was wearing trousers, which she preferred because she was always cold.) In Chip's time, women wore lipstick, but, if they wore eye makeup at all, it was only mascara, and that only for evening. Any other makeup was supposed to be undetectable, and was used solely to hide the effects of aging. If a woman coloured her hair, it was a secret on a par with the plans for the D-Day invasion. Perish the thought one actually changed one's hair colour, even if only to recapture the more flattering shades one had ten years earlier. Colour (again, a secret on a par with sneaking opium) was only for covering grey hairs.

My generation, of course, wore colourful, dramatic eye makeup - day and night. (One without it was either a plain Jane or trying to be prepubescent... with the rare exception of those who wore neither makeup nor shoes and had just changed their names to Star Glow.) We had great fun with hair colour - green mascara - and so forth. Did my mother, who wanted me to wear no makeup and have my hair chopped like a baby's, really think she was fooling me when she'd pretend to fashion magazine terminology and say, with what was supposed to be appropriate dramatic emphasis, "I like The Natural Look." In truth, she feared both that I'd be thought a tart (young men are equipped with radar, and there was no danger that I'd be any sort of blip in that department) and that I was "growing up too fast" (when my problem was that, since my full height was very short, I was often mistaken for being much younger because those of taller stock thought I was still growing.) More so, she feared that others would think she was making me grow up too fast. (My mother, herself, never did grow up - and she lived to be 84.)

Her much older sister, Mary (who first saw the light of day circa 1903), was more intelligent than the other sisters, and indeed had quite a flair for fashion in her day. As is often the case when one sibling has gumption, interests, and intelligence beyond that of the others, Mary was the family oracle. I loved Aunt Mary, but often had to stifle a giggle when she would show me how to 'sit' - the way girls were taught who went away for 'finishing.' (I never did ask her where she met any of them... I knew it was nowhere near the old neighbourhood, but I digress.) Indeed, the pose she demonstrated may have been flattering with the floor length skirts of 1915, but, in my own time (or even my mother's), it would have made one seem artificial and affected.

Mary's own daughters were quite a bit older than I. It did not occur to my mother or theirs that their not having worn eye makeup during the 1950s did not mean that they were the 'nice little girls' where I was the budding slut. Or that the awful socks women wore during and after the war were a fad prompted by silk's being unavailable, not the mark of the perpetual sweet child. But it made my mother fear criticism all the more. My cousins (to whom I was and am close, by the way) would brand me (the daughter of the 'baby sister' of the family) as the 'little cousin' in perpetuity. To this day, I still am viewed as a precocious child. Seeing me in nylons, lipstick and the like was a shocker, though most of my school chums would have thought me to be a late bloomer. (I am not sure I ever did bloom....)

My suggestion to parents of today would be to remember one's own youth - and stop expecting young adults to behave as if they were not out of the cradle. Then again, that shows my own innocence still. Probably most of those who are fretting indeed do remember their own youth...

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Smashing the "Rolex"

In my travels, I find, as most urban creatures do, that one encounters delays with the train or bus, or has 'waiting room' time before appointments. I therefore often have the disadvantage of reading whatever materials are at hand. (Serves me right - I should always be sure to have a book with me - but most of mine are a bit large to fit in my bag.)

I cannot recall in which magazine I read this gem, but it incorporated two of the least attractive qualities one may have. First, though I am all for 'causes,' and have a number of my own, I dislike when a cause is (1) illustrative of having little common sense and (2) a preoccupation which one inflicts on others. Second, as my readers know I have little tolerance for those who do not mind their own business - nearly as little as for those who do not tell them to go play in traffic.

The woman who was more or less honoured by the media exposure is so troubled by 'fake brand names' that one would think life, death, and salvation depended on this. She proudly spoke of how a friend of hers purchased a 'counterfeit' designer watch. This meddling pest brought in a hammer and would not leave until her friend smashed it. (Nowadays, one must be careful with figures of speech, lest anyone shout 'violence' and call for police - so please understand that what follows is purely a figure of speech. Had anyone pulled that nonsense with me, I would have - figuratively speaking - smashed her.)

I am fully aware, of course, of rules about intellectual property (I was not a web designer for nothing) and copyright, trademark and so forth. But the 'crusader' whom this article sadly profiled seemed little acquainted with the realities of life. She seemed to have an idea that cheap plastic imitations of Gucci handbags were taking huge profits away from Gucci.

My idea of an expensive handbag is... well, on a par with what one might pay for a pub lunch, without even considering the cost of the pint. Yet, being a working class kid, it does seem to me that those who buy the plastic "Gucci" would never be so stupid as to mistake it for an original. (Once, a cousin gave my dad a "Rolex" imitation as a joke. Not only was it clearly a cheap imitation, but indeed a fine joke, because no one who has the real thing was wearing it with a grocer's apron.) Viewing both sides of the issue, I am inclined to doubt that those who pay a fortune for a genuine Gucci would have the thought, "Oh, here is a plastic imitation for about the cost of Tea Tree and Mint Bath Gel ... I think I'll pick up one of these and not spend what I would have on the real one."

On the rare chance that anyone out there thinks the faux model (it always amuses me when people who do not know the meaning of the word are impressed with that adjective...) will fool anyone - that is impossible. I have no counterfeit 'designer' things, but do have rather a nice wardrobe, which is largely a tribute to my having a good hand with a needle and not sparing the starch and iron. I once walked through Harrods, impeccably dressed (by my standards), and no one mistook me for a real customer. (Maybe I should have borrowed dad's "Rolex.") On the happy occasion when I managed to amass enough travel miles to have an upgrade to business class, and sat in the Club World lounge savouring the sandwiches and gin, one of the staff delighted me by bringing me a tray of wonderful snacks from the First Class lounge. She obviously had similar class origins to my own, and had recognised the common one and given me a treat. No one, I'm sure, mistook my sueded rayon for real silk. (And I talk posh and all...)

Nagging friends means that one is not a true friend in the first place. Save the messages. Refrain from ego games along the lines of 'I know better than you.' Don't mistake a playful action for fraud (on the part of a buyer.) And leave the policing to those who are in that business.

As a side note... even if I could afford designer items, I doubt I'd wear them. I have no desire to walk around with emblems and such, becoming a walking commercial for the designer.

Odd thoughts about Nostradamus

I shall concede that Nostradamus long has fascinated me. The subject is one, like varied others that stir my curiosity, where my feelings are totally ambivalent. I suppose I enjoy the mysterious - and also have to admit that I believe there may be much we do not know about 'what is out there.'

My rational side (and apologies to Nostradamists who write many scholarly works on the subject) tells me that Nostradamus wrote in total riddles. Impressive ones, indeed, and with a tone of wisdom about them - but no coherence. To compare him to a prophet of the Old Testament would be quite off track, and not only because of questions about from where the inspiration came. The prophets were celebrating divine fidelity, God's acting in history, how the divine kingdom would be an inspiration to the world, and so forth. They were writing mostly of what already had happened, and of conviction that the power of Yahweh would endure forever.

I have no idea of whether Nostradamus truly believed he was predicting the future, or whether he was a charlatan, social commentator, or odd individual. I read his works with fascination, but believe every 'interpretation' of them is a huge stretch. Still, a part of me will give him benefit of the doubt. The only time I was absolutely certain a prediction of his was untrue (and indeed it appeared in none of his writings) was, around the time of '9-11,' when Nostradamus' supposed prediction of Osama's action was circulating on the Internet. Suffice it to say that even one who believes there just might be faeries and unicorns is not about to accept a prediction made in 1645 by a man who died in 1566.

I know I am saying 'the grass is green,' but anyone (who is not specific about names, places, and times) who predicts world catastrophes, wars, natural disasters, tyranny, and so forth naturally (however tragically) is going to be correct. Such have always existed. It is for later enthusiasts to decide who 'the old lion and young lion' are, or that Hister (the Danube) is Adolf Hitler.

The prophets of old were calling people to trust, gratitude for creation and salvation, fidelity, and repentance. This too, of course, is timeless. Of course, during the patristic era, Christians perhaps were a bit too enthusiastic about seeing every line in the Hebrew scriptures as having been about Christ. :) They were not talking in riddles.

That, perhaps, is why romantics such as myself need to dabble in reading about Nostradamus, astrology, and the wee folk (and this whilst admitting that there is no scientific proof for a bit of this.) We love our Christianity with a passion, but it really seems so banal at times. (Wryness tag is on here!) It is far more fun to look for secret knowledge and the mysterioso than to merely accept that calling which the prophets knew so well.