Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr

I read Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream very slowly, in small passages and with no sense of pressure over a period of 8 months. 

It’s not a chronology of large happenings, but rather a record and Starr’s literary cultural analysis of what others thought and wrote in and about the California of 1850-1915. Starr had, as his vantage point, substantial historical knowledge and a native son’s heart for ferreting out the antecedents of subsequent events and dynamic on-going consequences intended and otherwise. 

In Starr’s words from the last page, he selected "acts of definition, moments when vision and event betrayed their interchange, and the aesthetic pattern and moral meaning of social experience became clear. History grants few such occasions.” (P. 444) 

I construct a timeline for myself as I read any history. As much information as I am able to retain, dates often escape me. Starr presents his narrative as an ”act of memory” rather than a classic or linear analysis. It might help some readers to read the final page reflections in conjunction with the introduction to avoid what some reviews express as frustration and disappointment to this approach to history. 

Any study of people, time and place is best done through the politics, history and literature of the period. Starr’s book is best read as an adjunct to both linear historical documentations and first hand accounts, journals and essays of the time.  I have read many of the accounts to which Starr refers with some notable exceptions. I have never been able to read Gertrude Atherton and Starr’s assessment of her outlook helped me understand more clearly why I have resisted both her “history” and her novels. “For the sake of the establishment myth, and for the sake of her own role as a writer in that establishment, Gertrude Atherton did her best to sustain an illusion…” 

And then there is a book to which Starr has alerted me that I plan to seek out. California Coastal Trails, a Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon, by J. Smeaton Chase, was published in 1913. Mr. Starr says that past, present and future converge in this elegant narrative and he likens it to an elegy and yet Chase shares his hope. In Starr’s words, “In 1913 California-as-nature yet seemed capable of coping with California-as-history.”( P. 438)

Kevin Starr researched and wrote with hope himself and his work is testament to his belief that commitment to California does not preclude scrutiny, nor does admiration always blind one to her faults. Americans and the California Dream is work to read, but it is a worthwhile work.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Body of the Earth

The body of earth,
our patch of garden,
makes mottled pears and
raspberry red juice run up thorny vines.
Flat white flowers turn
into strawberries.

Slowing down
time will come
a flutter of falling leaves,
short waves of heat,
strong winds,
migrating birds.
The fruits of summer,
stung by the wasps,
bitten by the squirrels,
will be gone.

Today the figs are still plumping
purple lines of sugar.
Apples sun their cheeks
for just a bit more color.

I like them all best
standing on the skin of dirt,
eating them before they know
they have been plucked.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Notes from the Smokey West

I saw with delight that the forecast for tomorrow is for cooler weather. 
I hope that is really true....from 95* F down to 79* F.  It would be some help to those fighting the fires and those perched waiting to learn the fate of their homesites. 

Just the smokey air makes me lethargic and combined with the heat I could become truly cat like.  Phoebe the cat moves from one cute position to another on her little pillow.  I try to move around and be a bit more functional, but I did take a nap I hadn’t planned on. 

The strawberries were abundant again today and Mark picked quite a lot of tender little green beans.  We have been trying to keep up with them and not let them get big.  I have some blanched and frozen already and we have eaten quite a few.  

The peaches are such a gift; one night we just had piles of peaches and yogurt for dinner and we were quite happy.  Then there was the night we made a peach pie…oh my.  

Our daughter - S.B.- gave Mark some colored corn seeds last year for a present and he  gathered in his harvest  today.
 We sat in the shade and pulled back the husks; it is so beautiful.  It was like a treasure hunt, not knowing what colors of jewels we would uncover.  The colors are deep burgundies and gray blues, orange and golden yellow and these colors mingle in variations that say that summer does not last for ever…

Fire is certainly a phenomenon that forces much perspective on you even if you only get the smoke from afar.  I smell it and think of the those up close and laden in protective clothes and heavy gear fighting to corral the flames. I think of those evacuated from their land and homes, the short term times of wondering if it will be a long term displacement.

And for some,
no matter how the restoration takes place, is feeling at home ever quite the same?
I was truly touched by a man who wrote an on-line  thank you to firefighters with a picture of his gracious curved patio stairs, the stones littered with the ashes of his family home and the current site of his survivor chickens scratching through a feast that had been scattered for them by the firefighters.   Yes.   He has encouraged me and I  haven’t even lost anything. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Governor and the Chicken Lady

A True Story Retold...

Christian Archibald Herter, who lived from 1898 to 1967, was Governor of the state of Massachusetts from 1953 to 1957.  This is a story he told on himself.
 I heard a version of it in a sermon in the 1980’s from a dear Anglican priest, Fr. David Schofield, who used it to illustrate how important it is for us to know who we are.   Although I remembered the story vividly, I wanted to be sure I had the Governor's name right.  When I checked it out on the internet I found the tale has been repeatedly used  to make many points, but I think it hardly needs any amplification to be of great value.  Here it is as I remember it.
Christian Herter, a graduate of Harvard and the governor of Massachusetts mid 1950’s was seeking re-election.  He was having one of those really hard days on the campaign trail.  He had spoken at a morning breakfast meeting where he had no more than a cup of coffee while his listeners ate.   He had then skipped lunch altogether to meet other duties,  consoling himself that his last scheduled event on the trail was at a church barbecue.  He arrived a bit late and was relieved to see food was still being served.  The Governor  was really hungry. The queue was quite long but he resisted the temptation to be recognized for special treatment and stood at the end of the line.  The day was coming to a close, he was tired, he was hungry and everything smelled so good.  As he moved down the serving line he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken.  She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said. “Do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m so hungry, I haven’t had a bite all day.” 
“I’m sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one piece to a customer.”
Governor Herter thought of himself as a modest and unassuming man but he suddenly decided to throw his weight around just a little bit. He pulled himself up to his full height and asked the woman behind the platter of barbecued chicken, “Excuse me, but do you know who I am?” 
“Why, yes, Governor, sir, I do.  Do you know who I am?”  she replied. 
Governor Herter had to confess that he didn’t have any idea who the lady was.
“Well, I’m the chicken lady, and it's one piece per person. Now please, sir, kindly move along.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A thought or two on "Charles Dickens A Critical Study" by G. K. Chesterton

I did , in January, read this

1929 Dodd Mead & Co printing
of the 1906 copyright of
Charles Dickens 
 A Critical Study
 by G. K. Chesterton.

Thumbing through my notebook I see that while I fell short of writing a proper review of it I did jot down a few thoughts.

I was given this book a number of years ago and it has languished on my shelf primarily because I have not read much of  Charles Dickens.

Mr. Chesterton's writing often references
the luminaries of his day and the political social and literary climate of the time. In addition to not knowing much about Dickens, there is all that  I have never learned about England's history, as well as that which I may have once encountered and have now forgotten and yet, I was amazed at how much there was to glean, how much was still available to me in Chesterton's narrative, even when ensconced in specifics for which I had little reference. Though I often couldn't place or affirm many of  Chesterton's allusions and references,  I was, like a bird at picnic, well fed on crumbs.

Take for example this little gem found on page 161:
He could not help falling into that besetting sin or weakness of the modern progressive, the habit of regarding the contemporary questions as the eternal questions and the latest word  as the last....He could not help seeing the remotest peaks lit up by the raging bonfire of his own passionate political crisis." 

~the contemporary questions as the eternal questions and the latest word as the last~  

There is just a big lovely breath in that little phrase, isn't there?  

Here is a link on google's free Ebook site to some pages where Mr. GKC discusses "this thing we call fiction." Peek in around page 83.  The whole book is available there. 

Well I must away...and make some serious preparations for some very special visitors! 
Until next time....

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

You are alive...be happy! To Paraphrase G.K. Chesterton

 I came across a quote this morning that has piqued my interest in reading The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton  (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006.)

 In his Autobiography, Chesterton writes that
“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence.  The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy” (99).

"...submerged sunrise of wonder..."  yes...

Friday, March 2, 2018

May Thoughtful Honest Public Dialogue Prevail

     It's generally considered a good thing to be an assertive person; I don't mean aggressive, that's different.   If being assertive looks like standing up straight, aggressive would be a forward lunge and passive might be leaning backward.

   And me, I must admit that I find myself leaning back in the public conversations of the day.  I find myself wondering about the scope of my vantage point, the validity of circumstances as presented and the possibility of hidden implications and unforeseen consequences of the proposals and platforms of the day.  It is a lot to sort through.

    I find myself listening carefully to others' assertions and though I believe that well-honed common sense is often enough, I recently ran across some notes from a class my husband took years ago with a more formal review of how assertions can be sorted out. I decided to flesh the notes out with some examples and found it helpful to put names on what I tend to do intuitively.  Perhaps you might find it helpful too.

To begin I started thinking about the word "assertion" and made a list of synonyms:  
 a declaration
 a contention
 a claim
 an opinion
 a pronouncement
 an avowal
 a protestation
 or simply a statement.  

Judging the acceptability of assertions begins with recognizing what type of statement it is; what's the assertion based on? Is it a  description, an interpretation or an evaluation? 

 Three general types of Assertion  with an example in italics

1. Description  (based on the senses, or experience)
    a. 1st hand     This is what happened to me...
    b. 2nd hand   This is what he told me...
2. Interpretation (based on various derivations of meaning)
    a. internal states  I know what he was thinking.
    b. causal relationships  Causality is, by definition, interpretive and looking at false causes a lesson in itself.
    c. comparisons and contrasts  Scales of 1-10, less or more
    d. categories or alternatives    qualities or chain of events
       according to type 
3. Evaluation  (based on approval or disapproval - emotive
Of course one assertion could and often does involve all three types of assertions. 

And then there is the matter of whether a statement is:

1. Presumably true ( in favor
2. Questionable (creating a burden of proof
3. False

Vouching sources for determining validity include:

A. Our own sense experience/ reason
B. Personal Testimony  
     (While sources A & B can receive
     presumption, that is, be assumed true unless further information      proves otherwise,  neither A nor B sources can speak for  assertions of interpretation or evaluation.
C. Common Knowledge
D. Expert Opinion ( sources C & D can ameliorate the burden of  proof)

The likelihood is, even without formally thinking about such distinctions, they are operating in your daily listening and responding, but if you'll allow me an assertion of opinion, it's worth the effort to renew and increase our communication skills consciously for no matter the issue, our public dialogue needs thoughtful and honest tending.