Post 247

Flags of Europe:
Vexillology Like You've Never Seen It Before

You’ve been wondering, “But what does Blogger really think about the different flags of the world?” I won’t leave you in suspense any longer. I’ll tell you what I really think, for a change.

The world has a lot of flags. I can’t tell you how many there are, because there isn’t really even agreement about how many countries there are in the world. It depends how you count them. Wikipedia says there are 190 sovereign states whose statehood is undisputed. There are another 16 states whose independence is challenged.

The one that I found humorous was about Korea. Beside North Korea, it says: “Claimed by South Korea” and beside South Korea, it says: “Claimed by North Korea.”

So let’s get started.

How does one begin? What sequence makes the most sense? Alphabetical? By region? By seniority? By colour? By pattern?

Let’s do it like this:

1. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH CROSS SHAPES

Great Britain has a symmetrical cross superimposed onto a St. Andrew’s cross (also called a ‘saltire’). The advantage with a symmetrical cross is that it looks great when viewed from the front or the reverse. Nevertheless, this flag is less symmetrical than it could have been, and it’s less symmetrical than it appears at first glance. The red striping on the St. Andrew’s cross is not as predictable as you might expect. Strangely, it reminds me of the way the Korean flag rotates as you go around it; the little black lines vary in quantity, from three to six. Those wily Brits.

England’s cross is a symmetrical red cross on a white background.

Georgia’s flag is quite new, adopted in 2004. It has a total of five red crosses, one in the middle and four smaller crosses in each quadrant (or ‘canton’) of the flag. The mini crosses are done in the style of “bolnur-katskhuri” so they don’t match the central cross in style, which is sort of strange; something doesn’t quite fit.

Switzerland has a symmetrical white cross on a square red background. It’s a little disconcerting to have a square at a party for rectangles, but it’s been around since 1889.

The Nordic Cross is asymmetrical in terms of left and right. It’s inspired by the Christian cross, but of course that’s symmetrical from left to right. Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland have the Nordic cross and all of them are strong yet approachable. I like Finland’s the best. Blue and white is always a wonderful combination.

And speaking of blue and white, Greece has a seamless and clever combination of a cross in the top left canton and several stripes. It’s an interesting flag that keeps your attention despite its apparent simplicity. It’s a 10.

Scotland has the St. Andrew’s cross, and it’s noble-looking. The flag is very unique, which is surprising when you consider how simple and pleasing it is.

Malta has a George Cross in the top left canton. The cross is gray with an image of St. George defeating a dragon. As for the rest of the flag, it is white on the left side (‘hoist’) and red on the right side (‘fly’). Does it work? I’m not sure.

2. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH TWO HORIZONTAL COLOURS

Poland, Ukraine and Monaco have bicolour flags without emblems. Again, the disadvantage of a bicolour design is that it can be easily mistaken for other flags and again, its beauty comes down to the colours chosen and the arrangement of those colours. When I say arrangement, consider how Monaco has red on the top and white below, while Poland has the white above. The thing is that red is a strong and, you could say, a ‘heavy’ colour. For that reason, it looks misplaced above the white. Ukraine has cheerful and optimistic colours.

Some flags add an emblem somewhere on two horizontal colours. San Marino has an emblem which is reasonably memorable and not overly minimalistic. It has three towers topped with ostrich plumes. Lichtenstein has a crown floating in the top left canton, and the entire combination with the strong blue and red looks questionable. Belarus has almost an embroidery-style pattern running vertically on the left side. To the right of this, there is a thick band of red above a narrower band of green. The flag presents a strange mood. It strikes me as undecided about its own identity, as if created by committee.

3. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH HORIZONTAL BANDS

The word “fess” comes from the Latin word “fascia” meaning band. It’s a reference to a horizontal band across the flag, and it’s a very common style in Europe and throughout the world. The following European countries have nothing more than three bands: Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Estonia. What do I think of these? One of the biggest problems has to do with the popularity of this style. It means that one flag can be mistaken for another. The flag of Luxembourg is too similar to the flag of the Netherlands. The Netherlands flag is older so give it to them, although the red, white and blue colour combination is fairly bland. The ‘success’ of the tri-colour fess flag depends upon the colours chosen; some colours are better than others, obviously.

Other fess flags have, in addition to the horizontal bands, an emblem. Spain has an emblem, and so do these former members of ‘Yugoslavia,’ which I visited when it was still known by that name: Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia. Emblems can be an improvement to an otherwise unremarkable background (or ‘field’). However, emblems are often problematic – a flag that looks regal and handsome from afar can be a disappointment when seen up close. Angry eagles and lions are never a plus, especially when decked out with claws and protruding wavy tongues. Spain’s pink lion is not an asset, you could say. At the other extreme, sometimes the emblem becomes almost cartoonesque. Croatia’s emblem doesn’t work, on a number of levels. Slovenia’s and Slovakia’s emblems are similar in their level of detail and visual appeal, or lack thereof. Serbia’s flag does not pass go, because animals do not have two heads.

4. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH CHEVRONS

The flag of the Czech Republic features a chevron. It’s red and white with a blue chevron, which is fine if you’re into chevrons and triangles in general.

5. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH TWO VERTICAL COLOURS

Portugal and Vatican City have two vertical colours. Portugal’s emblem has polka-dotted shields ringed with castles at various angles. It’s another case of a flag which looks better from a distance.

The Vatican City flag is very good. No lions or eagles or dragons, slain or alive. The main feature is two hefty keys positioned in the shape of an ‘x.’ The flag is divided into two parts. The emblem is on the white half. A Canadian looking at it would say that the flag needs to have yellow on the other side as well, which would have the secondary effect of making a square flag into a rectangular one.

6. FLAGS OF EUROPE WITH A CENTRAL VERTICAL BAND

Some flags are divided into three vertical sections. That central vertical section is called a ‘pale.’ It’s also popular, and can have an emblem or not. You know which countries have this style. Ireland, Italy and France have flags of this type, and so does Romania and Belgium. The Belgian flag has the same colours as the German flag, but the black is tempered when it is on the left instead of across the top, and when it is separated from the red. Red and black are never a good combination.

Flags with emblems on the pale are Moldova and Andorra. Moldova’s flag is a mess of symbols, including a bull and an eagle. The eagle holds a cross in its beak (isn’t that somewhat irreverent?) and some knick-knacks in its claws. As for Andorra’s emblem, it’s not too bad. It has writing: “Virtue united is stronger” which is a good thought.

7. FLAGS OF EUROPE THAT DON’T FIT INTO ANY OF THE ABOVE CATEGORIES

The flag of Montenegro features a golden two-headed eagle sporting a shield with a lion on it. There’s one crown above this creature, but neither head is wearing it. I believe that the bird has opposable thumbs.

The flag of Albania is dreadful, and it makes most of the other flags of Europe look splendid by comparison. It breaks all the rules of flag school. It features a black two-headed eagle with outstretched tongues and claws on a red background. The ‘wings’ of the eagle are entirely unlike wings. I initially thought it was a dragon. I extend my sympathy to those who have this as their flag.

The flag of Wales is perhaps equally bad, consisting of a large pissed-off red dragon on a background of green and white. My research shows me that nobody is entirely sure as to why a dragon is still being used on the flag. No reason could justify it anyway.

The flag of Turkey is almost entirely red. It has a crescent which at first glance brings to mind the moon, but which, on further examination, is the wrong shape. It’s an extreme and excessively sharp shape. The two tips of the crescent are too close together. The star is at a precise angle in relation to the crescent but this makes the star off-balance as a whole. It’s tipped over. Flags are meant to be symbolic, and this one reveals a lot.

The flag of Macedonia also has a red background. In the centre is a yellow circle surrounded by eight yellow rays. It strikes me as a flag designed by someone who thought that all the other flag ideas were already taken. It’s bright and I suppose it’s earnest in its way, but I find it a bit much.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a flag that looks like a chevron who lost its way. The stars are similarly not sure where to stand, as a couple of them are sliced off, missing their points. On the plus side, at least they’re upright.

The thing that surprises me most, in looking into flags, is that so many flags are very new. Sometimes this is because the country has recently undergone major political upheaval. In other cases, the country itself is new. When one country divides into several smaller ones, the newly-independent countries scramble to agree on a new banner. Often the newer nations make flags that are very similar to the nation that they recently left, which is counter-intuitive. I would have expected that a new country would want to differentiate itself in the matter of its flag.

Up next: Flags of Asia

Post 246

Another Thing You Don't Need:
Reflections on Eyebrows

More and more frequently, you see women with fake eyebrows. It’s called “microblading.” It’s like thick painted-on eyebrows except that it lasts for one to three years.

The other day, I was at a store and the cashier had them.

It doesn’t really work.

Even according to the standards of the world, it doesn’t work, because one of the basic rules is that you are not supposed to draw attention to your less attractive features.

Once you get your eyebrows drawn onto your face, you begin to draw attention to them and to the fact that you were unhappy with them — desperately. You tell the world that your eyebrow issues were so significant that you have made a commitment to walking around with that “improvement” for many months to come.

I never would have noticed her eyebrows or her lack of eyebrows, but now my eyes were drawn to them. I was looking to see what her real eyebrows looked like. Hmm. I see them. I see little dark hairs there, in the midst of the paint. Are there more? Maybe, but it’s hard to tell because the real brows are difficult to see against the black background. Hmm. Oh, it’s time to pay.

The problem is that the microbladed eyebrows are without texture. The deal with hair is that it’s three-dimensional. There’s a quotable quote, if there ever was one: “The deal with hair is that it’s three-dimensional.” That is why wigs and hairpieces are the way to go, if you really must. Nobody paints their head. Beardless men don’t draw on beards and moustaches. Consider the eyebrow wisdom from Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock. In an interview for TV Times, he told Susan Lerner: “The makeup is a tough problem for me. It always has been. It’s tedious. It’s painful and it’s confining. The entire makeup takes two hours. It’s an extremely complicated makeup and it’s not just the ears. The eyebrows can take longer because they must be laid on hair by hair and cut fresh every morning. They are not one piece. lf they were, you would not get mobility. They would sit there and look unnatural.”

You see? Eyebrow mobility. It’s what you want.

The second problem is that even eyebrow styles change. Sometimes we favour the thinnest line and sometimes we favour a thick one. As a matter of fact, over-plucking, to suit earlier fashions, is why some women now find themselves tempted to have their eyebrows “fixed.” A moment’s reflection reveals the obvious: fashion cannot dictate what suits every face. The red head might have glinting blond eyelashes and brows. The Asian girl has thick hair, but it’s on the top of her head and not the face itself. Similarly, the Asian boy will one day grow only the wisp of a beard, if he decides to have one at all. Some faces are rounded and some are narrow. Can fashion be right when it dictates that the very thick brow with the unnatural squarish beginning is the look that will suit every face of every race? Yikes. Clothing is one thing, but facial redesign is another.

Eyebrows are the kind of thing that you leave alone as much as possible. Stop talking about how they “frame the face.” Enough already. Let sleeping brows lie, as they say. The most I’d permit is the removal of hairs in between the brows, if you have been blessed with what you consider an over-abundance.

And hey, I have an idea! You could donate them!

 

Post 245

King for Now:
Reflections on the Tyranny of Cool

Are you on Facebook? I have put myself on Facebook twice, both times believing that it would be useful to promote a given venture. (You need a profile in order to create a “page.”)

I don’t know if it’s a good idea, though, even to promote a worthy event and as a matter of fact, for my most recent project I didn’t go through with a Facebook campaign.

Some people justify Facebook use in the name of Christian evangelizing. I won’t criticize that motive, but not all tools are equally pure. Television is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It’s a tool. The internet is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It’s also a tool. The bus and the bike and the airplane: same thing. Neutral tools.

As for Facebook, I don’t know. How neutral is it? To what extent does the structure of it tend to lead people in certain directions? It features a constant news feed from all of your ‘friends’ and a system of ‘likes.’ I know that users can make some modifications, but that’s the starting point and the basic idea. To what extent does the structure provide a breeding ground for certain temptations?

I think one of the primary temptations created by Facebook is that it encourages people to judge things and people in terms of whether or not they are “cool.”

The term “cool” began to be used in this way in the 1940s.

Being a cool person means caring about things that are cool and, more importantly, it means not caring about things that are uncool. Being cool means caring about people who are cool and not caring about people who are uncool.

There are some people who do not care about what is cool. For some reason, this brings to mind my grandmother, who would pick up an empty pop bottle if she saw one while she walked along, and carry it all the way home. She was planning to collect the deposit.

What was it? Five cents? (Five Canadian pennies in 1980 would be fifteen nowadays, except that the humble penny is gone now, replaced by, well, nothing.)

But anyway, if that was cool, she certainly didn’t know it.

Having said that, you could not say that she was entirely above thinking about what people might think. When she got dressed for church, the make-up was hard to miss and she made a point of wearing her glasses. She thought she looked better in them.

Some would say that being concerned about looking nice is no different from being concerned about coolness — that it is a manifestation of the same thing — and in a general sense, it can be. Concern for one’s appearance can be another case of looking at oneself from the perspective of one’s friends, acquaintances or the stranger who happens to be paying attention. However, wanting to be seen as youthful or beautiful or wealthy or sophisticated or intelligent is not quite the same as wanting to be seen as cool.

Being seen as cool is more complicated than being seen as beautiful. Being seen as beautiful is a more straightforward process because you can see, by flipping through any magazine, that the most-photographed women have several traits in common, and although the ideals of beauty shift this way and that, there are several constants over the ages. Being seen as intelligent generally has to do with having degrees or inventing something. Being wealthy means having access to a lot of income. (Becoming wealthy, according to Chesterton, means being foolish enough to want all that wealth in the first place.) These other common and more ‘traditional’ goals are, in some ways, simple.

But being cool . . . well, that’s a little different.

The problem with coolness is that it is a trait measured very much in relation to very specific outside things. Being a musician means that you have spent many hours practicing but having cool taste in music involves nothing more than liking a particular genre or musician. Being a gemologist means that you have learned a great deal about gems, but being cool means that you like a specific style of bling.

Being cool means surrounding oneself with objects and people and activities which are, themselves, cool. For this reason, travelling appeals to many; it is a way of relocating your entire self into a world which will hopefully be perceived as cool. All is orchestrated with the ultimate Facebook photo in mind. Here is a beautiful beach. In the foreground are my legs on the lounger and my hand holding a very cool drink. Here is my (rented) bike, leaning up against a Parisian tree. It’s immersion in coolness, in theory.

Let’s take a look at some cases, sorted by severity. How do you compare?

Let’s begin with Yoo-hi. Yoo-hi is over there picking up discarded pop bottles. She almost never thinks about what is cool, but she is not immune to the standards of the world. You’ll see her putting on her big jade ring when she goes out for dinner with her friends and she dies her hair at the age of 79. Nevertheless, she does not comprehend “cool.” You would need to spend quite a while with her to explain what it is and why she should care about it.

Next, there’s Taylor. Taylor knows about coolness. He knows enough about coolness to know that many things in his life do not meet with the standards of what is cool. He tells himself that most of it is nonsense and that the real focus of one’s life should be on spiritual things. Nevertheless, he is sometimes downcast as he realizes that he is not “cool.”

Over here, we have Sally. Sally is visibly active on social media, frequently liking and commenting on the Facebook posts made by her friends, even though she privately ridicules and complains about them and their posts. Does she think about what is cool? She does, but she will fail the coolness test again and again by speaking out on issues where others would not.

By contrast, ‘under the radar’ Kate was always cool in school, being both pretty and athletic. Unlike Sally, she chooses to play it safe and be appropriately bland. She’s older now but has the financial means to surround herself with what middle-aged people consider cool. She never draws excessive attention to herself but she takes care to post photos of her life at socially-acceptable intervals to let you know that she is still doing cool things in cool places and has children who are also doing cool things.

Over there, we have Charles. Charles is obsessed with appearing cool and watches his Facebook newsfeed like a hawk. His comments on other people’s pages are crafted to reveal his own coolness.

And last, we have Dave. Dave is the king of cool and in his abundant public Facebook posts, he shows himself involved in as many cool activities as humanly possible. A trip is not a reality until it has been brought to Facebook. He writes about the cool music he is currently listening to and the cool technology he is using to listen to it (Charles quickly replies that he is using that cool technology himself, at this very moment). Dave chooses his own hobbies based on how they will round out his coolness portfolio, and he encourages his children to pursue hobbies that he considers cool enough to post on Facebook. His wife posts a photo of her tanned and nearly naked-self to show, well, nearly everything. Dave stands next to her, oiled and tanned and similarly in need of a shirt.

Ironically, one of the supposed hallmarks of a cool person is the cool person’s disinterest in seeking the approval of others. The cool person is supposedly so self-assured and so confident that he does not need external validation. The notion is that the cool person is looking forward and ahead, and happily oblivious to what his admirers and followers are thinking.

What’s the emoticon for a wry smile?

In theory, the cool person would never check to see how many ‘likes’ his recent Facebook post got. In theory, the cool person would be so busy pursuing cool things that he wouldn’t have time to upload photos of himself doing cool things. In theory, coolness is about a rather ambivalent and easy-going attitude.

The truth is that the people who bring themselves into the spotlight in order to showcase their coolness are excessively interested in the approval of others. Social approval is their sustenance; it is their drug, and they hunger for ‘likes’ the way a druggie craves another hit. They check repeatedly and with avid interest to see if anyone has sent a thumbs-up their way and they are more interested in reading the comment that their ‘friend’ has posted than in hearing the comments that their children are making in the same room.

Seeking coolness is bad enough; seeking cool things in the context of Facebook is worse. This is because Facebook is constant. In the past, your opportunities to impress others were limited by your ability to show up here there and everywhere. There was, of course, the telephone, but you had to brag to your friends one by one. Nowadays, the domestic goddess Athena can show her kitchen renovations to one hundred people at once, provoking others to suddenly covet the latest back-splash tiles and counter-top surfaces. Nowadays, Aphrodite can show herself smiling at a party wearing this dress with that hairdo and those new eyebrows to people who aren’t even there. And of course, the more friends you have, the more messages you will get: Jennifer got a (cool) new job, Dave is going to Holland, Jane is looking trim (and cool), Marty’s daughter made the (cool) team, Dave is going to Spain, Megan is starting a (cool) new business, Jordan got a (cool) car and Dave is going to Cuba. Each message causes a reaction, pulling and pushing the recipients. Facebook amplifies the noise in all users’ lives.

But even without the accelerating and compounding effect of Facebook, the preoccupation with coolness is detrimental to our well-being and our interpersonal relations.

Seeking coolness prevents us from knowing our true personality. In particular, a preoccupation with appearing cool tempts us to hide our real thoughts, emotions and feelings. We do not want to reveal that we care deeply about various issues and as a result, conversation and relationships become empty and superficial. We do little self-examination to examine what we really think about the people and situations in our lives, and why we think the way we do.

Seeking coolness prevents us from becoming the person God intended us to be. We have innate talents and unique interests that harmonize with those talents. Worrying about being cool prevents us from looking inward to discover our genuine gifts and interests. We waste our time in pursuits that we secretly find to be ho-hum when we could be excelling in a lesser-known area of life. We’re so busy playing basketball when we could be playing the bagpipes like nobody’s business.

Coolness is one of the most fleeting standards in an already-fleeting world. What changes faster than what is cool? Yesterday, that actor and this band and that fashion and that area of psychology or science were the very cutting edge of cool, but today, you are embarrassed to admit you ever liked those nineties tunes and wore jeans that looked like that. Blink once, however, and that singer’s face is on all the magazines. He’s popular like never before because he’s dead.

As a result, staying on top of what is cool requires vigilance and time. Much of modern conversation consists of sharing one’s opinion about what is cool. “I saw such-and-such at Costco . . . There’s a new kind of camera . . . Have you seen this show? . . . That new restaurant . . .” In my books, such conversation quickly runs out of steam because it endlessly skims the surface, flitting across it like a water bug. Can we get some depth here?

Parenthetically, the antithesis to what is “cool” is generally what is traditional and tried-and-true. Although token tribute is sometimes paid to aspects of earlier times (Cararra marble counter-tops, anyone?), for the most part, what is cool is synonymous with what is newly popular. By contrast, tradition is about what has been popular with people over the ages, to adapt an idea from Chesterton.

Staying on top of what is cool involves avoiding, for the most part, what is controversial. The cool person knows how to avoid touchy topics at all costs, because falling on the ‘wrong’ side of an issue is too easily done when the population is known to be divided. For this reason, politicians become vaguer and more prone to platitudes as they rise in popularity, as Chesterton has pointed out. Taking a firm stand is akin to welcoming a breeze near a house of cards. Who knows what the fall-out will be when the cards are shown to the voting population? The politicians want to play it safe; speaking vaguely and infrequently is a surer method to retain whatever popularity they have.

Turning to the average person, however, the circles are far smaller; most people have audiences that are more homogeneous and predictable. In that context, they willingly take a firm stand against the agreed-upon enemy and wait for applause. Yet there is no heroism in speaking against abortion when all your friends are pro-life. There is no risk in speaking against President Trump when the audience is full of show-biz folks. And it’s not bravery to Stand with Wisdom when that’s what your friends are doing. However, it is a risk to speak against the king when you’re Thomas More. It’s a risk to speak against the hypocrisy of the Catholic elite when you’re Pope Francis and it’s a risk to speak against the Pharisees when you’re Jesus. But sadly, being cool means playing it safe and honouring the views of your social circle while avoiding or even silencing those who challenge those views.

So whatever the theoretical definition of “cool” may be, practically we could define the cool person as someone who is aware of what is popular (especially newly popular) and is incorporating as many of these things into his life as possible while shunning anything that has lost or is losing its popular appeal. The goal in the coolness game is to detect, as early as possible, what is popular. The elusive prize is the respect and admiration of those in your circle.

Have you got it?
Are you sure?
Maybe you’ve lost your touch.
Or maybe
Maybe you never had it in the first place, hey?

Stay on your toes and stay ahead of the curve.

Be the first to realize that Ed What’s-His-Name is cool. Is he?
Be the first to realize that turmeric is a hit. Is it?
Be the first to realize that picking up trash is where it’s at.
Hey man
Oh man
Are you as eco as that?

Post 244

A Recipe for February

Today is the last day of February and also the Tuesday before Lent begins. Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. If you see people wandering around with cross-shaped smudges of gray ash on their foreheads, that’s because they went to an Ash Wednesday Mass. It’s not a day of obligation, but many people go to this Lenten kickoff.

Sometimes people call this “Shrove Tuesday.” “Shriving” is the act of hearing Confession and giving absolution, so the idea is that people would go to Confession in preparation for the period of Lent. “Shrive” means to absolve. Pancakes are sometimes involved, but you have Wikipedia if you want to find out more.

Ash Wednesday involves avoiding the consumption of meat or other food. This applies to those aged 14 to 59, but the starting age is 18 in the United States, from what I can tell. The main thing, however, is the disposition of the heart, and fasting is an expression of this.

I’ve got a recipe for you and my goal is to publish this before midnight. That gives me fewer than 25 minutes.

This recipe is the kind that does not catch your eye in a cookbook if you’re unfamiliar with it. I had never had it until I went to Normand’s Restaurant here in town. I was really blown away and later on I went looking to see if I had the same recipe. I do. This one is from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book and it’s awesome, even without the toffee sauce.

Because February is the month of St. Valentine’s Day, I’ll allow myself about ten or fifteen minutes of chit chat about that.

Here are my thoughts.

I don’t believe in date nights. Date nights are for those who are dating, not those who are married. What, exactly, is the point of such a ritual? The husband gets dressed up, the wife gets dressed up and they go ‘out on the town.’ Who is the audience for these fashionable looks? Let’s be honest now. The husband has already seen the wife, and the wife has already seen her husband.

But more importantly, the problem with date night is the implicit message that a couple must be alone in order to advance their relationship or to maintain it. More specifically, the message is that things are better when the children are absent. The theory is that ‘time alone’ will translate into better communication and romance.

This is misguided thinking. You don’t need a babysitter to improve your marriage. If your marriage is happy, then it is happy in the context of real life, and both the husband and the wife will have no shortage of ideas about expressing their affection. If your marriage is blah or struggling, it is not going to be improved by going out to a restaurant. Will any real progress be made on deeper issues with the waiter swooping in every eight minutes? I think not.

If real issues need to be addressed, they can be addressed in the context of the everyday. Discuss issues when they arise, and discuss them in the context of family life. There is no need for all discussions to take place behind closed doors. Tension is tension, and children are not nearly as naïve as adults believe; having a whispered and angry discussion is not necessarily better than having an openly heated one. Couples who habitually refuse to confront important issues will find that they are soon ‘going through the motions’ of marriage, instead of genuinely participating in it as equal and mature adults. Marriage is exciting and full of drama. Those who insist that a stable marriage is always tranquil fail to grasp the fullness of human life. Pope Francis was only partly joking when he talked about the plates flying.

Let both the difficulties and the joys be shared within the context of the family. Do not divide the family in the name of marital love and togetherness. It is not God’s way. God’s way does not involve babysitters and other parental substitutes to enable a married couple to go out to a restaurant or coffee shop or, even worse, an island over there.

Stay home. Celebrate with your children. Make a dessert. Serve it with vanilla ice cream.

Individual Sticky Toffee Pudding Cakes
Serves 8

Because the cake batter is so sticky, it is essential to line the ramekins with parchment paper to prevent sticking. While sticky toffee pudding cake is traditionally served with Crème Anglaise, vanilla ice cream also makes a nice accompaniment.

PUDDING CAKES

1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 ounces) all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 ounces) pitted whole dates, sliced 1/4 inch thick
3/4 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup packed (5 1/4 ounces) light brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperture
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

TOFFEE SAUCE

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup packed (7 ounces) brown sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon rum

1. FOR THE PUDDING CAKES: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour eight 6-ounce ramekins, then line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper. Place a kitchen towel on the bottom of a large roasting pan and arrange the ramekins on the towel. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. Combine 3/4 cup of the dates with the warm water and baking soda in a glass measuring cup (the dates should be completely submerged) and set aside to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain the softened dates and reserve the soaking liquid.

3. Pulse the remaining 1/2 cup dates and brown sugar in a food processor until just combined, about 5 pulses. Add the reserved date soaking liquid, eggs and vanilla and process until smooth, about 5 seconds. With the food processor running, pour the melted butter through the feed tube in a steady stream. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and stir in the softened dates. Gently stir in the flour mixture until just combined. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared ramekins.

4. Place the roasting pan in the oven and carefully pour enough boiling water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, crimping the edges to seal. Bake the cakes until puffed and small holes appear on their surface, 35 to 40 minutes.

5. FOR THE TOFFEE SAUCE: Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the brown sugar and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture looks puffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly whisk in the cream and rum, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until frothy, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.

6. Carefully remove the ramekins from the water bath using tongs and a sturdy spatula and let the cakes cool in the ramekins for 10 minutes. Using a skewer or toothpick, poke holes all over the tops of the cakes, then pour 1 tablespoon of the toffee sauce over each cake. Run a small knife around the edges of the ramekins to loosen the cakes, then flip out onto individual plates or bowls. Peel off the parchment paper and pour the remaining toffee sauce over the top before serving.

There’s a tip in the cookbook about tenderizing dates, as well as instructions on how to make this recipe ahead of time, but speaking of time, I’m out of it. Bye!

Post 243

Stranger and Stranger

Do I know you?

You remind me of someone
You remind me of someone I used to know

Same hair, same face
Older, for sure
But same face

Did I not look upon that face
Recognize that face
Smile at that face?

Yeah, you remind me of someone
Someone I used to know

Same voice
Yes
Same voice

Same laugh same smile same knowing look
A look of understanding and friendship and
Inside jokes

Yeah, something about you
Reminds me of someone I once knew
Someone I admired
Truth be told

Someone I hugged
Someone I cherished
Someone I defended and praised and welcomed and fed

I knew that someone
Through and through

Or at least
I thought I did
Thought I did

Do I know you?

No, I do not

Never did

 

Post 242

Can’t Touch This:
Reflections on the Immeasurability of Suffering

Suffering is thwarted intention. You want something and you cannot have it. You want to do something and you cannot do it. You want someone to do something and they do not do it. You want things to go one way and they go the other way.

The main attribute of being human is our will. It is our way of expressing ourselves and our eternal destiny depends on what we will. When Jesus condemned looking at a woman with lust in one’s heart, he was speaking about the will. It’s the essential thing.

If you want to poison someone, but you don’t get around to it because you are the procrastinating sort, then you bear much of the guilt of someone who is more punctual.

What is in your heart?

If you have good intentions for others, your will is pure. If you have bad intentions for others, your will is in need of correction.

Because suffering is interrupted or thwarted intention, you cannot easily know whether someone has truly suffered.

Let me explain.

You hear the very sad story of a woman whose daughter has gone astray. She tells long stories to anyone who will listen about how, despite her very best and almost heroic efforts, her daughter has chosen the wrong path.

When you hear the story and assume that she is a normal mother, who wants the very best for her daughter, and loves her unconditionally, then you come away with the impression that this mother suffers deeply. You shake your head and you sigh that the world is truly a sorrowful place.

Now although you’ve done nothing wrong by assuming that the mother is portraying the truth of the entire matter, the human heart is often quite twisted.

Not every mother loves her daughter unconditionally. As a matter of fact, not every mother loves her daughter at all. It’s very unfortunate, but it’s true, and I far prefer nepotism to an absence of parental love. Nepotism, after all, is a (misplaced) manifestation of something normal. An absence of natural parental love is always deliberately chosen and is highly unnatural.

So let’s study the hypothetical case of Helga. Helga is more than ready to tell you, in detail, about her daughter’s misdemeanors and flagrant immorality. As a matter of fact, she will derail an entire social gathering to make her sorrowful story the centre of attention. She is showered with attention; sympathy is shown (if not felt). People sigh about “free will.”

The good-hearted people empathize deeply, imagining how they would feel if put into the same predicament. Their hearts break at the thought of separation from their own daughter, of similar age. They pray rosaries for Helga and her situation.

The thing is, Helga never cared much for her daughter. “Take her or leave her” would be a fair description. Nevertheless, nobody realizes this truth because Helga has always known better than to admit something which would make her sound, well, cold and uncaring. But the truth is that from the get-go, Helga was rather ambivalent about the kid.

Fast forward a few years, and Helga is basking in the attention, and each new development in her daughter’s life is simply more material to share with her sympathizers. “Woe is me!” is the tune that Helga plays on her violin. But her will has not, in fact, been thwarted. She is not suffering.

Another example: Flavian wants a job. He really, really wants to work — or so it seems. We sympathize because he just isn’t getting what he wants and we sigh that he’s another casualty of the economic downturn. We empathize by imagining ourselves jobless and without prospects. But what is Flavian’s true and deep desire? Does he want to work? Well, not really. He likes the idea of the money, but the part about working — well, it depends. What are the hours?

As it turns out, Flavian is not at all like Pablo, who genuinely wants to work, and who is willing to try his hand at almost anything. Pablo searches online for opportunities, and when he’s not doing that, he’s cooking supper for his wife and learning English. Both men are unemployed, but they do not suffer equally. Pablo suffers more, as he wonders whether he’ll be able to provide for his family.

My point is, you really can’t measure the suffering of another.

Manuel has broken his leg and now he can’t play basketball as he planned. How much does he suffer? Well, it turns out he kind of enjoys the entire medical nature of the injury and he’s decided that he’s going to be an orthopaedic surgeon one day. As for the basketball game, it’s not a big deal to him, though he won’t admit this to his teammates, who see sports as life-defining.

People are very careful about what they reveal. In particular, it is very often the type who appear to ‘say anything’ and who appear to be entirely relaxed, spontaneous and natural, who are calculating the most. They just calculate faster than you realize. In the time that it took you to decide what to say next, they’ve mentally experimented with four options.

Not everyone knows how to sound cool or intelligent or funny or charming, though people try.

People are quite good, however, at hiding what they feel is embarrassing or uncool or damning about themselves. In general, they just don’t mention it. They pretend it doesn’t exist and that it’s the furthest from their thoughts. “What? ME? You think that I would look at women in that way?”

Yeah.

And so it is that we underestimate the darkness in the hearts of our fellow man. We assume that all the “bad guys” are facing criminal charges or robbing the local convenience store. But consider: why were Jesus’ harshest words reserved for the holy elite? Even the rich tax collectors didn’t get the brunt of his disapproval. As a matter of fact, he enraged the Pharisees by saying that the known “bad” people would go into heaven before the known “good” people.

It’s always this reversal. It’s a constant theme in both the Old Testament and the New: things are not what they seem! Only God knows the whole truth.

I mention all these things because God doesn’t get enough credit. People believe they observe more suffering than they do, and they blame God. If they only knew how convoluted and absurd the human heart was, they’d realize many people are quite pleased with the turn of their life events!

Conversely, people fail to perceive the suffering of others. Look at that man who seems to have it all. He’s got fame and money and a beautiful family. He’s got everything you think you want.

Him?

Yeah, him.

Didn’t he commit suicide a few years ago?

Yes, he did.

The suffering of Jesus’ mother Mary was acute, but did anyone perceive the depth of her sorrow? They could not fathom it, because they could not comprehend the tremendous love that she had for her son, and his corresponding love for her. It was a relationship with no parallel on earth. She watched as humanity tortured her precious and innocent Son in order to destroy his body and kill him.

And, in the case of Jesus, it is far easier to sigh over his physical suffering, but that was not his worst. His worst suffering was the sense of abandonment that he felt. He felt abandoned by his Father, and by almost everyone else.

In other words, even the graphic death of Jesus presents another example of this rule: people are unable to properly measure the suffering of others.

You could have a Job in your midst and you wouldn’t know it, because you’re looking for the tell-tale signs of suffering. You’re looking for the diagnosis of cancer or the house burned to the ground and the GoFundMe campaign.

Silly you.

Some of the deepest suffering is entirely hidden from you.

Spiritual suffering is the worst kind of suffering, and can leave one breathless. What have you heard? What have you read? What do you know? Does it not descend upon a person like labour pains and then vanish as if it never happened at all?

I like Chesterton’s description — where he said it, I can’t recall — something about being so sad that one forgets that it is possible to be happy and then being so happy that one forgets it is possible to be sad.

Yeah.

Something like that.

Post 241

The Talk: Reflections on Giving up Your Cloak

So on Sunday at the Basilica, we got The Talk.

You know. “The Talk.”

It’s the one where the priest tells you to donate more money, either by pre-authorized payments directly from your bank account or “at least” by envelope. (The alternative to envelopes is dropping money directly into the collection basket that circulates during Mass.)

It doesn’t happen everywhere like this, but it happens far too often, and almost every Catholic has heard a variation of it.

On Sunday it was Fr. Martin Carroll who tried, unsuccessfully, to deliver a homily which connected the readings of the day with The Talk.

Then he split.

Yup.

He didn’t stay to concelebrate the Mass. He was outta there, having said what he wanted to say.

I see.

Yeah, it was one of the lamer variations on this whole thing, not only because he high-tailed it out of there immediately after, but because the homily got all mangled after being warped into a demand for cash. I was going to say that it was a plea for cash, but it wasn’t. Donating money was very much connected with personal sanctity, and the take-home message was that You Need to Examine Whether You Have Listened to Fr. Martin Carroll’s ‘Suggestion’ of Donating Your First Hour of Pay for the Week to the Church. We were told to consider this in particular when we received our tax receipt in the near future.

Hmm. My first hour of income for the week?

How about if I just send you a Facebook friend request instead? Not on Facebook? That’s good.

Priests should NOT be on Facebook.

Obviously.

But back to the Mass, the main celebrant was dignified throughout, and his closing blessing was not marred by any chit-chat-hey-howya-doin’-folks. Less is more. And wow, it is so good when the priest does the Consecration with utmost care and reverence.

I like reverence. I like priests who deliver the Mass without all these “personal touches.” I was just reeling when I came out of a Mass over at St. Theresa’s Parish. Whoa, what just happened in there? Fr. Jim Corrigan began the Mass and promptly started joking about the ‘need’ for his recent excursion to Arizona. Yikes. If you must mention that to your congregation (many can’t afford to travel), incorporate it into the homily the way some priests try to begin with A Humorous Story. Then he walked all through the congregation, down one aisle, up the next, behind these pews and around the others during the Mass. I was watching him mosey around. What on earth? Where is he now? Oh, he’s way at the back. Meanwhile, the congregation, apparently used to this, was reciting something or other. Weird. But it got weirder. For some unknown reason, the parish has a ‘tradition’ of having the children come up to the priest during the collection of donations. The priest sits in his chair and the children line up with their parents. Then when the child reaches the front, the priest hugs the child. Huh? Weird. Where am I? Is this a visit to Santa Claus at the mall? It just looks beyond dorky. Looking towards the altar you see a line of children spanning from one side to the next.

I’m not opposed to children. I’m opposed to this ritual of making them greet the priest every week in front of everybody. The kids didn’t look particularly enthusiastic. They probably just think it’s something you do at church. It’s not cute and why is he hugging them? Aren’t we kind of through with this whole touchy-touchy stuff? Why do we say that it’s okay to hug someone you never otherwise interact with as long as he’s a priest? Doesn’t that set a bad precedent?

But speaking of touchy-touchy, please don’t put your hand on my shoulder when you give me Communion, Father Jim Corrigan. It’s just, well, ick.

So much of the Mass at St. Theresa’s was highly problematic. The music was done in the rock style which is so prevalent at these ‘youth’ Masses and the words for the songs (and many prayers) were projected onto two large screens. Those screens backfire, you know. In theory, they make it easier for the congregation to participate, but in reality, it lowers the bar of participation. People go into passive mode. They don’t even have to crack open a hymnal. Picking up the book and finding the page is important, because it’s that bit of exertion, that bit of commitment, which will help give you the drive to actually sing along. Ya got the book open to the right page; you’re halfway there, hey?

But the screens got worse. At the end of the Mass, in addition to the overly long announcements by the priest (including a description of how purchasing the grocery-store gift cards is really great because the parish purchases them in bulk at a discount of such-and-such and then when parishioners purchase them, it’s a win-win for everyone, since of course everyone needs to eat), the screens flashed various announcements. Whoever did the graphics decided to be ‘creative,’ and each graphic announcement arrived and disappeared in a flashy way. Sometimes the message whirled away, and sometimes it dissolved. You know what I mean. Special effects. At Mass.

The most exciting thing at Mass is supposed to be the Eucharist. Everything else should support that. The priest is not a stand-up comic and the musicians aren’t entertainers. It’s not a movie theatre, so put away the screens, and it’s not a play, so please don’t clap at the end.

Man.

But anyway, back to the Mass at the Basilica, the first reading from Leviticus 19 went like this:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

So it was nice.

What struck me, however, upon hearing it, was that little phrase in there. It says, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”

It does not say, “Do not reprove your neighbour.”

It says, “Reprove your neighbour.”

In other words, if you see something being done that is wrong, speak up.

Speak up and denounce what is wrong. That’s part of being good. It will cost you, but it’s part of being holy. If a friend lies to you, confront him. If a friend insults you, confront him.

The arrival of Jesus does not undo this. Even though the Gospel was all about turning the other cheek, the obligation to denounce wrongdoing continues. There is no contradiction, and I have been heartened by the words of Pope Francis, who says that we must denounce evil.

I have become very brave about denouncing wrongdoing, but this shocks many. It most unsettles those who have done me wrong or who are friends with those who hypocritically enjoy(ed) a good reputation while doing wrong.

And on this note, I have wondered about the nature of loyalty.

Is it good to be loyal to someone regardless of any wrong that they have done? I would say that it is good, provided that the loyalty does not blind you to reality. I would not shun the Shawn Beavers of the world who haven’t done me wrong (he hasn’t). I would however, be willing to tell him that he did wrong if he were to suggest that he has not. And if he ever showed up wearing pointy shoes, I would tell him that men shouldn’t wear pointy shoes if at all possible.

The problem with “loyalty” is that those who are loyal sometimes deny guilt when there is guilt, and instead malign those who speak the truth, saying that there is guilt in denouncing. These ‘loyal friends’ enjoy their good relations with Mr. Holy & Connected. The relationship is valuable to them, and when that Catholic school gets named after Mr. Holy & Connected (Catholic schools should not be named after uncanonized saints, obviously), they plan to be right there casually mentioning, “I was good friends with so-and-so.” Are we surprised when they ferociously defend the character and the actions (even hidden ones) of Mr. Holy & Connected, no matter what is discovered? That’s loyalty for all the wrong reasons, and one wonders whether it deserves the name.

And it can work in reverse. I remember the time, not too long ago, when Barbara Duteau (real names used for the sake of reality) cheerfully said to me something along these lines: “I really disliked you at first. It’s because my friend from another school met and liked that guy named Jason, but then he started dating you. Out of loyalty to her, I refused to get to know you.” When it was said, I was taken aback on some level, but it was not in me to respond with anything other than laughter. Now I have the courage to denounce such conduct and the flippant admission of it as if it were a humorous anecdote; now I can present it to my readers as a very clear example of misguided loyalty. I hope you’ll see that there’s nothing trivial or humorous about that manifestation of “loyalty.” As a matter of fact, it’s something worth apologizing for if it’s going to be raised. It is wrong to intentionally choose to dislike someone on the basis of “loyalty” to another.

Loyalty must always be grounded in truth. This means that in some cases, you are doing two things at once: denouncing wrong behaviour on the one hand and loving the person on the other. Jesus was very much charged with the task of saying what was true, painful though it might be. This also means that if I denounce the actions of someone, I am not necessarily lacking in love for that person, though it may appear that way.

Hmm, I wonder why prophets aren’t popular.

The second reading was from Chapter 3 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It goes like this:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again,“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Well, that’s a nice section too, isn’t it? It’s a pleasant surprise to me to see how this dovetails nicely with what I was saying about Mr. Holy & Connected. It’s so typical to be ‘wise’ in terms of social interaction. Facebook is one example. People spend hours on it, cleverly maintaining their network of connections, and they use their wits to say just the right things at the right moment. Has someone posted a photo of herself after getting a new haircut? Make sure you say “You look AMAZING!!!” Has someone updated their profile page with a photo of themselves from 1991? Say, “Wow, just gorgeous xoxo!” Has someone posted a photo of the wedding where the groom is wearing jeans and a leather vest? Say, “Oh, how beautiful!” We all know the lines. We know the lines that you use to stay connected and to please the people in your life who might come in handy for you at a later date. At the very least, they’ll send some “Likes” your way. It’s what you do; these are the angles you play.

Ah.

Angles. Angles and corners and the Roundabout. Let’s go around that topic. Let’s not confront it. Let’s change the topic. Let’s play Avoid and I Didn’t See. Yeah yeah and yeah.

It’s the name of the game but it’s not right. Let’s get it right. Let’s avoid the angles and be simple and straight.

In other words, let’s be fools.
Blurt it out, spit it out and throw it out there.
Say what you think.
Say what you really think.
Write a blog and send me your link.

What have you got to lose?
Everything?
Yeah.

Party on.
God’s in control.

This is from Matthew 5 and it was the Gospel for Sunday:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

That’s a heavy-duty reading. It’s all about what to do in the face of evil and the message here underpins almost all of western civilization, whether it is acknowledged or not. It informs our idea of “Nice.”

The message is: “Do not resist an evildoer” and “Love your enemy.”

Alright. Does it mean, then, that we are never to say, “You have done wrong”? It does not. If it did, then Christ and the Church would be as silent as a corpse. Instead, we see the Church is very alive, and this Bride of Christ is outspoken in condemning the wrongs of the day, in the same way that Christ condemned the hypocritical behaviour of those who pretended to be holier than others. The humorous thing, of course, is that people like John-Henry Weston and Cardinal Burke find that the Church doesn’t condemn what they want her to condemn.

Does it mean that we are to accept every suffering? No it does not. Does it mean that it is wrong to try to avoid suffering? No, it does not. It is normal and good to take steps to reduce suffering, provided that those steps are morally acceptable. Consider how St. Paul avoided being tortured by reminding his captors that he was a Roman citizen.

So what does this mean? The primary message is that we must not harbour resentment in our hearts and plot vengeance. God, in his providence, will guard our interests in the end, and this means that we have the freedom to be foolish.

These readings all tie together. Be foolish! Give away your cloak (a symbol of protection and status)! Walk the extra mile (a symbol of time and energy)! Let yourself be struck on your face (a symbol of reputation and worth)!

The message is that you can give up all of these things with total freedom and trust that God will make everything right. In a way, it is not very dissimilar to the passages about not worrying about your clothing and your food. It is less of a command (you MUST give away your cloak) than an invitation. Jesus here shows us another way, far from the scheming and calculating “wisdom” of the world. Jesus is saying, “Go ahead; don’t worry about righting the balance on your own. You can be utterly ‘foolish’ in your self-sacrifice and your tolerance for wrongs done to you; no longer must you attempt to measure everything and weigh everything. No longer must you calculate who has done more for whom, and who has lost an eye and who has lost a tooth.”

It is not a prohibition on trying to avoid suffering, and it is not a prohibition on speaking against wrongs, whether these are done against you or another.

The primary message is that we do not need to carry the burden of final vindication or punishment. We can be like children, not judges or accountants. We can finally empty our hearts of “keeping track” and “getting even.” That’s the main message. It’s about being free to love because we’re not keeping track.

And we should love. We are not called to like everyone, but we are called to love everyone. What is meant by love? Love means wishing the other well, and part of that means telling them the truth.

You see, when Jesus came, he came to relieve burdens. He came to bring a greater freedom of interaction and thinking. This section is meant to liberate, but — oh my — how it is used! Instead of genuinely loving each other, people want, very much, to APPEAR to be loving each other. You wind up with a Christian “style” which is as artificial and superficial as nail-polish. You wind up with an entirely new and fake approach where everyone is smiley and silent, yet internally seething. You wind up with scores of people playing the role of a martyr while being filled with bitterness. They play the part of someone who has taken these Gospel lines to heart, but the truth is, it’s all an act.

Enough of that! Let’s be foolish! Let’s be like little children!

Oh wait.

Did you hear that?

I think I heard a knock on the door.

Someone is there.

Hang on.

I’ll go get it.

It’s Father Martin Carroll.

He’s wondering whether you’ve adequately reflected on what you’re doing for the church. He wants to know if you’re volunteering enough, and he’s wondering if you’re donating your first hour’s pay. He said it costs $2,500 each day to run the Basilica.

It supposedly ties in with the readings on Sundays.

So what should we do? Does this Gospel reading require us to give to whomever asks? Am I obliged, from a Christian point of view, to donate to the Church? How much? And how about the rockathon (whatever that is) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation? Is it time to load up on Girl Guide cookies? Must I purchase a pink teddy-bear when I buy groceries?

Yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s tricky, and there’s no blanket rule. Give what you want to give. Give what you can give cheerfully. Don’t give $20 per week if you’ll feel resentment, and don’t choose your amount because you feel pressure or because you think it will show that you’re holy.

That’s why I really dislike it when The Talk dominates the homily. It’s just icky.

Look: if you need money, a sincere single sentence at the end of the Mass (short announcements are liturgically okay) or before it begins, will be far more effective. Just say, “Our expenses this year put us over budget – if you’d be willing to increase your donation to help us cover the shortfall, we would be very grateful.” Do it like that. Short and sweet and sincere, from a priest — well, who could resist?

A lecture that goes on and on about how expensive things are? Well, that just wears thin lickity-split.

And what’s worse: we are taken entirely away from the Gospel so that we can hear about BUCKS.

Bleck.

But okay. Have it your way. Let’s talk about bucks.

Tell me please, why $618,647.00 is spent on “Human Resources” at the Basilica over one year. That’s a lot of money, and makes up the lion’s share of this million dollar budget. I don’t believe it’s necessary.

For one thing, the administration of the sacraments could be significantly streamlined. I agree wholeheartedly with this section written by a doctor of Canon law, Dr. Edward Peters. He wrote it in 1996. I know it’s long but you already know how to scroll when your eyes glaze over. I’ve put my favorite bits into bold.

Preparing Children for the Sacraments: Some Controversies and Suggestions

Introduction

Most Catholics receive Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist while they are still children under parental authority. Usually, of course, the process of preparing young people to receive these three sacraments of initiation (Canon 842 § 2) proceeds smoothly. At times, however, misunderstandings and even conflicts can occur between parents and pastors or catechists over a child’s sacramental preparation. This article will address some of the controversies which can arise and will suggest some resolutions of those issues based on the objective requirements of canon law.

Before addressing specific questions on children’s reception of the sacraments, it is necessary to understand the Church’s general attitude toward the reception of sacraments by the faithful. Briefly, Church law prizes and protects the right of Catholics to participate in its sacramental life. While recognizing the minister’s obligation to prevent unworthy participation in the sacraments, the canons firmly foster the reception of the sacraments wherever possible.

Evidence for this is found as early as Book II of the 1983 Code, entitled “The People of God,” which opens with a remarkable series of canons outlining the fundamental rights and duties of the faithful in general and of the laity in particular. Prominent among those provisions are Canon 213 which asserts the faithful’s “right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments” and Canon 212 § 2 which recognizes the faithful’s “right to make known their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires to the pastors of the Church.”

Even standing alone, these two canons are clear affirmations of the faithful’s rights in regard to accessing the sacraments. But when these same provisions are read in the light of Canon 18 (which calls for the narrow interpretation of any Church rules restricting the faithful’s exercise of their rights) it is easy to see that a significant presumption in favor of the faithful’s rights to sacramental participation is being established very early in Church law.

Turning next to Book IV of the Code, where most of the canons specifically regulating sacramental issues are found, though still before discussing specific norms on particular sacraments, Church law restates that “sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them” (Canon 843 § 1). Once more, the obvious implication is that Church ministers are supposed to be at the service of the faithful seeking sacraments. Not at their beck-and-call, certainly, but at their service, surely.

Finally, it is important to realize that the supreme authority of the Church (i.e., Rome) reserves to itself the right to determine what is required for valid and licit celebration of the sacraments (see Canon 841, as well as Canons 837-838). This does not mean that there is no place for flexibility and local adaptation in sacramental matters, for there most certainly is. But it does mean that the fundamental rules on sacramental participation are determined by universal canon law and not by local diocesan or parish policy-makers, however well-intentioned they might be. With these points as background, we are now ready to examine some of the issues raised regarding reception of the sacraments by children.

Baptism

Parents are bound to see to the baptism of their children within “the first weeks after birth” (Canon 867 § 1), while pastors, for their part, are to provide parents and sponsors with “proper instruction on the meaning of the sacrament” (Canon 851, n. 2). In general, parishes correctly tend to be stricter in requiring baptismal preparation for parents who are presenting their first child for Baptism or when the parents are not otherwise known to be active in parish life (e.g., Sunday Mass attendance).

Understandably, canon law does not specify exactly what material needs to be mastered by parents and sponsors prior to presenting their child for Baptism. But a clue as to how much (or how little?) might be required is found, I think, in Canon 868 § 1, n. 2, which states that for the licit baptism of a child there is required (beyond parental consent) a “founded hope that the child will be raised Catholic.” Most observers would agree, that it is not much of a juridic requirement, especially when the canon goes on to state that only if such a hope is “altogether lacking” can the baptism be, not denied, but delayed for a time according to diocesan policy.

On the other hand, the “founded hope” requirement is generally considered to be more than sufficient grounds for a pastor to delay a child’s baptism because of, say, the parents’ irregular marriage situation. Although the child’s right to baptism will eventually outweigh the parents’ duty to rectify their marital status, resulting in conferral of the sacrament, pastoral evidence is clear that many couples do correctly address their own status in the Church as part of the preparation for their child’s baptism. Touching another matter, canon law does not require baptismal sponsors, known popularly as “godparents”, but the practice is strongly encouraged (Canon 872). A sponsor may be of either sex, or there may be two sponsors of opposite sexes, but not two sponsors of the same sex (Canon 873). Sponsors must be practicing Catholics, generally over age 16, and cannot be the parents of the one to be baptized (Canon 874 § 1). Non-Catholics cannot serve as baptismal sponsors, although they may be admitted as official witnesses to the Baptism (Canons 874 § 2).

Most of the other common baptismal questions (e.g., acceptable baptismal names, Sunday Baptisms, or ordinary minister of baptism) are concisely addressed in the Code, especially in canons 850-860, and so need not be addressed here.

Confirmation

For the valid reception of confirmation, it is only required that the confirmand be baptized (Canon 889 § 1). For the licit reception of Confirmation, however, a confirmand must also be “suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew one’s baptismal promises” (Canon 889 § 2). As was true in the case of baptism, the Code does not attempt a catalogue of facts which, however usefully, should be mastered by confirmands. Certainly, however, more than was required for baptism should be required for Confirmation. But this very fact can lead to a problem, especially for pastors and catechists.

Parish staffers know that for most of the young people, the reception of Confirmation will be the last time those children will have any formal contact with their parish until, perhaps, it’s time for them to marry. There are temptations, therefore, to try to stretch out the preparation periods for as long as possible and to involve the confirmands as much as possible in other aspects of Church life and mission. Notwithstanding the potential benefits which can be obtained with extended preparation, however, such an approach walks, and occasionally crosses, the line between offering challenges to faith growth and erecting obstacles to same.

For example, some parishes require over 100 classes (weekly classes for two years) before the reception of Confirmation. But that same parish, often entirely in accord with diocesan policy, might require only four classes for Marriage preparation. Clearly, something is far out of balance here.

Other Confirmation preparation programs require young people to participate in a “social awareness” service project designed by parish or diocesan staff. While many such projects are completely innocuous and of real benefit to participants and recipients, others entail specific risks to participants, (risks based on, say, travel required, locale of service, materials used, and so on), which risks confirmands and their parents may prudently elect not to assume.

A few parishes require parents, as a condition to their children’s reception of Confirmation, to consent to their children’s participation in over-night, mixed-sex retreats, at parental expense, and with a prior parental waiver of liability in favor of the parish or diocese. Obviously, parents and children might object to such activities on any number of reasonable grounds.

In the end, however, nothing in Canon 889 § 2 requires service projects or week-end retreats prior to receiving Confirmation. For that matter, as many diocesan administrators have learned, those so-called waivers of liability for service projects and retreats are not always what they used to be. Parishes making use of them should consult with diocesan legal counsel before assuming the effectiveness of such waivers in case of trouble.

It is, of course, wholly within the authority of dioceses and parishes to offer opportunities for things like Christian service and retreat experiences to those preparing for various sacraments. That does not change the fact, however, that the primary requirements for valid and licit sacramental participation are set forth in the Code of Canon Law, whose provisions control in case of conflict. As long as the voluntary nature of any additional activities is made clear, and there is recognition that young people’s eligibility to participate in the sacramental life of the Church is not based on their decision to take part or to refrain from taking part in such activities, things can progress very well.

Determining the proper age for Confirmation presents yet another type of problem. Most American dioceses delay Confirmation until late grade school or even high school. There is evidence that such delays result in the failure of many Catholics ever to receive Confirmation. Without trying to air fully all sides of this debate, it should be noted that at least some of the delays in the conferral of Confirmation are open to canonical objections.

Canon 891 states that Confirmation is generally to be administered at about the age of discretion, which age is understood to be seven (see Canon 97 § 2). There are, however, three exceptions to this rule, two of which exceptions, “danger of death” and “grave cause,” are often understood to support administration of Confirmation earlier than the age of discretion. But the main exception to requiring administration of Confirmation at the age of discretion lies in Canon 891’s phrase “unless the conference of bishops determines another age” for reception of the sacrament.

In contrast to what is allowed under Canon 891, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did not determine another age for the reception of Confirmation. Instead, it purported to authorize diocesan bishops to determine the age at which the Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred in their dioceses. This would be fine, except that the 1983 Code did not authorize bishops to establish various ages for reception of Confirmation among their dioceses, although it would have been very easy to draft Canon 891 that way (see, for example, Canon 874 § 1, n. 2).

There is, however, almost no canonical way that concerned parents, pastors, or catechists can officially push for a clarification of this matter especially since (to make a long story short) the Holy See, after some hesitation, has basically approved the USCCB’s action until the summer of 1999. Therefore, the age for reception of Confirmation will basically depend on diocesan policy. With, I suggest, one important proviso: parents, pastors, and catechists should be open to and supportive of the rights of young people to petition for Confirmation at an earlier age than that observed in the diocese.

Recalling the Code’s many provisions defending the general right of the faithful to access the Church’s sacraments, and recalling that it is the child’s sacramental life that is in question here—not the pastor’s programs—reasonable accommodation (see Canons 843 § 1, 885 § 1 & 214) should be made to welcome younger children qualified for the Sacrament of Confirmation when they ask for it. Special note: if Baptism is conferred on a child above the age of reason, Canons 883 & 885 combine to require the conferral of Confirmation at the same time, regardless of diocesan policy perhaps calling for later conferral of the sacrament. As was true of Baptism, there is no strict requirement that Confirmation sponsors be used (see Canon 892), but the practice is a long-standing one and is to be encouraged. A confirmation sponsor may be of either sex, and it is hoped that one of the confirmand’s original baptismal sponsors will accept the role of Confirmation sponsor (Canon 893).

First Communion

Vatican II’s beautiful description of the Eucharist as the “summit and source of the Christian life” is repeated in Canon 897 which opens the 1983 Code’s regulation of this sacrament. But perhaps because of the unique importance of the Eucharist in the lives of the faithful, canon law was, it seems, not content to rest on its earlier assertions of the rights of the faithful to approach this sacrament, and instead it states quite specifically: “Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion” (Canon 912, my emphasis).

While two canons (cc. 915 & 916) address the sad question of who is prohibited by law from participating in the Eucharist, two other canons (cc. 913 & 914) consider issues related to the initiation of children into the Church’s Eucharistic life. The very fact that these two issues are treated separately suggests that pre-Eucharistic children are not considered among those “prohibited by law” from receiving the Eucharist (else they should have been listed in Canons 915-916), but rather that they too enjoy the right of Eucharistic access, a right to be honored by those in authority over them in such a way as to enhance their sacramental participation “as early as possible” (Canon 914).

Most parishes make a real effort to offer first Communion catechesis to young people. There is, nevertheless, no doubt that parents are, and are recognized as, the primary agents responsible for the education of their children for first Holy Communion. Canon 914 opens with the word “Parentum” and clearly declares them as having the primary place in the Eucharistic education of their children. If that were not enough, Canons 226 § 2, 793 § 1, 835 § 4, and 1136, each taken from very different sections of the 1983 Code, weigh in heavily on behalf of parental primacy in the education of children, almost as if the point cannot be stressed often enough in an age veering toward social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies. Even parental negligence in this area, which obviously happens and which should be addressed by pastors and catechists in accord with Canon 529 § 1, cannot be used as an excuse to disregard the integrity of the family unit, the family which Pope Paul VI so insightfully called “the domestic Church.”

Does any of this, though, relegate pastors (or catechists) to being functionaries for First Communion?

Not at all. Canon 914, which recognizes parental primacy in the education of children for the Eucharist, also reminds pastors “to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.” Canon 913, I think, sheds some light on just how pastors should make that assessment.

Canon 913 states that children should be able “to understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.” Such a canon is much easier to apply in real life than it is to explain in the abstract, but a few points seem clear.

First, the content of children’s belief, not necessarily the process by which they acquired that content, is what is important. For example, there is no canonical requirement that children be enrolled in a parish religious education program in order to be admitted to the Eucharist, even though a good case can be made that parishes should, as most already do, offer such programs for parents who wish to use them on behalf of their children. On the other hand, mere completion of a parish catechetical program is not proof that a child has interiorized the information which the catechist tried to impart. A individual assessment of each child’s Eucharistic understanding needs to be made.

Second, there is no canonical requirement that children wait until a certain time of the year to make their first Holy Communion, even though they and their parents are free to wait for such a parochial “theme Sunday” if they wish. Moreover, if parents and children wish to be part of a special first Communion liturgy, they should attend those preparation sessions designed to make such liturgies run smoothly.

Third, children and their parents, regardless of the method of sacramental catechesis chosen, need to give pastors a reasonable opportunity to assess a young child’s readiness to receive the Eucharist in accord with their duties under Canon 914. Obviously, in making such arrangements, busy pastors and busy parents should be respectful of the demands on each other’s time. And if a pastor (though not a catechist in this regard) concludes that a certain child is not ready to be admitted to the Eucharist, the reasons for that denial should be clearly explained to the child and the parents. Pastors and parents can then consider what is the best way to proceed under the circumstances.

Conclusion

Sacramental preparations are times of special grace and expectation. No one wants to see them turned into an arena for a contest of wills between parents, pastors, or catechists, and in most cases, of course, this does not happen. When it does occur, however, it behooves all involved to step back from the situation and to reassess more precisely what is, and what is not, actually required in sacramental preparation. If that is done carefully and honestly, then, I suggest, most instances of disagreement can be resolved by recognizing that the Church’s expectations for sacramental participation have already been set out in canon law and are applicable without regard to the preferences of parental or parochial figures.

That was just awesome. One of my favorite parts is this:

If that were not enough, Canons 226 § 2, 793 § 1, 835 § 4, and 1136, each taken from very different sections of the 1983 Code, weigh in heavily on behalf of parental primacy in the education of children, almost as if the point cannot be stressed often enough in an age veering toward social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies. Even parental negligence in this area, which obviously happens and which should be addressed by pastors and catechists in accord with Canon 529 § 1, cannot be used as an excuse to disregard the integrity of the family unit, the family which Pope Paul VI so insightfully called “the domestic Church.”

And my favorite part within that favorite part is the phrase “in an age veering towards social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies.”

Amen to that.

This phrase, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” has taken on a monstrous life of its own, and I detest it.

So yeah.

You tell ‘em, Dr. Edward Peters!

My point here is that the Basilica puts people through too much when they try to get their sacraments. The problem is that most of it is mandatory. Mandatory! If you want your child to receive Holy Communion, your child will be grouped with the others to learn this beauty:

I wanna say yes
Yes!
Just like Mary said
Just like Mary said
Just like Mary said
Yes yes yes Lord
Yes yes yes Lord

That’s the refrain to this “Cat-Chat” song and I wanna say no. I mean, really, why waste precious time learning the “moves” for this? If the pastoral powers that be mandate that classes are compulsory, make them an efficient use of time. If it’s voluntary, then knock yourself out.  Let them teach the children to sing pseudo-rock songs in the basement while the Basilica pays people to sing in Latin.  (Or . . . how about teaching the children to sing in Latin and disbanding the Schola?)

If budget is an issue, bloated things like this should be re-evaluated. Sacramental preparation can be simplified and streamlined while keeping the letter and the spirit of Canon Law. You don’t need a big budget and a small army of people earning who-knows-what in order to make sure people get what they need, liturgically and sacramentally. That’s not God’s plan and in my opinion, a big budget for “Human Resources” is embarrassing and calls for scrutiny.

And speaking of the liturgy, let’s keep the homily as a time of reflection on the readings. Don’t hijack it and tell us that from now on, we’re going to be saying the stewardship prayer after the intercessory prayers. The way it was put, it sounded like we, the naughty children, were being subjected to a punishment.

And who wrote that thing, by the way? It’s really lame and almost makes a person cringe at the word “stewardship.” It’s so, well, Protestant sounding, with no disrespect intended to my Protestant readers. How does it go? I think it’s something like, “I acknowledge that everything I’ve got isn’t really mine and I should make sure to GIVE BACK TO GOD VIA PRE-AUTHORIZED DEBIT.”

I’m joking, sort of.

If we are going to talk about stewardship, then why don’t we discuss how the Basilica is spending the money donated by parishioners and visitors? Is it being used wisely? Let’s discuss that, how about? Let’s break down this “Human Resources” and see if it’s really reasonable. Let’s chat. Let’s have a Cat Chat.

But please, for the sake of Christ and the liturgy of the Church, don’t use the Mass to ask for cash.

Post 240

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off:
Reflections on the Cancellation of Othello

The stories surrounding this play are more interesting than the play itself would have been. After all, we’re all getting kind of used to these modern adaptations of Shakespeare, aren’t we?

To summarize briefly, someone threatened the woman who was to play the lead role in the Shakespearian play Othello, and when she backed out of the role, the theatre — Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta — cancelled the show. Othello is a male role, and is often played by a non-white actor. Here the director was looking to fill the important male roles with women. The cancellation was publicized by the theatre and has become a big news story across Canada. Well, it was a big story, but that was yesterday.

There are so many aspects to this cancellation, and it’s a fascinating little drama in its own right.

Here’s the scoop:

1603: William Shakespeare writes Othello. It’s a story about how a Venetian general is tricked into believing that his wife was unfaithful. He kills her and commits suicide.

1995: For the first time in a major screen production, Othello is played by a black actor (Laurence Fishburne). Prior to that, actors had used make-up to change the colour of their skin. Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Orson Welles used that approach.

September 2016: A theatre group at Queen’s University (Ontario) hold auditions for its Othello production. A white woman is chosen to play Othello, the dark-skinned Moorish man.

September 23, 2016: Walterdale Theatre posts an audition notice for Othello:

The Play: Come join us in a muscular, gender-bending, Mad Max-inspired take on Shakespeare’s classical tragedy. Set in post-apocalyptic Venice and Cyprus, Othello succumbs to Iago’s villainy and destroys his and Desdemona’s lives.
Casting Requirements: Our production will utilize inclusive casting; we are open to casting all roles with artists who may not reflect the original description in terms of ethno-cultural identity, gender, or sexual identity. Tattoos and body piercings are welcome as is openness to altering your hairstyle. Most actors will need to be physically able to handle movement and stage combat requirements. Adults (18+) only please.
Lead Characters: Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Brabantio.
Other Characters: Duke of Venice, Montano, Bianca, Lodovico, Gratiano, and Ensemble.
Audition Expectations: You will be auditioning with a group of 5 other actors in a two-part audition: prepared and cold readings AND movement . . .

October 2016: Linette Smith auditions for the play (not specifically for the role of Othello).

October 2016: Director Anne Marie Szucs offers major male roles to women. She states that she wanted to present a drama “where the focus was on the battle between the sexes.” The actor playing Iago, Randy Brososky wrote: “You see, all the meaty roles of power were re-cast as women — another underrepresented group in theatre, especially in Shakespeare … On top of that, with the partial gender-bending, there were straight, gay and lesbian relationships throughout, all completely normalized without any judgment.” Of course, when you have women playing male roles, heterosexual relationships would become ambiguous.

October 2016: Linette Smith accepts the offer of the role of Othello. Rehearsals begin.

November 16, 2016: The Othello production at Queen’s University is cancelled. The article written by Graeme Hamilton of the National Post said this:

A Queen’s University student theatre company has cancelled a production of Shakespeare’s Othello set to open this month following an outcry over the decision to cast a white woman in the title role of a black man.

“For the safety and mental health of our entire team we unfortunately feel the need to suspend our production of Othello,” the artistic directors wrote on Facebook Wednesday. They subsequently apologized to the Kingston, Ont., university’s black community for what they called an “oppressive” artistic decision.

After September auditions, Queen’s Vagabond Theatre made what its directors acknowledged was a risky decision: Lauren Broadhurst, a white woman, was chosen to play the title character. Since Paul Robeson played him on Broadway in 1943, Othello has typically been performed by a black actor.

Maggie Purdon, the play’s director, said she researched the play extensively before the casting and interpreted the text as being about the struggles of an outsider rather than about race.

January 2017: According to Anne Marie Szucs, “Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern” to the Walterdale Theatre people about the casting choice.

January 27, 2017: Walterdale Theatre continues to promote the production:

A classic tragedy infused with jealousy, ambition, love, deception, and betrayal, Shakespeare’s Othello will be transported to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future. Iago sets a vengeful trap for Othello that eventually destroys everyone in their paths. Equal parts classical excellence, Mad Max, and David Bowie – definitely not your parents’ Shakespeare!

January 2017: Someone leaves a message for Linette Smith which says, “Get ready for the pain. Get ready for the backlash.”

January 2017: Linette Smith becomes afraid. David Staples wrote about his interview with her. She said:

“It was very scary. I didn’t know the individual. It was just for me from a place that was terrifying … I just didn’t feel safe when I got the message.”

I asked Smith if the person might only be implying that Smith should get ready for the emotional pain, as opposed to threatening physical violence.

Smith said in that moment she simply felt vulnerable: “I just got very nervous about what people might do.”

January 2017: Linette Smith decides to withdraw from the production.

January 30, 2017, 10:58 p.m.: Linette Smith posts an apology on Facebook for accepting the role of Othello:

I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100%. I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause. My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women, and normalization of differently gendered relationships. While my decision was derived from a focus on gender, this was not enough for this role/play and I did not see the cost. In my naivety, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much.

I have learned and am still learning. I have a responsibility to model the behaviour that I want to inspire. I did not do so in this case. I work hard to create an open, generous safe classroom space of inclusivity. I strive to bring diverse playwrights into the drama classroom and encourage students to see all the possibilities for the theatre. I have a mandate of inclusivity in all aspects of my professional and personal life and strive to bring challenging and topical content to the classroom and to the stage. Yet, I have to own what a poor example I set forth for them in thinking it was okay to step into Othello’s shoes. I pledge to do better, to grow and heighten my awareness and sensitivity and understanding of privilege.

I am grateful for the conversation that has happened with me around the choice of attempting the role and I encourage those talking about me to engage in conversation. I am listening. I chose to leave the role and have left some amazing artists in a terrible place. I am also so apologetic for that. I want to thank the stellar cast and creative team for the process and care with which they worked on the show.

I am so sorry. I will do better. There is so much to learn and I am taking the steps, with many more to go.

January 31, 2017: Walterdale Theatre’s Media Release is received by the media and everyone on Walterdale’s email contact list. The Release states that the production is cancelled:

For Immediate Release

Monday, January 30, 2017

Walterdale Theatre Associates cancels production of Othello.

It is with deep regret that Walterdale Theatre Associates announces the cancellation of Othello, the third show of its 2016-2017 season. Othello was due to open on February 8, 2017. Patrons can e-mail walterdalefoh@gmail.com for ticketing information.

“This is a heart-breaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened,” said Adam Kuss, President of the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre.

Both online and in-person threats were received by members of the production from people who were angered by Walterdale’s decision to cast a white female in the role of Othello, traditionally a role filled by a person of colour. The matter has been referred to police.

“Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern to us as well,” said Anne Marie Szucs, Artistic Director of Walterdale and Director of Othello. “We understand and appreciate those concerns. The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We’re sorry this caused offence. We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run community theatre that has operated in Edmonton since 1958, and offers opportunities for people from all backgrounds a chance to engage in live theatre. Walterdale casts plays based on an open audition process which welcomes everyone, and roles are filled by those who attend the auditions for each play.

Decisions about the artistic vision of each production are the responsibility of the Director, the Artistic Director and the Board of Directors of the theatre . . .

January 31, 2017: The news media publish the story, including a link to Linette Smith’s apology on Facebook.

January 31, 2017: People react.

I have found that due to the wide variation in human temperament and experience, a single sentence will provoke a very wide range of reactions. The sequence goes something like this:

Originating Comment: I am sad because I ran over a cat.
Sympathizers (usually first to respond): Oh, don’t feel sad, it’s not your fault. You’re still a good person!
Advisors: Did you find out who owned the cat?
Critics: You should have been driving more carefully! Next time slow down!
Defenders: That’s not nice for you to say she should have been more careful! Maybe it was the cat’s fault!
Jokers: Now its a flat cat . . .
Cussers: Cats suck.
Advisors: If you switched to riding a bicycle, this never would have happened.
Critics: I lost my darling cat Moochie Moochie and I’ve never been the same; some drivers are just reckless.
Complainers: Why are we even talking about this?
Jokers: Is the cat still stuck to your wheel?
Defenders: You are just heartless @Joker! Go troll another site!

Some people are so funny, and you will find the full range of human expression whenever you read an online comment board. The anonymity adds to the experience.

But back to the Othello situation, there’s such a mish-mash of responses. Everyone wants to take a side, but the problem with that is that there are so many sides! Do you sympathize with Linette Smith? Yes? If so, then do you approve of everything? Do you approve of her accepting the role, her abandoning of it, her unwillingness to press charges and her public apology for accepting her role? Maybe you approve of three out of four? Do you sympathize with the person who threatened her? Maybe you approve of the viewpoint but not the method?

It’s complicated, and it seems like so many of those who comment don’t know whom they’re cheering for and why.

I’m here to help.

Here’s a short survey of actions. Please indicate whether you approve or disapprove of the following:

1. Othello, as originally written by Shakespeare
2. Shakespeare’s tragedies, in general
3. Shakespeare’s plays, in general
4. The fact that all roles, in Shakespeare’s day, were played by men
5. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, in general
6. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, where casting is used to change the focus of the original play
7. Transporting Shakespeare’s play to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future.
8. Casting men as women and women as men
9. “Colour-blind” casting, where, for instance, twins have different skin colour
10. Casting white actors in roles for “people of colour”
11. Casting “people of colour” in roles typically played by white actors
12. Using threats to intimidate actors
13. Issuing a media release to publicize the cancellation of a play due to threats
14. Police authorities choosing not to pursue those who make threats
15. Victims of threats choosing not to make a formal complaint
16. Apologizing for taking a role which is traditionally given to men “of colour.”

Probably one of my least favorite themes in the comments that I’ve read is the one which over-emphasizes theatre’s ability to change and transform people. Although I do believe that watching a theatre performance can, on occasion, affect someone profoundly, this happens far less often than those in the theatre industry want to imagine. It is very difficult to accomplish, and in the typical theatre context, where subsidized theatre allows directors to experiment and be “artistic” without even having to worry too much about paying for the overhead, usually audience enjoyment is put in second place behind the enjoyment of those putting on the show. In other words, it is far too often a self-indulgent exercise, where directors congratulate themselves for “pushing the envelope,” instead of an effort to serve the audience with honest entertainment. It is for this reason that directors everywhere compete with one another to present the most ‘edgy’ versions of the classics. Many shows are poorly attended but the government grants still pour in.

In other words, I am not impressed with the state of most theatre, and I weary of the actors and producers who congratulate themselves for changing the world, when the truth is that they are conforming to it. Those who genuinely seek to challenge and to inspire are snubbed by the theatre world.

So to those who say that the point of theatre is to challenge and to provoke change, I respond that the first step, in any plan to persuade or change, is to engage. Theatre that is self-absorbed does not engage, because it does not look beyond itself.

But anyway, here’s my take on this whole thing.

The idea behind Othello-Must-Be-Played-By-A-Black-Actor is that the role of Othello is the exclusive territory of black actors. The idea is that in light of past (and present) discrimination against blacks, it would be insensitive to rob them of this lead role.

There aren’t a lot of roles for black actors, is the thinking, and so people should leave them what few roles there are. It’s called ‘being sensitive,’ but perhaps it’s more properly called ‘being sympathetic.’ People are being asked — to a lesser or greater extent — to feel sorry for a group of people who have been hard-done by, and to protect their interests.

It’s tricky, because on the one hand, we are encouraged to think and act as if there are zero differences, and to really forget about all issues of race, but then on the other hand, we are to think of them as quite disadvantaged.

It’s tricky.

Those who have really absorbed the multicultural viewpoint are, ironically, more likely to be accused of racism. They’re so ‘colour-blind’ that they may actually forget that one ethnic group needs more coddling than another.

POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: We had better set aside seats for aboriginal students.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Because, you know, they need a boost.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: They get discriminated against. It’s harder for them to get into law school.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Well, when they do their undergraduate work, professors don’t treat them the same, and it’s harder for them to get good marks. And besides, some have a really hard life, and so it’s important for us to even things out.
EVEN-STEVEN: Do people, nowadays, still discriminate against the aboriginal students?

In this scenario, it didn’t occur to EVEN-STEVEN that this type of student is in need of special treatment. Is his ignorance a good thing or a bad thing? If he is fully convinced of the equality of races and of students, and is stunned at the discrimination, doesn’t that, in some sense, signal progress? And if everyone were like EVEN-STEVEN, would that perhaps be an improvement? If everyone asked, “but WHY would anyone discriminate based on SKIN-COLOUR???” then wouldn’t that be an improvement?

Instead, we are asked to do a very special and perhaps impossible balancing act; we are asked to be mindful of past discriminatory patterns and show special consideration, but at the same time, we are to proceed as if there are no differences based on race.

I am not sure if special consideration (and lowering of standards, in some cases) have a positive net effect in the end for disadvantaged groups. It means that if you meet a graduate of law school who is aboriginal, you may wonder to yourself if he would have gained admission had he not been able to rely on his race.

But back to Shakespeare, the current Sensitive Thing seems to be to reserve the role for those who have darker skin.

Despite the current craze for “colour-blind” casting, directors must remember that the role of Othello is off-limits for Caucasians. When it comes to this Shakespearean role, politically-correct thinking dictates that one must not be blind at all. Have your eyes Very Wide Open!

So although the biggest criminal in this story is the fellow who threatened Linette Smith, a very large number of individuals are validating a key part of this criminal’s views. They are agreeing that casting a Caucasian in the role was insensitive to non-whites.

Although distancing themselves from his threatening behaviour, many people are agreeing that it was insensitive to cast a non-white person in this role.

Linette Smith says that her acceptance of the role was wrong — very wrong.

Her apology is rather extreme. The contrition is over the top. If you hadn’t known the context, and just considered the words, you’d really wonder what heinous crime she’d committed. She apologizes for accepting the role — this role which should be reserved for non-white actors — and for leaving her fellow actors in a jam by leaving the production.

But let’s just pause a moment and consider the role itself.

Othello is gullible, jealous and raging. He humiliates, physically abuses and ultimately murders his innocent and sweet wife by strangulation. He maims his enemy Iago instead of killing him, so that Iago’s suffering will be greater, and then kills himself. Then the play ends.

Sure, it’s Shakespeare, but it is ironic that actors “of colour” are so anxious to have this role. Arguably, if the role is done well, it will bring negative stereotypes to life. Arguably, instead of seeing this as The Plum Shakespearean Role for Black Men, it might make more sense to a) campaign to have this play performed less often, or b) minimize the potential negative-stereotype damage by having the bad Othello played by a Caucasian.

Consider how the show-biz world is so careful to cast black actors in the role of a wise friend, or a wise judge. The show-biz world does not want to have a black man on screen hitting his white wife.

It’s odd. The take-home message with respect to Othello? If you want to be respectful to the black community, make sure that the abusive and murderous protagonist is played by a black man!

Sigh.

In any case, I don’t criticize Linette Smith if she was genuinely afraid for her safety. If she really was scared, then I wouldn’t criticize her for bowing out. Maybe her effusive apology is meant to appease the person who threatened her.

As for not making a formal complaint to the police, that’s her choice.

I repeat that the real villain here was the person who threatened Linette Smith. It’s a shame that so many people are wringing their hands at the failure to cast a non-white. All of this self-criticism comes perilously close to saying that this villain, this bully, was justified in — at least — his anger.

Too bad for you, is what I say.

Not every production of Othello will feature a black man as the protagonist. Sometimes the best actor for the role will have red hair and freckles. Sometimes the best actor will be of German-Japanese ancestry. The director has to choose the best man for the job.

But of course, that is where I draw the line.

No women, please.

No women playing the role of the jealous husband and murderer of Desdemona. That’s just going too far. It is disrespectful to the playwright and I’d argue it’s disrespectful to the audience as well. You can ask patrons to use their imagination, but don’t ask them to throw their eyes and ears and brains out the window. The play is not about evaluating the masculine traits of this woman or the feminine traits of that man, so don’t make it about that. Don’t distract the audience from the story that the playwright wrote.

(And on that note, if you want to direct a play about post-apocalyptic times where all the power structures are re-arranged, overlaid with themes from MadMax and David Bowie, then go find one. Othello isn’t it.)

The moment you realize that you don’t have a man for the male lead is the moment you realize it’s time to call the whole thing off.

 

Post 239

The Tale of J. Noah Gallagher

I once walked around in the northern Scottish islands called the Orkney Islands.  Sometimes I was alone.  This story is about a man who lived on one of these islands.

The man’s name was J. Noah Gallagher.  He was originally from Ireland, but he settled in the Orkneys after he met and married his wife Lucy.  Lucy had lived on the island her whole life and he understood her attachment to her home.  Lucy had many siblings and relatives and Noah was willing to start over in the Orkneys.

Noah purchased a building and transformed it into a pub and local eatery.  He named it “Noah’s Ark.”  Lucy and Noah lived on the floor above the pub.  They were blessed with five children in the span of nine years, so the household was a busy one.

By the time of Noah and Lucy’s tenth anniversary, Noah was more than well settled into the close-knit community.  His Irish accent gave away his origin, but since he listened more than he spoke, people sometimes forgot that he hadn’t grown up just around the bend.  There was also the issue of his surname, which was noticeably Irish.  Interestingly, his last name was said to mean “foreign helper,” or “foreign assistance,” and that was what he was.

You see, it wasn’t long before the locals realized that Noah was indeed ready to help.  He was the steady and trustworthy sort, and he could be counted upon to get a job done.  His observant mind was fast and he readily applied it to figuring out solutions for problems.  It was typical to see him behind the bar leaning in close to another, to hear the details of yet another tale of woe. He became, to many, a confessor of sorts, ready to listen and quick to understand. His advice was solid and filled with fresh insights, but the main thing was that he was both empathetic and encouraging.

Sometimes the locals would joke about “going to see Father Noah.”

As for Noah, he liked the jokes and he liked the camaraderie. He was the social sort.  He was, you could say, a fan of humanity, and he sprang to its defence, time and again.  As a matter of fact, sometimes he defended those who seemed the least deserving of his mercy.  His wife’s ne’er-do-well brother, for instance, was always given a welcome — Merton’s late-night arrivals at the Ark were regular but he was made to feel like the repentant prodigal son, as Noah dished him up a warm plate of stew with some bread made earlier that day.  As for Auntie Iris, her ‘zany’ ways were always tolerated with a sigh and a knowing look, exchanged between Noah and Lucy.

Merton and Iris weren’t the only ones to enjoy the Gallagher family’s hospitality. Lucy had cousins and second cousins and more than a few uncles and aunts. They were more than happy to pop in for a bite and something refreshing to drink. It was “on the house,” because Noah didn’t want to charge family, especially good folks like these (he always saw the good in people).

Nobody would call Noah a businessman, because he was never about the dollars and cents. He was always a generous host and the truth is that he saw the Ark as more of an extension of his home than a business. Those who noticed how often he allowed his patrons to go without paying wondered how he managed to make ends meet, but the less observant folks assumed that the abundance of patrons meant an abundance of wealth.

Ah, money!

When it came to money, Noah wasn’t shrewd. He wasn’t calculating and he wasn’t ruthless. He was, simply put, quite selfless. He didn’t keep a close eye on the money coming in and the money going out. He viewed his customers as friends, and he wanted the best for each and every one of them. What did it matter if Stuart paid him next week? Stuart had been unemployed for several months now. What did it matter if Brenda didn’t return the roasting pan in the end?  Perhaps she had simply forgotten; he didn’t want to embarrass her by asking. Conversely, however, he never forgot a good turn, and he made every effort to show his gratitude to those who had shown him a kindness, even if they were merely carrying out their ordinary duties. He was the type to throw in ‘a little something’ extra for those who did a good job.

And so the story went.

But you know how the story goes.

The day finally came when Noah found out.

It was his son who started the ball rolling. It was Tommy who said that Auntie Iris was rather kind of scary. It was Tommy who said that Auntie Iris had grabbed his little sister’s face and hissed with anger.

Noah was aghast.

Noah gathered his family about him and asked question after question.  He wanted to listen and he wanted to re-evaluate.

The stories came out, and Noah began to see everything anew. He began to see that all wasn’t well. Noah and Lucy considered the picture and they made a decision.

They decided that they had to choose their children.  They decided that no longer would Auntie Iris make their home her playground, to do as she chose.  A line had been crossed, but it would never be crossed again.

After God, family was first.  Family was the priority.  His family was his gift from God, and he needed to set things aright.

Noah surveyed the collection of glass mugs and the scraps of food clinging to the bowls from the previous evening. In times past, he would have tidied them up without a second thought, but this morning, things were different. He suddenly wondered, who were all these people who had been taking his time?  He had always assumed that the affection was mutual; he had always assumed that they meant what they said and said what they felt.

He walked over to a corner of the bar, where he kept a pile of papers. These were the tabs.  Although he hadn’t recorded everything, he had recorded some things. And besides, he had a memory, did he not?

He flipped through the names, and he looked at the amounts. For the first time in years, he calculated the totals.

He was astonished.

Things were not the way that he had thought them to be. The imbalance was staggering.

The heavy wooden door at the Ark creaked open and Noah looked up. It was Jenny. She settled into her regular spot at the bar. She did not notice that Noah didn’t give his usual cheerful greeting, but Noah noticed that she didn’t notice. She was ready for her drink and she was ready to tell of her latest adventures.

Noah poured her drink and told her the price.

Jenny almost dropped her drink, just from the shock.

The price was ordinary, but the words were not.  She was appalled that he mentioned the price.  He was acting as if he expected her to pay!  He was acting as if she were nothing more than a mere customer!

She was incensed and offended and shocked.  She finished her drink and placed the money on the bar with some disdain.

She was indignant and swore to herself that she would never return to the Ark.  She looked forward to expressing her outrage to her friends.  “Father Noah, indeed!”

Noah sat down at the bar.  He looked up at Lucy, who had come downstairs, holding one of the little ones.  She wondered at his demeanor, because he looked exhausted.

“What is it?”

“I asked Jenny to pay.”

As the day wore on, the scene was repeated.  Customers were asked to pay for what they consumed and Noah asked his customers when they were planning to clear their tab.

Word got out quickly that Noah had

Lost His Mind.

 

But Noah was cool.

And Noah was sane.

 

He locked the door and went upstairs to see his family.  They gave him joy and he smiled at his wife.  Lucy was pretty and as witty as ever.

There was a sound at the door.

Standing in a group were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.  They said they came in the name of the Lord.  They said they came as friends.

Job didn’t answer the door.

 

So they sent him emails.

They said they wrote in the name of the Lord.  They said that they wrote as friends.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar wrote many things.  They spoke about God and about what God wanted and what God did and what God thought.  They preached to Noah about mercy and meekness and accused him of pettiness and harshness. They pouted that he was “being mean” nowadays. Their conclusion was that if Noah suffered, then he suffered because he had done wrong.

Noah protested and pointed out that even in the case of their own accounts, there was an outstanding balance.  There was an imbalance.

That only made them angrier.

But Noah continued.

He wrote, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me?”

He wrote, “Behold, I know your thoughts, and your schemes to wrong me.”

He wrote, “My lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. Far be it from me to say that you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”

He wrote, “He has put my brethren far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. My kinsfolk and my close friends have failed me; the guests in my house have forgotten me.”

And finally, he wrote, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Noah felt that he had said all that could be said, but Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were determined to prove that Noah was in the wrong.  They had appointed themselves as judge, and they were pleased with their verdict upon this bartender named Noah.

They, after all, Understood All — or so they thought.

 

The truth was, they did not understand the first thing.  They did not understand, for starters, that this man had been given more than one Old Testament name.

 

His first name, as you know, was Job.

 

Post 238

Cookbooks in My Cupboard:
Reflections and a Recipe for January

It’s time to deal with these cookbooks.

Do you have a ton of cookbooks too? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you are young and have always searched online for recipes when you’ve wanted them.

Or maybe you aren’t the recipe type.

Or maybe you’re not the cooking type.

Or maybe you’re not the eating type.

Do you use your cookbooks? Maybe you like buying them but you don’t read them, or maybe you read them but don’t cook with them.

There was a time when I didn’t own any cookbooks.

I started with the Company’s Coming series by Jean Paré. The recipes were simple and relied on a mix of fresh and pre-made ingredients like canned mushroom soup.

You have to start somewhere, and I was really quite happy with what I was able to make. I bought quite a few of those coil-bound cookbooks.

When I got Joy of Cooking, however, I was ready for it. I enjoyed trying out the recipes in there. It seemed so authoritative. That cookbook has a lot of versions, reflecting the different politics and power struggles behind the scenes. Some people say that the earlier versions were better than the later ones. I have a couple of versions, but I haven’t sat down to compare them, so for once I don’t have an opinion.

Right now my cookbooks are piled haphazardly and I figured that if I pulled them all out while blogging about it at the same time, then I could begin to organize them. When all was said and done, I’d have organized cookbooks and a blog post too.

So here’s what I’ve got right now, listed in order of weight, of course:

  • 3037 g: Larousse Gastronomique
  • 2925 g: The Cook’s Book, Jill Norman (editor)
  • 2834 g: The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
  • 2475 g: Cooking, James Peterson
  • 2424 g: The Way to Cook, Julia Child
  • 2412 g: The New Best Recipe, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 2360 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, 3rd Edition
  • 2043 g: Baking, James Peterson
  • 1917 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
  • 1903 g: More Best Recipes, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 1858 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook
  • 1844 g: The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman
  • 1699 g: The Best International Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 1687 g: Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, copyright 1997
  • 1654 g: Polish Heritage Cookery, Robert & Maria Strybel
  • 1583 g: The Complete Book of Korean Cooking, Young Jin Song
  • 1523 g: Italian Classics, The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1472 g: The Quick Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1392 g: Joy of Cooking 1975 Edition, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
  • 1378 g: The Best Make-Ahead Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1338 g: American Cookery, James Beard
  • 1297 g: Restaurant Favorites at Home, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1297 g: Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
  • 1296 g: At Elizabeth David’s Table, Elizabeth David
  • 1185 g: Vitamix Whole Food Recipes
  • 1134 g: Food Cook Eat, Lulu Grimes
  • 1085 g: Korean Cooking, Young Jin Song
  • 1069 g: The Best 30-Minute Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1063 g: The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paula Wolfert
  • 1009 g: The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook, Ellen Brown
  • 947 g: America’s Test Kitchen, The Best Simple Recipes
  • 940 g: 365 Slow Cooker Suppers, Stephanie O’Dea
  • 939 g: 20-Minute Gourmet Menus, Minutemeals
  • 901 g: The Best Soups and Stews, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 883 g: The Best Vegetable Recipes, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 838 g: Quinoa 365, Patricia Green & Carolyn Hemming
  • 794 g: Elizabeth David Classics: Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, Summer Cooking
  • 747 g: French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David
  • 743 g: Authentic Recipes from Korea, Injoo Chun, Jaewoon Lee, Youngran Baek
  • 737 g: Authentic Recipes from Thailand, Sven Kraus, Laurent Ganguillet and Vira Sanguanwong
  • 735 g: Authentic Recipes from China, Kenneth Law, Lee Cheng Meng and Max Zhang
  • 689 g: More Make it Fast, Cook it Slow, Stephanie O’Dea
  • 657 g: Discovering Korean Cuisine, Allisa Park
  • 637 g: Mediterranean Cooking, Paula Wolfert
  • 545 g: 3 Ways to Dinner, Minutemeals
  • 425 g: Made From Scratch, America’s Test Kitchen
  • 334 g: The Korean KItchen, Copeland Marks
  • 296 g: Company’s Coming 4 Ingredient Recipes
  • 221 g: The Ideals Whole Grain Cookbook
  • 122 g: Lunchbox Love, Sally King

It’s too many cookbooks, I know.

Mind you, one of them isn’t a cookbook. The Oxford Companion to Food is more like a food encyclopedia, and I think I used it once. It was a gift from someone who knew I liked cooking.

So if you don’t count that one, I’ve got 49 cookbooks.

I spent several years in the Nourishing Traditions style of cooking. It’s a laborious approach where natural eating is the goal. On the plus side, it was very nice to have no fear of normal foods like butter and bacon and eggs and cheese and all that good stuff, at a time when everyone was petrified of fat. It served as an island of sorts, providing immunity from the changing waves of food fashion.

On the minus side, however, it’s demanding, requiring the cook to steer clear of anything but the most wholesome and pure ingredients. I used my Vitamix to pulverize the spelt grains into flour and I mixed this freshly-ground flour with yogurt made from milk that had not been homogenized. I bought my beef, llama, goat and sheep meat directly from the local rancher, and I was glad that the chickens who were laying the farm eggs hadn’t been ingesting soy. I made special trips to purchase raw milk. I found a brand of bacon made without nitrates (or celery salt). I bought coconut oil. I drank kombucha and snacked on beef jerky, organic apples and raw cheese that wasn’t dyed orange. I enjoyed what I bought and what I cooked, but I was very, very choosy, and of course I avoided almost all processed food.

Ah, that was then.

Things are different now.

Now I indulge.

The world is my oyster and I’m heeding that inscription on the pearl of great price. The tiny little gilt letters say:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

And the gilt letters signal an end to guilt, to lies and food fears.

Hello peace of mind and hello food!

The ‘well-informed’ people of the world suffer a great deal of psychological distress when it comes to food. They hear, daily, of all the different foods that they are to avoid in order to stay healthy, and they hear, daily, of all the different foods that they need to consume in order to live longer and healthier lives.

Mothers worry about what to feed their children — is it better to avoid fat or sugar? Are artificial sweeteners to be avoided at all costs? Is juice okay? Should I make my own baby food? Have I irreparably damaged my child’s brain cells by microwaving her milk in a bottle containing BPA? Did I destroy my son’s healthy gut flora with all the antibiotics that he had in his toddler years? Should I make my own yogurt? Are my children eating enough fermented foods?

I am not ridiculing these mothers. I understand and I empathize. Who wouldn’t empathize with a mother trying to do her best to nourish her child? The decisions, in a world with so many mixed messages about food and nutrition and health, are often difficult, and parents are too often advised and even challenged by friends and relatives who have strong opinions about food and nutrition.

Pity the parents who are given unsolicited advice about what to feed their children. Pity the parents surrounded by those who secretly or openly sabotage their food-related plans for their children. How many stories have I heard! How many things I have seen!

In the name of concern for health, meddlesome individuals seek to impose their will. They view themselves as the authority and in their anger, they use food as the battleground to engage in conflict. They couch their comments in the context of concern, but it is too often the case that they simply want their own will to prevail. Their concern is for their own ego as the expert, and not for the happiness or well-being of you or your children. It’s a power trip for some, but hopefully you see that already, and I wish you the best as you ignore or otherwise deal with the noise.

The issues surrounding food are almost endless, with this being but one of many.

Food has always been a way to express both good and evil intentions. Those with good intentions provide food to others in order to nourish body, mind, heart and soul. It is a well-understood symbol of welcoming and care, and a good host looks forward to the enjoyment that he will give his guests with the food that he serves. Those with evil intentions use food in a multitude of ways to exclude or even to cause harm. I can think of so many examples of devilish food schemes; they range from the extremes of Holodomor to the spiteful pre-party planning which will deprive certain guests of enjoyment.

In Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the main character notices that one cook is fair — when he scoops the soup, he does it without checking which prison-camp worker is holding the bowl.

One of my ancestors had a stepmother who hid a pile of tasty white rice underneath a thin layer of dull brown rice for the boy she favoured, but reversed this for the boy she disliked.

But sometimes the games are about spoiling someone’s weight loss efforts. Some people tempt dieters with treats in order to derail them. The games related to food are endless and unbelievably complicated.

I don’t play games like that, and neither does my dog.

Her food games are simple.

She likes the Catch the Cheese Slice Game, and she likes the Chomp the Cookie Game and she likes the Lick the Ice Cream Tub Game.

Her favorite game, however, is the Drive-Through Game, because it ends with a cheeseburger.

(No pickles, please.)

IcecreamDog

It’s all good.

My two favorite cookbooks these days are both from the America’s Test Kitchen folks. One book is called The Best Make-Ahead Recipe and the other is called The Best 30-Minute Recipe.

Cookbooks are about trust. I expect a cookbook to give me enough information to ensure that my results will be successful. I still remember the time I followed a recipe in Mark Bittman’s cookbook, listed above, and I wound up with burnt cabbage at the bottom of the pot, and when I followed his recipe for roasted nuts, things didn’t work out well either. Vague instructions are, in my opinion, a recipe for disappointment, and I’ve been reluctant to invest any more time in making recipes from that cookbook. I was surprised to find that I still owned it, but I see that my collection is more of a time capsule of cooking phases than a collection of favorites.

One of my favorite things about the America’s Test Kitchen series is that the writing is so good. Check this out, for instance:

Heady with smoky pork and bittersweet molasses, Boston baked beans are an example of a side dish that actually gains in flavour when made at least a day ahead of time. A close reading of recipes — and there are thousands out there — made it clear that authentic Boston baked beans are not about fancy seasonings; they are about developing intense flavour by means of the judicious employment of canonical ingredients (beans, pork, molasses, mustard, and sometimes onion) and slow cooking. Tasters quickly rejected recipes with lengthy lists of untraditional ingredients and short cooking times.

The most important item on the shopping list is, of course, beans, the classic choice being standard dry white beans in one of three sizes: small white beans, midsize navy or pea beans, or large great Northern beans. While the latter two choices were adequate, tasters preferred the small white beans for their dense, creamy texture and their ability to remain firm and intact over the course of a long simmer. (The two larger sizes tended to split.)

See what I mean? Five stars just for using the word “canonical.” Look at this: “the judicious employment of canonical ingredients…” It’s so incredibly serious that it’s funny.

That’s a page-turner if you ask me.

I’ll bring you several paragraphs ahead to the happy ending:

While pleased with the texture and flavor, we still wanted a thicker sauce — soupy beans were not acceptable. We discovered that it was not simply a matter of reducing the volume of water, however, as this led to unevenly cooked beans. We had been cooking the beans start to finish covered with a lid, which prevented the cooking liquid from reducing effectively. When we removed the lid for the last hour in the oven, we got the results we were looking for — the sauce had reduced to a syrupy, intensified state that perfectly napped the beans.

That’s not the recipe itself, of course. It’s the story of the development of the Boston baked beans recipe, which follows immediately afterwards on page 71 of the book (The Best Make-Ahead Recipe).

I still have a copy of my October 2009 correspondence with Abbey Becker, editorial assistant with Cook’s Illustrated. I asked her if it would be okay to share the recipes with friends when they asked. She said yes and I was glad.

So I’ll give you one now.

Hmm. Which one do you want?

I have 62,489 grams (137.76 pounds) worth of cookbooks plus one food encyclopedia. If you want it, I probably have it.

Let’s see.

Alright. It’s January, so how about a slow-cooker stew? Here’s my favorite.

I see from my pencilled-in notes that it took me about 90 minutes to assemble this once, and another time I did it in 50. In other words, don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get this all set up.

An internet search will give you various beef stew recipes from America’s Test Kitchen (they have a few versions), but I’ll type in the one I’ve got, verbatim.

Slow-Cooker Beef Stew
Serves 6 to 8

You’ll need 18-inch heavy-duty aluminum foil or a large oven-ready foil bag to make the vegetable packet. If you’re going to be away from your slow cooker for more than 10 hours, cutting the vegetables into larger, 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces will help them retain their texture. Feel free to add a pound of parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks, to the foil packet along with the carrots and potatoes. The stew will thicken further as it sits; add broth or water to thin to the desired consistency before serving.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium onions, minced
1/4 cup tomato paste
6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 tablespoons)
Salt
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
1 (5-pound) boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Minute tapioca
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 red potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves (do not use dried)
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
Ground black pepper

1.Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the onions, tomato paste, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until the onions are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, scraping up any browned bits.

2.Transfer the onion mixture to the slow cooker insert and stir in the beef broth, meat, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves until even combined. Toss the potatoes, carrots, 1 teaspoon of the thyme, and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil together and season with salt and pepper. Following the illustrations below, wrap the vegetables in a foil packet. Set the vegetable packet on top of the stew in the slow cooker insert.

3.Cover and cook on low until the meat is tender, 9 to 11 hours. (Alternatively, cover and cook on high for 5 to 7 hours.)

4. Transfer the vegetable packet to a plate. Let the stew settle for 5 minutes then gently tilt the slow cooker insert and degrease as much fat as possible off the surface of the stew using a large flat spoon. [I don’t do that.] Remove and discard the bay leaves. Carefully open the foil packet (watch for steam), then stir the vegetables along with any accumulated juices into the stew. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon thyme and the peas and let stand until the peas are heated through, about 5 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

I haven’t included the illustration mentioned in step 2, which shows how to shape the foil ”hobo pack,” but I think you can manage to wrap the veggies in the foil and crimp the edges to make it secure.

I do have, however, a photo of the cookbooks looking all tidy and cozy and as canonical as can be. They’re all there; I don’t have the heart to exile any just yet.

50cookbooks