Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sharing with a saint

St. Cyriacus

In Hoorn, a nice little town a two-hour bike ride up the road from Amsterdam, there is a church dedicated to Saints Francis and Cyriacus, aka "Terror of Hell," whose saint's day is tomorrow.

Other than Saints Peter and Paul, I can't think of any saints who didn't get their own church, but had to split the title with another saint. But I do not wear the title “giver of names to churches,” so what can I say?

If you’ve ever wondered where the word “title” came from, by the way – as in the title to your house, or the titles and subtitles of all the books in your library – I can tell you. It comes from the Latin titulus, which meant something like label, and more particularly inscription on a work of art telling you who the figures are. The title of “best known title” goes probably to the placard they put over the head of Jesus on his cross: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum to mock him. Jesus of Nazarus, King of the Jews.

Another well-known titulus, to people who know about this kind of thing, at least, is Hic jacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia, which Google Translate tells me means: Here lies buried the glorious King Arthur in the island Avalon.

What does all this have to do with Francis and Cyriacus, you ask?  Сейчас я вам скажу ("Now, I'm telling you!")

You already know who Francis was – he fed the birds. Let me tell you about Cyriacus. Or “Cyriac” to his friends.

You will recall that the Roman Catholic Church has raised Pope John Paul to the status of saint, saints being the kind of people who can persuade God, who would probably not otherwise give a shit about something to give a shit about something. In JP’s case, that meant convincing God to pause in his busy schedule to stop the gastrointestinal hemorrhaging of a nun in 1966. That accomplishment justified in the current Pope’s, Francis’s, mind an “equipollent” canonization. That’s the word you need to use to describe the kind of canonization that doesn't require two miracles to prove you’re a saint. One will do. Particularly if you’ve dedicated your life to opposing birth control.

Francis is causing a ruckus among the traditionalists. He’d be perfectly happy calling a saint somebody who convinced a divorcing couple to get back together, maybe, or somebody who got a kid to kick drugs. The traditionalists, on the other hand, are holding out for real miracles. Not growing back a severed limb, necessarily, but at least making a corpse smell like a rose after ten years.

Lady with something in her eye
 and banderol
But back to St. Cyriacus. You know what a phylactery is, right? The tefillin Jewish men use when they pray, those black leather boxes containing scripture, and some say magical powers, they slap against their forehead and tie to their left arms during morning prayers. Well, another meaning of phylactery is banderole. Banderoles are those speech scrolls in medieval paintings to represent speech, the comic book speech balloons of the Middle Ages. Then there are the phylacteries used in Dungeons and Dragons, which, in Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling called a horcrux, for some reason. Banderoles went out of fashion in Medieval paintings about the time when halos also became passée, I’m told.

But I digress.

Back to St. Cyriacus. You learned in Sunday School that sometimes the Lord giveth and sometimes the Lord taketh away, right? Well, just as with granting sainthood to somebody, one can grant a “title” and also take it away. A “titulus church” is a church which carries the name of a patron saint. Well, back in the 4th century, a certain Roman nobleman named Cyriacus converted to Christianity and was apparently successful at exorcising the demons from two young girls, Artemesia and Jobias. And, as luck would have it, Artemesia was the daughter of the Emperor Diocletian, and the miracle convinced her and her mother, Serena, to convert to Christianity, which gave Cyriacus a leg up in the inner circle. That didn’t stop Maximian, Diocletian’s co-emperor from cutting off Cyriacus’s head, but that’s another story. Important thing is, the two miracles were sufficient for Cyriac to acquire sainthood – non-equipollently, I mean.

Since then dozens of bishops have taken the name Cyriacus as their own, so to distinguish the real deal from all the other guys, he’s known by the suggestive name, Saint Cyriacus of the Bath Houses of Diocletian (San Ciriaco alle Terme di Diocleziano, in Italian). For a time, in 494, he had a titulus church in his name, but a millennium later (how soon we forget) Pope Sixtus IV took the title away from him and gave it to Saints Ciro and Giulitta. Then, some sixteen years later, the new pope, Alexander VI, gave it back to him. And then, about a hundred years later Sixtus the Fifth took it away again. 

Not to worry. At least he got to be patron saint to the town of Cirie, just outside Turin, in the Italian Piedmont district because the locals thought it was great their names were so similar. (No kidding – check out Wikipedia on Cirie.)   He also got a Puerto Rican hurricane named after him, the 119th anniversary of which is also tomorrow.

You know what the Tridentine Calendar is, right? The book of saints days. Cyriacus has to share August 8 with two of his friends, Saints Largus and Smaragdus, because there aren’t enough days in the year for everybody to have their own. I'd stop to ask what kind of mother would name her child Smaragdus, but I'd be digressing again.

Point is, Cyriacus shares a church in Hoorn, the Netherlands, with St. Francis, the "Cupola Church," which has a lovely organ, on which my current favorite organist, young Gerd van Hoef, made a YouTube video of himself last week playing his own lovely meditation on Danny Boy.  

Мiki and Bounce
Cyriacus' saint's day happens also to be the birthday of my brother-in-law Tadashi, younger brother of my girls’ – Miki and Bounce’s – other daddy.

And the birthday of my dear dear cousin Betty, who taught me how to milk a cow.

Photo Credits:

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Barking socialist

I have a warm feeling about Cory Booker. Not a hero worship; a quiet admiration. The kind I have for people who keep getting up when knocked down, keep swimming upstream, keep on keeping on. Loved his ability to go into Newark, New Jersey, which until he took it on as mayor I thought of as just another of America’s many “loser” cities. Took it on with his bright eyes and his optimism and made it a better place.

Booker is in the news this morning for his clash with Republican leader John Cornyn after observing, quite rightly, that there are things in this country which are “savagely wrong.” It’s bringing him to tears, this normalizing of injustice. “If this country hasn’t broken your heart,” Booker says, “then you don’t love her enough.”

Cory Booker is speaking for millions of us. The country’s broke and we’re looking for a fix.

For some the question is too big to handle. They cite Voltaire. Go tend your garden. Leave the fools to fix themselves. For others, the problem is cultural. I’m reading a marvelous history of the United States by Kurt Andersen on “how America went haywire (the subtitle)” called Fantasyland.  Andersen traces the history of America’s willing surrender to the many worlds of make-believe.

The problem, as I see it, is two-pronged. It's about economic and social injustice. We are a country with an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. We are also a country which won’t face up to its history of racism and genocide.  The people to address this injustice adequately have to at least include our democratically elected political leaders. I’m trying to figure out how to find better ones.

There’s another book also speaking to that task, a book by George Lakey on “how the Scandinavians got it right” (subtitle) entitled Viking Economics. So the “socialist” solution is presenting itself on two fronts: there's the appeal of Bernie Sanders (and the nagging question of whether we might have been spared this Trump nightmare if Bernie had won the democratic nomination instead of Hillary) and there's the fact that by all international measures, the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns and Icelanders are doing things better. Less crime. Better educational results. Better health care. Better representation by women. Better equity.

Not perfect. Just better.

It would be naïve to assume that socialism is going to solve all our problems. But at the moment, until someone can show me the squirrel is not up there, I’m going to bark up that tree.

A good friend came by for coffee the other day and told me she had decided to join the Democratic Socialists, the DSA. She has a close association with Sweden, so that probably explains why socialism is not a dirty word in her estimation. Somebody had asked me once if I had any German heroes and Willi Brandt came immediately to mind. Again, I’m not into hero worship, but there’s another guy, like Cory Booker, who lived his life like the Energizer Bunny. Left Germany under Hitler, went to Norway and fought against his native country until the nightmare was over, then came home and eventually became its socialist chancellor. With the courage to fall to his knees in Poland to apologize for the Holocaust.

My hesitation about leaving the Democrats and joining the Democratic Socialists is the obvious one – could there possibly be a worse time to split the Democrats now just before the mid-term elections when there is hope of taking back the House?

Fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition. The DSA are not a political party, but an interest group. One can view the Democratic Party as Matt Grossman does when he addressed that question in a New York Times article last month.  Grossman points out that America’s two parties are already coalitions of interest groups, and policy gets established in the primary process when those individual subgroups struggle for dominance. The Tea Party moved the Republicans to the right, remember, and the Republicans still won. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition loomed large in the 1984 Democratic primaries, but ultimately Mondale got the nomination, anyway. And at least those left of Mondale had a platform from which to voice their views.

New York’s mayor Dinkins was a socialist. Oakland’s mayor Ron Dellums was a socialist. Ben Jealous, a Bernie supporter, has won the democratic nomination for governor in Maryland.

Whether the DSA will split off from the Democrats at some point in the future depends on two things. Their own numbers, and the response of mainstream Democrats. It’s possible the mainstream Democrats will take on the proposals for greater equity and justice the DSA are making and make them their own.

For now, the task at hand is to convince Americans that socialism is not a dirty word.

It’s an educational task. Got questions you are too embarrassed to ask? Check this out.

Two things need fixing – the gap between the rich and the poor, and the ongoing racial discord, as evidenced by the need for such movements as Black Lives Matter.  The word “intersectionality” is a new buzzword these days as people try to solve these two problems. Not one first, the other later. Both at once.

Greater economic equity. Greater social justice.

Sounds like just another political slogan.

Maybe. But we can’t sit still and expect change to happen by itself.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

T'row da bums OUT!

Warum ist Amerika „das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten?“

I was asked that question by a fifth-grader in a Kiel classroom in Northern Germany, when I visited a school where a former teacher of mine was teaching back in 1961. “Why is America ‘the land of unlimited opportunity?’”

The question caught me off guard. Where did this 11-year old kid pick up language like that, I wondered. They were prepared for my visit, so I imagined a conversation around the breakfast table that morning. “An American is coming to visit us today and we’re supposed to have questions ready to ask. What should I ask him?”  Maybe mama comes up with, “Ask him what he likes about Germany” and papa suggests the unlimited opportunity question. (This was still pre-feminism days, and I’m only 21, so allow me the unenlightened thought process here.) It didn’t occur to me that the kid was just a bright kid in a good educational system and maybe he came up with the question all by himself.

I’ll never know. If the kid is still around, he’s now in his late 60s and is probably asking questions like, “How is it that what was once a land of unlimited opportunity could become what it is today?”

I’d have as much trouble answering that question as I did the first one and would have to fall back and recommend an entire library of American Studies books on the topic.

I stumbled for an answer and came up with a cowardly dodge. “Why do you think Germany is not a “land of unlimited opportunity?”

His answer was “because Germany is divided,” and that led me to believe the kid had a political consciousness beyond his years and, whether the answer was right or wrong, was on his way to active participation in a working democracy.

I live in Berkeley, California, just six blocks north of the Oakland city limits. Many see Berkeley as Oakland’s rich neighbor to the north. I protest when they say that that we have lots of low income people here, too. Like myself, for example. I’m living on social security and if you look just at my income from non-investment sources, I’m well below the poverty line. That shows you the problem with actuarial and other wealth-measurements, which are easily manipulated to mask or overlook the big picture. For me, living in a Bay Area home which I own mortgage-free, to cry poor would be a nasty insult to those struggling to keep their heads above water, financially.

Complexity in numbers aside, the fact is that America is a land of opportunity for only some of its citizens and anything but for an ever increasing portion of the population.

Otis R. Taylor, who writes a column for the East Bay (Oakland/Berkeley and other towns across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco) in the San Francisco Chronicle has an article in today’s paper on racial inequity in Oakland. For starters, 28% of the city’s population is black, but also black are 70% of its homeless. And that’s only the beginning. The median income for white households is $110,000. For blacks, it’s $37,500. It’s worth mentioning that the other two large minority groups are in the middle, with Hispanics at $65,000 and Asians at $76,600.

It’s also worth mentioning that Oakland was once a major black population center, but once the housing prices started rising, blacks were priced out. Between 2000 and 2010 the black population decreased by 25%. In 1980 they were about 47% of the population; today they are down to about 28%. It’s an open secret that blacks were especially adversely affected by the housing crisis in 2008, when the rich bankers were bailed out and the black exodus from Oakland was in full swing. 

San Francisco has had a similar drop in its black population.   In 1970 they were 13.4% of the population; today they comprise less than 6%. In San Jose, they are down to 3%. Segregation is still a problem, and it’s another open secret that blacks were forced by housing costs to live in high crime areas like Hunter’s Point and the Western Addition. White people need to remember that any illusion that they gather into “their own areas” by choice is negated by these statistics on the drop in black population. Black people have even more reason to escape high crime areas than white people do. Who wants to raise their kids in places where it’s next to impossible to keep them from being bullied into gang membership?

There are reasons I’ve been banging on about attacking head-on the American conviction that socialism is a dirty word. Combining socialism with democracy is, to my way of thinking, just another way of labeling the process of removing the albatross around America's neck that is racism once and for all. And by that I mean white people need to stop associating the word racism with individuals and protesting, “I’m not a racist.” We need to use the black lens and see racism systemically. It’s in our institutions – the fact that our “right to move freely” often masks the tricks we have for assigning different places for blacks and whites to live. The fact that the white lady with nine yachts in Orange-Stain’s cabinet working to promote charter schools at a terrible cost to public schools – where the black kids go – is part of the story. That kids can’t do well in school if they are hungry, or frightened or confined to restricted experiences with the larger world outside of school, and if we want to lift the next generation out of poverty we have to look at the entire environment kids live in – and not just their schools and playgrounds. And that's how I see the democratic socialist/social democratic approach differing from the mainstream democratic approach - they focus more clearly and intensely on the big picture, the complete environment a kid grows up in, while the Hillary/Trump mainstream parties still think they can Rube Goldberg the status quo into better government.

Living in a social democracy doesn’t mean robbing the enterprising rich to toss money at the undeserving poor. We need to recognize that as Republican bullshit. It means living in a society where those who live in a community which allows them to make great wealth share enough of that wealth to assure the best possible policies for enhancing health, welfare and security for the entire population.

The current administration is killing American society as a national community of shared interests, shared goals and a common fate. After lowering the personal responsibility of the superrich to look out for the national welfare, and adding trillions to the national debt, it is now proposing yet another tax cut for the guys at the top – a billion dollar cut for the superrich which the president can make happen all by himself, without having to pass the idea through the legislative branch of government.

It’s like the only game in town is to increase the outrageous injustice on a daily basis.

And it goes on and on and on, this Republican Party and its reverse Robin Hood monetary policies.

Come on. We all know we are being jerked around by a bunch of rich white guys in government doing the bidding of the superrich to the detriment of everybody else.

Get these guys out!

Vote for the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party. If you can’t get yourself to do that, vote for anybody in the Democratic Party.

But get these Republican greedy bastard Trump enablers OUT!

photo credit