Sitting About

Nikolaj Vilimirovich was a beautiful writer. He was almost certainly a beautiful speaker as well, going by the lovely collection of addresses he made to wartime England, Serbia in Light and Darkness. It makes me uncomfortable, because all Serbian nationalism encountered after the terrible reign of President Milosevic is likely to make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t prevent it from being beautiful. He was also a poet, and it shows. He is very gracious, in a way that I’ve sometimes seen in good bishops when speaking to guests or hosts in a different community. If this is the kind of thing you like to read, go ahead and do so — it’s free in HTML or on Kindle.

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, with the other local volunteers elsewhere in the country, and the Orthodox academy in Belgrade. For the weekend I spent late mornings sitting in a beautiful field on a mountain and appreciating how pretty it was, and came back to cabbage rolls and kittens. It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the living room, because it’s just cool enough to be uncomfortable sitting too long outside, or in an unheated oom. I’ve also gone walking most days — not very far, but it’s just warm enough to be able to walk up a little hill and then down into a little meadow, and sit there enjoying the rust red trees, green grass, and the faint sound of the stream below me. Every now and ten a horse or two comes down the hill covered in hay, looking adorable.

I made a pumpkin pie and banana bread with some success, and a pumpkin ginger soup that tasted very healthy, but was too spicy with ginger.

After reading Getting Better at Getting Better, by New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, I walked around fuming to myself for a while. It pushed all the wrong “philosophy of education” buttons for me. Poor comparisons (between professional athletes and teachers), and the pervading thought that if all children don’t perform to the best of their ability in every school, it must be because something is wrong with the teachers. Let’s compare them to world class musicians, NBA players, and machines, and talk about how they’re falling short.

In contrast to the dissatisfaction that permeates Education, here’s a sweet blog post. Glennon has a very distinctive authorial voice, and is ever so much more emotional than I, but I like it. In fairly small doses. Favorite overly cute fake word: “perspecticles.”

Self-consciously “vulnerable” blogs are appealing, in a slightly unhealthy sort of way, and I’ve been reading too many of them in my abundant free time. It’s easy to appreciate their “finding myself as a cultural outsider” narratives. A young woman grows up in a counter-cultural enclave somewhere in America, but then begins to question, to doubt, to struggle. It’s dramatic, because she didn’t have the ghosts of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky in her house playing atheist, elder, and struggling believer for her. She may not even have had CS Lewis, because he included parties with Bacchus. So she is Shocked to go out into the world and see that the world is not as she had expected it to be, and spends a long time thereafter processing that realization, then sharing her experience with anyone who will listen.

Apparently I’m not very sophisticated, either. It would be better — I would, in fact, prefer — to read about someone who actually succeeded at learning to appreciate village people of another culture. I would get a much more helpful “I know what you’re talking about!” buzz to hear the account of someone who went to live in the hills with the farmers, and found that the most consistent annoyances were… music videos. And three hours a day of Candid Camera knock-offs. Also, oil. And the lack of structured social encounters. The sorts of things that educated, snobby people complain about when living with many normal Americans. These are the people that even the Kosovar students in The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo are snobby about (she makes a point to mentioning it), because they are city people. But I don’t know who I’m trying to find, and like most actually helpful articles, it hasn’t shown up in my Facebook feed yet.

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Briefly Noted — Localism

Holy Trinity held their (semi)annual Parish Retreat a couple of weeks ago, with Fr Andrew Damick. He gave several good lectures, one of which I have actually listened to, and can therefore comment on. It’s basically about being an Orthodox localist, with small town habits, like walking everywhere, getting to know the neighbors, planting gardens, sitting on front porches, forming relationships with people based on proximity, rather than shared interests, and so on. I have mixed feelings about it. Many of his recommendations are things that Peace Corps actually requires of volunteers, such as living in the community where we work, no driving, and most of us live next to rather extensive vegetable gardens and food producing animals. Which is good, and I’m glad we’re doing it.

My main question is actually practical. As someone living in a postindustrial, highly technological society. One where our rugs and clothes are woven on industrial looks, our dishes, utensils, chairs, and appliances are made in factories, and so on — what do we do all winter? This is a question in America as well. It certainly was in Tuluksak. Rural places are largely not academic — we mostly aren’t spending the winter researching. I think of George MacDonald’s wise woman, and of the beautiful and productive ladies of ancient Greece, with their spindle and loom, making textiles all winter. In my experience of villages, we generally spend a lot of time in the main room together — perhaps 5 – 10 people — and a TV on. A TV showing random annoying junk, as un-hobbit-like as that may be. Because if there are 10 people in the room, and one of them wants the TV on, it will certainly be on. So I’ve had headphones on all week. In Gori I would walk to the local expat cafe and sit there for three or four hours with a plate of fried potatoes and a computer. And I wasn’t just a particularly slothful exception, but more like the norm. And I’d like to do better, partly because that is not even enjoyable, but am really not sure how this is supposed to work in villages with wi-fi and TVs in the only warm room in the house.

Also, sitting out on the street all day, in addition to being normal for men but strange for women, is pretty boring, even if people wave and laugh every few minutes.

On the other end of the spectrum are women who feel in constant danger both from actual catcalls, and also from strangers simply greeting them in public places.  Apparently a number of women, especially in East Coast cities, have had such a wretched experience of creeps outnumbering normal friendly people, they are worried at the sound of “hi.” “It started when I was 12 and creepy old men would come up and start stroking my waist-length hair without my permission.” Seriously? More than once? How sad. Apparently the woman who made the video got unwanted attention every 6 minutes of her walk, on average. Of course, I don’t generally feel that way — I wouldn’t be volunteering to be the resident American in various places if I hated people laughing and calling as I walk past. In Eastern Europe, this is mostly children, and sometimes men. What’s interesting, both about the post and the comments, is how the experience of unwanted attention has hardened into the feeling that any acknowledgment at all is wrong, so we should just keep our heads down, our eyes front, and ignore each other completely. As one commenter says “I see cat-calling as a violation of space. By cat-calling, the man forces me (or attempts to) into an interaction with him regardless of whether or not I’m up for it.”

Speaking of people fed up with random street attention, I read The Peace Corpse, by Andy Christofferson, because even a rather poorly written e-book is easier to read than a much better written blog, of you’re going for narrative. I’m saying this as someone writing a blog and not a narrative e-book, of course. And if you want to hear my experience as a coherent story, you will probably be disappointed if you start reading blog archives to get that. Andy was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania in the 00s, and not a very good one. Nor is he a very good writer — he’s insecure, judgmental, and likes to emphasize his juvenile sense of humor. What I thought most interesting about it is the window into the mind of such a person — since someone like that usually doesn’t say what he’s thinking to me. I wish that there were a) other characters who were actual people, and not just foils for Andy, and b) that Andy had a better character arc, and came out of his self absorption more by the end. Of course, the difficulty with non-fiction if that Andy the character won’t grow or observe much beyond Andy the person, who apparently still isn’t there yet. Also, his crush on a local girl who moved away to England was certainly important to his experience, but since he tells us precious little about her, his reader has no reason to care, and it becomes tedious.

The Soft Exile, by Eric Kiefer, is the partly fictionalized memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia at some point before the internet had reached every corner of the earth. He is  much better writer than Andy, with a wryer sense of himself, and is more aware of his isolation and quest for personal fulfillment. He declares on the first page that he “was taught to appreciate Hemmingway, Kafka, Orwell, and Kerouac,” and joined the Peace Corps after freaking out about Sausage McMuffins and the whole American industrialist machine and threatening to kill himself. So they sent him to a remote village on the edge of the Gobi, where he spent months with a used radio looking for signals, before finally finding the one hill in town that got a signal. Because he was that remote. He write about it well — the cold, the silence, the sandstorms, the loneliness, the staring. The main problem I ended up having with his story was that, after building up to a grand vision quest at the end, it just sort of puts out some vaguely zen platitudes and just stops. It sort of falls flat, like he hadn’t really found something to hold onto by the time he finished the book — and it’s possible that he couldn’t, given the kind of buildup he had about it. I would recommend this book if you want to read about life as an outsider and angsty young man in the Gobi desert.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks his readers to imagine a future where automation continues to advance and swallow up traditional work, while the new jobs we assume will replace them fail to do so at nearly the rate and accessibility needed to keep the economy going in it’s present form. The book’s title is based on his main metaphor. Imagine the modern economy as a giant tunnel, filled with floating lights. Each light represents a consumer, and glows brightly or dimly depending on the purchasing power of that person. The walls are lined with a mosaic of panels, also glowing, which represent businesses. The lights go up to the panels, and an exchange takes place, making the panel slightly brighter, and the consumer slightly dimmer. However, these corporations are also employing workers, who are consumers as well, and some of the light is returned to those employees. It’s a somewhat clumsy metaphor, but works better in the book where he has more room to explain why he’s using it this way. His main point is that at a certain level of automation the mechanism whereby the buying power of transactions is returned to employees breaks down, and there’s reason to expect that jobs that cannot be automated cannot keep up with those being automated, or that the vast majority people can continue to keep up with the entry requirements of those machine-resistant fields.

The question driving most of the book is: what if jobs are automated to the point where as much as half the population either have no work to do, or are unable to do the work that continues to need humans to do it — including that which requires a large amount of manual dexterity or creativity? He argues at some length why it’s likely that might happen, and in a system bent on maximizing the efficiency of corporations there’s no reason to employ people if they aren’t needed for the work itself.

In Eastern Europe is not an abstract question. Kosovo has a 45% unemployment rate. The only reason it isn’t even worse (my colleague estimated 60%) is because so many people are working in Germany and Switzerland. In Greece and Spain a quarter of their potential workers are unemployed. “Unemployed” in the village (like in Kosovo, Georgia, or Alaska) does not mean not doing anything at all, of course. They may be farming, fishing, hunting, and so on. Most have excellent vegetable gardens. But it does mean that there isn’t a really a way for them to participate in the larger economic system, and to the extent they do, it’s because of government programs or employed family members.

Mr Ford concedes that capitalism has worked the best of any system tried by a modern nation, and his solution looks something like capitalism on the side of the producers and socialism on the side of the consumers. Businesses are free, even encouraged to compete in the same way they do now, but would be taxed mostly on their actual cash flow, with no payroll taxes, to avoid putting labor intensive fields at a disadvantage. The various welfare and unemployment programs would be restructured into a kind of baseline sum for ordinary citizens, and then he has a scheme where people are rewarded for doing desirable things, such as furthering their education or volunteering in their communities.

Of course, this faces the normal criticisms against socialism, starting with the fact that it’s difficult to impose the requisite taxes on anyone — rich people, successful businesses, whoever — without damaging their ability and incentive to operate well. He has thoughts on that, but they mostly amount to: if the scenario plays out as he thinks it will, we either have to make something like socialism work, or live with a massive disconnect between production capacity and buying power. I appreciate about this book that Mr Ford is a thoughtful, reasonable liberal, not an angry blaming liberal, and would recommend his book.

Briefly Noted — Culture and Religion

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately, but mostly not stuff I’ve had strong feelings about, so I haven’t felt compelled to write entire posts about them. But they do deserve quick mentions, which is what this post is about.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe takes place in Nigeria as colonialism and missionaries are spreading through the continent. It focuses on Okonkwo, a respected warrior and hardworking yam farmer in a small village, along with his three wives and children. He’s deeply flawed, especially in how he routinely equates violence with manhood and mercy with effeminacy, but has the skills and determination needed to thrive and gain honor in tribal society. Until, of course, things start falling apart, both for him and the traditions of his community. It presents a good look into the daily life of a pre-colonial African tribe, as well how thoroughly intertwined that life was with the rituals and beliefs they held, so that giving up the beliefs ultimately meant giving up much of the culture and stability as well. I read it because in the post The Books I Didn’t Read I wrote about a few weeks ago, Samantha said “Things Fall Apart would have upended everything I thought I knew about missionaries and nationalism”, and I was curious what would have been upended. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure what she meant by that. I suppose it had something to do with the thought that pagan tribes had no internally reasonable (though deficient) Tao behind their laws and beliefs. Or that British missionaries and colonists didn’t do violent and harmful things? I’m not sure why she would have thought that. The book was worth reading — an interesting window into a very different culture.

If I Should Speak, by Umm Zakiyyah, is about an American college girl discovering Islam. It belongs to the genre of theological parlor novels wherein the characters spend a lot of time sitting around talking about theology. In their dorm rooms, the car, their parents’ houses, and so on, while their minds are opened to new possibilities — of The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and There & Back by George MacDonald. If you’re plagued by the Calvinism of your youth, I would tepidly recommend either — the latter more than the former.

It’s not a genre I love, and is very difficult to pull off well. The main difficulty is that most of the content is taken up in dialogues, usually between one or several jejune youths, and someone older and wiser, or at least better informed. In general, this person is not Socrates, with his flare for irony and trapping his opponents in their own logic. If I Should Speak centers around Tamika, Aminah, and Dee, roommates studying near Atlanta. Tamika plays the part of the callow youth — she was raised Christian and tried evangelizing her fellow students in high school, but is basically ignorant of Christian traditions. Aminah is the knowledgeable, devout guide, the daughter of Islamic converts of mixed heritage. Dee comes from a similar background as Aminah, but has strayed from the path, uncovering her head and shoulders, and competing in talent competitions. Aminah is so piously smug, and Tamika so ignorant and un-resourceful, their conversations are sort of painful to read. The writing is fairly good (but they need to stop “sucking their teeth” once was already too much, and they just keep doing it, whenever they’re in the least perturbed), but the characters fit far too tidily into their preordained roles. I can’t really recommend this book.

I can, however, recommend Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary. It’s just what it claims to be — a popular history of the Islamic world, from it’s founding in the time of Mohammad to the early Twenty-first Century, told more as a narrative of how people have perceived their cultural history than a balanced and impartial historical text, but since he says so upfront, I think that’s alright.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus , by Nabeel Qureshi is the converse of If I Should Speak, being about a young Islamic man sitting around talking about theology in college, until he eventually becomes Christian. It’s easier to excuse creative non-fiction for the tedium of placing all its scenes in someone’s living room or lecture hall, because it has to work with what actually happened, and cannot simply invent drama. Interestingly, I also like the kind of Islam practiced by Nabeel’s family more sympathetic than Zakiyyah’s rather anemic presentation. Since Nabeel, unlike Tamika, spends most of the book as an “insider,” he brings much more depth, meaning, and, yes, affection to the faith he eventually leaves than Tamika can. His parents are moderate but deeply committed Pakistani Muslims living in the West — first in England, and then in the US.  Also, Nabeel is simply a better writer than Zakiyyah. Nevertheless, any creative work where the protagonist spends a lot of time reading Lee Strobel is unlikely to be altogether satisfying. Actually, I found Nabeel’s account of Christianity less emotionally compelling than his touching memories of Islam. He was an analytically minded medical student, and reminds me of all the apologetics treatises that I failed to appreciate as a teen. The advantage is that he, while a youth, does not come across as callow: he does research and investigate the claims of the theologians, historians, and so on on both sides of the question. Good for him — I just wish he had picked some more interesting theologians. And perhaps some poets and liturgists as well. Nevertheless, I would (tepidly) recommend this book.

Korban Bayram

The four day feast of Korban Bajram (Eid al-Adha in Arabic) began this Saturday, so my school had a half day on Friday and was closed Monday. Korban Bajram commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, and God’s faithfulness in providing a sheep instead.  In Islam that son was Ishmael, and the story takes place before Isaac was born. Sura 37:100 – 112

“O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!”

So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear.

Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!”

(The son) said: “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if Allah so wills one practising Patience and Constancy!”

So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice),We called out to him “O Abraham! “Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial – And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice: And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!”

Thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For he was one of our believing Servants. And We gave him the good news of Isaac – a prophet – one of the Righteous.

Since the absolute oneness of God is such a big deal in Islam, I’m surprised at that use of We.

Saturday morning at sunrise the men and some women went to the mosque for prayers and a sermon, then came home for coffee. The village separated into groups of men and of young women and girls, while the wives and mothers mostly stayed at home to receive guests. The men and boys traveled in their own group, had coffee and sweets at various houses, and slaughtered some cows. The young women and girls, meanwhile, took a route of their own, and I followed them. Mostly a group of 20 or so would arrive at a house and greet the women of the house with urime festiv! (blessed feast!), perhajer Bajrami, or me fat Bajrami, shake hands, and eat a piece of chocolate, and possibly drink coffee or juice. The young married women were all decked out in their bridal vestments — lovely traditional costumes with white fluffy Turkish pants and blouses, and heavily embroidered belts and vests. They greet a visitor by taking her hand in both their own, and sort of waving it around a little. Somebody somewhere probably knows why they do this for Bajram, but I am not yet one of those people.

After coming home for sarma (meat, onions, and spices wrapped in cabbage or grape leaves and boiled in an oily broth), I went to visit with some of my students, and then followed them up to a hill where they sang songs and danced. I failed to learn any folk songs, as I had hoped, but it was lovely and I got to meet some neighbors.They went bride visiting again on Sunday, but not Monday so far as I could tell, because it was cold and rainy.

The Old Books

Having grown up on the moderate side of the conservative Christian homeschool movement, I enjoy reading accounts by those who’s experience overlapped enough to be recognizable, but crossed that invisible threshold from reasonable to extreme. Of course, particularities matter a lot, including temperaments. Something that I found unreasonable and sort of aggravating could be more seriously harmful for my brother.

I appreciated that about a blog I encountered today about only reading the old books as a teen. My friends and I read the old books as well, and there were even a few Homeschool Girl niche books mixed in there, like Elsie Dinsmore and Janette Oak, and the occasional Girl’s Group where earnest an mother would suggest that we should not count on having a job, because it’s really better to serve in one’s father’s house until an appropriate courtship commenced. But my parents have good taste in books, a fair dose of good sense, and are good critical thinkers. That I read different books than many of my peers in public school was in no way sinister, regardless of their feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald or J D Salinger. I’m sure they thought that some of them were not appropriate before a certain age, but that came up more in movies than books. I suppose that if I’d wanted to read A Game of Thrones when it first came out, and my parents were aware of what was in it, my parents would have objected. And we talked about the books — mostly the old ones, and sometimes the pulp sci-fi fantasy, including things like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Magic? Check. Rape? Yeah. Questioning the power of the Creator? Yep. Also a leprous anti-hero for the main character). Not that I read most of those for school. By junior high we were having laze faire literature class consisting of picking up a book from the bookshelves or the library and talking about it with my parents and on internet message boards. Of course, if you do things that way, you’re not going to end up getting to some books that have been important to literature, but not to anyone you know personally or read a lot of. I read Homer because he was important to Virgil, who was important to Dante, who had a place on the bookshelf of a friend. But I didn’t read Virginia Woolf because she wasn’t important to anyone I knew or read. Actually, I did read A Room of One’s Own, because it was on my grandmother’s bookshelf.

So much of this is a matter of chance and friendships. I still haven’t read some of those high school classics. Maybe I’ll read some of them sometime. I tried starting Catcher in the Rye the other day, but didn’t care about anything or anyone in the first chapter and didn’t want to pay money in the hopes that I’d come to like it better. I keep telling myself I’m going to read The Sun Also Rises, but haven’t managed — I did finally get through All Quiet on the Western Front, though.

I don’t agree with the above blog post on some things — I think she’s gone somewhat too far in the opposite direction. It’s not true that old boos are automatically less challenging than new ones (which she doesn’t say, but implies). I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to have a subculture that’s defined in part by enthusiasm for a set of books which aren’t entirely mainstream. It’s not wrong that I could walk into a conference in Wichita, Kansas get a sheet of quotes with Elder Porpherious, Kierkegaard, Solzienitzen, St Maximus the Confessor, Dostoevsky, and C S Lewis, and know that these were my people, and my parents’ people, though we had never met before. But I imagine Samantha as being one of those girls in my homeschool group with stricter parents lacking an inner Kierkegaardian spy, and rougher experiences finding herself in college and later. It makes me wish I could have a cup of tea with those girls I knew but never quite understood, who may have been embarrassed by my family’s chaotic ways.

End of Summer

Hints of the arrival of Fall are beginning to appear. There are fresh grapes in the stores and sheltered in stunted, half abandoned vines in neglected fields (my family’s vines failed this year because of poor weather). Blackberries and figs have ripened in roadside bushes, and we can eat them as we walk. The big pile of sectioned wood has been halved and stored for the winter. The trees are starting to show a touch of brown and orange. My host mom dug up all the uneaten onions and stored them in a box for the winter, and some families have started making a sauce from the remaining peppers, now beginning to turn red and adorn the houses in long strings. We’re two weeks into school, and I’m starting to get my bearings a little. We’ve got two kittens now. And I need to practice my Albanian more and learn to operate the kitchen still. The genders are somewhat segregated, and while the men go out and cut wood, ride horses, or sit on the street, the women cook, drink coffee, and talk. I can’t imagine what they talk about, but I’d better figure it out at some point. One of the teachers has agreed to tutor me when he doesn’t have classes.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the balcony reading. Recently I read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (Tamim Ansary, 2009) and You (Austin Grossman, 2013). While the author is a historian, the aim of Destiny Disrupted is more to convey the narrative of world history as it’s told in the Islamic world than to present an accurate or balanced account of historical facts. It’s a good read, and I would recommend it. I especially liked his account of the first four khalifas, and the compilation of stories and laws that eventually became Hadith and Sharia, and of the dissonance between the belief that winning battles proved God’s favor with the terrible losses to the Monghols, and long later to the European powers.

You is a likable novel of geekery memory, and growing up as video game technology matured. I really enjoyed reading it, though I’m not sure what I’m left with it a few days after finishing it. Mostly an image of a black virtual sword and a sense of nostalgia — the main character is my age, and I’m not sure either of us has earned the right to be nostalgic yet.

Lubacheva

After a lot of studying, powerpoints, mafia, and a fair bit of pomp and circumstance, we’ve made it! All 25 volunteers have sworn in and been dispersed to our long term sites, where we’ll begin teaching in a week and a half. 

The most striking thing about my new village of Lubachev is its verticality. Imagine one of those roads in Northern Arizona or Colorado, switchbacking up a forested canyon. Now build a village in it out of concrete, cobblestones, and cinderblocks. That’s my new home. There’s one street that splits halfway up and straddles the gorge. There are no front yards, and the backs of three story houses and sturdy courtyard gates come right up to the street’s paving stones. Invisible in the back lie practical gardens and orchards, filled with veggies, grapevines, pear, apple, and peach trees, and sometimes horses. I haven’t yet found a perspective from which to take all this in, and from inside the village the main impression is mostly of climbing at a constant slant until the houses and cobbles simply stop, and it becomes a rutted forest road covered in running water and pebbles. 

I’m sitting on the balcony two and a half stories over the courtyard while someone rides up the golden hillside across the gorge and the call to prayer echoes through town. I’m living with a sweet older couple who currently have grown children visiting from Italy. I’ve been reading Sir Gibbie, both because it’s lovely, as well as because I find it reassuring to read English dialect I don’t quite understand.