Tag: #travel

It’s All About Family: Part II

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When it finally quit going wrong

Just good folks.  That’s how I’d describe the 150 or so people, overwhelmingly Canadian, who attended our Reist/Archer family reunion near the little farming communities of Didsbury and Olds north of Calgary.

Sure, there was a nuclear physicist and linguist among us.  But they were the odd exceptions.  Many more were things like cement truck driver, bear hunting guide and professional paint baller, electrician, missionary, gold prospector, welder, retired minister.   And, of course, farmers, dairymen, and ranchers.  Hard working, blue collar types.   Many full, grizzled beards were in evidence.  In short, a bunch of good ol’ boys.  And their good ol’ wives.  And a passel of their good ol’ kids.

The Harmattan Community Center where we met was a former one room school house.   To the east was an infrequently traveled gravel road.  Beyond that, fields of golden rape seed and barley stretched to where the sky reached down to touch the prairie.

The Center was surrounded by a couple of acres of closely mown grass.  When Linda and I checked in Friday evening, the field around the building was largely empty.  When we’d returned the following morning, husky pickups and big trailers with pop-out sides had sprung up like mushrooms after a spring shower.

A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet

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Much of my time at the reunion was given over to trying to figure out just how I’m related to all these people.  And trust me, after a day and a half, I barely scratched the surface.

Why?  Our ancestors had big families.  It wasn’t so much the challenge of deciphering the family tree-as the forest.  

One example, in particular, stands out.  A man, I believe he was an Archer, married a woman who, I believe, was a Reist.  They had four or five kids before she died.  

He then married her sister-and they proceeded to have at least four or five more.  Most of these kids were girls.  (I’m confident that the man marrying two sisters part of the story is accurate.)

My grandmother, Mabel, was one of these Reist girls.  She, in turn, married my grandfather, Wesley Swalm.  (That my middle name is Wesley is pretty good evidence that he’s the right guy.)

Wesley answered the Lord’s call to be a Nazarene minister.  So, the young couple moved to Pasadena, California where he studied at a Nazarene Bible school.  From there, they went to Berkley where he earned an advanced degree.  Wesley then got a job as the librarian at the fledgling Nampa Nazarene Bible College just west of Boise.

By now, it was about 1918 and Wesley and Mabel had two children of their own: Paul, my father, and his big sister, Alice.

Wesley, however, also had something a good deal less cuddly:  TB.  His health failing, the family resorted to a desperate expedient to try to cure the deadly lung disease for which no real cure was known:  cold.  And there was no better place for cold than the Alberta prairies in winter.  So they returned to Didsbury where, during the day, Wesley did his best to pastor a church.  And where, at night, he was put in a frigid tent in the hope that exposure to “fresh air” would cure the “consumption” that was destroying his lungs.

The “cure” didn’t work; Wesley died in 1922 at the age of 32.  But Linda and I were able to find his gravestone in the little Didsbury cemetery.

Reunion.  Repeat.

After dinner on Saturday night, there was an auction of a table full of white elephant type items to provide “seed money” for the next “Reist/Archer Reunion” three years hence.

The auctioneer (don’t even ask me which grove of the forest he hails from), owns a nearby spread numbering in the hundreds of acres.  He wore a smudged baseball cap with a seed company logo perched above his deeply tanned face.  Despite the small potatoes at stake, he did an admirable job calling out the “Who’ll give me eight?  Eight?  Eight?  Eight!  Nine? Who’ll give me nine?  Nine . .?  Nine?  Last time . . .  No?  Eight!  Sold,” he cried, gesturing with an outstretched palm,  “to the young lady there on the side!”

Auctions are fun, but they make me nervous.  It’d be just like me to not pay attention, absent-mindedly raise my hand when chit-chatting in the back of the room, and find myself the owner of something that would be very difficult to explain when I got home.

But I managed to avoid that pitfall this time and actually bring home something that both fit in my suitcase.  And makes me proud to own.  It’s the

Archer & Reist Family Cookbook

So, for only $15 Canadian, I’m now the owner of what the sticky note on the plastic bound book describes as “Good item for auction as is the last one left!”  It’s no surprise that it’s the last of the Mohicans; it was produced for the 2010 Archer Reist Reunion.

As the auction continued, I sat to the side and and enjoyed skimming recipes like “Pickled Pineapple,” and “BBQ Stuffed Peppers,” both by Marybelle Archer.  But it wasn’t until I got to this one, that the book really spoke to me:

DAVE ARCHER’S SECOND-BEST COMPANY DINNER

Go to a nice grocery store, and find the frozen food section.
Look for the package with the best-looking meal pictured on it.
Buy it and take it home.
Put in microwave.
Serve.

By the time I finished, I was in tears.  I immediately searched out Dave-and got his autograph.  (He’s the guy who organized the paint ball war outing.)  When I got home, I proudly showed my family my acquisition and asked our daughter Jocelyn, who’s a chef extraordinaire, to read the recipe around the kitchen island.  Halfway through, she was laughing uncontrollably.  As were the rest of us.

So, am I going to the Archer/Reist reunion three years from now?  Johnny Cash puts it best for me:  If the Good Lord’s Willing and the Creek Don’t Riseyou can count on it.

 

 

 

 

 

If it could go wrong, it did . . .

Welcoming committee in Banff - Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Our welcoming committee in Banff.

…except when it mattered.

With a tip’o the hat to that rode-hard-put-away-wet cowboy crooner cum hippie, Willie Nelson, I’m:

“On the road again,
I just can’t wait to get on the road again . . .
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”

But this time to Canada for a family reunion with the Reist’s, a branch from my dad’s side of the clan.  We’re going to spend a weekend together near Didsbury, a farming town of about 5,000 north of Calgary.

I’m traveling with my chronically peripatetic sister, Linda.  In a rental car, we’ve front loaded the reunion by several days to first go down the east side of the Continent’s spine from the Calgary to Glacier National Park.  Then turning west over the Divide and heading north through Banff and continuing to the iconic Fairmont Hotel on Lake Louise.  Then crossing the Divide again for the reunion before taking in the last day of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Calgary Stampede.

A comedy of errors.  That wasn’t so funny.

But this little story comes with a sub-plot that, infuriatingly, just keeps on giving.

It began early in the morning when Linda flew in from her home in Albuquerque to DIA where we were scheduled, we thought, to catch a Frontier flight together to Calgary.  But when she got to the gate she was told that the plane had already left.  And that Frontier wouldn’t have another flight to Calgary for three days.  Information that she immediately communicated to me while I was in my Uber to the airport.  Talk about that sinking feeling.

“But,” she continued, “I might be able to get us on another airline that leaves this afternoon.  But it’ll probably cost more.”

“Well, what choice do we have?” I replied.  “We’ve got all the other arrangements made.  I think we have to take it if you can get it.  But I wonder what happened?  I have it right here on my calendar that we should have had plenty of time to catch this flight.”

“Well, I’m not sure, but I think the travel agent messed up and didn’t send us the notice of the change.”

“Great.  And, of course, it’s my travel agent.   Well,” I sighed, “you better get the tickets.  I’ll deal with the travel agent later.”  And you can bet your bottom dollar that I will.  ‘Cause those tickets, purchased at the last possible moment, cost so much that you couldn’t get me to confess how much even if you put thumb screws on each of my fingers.  And toes.

But wait.  There’s more!

When we got to the rental car desk in Calgary, the hits just kept coming.  I’d forgotten my driving glasses-didn’t really need ’em to sit in the Uber on the way to the airport.  And it didn’t seem quite fair to have my sister do all the driving.

Seriously abashed, I had to call my understandably resentful wife to have her ship them to the Lake Louise where I could take up the slack for the last few days of driving duty.  And, at the time, it seemed like a good plan.

Until, that is, I got this text from my wife:  “Took the glasses to the UPS store.  $165.09 to have them shipped to Canada!”

“Oh, my Lord!” I exclaimed as I stared at the little letters on my phone.  But my sister didn’t seem much surprised:  “Lake Louise is remote.  There aren’t any airports around there.  I just hope they get there in time.”

But wait!  There’s still more!

From Calgary, Linda drove us back across the U.S. border to Glacier National Park.  There, we planned to spend a night and then take a ride in one of the famous open top “Red Bus Tours” that navigate the Going-to-the-Sun-Road to see the spectacular peaks, glaciers and wildlife.  To make sure we were on track to be at the proper bus stop to answer the early morning “‘Board!” we scouted out the area after dinner at the rustic Lake McDonald Lodge where our table overlooked the lake and the rugged peaks beyond.

While on the road the next morning, we got engrossed in one of the several nourishing conversations that occurred during the trip.  Since Linda moved away from home for college when I was a kid-and she never lived in Denver again-this was the most time we’ve spent together for decades.  As she drove us down the winding two lane highway that followed a powerfully sinuous river coursing beneath pine clad slopes, we talked about war, peace, Christianity and my relatively recent conversion to near pacifism.  So, rather than going just a few miles to the turnoff to catch our bus, we, completely absorbed, drove miles by it before she realized where we were.  And so we missed the tour altogether!

Oh, well!  All’s well that ends well.

Turned out, however, that it wasn’t altogether a bad thing.  The drive back up across the Canadian border to our next layover in the tiny tourist burg of Radium Hot Springs on the west side of the Divide pretty much burned up the day even without our “going to the sun.”  And even though the summer days that far north are anything but short.

True, the glasses fiasco continued to plague us for a few days; something, said the email from DHL, about getting a tiny pair of glasses across an international border.  So Linda was at the helm for the rest of the drive.  And I gave up and just told DHL to “return to sender.”  Which they did.  Has to be about the most expensive round trips that a pair of glasses has ever made.

But at least they were there to greet me when I finally made it home.

 

 

Gonna’ take a sentimental journey

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A sentimental journey home!

Cruise the blogosphere for for any length of time and, count on it, you’ll come across a bunch of sites devoted to travel.

Love Travelling.  Dan Flying Solo.  A Broken Backpack.  The Path Less Pedaled.  Nowhere.  The list goes on and on.  And for those of you who just can’t get enough, check out Top 10 Travel Bloggers You Should Already Be Following.  How dare you be so late to the party?

Now, I’ve done a bit of traveling.  And a bit of blogging.  After all, I’m retired.  But I’m bush league compared to these guys.

It just comes with the territory

Nonetheless, I just got back three week trek through Scotland, England and London with my sister, her husband and some of her equally Allmon Brothers-esque, “Ramblin’ Man” companions.  And trust me, “Lord, they were born ramblin’ men.” And women. Definitely, more so than I.

But when I got this email from my sister late the other night (I had taken a different flight and was already home), I doubt that even she and her husband realized what a trip ending “adventure” they were in for:

I’ll bet you’re home; we’re in the Boston airport having been rerouted after our flight out of London was delayed so long that we missed our connection in Reykjavík to Denver.

We spent the night on the floor in the Boston airport waiting for employees to show up so we could get our boarding passes for Denver. In about an hour we’ll board a plane for Denver, check again for our bags when we get there, (our bags didn’t make it to Boston—don’t know why; they may be in Denver🙏) and then head for ABQ.

We should be home by 4pm-ish. That’s enough to sour one on ever leaving home again!
Sure hope you didn’t have to play ring-around-the-rosie to get home.
All in, she later reported that the trip home took 36 hours!

But I wonder

Do I follow all, or even a few, of these travel blogs?  Not really.  But I have written about a few of the mostly U.S. road trips that I’ve taken over the years; that’s probably how I got on the radar of some of these travel bloggers.

Which means that I have no real idea if the type of scenario described by my sister and which illustrates the dramatically less glamorous side of travel-and which is a loathsome fly in the ointment of that more glamorous side-ever makes it into the hip travel sites.   You know, the type of travel blogs gorgeously illustrated with photos of drop dead beaches.  And stunning mountain vistas.  And exotic city scapes.

But, on reflection, these travel snafus almost certainly do make it on to the pages of the tourist blogs.  And, if they don’t, how could they lay claim to even a modicum of authenticity?  Hey, even my flight home from London was delayed two hours on the tarmac when a baggage door was dinged during loading.  As the pilot told us, it was about 30 minutes to fix the ding.  And 90 minutes for paperwork.

The bottom line

So, yes, the trip was interesting.  And-wait for it-I’ll milk this trek for another post or two in the next several days.  But are they the kind of posts loaded with those glamorous photos that are likely to make you pack your bags and take your chances with the airlines?  Don’t hold your breath.

 

 

 

 

Kilts, bag pipes and drums

Against machine guns and poison gas

After dinner here in Oban, our gang walked back to our B&B along the water front, past a small, grassy square.  There were about 20 men and women with bag pipes and drums, playing, marching and rehearsing for what, I assumed was an upcoming competition or festival.  Only one man was dressed in full Scots regalia, kilts, knee-socks, codpiece, the works.  Why everyone else was in street clothes, I can’t tell you.

My wife, who’s half Irish and half Italian, always starts quietly sobbing when she hears bagpipes fire up.  Not quite sure why.  Probably a combination of the weird, mournful wailing and memories of her long dead Irish grandfather, Jerry.  And, particularly, the way Jerry became a near second father to her brother, Cliff, Jr., who was killed by friendly fire shortly after he was drafted and shipped over to Vietnam.

According to schedule

It’s gotten to the point where bagpipes often have a similar effect on me: a catch in my throat, at the least.  I might even have to wipe away a tear or two.  Why?  Similar reasons.  The mournful wailing.  And death.  But not for a relative.  It’s for what happened to Western Civilization in the blood soaked trenches of World War I.  France.  England.  Russia.  America.  Germany.  Italy.  The list goes on.  They all lost their collective minds.   Nearly 40 million dead and wounded, military and civilian.  The U.S. was a bit player in terms of casualties-but it played a decisive role in turning back a nearly successful, final German offensive that resulted in that nation’s exhaustion and defeat.

World War I has been called the “Timetable War” because of the limitations of the rail systems that were required to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of troops in the lead-up to the plunge into the abattoirs.   When that volume of trains are set in motion in such a compressed timeframe, they basically become one-way vehicles: they’re very difficult to turn around and there aren’t any passing lanes.  Once the order to go to war was given, the various hostile powers couldn’t reverse it without running the risk that their cross border enemy wouldn’t do the same.  And leave their own forces trapped in trains in a hopeless traffic jam.

So the flower of Europe’s youth perished-way ahead of schedule.

They’re everywhere

Here, the reminders of death are everywhere.  Stop in any of the little towns we’ve gone through and you’re almost sure to see a war memorial inscribed with the names of the dead from history’s bloodiest century, the 20th.  World War I.  World War II.  Korea.  But in the towns we’ve been through, WWI was by far the bloodiest for Britain.

But it’s not just the lives that were lost.  Or, as awful as it sounds, perhaps even the most important thing that was lost.  The bloody Napoleonic Wars had come to an end about a century earlier in 1815.  In the 100 years between the end of those wars and the start of WWI, Europe and much of the rest of the world largely enjoyed peace.  And relative prosperity.  Britain played world cop.  Western Civilization flourished.  They call it Pax Britannica.  

But it all came crashing down on July 28, 1914.  And since World War II was really just a continuation of World War I’s bloodletting (except on steroids), the fighting didn’t really end until the atom bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo harbor on September 2, 1945.  Western Civilization still hasn’t recovered its sense of optimism and self-confidence that was lost in the madness of supposedly “advanced” societies tearing at each others vitals like rabid dogs.  

The Pals

The next morning, I looked to my right down the Oban waterfront.  There, several hundred yards away was a column.  I walked down and, sure enough, it was a war memorial.  Rough hewn and rustic, there were dozens and dozens of names.  Although all of the 20th century’s wars were represented, overwhelmingly the dead were from “The Great War.”

To encourage enlistment, the British military established “Pals” battalions.  This allowed young men from the same town or school to enlist with their friends rather being randomly assigned to units full of strangers.  The Pal system worked-with often horrifying consequences.   In the 1916 Somme offensive, of 700 Pals from the small town of Accrington, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded in the space of 30 minutes.   

Were the many Scottish soldiers whose names were etched on the Oban memorial Pals?  Did they “go over the top” behind wailing bagpipers in tartan kilts?  I don’t know.  But one of the soldiers at the top of the memorial has on a stone kilt.  And, more importantly, who can think of this madness and not get a catch in their throat?  And utter a prayer that we won’t repeat the insanity.  And that, by the grace of God, Western Civilization might someday come to a recognition that it has a great deal to offer a world that still needs what it has.  At least when it’s at its best.

 

 

 

 

On the water front

750x450 Scotland

The Lord still inhabits the praises of his people

Last winter my sister, Linda, and her husband came to Colorado for a visit.  Don’t ask me how, but they managed to wedge it in amongst all their other globe girdling trips.  As I’ve said of them before, throw a dart at a map of the world.  And they’ve probably been there.

Over dinner, they mentioned that they were going to Scotland and England this spring with a group of friends.  I took the opportunity to invite myself along.  Graciously, they didn’t let the opportunity go by.  Even though she introduced me to her friends as “my brother who tells corny jokes.”

So here I am in Scotland in the little seaside town of Oban, staying at the Alltavona B&B. My hostess tells me that in Gaelic the name means “beside the water.”  Which is appropriate; I’m watching the ferry go by no more than 200 yards from my window.

Today, however, I’d had enough of the “cozy” 8 seater van, counting sheep and lochs, tasting whiskey, eating bangers and mash, and watching three thousand foot peaks go by that are all above timber line because we’re so near the arctic.  So I stayed behind while the rest of the gang jumped on a small boat to go to an island to see puffins.  Not my thing.  It’s time for me to fire up the blog and reflect on the trip.  Not to mention that I consider sea sickness, to which I’m so prone, a fate worse than death.

Rosary beads aplenty

I asked our hostess about an internet cafe.  She was puzzled, “We have internet here.”  I assured her that I preferred to work in a coffee shop.  “Well, in that case, why don’t you try the chocolate shop?  It’s just down the way.”  So I walked down the bay, crossing the street a time or two, trying to avoid getting run over by looking the wrong direction.  And there it was: the Oban Chocolate Co.   The coffee was good.  So was the scone and jam (too early for chocolate).  But the internet connection was terrible.  So, after some futile fiddling, I headed back to the Alltavona.

Halfway there, the bells of a squat, stolid church began clanging; it’s Wednesday morning here and time for mass.  Even if far from musical, the bells were, at least, the real thing.  I walked up a few stairs and went through the doors behind a couple of elderly ladies.  Finding a place to sit was absolutely no problem.  To describe the interior as austere is an understatement.  Roughly quarried from the grey, volcanic rock of ages that underlays so much of this part of Scotland, the charcoal stone was only broken by the white lines of mortar that bound the structure together.  Sun streamed through simple windows, faintly stained rose.  The church had been built during the lean days following the end of World War II.

The tiny congregation in the cavernous structure was just finishing the rosary as I sat down.  Several participants fingered their beads from where they prayed on wooden kneelers.  Soon, a priest began saying the mass.  His homily was brief.  And even forgettable.  But it was a welcome sabbath from days of restless movement, of random historical fact strung on random historical fact.

Brendan and Kenneth

I paused for a few minutes to read about the church when the service was over.  The bells that had summoned me to worship were good Catholic boys: Brendan and Kenneth.  The church is named after St. Columba, the Irish evangelist who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century.

Christianity’s never been a popularity contest.  Consider what they did to its founder.  But no more could it be extirpated by hanging Jesus on a cross than it could be stamped out by a scant attendance at a Wednesday morning mass.  Like the resurrected Christ himself, the Church is built for the ages.  And the long haul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawling off the marriage altar

750x450 angle of repose

The trouble with living sacrifices

I’ve been a member of The Bookies book club now for going on two years.  We’re four guys, all current or past members of the same church.

Some of the books we’ve read left me hungry for more.  Hanna Coulter, by Wendell Berry, for example.  Others, like Helen MacDonald’s,  H is for Hawkkept me doing the math on how many pages I had to wade through before the end hove into view.

We just finished Angle of Reposeby Wallace Stegner.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972.  Ostensibly, it’s the story of the hard luck lives of an engineer and his wife as they wonder between mining camps and ne’er do well irrigation schemes in the American west in the 1870’s and ’80’s. Dank, dark tunnels and dry irrigation canals torment Oliver Ward and his wife, Susan, with the allure of riches that remain forever just beyond their grasp.

Angle is the sort of book that left me hungry for more.

The crucible

The book really isn’t about the brutally tough existence of miners in hard scrabble towns like Leadville. (Although, as a Colorado native, it was a nice bonus to read a story celebrating places that I’ve driven through and been familiar with ever since I was a kid.)

The novel is actually about a highly improbable marriage.  The union of two people who could scarcely be more different.  But having made a quality, although probably ill-advised decision to marry, Oliver and Susan Ward personify the notion of “not sweating the small stuff.  And it’s all small stuff.”

The Wards are the kind of people the Psalmist probably had in mind when he wrote,

“Who may live on your holy mountain?
. . . the one who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind.”

Time and again, politicians, speculators and less honorable men cheat “Grandfather;” the story’s narrator is Oliver’s grandson, Lyman Ward.  Who, in turn, is a Berkeley university history professor trapped in a broken body-and time.  Stegner’s depiction of the “liberated,” braless hippies that swarm like so many intellectual gnats around Lyman’s typewriter provides what little comic relief the novel affords.

The story ricochets back and forth between people, place and time.  Sometimes it follows Oliver to his preferred environment, the rough-as-a-cob West, where civilization scarcely rises to the level of a veneer.  Sometimes it follows Susan to her preferred environment in the East, where where she occasionally escapes from the miseries of the frontier to revel in a civilization thickly encrusted with fine art, elite schools for her children, and literary salons.  Lyman, looking back from the tumultuous 1960’s and the ruins of his own marriage, tries to make sense of all he surveys from the wheel chair planted in front of his typewriter.

The two shall become one

Oliver and Susan Ward’s marriage is littered with disappointments, tragedy and betrayal.  By the end of Angle of Repose, their union is little more than a dry husk.  But a union it stubbornly remains.  Held together, probably as much as anything, by the conventions of society.  And the couple’s recognition that their’s is the hand to mouth existence described in Ecclesiastes:

‘Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.”

Those who do not learn from history . . .

Lyman Ward is depicted as a meticulous historian in Angle.  He sympathetically reconstructs the lives of both of his grandparents from from the voluminous letters that flow between Susan and her well-to-do Eastern confidant. In so doing, Lyman, by the end of the novel, changes from a dispassionate chronicler of his grandparents’ lives.  To a student of their lives.

Lyman sees the parallels in their familial stories.  How Oliver, a virtual emotional cripple, had helped drive Susan to a desperate act of unfaithfulness.   And yet how, through it all, the two remained faithful to the quality decision they had made so many years before.

And now, how Lyman’s own wheel chair bound existence had contributed to his wife’s similar fate when she took up with the surgeon who amputated Lyman’s leg.

But there, the stories diverge.  On the one hand, it’s “until death do us part.”  On the other, it’s a bitter, never to be forgiven divorce.

. . . are doomed to repeat it?

But unexpectedly, almost as if by dues ex machina, Lyman’s ex-wife, Ellen, shows up in the novel’s final pages.  No longer married to the sawbones who’d cut Lyman’s leg down to size, Ellen’s reappearance as someone willing to help care for her ex-husband is a puzzle.  After all, by the 1960’s, the societal conventions that had held marriages together in Oliver and Susan’s days were long gone-if, indeed, marriage itself was still was still held to be conventional.  And financial necessity in marriage?  Gone the way of the not-so-great Great Society.

So, what’s up with this last twist in the plot?

Although nowhere explicitly stated (like the rest of this elegantly understated novel), it’s probably about forgiveness.  About how Lyman learns that Oliver’s failure to forgive Susan didn’t maim just her life.  But, even more, his.  

And that, as the historian of the family, Lyman, of all people, was not doomed to repeat his grandfather’s error.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III. The Communion of Saints.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Past.  Present. And FUTURE.

Hit the rewind button.  Again.  Back to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore for a couple of nights at the beautiful State Game Lodge.  I stayed there as a kid with my mom and brother on two trips we made to visit her relatives in far southeast North Dakota.

The Lodge seemed huge then; small now.  One night, my brother and I sat out on the big front porch, watching a fierce storm, the lightning bolts turning the surrounding hills white before they were plunged into an even greater blackness.  Thunder claps coming from just over our heads and then tumbling down the valleys, the rain sluicing in curtains off the roof in front of where we, mesmerized, sat.  The show was over too quickly.

Those were lean times for our family; my dad had gone from driving big Cadillacs with those outrageous tail fins to a little VW bug with faded, orange paint.  But it did the trick, laboring up those long grades in Wyoming, getting us to mom’s relatives’ farms in southeast North Dakota.  Those farmers-those relations-are mostly gone now.

Angry hornets.

Custer State Park is something like a beekeeper’s veil:  it keeps at bay the annoying swarms of tourist traps that would otherwise overwhelm Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park.

Mount Rushmore in a driving rain, sleet mix is less than ideal.  But look on the bright side-I pretty much had the place to myself.  And the weather did nothing to deter those stoic, gray figures, their faces wreathed in mist, gazing out towards the horizon.

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse Memorial

Persistence and determination are alone omnipotent.

A few miles down the road, it was the same story at the Crazy Horse Memorial, where the massive sculpture pranced in and out of the clouds.

In 1939, Lakota Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to the well known Polish-American sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, asking him to create a monument so that “the white man would know that the red man has great heroes too.”  Although Ziolkowski answered in the affirmative, the start of the work was interrupted by the sculptor’s WWII Army service; he was wounded at the Omaha Beach landings.

The first blast on the sculpture didn’t come until June 3, 1948.  The work hasn’t stopped since.  Not by Ziolkowski’s death in 1982.  Nor his wife Ruth’s death in 2014.  It’s now carried on by their 10 children and even grandchildren.

When I first visited Crazy Horse with my mom and brother back in the early ’60’s, you had to have an active imagination to have any idea what was taking shape on that distant pile of rocks.  No longer.  Crazy Horse’s face is finished, even though it will be years, if not decades, before the entire sculpture is.  (This glacial pace of progress has been the object of some criticism and charges of family nepotism.)

Why has it gone so slowly?  It’s all been done with admission fees and private donations.  When federal aid was offered, Ziolkowski and the tribes he worked with refused.  When I asked one of the museum attendants, “Why?” he answered, “The federal government took our land.  We’re not going to take money from them.”

Past. Present. And future.

When Monique Ziolkowshi, Korczak’s daughter and now CEO of the undertaking, is asked when the sculpture will be finished, she replies, “I’ll be dead before it’s done.”

Is this monument, which this woman will never see completed, a strange project to devote one’s life to?  Maybe.

But isn’t it a sort of picture of how life should be lived?  Hopefully, our ancestors have bequeathed something to us we consider worth preserving.  A tradition, or, as Burke had it, a “prescription,” that we carry into the present.  And that we, in turn, live, move and have our being in such a way that makes “the Permanent Things,” as T.S. Eliot described them, beguiling to our descendants.

 

 

II. The Communion of Saints.

big boy locomotive

Big Boy Locomotive

Past. PRESENT. And Future.

Fast forward to the present.  And Cheyenne, Wyoming.  On the map, the drive from the Adams Bonanza Farm was pretty straight forward.  Southwest to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota and where I spent a night at The Hitching Horse Inn B&B, a few blocks from the Missouri River.  Then, west to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for a couple of a gray days; I hadn’t seen that country since my mom took my brother and me there as kids.

From there, south to Cheyenne, Wyoming and a night at the Nagle Warren Mansion B&B. It’s part of “Cattle Baron Row” and was a short walk through the drizzle from downtown.   A few blocks in the other direction, there’s a park with the Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” locomotive is on display.  As a kid, I remember watching it belching black smoke as it thundered across the purple sage of Wyoming and we raced it in our car on the way to summer vacations in Boise.

The Heart of the Matter

But while my drive was linear, the listening wasn’t.  It was The Heart of the Matterby Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a self described “Catholic agnostic.”

The novel captures the ambiguity of living on the evanescent bubble of the present.  Loosely based on Greene’s life, the setting is a west African British colony during World War II.  It’s the story of a hapless policeman, Henry Scobie. Tormented rather than comforted by his Catholic faith, he’s a trapped, despairing, and disillusioned man.  His career is going nowhere.  A loveless marriage is made unbearable by the death of his one daughter.  An affair with a younger woman is not just unsatisfactory, the church teaches that it’s a mortal sin.  Suicide, the only apparent way out, piles eternal damnation on mortal sin.  Not to mention to the human wreckage Scobie believes his death will leave in its wake.

Needless to say, the book didn’t become a near instant best seller on its 1948 publication based on its happy subject matter. My review?  It made the nearly featureless miles of the Wyoming outback melt away.

The scandal that keeps on giving.  And taking.

On Sunday morning I enjoyed breakfast with several other guests around the large table in the dining room.  On line, I’d seen that the main Catholic cathedral for Wyoming was nearby.   I asked our host, Jim, to point me in the right direction and I walked to the early service.  

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary is regal.   Very different than the evangelical, Protestant sanctuaries I’m used to and which, so often, are only a step or two up from unadorned shoe boxes.  The priest was from India and his thick accent rendered the homily largely incomprehensible.    (Catholic homilies, even when comprehensible, are usually a step or two down from the Protestant sermons I’m used to.  Well, guess you can’t have it all.)

As the homily drifted over my head in Cheyenne, my thoughts wondered back to a Mass I’d gone to at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church several weeks before in Silverthorne, Colorado.  I happened to catch Our Lady at the height of the sexual abuse scandal.  There, amidst the crying babies and fidgety kids, the minister read a letter of apology from the Archdiocese.  The stained glass windows shimmered as I blinked away tears.

But why should I be surprised?  I’ve been a Christian nearly 40 years.  During that time, I’ve been a member of four Protestant churches.  In three of the four, church leadership got tangled up in some kind of sexual misconduct.  While not excusing it, I’ve come to believe that it’s nearly an occupational hazard.  What are the chances of a pastor effectively counseling parishioners without being open and transparent?  About zilch?  But those are the very same qualities that can open the door for inappropriate intimacy.  Would the anonymity of the confessional booth help?  Not sure, but might be worth a try.

An uncivil war

A final Catholic story.  For at least 30 years, I’ve made silent retreats at the Sacred Heart Retreat Retreat House just west of Sedalia, Colorado.  Wonderful place-they welcome all comers.  Need to get away?  Forget Southwest Airlines.  Head down to the Retreat House.

Last time I was there, I read a few articles from Commonweal magazine, a Left of center Catholic publication.  Fits right in with my Jesuit friends at Sacred Heart.  But, figuring I could use a bit of leavening from the political Left, I sent away for a subscription.  While the relentless Trump thumping has given me serious second thoughts-even up to the point where I may not renew-a recent article on the church’s horrific sex scandal came as a revelation.

The article, entitled Time to Leave?, is largely about how the sex scandal is seen by the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic church.  Paul Baumann, the magazine’s senior writer and a card carrying liberal, denounces the card carrying conservative Catholic journalist, Damon Linker, for leaving the church.  Baumann contends that the scandal is largely behind the church at this point and that to keep stirring the pot is primarily a symptom of conservative distaste for Pope Francis.

Linker explains his decision to leave the church in an article, The Unbearable Ugliness of the Catholic Church.   While the article is worth reading, you can pretty much get the gist of it from the title alone.  Linker argues that the scandal is anything but ancient history.  And that it’s a cancer continuing to gnaw at the church’s vitals.

So, ancient history?  Or torn from today’s headlines?  How’s an outsider like me to really judge?

But, to steal a line from those well known observers of all things Catholic, The Grateful Dead, “All a friend can say is, ‘Ain’t it a shame.'”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Madame”: God In The Box.

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

And The Money Changers In The Temple.

How I happened to watch the film, I’m not sure.  Perhaps on one of those interminable flights to or from Greece last spring when scraping the bottom of the barrel of viewing choices became a necessity.  When sleep, in seats built for midgets, proved so elusive.

In any event, Madame isn’t good enough that you’d want to suffer through a 14 hour flight to take in.  But it does have some redeeming qualities.  It features the pampered, sexually “liberated” existence of the ultra-wealthy of Paris. And the working stiff, household servants that cater to their every whim.  Judging by the consensus of most of the cinematic literati, it has all the  of a sparkle of a flute of bubbly gone flat (see herehere, and here).

Something’s Happening.  But You Don’t Know What It Is.

And that’s pretty much how it was for me as well.  But there was also something that didn’t quite fit.

But, finally, it dawned on me:  why did a painting of The Last Supper feature so prominently in a film that most parents would want to slip out the back if their kids were sitting next to them?  And that the movie didn’t mock or demonize Christianity-which is so often the only way films seems to be able to treat the subject-was nearly as strange.

No, the painting, and the fortune that it represents, remains serenely in the background, looking on as the weaponized and heartless sexual escapades of this cast of wealthy playboys and girls manipulate each other like so many pieces on a chess board.  (In one scene, two of the female antagonists maneuver oversize chess pieces on an oversize chess board.)  The painting, by Italian Baroque master, Caravaggio, appears at least 6 times in the show; its larger-than-life financial significance is a topic of conversation even more frequently.

Bob and Anne Fredericks, the expatriate American manipulators in chief, need to sell the painting to pull their financial bacon out of the fire that their opulent Parisienne lifestyle has landed them in.  When the picture is finally sold, Bob, who fits the part of the unctuous undertaker down to the ground, watches with satisfaction as the painting is securely nailed in its coffin-like crate.  And then borne away by grim faced pallbearers.  Earlier, Bob describes the painting as his “grandfather’s greatest acquisition.”  Oh, well.  When the creditors are hounding you and there’re appearances to be maintained, what’s a Last Supper and family heirloom among friends?

Release The Kraken!

But it’s when the painting’s sold that things get really squirrelly.  Anne pairs up with the Frenchman whose wife she confronted on the chess board.   Only to be eventually dumped by the husband.  Bob canoodles with his much younger French tutor.  Maria, a maid who, despite her peasant Spanish Catholic upbringing, carries on with David the art broker/aristocrat who profits handsomely from selling the Caravaggio.  Except for Maria and David, around whose two very different worlds the movie wobbles, it’s tough to keep track of all these illicit liaisons without a program.

Holy Family painting by Svitozar Nenyek

“I’m Old Fashioned.  I Believe In Marriage.”

Just before the credits roll, Maria, an enigmatic smile on her face, is shown confidently striding through the streets of Paris.  But towards what, we’re not sure.  That she’s leaving Bob and Anne and David, who’ve treated her like so much beige carpeting to be trod on, is certain.  But is she just in search of another maid job for the ultra-wealthy, where, if she’s lucky, she can trick another gullible rich guy into believing she’s a Spanish princess?

Maybe.  But what would that prove?  That’s she’s learned nothing from observing, as only a maid can, just how heartless the rich and famous can be?

But maybe this idea fits better.  Amanda Sthers, the director and script writer, in addition to her other achievements, is the divorced mother of two children.  At one point in the film, she puts these words in the mouth of Maria, “I’m old fashioned.  I believe in marriage.”  Unsurprisingly, when Maria makes this pronouncement, the playboys and girls around her shrug it off.

At another point, Maria tells David that “I love the picture of the Holy Family that I have next to my bed.”  David, who can’t imagine such things without seeing dollar signs, wonders, “Which master painted it?  It must be tremendously valuable.”  Kitsch art and genuine feeling collide with the money changer.

Is Ms. Sthers, through one of the film’s only sympathetic characters, telling us what she thinks about marriage and Christianity?  Can’t say “Yes” for sure.  But neither can I say “No.”

Madame?  Or, In Other Words, Mrs.

The title of the movie is odd.  The French equivalent of Mrs, does it refer to Anne, the only married woman who has anything other than a bit part?  But Anne definitely plays second fiddle to Maria.  And Maria, it doesn’t appear, is married.

Turns out, however, that Maria has a teenage daughter that she, apparently, can only mother from afar through FaceTime. An aspiring figure skater, the daughter’s lessons are paid for by Bob and Anne. Fearing that Maria’s involvement with the art dealer might scotch their chances to sell the painting, Anne’s maternal instincts kick in,  “You know, Maria, if you can’t get this thing with David under control, we may have to quit paying for your daughter’s skating lessons.”  Yep.  The maternal instincts of a serpent.

So maybe, just maybe, Maria has resolutely set her face toward resuming her role as something other than a FaceTime avatar for her daughter.  And, who knows, even something as wildly old fashioned as a family.

Second Meanings.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, Reflections On The Psalms, says this about hidden meanings in those famous poems.  Or, for that matter, movies:

“Hitherto we have been trying to read the Psalms as we suppose-or I suppose-their poets meant them to be read.  But this of course is not the way in which they have been used by Christians.  They have been believed to contain a second or hidden meaning, an ‘allegorical’ sense . . .  Such a doctrine, not without reason, arouses deep distrust in a modern mind.  Because, as we know, almost anything can be read into any book [or movie] if you are determined enough. . . (Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish that I had thought of them myself.”)

So, am I guilty of “imposing” an ingenious allegorical meaning on Madame that has no business being there?

Of course, I can’t be certain what Ms. Sthers had in mind when she created this movie.  Maybe it’s just, as most of the critics believe, a fizzy French nothing burger of a naughty comedy.

But if so, why so obviously give the Last Supper painting pride of place?  And which, at least briefly and less than perfectly, holds back the sexual anarchy, angst and greed that prevails after the painting is sold for an inflation adjusted 30 pieces of silver?

But perhaps that’s the real problem with this movie.  Maybe Ms. Sthers herself doesn’t know exactly what she wants.  A bonbon?  Or something with more substance, a commentary on the anomie that besets us when the idols of money and sex trump all other values?  And what happens to people who think they’ve succeeded in doing as Pilate directed the chief priests and Pharisees: “You have a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rewind Button. Part III.

500x350 four kachinas sign

The Church Of Beethoven.

The next day, our tour guides, Linda and Jim, took us back to Santa Fe where we meandered up the Canyon Road art district.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the way of art in its countless galleries, you may as well give up.  From there, we had lunch at the the historic La Fonda hotel, right on the central plaza.  Nothing changed my opinion that it’s tough to get bad Mexican food in New Mexico.

Back To The Four Kachinas.

On out way out of town,  we drove by the Four Kachinas, the B&B I’d stayed a couple of nights before.  Something we did a few days later in Albuquerque turned my thoughts back there.

The cook responsible for the second “B” was a young woman who lived in a trailer home outside of town.  After the other guests had left, I visited with her as she cleaned up.

She’s studying to be nurse at night school.  When she learned I was from Denver, she asked, “Have you ever heard of the Victory Chapel in Lakewood?”

An impressive woman.  Working at a B&B that caters to the affluent, scraping by in a trailer park, going to night school, and yet willing to go out on a limb for her Lord.

“No,” I answered, “can’t say that I have.  How do you know about that church?”

“It’s the home church for the one I go to here,” she replied.  “And I’m going to Denver this summer for a weekend convention there.”

“Well,” I said, “hope it goes well.  My wife and I attend a Greenwood Community Church in Denver.”

The Chattering Classes.

Sunday morning, back in Albuquerque, the four of us went to Chatter.  Not our first rodeo there with Jim and Linda; it’s an intimate space in the warehouse district where chamber music-among other things-are performed.

Formerly known as the Church of Beethoven, I have to confess to a frisson of Schadenfreude when I learned that the name change was due to a trade mark dispute with the estate of the deceased founder, Felix Wurman and his collaborator, David Felberg.

While, by the way, there is some dispute about Beethoven’s religious beliefs, it is generally agreed that he never attended church.  His friend, Haydn, thought he was an atheist.

Call me hopelessly old fashioned, but why not go to a real church on Sunday mornings?   Don’t get me wrong.  I like classical music as much as the next guy.  And the musicians excelled on works by Mendelssohn and Schumann.

However, I found that a couple other offerings on the morning’s program were about as soothing as ragged nails being dragged across a chalkboard.  The “Spoken Word,” by Megan Baldridge, featured a mercifully brief anti-Trump diatribe from her cleverly titled, UNpresidented, collection of poetry.   The audience was suitably appreciative.

And then there was the “Celebration of Silence:  Two Minutes.”  It was so easy to imagine this exercise morphing into an Orwellian “Two Minutes Hate” if the fellow up front had suggested that we focus our thoughts on the President.

Classical Music Awash In An Sea Of Fracked Oil.

At the bottom right of the program there was a little box that read, “Chatter is grateful for the support of New Mexico Arts, a Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.”

“Aha!” I thought, “just like cultural events in Denver, this outfit is probably supported by a regressive sales tax to subsidize the elite pleasures of the old and affluent.”  Sure enough, as I walked out I conducted an unscientific survey and counted no more than about 20 in the crowd of 200-300 who appeared to be under the age of 35.  The rest, like me, were old codgers.

Wrong again-at least about the sales tax.  Although I checked the NMA website when I got home, it only said that the state devotes “1%” to support public art.  But one percent of what?  It didn’t say.

So I called.

The lady who took my call was pleasant and helpful.  “I went to Chatter recently,” I said, “and saw that you provide some of its support.  I looked on your website, but couldn’t figure out where that money comes from.  Is it a sales tax or something else?”

She reported that the legislature set the budget each year.  “And,” she continued, “a lot of that comes from oil and gas revenues.”

Indeed.  New Mexico recently passed Oklahoma and California to become the third largest oil producer in the country.  Being pumped from the Permian basin just across the border from Texas, virtually all of that oil is coming from fracked wells.

Maybe at the next Chatter, the leader of the “Celebration of Silence: Two Minutes” can suggest that the crowd send happy thoughts the way of the oil business.

What’s In A Name?

According to an Albuquerque newspaper, the organization’s founder, Wurman, intended the name, The Church of Beethoven, to be “ironic.”

Now, I know that “ironic” can be one of those slippery words with multiple definitions.  But according to Google, some synonyms include sarcastic, sardonic, cynical, mocking, satirical, caustic, wry.”  And context is telling.

And could the context make it any more plain what was intended by the original name?  The Church of Beethoven.  On Sunday morning.  This, in other words, is where the smart set is on Sunday mornings.

And to what end?  To demonstrate that these “church” goers aren’t among the booboisie squandering their Sunday mornings at those oh-soretrograde real churches.

Like, for example, the Victory Temple. The church the young woman at the Four Kachinas attends.  And who, scraping by in a trailer park, is going to night school.  And is, no doubt, a card carrying member of that booboisie.

I wonder what those two Jewish founders of the Church of Beethoven would think of a Friday musical soiree, at sundown, called the Shabbat of Wagner?  The irony would probably have them in stitches.

Happy Trails To You.

I could probably go on.  But, I fear, I’ve already kicked over too many hornets’ nests.

So, until we meet again.