Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christmas, a pack of lies

Now that we've survived one winter holiday, it's time to start thinking about the next hurdle: Christmas.

It struck me today that Christmas is one big pack of lies, like that big black pack that Santa brings down the chimney. "He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!" First, there's the lie about the Man With All the Toys; that's obvious. That's the first lie you find out about. Then there's the lie about the Virgin Birth, which you figure out later.  Then, there's the lie that you have to go out and spend $700, pronto. Let's deal with these one at a time.

Why do people tell kids that there's a man that comes down their chimney (even if they don't have a chimney, which most new houses don't) and leaves toys for them that were made in China? And why do kids believe this patent nonsense? I figured it out this morning: it's a kind of initiation ceremony for kids. About the age of six or seven, you figure out that Santa is not real. Perhaps you discover a drawer in your mother's dresser that has presents in it, clearly intended for children. Perhaps it's a closet. Perhaps you just think one day, "This is an improbable story that doesn't conform to the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it."

And what is your next thought?

 "They LIED to me!"

This is the most important part of the initiation. You discover that you can't trust The Man. You discover that every edict handed down by the authorities should be examined carefully for inconsistencies and illogic.  It's especially important not to trust those in authority when they tell you what you will get if you are good. Because you will NOT get those things if you are good.  Being good is its own reward. This is a hard, but important auxillary lesson.

It takes a little longer to shake the idea that The Man is watching you: "He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness's sake." (No, not for goodness's sake: in order to get the toys!)  I didn't fully shake this notion that somebody was watching not only my actions but my innermost thoughts until I was well into my thirties. I remember that I was driving down I-40, and I suddenly realized that it was not true that God or Santa was watching my every thought. Getting rid of that constant surveillance by The Man was really liberating, but I had to keep reminding myself for years that I was the only one who knew my thoughts, and that I could have any thought I wanted to, no matter how blasphemous, and nothing would happen.

I probably failed as a parent by not setting up this initiation ceremony for my son. I told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was a game that grown-ups like to play at Christmas. It was interesting to find that he did not believe me at first, because all the other grown-ups told him that Santa was real.  After one particularly bounteous Christmas, with a lot of remote-control robots and cars, he told me that now he knew Santa was real, because I could never have gotten him all that stuff! I reminded him that he was the only person under thirty in our family, and people over thirty love to buy toys for little kids that they wished they could have bought for themselves when they were six. This did not fly. He believed in Santa for a whole nother year. And there was never a satisfying "I told you so" moment. It just went unspoken that I was the only grown-up in the universe who had not lied about Santa to him. In the end, though, it worked out ok, because he is reasonably cynical about people in power now.

On to the second lie: the Virgin Birth. This disturbed me a lot as a kid.  We were always told as girl children that after you get married, God puts a baby in your stomach, and that's how you get pregnant. But, for mysterious and scary reasons, there were some girls who got pregnant BEFORE they got married!  We learned this because my mother was a volunteer at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls. Apparently sometimes God got the sequence of things backwards, and when this happened, you had to leave your family and go live in this home until the baby was born, and then you had to give it away!  This thought was terribly frightening to me. I knew that somehow going to that home was shameful--you were "wayward"--but yet, God had done it, so...And then it happened to Jesus's mother too! For her, the whole thing worked out better: she was not sent to a home for wayward girls, and Joseph took her back despite the fact that somehow she was at fault for being pregnant with Jesus; the Bible said he had at first planned to "put her away quietly."  At age eight or so, I knew exactly what this meant: it meant she would go to the Florence Crittenton home. If it could happen to somebody as good as Mary, could it happen to me? Would everybody be so understanding? Or would I end up a wayward girl?

This lie clearly has to go.  The idea that you can get pregnant without having sex, or that a bodiless spirit can "overpower" you without your consent while you're asleep and get you pregnant, and that then you would be blamed and punished, is just pre-modern and unfair. There's nothing nice to say about it. The fact that Mary is idolized for the fact that this happened to her, while ordinary girls are punished for it, just makes it a more confusing, and thus pernicious, lie.

Growing out of this lie is a little different from growing out of the Santa Claus lie. First, you find out that ordinary girls don't get pregnant by the Holy Ghost; they get pregnant from sex with boys. But there's a kernel of truth to the old fears you had about impregnation by God: it turns out that you CAN be overpowered, and then blamed and punished! (And you can't necessarily "shut it down," as I hope everybody now understands.)  But the perp is always just an ordinary guy, not a god.  Apparently for this reason, you don't get a pass like Mary got, although it's not clear why there's a difference in culpability.

Finally, the lie I wrote about last year: the lie that $700 must be spent by every grown-up in America before December 25, or else. (Some people are clearly spending a lot more than that, because I'm spending a lot less.) I will link here to my previous analysis of this lie.  The only thing I will add is that this year Walmart employees decided that they did not want to be stampeded to death by Christmas shoppers on Thanksgiving night, and they took a stand against (among other things) the earlier and earlier encroachment of Christmas shopping onto everything that is sacred about Thanksgiving, namely food and a day off. I think this is great. I did not shop at Walmart on Thanksgiving or the day after, in order to support the  destruction of this lie about compulsory spending.

This is the one we need to work on outgrowing now. And like the others, outgrowing it is ultimately healthy, although embracing the reality around it can be hard. It may be true that some people will get mad if we stop spending money on them at Christmas. (Others might be relieved because then they can scale back as well.) It may be true that some retailers might not make as much money in December. But what is NOT true is that less shopping will collapse the economy. What is bad for our economy is borrowing and borrowing from China, in order to buy their plastic gizmos.

Let's face it: Santa doesn't bring the toys, there are no Virgin Births, and we can't keep borrowing like this. A reality-based Christmas could be a perfectly wonderful winter holiday. Could we try it this year?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teaching Old English poetry to young English speakers

This week my small class of home schoolers is reading Old English poetry. We are starting with riddles, because they are short and intriguing, and because I found an excellent site where a few riddles are translated, interpreted, and spoken aloud in Old English.

I was curious as to how these 9th graders would respond to this poetry. On the one hand, the idea of the riddle is familiar to most people, and these students love Tolkien, so they remember Bilbo Baggins and his riddle contest with Gollum in The Hobbit. Since a new movie of The Hobbit is coming out soon, it seemed appropriate to talk about riddles some. On the other hand, Old English, while it may be technically English, is more like German than like modern English, and you can't just sit down and read it with no help. Fortunately that site provides a line by line glossary of the riddles, in addition to a text of the riddle in modern English. Looking at the line by line glossary, you see that there are a lot of words in Old English that modern English retains, such as "moth," "word," and "worm." They may look a little different in Old English, for example the word "moth" is spelled with the thorn letter for the sound "th" that modern English doesn't have, and "worm" is spelled, charmingly, "wyrme." But "word" is just spelled "word," although it means "song," as well as simply, "word." Also, "wyrme" not only means a worm, like the larvae of a moth, but it also can mean "dragon," or simply any annoying creature that bites!

The worm poem is about a book worm that devours words while eating the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon scribe, which were written onto vellum, or very thin leather. The commentary says that to the worm, it was just so much beef jerky, but to the poet, it is human culture that the worm is devouring. The riddle turns into a meditation on the ephemerality of human culture, and it implies a kind of critique of the new written culture, as opposed to the older traditional oral culture of the Anglo Saxons. The oral culture could be said to be less vulnerable to loss, because before writing, thousands of people memorized riddles, songs, and epic poetry. Now, in this new Christianized age of the manuscript, there is no need to memorize your entire literature: it's all written down in books! But beware the wyrme...

In another riddle, the "speaker" says that she or he is very valuable, "brung from the woods" on wings, and then bathed in a tub?!  And that she throws men to the ground and binds them, and takes away their control over their minds, hands, and feet. She is mead, the wine made from honey. My students were puzzled by the idea of the honey being "bathed in a tub." I said that honey back then came in a rather dirty beeswax, full of bee larvae, because there was no super on the hive that separated the comb with eggs from the comb without eggs. So, to make mead, all the honey and comb was bathed in water and then probably strained to get the beeswax, eggs, and comb out. The honey would be diluted with water before making mead.

Another beautiful riddle describes the old moon "with the new moon in her arms": that phenomenon where the waning moon appears to have a faint whole moon cradled in its crescent. The riddle imagines that the waning moon wants this glowing orb to light a special room that it will build onto its house. But the rising sun chases away the "thief" and takes back the "booty" that the waning moon has stolen. Then the waning moon disappears for several days (as it does before it returns as the new moon).

The biggest barrier for my students with these poems was not the Old English language; after all, we had translations. It was not even the highly figurative language: the "wonderlice wiht" with a glowing orb between its horns. It was the fact that the Anglo Saxon tool kit and worldview was so utterly unfamiliar: the bee skep, the books written on animal skins, the horn that was both a musical instrument and a drinking vessel, and even the movements of the moon through the night sky. The gulf between pre-industrial people and ourselves is indeed vast. We discussed all these technological references thoroughly, though, and that helped. The students' questions made me realize how interested the Anglo Saxons were in their own technology: the riddles are mostly concerned with How Things Work, it seems, and what they are made out of, and how they are made. I probably would not have noticed this without the students' questions.

A student also asked something about why people would spend so much time inventing and memorizing riddles and songs in an oral culture. I said that I thought that it was partly because there was nothing else to do in winter at night. It gets dark and cold in Northern Europe in winter: there may only be a few hours of sunlight every day. You can only sleep about ten hours, and then you wake up. When you go to bed at dark, you wake up around midnight, and so do other people. It's still dark and cold, so you lie in bed talking, telling jokes and stories, and maybe singing or making love. Then you go back to sleep for a few hours before dawn. This was called the first sleep and the second sleep. I'm guessing that during the awake time in the middle of the night, people composed and shared riddles. Modern students are as unfamiliar with the rituals of pre-industrial night-time as they are with the making of mead or the inscribing of illuminated manuscripts.  They didn't quite believe me when I said that if you go to bed at dark, you will wake up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. But that's what happens to me after a few days of early-to-bed, once I get over the cumulative fatigue of normal industrial life.

I made a writing assignment which was to write a riddle (in modern English of course). I challenged myself to write one too, and compose it orally, as Anglo Saxon people would have for centuries. It's also a "parody" of an Anglo Saxon riddle, sort of, since "parody" was one of our vocabulary words.

I am yellow      and some call me yucky
the poorer people     buy me in boxes
They melt me down    to a gooey gold
I fly through the food-gate     riding a round horse
Whose bones are broken     but I live longer
Down the drain      to the cauldron cave
Where finally as fuel     I end in energy.
Who am I?

Answer: Velveeta cheese