Friday 17 November 2023

In the Bleak November

Prima facie, I seem like the sort of person who would find the bleak November landscape depressing. The dead leaves, the darkness, the cold, are all reminders that life and light and warmth are only temporary. Since I cannot bear the thought of mortality, I avoid reminders of death and dying. 

November bridges the glorious fall foliage season and the festive holidays. From Thanksgiving onward, I cherish the holiday season with its bright lights, cheerful decorations, uplifting music, indulgent food, and celebrations that hold the dark and cold of winter at bay. To my way of thinking, the holiday season occurs too early in the winter. When it ends at the beginning of January, we still have to get through the rest of that long, dark, cold month, as well as February and March, my least favourite months of the year, before we begin to see signs of life, light, and warmth towards the end of April. To protect myself against seasonal affective disorder, I stretch out the holiday season until the beginning of February, following the Queen's practice of taking down the tree on Candlemas. Last year, I had the foresight to plan a trip to visit my best friend in February, so I would have something to look forward to that month besides eating too much Valentine's candy. We had an intimate, relaxed visit, walking around her city, familiar and dear to me as a second hometown, and visiting museums and cafes in the absence of the usual tourist crush. We enjoyed the thermal baths in an Art Deco spa in the city centre on a weekday afternoon and walked home in crisp cold air in the early dark past windows filled with candles and fairy lights to create a cosy atmosphere, almost a religion in Sweden in winter. We cooked dinners and talked late into the night over glasses of red wine, catching up in a way that has been difficult to find the time to do since we were in the same dormitory in graduate school decades ago. But absent such highlights, I struggle to keep my spirits up through the winter months after the holiday season ends.

Winter has its moments: the childlike release of snow days, with mulled wine and hot chocolate, baking and knitting and hibernating as the snow piles up outside. Watching snowflakes fall, seeing the joyful red of a cardinal or winterberries against the bare black branches and white ground, and experiencing the profound peace of a snow-clad forest are some of life's greatest treasures. I recently tried snowshoeing and it gave me an opportunity to spend some time outdoors in winter, something I had always lacked due to my intolerance for cold, and relieved some of my severe cabin fever.

Early spring, with its dirty snow, melting to reveal last fall's not-yet-decomposed dead leaves, grey sunless days, and that damp cold that goes right through you, is my least favourite season. I cannot get warm in that weather nor does the weak sunlight have the power to lift my mood out of the mud.

Late spring, with its warmer sunlight, soft green buds on the trees, and the brief blooming of lilacs, my favourite flower, is a separate season to me. It often surprises people when I say spring is my least favourite season because this part of spring is what they are thinking of when they picture spring. Mud season and cold rain are blocked out, perhaps as a coping mechanism. I divide spring in two and have to explain this parsing of the season to people shocked by my forceful denunciation of it.

Summer I never want to end because the extended daylight and warmth give me energy and hope. I achieve 9/10 of what I accomplish all year in summer as my motivation and mood go up with each additional minute of daylight and each degree above 70F (within reason: my comfortable temperature range is about 80-85).

Yet despite lamenting the departure of the energising heat and light of summer, autumn is my favourite season. Specifically, autumn in New England: I love the fall colours and the festivals celebrating the harvest. As a kid, I loved school, and, as an adult, I remained a student as long as I could, then worked as a teacher, so I could stay on a schedule where September was a new beginning, the start of a new school year. Rather than buy planners that start on January 1, which feels like the middle of the holiday season to me and not the start of a new anything, I have always bought academic year planners because this is how I conceptualise the year. I see it as an annual fresh start, a clean slate that always gives me hope and motivation to work towards my goals.

So you could not be faulted for assuming that the grim interval between Halloween and Thanksgiving, after the leaves have fallen and the farmers' markets have closed, after Daylight Saving Time has ended and the days and chill close in, would depress me. I would assume that myself, so I was intrigued to discover that I do not find the starkness of the bare trees depressing. 

Yes, I love the awe-inspiring autumn sunsets and I do miss them come November when the sun just seems to disappear in the early afternoon, skiving off early to slip beneath the horizon before the workday ends. Those first weeks after the clocks fall back, you glance up from your computer in mid afternoon to see the darkened windows and mistakenly think it must be quitting time. Quickly disabused of that brief elation, you become resigned to commuting in darkness, blinded by oncoming headlights. Evening activities feel later because of the darkness and tiredness hits earlier. An after work run is now impossible and a pre-work run not much more feasible given the later sunrise and morning chill. Indian summer in October lets you put off donning the heavy boots and down coat but November gives you no such reprieve. Suddenly, it is 22F in the morning and, even if it occasionally gets into the 50s by afternoon, there is no pretending it is still iced coffee weather.

I do not like any of those aspects of November and yet they somehow do not drag me down as one would expect. When I look at the bare trees and fields, I see not an unbearable stark reminder of death but a pause, as if nature is taking a short rest between the magnificent, spectacular colour and abundance of autumn and the festivity of the holiday season. Winter is considered to be nature's resting season, her long nap before her great efforts at birth and growth begin again in spring. But without that cleansing of the palate between the foliage and the holidays, the transition from autumn into winter would be too decadent, like going from party to party without going home to sleep and work in between. We would not appreciate the foliage and the harvest as much without this breather before Thanksgiving ushers in the Xmas season. We need the darkness before the light, trite by true. At least, I do; I cannot speak for anyone else. I know the time after the clocks change is hard on a lot of people, especially the earlier sunset. They may not notice the sliver of moon now visible hanging low in the sky behind the trees that have shed the shielding modesty of their leaves, nor appreciate the frost that has transformed the morning dew into jewels as if by magic.

When I look at the silhouette of the bare trees against the waning November light, I think of poetry. This is about the only time I think of poetry, to be honest. Although I have some old favourites, it is not a genre that usually draws my attention and emotions. But the November landscape is a poetic backdrop more than a prose one. Its empty spaces where plants grew and light shone and animals roamed beg to be filled in with human words to express their existential feel.

From Emily Dickinson:

How happy I was if I could forget
To remember how sad I am
Would be an easy adversity
But the recollecting of Bloom

Keeps making November difficult
Till I who was almost bold
Lose my way like a little Child
And perish of the cold.

From Robert Frost:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grady
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so ryly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Next week is Thanksgiving and the harried start of the all-too-brief holiday season. Until then, pause and breathe, take some days to appreciate this intermission when nature has drawn the curtains on one show and readies for another.

Sunday 17 October 2021

Rhinebeck Revisited: Fewer Sheep, Less Wool

It's been four years since I last posted about the annual New York Sheep and Wool Festival, known succinctly as "Rhinebeck" in the knitting world for its venue, the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY. If you haven't yet read my first post about it, start there.

Rhinebeck has been my favourite event for the dozen or so years I have been privileged to know it. The first year I attended, I took the bus from WEBS. This had its advantages, from the cider donuts, raffles, and festive atmosphere on the bus, to the fiber-y camaraderie. The what-are-you-knitting conversations on the way down shifting to a show-and-tell of what everyone purchased on the journey home. I even made a new friend on that bus ride (hi Rena!). The not having to drive part was also appealing but I have opted to drive myself every year since. I need the control of getting there early and staying until the bitter end, as well as the opportunity to enjoy the fall foliage along the Taconic State Parkway, a route the bus cannot take. Not to mention the extreme level of motion sickness I suffer every time I ride a bus puts somewhat of a damper on the day.

In the years since my first Rhinebeck pilgrimage, I have taken one knitting friend to yarn mecca (hi SJ!), as well as my father, who for several years planned his annual visits around Rhinebeck weekend. He is not a knitter, but he appreciates fine craftsmanship and he enjoyed browsing the booths of the many woodworking vendors, who sell beautiful wooden tools for all the fibre arts, from spinning wheels and looms to handmade crochet hooks, as well as spoons and other kitchen tools, and carved animals (I was tempted by the hedgehogs and had to remind myself that I am not a dust-catching-tchotchke person).

The four-hour round trip drive gives me enough time to listen to my favourite recording of my favourite opera, so that has become something of a Rhinebeck tradition as well. Others include ordering a pizza when I am about 20 minutes from home on the return journey. Pizza is a treat that fits the celebratory atmosphere of the day, but also serves the practical purpose of providing dinner when I am too exhausted to cook. A shower, a glass of wine, and pawing my Rhinebeck purchases without getting pizza grease on them is the limit of my energy level at that point.

I would like to indoctrinate introduce my partner and his daughter to Rhinebeck, but the stars have not yet aligned to make that feasible with his work schedule. It is also possible that I have scared them a bit by describing the methodical way I approach the day, which comes across as more akin to a secular praying of the rosary through the stations of the cross than a fun day out at the fair, munching on cider donuts as the colourful leaves drift down around you and the sheepdogs bark joyfully as they run to catch frisbees.

Yes, I am severely OCD, but I am not alone in my devotional approach to Rhinebeck. Sagacious knitting wit Franklin Habit, who recently moved to Paris, marked the occasion this year by posting "Happy Rhinebeck to all who observe."

Speaking of those cider donuts, I have marvelled that the consistently longest of the ridiculously long food queues at Rhinebeck, rivalled only by the lamb sandwich line, is the cider donut queue. Living in the heart of New England, you can't swing a skein around my town from Labor Day through Thanksgiving without hitting a place that sells cider donuts (and, even better, pumpkin donuts). I have the obligatory sacramental cider donut each fall—this year during an apple picking outing, fittingly—but I confess to taking them for granted now that I live in New England. The online buzz about Rhinebeck this year, after its pandemic-related cancellation in 2020, included much anticipation of cider donut consumption, often tucked in posts and comments advising first-time Rhinebeckers on what not to miss. All the donut talk reminded me that many knitters come to Rhinebeck from the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, and other places outside the Cider Donut Belt. The women behind me in line to get in the gate were from Georgia. They were talking, as I could not help hearing, about the difficulty of finding a bra that fits properly and is comfortable, without underwires digging into underarms, underboobs, and underribs. I did not join the conversation as they were not wearing masks but I silently echoed their awed exclamations when one of the women mentioned that she works in a lingerie store that carries bras from a 28A to a 48O and they paused to attempt to imagine the formidable rack on the customer needing a size O bra. (Yeah, I know you just Googled. Take as long as you need. I did too.)

After missing a year of Rhinebeck, my anticipation was verging on desperation. This was little-kid-on-Xmas-Eve level excitement. I could hardly sleep or focus on any task for at least a week prior. Ironically, between my day job, freelancing, and taking care of family, I had no time to actually knit, but I was thinking of little else, even as I endeavoured to be present in other areas of my life. I started listening to a new-to-me knitting podcast on my morning jog, and perused knitting patterns on Ravelry instead of politics on Twitter in the loo.

But I had a nagging worry that the lingering pandemic, due to the anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers, was going to negatively affect this year's longed-for Rhinebeck experience. The omens of an abridged Rhinebeck multipled as the holy third weekend of October approached. First, neither the organisers nor the fairgrounds required masks or proof of vaccination to attend. Masks were requested, but not required, in buildings, for anyone vaccinated. But we know that the Venn diagram of people who refuse the vaccination and people who refuse to wear masks is nearly a circle, so such milque toast requests are worse than useless, they are a capitulation to the selfish, homicidal Covidiots who wish to prolong the pandemic at all costs, even their own preventable deaths and Darwin Awards (which cannot come fast enough to please me, but that's another blog post). None of my knitting friends was going, fearing that it just was not safe yet.

The organisers were implementing some changes to limit transmission of the coronavirus and forestall a super-spreader event, but they sounded more likely to abridge the experience without much increasing safety. Vendors were to be limited to every other booth space, no double booths, and some vendors were moved outside. All workshops and speakers and indoor demos were cancelled or moved online. All children's events were cancelled, although that seemed like a good precaution, to be fair. (And, to be blunt, Rhinebeck is not very kid friendly anyway. Few knitters bring their children to Rhinebeck, if they can avoid it, because kids' limited patience precludes the parent from perusing the yarn. It is not that they don't love their kids, they just can't shop with them in tow. Of course, if dad is there, he can take the kids to watch the sheep herding and pet the llamas whilst mom herds skeins and pets yarn, but two-parent families are rare these days.)

I was simultaneously worried that vendors would stay away but crowds would be worse due to pent-up demand. Attendance turned out to be much lighter than usual, great for me albeit not for the sellers, but my fears about the dearth of vendors were more than realised. The every other booth arrangement did not lead to the rest of the vendors simply being moved outside. There was a smattering of tents but most of the vendors I look forward to browsing and buying from simply weren't there. All vendors noted that they had brought much less stock than usual, and the larger vendors, who normally use two adjacent booth spaces, were unrecognisable in single booths with limited stock. The vendor who makes the felted cat toys that I replenish each year was there, but no cat toys. The same sad scene was repeated, with the notable exception of soap. For some reason, soap vendors have been multiplying like rabbits at Rhinebeck in recent years, and, in lieu of yarn, I somehow came home with about 15 bars of soap. I'm strict about soap scents being seasonal, so one bright spot in a disappointing Rhinebeck year was stocking up on autumn and winter soap. I am definitely covered until Rhinebeck next year, and possibly for several years beyond that.

Cider donuts excepted, the food was different this year too, or perhaps I'm different: I look forward each year to a certain chocolate chip cookie vendor who sells cookies in the shape of a bar. They're egregiously expensive, but worth it as an annual treat, along with a hot cup of coffee to ward off the autumn chill. I was afraid the cookies might be a casualty of the pandemic, but they were sold by a vendor attached to the fairgrounds, i.e., in a permanent location, that vends at every event held there, not just Sheep & Wool, so I lived in hope.  Maybe the cliche of nothing living up to our inflated expectations applies, or perhaps it's my habit of making my own cookies with greatly reduced sugar content, but I found the cookie to be both bland and sickly sweet. And the hot coffee? It was 76F, nearly a Rhinebeck record. As someone who freezes when it gets below 75F/25C, I have been enjoying the unusually warm autumn, as have my peppers and tomatoes, which are still producing fruit in mid-October, but even I admit this warm weather is somewhat inappropriate for a knitting festival.

One of the many initially-informal-but-now-codified traditions that has arisen around Rhinebeck is the making and wearing of the Rhinebeck sweater. This is a garment knit for the express purpose of showing it off at Rhinebeck to an appreciative audience. No Rhinebeck is complete without tapping a few strangers on the shoulder to exclaim, "I love your [jumper, cardigan, hat, shawl, cowl, whatever hand knit item they are wearing to elicit this response]!" It typically takes about two years to knit a sweater but, since the organisers cottoned on to this tradition, an official Rhinebeck sweater pattern has been promulgated, giving knitters a year to complete it for next year's festival. This tradition in turn has given rise to t-shirts, bags, and buttons that say "No rest [sleep, in some versions] til Rhinebeck!" Any knitter who sees this in the wild knows exactly what it means. This year, most fairgoers abandoned the wearing of their hand knits in favour of tank tops and flip-flops, but a few stubbornly wore their (beautiful, it should be noted) Rhinebeck sweaters. She moved through the fair, drenched in sweat.

Another inviolable Rhinebeck tradition is the (increasingly overpriced) lamb sandwich. It is, ironically, the only line this militant vegetarian is willing to stand in—yes, hypocrisy duly acknowledged. I don't normally eat lamb, or any meat, but the juxtaposition of the lamb sandwich, its lamb sliced like pastrami and served on a kaiser roll with onions and mustard, with supporting the use of sheep as fibre animals has struck me as complementary. There is not enough money in raising sheep just to shear them for wool, and some, usually males, as in the dairy and egg industries, are killed for food and skins. I do not approve but I understand the economics of the situation for farmers, many of whom are engaged in preventing heritage breeds from becoming extinct. Finally, the culinary designation 'lamb' refers to meat from sheep under a year old, by which time they are long since fully grown. They are still cute, but not the adorable baby lambkins gambolling around playfully that I, for one, could not imagine anyone being so heartless as to murder, even if starving to death were the only other option. So, hypocritical, perhaps, but this is my rationalisation for my once-a-year-at-a-sheep-and-wool-festival lamb sandwich, which I have not actually had in four years, as I got the soup two years ago, and they were sold out three years ago. The lamb sandwich vendor also sold lamb sausage and lamb and barley soup. The soup, with carrots and spices, is delicious, and warming on a cold autumn day. But this year, the part of the menu sign listing the sandwiches and sausage was covered over, replaced with a handwritten menu offering lamb shank ($22) or lamb riblets ($20). No lamb sandwiches this year, although they still had the soup. It was, though, as I mentioned above, 76 degrees, so for the first time, there was no queue, and with good  reason. I managed to find a vendor selling pumpkin mac & cheese, which indulged my autumn food fetish adequately, but the lack of lamb sandwiches was odd and disappointing. 

Traffic in the buildings was designated to be one way, another pandemic precaution, but there were some flaws in the execution. One doorway (all doors were kept wide open this year for air circulation) had "entrance" signs, the opposite doorway had "exit" signs. There were arrows on the floor backing up this traffic flow instruction, but someone had accidentally (presumably, unless they were having a laugh), put the arrows on the floor in the wrong direction, so they were pointing toward the designated entrance, leading everyone to ignore the whole mess and just browse around in every direction as usual, like squirrels who have eaten some coffee beans.

Much lighter crowds this year

Hearing snippets of conversation is unavoidable, and there is usually one Rhinebeck gem. This year, in the Ewetopia booth, I overheard a man retort to his companion, "You're the earth tones. I'm not. I'm Jew tones."

The kangaroos and lemurs were there as usual

So were the sheep, albeit far fewer than usual

Yet another tradition is to photograph one's Rhinebeck haul and post it on social media. This year, I bought far less than normal, and most of it was gifts for my partner and his daughter rather than additions to my yarn stash. There was (much!) less to buy, but I also felt constrained by my lack of time for knitting, something I am determined to remedy this year. I still have enough yarn in my stash to circle the globe several times over, so I feel guilty buying more until I have used it. I also seem to have acquired a future, and that has altered my perspective. (Yes, that first clause was stolen not-quite-shamelessly from Possession.) Back when I was under- or unemployed, broke, heavily in debt, barely scraping by living on my credit cards, throwing money down the toilet in interest, and feeling little hope of ever improving my financial situation, shopping for yarn once a year seemed to be a small indulgence to make a life on the financial and professional fringes bearable. A lot has been written on the mystery of why poor people waste money on small indulgences, such as coffee drinks, rather than living as ascetically and frugally as monks and saving every penny. The answer, obvious in retrospect, turned out to be that the poor have no hope of socio-economic mobility. Giving up small indulgences like a $5 coffee are not going to lead to enough money to buy a house or invest or otherwise climb out of poverty and the disdain heaped upon them by the rich reflects a breathtakingly myopic selfishness, a lack of understanding that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and trickle-down economics are a myth and a self-serving lie, an excuse for perpetuating a system that rewards rich people for being rich and punishes poor people continuously, in every area of life, from conception until death and beyond, for being poor. Now, I have a full-time job. True, it does not pay enough, but I augment it with freelance work, minimise my living expenses, and have a partner who has just moved in and started sharing rent and utilities. I have paid off two of my three credit cards and I can see what I never believed possible before: A life where I am not flushing money down the toilet in interest every month, and can start, for the first time in my life, building a savings account for emergencies. A house is probably still unrealistic. The Boomers were the last generation to be able to afford to own property, but living debt free, and having a cushion for emergencies, even accounting for the inevitable future bouts of unemployment due to the lack of job security in any field these days, is something I can see on the horizon now. I no longer buy anything I cannot pay off at the end of the month. No more accumulating credit card debt because it is my only option to live a little. Knowing I would have to pay off whatever I purchased by the end of the month effectively stopped me from buying much at Rhinebeck this year.

One vendor from whom I did make a small yarn purchase hailed from Irasburg, Vermont. I love the Northeast Kingdom and have a special affection for Irasburg, thanks to the Kingdom Run, so I was moved to support this seller in particular.

Trumpublicans? I didn't ask, but they show the Covidiot signs

Even before the pandemic, I never wanted to support vendors whose values I deplore, but unless they advertise their politics, I have no way of knowing how they vote. The pandemic made that more obvious. I decided that I was not going to buy from any vendors who were not wearing masks as that clearly identifies them as Trumpublicans, anti-mask, anti-vaccine zealots who are responsible for prolonging the pandemic. One booth had three sour-faced sellers, no masks, one wearing a cowboy hat, with an American flag on the wall behind them. I tried to get a photo of them as a textbook example for this blog post, but they were glaring at me, so I retreated across the aisle and was not able to get a clear photo through the crowd. I was horrified to see one of my favourite soup vendors maskless and quickly asked what their stance was, hoping I would not have to forego buying some of their lilac soap. They explained that they were vaccinated, and had been masked all morning, but their position near the wide open, breezy doorway had led them to feel safe removing their masks. I don't think that was wise, given their exposure to so many people, but at least they weren't virulent anti-mask/-vaxxers.

Another vendor that pissed me off this year was Bumblebee Yarns. They had a Harry Potter line in 2019 and I was looking forward to shopping it again this year but they said they had discontinued it due to the Rowling transphobia controversy. Jesus Fucking Christ, for the millionth time, Rowling is NOT transphobic. That is a wilful misinterpretation of her words and her views.

This year's tiny Rhinebeck haul

As the sun shone and the queue for ice cream eclipsed the donut line, the forecast rainstorm looked to be delayed. But 30 minutes before closing, the wind picked up and a bank of clouds approached and overtook the sunny day with cinematic drama. Fairgoers scattered like cockroaches when you turn on the lights in a city apartment kitchen. Food vendors rolled down their steel shutters, yarn vendors packed up and abandoned their booths, and the festival informally and abruptly closed early. I got to my car just as the wind-driven prickles of rain changed to fat drops. The rain was traveling west to east, and so was I, so I faced a white-knuckled drive home trying to outrun the storm whilst going about 30mph on the Interstate in a blinding downpour.

The clouds roll in, vendors shutter, crowd scatters

When I got home, I discovered that my local organic pizza haven, due to the pandemic, now closes at the absurdly early time of 7pm. My partner found alternative pizza, but the main pizza joint in a college town closing at 7pm on a Saturday night, really?

Still, I showered and had that glass of wine, and petted my (small) yarn haul. Tonight, we knit.

Until next year, baaah.

Friday 2 April 2021

Hail Thee Festival Day: Atheist Easter nostalgia for high church aesthetics

When I was growing up, my life revolved around singing in an Episcopal (Anglican) church choir. My entire life was organised around the church year, with the major flurries of choir activity happening around Xmas and Easter. Not only was I Head Chorister, but I made it a point to have perfect attendance at all services, rehearsals, and associated musical events, such as singing at weddings, funerals, memorial services, and professional recordings made by the choir, as well as playing in the handbell choir, and even serving as an acolyte on occasion when there was a need.

Although I am an atheist (not a live-&-let-live atheist, but a militant New Atheist in the vein of the four horsemen), I have a deep aesthetic attachment to the music and the rituals of the Anglican church, particularly the ornate architecture, art, vestments, archaic language, and bells and smells of the high church.

Choir of King's College
As a nonbeliever, religion is about aesthetics and ritual for me. When I see photos of modern megachurches that have stark, ugly buildings, either no vestments or plain ones, big screens, execrable music, contemporary language, I cannot see the point for the attendees. I realise for the pastors it is about the money, but the flock who are being fleeced do not care that they are in an aesthetic wasteland.
For believers, worship is not about aesthetics. This is a growing problem. People used to go to church as part of community life. The fact that they did not really believe was largely irrelevant. Several of the rectors at the church in which I grew up were atheists. In the Episcopal church, lack of belief is no impediment to being a priest. If that surprises you, think of all the duties of a priest. Faith affects none of them, least of all the weekly writing of a sermon. Today, church attendance is no longer a regular part of community life so the only people who attend regularly are actual believers, an increasingly smaller percentage of the population, which is in itself a good thing but disastrous for church finances. Churches are closing, consolidating, and simplifying their services to cater to less-educated attendees, as well as attendees who do not speak English well, and they are operating on far smaller budgets. The church I grew up in no longer has a professional, paid choir. There is no budget to hire brass for Easter, no more handbell choir, no more full-time choirmaster and church organist position. Attendance is about ¼ of what it was. And the new rectors do not give a shit about high church aesthetics; they are boring, modern, dull, tasteless philistines.

Today is Good Friday, normally a day of long, somber services, and intense rehearsals to prepare for Easter, the most festive service of the liturgical year. I miss the music, the scent of the incense, the Easter lilies lining every surface in the chancel, the ornately-decorated historic vestments taken out of storage for the occasion, and especially the trumpets and other brass hired to perform with us for the festal services ringing out brightly in the nave. I really loved the trumpets because they were so jubilant. I always hid Easter candy in my pockets and ate waaaay too much that day.
In pre-COVID times, I tried to seek out a high church service to attend at Xmas and Easter but they have gone extinct. We need an Aesthetic Revival!
This Easter, I will listen to every Anglican Easter hymn playlist I can find on Spotify, eat Easter candy, and wallow in nostalgia for a time when people actually dressed up and wore hats.
One last point: I just read this quote about Easter 2021 from an Episcopal rector and it really resonated. It does feel like we have collectively endured a year-long Lent, and the pandemic has indeed highlighted how much is broken in our society. May 2021 be the year of fixing racial and economic injustices, and, above all, building a stellar public education system to prevent them recurring.
“I knew things were broken, but I had no idea how broken. I knew race relations were strained, but I had no idea how strained. I knew there was sickness and disease and that people died, but it’s been humbling to see a nation like ours and others around the world brought to their knees. It feels like we’ve been in a yearlong Lent.”

Friday 30 October 2020

To the victors go the spoils, to the losers go the votes?

Victory and concession speeches carry no legal weight.

A candidate can concede or declare victory at any point during the vote counting when the tally looks bad/good for them, but the actual winner is the person who has the most votes when the counting stops.

In recent elections, some Republicans have petulantly refused to concede. Roy Moore, for example, never conceded, but that made no difference to the fact that he lost.

Concession is a mark of civility and class, like calling the victor to congratulate him or her, thanking supporters, and speaking warmly of hope for bipartisanship. It is crass, petty, immature, and selfish for the loser not to concede gracefully. But Republicans think they have an entitlement to rule, and that no non-Republican winner is legitimate, even in a landslide.

As noted above, claims of victory or defeat have no legal significance, but they do have psychological significance. If the legitimate winner wrongly concedes, as Gore did in 2000, it has the effect of making any dispute about the results seem illegitimate to the public.

In the imminent 2020 election, a record number of ballots will still need to be counted after election night. Federal law gives states 35 days to count them, although some individual state laws mandate a shorter timeframe. Too many ballots will remain to be counted for us to know for certain who has won the presidential race and many down-ballot races on election night, unless the victory is by such a huge margin that it exceeds the number of ballots yet to be counted.

So, expect a harrowing election night, but do not expect to go to bed knowing the winner of most races. Nor should you expect many candidates of either party to concede that night. Do expect Trump to declare victory no matter what the vote tally shows on the night. This is tactical; his Orwellian strategy is to try to make people believe falsehoods by simply stating them repeatedly as if the mere repetition of lies makes them true.

It is anticipated that there will be a "red mirage" on election night, with more Republicans going to the polls on the day and more Democrats voting by mail, leading to a false sense of Republicans leading in many races until all the votes are counted.

Expect Republicans in general, and Trump in particular, to argue that the count should be stopped and mail-in ballots should not be counted. In anticipation of this, some Republican-controlled counties are setting aside mail-in ballots to count after Election Day with the expectation that they may not be counted at all.

If the red mirage does not occur, and Trump, and other Republican candidates, are behind in important races, expect them to abruptly change their tune and argue vociferously that every ballot must be counted and the election is not over until they are. Remember that one group of ballots not counted until after election night is military ballots, which skew heavily Republican.

The Republican stance on counting ballots will depend on how they are doing in their races, but either way they will pretend it is on principle. Both parties will find this risible, but, just like with the SCOTUS seat, Republicans do not care about hypocrisy when it benefits their side. Not a single Republican believed the argument that filling Ginsburg's seat was not hypocritical after their refusal to fill Scalia's because this time the same party controlled both the Senate and the White House, They simply did not care. They had power that they could use to benefit their own side, so they did.

Given the prevailing belief among Republicans that mail-in ballots will contain more votes for Democrats, they have been trying to slow down the mail so that ballots will not be received by Election Day. Some states require ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, but others require them to be received by Election Day. Alaska and Ohio have the most generous deadlines, accepting ballots up to 10 days after Election Day. By slowing their transit, the Republicans can prevent ballots not received by Election Day in states that require it from being counted. In response to the Republican mail tampering, some states have scrambled to change their laws to allow counting of ballots received after Election Day. These changes have been challenged in court by Republicans, with mixed results, depending upon whether the change was initiated by the state legislature or the state courts, and other factors. Another strike against the already appalling record of 2020 may be that it proves to be the first U.S. presidential election when mail tampering is such an effective voter suppression tactic that it changes the outcome.

The only guarantee of a Democratic victory is such a large majority of votes for Biden on Election Day that the uncounted ballots will not change the outcome. If that transpires, it is unlikely to prevent Trump from challenging the results. He, and the Republicans, can still harness electoral votes to override the popular vote.

How? Shockingly easily, as it turns out: All states but two give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state. (Nebraska and Maine divide them proportionally based on percentage of popular vote.) But they do not have to do this; the state legislature is at liberty to ignore the popular vote and give the state's electoral votes to the candidate of their choice. 

That sounds radical, but the legal barriers are surprisingly thin. The Constitution allows states to choose electors 'in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct'. All states currently have laws directing their legislatures to allocate electors based on the popular vote, but these laws can be changed. A state with a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor (of which there are currently 21) can do it easily; if the governor is a Democrat, the legislature will have to have a sufficient number of Republicans to override the governor's veto. If a state has both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, it is likely to be a red state in which the popular vote favours Trump anyway, but there are a few Republican-controlled battleground states that could go to Biden (e.g. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas).

If Trump is in need of electoral votes, states with Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors can simply ignore the state's popular vote and allocate all of their state's electoral votes to Trump. This manoeuvre could give Trump a second term even if he loses the popular vote by a wide margin, and even if he is unable to halt counting of mail-in ballots or otherwise invalidate legal Democratic votes.

Of the many nefarious schemes the Republicans are plotting to secure victory, this strikes me as the easiest and most likely for them to pursue unless the electoral vote is so close they they only need to stop the vote count in a few states to reach 270, in which case they have the federal courts in their pocket to enable them to do that.

Friday 24 April 2020

As Higher Education Loses the War on Anti-Intellectualism and Greed, Aesthetics Are the Forgotten Casualty

When I was a high school senior choosing a college, one of my main criteria was aesthetics. I demanded a beautiful campus, with historic, ivy-covered buildings, with wood-framed chalkboards in the classrooms that hadn’t been replaced by ugly, modern whiteboards. I wanted formality, ideally academic robes, and the ability to live in a dormitory on a leafy, idyllic campus for all four years. I wanted to feel my place in a long line of scholars, going back to ancient Greece, soaking up knowledge from venerable library books that had served generations of learners. If Harry Potter had existed then, I would have said I wanted a university version of Hogwarts. Oxford or Cambridge clearly would have suited me best but, as an American, I sought out the most aesthetically-suitable of the New World options. Luckily, the U.S. does have a wide selection of historic colleges. But it might not have them for much longer. Higher education was already under threat in the United States before COVID-19, and it appears that the pandemic will serve as the final nail in the coffin, relegating the United States to the Third World status that its lack of an adequate social safety net has revealed it deserves.

Anti-intellectualism, manifested as a belief that your ignorance is as good as my knowledge, to paraphrase Asimov, has led to widespread denigration of the value of higher education. The Internet, potentially a way to equalise the dissemination of knowledge, has led to a devaluation of experts. “Why do I need to go to college when I have Google?” is the new excuse of the undereducated. Colleges are complicit in their own demise by offering not just individual courses online but entire online degree programs, up to and including doctoral level. Institutions saw online education as a way to increase revenue because online students don’t require campus facilities or staff, and courses can be taught by grossly underpaid adjuncts, who can be hired on a per-course basis, without the expense of benefits. A college can charge the same tuition for an online course as for the in-person version, but its costs are exponentially less.

The third fatal blow to higher education, after anti-intellectualism and online education, is the vocational attitude adopted by potential students and their parents in response to the outrageous costs of tuition and fees for a four-year undergraduate degree. A college education used to be the ticket to a white-collar job, and higher earnings than your high school-educated peers. But the 6-figure price tag of college, coupled with the lifelong indentured servitude of student loans, has driven students to think of themselves as customers, buying a degree that will lead to a job that pays enough to justify the expense of student loans. There is no intellectual curiosity, no learning for its own sake. Students go through the motions of taking classes, insistent that the money they’ve paid entitles them to passing grades in each course, and a degree, regardless of whether they have done any work or learned anything. They also require that degree to lead to a specific job. The result of this attitude is a drastic decline in the number of students majoring in the social sciences and humanities, and an increase in students choosing majors like nursing. When I went to college, I was told that what I majored in as an undergrad was largely irrelevant. The point was to receive a good liberal arts education that would imbue me with the writing, analytical, and critical thinking skills to embark on the career of my choice. Specialisation, I was told, should come in grad school. It’s impossible to imagine any high school senior being given that advice today.

This attitude of four years of college being an idyll of reading and intellectual discussions on a leafy campus harkens back to the days when higher education was the exclusive purview of the wealthy. Only those who did not need to make a living, who came from family money, had the leisure to study and learn. Indeed, no matter how intelligent you were, like poor Jude, you could not gain entry to a university in the UK unless you had the fortune to be born into the higher classes. I wasn’t; I was the child of a poor single mother, and female, both of which would have precluded my receiving any education at all in previous eras. 

So, I am not waxing nostalgic about a time when most people were excluded from university education. But there was a golden age in both Europe and the United States, after World War II, and the GI Bill, when higher education was opened to all, based on merit rather than money, sex, or class. That was a time when you could afford to go to college regardless of your background, and you could devote yourself to getting a liberal arts education rather than viewing higher education as vocational. Technical and vocational schools were for the non-college-bound, the electricians and hair dressers, a grey area between blue- and white-collar work that requires some training beyond high school. They serve as a modern replacement for apprenticeship.

Now, the pandemic has caused most colleges and universities in the United States to send students home to finish out the spring semester via online learning. Graduation ceremonies have been cancelled, and whether in-person learning will resume in the autumn is as yet undecided. Some high school seniors are choosing to take a gap year, attend school online or closer to home, or forego college altogether. Schools have been pressed to partially refund room and board money for the spring semester, and students are suing to recover a portion of their tuition, arguing that the hastily arranged online versions of their courses are not an equivalent learning experience. Federal aid has so far pumped $14 billion into schools that are haemorrhaging money, laying off staff and faculty, and facing potential closure, but it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. Schools have requested $50 billion more,  just as an initial Band-Aid, with hundreds of billions more needed to keep them from closing if enrolment drops in the fall, as it is almost guaranteed to do.

That money will not be forthcoming from Congress so schools will close, and with their closure the traditional college experience will disappear forever. In a post-pandemic world, small colleges with quaint, picture-postcard campuses will have closed, and students will be stuck with dodgy online schools, community colleges, or big universities with ugly, modern buildings. The transfer of learning opportunities to new environments will deprive future students of the opportunity to spend four of their most formative years on the quad, learning purely for its own sake, enjoying an idyllic, transitional time between childhood and adulting, developing a moral compass, and a sense of their place in the history of learning. No online course can replicate having an engaging, intellectually-stimulating class in a historic building on a crisp autumn day, watching the leaves change outside the classroom windows. No more discussions spilling over into communal meals in the dining hall, followed by late night study sessions in the library, and deep conversations in the dormitory common rooms. These experiences are a vital part of the learning process; they cannot be replicated online nor in ugly, modern facilities.

I mourn the loss of the college campus and the traditional college experience. It's a vital part of growing up to be an intelligent, educated adult. I worry, from the perspective of historic preservation, what will happen to the campuses when so many schools close. But there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. The forces of anti-intellectualism and capitalist greed have won out over aesthetics and learning. Knowledge, as it turns out, isn't power. 

Tuesday 31 March 2020

Post-Pandemic, Expect a Swift Return to Status Quo Ante

This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

If every country had locked down sooner, the spread of the virus could have been arrested.

If the Chinese had recognised its pandemic potential sooner and prevented people from travelling abroad, it could have been contained within China.

If China had caught it even earlier, it might even have been contained within Hubei, the province where it originated.

If factory farms and consumption of wild animals had been eliminated after previous pandemics, we’d have fewer zoonotic viruses to fight.

If the virus hadn’t struck near the time of the Chinese New Year festivities, when Chinese emigrants travel home to celebrate then fly back to the countries into which they have immigrated (e.g. northern Italy), then the spread would have been slower, with more time for countries to react.

If governments at all levels had learned from previous pandemics to have a plan in place in anticipation of the (inevitable) next one, it could have been activated in a dispassionate, nonpartisan manner without time-consuming bickering about the appropriate response.

If supplies of PPE had been stockpiled against future need, demand would be less likely to exceed supply in a crisis.

If people practiced social distancing, with or without government guidance, the number of infections would be considerably less.

If tests weren’t withheld to keep infection numbers artificially low, we’d have a better estimate of actual cases.

If death certificates weren’t fudged with other causes of death to hide COVID-19 fatalities, we’d have a much more accurate tally of how many deaths are attributable to this virus.

If, if, if. As the human and economic toll mounts daily, we are justifiably wracked with self-recrimination for not doing more, sooner, to contain the virus. Will ‘we’, speaking broadly for humanity, both citizens and government officials, learn from our COVID-19 mistakes and act with more alacrity the next time a novel virus is suspected in a patient? I doubt it. I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Rather than “buck stops here” mea culpas from elected officials, we are getting blame-shifting and denial. Rather than increasing international coordination and cooperation, we are seeing a free-for-all fight for PPE and medical equipment, and a refusal to accept aid by countries that need it, such as Iran and North Korea, based on pride and propaganda rather than public health considerations. Many countries are limiting testing for COVID-19 to keep numbers low. Federal officials in some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, have been locked in often vitriolic opposition to state and local officials over the question of whether to shut down businesses, with citizens caught in the middle, sometimes taking it upon themselves to self-isolate and expressing frustration and disgust with their political leaders.

This depressing pattern does not hold true for every country. Some affluent European and Asian countries, such as Denmark and South Korea, managed to take steps to save both lives and businesses. But they are outliers, with smaller, and more homogeneous, populations who have higher levels of trust in their governments. The delayed and mixed response of most of the world is disheartening. Even when national and subnational governments get their act together to enforce social distancing, people resist and defy directives that have been issued solely to protect them. Except for totalitarian governments who exert control over citizens to preserve their own power and enforce their ideology, governments are now making a trade-off between public health and the economy that has the potential to get them booted from power. Electorates reward incumbents in good times and punish them in bad times, regardless of their actual responsibility for economic conditions, which don’t usually correspond to election cycles in any case. A government who saves its citizens lives but sends the country into a recession is setting itself up for electoral vengeance, however undeserved.

What will the “if only” self-recriminations, electoral punishments, and economic fallout mean for the future? Ed Yong, in his March 25 piece for The Atlantic, opines:
“Veterans of past epidemics have long warned that American society is trapped in a cycle of panic and neglect. After every crisis—anthrax, SARS, flu, Ebola—attention is paid and investments are made. But after short periods of peacetime, memories fade and budgets dwindle. This trend transcends red and blue administrations. When a new normal sets in, the abnormal once again becomes unimaginable. But there is reason to think that COVID-19 might be a disaster that leads to more radical and lasting change.”
I don’t agree; once social distancing directives are removed, I predict a swift return to status quo ante.  That is an empirical prediction, not a normative wish. We should use this as a learning opportunity, to address global health, economic inequality, authoritarian regimes, lack of education, the idiocy of religious belief. Last year a troubling statistic went viral in the United States: 40% of Americans could not scrounge up $400 in an emergency. The support for pseudo-populists like Trump and Johnson and Bolsonaro around the world, and genuine populists like Bernie Sanders, the anti-immigrant sentiments, the rise in racism and sexism, are a direct result of growing economic inequality. We are returning to a feudal society of a wealthy 1% and a peasant population dependent upon the crumbs the rich deign to bestow in wages, benefits, a social safety net. There has been an undercurrent of rage that has been simmering for years as the middle class has shrunk and younger generations are unable to achieve the standard of living of their elders. Between the financial insecurity of the gig economy and never-ending student loan payments, hallmarks of adulthood like savings and home ownership are increasingly out of reach for even college graduates, hence the alarming statistic about nearly half the population being unable to find $400 in a pinch.

The most compelling lesson of this pandemic has nothing to do with viruses, public health, political leadership, or culture. There are fascinating and important lessons to be gleaned from all those facets but they pale in comparison to the simple fact that most of the world’s population, even in the wealthiest developed countries, still lives hand to mouth and is one paycheque away from not being able to pay current bills. Measures to delay rent and mortgage payments, prevent utilities from being disconnected, temporarily pause student loan payments, and halt evictions are only necessary because so many people are unable to survive for even a week without pay. The wealthy have tried their usual avocado toast blame game, but no-one is buying it this time. It’s impossible to deny that the reason so many people don’t have even a month’s cushion in savings is not because of too many lattes but because they—we, I should say, as I am part of this cohort—are not earning enough to save. It’s not self-indulgence stopping us from saving and investing; it’s a lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

If nothing else changes, post-COVID-19, this glaring problem should be addressed. Imagine the situation today if every individual and business had 6 months of savings to draw on. The damage to the economy, the need for taxpayer-funded relief packages, the failure of businesses and looming homelessness and crushing debt for so many Americans would disappear.

But it won’t. Nothing will change. The wealthy will turn this crisis to their advantage, squeezing even more money out of the poor in interest and penalties for every bill paid late. I am sure the credit card companies are salivating at the prospect of all the interest and penalties they will be able to charge.  Expect creditors to raise interest rates. Expect employers to lower wages, cut benefits, and not hire back much of their laid-off workforce, using the shutdown as an excuse to retool their businesses to lower overhead and increase profits. We were living in a world that catered to the very rich at the expense of everyone else. That world hasn’t changed because a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people have died of a virus. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor will get poorer. This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

Monday 30 March 2020

Another Battle Front in the War on Women

Childbirth has always been dangerous for both the women and babies involved. In the developed world, dangers from lack of medical care have been replaced by dangers from overly aggressive, unnecessary and harmful medical interventions. Every birth is a battle in the war between women and medical staff, and there can only be one winner: Either the woman and baby win or the medical staff wins. Women have only three defensive weapons to bring to their personal childbirth battles against medical staff:  1) Knowledge that the medical interventions being forced on them are unnecessary and unhealthy; 2) The word "NO!"; and, 3) a personal advocate, such as the baby's father or a doula.

That last defensive weapon is critical because a woman in labour is not in the ideal position to fight verbally, or physically if necessary, against intrusive medical staff who are determined to violate her bodily integrity and harm both her and her baby physically and psychologically.

The novel coronavirus pandemic prompted some hospitals in the United States to issue policies forbidding visitors—including birth partners. In practice this means women giving birth during the pandemic would be forced to give birth with only medical staff present, and new fathers would not get to meet their children until the mother and child's release from hospital.

To say I have been apoplectic with rage over this new policy is a gross understatement. My fury and frustration have been incandescent. Without someone on her side, a woman goes into battle with just two of those three defensive weapons, and the results will be catastrophic for both mothers and babies. A woman should not need a back-up to her birth plan and the word "NO!", but, in practice, a spouse or doula to reinforce the "NO!" is crucial to avoiding a cascading series of harmful interventions. (Which is not to say that all partners behave as advocates: Some side with medical staff and put additional pressure on their partners to acquiesce to harmful medical interventions.)
Medical staff undoubtedly reacted with glee to the prospect of having their victims even more at their mercy, but their cruel pleasure was short-lived in New York. I first found out about this barbaric policy a few days ago, a violation of both domestic and international human rights law, and specifically forbidden as a response to COVID-19 by the WHO, when Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in NYC announced it and it trended on Twitter.
Today, I read that this cruel and harmful policy has been overruled by the state. According to this piece on NPR, "...earlier this month some New York hospitals told pregnant women they couldn't have any support person during childbirth. Within a week the state health department had prohibited that policy."
Thank goodness. Birthing women have a hard enough time battling medical staff without depriving them of one of their few weapons to protect their own health, and the health of their children.