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Christmas in New York City….what to say?

How about…been there, done that. 

Or…There. That’s done. 

I’d always thought Christmastime in the City would be fun to experience, and now that my oldest lives there, we had a good excuse. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve got the gist of the trip: we left Christmas night from Atlanta, spent Tuesday-Thursday there, left at the crack of dawn on Friday for other parts of the country. I was glad to do it, glad to spend time with my son and see friends, but heavens, it was cold and wow, it was crowded. As I said: been there, done that was what I thought as we flew away for points south!  Highlights:

  • First highlight was in getting there in the first place. The boys were scheduled to serve Christmas Day Mass at the convent, and when I made the reservations, did so assuming that Mass was at the usual Sunday morning time – 11am. Only to find out a few weeks later that no, Mass was at 12:30. Flights were at 6:19. From Atlanta. 2 hours from Birmingham.  A time zone ahead. So essentially, we would be leaving for a 6:19 flight a little more than four hours before it took off from two hours away, with perfect traffic.
  • Well, we obviously made it. The most tension-inducing aspect of the situation was that I had purchased United’s most recent low-level fare – the Basic Economy, which comes with a lot of restrictions, most of which – only being able to take a personal carry-on like a backpack, no guaranteed seating together – didn’t bother me (we each took a backpack, which was fine for three days, even in winter weather – we are not fashionistas), but there’s one more restriction: you can’t check in ahead of time online unless you are checking a bag (which costs extra, natch). This is to enable them to enforce the no-carry-on rule on site, so it’s understandable, but still. You know how it is when you’re racing to the airport. You can think: Well, at least I’m already checked in. Nope.
  • But, we made it, with time to spare. Go me. I mean…go. 
  • We flew into Newark, which was a first. Arrived, then took the very crowded train into Manhattan. Why was it so packed on Christmas night? It seemed to me, since it was crowded when we boarded at the airport, that the riders were folks who’d done their Christmas elsewhere and were returning home. We had to stand for most of the trip, but that’s fine.
  • Got to Penn Station, then walked the seven blocks in the cold to our hotel – the Leo House.
  • Now, this was a new discovery for me. I am not sure how it had never crossed my radar before. The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse that’s been around for decades, named after Leo XIII and originally founded to be a safe haven for German immigrants. You can read its history here. It certainly showed its age – particularly in the bathrooms – but it was very clean and the breakfast was substantial and varied every day. I prepaid, and so we had a double room – two rooms connected by a bathroom, with three beds – for under $200/night. With breakfast. In Manhattan. In a good location, a block down from a subway, with the Empire State Building in view. It worked. It would be just about perfect if the bathrooms were updated, but that would be a multi-million dollar, probably unaffordable project. I’d stay there again – and probably will!
  • Day one (summarized on Instagram here). Yes, we went to the Central Park Zoo. We’d never been, and online commentary indicated that it wasn’t a bad winter activity – there were animals that flourish outside in the cold, and there was enough indoors to make it bearable. Walked through the park by the skating rink (we heard them introduce a skating session with about 5 minutes of announced warnings and disclaimers – #ModernTimes) – then to the subway to take it up to the Natural History Museum, which was…packed. As was everything over those three days. It made sense: Christmastime in the City has its appeal, plus it was so bloody cold, any attraction that was indoors was…attractive.
  • I stood line to get tickets – me and many Russians. We paid extra to see the Mummy exhibit, and probably shouldn’t have. It is part of this museum trend to just bring in extra $$$ with special exhibits that have a particular appeal – you think, “Oh, we want to see mummies!” and so you can…but for a price! Anyway, we’d seen many mummy displays all over the world, so I’m not sure why I gave into the pressure on this one (from the sales clerk, not my kids), but I did and was irritated. There wasn’t a lot to it that we had not seen elsewhere.
  • But I did see Mammoths and mastadons, which interested me because I’d just read this book. I find these early mammals much more interesting than dinosaurs, perhaps because they are closer to us in time, and in fact inhabited the planet with us.
  • We’d been here before, but it was several years and a couple of trips ago, but it was worth a revisit. I like the Field Museum in Chicago better, though….
  • Then dinner with my son and my friends Ann and Paul Engelhart at this very good French restaurant..and then Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • I need to think a bit more about this production, but I’d say that it was interesting, worth the time and money, and captured an aspect of the thematic essence of the piece while missing another part of it. Let’s put it this way: it’s not a light holiday confection, but honestly, who thinks of Hansel and Gretel this way? It’s a dark tale of suffering, temptation, exploitation and revenge or justice – or both. The German Expressionistic tone of much of the production brings out this darkness effectively, but what was muted was the spirituality of the piece, which is pretty strong: Hansel and Gretel are protected by angels, and in a sense, their journey to the witches’ house is a journey they’re led on for the salvation of others – the children the witch has turned into gingerbread who are freed by Hansel and Gretel, brought to that place by their own suffering.
  • The weird thing about the evening was this: a friend of mine from Alabama was in NYC at the same time. We’d said we’d meet on Wednesday or Thursday, but we came very close, without knowing it, on Tuesday night: she and her group ate at a restaurant on the same block as ours at the same time…and then they went to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center…as we were at Hansel and Gretel. 
  • Small world, again.

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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

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In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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"amy welborn"

 

First, here are the links to all my London 2017 posts.

A general link.

Preparation

Day 1 – arrival, wandering and learning the city

Day 2 – Tower of London and the British Museum

Day 3 – Churchill War Rooms and more British Museum

Day 4 – National Gallery, the Globe, Lego-ish things, Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market

Day 5 – Greenwich, St. Paul’s and Harrods

Day 6- Wandering the city and then the Warner Brothers/Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 7 – Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Oratory, Tyburn Convent

Where we stayed and what we ate. 

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Now, some general observations about traveling to London, period, and specifically with kids – older kids, albeit, but still kids.

  • We can’t claim to be world travelers, at all, but we have done our share: Mexico (Yucatan Mayan sites as well as  a small town for mission work); Italy, both large cities and smaller towns, and Sicily; Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, France, both Paris and several small towns and some rural areas, and Germany – a small resort town in Bavaria.
  • I’d say that if you can deal with the size of it – if you are not intimidated by cities – London is one of the more comfortable experiences an American can have traveling overseas. The habits and expectations of living everyday life seem very close to what we know as regular life in the United States. There is, of course, the English language factor, but even aside from that, there just seem to be far fewer Secret Handshakes of Polite Living that the American tourist would be clueless about and be sniffed at for neglecting.
  • But London is ….big. Yes, it’s spread out, but it’s larger than New York City, and just as popular a tourist destination – if not more. There are areas of London that, in the last week of March, were chaotically crowded. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer.
  • London is a huge, metropolitan busy city, but really…the people I encountered here, both just in daily encounters and people working in shops, restaurants and attractions – were very, very nice. The level of politeness was extraordinary.
  • One of the reasons I had never put London on the top of my travel list is that I was under the impression that it was comically expensive. I didn’t experience that. Even doing the pound-to-dollar translations in my head, I didn’t feel I was paying even New York City prices for things. We stayed in an apartment, but I did look at a lot of hotels in my planning, and it seemed that there were very good values available, even for family groups. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive food available. Many of the big attractions are free admission, and there are deals (like 2-for 1) available for the others, and many have family admission rates, which helps.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the public transportation system – it’s easy to learn, and structured just like any other in any city – as long as you know the destination that’s at the end of the line you need to be on, you’re fine. Don’t be intimidated by the Oyster Card system either. It seems confusing, but once you get it – it makes a lot of sense, and is so much more convenient than all those stupid little slips of Paris Metro tickets. Just don’t forget to turn in your Oyster Card at the end for a refund of remaining funds and the card deposit. Like some people. Argh.
  • Also, as is the case in any city, the subways are best avoided during rush hour. Prices are higher, and crowds are insane. I for sure wouldn’t take a small child on the Tube at rush hour, if I could help it.
  • What should you do? It’s up to you and your family’s interests. My kids are experienced, patient and sometimes even interested museum-goers, so we do a lot of that, but London presents a good opportunity to do some relaxed museum touring, even if your kids aren’t keen on them– the major museums don’t charge admission and although they are not all right next to each other, as would be the case in Washington DC, it is easy to get around – so there’s no reason to declare a day British Museum Day! And spend five hours there…unless you want to. Do take advantage of the considerable online guides and offerings that all the museums have, decide what you want to see and don’t feel an obligation to meaningfully ponder every single object that is in front of you.
  • My blog posts outline what we saw – what do I regret that we didn’t see? We didn’t tour Parliament. We didn’t get to either the Tate London or the Tate Modern. We didn’t see any of the free concerts at St. Martin’s in the Fields. We didn’t see a play at the Globe, but that’s because I wasn’t thrilled with what I heard about the production of Othello then playing. Those are my major regrets, but I don’t regret anything we did do, so I don’t know how we could have fit all the rest of that in.
  • We enjoyed our time in London. We actually do prefer time in smaller cities – one of our best experiences was in Padova, Italy – but London is important, varied, interesting and is a great opportunity to experience a truly global, multicultural environment.
  • Just…..Mind the Gap!

"amy welborn"

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Another full, good day, with a few twists and turns. I’m feeling bullet-pointish about this one today.

  • Still not up early enough to justify a sit-down breakfast. I got pastries from here, which were very good, they ate, and we set out.
  • I had been thinking St. Paul’s to begin today, but then I thought…we need something img_20170328_113957.jpggrabbier – so Churchill War Rooms it was – a very immersive experience in the underground bunker used by Churchill and his war cabinet, parts of which had been sealed up in August 1945 and left untouched for decades.
  • There was a bit of a wait – if I were coming during the summer, I would definitely purchase tickets ahead of time. They have to limit the entrance because the spaces are narrow and small.
  • An audio guide is provided with the ticket, and it is necessary to get a good sense of what you are seeing. In addition to the the offices, meeting rooms, bedrooms and dining area, there is a substantial Churchill Museum which is very accessible to those not deeply familiar with the Churchill story.  An excellent museum.
  • On the way, we’d seen the horse guards at…the Horse Guards Grounds…and the pelicans at St. James Park.
  • This area of London was teeming with schoolchildren today – scores and scores of mostly French teens and lots of younger British children…as well as American college students.
  • We spent a lot of time in the museum, and after decided to head up to the apartment for a little bit of a break. We picked up lunch on the way – shawarma at a short string of street food vendors not too far from our apartment. I also went in and grabbed a meat pie from the fast food purveyor Gregg’s and found it…really good. Disturbingly good.
  • After our break, it was requested that we return to the British Museum, to pick up where we left off yesterday. So we took a lot of times with Egyptians today – they are spread out on two floors, with the funerary material being on the second floor and statuary on the first. I was fascinated mostly with the huge scarab and the wall paintings from the tomb of Nebamun – I could not get over the detail and beauty of the birds in this.

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  • I had noticed that the British Library was open until 8, so I thought it would be a good moment to see that – so we rode the Tube up. I was surprised it was a newish building – it was not what I expected!
  • Anyway, the exhibit of treasures (which rotates from their massive holdings) was fascinating. From John Lennon’s scribbling of the lyrics of “It’s a Hard Days Night” on the back of a child’s birthday card for Sean to hand-written scores by Mozart and Tallis to gorgeous illuminated manuscripts to a manuscript of Tess of the D’Ubervilles…it was time very well spent.
  • (And free, of course…as is the British Museum, remember)
  • (No photography allowed in the exhibit)
  • We walked back to the apartment – it was about a mile – and had dinner at the fish and chips place downstairs. I am shocked that they are liking fish and chips, but in the end it is fried things, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The thing is, the fish is so very fresh, it is not fishy at all – they are getting cod, so the flavor is quite mild.
  • After that, they chilled out, and I wandered a bit, going in the opposite direction from which we’ve been normally setting out, and discovering a whole other aspect to the neighborhood and a whole other set of shops and restaurants.
  • A very subtle difference between English and other European stores – in France and Italy, as I recall, all shops have prices for their goods in the window – usually on a card near the displayed clothing, purses, or what have you. The English shops don’t do that. Nice things in the windows,s but not a price tag in sight.
  • But they’re not selling knives to kids!

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  • British culture may be as whacked about some things as any other western nation, but at least they aren’t stupid enough (yet) to pretend that the Bible doesn’t matter culturally. Prominently and helpful displayed in the British Museum gift shop:

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  • We were going to do Hampton Court Palace tomorrow, but honestly…I’m not feeling it tonight. I’m thinking that we need to just stay in the city, and maybe make tomorrow a Day of Randomness. We’ll see.
  • (The weather has been great. I didn’t wear a coat today, and was very comfortable.)

 

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— 1 —

Very quick, mostly about what I’ve read recently.

Monday is Presidents’ Day – Kevin Williamson inveighs against it, and I resonate with his inveighing:

The president of the United States is the chief officer of the federal bureaucracy, the head of one branch of a government that has three co-equal branches. Strictly speaking, it is not given to him even to make law, but only to see to the enforcement of the laws passed by Congress (and maybe to veto one here and there) and to appoint appropriate people, like the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., to high federal offices. In the legislative branch, the House of Representatives is the accelerator and the Senate is the brake; the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are pretty much all brake; the presidency is a kind of hybrid, sometimes pressing for needful reform and action, sometimes standing in Congress’s way when it is rash or overly ambitious. The architecture of our constitutional order is a complicated and delicate balance.

 But the president is not the tribune of the plebs. He is not a sacred person or the holder of a sacred office. He is neither pontifex nor imperator. He is not the spiritual distillation of the republic or the personification of our national ideals and values. (Thank God Almighty.) He is not even primus inter pares like the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the commander-in-chief in time of war (which, since we have abandoned the advice of Washington and Eisenhower, is all of the time, now) and the chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. That is it.

He is not a ruler.

— 2 —

Good stuff from the Federalist on Common Core. A primer, if you will:

As I detail in full footnoted glory in my book out soon, Common Core’s own founding documents specifically invite federal involvement. Its success as a national program is directly attributable to federal involvement in education, period. Common Core’s creators and funders worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration, right down to transferring personnel and regular alignment phone calls, to impose it upon the nation and link it to every major federal and state education policy (data collection, teacher preparation and certification, school rating systems, curriculum, testing). The new law replacing No Child Left Behind codifies the federal government as the ultimate review board for state testing and curriculum policies, a Clinton-era policy that made Common Core possible.

— 3—

If you are interested in educational issues, and not necessarily from a religious perspective, the libertarian magazine/website Reason looks at the issue of school choice regularly and has a good library of articles, found here. 

My mantra, in case you’ve never heard it: more schools of all different types for all different kinds of students. 

— 4 —

I have so many notes headed “PF” with many words attached, but since every day brings a new development, what I was sure was most important yesterday inevitably fades with the dawn of a new day, every day, without fail.

So I’ll be lazy and offer this excellent analysis of a bit of the current situation from First Things: 

It can be no surprise, then, that the sacraments are under renewed attack. For the sacraments are the means by which the Church is ordered and by which she distinguishes, on a practical level, between good and evil. (What is the point of forbidding the evil of divorce, if not to uphold the good of marriage and its witness to the covenant of our salvation? What is the point of forbidding suicide and euthanasia, if not to uphold the sanctity of life and the good of honoring the Lord and Giver of Life?) The sacraments, of course, are much more than that. They are instruments of grace by which God communicates to us his own life through participation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They are not rewards for goodness, but the means of sharing in the God who is good. That is why they are holy sacraments, and it is their very holiness that makes them the object of attack.

— 5 —.

Earlier this week, I finished La Dolce Vita Confidential – if you’re interested in Italian pop culture and the movies, you’ll enjoy this. The writing was excellent, and Levy does a great job of excavating a cultural moment and helping us see how these moments just don’t happen – there are streams that are flowing that join to make the river…and then disperse again. For just a few years, Italy was everything, and then it was England’s moment and so life goes on.

I will admit that I have never actually seen La Dolce Vita, and will probably remedy that soon. There were a few other films discussed in the book that picqued my interest – for example, this early Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni collaboration called Too Bad She’s Bad. 

— 6 —

There were a few more rabbit holes inspired by the text – various other movies, a purported, but false Marian apparition and this song:

 

Levy just mentions it offhand, as being inspired by the death/perhaps suicide of a Sicilian nobleman, who jumped/was pushed from a building on Via Veneto. I found it mesmerizing and haunting:

Who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Bonne nuit, bonne nuit, goodnight,
he keeps telling everything,
the lighted lamps,
a cat in love
that goes by wandering.
 
Now dawn has finally come,
lamps are turned off,
and the whole city
wakes up little by little,
moon has got stuck,
suprised, pale,
it will disappear in the sky
fading away.
 
A window yawns
on the silent river
and in the white light
a top hat, a flower and a tailcoat
float away.
 
Gently floating,
cradled by the waves,
he slowly flows down
under bridges towards the sea,
towards the sea he goes.
 
Who could it be, who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Adieu, adieu, farewell world,
farewell to memories of the past,
to a dream never dreamt,
to an instant of love
that will never come back.

…and then further rabbit holes led me to the fact that the singer/songwriter was Domenio Modugno whose main claim to fame was the Eurovision-competing (but not winning) Volare! which we all know from the car and the commercials,  (very funny to watch that commercial and see the boat that’s touted as a fabulous new “small car”) if not from the many covers of the song, including one by Dean Martin, but honestly, take a look at the video, read the borderline surreal lyrics and understand why the Internet is both the life and the death of me.

I think, such a dream
Will never return.
I painted hands and face in the blue
And then suddenly the wind kidnapped me
And I began to fly in an infinite sky.
To fly,
To sing
In the blue, painted in the blue,
I am happy to be above.

— 7 —

Forgive me for repeating this Take from last week…but..it still pertains, don’t you think?

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

The past two weeks, I’ve seen a spike in hits for  this post – and I’m glad to see it.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 19 is Sexagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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One of the pained questions bandied about on social media over the past two weeks since the election has been the soul-wrenching…But what do we tell the children?

The issue, being, I suppose, how do we explain to children and young people that a person of questionable character is now their president?

Well….

You got me!

Which is apparently just one more instance of my absolute lack of empathy for that particular bubble (since we’re also talking a lot about bubbles nowadays).

Because…well, I mean….what have you been telling your children? About politics? About leaders? About the history of these United States? About the history of the world?

That Dear Leader loves them will take care of them and that they should seek to emulate Dear Leader in all of life?

Or, if you haven’t reached those fascist lengths, have you actually been presenting political leaders to your children as first-tier, go-to role models?

Really?

Gene Healy said it well:

For most families, however, the “conversation” needn’t be so fraught with angst. It might even be the occasion for a valuable lesson: Tell your kids the truth: the president can be a bad person, even a terrible one. You don’t have to admire him if he doesn’t deserve it. And just because he’s a creep doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be one too.

Up to a certain age, belief in Santa Claus is charming, and entirely harmless. Blind faith in presidential benevolence is neither. If you’re teaching your kids that the president reliably tells the truth and does the right thing, then the future citizens you’re raising may turn out gullible and easily led.

Why lie to them? After all, in living memory, presidents have conducted themselves abominably in their personal relationships, lied us into war, and, in former Nixon aide John Dean’s memorable phrase, “use[d] the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies.” Trump, who seems positively gleeful about the prospect of turning the federal machinery against his enemies, seems unlikely to set a higher standard of presidential character.

In a more innocent time, Americans raised their children to look up to the president—and they did. The political scientist Fred Greenstein interviewed hundreds of grade-schoolers for a 1960 article in the American Political Science Review, “The Benevolent Leader: Children’s Images of Political Authority.” The children evinced “strikingly favorable” attitudes toward political leaders, especially the president.

In fact, Greenstein found it almost impossible to elicit any skepticism from the children he interviewed, despite “a variety of attempts to evoke such responses.” Far more typical were statements like “[the president] gives us freedom” and “he has the right to stop bad things before they start.”

That pattern of “juvenile idealization of the President” persisted in subsequent studies of children throughout the 1960s. Nor was it limited to juveniles: writing in 1970, presidential scholar Thomas Cronin observed that even college students’ textbooks of the era offered a comic-book vision of presidential “omnipotence” and “moralistic-benevolence.” “The student learns that the presidency is ‘the great engine of democracy,’ the ‘American people’s one authentic trumpet’”; moreover, “if, and only if, the right man is placed in the White House, all will be well, and, somehow, whoever is in the White House is the right man.”

Americans grew up fast in the years that followed, however. Throughout the early 1970s, the public learned that presidents had lied about Vietnam, turned intelligence agencies against U.S. citizens, and abused their powers for political gain. Americans came to grips with the revelation that their president, our national father figure, could be a foul-mouthed, [expletive deleted] crook.

 

We hope political leaders are of good character, just as we hope this for all people. But there is no reason to plant the expectation that they will be saints, and in fact, as Healy points out, there is a danger in doing so. Perhaps it is not the best path to encourage little citizens to be complete cynics since…

…because…

Huh.

Yes, as the daughter of a political scientist and one raised in a highly politically aware household during the 1960’s and 70’s no less, I’d say we as a citizenry are better off with more cynicism rather than less.

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And I do wonder, for those who are stressing out about the exquisite agony of the present teachable moment…what have you been teaching your children? What have you been telling your kids about the ebb and flow of American history anyway? That’s it’s been nothing but a divinely-ordained glorious stream of…glory?

I don’t. My formal and informal conversations with my kids about American history and society over the past 30 + years have been conducted over the following lines, which, I might add, are a bit more skeptical than those my parents conducted with me and in my presence…but not much.

  • The American experiment in human liberty has been radical, breathtaking and important.
  • At the same time, the relationship between American civic ideals and Catholic social and political philosophy are fraught, evolving and frankly, sometimes in conflict, as uncomfortable as it makes us feel to say it.
  • The history of the United States that they will be taught, even in Catholic schools, was written, first by Protestants of English origin and then by secularists. The actual history of the Western hemisphere, of which the United States is only a part, is far richer, complex and less linear when you include the stories of indigenous people who were here first and then the Catholics who were here second.
  • Ideals are one thing, but the reality of American history courses with injustice: against Native Americans, Africans and now the unborn most of all.
  • Abortion. This nation declares its dedication to the equality of all persons, but not only allows but celebrates, funds and exports legalized killing of the most vulnerable and voiceless. Abortion.

Walker Percy’s novels, especially Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome are precise and telling satires informed by an honest, pained assessment of This American Life:

What a bad joke: God saying: here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye, because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers.
      But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you had already passed the big one.
      One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you had to do is not violate him. That’s all.  You flunked!

So….you are distressed and conflicted about what to tell the children about these United States, its ideals, reality and leaders?

Welcome to my world.

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I’ll go a bit a further, play on a previous post, and suggest that if you want to inoculate your children against future crushing disappointments about the shape of American civic life, you might consider doing this:

Get yourselves back to church.

Sorry. I know you thought it was a prison, and maybe you truly experienced it that way, and maybe the people in charge fed that by acting like they were the prison guards, but maybe now you see the Big Picture consequences, and that raising kids God- and transcendent-free isn’t raising them to be free at all.

Ironic!

No guarantees, but it might help.

So why not try engaging with the Real instead of constantly trying to recreate it. Worship the Ultimate instead of the idols your yearning has constructed in trying to fill the gap you’ve created as you’ve pushed the Transcendent away, leaving only cracked clay idols crumbling in its place.

What to tell your children?

Tell them about God. It makes explaining human non-godlike behavior a lot easier.

Offer them some good news that frees them from enslavement to worldly powers as they seek life’s meaning and purpose.

Tell them that the yearning and hope they feel has a source and an object that won’t crumble or die and, even better, really, really loves them.

Tell them that they were put here on earth because God wants them to be, loved them into existence so they  can love Him back and love and serve all other beings that God also loved into being, and that because all of us are creatures and none of us are God, we can do much, but we can only do so much, and what we can do when agape  is at work is good and holy and enough.

In other words, God is God so…big relief…you don’t have to be, and neither do I, neither does the president, so let’s smash those idols.

Tell them that it is good that we are all here, now, and that this present moment glistens but briefly as past flows into the future in an amazing, complex, dense, beautiful universe, and this moment is not forever, but it is real, and it is mystery, it is glory and it is Cross.

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