Breakfast with Pandora caters to everyone interested in ancient Greek and comparative mythology, good stories, the craft of writing, food, theology, education, and other humane things. Ask a question at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com.
On Sunday morning, very early, Andre, the warden of one of the only Haitian Episcopal parishes in the United States that worships in Creole, picked us up in his Mercedes SUV and fetched us to the Bronx. The congregation had been having an all-night prayer vigil for Lent, and were finishing with a communion service.
Photo: The clouds part for my photo of Grace Church, Manhattan; thanks, clouds.
The preacher spoke in the language that sounds very much like French at times, and other times like something all its own. We sang hymns, said the Nicene Creed, and prayed in Creole, all before the sun rose.
That afternoon we stopped into Grace Church (Episcopal) with Union Square visible in the distance. The card outside said, "The church is open. Enter, rest, and pray."
This sounded good to us. To me, because I had just finished The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, which uses this church as setting for a society wedding of the 1870's. To both of us, because we feel at home in cities and churches with grand steeples.
Inside, we marveled at the contrast between the crashing noise of Broadway and the expectant stillness of the gothic space. Stained glass, intricately worked, met the eye at every angle. In one panel, a woman is washing Christ's feet with her long, luxuriant hair. A woman who is serving supper to the assembled apostles pauses in her work to watch. A man, who does not have a halo, raises his eyebrow at the woman's lack of decorum.
Dazzled, we were talked back down to earth by the elegant lady who was greeting visitors at the door. Her son had just enrolled in a local university in our state, and we agreed on the tremendous merits of Asheville.
Later, all the way up Broadway, we attended the Choral Evensong at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I am always moved to tears here. Don't really know why, but this is sort of magnetic north for me. The sermon inspired me, and afterwards I explained to my companion why. She said, "I've been telling you that for three months."
We talked to the preacher afterwards, and explained how I had not been listening to my companion. "She's a prophet," he said, and with a half-jesting, half-serious twinkle in his eye, he continued: "You need to learn obedience. Doesn't the word obedience come from the Latin word to listen?"
He didn't know I was a Latin teacher. But I said yes, obedience comes from audire, to listen.
Longtime readers of this blog know that New York City has inspired me before, and with luck, will do so again. At the hotel, our de facto concierge, Darryl, told us to come back and stay longer next time.
It was as if he had given us the coin to throw, over our shoulders, into the Trevi Fountain.
A friend's son, who is writing a novel in the fantasy genre, is creating a group of people who, he says, he wants to be like the ancient Greeks.
His questions include:
What do you think are the most important elements of Greek culture? In other words what would you say would be a must-have for a Greek-based civilization?
What do you know about daily life in Greek villages? How were villages laied out, what did homes look like?
Long answers could follow!
Photo: High, rocky place in Athens known as the Acropolis.
First, the answer to the second question, which isn't too difficult.
Ancient Greeks tended to live in walled cities and commute to their fields. The cities were often based around high, rocky places that were defendable if the city walls weren't enough. People lived in houses close to each other, often with common walls; with separate sleeping quarters for women and men, and a common area with a hearth fire. More info on the Greek house here.
Now, to the first question.
The short answer has traditionally run like this:
The most important elements of Greek culture are: democracy, logic, a good defensive military, respect for the arts (especially theater, sculpture and painting), fierce independence, innovation, individualism.
All of which is symbolized by the logical and sophisticated divinities Apollo and Athena.
This is what you'd get in a book from the early twentieth century such as Edith Hamilton's Mythology:
That is the miracle of Greek mythology-- a
humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown.
The terrifying incomprehensibilities which were worshipped elsewhere, and the
fearsome spirits with which earth, air, and sea swarmed, were banned from
Greece. It may seem odd to say that the men who made the myths disliked the irrational
and had a love for facts, but it is true, no matter how wildly fantastical the
Lately, scholars have been emphasizing the Greeks' less noble points, such as their oppression of women, ownership of slaves, and imperialist tendencies.
Two parallel viewpoints. It's almost like that Star Trek episode with a bearded Mr. Spock in a parallel universe.
What to do?
This is where it's fun that the questioner is writing a novel rather than history. You can pick and choose what you want. You can make your Greek-like race more logical and democratic, or more irrational and imperialist, or something in between.
My opinion? I don't think it would be Greece if there wasn't a really strong emphasis on family, with the father as the leader-- known in ancient Greek as the kurios. This motivated everything the Greeks did and stood for. The emphasis on Zeus as the "father of gods and men" and the guarantor of civilization indicates to me that the Greeks really valued a strong father- (note: not man-) rule, also known as patriarchy.
Funny thing about that is that it's not exclusively Greek. There were lots of cultures that were patriarchies, and still are.
Photo: Bouboulina, modern female Greek hero.
The fact of patriarchy in Greece doesn't mean no one else except the father ever had any power, but everyone else had to get their power either through or alongside the father.
Not only because the lead role, Tevye, was being played by the 73-year old Topol, who first played the role some 42 years ago (in the 1967 production in London and the 1971 film).
When I was my daughter's age, I saw this man's name in the newspaper. 30 years later, my daughter saw the same man play the same role. Awe-inspiring.
No, it wasn't just because of that.
It was also because this new spiffy performing arts center in our city is a true roll of the dice, a gamble that people will continue to come out and see live theater and other performances rather than stay in, watch Internet TV, and update their status on Facebook.
It felt quaint, frankly, to be watching real people perform live songs to the accompaniment of an actual orchestra. All these professionals, being paid to do a professional job that costs an unspeakable amount of money, and by implication asking their audience to pay an unspeakable amount of money to watch them.
It was magnificent. A luxury.
I saw a production of "Fiddler" at a beloved high school where I taught. It was dear. One of my students played Tevye, and he did well. Ever afterwards, whenever we were to do a difficult grammar point or quiz, he would say "Is this really necessary?" and we would break up laughing. The other students in the class, especially the ones who hadn't seen the show, got good and fed up with our in-joking behavior.
"Fiddler" with Topol, nevertheless, was worlds better. No comparison. It was the reason we have professional arts.
I asked myself, are we, in our present poverty of money, and in our present substitution of Internet and reality shows for arts and culture-- are we capable still of shelling out consistently for such good shows, to make them pay and help them survive?
It is a historical time, indeed.
Then, the final nudge from history: "Fiddler" is about continuity and change, and how a father cannot freeze time, and I felt this truth very deeply this time.
Tevye has five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age. None of them want to make the marriage that he wants, even though traditionally the Jewish patriarch is the one who decides whom his daughters will marry.
I looked over at my girl, already over the threshold of adolescence, with her makeup on, and her high heels. I keep telling her she will not date till she's 26. Recently she quizzed her mom, and found out that Mom and I got marriedbefore we were 26. So clearly I cannot be serious, or I am a hypocrite.
I had a long time to think about that, while we sat on Level 6 of the parking garage for a half hour waiting for Levels 1 to 5 to empty.
The next morning, after we all had had some sleep, I told my daughter that she should marry someone who lets her be who she is, but that she cannot do that until she herself knows who she is. And that does imply being a little bit patient.
I do not know what my daughter got out of "Fiddler." She told me, "I like the old guy best," which is something, at least. Would that on her wedding day, she would say something similar about me.
Completely randomly, I picked up Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence a couple of weeks back, and was sort of blown away.
(There is a movie, too, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pheiffer, directed by Martin Scorsese. I will rent it soon, soon.)
Edith Wharton is one of our great American novelists. She was the first woman novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize, for The Age of Innocence. Her style is two parts Austen, one part Dickens, and one part all-American woman.
Her subject in this novel is manners and morals in the high society of 1870's New York City, AKA the Gilded Age. You don't get much insight into the rigors of the early Industrial Revolution, but you do get a picture of a small community of people you can recognize and identify with.
Wharton paints a picture of a kind of Facebook group, several families who keep in close touch with each other and know what the others are doing. Instead of using status updates, emails, instant messenger, and the occasional real-world meet-up, these folks write actual notes to each other, invite each other to dinner, see each other at the Opera, and take after-dinner walks where they stop in and visit.
There is the 21st century-like concern with privacy, as well: the story involves the earnest young Newland Archer, product of his high-society upbringing who nevertheless has unconventional ideas about love and morality. He spends much of the novel attempting to conceal his grand passion for the (scandalous) Countess Ellen Olenska from his family and wife, while concealing the indiscretions of his other pals.
Everyone knows but doesn't tell, just like your ISP knows where you point your Internet browser.
Also, there is plenty of information out there-- Newland reads "four or five" newspapers every day.
There is light (gas) and heat (coal fire, tended by servants) and long distance communication (by telegraph).
There are vacations to the beach (St. Augustine, Florida; Newport, Rhode Island) arrived at by steamboat.
And there are banking scandals and the ruination of investors-- though the snooty Whartonians are not affected by such plebeian matters. You never know where exactly their money comes from.
The big difference between then and now-- for which we must be thankful-- is that the community Wharton paints, with its leisure and comforts, is not reserved only for the rich, but has become desirable and attainable for today's middle class.
Right now we are in a mysterious period of in-between, where we have realized that for the last couple of decades the middle class has been getting poorer, and the super-rich have been getting much richer. In order to keep up our leisure-and-comfort aspirations, the middle class borrowed its way into trouble. Is there a way we can pay off our debt and still live a quasi-Gilded Age existentence? Or are we going back into the crimped life of the factory worker in the Industrial Revolution?
Or something else entirely?
These kinds of questions come up when you read good books.
In the most recent issue of the Sun magazine, a really, really good publication, writer Nicholas Carr has this to say about blogs:
Though in theory you can reach a global audience through the Internet, the reality is that the vast majority of blogs, for example, are read by very small audiences. Writing one is not all that different from publishing your own photocopied zine in the eighties or being a ham-radio operator in the fifties.
Well, Nicholas, I wrote for a photocopied zine in the eighties, and it's almost certain there were more readers of that zine than there are of BwP.
But there is one big difference between writing for a zine in the eighties and writing a blog today. And that is, that a zine in the eighties could never go viral.
On March 4, for example, I got about 1,200 page views, without a comment. I don't have a stat counter sophisticated enough to tell me why the blog spiked like that. It was during my blog vacation.
And that's as viral as I'm likely to get. But it's way more viral than my beloved zine.
So what the Internet has done for us bloggers is to give us all a lottery ticket.
In other words, all the things I have always done in my adult life, without worrying whether my Facebook status was updated or I was up to date in a virtual Scrabble game.
And I was happy.
Truth is, I had been spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook for no discernible reason. The novelty of being able to follow all my friends' activities virtually has worn off, and now I find myself craving a little real Facetime.
As for blogging, I spent much of the past month obsessed with Open Salon, which is a community of bloggers, most of whom are really good writers, and the rest of whom have some pretty compelling stories to tell. After a while there, however, I got emotionally exhausted. I only have so much fellow-feeling before I overload.
What's more, I've never felt as if a set of bloggers were more exploited by a big media company than those worthy scribblers of Open Salon. Open Salon has got a good thing going: they give you a free blog and the opportunity to get on the featured front page. And that's it.
Open Salon gets a whole lot of eyeballs and large potential for advertising revenue. I mean, this group of writers is collectively better on a day-to-day basis than all newspapers and most print magazines.
I have come to believe that good writers should be compensated for good writing. I think this whole Internet thing is going to end up shaking out with some kind of positive outcome for good writers. As of now, I'm growing out of the pleasure of having a blog for its own sake, and moving towards a desire for my talent and hard work to be rewarded, if I do indeed produce good writing.
So what does that mean for BwP?
Will I take on blog ads, in hopes of getting a few pennies from Google? Don't think so. But something else, for sure.
And I'll continue posting, as ideas come in.
But you may see a change in the near future.
Like reports of real rather than virtual Scrabble games.