Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HAWK AND DOVE


January 28, 2010

One day in early January, I glanced out my fourth-floor window and noticed a commotion high in a huge honey-locust tree nearby. Among the bare branches was a red-tailed hawk, its enormous wings flapping wildly. Hawks, believe it or not, have been turning up in the South Bronx for several years now, expanding their range down from Van Cortlandt Park and the New York Botanical Garden a few miles north. I have observed them from time to time in that tree, usually sitting serenely on a sturdy branch, heads rotating, shrewdly surveying. This one's actions were very different. Grabbing my binoculars, I saw why. The hawk had a pigeon by the tail in one claw while trying to stabilize itself with the other. It tumbled among the twigs of the upper branches, seeking a claw-hold, the pigeon struggling desperately to pull free.
It was no use. The hawk finally found a branch big enough to support itself and pinned the pigeon on top of it. It was easy from then on. Soon the prey lay limp, and the predator went to work methodically to take it apart. First came the feathers, the hawk plucking them out in clumps and shaking them disgustedly from its beak; they floated lazily away, like snowflakes. Next came the innards, the hawk digging them out and knocking them back greedily.
After these morsels, the bird stopped in surfeit, as if in the middle of a heavy Thanksgiving dinner, digesting. Then it resumed with the breasts and thighs, and after nearly two hours, the meal was finished. The hawk released its grip and the empty carcass dropped, bouncing off branches to the ground.
The sight was gruesome and awesome at once, the beautiful horror of nature.
When the drama in the tree was over, I went to the store and bought a plump roasting chicken for my own dinner. No muss, no fuss, no feathers.
Most of us modern carnivores behave more like herbivores. We graze at the meat counter, pulling out plastic-wrapped cuts like tufts of grass, seldom thinking of the killing, the disemboweling, the dismembering that brought them there. If we considered that long enough, or witnessed it, or had to do it ourselves, we might adjust our diets a bit.
That's what happened to my friend Jane, who for a while supplemented her income as a special-ed teacher in rural Connecticut by milking cows. At first it was just a job, but in time she developed a personal relationship with each of the animals. When their milk production failed with age and the farmer sold them off for hamburger and dog food, a part of her heart went with them. "They knew me, and I knew them," she explained to me. "As they were taken away, I could see the fear on their faces. That's when I decided that I would never eat anything that could look me in the eye."
Then there's another friend, Judy, who a few years back dropped into her local vivero or live-animal butcher-shop up in Tarrytown, N.Y., thinking how nice it would be to make her family an absolutely fresh chicken dinner.
"It was hot and awful in there," she told me. "The smell was overpowering. The animals were kept in tiny cages, just waiting to die — and you know it's far worse for the ones raised for supermarket meat. I was so repulsed that I turned right around and walked out. That's when I became a vegetarian. I'm not opposed to eating meat, but I think I'd have to kill the animal myself, quick and painless. Maybe I should go hunting, just to see if I can do it."
That was the attitude of Novella Carpenter. In her gallows- humored book, Farm City, she describes her gradualist move towards "sustainability" in a down-and-out section of Oakland, Calif. In a vacant lot near her apartment, she began with the usual vegetable garden, then set up a beehive, then got some chickens for eggs. But craving meat, she took the next step, teaching herself to kill. She started out with chickens, ducks, and rabbits, slaughtering them in her bathtub by day and serving them up to delighted guests by night. Then she tackled larger fare — geese and turkeys and finally pigs, all of which she raised herself and, like Jane, loved and treated like pets — before pragmatically dispatching them. She wanted, she writes, to have a "dialogue with life" — and death was a part of that dialogue.
Before feedlot farming, all this was a matter of course for countless people — slaughter was as normal as seeding. When I worked on my Minnesota cousin's farm for a summer in my youth, butchering chickens and pigs was a joyful community event, the work of many neighboring families. The men would kill, the women would pluck, dress, and cook, the children would clean up and watch, preparing for their own day. Their dialogue with death was perfectly natural. At the midsummer chicken harvest when I was there, after my cousin had pulled a bird from the pen, chopped off its head, and stuffed the convulsing body in a cinder-block to drain the blood, his eight-year-old son philosophically confided in me, "And that's the end of the poor old chickie."
Nature, of which we are a part despite our ideas to the contrary, is no Peaceable Kingdom. Unobserved by most of us, hawks and doves continuously pirouette in the Dance of Death.
The inhabitants of the henhouse in St. Augustine School's Peace Garden are now too old to lay. Perhaps it is time for the next step.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

HAITIAN PHOENIX?

January 21, 2010


Poor Haiti. It almost makes you think the country has been cursed by God, or by some voodoo spirit, or by the ghost of Papa Doc. The first modern Black nation, independent of colonial rule in 1804, Haiti was born in hope but for most of its history has been battered about both by the elements of nature and by human avarice.
Roiled by revolutions, exploited by foreign powers, ransacked by its own leaders, in the dead-on path of hurricanes and sitting on top of a San Andreas-like fault, it's a Murphy's- Law place, a bull's-eye for the arrows of evil. Even some of its saints became its greatest sinners: Once in office, both the benevolent physician Fran├žois Duvalier and the liberationist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide turned into vicious oppressors. Power corrupts, absolutely. And just when a fragile social and political stability had been achieved in the last few years, the tectonic plates collided, flattening the capital city, cathedral and presidential palace included. Completely lacking building codes and with a government too weak and preoccupied to develop a preparedness plan, destruction and death were inevitable.
And yet, to this point there has been surprisingly little violence or social upheaval. Some of the most touching scenes in the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday's quake were the gaggles of people lifting their hands in prayer and their voices in song.
St. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, is said to have complained to God, "If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it's no wonder you have so few of them."
Somehow — inexplicably — for those with faith it doesn't seem to matter if everything goes right or everything goes wrong.
The Problem of Evil aside — who can ever figure that out? — the anguish of Haiti today may be — shall I say it? — a blessing in the cruelest disguise, an opportunity to rebuild this land, both literally and figuratively from the ground up.
Think of it: There are over 3,000 humanitarian organizations in Haiti, more than in any other country in the world. The United Nations has had a strong peacekeeping and advisory presence there for several years, and now the U.S. military is demonstrating its non-military side by mustering hospital ships and aircraft carriers and logistical expertise to bind the nation's wounds. Were all of these institutions to work cohesively, Haiti could rise from its ashes.
Unlike the "nation-building" efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, here is a chance for the United States to help reconstruct a society in its own back yard, unburdened by ulterior military motives. Despite their historical experiences with American interventionism (the country was an occupied "protectorate" from 1915 through 1934), Haitians in general display little anti-American sentiment. The Haitian population in the U.S. is significant; it is educated and energetic, producing respectable numbers of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business- people. Haitian-Americans treasure the freedom and opportunity that democracy has provided them, and most continue to maintain strong family ties in Haiti. Why not enlist them as major players in reshaping the country?
A truly international effort, at a fraction of the cost of those futile "wars" so far away, could raise Haiti from the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere to a prosperous one by bulldozing the ruined shacks, installing a modern infrastructure, and devoting both financial and human capital to education, medical care, environmental sustainability, and entrepreneurship.
This should not and cannot be done as an "American project." Using the model of Partners in Health, an agency that has worked in Haiti for two decades, the focus should be on training local people to assume responsibility, thus building up self-esteem and self-sufficiency, and in developing an effective national government.
The phoenix of Haiti could cancel the curse.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

NOT ENOUGH DOTS

January 14, 2010

Damn it. Just when I was ready to book my winter getaway, some blockhead with a bomb in his boxers tries to blow up a plane. Just when they were loosening up a bit at airport security, now it's back to full humiliation mode. Who knows what they'll make us take off this time, or where they'll pass the wand. Once in the air, we can't even relax with our Bloody Mary and blue corn chips; we're each profiling the other passengers and making personal no-fly lists — perhaps the most sensible security measure of all.
Thank God the fool tried to set himself off at his seat where everybody could watch him work and jumped him. He may have succeeded had he done it in the privacy of the plane's privy. Maybe he'd thought the better of dying at that moment but could placate Allah and Al-Qaeda, not necessarily in that order, by feigning a try and begging for an intervention. If it weren't so serious, it would be a comedy Peter Sellers would love.
One thing you have to say about terrorism: It really really works. If a country goes to war against a standing army, the minds of its citizens focus on a visible enemy and muster their efforts, from military to factory to victory garden, to defeat it. With terrorism, there is no army, and as we see even more clearly from this case, there is no nation either, just small cells of conspirators or even loners scattered all over the globe, communicating by computer; candidates for missions like this one sneak in for secretive seminars with explosives experts hidden in a myriad of places and start their deadly journeys from unlikely spots. The enemy is nowhere and everywhere at once, and the sheer uncertainty can drive us crazy. That's why war movies are less frightening than horror movies: In the former, the fear of the viewer is channeled and resolved through direct action against an obvious target; in the latter, the fear just hangs there because you never know when or where the stalker will strike next.
Even though historically the chances of being taken down by a terrorist on your next airplane flight are far less than being taken down by mechanical malfunction, paranoia at the possibility runs madly through our minds, ironically made the worse by the security directives issued reactively after each novel threat: first the pocket-knives and scissors, then the shoes, then the liquids, now the blankets and bathroom visits.
As common sense dictates and many security experts have acknowledged, it's impossible to prevent every terrorist attack; human ingenuity, especially in the pursuit of evil, will inevitably trump the best efforts to thwart it from time to time.
President Obama brought some sense to the situation when he told the country not to "succumb to a siege mentality": "Great and proud nations do not hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," he said. But he simultaneously canceled out that breath of reason by resurrecting the old Bush line, "We are at war."
Can we retire than metaphor, please? The only anti-terrorist actions resembling war are sometime skirmishes with Taliban swamp-foxes in Afghanistan, and those remote-controlled drone strikes around Pakistan, both far removed in place and purpose from the dynamics of this latest incident. Military models, conventional or revisionist, simply don't work against terrorism; it's trying to kill mosquitoes with a baseball bat. They're only meant to comfort the jittery American soul, trillions spent to persuade the public that their government is doing something they can see.
But this is not war. It's a test of wits to see who can outsmart the other — one other being a byzantine alphabet soup of surveillance agencies, each with enormous databases of suspicious persons, and which, in our bomber's case, were unable to "connect the dots"; and the other other being countless numbers of suicidals from everywhere who may not have enough dots to connect.
Of course, let's keep trying to connect what dots there are, and be more restrictive on issuing and pulling visas. But beyond that, let's aggressively seek a trans-national agreement to make airport security measures uniform and practical, and most importantly and effectively, pour our resources into works of peace and progress, to reverse the image of a bellicose America and defuse at least some of the bombs of hatred set to go off in people's brains.

YULETIDE LETTER, 2009

One day in October I called Frank Edwards, an 80-year-old member of my choir who'd recently celebrated his sixtieth wedding anniversary. His wife Tootsie answered the phone, and after the hellos she said, "Could you give me a second? One of the orna ments just fell off the Christmas tree." When she got back, I asked, "Your Christmas tree? You're early."
"We don't take it down anymore," she told me. "A couple years ago, we looked at it after New Year's and said to each other, "It's so beautiful and cheerful, and every year we feel so sad putting it away. Why don't we just leave it up?"
There's something to that, grabbing on to a beloved season and not letting go. Besides, when you reach a certain age, Christmas returns so quickly it seems that just when you've boxed everything up you're taking it out again.
Personally, I'd prefer an eternal springtime, but there's nothing I can do about that — except to get outside as often as I can in that season, imprinting the bursts of blooms upon that inward eye, to fill my heart with pleasure in bleak midwinter.
Actually, I had to spend some of my inward-eye capital last spring and early summer — here in the Northeast it was so rainy and cold that even the daffodils, all drooping and dripping, couldn't draw me out. The bees stayed inside too, which is why their honey production was dismally low, down two-thirds from last year.
It could be "climate change," everything topsy- turvy. In a few years I may be growing avocados in the garden here, while Samoa washes away.
Speaking of "change," consider the word as a political slogan. A year ago, much of the country and the world was swept up in giddy hope. Remember the love-feast on the Capitol Mall on inauguration day? Quite inexplicably, or is it, hope lost its audacity after about a hundred days. Though G. W. Bush was soundly repudiated, his policies, by and large, were not — more troops to Afghanistan; little or no movement on energy, environment, transportation; health-care "reform" that's basically a gift to the insurance companies. Even relations with Cuba, despite the warm early initiatives, haven't thawed. I may have to sneak in for a look.
So no Cuba so far, but I did get to Costa Rica in June, where my sister Jeannie and her husband Rob have built a lovely house and vacation rental apartments near Nosara on the Pacific Coast. The beaches are beautiful, the water warm, the wildlife fascinating, the pace of life slow. Pura vida, as the natives say.
Meanwhile, back in the hectic South Bronx, the building boom continues despite the economy, with all that enterprise-zone money locked in from headier days. We've even got a Home Depot now. But the recession has had its effects on the people — over 600 line up at the St. Augustine Food Pantry every Monday, three times the number of two years ago. One encouraging note is that several farmers' markets opened up here this summer, providing fresh produce that people can buy with food stamps — a healthy step up from the canned goods and surplus cheese of years past.
The St. Augustine Church community was saddened this fall when its century-old church building was closed as structurally unsafe and irreparable. The school auditorium across the street has been turned into an interim church. Pastor Thomas Fenlon, a team of parishioners, and the Archdiocese have been exploring the possibility of razing the grand old church for senior housing and building a smaller new one, but the recession has put a hold on that for now. So there she stands, a relic of what the Bronx used to be, in prosperous times and poor.
Our Lady of Victory Church down the street, where I am the music director, suffered a grievous loss with the death of its longtime pastor Peter Gavigan, who collapsed during Sunday Mass and died three days later, on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. He was one of those street-fightin' priests of the South Bronx, tena ciously present for his people during 30 of the very worst years in this area, mobilizing them to combat drugs and violence and compel the city to improve education and housing. As a young priest he was shaped by the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council, and he never relented, never looked back. We shall not see his likes again, part of that generation of giants now almost gone. I miss him.
As for myself, I'm being overrun by technology. Two decades ago, I was designing computer applica tions, and now computer applications have their designs on me. Over the last year, I've been inundated by e-mail invitations from half a dozen social networking sites to become "friends" with people I never heard of. Recently I got a Facebook message from a woman I met in a ballroom dancing class in 1976 and never saw again. If she could find me, who — or worse, what — is out there in Cyberland trolling for my identity, spending patters, political views?
It makes me want to flee to a monastery, but they're on-line too — ten Trappists tweeting.
But who knows? Maybe by next Christmas I'll be thoroughly linked-in, and this letter will arrive on your computer, precisely 140 characters long.
Meanwhile, let's take a tip from Tootsie and hold our holiday cheer throughout the year!

YEAR ONE

December 31, 2009


The year began in giddy hope. George W. Bush, that wrecker of worlds, was at long last on his way out, and Barack Obama, the multifaceted symbol of change, was on his way in. The country was sliding into recession and bogged down in amorphous "wars" against terrorism and for nation-building or whatever, and as in 1933, the stars seemed aligned to provide the right leader for the times, a man with a new vision for a just society and a foreign policy of openness and cooperation. Here, people were calling Obama the new FDR, and in Germany, the father of a friend of mine called him Der Weltpresident — the World-President.
Inauguration Day on the Capitol Mall was a love-feast, people coming together from all over to partake in an event to tell their grandchildren about. Cheek to jowl in the bitter cold, Pilgrim patricians and descendants of slaves, immigrants and refugees, and all in between swayed to the music in celebration of the first Black president, the living icon of America as ideal.
It was all about hope, which only in exceptional cases is also about politics. We should have prepared ourselves for disappointment.
So at year's end, what have we got? A convoluted health-care reform bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve, awaiting a long reconciliation fight with the House version; yet more troops marked for Afghanistan; no change on climate change; stasis on energy, transportation, and agriculture; ten percent unemployment. But wait! Guantanamo is closing! The big banks are saved! And don't forget cash for clunkers!
There is indeed much to be glad about within the executive branch: The Justice Department has regained its integrity; Obama's first appointment to the Supreme Court, Sonya Sotomayor, was shrewdly chosen and confirmed speedily; the Interior Department was purged of corruption; the Environmental Protection Agency started re-growing its teeth. But most programs requiring legislation have been tepid at the proposal stage and surprisingly weak in the follow-through.
Those not blinded by the mantra of "change" had already had their suspicions during the campaign. Candidate Obama occasionally apportioned some soaring rhetoric towards a fundamental realignment of priorities in transportation, energy, agriculture, environment, but his approach to the issues occupying the attention of the debates and the interviews amounted to tinkering with the status quo: On health care, he positioned himself to the right of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton; on Afghanistan, he labeled it a "war of necessity." His pitch at the time was toward the middle class, no mention made of closing the gap between rich and poor.
Once elected, and with that overwhelming sentiment of good will, he could have afforded to embolden his positions on the social and economic fronts. He could have mobilized that enormous database of supporters he'd amassed during the campaign to pressure Congress to pass just about whatever he wanted. But caution trumped audacity, most tellingly in the health-care dynamic, where he let go of the reins and let the Congress take them, Democrats pulling one way and Republicans the other. His dream of dialogue (remember the microcosmal Beer Summit?) remained a dream because dreams don't come true by themselves. To pass Medicare in 1965, Lyndon Johnson was on the phone with Republicans day and night, twisting arms and making deals. Instead, Obama put faith in "the legislative process," which is actually the lobbying and propaganda process, and what finally passed was compromise compromised.
It may be that Obama turns out to be a political genius, tacking this way and that, thwarting left and right as he's done with Afghanistan, ordering buildup and promising withdrawal in the same stroke.
But there is the unmistakable air of contrivance in all this, best illustrated by the relocation of the detention facility in Guantanamo to a prison in Illinois: Obama fulfills his pledge to close down Guantanamo while leaving intact the underlying Constitutional issue of holding people for years without trial.
What do we have as our president, an agent of change or the ghost of G. W. Bush?
It's only been a year, and there is much more drama to come. Will "hope" regain at least something of its audacity? Will there be a second love-feast on the Capitol Mall?

HEARTS AND MINDS

December 10, 2009

It took President Obama months to decide what to do next in Afghanistan; he finally presented his plan at West Point on December 1. Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a lengthy examination of his decision-making process — days and nights of meetings with his advisors, many of whom held widely divergent views. He displayed a comprehensive grasp of the issues, the article recounts, prodding the participants with questions and comments, resembling both "a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner," as one of them put it.
In one sense you can't help placing confidence in this man's judgment. By these accounts, he was not "dithering" but discerning, exercising a measured quest for clarity, not shooting from the hip. And yet, the sheer multiplicity of perspectives among the experts does not inspire confidence at all. The fact that everybody has a different idea on what will work means that nobody really knows what will work.
Even the "what" in "what will work" yields almost as many opinions as there are people to express them. Is the objective to keep Al Qaeda from regaining a "safe haven" in Afghanistan? Is it to keep the Taliban insurgents from regaining their pre-invasion oppressive control of the country? Is it to recruit and train a national army and police force to take over the task of stabilizing the country? Is it to make an end-run on Pakistan, our fickle ally, which may have been the terrorists' real safe haven all these years? Is it to do "nation-building" toward a Western-style democracy? Is it to eradicate the opium poppy crop that the Taliban had all but eradicated before the Americans deposed them?
Is it all of the above?
After so much deliberation, it was disconcerting to find the president's decision entirely conventional, preserving General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations almost intact: an Iraq-like "surge" of 30,000 more troops, a temporary deployment that would "get the job done" in a year and a half and pave the way for withdrawal.
In his speech at West Point, the president presented himself as absolutely sure of the outcome: "We will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months."
"Will"? Not "could," "should," or "might"? You'd like to trust Obama's rhetoric of certainty, but will-power never seems to have succeeded in Afghanistan; from the British to the Russians to the Americans, the wheels of their military juggernauts have all bogged down in the mountainous muck.
What are the American people to think of all this, we who are supplying most of the troops and are financing this operation to the tune of $100 billion a year? Obama's approach may have been a stroke of political genius in disarming Republicans with an escalation and Democrats with a drawdown, but it leaves honest ordinary citizens in confusion. What in the world is going on there?
This isn't World War II, and it isn't Vietnam either; in both those instances you had a unified government and military to fight; here you have the elusive, hydra-headed Taliban, everywhere and nowhere at once. (Obama, flouting conventional usage purposely, I think, referred to the Taliban in the singular — "the Taliban is" — though the word in Pashto is the plural of talib, meaning "student," and the reality is plural too.) This isn't even an Iraq, with its long history of dictatorship and powerful standing armies; here you have a kind of virtual country, ruled locally by countless warlords. The nominal "central government" commands little respect or loyalty; how can Western military advisors, no matter how skillful, recruit and train an indigenous army and police force when it's payoffs, not patriotism, that's the major inducement for joining up?
And speaking of payoffs, there's talk of trying to duplicate Iraq's "Anbar Awakening" by luring warlords and Taliban cells over with dollars — a most ironic strategy, given that bribery is endemic in the country and allegiance is as fungible as money is.
Frankly, there doesn't seem any way out of Afghanistan except the way out — but that course was impossible for Obama, who has long labeled the occupation as a "war of necessity" and took any option for immediate withdrawal off the table at the beginning of his consultations.
The Taliban can never be defeated because they're not an army but a movement; they can only be managed, and they may best be managed by the warlords themselves. The allegorical "war on terror," inherited from the Bush vocabulary, cannot be "won" by killing off a few Al Qaeda along the Pakistan border because terrorist cells are all over the world, connected by computer; they can only be inhibited by enhanced surveillance and prudent covert operations.
The example of Greg Mortenson, the intrepid American who is building schools in Pakistan, seems to make far greater sense than further military action: He has pacified whole areas there by offering what people really want — an education, to give them their own way out and up.
One hundred billion dollars a year to support 100,000 troops makes easy math for Mortenson — that's a billion dollars per soldier, and for the cost of keeping just one soldier he says he could set up and run 20 schools.
Wouldn't that be a better way to win hearts and minds? Wouldn't that be change we can believe in?

GOLD FRIDAY

December 3, 2009

While 195 million shoppers were jostling for bargain merchandise at the stores on "Black Friday" last week, I was in the quiet of my basement honey house, performing its seasonal transition. I inspected and organized the beekeeping equipment I use on the hives for the bees' summer honey production, dismantled the extractor, the centrifuge that pulls the honey off the comb, and put them away — another summer gone, another spring to be: memory and hope. Then I set the place up for the winter task of candle-making.
When the bees have cured the thin, watery nectar of flowers into thick, rich honey, they seal it up with a capping of wax produced by glands in their bodies. Before extracting the honey, you cut off the cappings and set them aside. After the last honey harvest in the fall, you melt the cappings in boiling water and pour the wax through a filter into makeshift containers like orange-juice cartons, where it hardens into blocks for use in candles and cosmetics.
I prefer hand-dipped tapers over the poured varieties of candle. They're elegant on the dining-room table and make coveted gifts. It takes about 30 dips of the wick into a pot of molten wax to produce a standard-width taper, and you must wait a few minutes after each dip for the new layer of wax to harden. I use four metal dipping frames strung with wicking that make six candles each, and work in assembly-line fashion; by the time I've dipped the fourth frame, the first is cool enough to dip again. At the end of the session, I've got 24 beautiful, honey-scented candles of pure beeswax. It's a long and tedious process, but there is a certain meditative quality to this kind of tedium which I enjoy.
This week, time and motivation permitting, I'll tackle the cappings and the candles. Then I'll take a day for another tedious but gratifying job, putting together a couple dozen little loaves of honey-blond fruitcake. It's a recipe I've experimented with for years, with no molasses and no green things, the two ingredients that give fruitcake a bad name. This cake turns out light and fresh-tasting, quickly converting the most die-hard of fruitcake-haters. (I'll send you the recipe on request.) Couple those items with bottles of the bees' honey and jars of pickles and relishes I canned over the summer, and I've got holiday gift-packs that Harry and David's can't touch.
Hand-crafted gifts are immensely satisfying, both for the giver and for the receiver. They demonstrate a care that is direct and personal, the fruit of one's labor unmediated by money. Some of the things I treasure the most are those that came from the heart, not the wallet: a quilt from a longtime friend, a tiny clay bee-skep from an eight-year-old boy, a pair of unwearable knitted mittens in garish colors from an elderly aunt — as well as ones that are now only delicious memories: boxes of fudge and cookies from warm winter kitchens and jars of dried herbs from a neighbor's summer garden.
There is something spooky about "Black Friday" besides its name. (Wasn't the day of the 1929 stock market crash called "Black Thursday"?) It gives me anxiety just thinking about it — the frenzied rush to Christmas and the sudden vacuum that follows, and the identification of Christmas with consumption. Clogging the aisles of the Wal-Marts and the Macy's, individuals become generic, nameless except on their credit cards, pursuing countless ready-made products that come all the way from China, many of which will end up in the generic land-fill both physical and mental, not too long after the gift-wrap does.
The recession has not severed the link between Christmas and consumerism, but it seems to have reined it in a bit — initial Black Friday data indicate there were more shoppers than before the recession but they spent less. Perhaps too, the growing eat- local movement may be triggering a more general hearth-and-home Yuletide attitude, where time spent with family and friends is the greatest value and simple gifts are the finest of all — slow food, slow living and giving.
I was glad to spend Black Friday in the honey house — it was Gold Friday to me — away from the hordes, happily anticipating a Christmas of peace.