Sunday, December 20, 2009

Know any good Advent songs?

We are almost to that time of Christmas but the purists among those devotees of the Christian calendar remind us that it is still Advent. We are supposed to celebrate Christmas after the holidays. Yet, year after year, that message doesn't seem to be sinking in. Hey, when Christmas decorations go up in stores before Halloween, it seems like an uphill struggle. It is more than because we are shallow commercialized zombies who don't know how to embrace the waiting of Advent. Okay, maybe some of that is true, but there are deeper dynamics as well.

The most important dynamic is that the Christian calendar has the major holiday start the given season. The season of Christmas follows Christmas. The season of Easter follows Easter. The season of Pentecost follows...and follows...and follows Pentecost. Makes sense.

The problem is that in contemporary western society, it is the polar opposite. The season ENDS with the holiday instead of beginning with it. We we don't celebrate the 4th of July after the Fourth. When the fireworks end, Fourth of July is over. We don't continue celebrating Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving--turkey leftovers notwithstanding. Part of it is that we spend so much effort preparing for the holiday that the preparation almost becomes the actual celebration with the holiday day being something almost of an anti-climax. I've long felt that the crescendo of Christmas is not Christmas morning but Christmas Eve, the ultimate time of expectation and candlelight services for Christians and the tracking of Santa for the secular world. New Year's day really is the anticlimax to the build up on New Year's Eve. At midnight, it is pretty much downhill except for those looking forward to the football games. It is ironic that the week between Christmas and New Year's, which hypothetically could have been the ultimate frenzy of holiday activity, is one of the quietest, even somber times of the year, a time of exhaustion and saying "it's over" before one last final push to finish New Year's and get on with things.

Moreover, we tend to celebrate holidays that have things to do, say, eat, etc. Here is the contrast between Advent and Lent. Lent at least has defined activities, such as fasting, attending Wednesday evening services etc. It starts with Ash Wednesday with a particular set of rituals that Advent does not. In some traditions, like the Eastern Orthodox, there are even special foods--based on what cannot be eaten--to mark the holiday. Thus Lent does not have the bleed in from Easter that Advent does with Christmas.

Think about it. Other than O Come, O Come Emmanuel, what other popular advent song is out there? What are the distinctive Advent foods? It has fewer traditions, lighting the Advent wreath and having the Advent calendar notwithstanding. There are relatively few Advent rituals so, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the energy from Christmas fills the space.

Advent, of course, is not the only holiday to face challenges. Pentecost is supposed to be a major holiday and season in the church year. Talk about a holiday with skimpy traditions! Other than wearing red, I can't think of other Pentecost traditions. Certainly can't think of too many Pentecost foods or hymns. If there aren't rituals and practices involved, forget about the larger society really embracing a holiday. Just ask the devotees of Labor Day.

I guess, my advice is if you want to keep Advent, either accept the reality that we end seasons with holidays and start Advent earlier in the fall or come up with more do to/eat/say, etc.

Thoughts welcome on this Advent season!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The regionalist dilemma

It has been a while since my last post. Folks have been asking for more posts so this is an attempt to be more frequent.

In recent months, I have been reading and researching the nature of regionalism, a movement that develop in the 1920s and 1930s to encourage an appreciation and connection with region, a place rooted in both landscape and culture. At the heart of the view is a sense of place, landscape, plants, weather, etc. giving a sense of rootedness and unique identity to a location. These features show up also in the cultural heritages of those peoples who developed in a place. Not a few of these regionalists, from Willa Cather to John Gaw Meem, John Steuart Curry, John Sloane, and Mabel Dodge Luhan, were often themselves part of the region that they celebrated. Some were descendants of generations of locals. Others were "neonatives," to use the phrase of Hal Rothman, who moved to an area and adopted it as their own.

That said, region has a dilemma. One facet of regionalism is rooted in location and anyone who connects to it is part of that region. On the other hand, region is about the people who are there and if is not of that people or has ancestry from them, connection is region is, well, a little shallow.

Increasingly, I find that it is those whose backgrounds match one but not the other qualities, tell us more and more about what and who qualifies as a member of a place. It is the Haole or Asian American who was born and grew up in Hawai'i but has no connection to Native Hawaiian ancestry. Are they truly Hawaiians-even if Hawaiian landscapes, foods, climates, etc. are what they have always known? Are they of the place or simply the descendants of those who stole the land from its earlier inhabitatns and in a sense merely inheritors of stolen property? We tend to ascribe more validity to ancestry than place--being "Hawaiian" is somewhat portable in this regard. We can talk of someone being Native Hawaiian in descent who never set foot on the islands.

This is the question: is being connected to and shaped by a place enough or is ancestry required? How much can one adopt or embrace a place without seeming fake? This will likely be a thread for what will hopefully be more posts--a thread that will connect itself to Kansas, as well, BTW.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

On this Independence Day

Life has a way of getting away from us. It has been four months since my last post. Lots of thoughts. Not much time or incentive. Perhaps Facebook drained the mental juices too much. For a longer discussion, tho' it seemed appropriate to discuss a larger idea that I have wrestled with for a bit: What does it mean to be an American? Figure July 4 is as good a day to deal with it as any.

Growing up, when I asked "who are we?" --and in New Mexico that is not an inconsequential question -- the answer was along the lines of "You are an American and that should be good enough for you." Okaaay. Yes, I was born in the United States. I am a citizen, am glad I am a citizen, appreciate the opportunity to vote and particpate in our governance. As an identity, though, what does that mean? After all, George W. Bush is an American. So was Michael Jackson. So are the neighbor kids whose family came from Mexico and who themselves speak both Spanish and English. So, what does it mean to be American?

It seems that there are two versions of answer, neither of which I find terribly satisfying. One is the classic "WASP" version--the "All American" version. "American" means northern European in descent, English speaking, Christian, preferably from a small town, preferably with military connections, married with kids (or supporting married with kids), loving sports--esp baseball and football, prefering "meat and potatoes" cuisine, with ties to the farmer or the "workin' man," and fervently patriotic with the unswavering conviction that the United States is better than any other place on the planet--ever. It is the "country" in "country music." Think the song "I'm proud to be an American...." It is on one end Fox News but also Prairie Home Companion of Garrison Keillor on the other --the two sides of the same coin. It exists here in Kansas in spades. A version of it defined what American meant for my family.

Yet it has its limitations. There are a lot of people who are born, raised, and supportive of the United States who don't fit that but in this image, are't "real" Americans. Urban yuppies aren't "real Americans" in this view and urbanites in general are problematic for this largely small-town vision of Americanness. You aren't a "real American" if you didn't serve in the miltary or at least support all U.S. policies overseas unquestioningly. Immigrants can be All-American so long as they give up their earlier traditions and "become" American. People of color have limited relevance to this world view, as do people who aren't Christian or LBGT, etc. It excludes pretty much anyone who can't say "H**l, Yeah!" in identifying with the world view of the country music.

There is an opposite vision that in some ways developed precisely to challenge the All-American notion just listed. That vision is the melting pot, the world of the song "They're coming to America." It is the world of America as place of opportunity for all and therefore is open to all. Anybody can be American so long as they are born here or are naturalized citizens. American means hot dogs and tacos and sushi. Americans speak all languages, have ties to all parts of the world and have a variety of religious backgrounds. It is the America of the WPA projects of "This Land is My Land." In many ways, it is a far more accurate depiction of American identity. After all, the U.S. is the first country to not be founded based on an ethnicity but rather, and ideal.

Yet, that is where its problematic issues come in. If being American is about being tied to all other peoples on the earth,and ultimately being part of a society that is an amalgam of all the peoples of the earth, then what is the difference between being American and being, well, human? The diversity view makes absolute sense from a legal, citizenship standpoint. On the other hand, it can be, from an ethnicity/identity model so broad that it can be almost meaningless. Identity is rooted in the sense of "I am this, I am not that. I am part of a larger group that has X,Y, and Z features." It has to be more than mere legal descriptions (after all, you don't hear someone proclaim "State Legislative District 36 pride!"--it has to be deeper than that) Total inclusion of all groups, while a very worthwhile endeavor, eliminates the "other" to distinguish oneself. This is why I don't have a problem with the "hyphenated American." Rather, it becomes a natural outgrowth of someone both identifying as American and yet finding an identity within that breadth. The hyphenated concept is all but required to allow someone to find a relevant identity within the larger mix.

This multicultural version is the New Mexico model, with its very, very, very strong embrace of tradition, heritage and rootedness in the land and people. One sees it in the Pueblo artist connecting with ancient traditions, who can say "I am X because we do this, eat this, and have this as a background story. It is the Latino who can be both American and part of "La Raza" and be proud of both. It is rooted in very real reactions to ethnocentricism and racism that have defined the region for generations. Grafted onto that is the cowboy model, which is the Southwestern "All American" (perhaps Y'All American is more accurate) contribution to the mix as a legitimate mix. But if you aren't Native American, Latino, or a Cowboy, well, you're just an Anglo outsider--a "them" not worth describing in detail.

This is where we come back to the issue of American for the native born English speaking crowd. If you can't legitimately tie oneself to a specific heritage based on place or origin, ethnicity, or region, then, well, who are you? If you are a blend and the family made sure, in good mid-twentieth century fashion, to strip any ethnic baggage from the background (often with quite understandable reasons), who are you? I know a lot of people who just say "I'm a mutt"--which is sorta akin to saying "I don't care if I have an identity." It is giving up on the identity quest. Maybe that is the healthiest way to be and the sanest way to proceed. Wish I could go there. Just can't.

For me, the quest for identity, heritage, traditions, etc. remains circular and awkward. As a blend of several different backgrounds but ties and traditions to none of them, this background means there really isn't anything to put at the front end of the hyphen in the hyphenated American. Yet, I am too different from the classic "All American" version of being American as well. Being raised in a multicultural, urban setting, the ties don't stick and trying to live into the small town, God and Country, "All American" image would feel as fake as attempting to be more "ethnic" when trying to connect to one of the lost heritages of my own background. In other words, I feel neither fish nor fowl.

In the cosmic scheme of things is ain't no big deal. There are lots of people who have a lot more serious problems and real issues to deal with. 99.99999999% of the world's people have much more serious matters to attend to so I almost feel guilty even devoting this much time to the topic. It fully realize it is a luxury tp be so whiny, a privilege limited to a very well off, well educated person who has very much benefitted from what society has provided. Yet, it is the matter that won't go away, sorta like a nagging pain that you can't quite explain and would love to get a diagnosis for.

Wish there was a way to end the post. The concluding paragraphs remain to be written. My ongoing search is to find out what they might say.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Who's Up for Lebanese?

This post is a little different from the previous ones in that it relates to a current research project. I am part of a team of researchers putting together a photo history of Wichita's Lebanese community. A lot of people don't realize that the Lebanese (originally called Syrians before geopolitics made that term a little awkward to use) have been part of the Wichita scene since the 1890s. They started as peddlers then moved into retail and the professions. Most came from two areas in Lebanon: J'daidat in the district of Marjayoun and a pair of villages known as Ain Arab and Mhaithi.

They are Eastern Orthodox Christians for the most part with a few Catholics as well. A recent migration has included more from Beiruit who became active in the restaurant business. Although many people think Wichita is another Amarillo where we eat barbeque and chile, in fact Wichitans actually have opinions about who has the best hummus.

We are always looking for stories and photographs so if you know of any related to this community, let me know.

Friday, February 13, 2009

And then there were two.....

This week, Quentin and I opened our home to a new addition, a tabby named Zeke. Zeke is a loving big grey tabby whose human needed to find a new home for him. It seemed that perhaps Quentin was getting lonely and perhaps needed a companion--to say nothing of the fact that Zeke was a great cat to begin with. The two have adapted to each other relatively well--for cats. Zeke is BIG and dwarfs Quentin. He is also 7 years old, being something akin to an older brother to Quentin. Quentin has followed Zeke around, literally like a doting if somewhat bratty younger sibling. Aside from the odd altercation when Quentin pushes Zeke's buttons a little too much, they do seem to be settling down, even enjoying "squirrelivision" together.

I am becoming "the dude with the cats."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Whither-or is it wither--Route 66?

This past week, I drove back through Tucumcari, New Mexico. This icon of Route 66 has been a familiar stop on many a trip. What struck me, however, is how much is shut down or in decline since I first started visiting a couple of years ago. Many of the shops that were fun to visit are closed and empty. Landmarks like the Blue Swallow motel seem to be closed. Old structures such as the "Frontier Museum" outside of Santa Rosa were once abandoned but amusing features on the landscape. Now it is all but gone, apparently the victim of a fire.

For a while, it seemed like Route 66 nostalgia was the holy grail for many of these communities, attempting to lure visitors off the main interstates. It was this nostalgia that emerged in large part to Michael Wallis' book Route 66: The Mother Road or the near spin-off film, Cars. I was able to be part of that wave, especially when I was part of the Route 66 group at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association.

Nowadays, I wonder if that nostalgia boom is starting to wane. It capitalized on baby boomers recalling childhood experiences travelling down the road back in the 1950s and 1960s, much as the past 2 decades' obsession with all things World War II corresponded with boomers' need to honor their parents' efforts as "the greatest generation." As living memory of Route 66 as an actual location ages and fades, I wonder more and more about whether younger generations will carry this interest. After all, when I was a child in the 1970s, Route 66 was already gone. I am old enough to be a grandfather of very young children, making two more generations that have even less connection to the road. In other words, Route 66 was someone else's experience.

The good news is that Route 66 is still a pop culture icon, mainly for its trademark logo. That said, the image is more and more detached from the physical highway. Route 66 is less a place that ties together the central and southwestern parts of the country as much as a marketing image used to sell shot glasses, ball caps, and hamburgers in 1950s-themed restaurants. When Route 66 highway shields decorate brew pubs in Detroit or Toronto, the separation of image from place is all but complete. Why bother patronizing a mom and pop motel in Tucumcari when you can buy a T-shirt at a truck stop in Florida that evokes much the same imagery?

A huge part of the issue is that Route 66 nostaligia is too rooted in the past, too rooted in one time and place. It is about celebrating the 1950s, which is great, but also limiting. Unless contemporary features along the route are part of the nostalgia, from the great cross at Groom, TX to the newly-opened platform for the "Railrunner" in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a real danger of Route 66 becoming a dinosaur with a one-way ticket to extinction.

I have long said that there is a difference between preserving the past and mummifying it. Preservation means finding those features that are significant because they still relate to our lives today and give meaning to current populations. Mummification (and those of you who know me know that mummies really creep me out) is about selecting one time and era and simply focusing on it, regardless of whether younger generations even relate to the topic at hand.

In other words, for Route 66 to remain a living entity, it has to be relevant to Generation X, Y, and Z, not just nostalgia fodder for baby boomers' quest to recall their childhoods.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflections from a feline traveler

Several individuals have wanted Quentin to do a post on the blog. Now that he has done some traveling, it seemed a good time to let him discuss his take on things:

Yesterday morning, my human loaded me into a carrier when it was still dark. As usual, I make sure he wakes up very early, although last night he tossed and turned and kept me awake a bit! It was sure cold when he loaded me into the big carrier in his jeep. He told me that we were going on "a trip." I didn't like being in the large carrier very much and made sure he knew that! He's a well trained human and figured out a new arrangement. A leash allowed me to roam around the car without the fear that I might leap out at stops.

This seemed to work out pretty well. I got to snooze in the back for a while. Sometimes, I ate and drank out of bowls on the top of the carrier, allowing me to snack while watching the scenery go by. Humans say this is like having something called a dining car. There was one really good stop where I got to watch birds eating seeds in the parking lot.

Many humans wondered how I, as a cat, did as a traveler. Have to say that I didn't mind it. It was fun to see new scenery such as when canyons race by out the window. Those winds out in what humans seem to call "the Panhandle" were a little scary but wow, those tumbleweeds were fun to watch. Sometimes I just wanted to snuggle up to my human and remind him of my presence. He's pretty good to me even if his choice of radio stations seems to hurt my ears sometimes.

All told, I think I might just start to like this travel thing.

"Mr. Q"