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We have been here before

One of our political parties has declared a war on modern America. Writing in the Washington Post after the Supreme Court ruling to take away a constitutional right in overturning Roe v. Wade, Jennifer Rubin framed the issue succinctly and correctly.

(I)t’s not right to say “Roe is on the ballot” in November. The 21st century is on the ballot. At risk is the America in which the definition of equality has expanded, in which the state is prohibited from micromanaging our lives, in which one’s right to make personal decisions is not governed by Zip code. (Emphasis in original.)

Today’s Republican party is willing to overturn elections that do not go their way. A radical and post-truth Supreme Court plays fast and loose with the facts of a case to reach the decision they are seeking. The more extreme among the party will threaten those who oppose them with violence and even death, with no public pushback from their leadership.

To many who grew up straight, white, and (in my case) male — in other words, privileged — belief in an America that would always move forward toward progress was part of our DNA, and the recent turn of events can seem shocking. Yet there is another group of citizens that looks at the new-found horror of the privileged and shakes their head. They have a question for us: “What took you so long?”

People of color in America know that we have been here before. And judging from what they are writing and saying both historically and in today’s moment, many of them are damn tired of waiting for the rest of us to face reality.

What is happening in America today is not new. This is our history. Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin, among many other courageous voices, have written it for us to understand.

In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1875, using language and logic that foreshadowed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Court found that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.

Frederick Douglass made a remarkable speech on October 22, 1883, at the Civil Rights Mass Meeting held in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Hall after the court ruling had been announced. His words remain so appropriate for today.

Using poetic language, Douglass first spoke of decisions made in support of freedom.

When a deed is done for Freedom / Through the broad earth’s aching breast / Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, / Trembling on from east to west.

Douglass then asked his listeners to contrast that thrill of joy with the feeling when a decision is made to oppress.

But when a deed is done from slavery, caste and oppression, and a blow is struck at human progress, whether so intended or not, the heart of humanity sickens in sorrow and writhes in pain. It makes us feel as if some one were stamping upon the graves of our mothers, or desecrating our sacred temples of worship. Only base men and oppressors can rejoice in a triumph of injustice over the weak and defenceless, for weakness ought itself to protect from assaults of pride, prejudice and power.

It mattered little, as Douglass eloquently noted, that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been discussed for months, debated in Congress where “every argument against it has been over and over again carefully considered and fairly answered” and when its constitutionality has been especially discussed. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the President. It was a law of the land for almost a decade, and the country largely assented to it.

One would think in those circumstances that “the reasons for declaring such a law unconstitutional and void, should be strong, irresistible and absolutely conclusive.”

But alas, this is America with a Supreme Court that has lifetime appointments.

The Supreme Court is the autocratic point in our National Government. No monarch in Europe has a power more absolute over the laws, lives, and liberties of his people, than that Court has over our laws, lives, and liberties.

The Court, however, made a decision that

“has inflicted a heavy calamity upon seven millions of the people of this country, and left them naked and defenceless against the action of a malignant, vulgar, and pitiless prejudice. It presents the United States before the world as a Nation utterly destitute of power to protect the rights of its own citizens upon its own soil. It can claim service and allegiance, loyalty and life, of them, but it cannot protect them against the most palpable violation of the rights of human nature, rights to secure which, governments are established. It can tax their bread and tax their blood, but has no protecting power for their persons. Its National power extends only to the District of Columbia, and the Territories — where the people have no votes — and where the land has no people. All else is subject to the States. In the name of common sense, I ask, what right have we to call ourselves a Nation, in view of this decision, and this utter destitution of power?

So much of what Douglass said about the Supreme Court, its arbitrary decision to overturn the law of the land, and the consequences to our national experiment hold true today.

I have also been reading James Baldwin over the past few weeks, from a book I bought in Paris where Baldwin moved for nine years to seek his calling and to view a different way of life from the oppression against blacks in America.

Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) is Baldwin’s powerful collection of thirteen essays written during the 1950s. James Baldwin “bore witness to the unhappy consequences of American racial strife” as one observer stated, and he writes of “blacks’ aspirations, disappointments, and coping strategies in a hostile society” in a very personal way that convicts the reader.

Each essay brings forth serious questions and challenging, almost damning, portraits of where America stood at the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement. In the introduction he writes that “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” He knows we, as Americans, have both. We still have them.

“Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem” paints a devastating picture of the areas of our cities where Blacks are forced to live, while also speaking to the police presence that is a constant reminder of the residents’ second class (at best) citizenship. These are men and women “whose only crime is color.” And when the place inevitably blows up from the tension, the reason is always the same.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. *

Baldwin’s work, like that of Frederick Douglass, remains powerful and applicable in the 21st century. But as I look at attempted coups, Court decisions to strip women of their autonomy, and rising political violence, I think about which writers of color we should read today. Certainly people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and the other writers I mentioned after the George Floyd murder. But I feel that at the time of the overturning of Roe v. Wade we have a special obligation to listen to women writers of color, who can speak out of personal experience to the moment we live in. People like Michelle Alexander, who has detailed in The New York Times her harrowing story of being raped while attending Stanford Law School, which resulted in a pregnancy and her decision to have an abortion. 


This is such a crucial time for all of us to be awake. Each will have to decide what specific actions to take. But, as Frederick Douglass said, there is a lesson that we all need to acknowledge in times like these.

The lesson of all the ages on this point is, that a wrong done to one man, is a wrong done to all men. It may not be felt at the moment, and the evil day may be long delayed, but so sure as there is a moral government of the universe, so sure will the harvest of evil come.

More to come…

DJB

*The words “Negroes” and “men” are both Baldwin’s words which perhaps we would not use in the same way today.

Image from Wikimages from Pixabay.

History sets the context

Maya Angelou famously said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” The point is to believe what a person demonstrates themselves to be, regardless of who they claim to be.

The same holds true for political parties.

This past week has been extraordinary. Some of our fellow citizens have demonstrated exactly who they are. Between the Congressional hearings around January 6th, seismic changes coming as a result of Supreme Court rulings, and the beginning of the 2022 political season there has been a great deal to process.

As is my custom, I have turned to history and historians to help in understanding these events.

For those who grew up as I did in an era when a significant number of Republicans still believed in working with Democrats to find common ground, it can be difficult to overcome our pre-conceived notions. I have voted for Republicans in my lifetime and have worked effectively with many officeholders from the party during my four decades in the nonprofit sector. So, it hurts to write this, on numerous levels, not the least of which is because of what it says about our country and its future.

In their public messaging, today’s Republican party claims to be about personal freedom, responsibility, support for life, fealty to the constitution, limited government, and capitalism. Occasionally, when seeking historical legitimacy, they remind us that they are the Party of Lincoln.

This positive message of who they are has been sent, as documented by historian Nancy MacLean, via a well-funded and well-coordinated propaganda machine over the past 60 years. This same machine has simultaneously hammered home the negative point-of-view that only dangerous socialists seek government action that upholds civil rights, protects the marginalized, regulates business, provides clean air and water, enacts sensible gun control laws, fights wealth inequality, backs an individual’s right to love and marry whoever they wish, gives all individuals the right to control their own bodies, and supports public education. This drumbeat of contrasting misinformation coming out of Fox, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, billionaire-funded think tanks, Sinclair broadcasting, right wing talk radio, and the internet, has had the desired effect. At least one-third and probably more of the country now holds the strong belief that the only way to save America is to keep Democrats out of power at all costs, using any means possible.

This past week we were shown undeniable evidence of what the modern Republican Party has become. And what the Republicans have shown us makes it very clear that the once proud Party of Lincoln no longer exists. In fact, much of their language today echos that of Lincoln’s political opponent, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.


Exhibit #1: This is a party that has demonstrated that it is willing to overthrow a lawfully elected government in order to stay in power

It pains me to type that headline. But with every hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol — each session more riveting than the previous one — we see and hear “overwhelming proof that former president Trump and his congressional supporters tried to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 presidential election and steal control of our country to keep a minority in power.” The fifth hearing was a “barnburner” to quote historian Heather Cox Richardson, who has been following the hearings and placing them in a larger historical context. She notes that the committee has firmly established the following:

  • There was no evidence for Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him. “Instead, recounts, court cases, and investigations all showed that Biden was the true victor by more than 7 million votes in the popular count, and by 306 to 232 votes in the Electoral College.”
  • Trump knew there was no evidence for his claims as “his own appointees, including his attorney general William Barr, had told him repeatedly that the incidents he cited as proof were not, in fact, real. Barr called his arguments ‘bullsh*t.’ But Trump continued to push them…” 
  • His followers were willing to use force and violence, against politicians and law enforcement officers to get what they wanted.
  • Trump repeatedly pressured the Department of Justice to say that the 2020 election had been marred by fraud. When they refused, he took his pressure public. He also met with a number of members of Congress who joined the pressure on DOJ and began working with Trump to replace Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen with an unqualified environmental lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, who would state publicly that there were serious instances of fraud (which wasn’t true). Trump backed down from this plan only because he was told — and became convinced — that the move would backfire and would not be helpful.
  • Republican elected and party officials in several states where Biden won were also at work on submitting slates of fake electors who would falsely certify that their states voted for Trump.
  • A number of members of Congress asked the White House for presidential pardons following the certification of Joe Biden as the next president after the attack of January 6th. As committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said at the hearing, the only reason one asks for a pardon is if he or she believes they have committed a crime.

The evidence at this point is overwhelming. Today’s Republican party was willing to support the overthrow of a lawfully elected government to keep Donald Trump in power. They are working to choose their voters in order to make sure the results are what they want. The country fought a Civil War, however, to defend the will of the majority from the tyranny of the minority.


Exhibit #2: This is a party that has demonstrated a willingness to take away rights from American citizens, even when those rights are supported by large majorities of Americans

In an 1883 speech, Frederick Douglass noted that

The Supreme Court is the autocratic point in our National Government. No monarch in Europe has a power more absolute over the laws, lives, and liberties of his people, than that Court has over our laws, lives, and liberties. 

That statement is as true today as it was in 1883.

One day after the most recent January 6th hearing, the Supreme Court stripped a constitutional right from a large portion of the American people when they overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Most historians and commentators cannot think of another instance where the court has rescinded a constitutional right that the people have come to exercise and expect. (*) Attorney and writer Robert B. Hubbell noted:

Standing alone, the abolition of an existing constitutional right that results in the subordination of women to theocratic state legislatures is anti-democratic, un-American, and a violation of human rights. Even so, the manner in which this Court chose to dispense with a right that is recognized in 174 of the world’s 195 nations was hurtful and cruel.”

Three justices appointed by Donald Trump (two as a result of extremely questionable maneuvers by Senator Mitch McConnell to stack the Supreme Court) led that charge. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife is caught up in the efforts to overthrow the 2020 Presidential election, stated out loud that the court should also do away with other rights, such as the right to contraception, L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the right to marry individuals of the same sex. Interestingly, he did not mention the relatively recent right to marry someone of another race, as Justice Thomas — an African American man — is married to a white woman.

The right-wing justices made this decision simply because they could.

As court observer and commentator Linda Greenhouse wrote, Justice Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is also a requiem for the Supreme Court.

Ms Greenhouse wrote one of her first major articles for the New York Times on Roe v. Wade just after the 1973 decision, so she has watched the history of this question from its beginning. She asks us to “consider the implication of Justice Alito’s declaration that Roe v. Wade was ‘egregiously wrong’ from the start. Five of the seven justices in the Roe majority — all except William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall — were appointed by Republican presidents. The votes necessary to preserve the right to abortion 19 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Roe follow-up decision that the court also overturned on Friday, came from five Republican-appointed justices.”

Greenhouse continued.

In asserting that these justices led the court into grave error from which it must now be rescued, Justice Alito and his majority are necessarily saying that these predecessors, joining the court over a period of four decades, didn’t know enough, or care enough, to use the right methodology and reach the right decision. The arrogance and unapologetic nature of the opinion are breathtaking.

The ruling is based on very bad history, not to mention very flawed logic that cannot stay consistent from day-to-day. The Court’s majority said in overturning Roe that they were returning power to the states per the constitution’s original intent. But earlier in the week they overturned a 100-year-old state-level gun control law in New York. So much for respecting state control! Last week the court issued a ruling on religious liberty that essentially made separation of church and state — one of the key tenants of our constitution — unconstitutional. Dr. Richarson writes that “in both the Dobbs decision and the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (case), the court used stunningly bad history, clearly just working to get to the modern-day position it wanted. Abortion was, in fact, deeply rooted in this nation’s history not only in the far past but also in the past 49 years, and individual gun rights were not part of our early history.”

When discussing their approach to the constitution, the right-wing justices and their supporters in the Republican party like to call themselves originalists. Historian Joseph J. Ellis quotes the usually understated Justice William Brennan as describing originalism as “arrogance clocked as humility.” Alito’s opinion in Dobbs seems to be a perfect example.


Exhibit #3: This is a party where cruelty has become a feature, not a bug

Federal Judge J. Michael Luttig testified before the January 6th Select Committee on June 16th. As countless commentators have noted, Luttig is a leading conservative thinker and a giant in Republican legal circles. He worked in the Reagan administration, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to a federal judgeship, and was on the short-list for a Supreme Court seat during President George W. Bush’s term. As Dr. Richardson reported, “In January 2021, then–vice president Mike Pence’s staff turned to him for support to make sure Pence didn’t agree to count out electors; Luttig opposed the scheme absolutely.”

Luttig knows the Republican party as well as anyone.

In his testimony, Judge Luttig “examined the ongoing danger to democracy and located it not just on former president Donald Trump and his enablers, but on the entire Republican Party of today, the party that embraces the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, the party that continues to plan to overturn any election in which voters choose a Democrat.”

“[T]he former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy,” Luttig reiterated to NPR’s All Things Considered.

And, as if in confirmation, Dr. Richardson noted that delegates to a convention of the Texas Republican Party approved platform planks on June 18th which are stunning in their reliance on lies and conspiracy theories and acceptance of draconian measures to get their way. These are platform planks

…rejecting “the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and [holding] that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States”; requiring students “to learn about the dignity of the preborn human,” including that life begins at fertilization; treating homosexuality as “an abnormal lifestyle choice”; locking the number of Supreme Court justices at 9; getting rid of the constitutional power to levy income taxes; abolishing the Federal Reserve; rejecting the Equal Rights Amendment; returning Christianity to schools and government; ending all gun safety measures; abolishing the Department of Education; arming teachers; requiring colleges to teach “free-market liberty principles”; defending capital punishment; dictating the ways in which the events at the Alamo are remembered; protecting Confederate monuments; ending gay marriage; withdrawing from the United Nations and the World Health Organization; and calling for a vote “for the people of Texas to determine whether or not the State of Texas should reassert its status as an independent nation.”


There is so much more that could and will be said. However, we have reached a point in our country where a shrinking minority fearful of losing its position of privilege is working overtime to maintain power and control over a majority by any means necessary. A majority who support the right to an abortion and common-sense gun laws. The last time we had this type of fight by a minority to hold onto power was, as explained by historian Joanne B. Freeman, in the decade before the Civil War. Dr. Richardson adds to that point.

In its imposition of minority rule first by insisting on state’s rights and then by demanding federal protection of laws it wants, the Republican Party is echoing the southern Democrats before the Civil War. Like today’s Republicans, as they lost support they entrenched themselves first in the machinery of the federal government and then in the Supreme Court.

“And, finally,” Richardson concludes, “when northerners realized that enslavers had gamed the system to spread slavery across the nation, they came together from all different parties to protest and to stand against that attempt to destroy democracy and hand the country over to a few rich men. Ironically, that was the birth of the Republican Party that, under Abraham Lincoln, worked to create a government ‘of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.’” 

Today’s Republican Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln. Instead, it is the party of Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Calhoun, Lincoln’s opponents.

I was tempted to write “unbelievable” in response to last week’s news. However, Dr. Angelou’s quote brings me up short. “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” 

More to come…

DJB

*I will have more about the speech by Frederick Douglass — when he was speaking about a right, given by Congress, that was taken away — on Wednesday.

Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay

Learning life’s lessons

One of the evergreen posts on More to Come is a piece I wrote for my 60th birthday entitled 60 lessons from 60 years. * It was great fun to compile and seven years later it still wears well.

The idea of capturing lessons learned through living came to me from sportswriter Joe Posnanski in a post now blocked behind a paywall. Posnanski’s birthday post led me to look for other examples where thoughtful people take stock of what matters at significant mileposts in life.

Thus, I was thrilled when 35 Lessons on the Way to 35 Years Old hit my email inbox this week from author and bookstore owner Ryan Holiday.

I want you to read his entire list, but here are excerpts to whet your appetite, beginning with one that really hits home for me:

Don’t compare yourself to other people. You never know who is taking steroids. You never know who is drowning in debt. You never know who is a liar.

How often do we attempt to help other people understand why we make our decisions? Stop doing that!

You don’t have to explain yourself. I read one of Sandra Day O’Connor’s clerks say that what she most admired about the Supreme Court Justice was that she never said “sorry” before she said no. She just said “no” if she couldn’t or didn’t want to. So it goes for your boundaries or interests or choices. You can just say no. You can explain to your relatives they need to get a hotel instead of staying at your house. You can just live how you feel most comfortable. You don’t have to justify. You don’t have to explain. You definitely don’t need to apologize.

Here is one from Holiday’s list that is simple and straightforward.

You don’t have to be anywhere. You don’t have to do anything. All that pressure is in your head. It’s all made up.

A couple of pieces of good health-related advice:

Just drink more water. It’s very unlikely you’re drinking enough and a veritable certainty that you’re not drinking too much. Trust me, you’ll feel better.

Same goes with walking. Walks improve almost everything.

It is very important to care about other people. Period. I recommend you click through and read the story that Holiday includes in this lesson.

I was reading a book recently and I could feel a part of my mind trying to find a way to blame the subjects of the book for their own problems. The reason I was doing this, I came to reflect, was that if it was their fault, then I wouldn’t really have to care. I wouldn’t have to do anything or change any of my beliefs. I think it is this impulse that explains so much of where we are in the world today. THIS HEADLINE HERE is one that I think about almost every single day for that reason. You have to fight that trick of the mind, the one that looks for reasons not to care. It’s the devil’s magic.

Finally, a related lesson.

Despair and cynicism only contribute to the problem. Hope, good faith, a belief in your own agency? These are the traits that drive the change that everyone else has declared to be impossible.

Think about the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Maybe you’ll find a way to post them on your next significant birthday.

More to come…

DJB

*That post was followed the next day by Comments on 60 lessons from 60 years to capture feedback that came from emails and other sources.

Image of watch and wisdom from Pixabay.

A book becomes a book in the hands of its readers

When you walk into a bookstore or library, what is your first interaction with a book? I generally scan the covers, letting my eyes linger on titles, images, or authors who pique my interest. I pick up those that call to me and take a longer look while assessing the heft and feel of the volume. If still intrigued, I will read a jacket blurb or two, and take in the look of the cover page and the typeface. I might thumb through to a chapter that seems of interest and read several paragraphs or even pages.

When I reflect on the general idea of a book, however, it is often the content that comes to mind.

That’s because we tend to “understand our engagement with books in emotional or cognitive terms, rather than in tactile or sensory ones,” notes English writer and scholar Emma Smith. Content is what we often emphasize, forgetting about the “feel of it in our hands, the rustle of its pages, the smell of its binding.”

But if you think about the books that have been important to you, it may well be that their content is inseparable from the form in which you encountered them.

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (2022) by Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, is a delightfully written and thought-provoking work on the history of books as books. Smith wants us to consider the “bookhood” of books — a “nineteenth century coinage on the model of more familiar forms such as ‘childhood’ or ‘brotherhood’ … Bookhood includes the impact of touch, smell, and hearing on the experience of books.” Portable Magic was one of those books that I picked up and considered while browsing at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore on our recent trip to Paris, having been directed there by dear friend Janet Hulstrand. And I’m very glad I did.

Smith begins by busting western myths about the beginning of modern printing and the Gutenberg Bible. Printing was known before that time, Smith asserts, it just had not traveled to Europe because the demand wasn’t there.

Editions for the Armed Services (credit: The Iliad Bookshop)

Smith follows with a number of ways in which the form and “bookhood” of our volumes have shaped our reading experience and habits. She tells the engaging story of the World War II-era “Editions for the Armed Services,” more than 1300 titles printed in a size to allow soldiers to slip them into a uniform pocket. Before the convenience of the iPhone, soldiers could pick up one of these editions and read everything “from the Iliad to Superman, from The Fireside Book of Dog Stories to Conrad’s Lord Jim, and from Voltaire to Hemingway” while in a trench, sitting in camp, or waiting to invade Normandy on D-Day. These editions helped win the war, which was fought, in part, against the book censorship of the Nazis. Smith addresses that story in another chapter. However, these editions also changed the peace, leading to, among other things, much more reading by the general public and the cheap paperback on the bedside table.

There are fascinating chapters on books as gifts, the making of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring into a classic, digital books, and the way that a 1955 photo of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses changed thoughts about the actress and the novel. In that latter section, Smith references the recent pandemic phenomenon of “bookcase shelfies” that attempt to sell TV and Zoom audiences on the character and intellectual heft of the speaker. Book-burnings, censoring, a full chapter on Mein Kampf, and bookbinding all come in for study as well.

Smith’s epilogue ends with a look at books as transformation.

…(W)e have always had different, complex motives for our relationships with our books. Jorge Luis Borges described a book as ‘a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships’: Portable Magic has argued for two particular kinds of relationships in our long love affair with books. One is the interconnectedness of book form and book content. And the other is the reciprocity and proximity of books and their readers, in relationships that leave both parties changed.

And Smith goes on to point out how that plays out with this particular work.

This copy of Portable Magic now carries traces of your DNA in its gutter, your fingerprints on its cover. If you own it, you can bend its page corners or write your name in it or make satirical comments in the margin. You can lend it, or return it to the library, or give it away, or send it to the charity shop, but it will always be somehow yours.

Smith is making the point that book and reader become one, in both form and content. In thinking of the books I have owned, marked up, read and re-read, shared, given away, discussed and forgotten — from If Everybody Did to Portable Magic — I am reminded of the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby which speaks to the special power of books:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

Smith ends her survey of the topic along the same lines, by suggesting that “a book becomes a book in the hands of its readers. It is an interactive object. A book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all.”

Go make a book a book today!

More to come…
DJB

Another independent Parisian bookstore: Shakespeare and Company

For other More to Come posts on books, check out:

As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.

Image: Penelope Fletcher, bookseller extraordinaire, in front of the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore, 9 rue de Medicis, Paris. Right across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens in 2019 (photo credit: Janet Hulstrand in Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.)

The Last Supper

Exploring different perspectives

It is easy to allow our perspectives to be influenced by others, acting reflexively without conscious thought. In the Christian tradition, scripture is one area where the faithful often rely on established interpretations without thinking much beyond the text we know or considering why those traditional interpretations have been allowed to flourish through the centuries.

In our spiritual life as in other aspects of our existence, we too often we forget the words of the great Satchel Paige: “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” *

We all know the story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, for instance, and most of us assume we know why he did it. Follow the money. Specifically, follow the 30 pieces of silver. It is a cut and dried case, history has made its judgment, and we find it easy to blame the corrupting influence of money and use his name as a curse and an insult. No thinking required.

We can do better. In his 2019 book Biblical Fracking: Midrash for the Modern Christian, Francis H. Wade pushes us to explore meaning beyond the literal text and traditional interpretations, building off the Jewish idea of midrash (to “inquire” or “expound”). As Frank — an Episcopal priest and mentor — writes in the introduction, “Biblical fracking, in the spirit of its historical roots and its geological namesake, means reaching into the cracks and crevices of the biblical narrative to extract the richness that lurks there.”

Biblical fracking as Frank defines it is not Jewish midrash. Each has its own interpretive slant. And perhaps because he is a native of West Virginia, Frank certainly knows that not all fracking is good. He encourages his readers to avoid “idly tossing out scriptural fantasies like daydreams” to justify their own prejudices.

Instead, he encourages his readers to wonder about things that have no authoritative answer in a way that leads to a faith-based reflection on the human experience.

In 20 short chapters, Frank explores questions that lie on the edges of the literal texts with the hope that we will find something of value to move the one-dimensional cut-out figures from Bible stories into real people, just like you and me.

Right out of the box he asks a valid question not addressed in the Biblical text. How, exactly, did Sarah feel when Abraham left to sacrifice their only son Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22? There is no authoritative answer, but we can be sure that Abraham and Sarah, like the rest of us, “had to address, live with, or flee from their experience.”

Frank’s sly sense of humor is such that he can take a story like the Annunciation and give it a twist to make us consider a different perspective. In the traditional telling of the tale, the Archangel Gabriel shows up to let Mary know that she is to have a son, she accepts, and her name is honored to this day. And we think, “Of course she accepted. God (through Gabriel) spoke to her. What else would she do?”

But if Mary deserves to be honored for her decision, she must have had the opportunity to turn down Gabriel’s invitation. So Frank wonders if Mary of Nazareth was the first person the archangel asked.

Perhaps there was a Mary of Bethlehem. Having her serve as the mother of Jesus would at least have had the logistical advantage of avoiding the necessity to move a pregnant woman seventy miles in order to fulfill the prophecy of the messiah coming from the city of King David’s birth. It is possible that Gabriel approached Mary of Bethlehem and was turned down.

Frank explores why Mary of Bethlehem might do such a thing. And all the reasons are pretty acceptable to the average person. Who wants to have that conversation with your fiancé or your family? (Hmmm…I know we haven’t consummated our marriage, but I’m pregnant…by the Holy Spirit. Right.) As Frank notes, there are times that we have known what we should do but have turned away because of the consequences. Doing what is right (or doing God’s will for the believer) isn’t as easy as we sometimes portray it.

In the story of the betrayal of Jesus, Frank goes beyond the interpretation of the Gospel writers, who had their own set of prejudices, and sets the context for what was happening in Jerusalem at the time and what Judas could have been thinking as a follower of Jesus. The threat of rebellion was very much on the minds of the High Priest and the Roman authorities. What if Judas saw Jesus as betraying the revolution as he understood it? Could he have been a devoted disciple who wanted to force Jesus’ hand to bring about a fight?

Each chapter pushes us to see beyond the standard interpretation that is so familiar that it requires no serious reflection. The individuals considered — who bear the same human foibles that you and I share — are treated with empathy.

Many of our perceptions today — spiritual and secular — are developed without serious reflection. ** Those who would try and shape our perceptions often use fear and bullying as a way to stop our rational thought process. As Frank notes when fracking a story about David and a true bully, the Army Commander Abner (2 Samuel 3):

It takes courage to live in the world as it really is with people who are fully human. Bullies universally lack that courage and cover their deficit with blind aggression. Frightened enablers…and satisfying victims…play their part. As Jesus once said (Matt 15:14), when the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.

Seeking new perspectives is one way to avoid being led by the blind…and to avoid falling into the ditch.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

For other posts relating to work by The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, see:

*The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, with this adaptation by the great Negro Leagues pitcher.

**I would strongly suggest that there is no serious reflection involved in taking the stance of one of our political parties that our constitution and definition of liberty requires us to allow hate-filled and mentally disturbed people easy access to assault rifles to murder innocent children and adults in schools, churches, and grocery stores.

Image: Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper taken by DJB during a 2016 visit to Milan.

Observations from…cities, highlands, islands, and fjords

Having now completed my initial 2022 trip as a study leader/educational expert for National Trust Tours, I’ve been reflecting on our Scottish Highlands and Islands | Fjords of Norway tour. Before looking ahead to the Mekong River excursion this fall, join me as I make a few observations and wrap up the odds and ends of this experience.

Glasgow

Buchanan Street in Glasgow

I loved Glasgow.

We began in that city when our Thursday arrival put us on the ground a day before our “official” start time. We came early in order to adjust our internal clocks and — more importantly — see this dynamic city that was once a powerhouse of the industrial revolution. Glasgow is now experiencing a renaissance fueled by youthful energy, the arts (culinary and cultural), and a can-do spirit that extends back to the city’s founding. After a short lunch (and a longer nap), we took to the streets, eventually walking to the Finnieston neighborhood to have the first of a number of creative and delicious meals we would enjoy over the next three weeks. Somewhat surprisingly, our evening at The Gannet also turned out to be the most satisfying culinary experience of our 22 days abroad.

The Gannet in Glasgow (credit: The Gannet)

A good night’s sleep and an early morning walk around our hotel the next morning led me to truly appreciate the architectural riches of the city.

Nice adaptive use for a coffee shop
Morning views, before the streets were filled with people
Looking up is always a delight in a city like Glasgow
Enjoying the historic design of a local arcade, before the shoppers arrive

Candice and I were also eager to see first-hand the places where architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret Macdonald, did some of their most important work for tearoom entrepreneur Kate Cranston; places where “artistic taste allied with domestic comforts.” After a breakfast at the Buchanan Street Tea Room, we walked the few blocks over to Sauchiehall Street to the restored Willow Tea Rooms, where we had the chance to see the full effect of the Mackintosh/Macdonald vision.

Restored Willow Tea Room
Charles Rennie Mackintosh

We also went in search of other Mackintosh designs in the city and hit the jackpot at the Glasgow Art Club.

Gallery in the Glasgow Art Club, with freize by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh frieze detail for the Glasgow Art Club

Having read that Mackintosh designed a frieze early in his career for the club, we found the building’s location on the map, knocked on the imposing front door, and asked if it was possible to see the Mackintosh frieze. The kindly staff member said, “Sure, no one is in the room right now. Just go through that door and down the hall, and you’ll see it.”

What a treat!

One writer for The Guardian noted that “The world is now awash with Mackintosh mugs, tea-towels, brooches, earrings, cushions and mirrors ― a plethora of chintzy merchandise adorned with the trademark floral tendrils and abstract grids. What was once provocative is now the stuff of the gift shop.” Suffice it to say the world knows a great deal about Mackintosh. But it is something else to see his work on site, as originally designed, still inspiring wonder in the eyes of the beholder.

Scottish Highlands, Orkney and Shetland Islands

Glenfinnan monument

Friday afternoon we left Glasgow to the sound of bagpipers and boarded the small cruise ship the Le Dumont-d’Urville, which was our home for the next seven days. (And it was a luxurious and welcoming home in every way.) Saturday morning found us in the very rainy town of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands; yet, as the tour directors always say, these visits go rain or shine. So, with rain gear in hand we took the bus to visit the National Trust for Scotland’s Glenfinnan monument. As the NTS website notes, Glenfinnan is a moving tribute to those who died fighting for the Jacobite cause in 1745, framed by dramatic Highland scenery. A much more modern tourism moment is the opportunity to “immerse yourself in the magical setting of a Harry Potter film location and witness the ‘Hogwarts Express’ steam train crossing the world-famous Glenfinnan Viaduct.” I was actually more taken with it than I expected, even dodging the rain drops!

The “Hogwarts Express” crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct

The Glencoe Nature Preserve, another stunning area protected by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), was a treasure to explore in spite of the threatening clouds. NTS has a thoughtful and engaging interpretive center, complete with a large map that shows the extent of their holdings in this area.

A slice of the Glencoe landscape
Map of the nature preserve

Sunday we toured the Isle of Skye, visiting the town of Portree with its natural harbor and small shops. We drove along the Sleat Peninsula and ended our day with a visit to Eilean Donan Castle, located on an island where three great sea lochs meet on the west coast of Scotland.

Portree, on the Isle of Skye
Castle Eilean Donan on Isle of Skye

Monday brought us to Kirkwall and the Orkney Islands. I have written about Orkney and its treasures, such as Skara Brae and St. Magnus Cathedral, but I did want to capture a picture of the small town of Kirkwall as well as one of the ubiquitous stone fences that cut throughout the Orkney landscape.

Kirkwall street scene
Stone fencing near Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands

Our final day in Scotland found us in the Shetland Islands and the little town of Lerwick. We decided to focus on the town with its inviting streets and small plazas.

Lerwick
Local Lerwick barber shop
View down a Lerwick street

It should be no surprise that we found time to spend in the local independent bookshop, where I picked up a couple of books by Orkney author George Mackay Brown.

Shetland Times Bookshop (Credit: Kenneth Shearer via shetlandtimes.co.uk)

Wrapping up in Norway

Having already written about our visits to Edvard Grieg’s home, the majestic fjords, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bergen, I’ll simply leave you with this picture of the stunning Sognefjord.

I ended one of my lectures by noting that old places matter because their materials and appearances connect with human souls through emotions and memories. For some, those places may be mountains or streams. For others, buildings, neighborhoods, and streetscapes are involved.

While we toured some of the world’s most famous landscapes, heritage can be found everywhere – not just in special districts. As we saw every day on this tour, natural and cultural heritage are intertwined in a continuum. When we consider the places we visit, we can see that their significance lies not only in the past, but also in in the present.

The places we saw and the lessons we learned in the cities, highlands, islands, and fjords can be taken back, in our hearts and minds, to the places that we love. Being moved is, simply, one of the reasons we travel.

Enjoy.

More to come…

DJB

For other posts on my reports and impressions from the Scottish Islands and Norwegian Fjords National Trust Tours trip click here for Orkney, here for the fjords and Bergen, and here for the Edvard Grieg home.

Image of rock fence on Orkeny and all other images by DJB unless otherwise noted.

The past and future of Norway’s rich and fragile cultural environment

The chance to see some of the world’s great landscapes — areas where the built and natural environments come together in often spectacular fashion — is one you don’t pass up when the opportunity arises. Just two short weeks ago, I was fortunate to have that chance, participating as one of the study leaders in a National Trust Tour of Scotland and Norway.

It was a remarkable experience.

During the tour I spoke with our travelers about the different approaches to heritage conservation and preservation in the U.K., Norway, and the U.S. and considered what helps build thriving and sustainable communities. Another study leader from Tufts spoke on efforts to support green energy in Scotland and Norway. These topics worked surprisingly well together. Trying to understand the history of the cultural environment helps us see the various intersections — historical and environmental — between past, present, and future.

Mountains, glaciers, and hamlets are all part of Sognefjord (DJB)
A hamlet outside Flam, Norway

This cultural environment is a part of our shared heritage as global citizens, worthy of preservation and conservation. Norway’s Sognefjord — with traditional farmsteads and villages flanked by soaring mountains and glaciers — can take one’s breath away.

Sailing into Sognefjord, where the small village along the waterfront is dwarfed by the snow-capped mountains (DJB)

We had the opportunity to not only admire this cultural environment from a distance, but to also see these mountains, cascading waterfalls, intriguing hamlets, and individual farmsteads up-close from our seat on the Flam Railroad branch of the world-renowned Bergen Line.

The majestic Kjosfossen
Scenic train travel in the time of covid.
Natural and man-made elements co-exist alongside the Bergan railroad line from Flam (all photos by DJB)

The natural landscapes were the main attraction for many of our travelers, yet we also visited several special communities along the way; places that are very different in many respects from our hometowns but that also share characteristics and histories that we can learn from and perhaps be moved by.

The historic wharf area of Bergen, Norway: a UNESCO World Heritage Site

As one of urban Norway’s most picturesque spots, the historic wharf area of Bergen ― known historically as Bryggen ― is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a long history linked to German bachelor merchants, traders, and the Hanseatic League.

Individuals of the Hanseatic League came to Bergen some 150 years after a port was established. And much like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Norwegian bachelor farmers in Lake Wobegon, these real-life German bachelor merchants were good at what they did, and they soon established a thriving German colony within Norway.

A model showing the historic look of Bryggen

From this foothold, their presence and influence began to grow. They acquired ownership of the Bryggen area, constructing more buildings for trade and homes for their workforce. What we can see today is enough to get an idea of how the area must have been like for those who lived and worked during the Middle Ages.

The structures that remain perpetuate the memory ― the stories ― of one of the oldest large trading ports of Northern Europe.

These are stories that tell of ingenuity in design. The two- to three-story buildings are spaced apart with only narrow, covered passageways between them that run in a grid system alongside the docks, making the best use of scarce land. During the winter the bachelor merchants lived in the wooden buildings with the covered passageways serving as private courtyards.

Small alleyways between the main buildings

We also learn stories of resilience. Small stone communal storerooms or warehouses were located at the back of the district to protect the most valuable goods against the risk of fire. Bergen has been damaged by a number of fires through the centuries and has been rebuilt each time, closely following the previous property structure and plan as well as building materials and techniques.

Stone warehouse (on the right) at the rear of the main group of structures

Living conditions in the early years were dark and cramped. Yet community was important, so the Germans built assembly rooms to gather, relax, and enjoy warm communal meals, games and religious ceremonies.

King Olav III helped establish Bergen as an important center of life in Norway through the twin power of the church and state. But it was those German bachelor merchants and their backers who had a vision for a commercial hub that could import items from other parts of the world while sharing goods from northern Europe. Their vision for the community grew through the Industrial Revolution, as the area’s bounty of wood and fish was traded via the new steam ships. As a result, Bergen became Norway’s most international city. Surnames of German, Dutch and Scottish origin are plentiful, many originating from the Hanseatic era.

Scenes of Bergen outside the UNESCO area

But there has also been a vision for the future that protects and celebrates the past. The traditional pattern of rebuilding the community after its many fires left the main structures preserved as a working reminder of the ancient wooden urban structures once common in Northern Europe. Today, some 62 buildings remain of this former townscape, a vision that has turned the community into a tourist magnet.

And nearby, the Fantoft Stavkirke, a rebuilt 12th century wooden stave church, showcases another important piece of the Norwegian past.

We were on a tour where one of the sponsoring organizations was the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States. You may or may not have heard of the U.S.-based National Trust, but chances are good that are aware of the National Trust of England, Wales, & Northern Ireland. The British National Trust, as it is commonly known, is the largest such group in the world and one of the oldest.

But the title of oldest National Trust actually goes to The National Trust of Norway. Established in 1844, Fortidsminneforeningen has had a central role in the creation of nationwide heritage management programs in addition to focusing on the protection of many of the country’s remaining stave churches.

Images of Fantoft Stavkirke

In Bergen today we see a mix of public and private investment working to save historic buildings and landscapes, serving local residents in the fishing, shipbuilding and associated industries along with visitors coming to the area for tourism. Norway’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage — overseen by a professional in the field with the wonderful historical title of “National Antiquarian” — has special responsibilities for heritage conservation in the medieval towns of Oslo, Tønsberg, Trondheim, and Bergen.

It is a delicate balance at the best of times. And with Europe coming out of the pandemic, growth pressures are sure to increase.

But in using “cultural environment” to describe the focus of their work, Norway emphasizes the importance of an integrated approach to conservation and preservation. Environmental, cultural, and land-use planning go hand-in-hand.

It is a good lesson to take back to the places where we live.

More to come…

DJB

Candice and DJB alongside the majestic Kjosfossen
At Myrdal’s mountaintop station (credit: Christine Berwyn)

For other posts on my reports and impressions from the Scottish Islands and Norwegian Fjords National Trust Tours trip click here for Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, here for Orkney, and here for the Edvard Grieg home.

Image of Sognefjord by DJB

An appetite for Paris (with a side order of Glasgow)

The restaurants, bistros, and sidewalk cafes throughout Paris are as much a part of the city’s aura as its architecture, monuments, and culture. When we chose Paris as the place to celebrate our 40th anniversary, we did so in part because of the expectation of the culinary experience. We also made the choice because, for some inexplicable reason, Paris was a city we had missed in our travels.

It was past time to rectify that oversight.

Exploring new cuisines is one of the joys of travel. So it was with great anticipation that we undertook our recent trip to Paris (with a visit to Glasgow and other environs included in the opening ten days). On the culinary front, this trip brought surprising delights and created new memories.

We are fortunate in having a number of friends who share our love for food and who have lived in or regularly travel to France. Restaurant and food recommendations came pouring in during the weeks before our trip, more than we could have sampled if our stay were twice as long. Knowing of our love for reading, we also received suggestions for books to consider. While at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore at the suggestion of Janet Hulstrand, I came across two that we purchased. Sweet Paris: Seasonal Recipes from an American Baker in France by Frank Adrian Barron became a family birthday gift for Candice. The second was an “evocation of a now vanished Paris” — where food was at the center of the story. Naturally, I picked up that one for myself and quickly devoured this gem of a book.

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris is a memoir by the well-known New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, who captured his love for Paris, food, “and for pleasure itself” in his last book before his death in 1963. While definitely a piece of its time (especially when it comes to women), Liebling’s writing remains juicy and irresistible even today. He first came to Paris as a student in the 1920s. As James Salter writes in the introduction, “the frankness and sexuality of the city were dazzling, especially to Americans who had known only the Puritanism of their own country, its materialism, indifference to art, and ignorance of history.” Liebling joined those who “came to France to breathe new air.”

And Liebling breathed it deeper than most. His appetites were expansive. And his writing always draws you in. As one reviewer of his body of work put it, “Every sentence he wrote contains a kick, a bounce, and a leap.” He knew how to make the reader laugh, “but for a reason: A window opens when a man laughs, a window through which you can insert an idea.”

A Parisian girlfriend described the rather unattractive Liebling as “passable”, a descriptor which became the title of the last chapter. Between Meals is, in fact, much more than passable: It is a delight. If you scroll to the bottom of the post, you’ll find one small excerpt to demonstrate why and to tempt you to read more.


Unlike Liebling, Candice and I made our arrival in Paris a few years after our student days and late on a Friday evening, tired after a day of travel. The city was flooded with football (soccer) fans for the Championship League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid. An Irish Pub at the end of our block became one of many unofficial headquarters for the fans of Liverpool and we could hear them singing and cheering late into the evening. We walked in the opposite direction and quickly found a nice sidewalk cafe where we could share a pizza and wine to come down from the pressures of airline travel in the age of covid.

Early the next morning I was out on the streets looking for pastries, fruit, eggs, tea, and coffee — the fixings for my traditional breakfast which I prepared for the family each day we were in Paris. I found all within three blocks of our temporary home…the best being the pastries at LIBERTÉ, the tea at Mariage Frères, and the coffee at the nearby Malongo.

Mariage Frères Paris France (credit: Norio NAKAYAMA from Saitama, Japan – https://commons.wikimedia.org)
Our local pastry shop in Paris (credit solosophie.com)

We had spur-of-the moment bites at streetside cafes, took in lunches near our daily venues, and enjoyed long-planned celebratory meals at local restaurants to savor the finest of modern French cooking during our time in Paris. Claire joined us late on Saturday. After a whirlwind tour of the Louvre the next day, the three of us settled in on the large terrace along Rue de la Seine at La Palette, a busy cafe with a long tradition and a loyal local clientele who enjoy the basics of the bistro tradition. We kept it simple with wine and a generous fromage plate. It was a great beginning.

La Palette (credit: Junot)
Our fromage plate at La Palette (CHB)

Andrew arrived on Monday morning, and after dropping off his bags (well, the one that made it on time) we headed to Le Christine, a Michelin guide restaurant, for our first Parisian meal together with the entire family.

Andrew and Claire toast everyone’s safe arrival at Le Christine (DJB)

Over the course of the next eight days, we generally took two of the three meals outside the apartment. At these meals we enjoyed a wide range of food and discovered the occasional connection to some other part of our lives. Andrew’s experience on our final Sunday in the city was both surprising and somehow totally natural. He heard the individuals at the next table mention a piece of obscure organ music, turned to them and asked, “are you organists?”

Well, it turned out that Cathy Rodland and her colleagues from St. Olaf College in Minnesota were organ professors. Cathy was the teacher for one of the organists at the National Cathedral, where Andrew sings in his day job. They were in Paris for eight days to visit and play organs. We all began sharing contacts and struck up a nice friendship, with a shared love of Taylor and Boody Organs from Staunton being part of the connection.

Andrew with Cathy Rodland from St. Olaf College (DJB)

On Thursday we took a Sweet and Savory French Gourmet Food and Wine Tasting Tour of the Montmartre neighborhood. We saw the markets which many residents visit on a daily basis (as opposed to the weekly trip to the supermarket), and sampled cheeses, meats, chocolates, and wines in a delightful overview of the food scene in this historic village in the city.

Montmartre street market (CCB)
A Montmartre cheese shop (CCB)
Sampling chocolates on the Montmartre Gourmet Food and Wine Tasting tour (CCB)

We ate at numerous restaurants and bistros, including these favorites:

  • Le Petit Medicis — A very small bistro with terrific escargot, a lovely view of the Luxemborg Gardens, and a friendly staff.
  • l’isolotto — This small Italian pizzeria was tasty, with the added advantage of being located directly across from our apartment door.
  • Au 35 — A lovely local restaurant recommended by our friend James Schwartz, where we celebrated our last evening together for this trip to Paris.
One of many fine dishes we sampled in Paris, this one at Au 35 (DJB)

Candice had selected Kitchen Galerie Bis (KGB) for her birthday dinner, and it did not disappoint. There was an innovative tasting menu that, as the website notes, brings “together numerous cultural influences,” with the lead emphasis clearly coming from Asia. “Roots, fresh herbs, broths, vegetables and citruses have carte blanche and whimsically draw new culinary lines.”

It was the highlight of the Paris cuisine tour.

The Entree course at KGB
Mushrooms and pork at KGB
A portion of the dessert offering at KGB
At the end of a flavorful birthday dinner at KGB

But…did I mention that we began the trip in Glasgow? It was in that city, pulsating with new youthful energy, that we had the culinary surprise of the trip.

We arrived in Glasgow a day before meeting with the other travelers on the National Trust Tours visit to the Scottish Highlands, Outer Islands, and the Norwegian Fjords. We certainly wanted to adjust our internal time clocks, but we were also interested in visiting works by the famous Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. We ended up eating a good Scottish breakfast at the Mackintosh Tea Room on Buchanan Street before visiting the restored Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street. Well worth the visit.

Exterior to the restored Willow Tea Rooms (DJB)
Second floor of the restored Willow Tea Rooms (DJB)

But in the early evening the night before, we walked the thirty minutes from our hotel to the Finnieston neighborhood. And it was there that we had the most amazing meal of our 22 days abroad.

A statue of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh overlooks the Finnieston neighborhood (DJB)
The Finnieston neighborhood of Glasgow (DJB)

The Gannet is always ranked among Glasgow’s top restaurants, and we soon discovered why. The setting and staff are warm, professional, yet unpretentious. Our waitress, a lovely Scottish woman named Tess, could not have been more welcoming and knowledgable.

The Gannet in Glasgow (credit: The Gannet)

And the tasting menu with wine pairing was sumptuous. Take a look at the sample menu and scan the photographs below and on the website, and you’ll see what makes a reservation hard to acquire during the dinner hour.

A delightful sampling to tease the palate at The Gannet (DJB)
The perfect pairing to go with our dessert at The Gannet (DJB)

After a delightful two-hour meal, topped off with dessert and the Maury Grenat No. 02 fortified wine, we were headed back downtown to remember this special meal…and to anticipate the delicacies ahead.

More to come…

DJB

A little sampling of the writing of A.J. Liebling:

In the restaurant on the Rue Saint-Augustin, Parisian actor and gourmand Yves Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot — and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne. “And while I think of it,” I once heard him say, “we haven’t had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes, and the cellar is becoming a disgrace — no more ’34s and hardly any ’37s. Last week, I had to offer my publisher a bottle that was far too good for him, simply because there was nothing between the insulting and the superlative.”

A.J. Liebling in the chapter “A Good Appetite” in “Between Meals: An Appetite for Pais”

Image: Looking at the temptations in a window of a bistro in Paris by DJB

Books to be read

The books I read in May 2022

Books start conversations. Each month I have a goal to read five books on a variety of topics and from different genres in order to learn and to start conversations with readers and others I encounter along the way. Here are the books I read in May 2022. If you click on the title, you’ll go to the longer post on More to Come. Enjoy!

Magnus, the second novel of George Mackay Brown, was published in 1973 (and republished by Polygon in 2019). It is the fictional account of the real-life murder of Earl Magnus of Orkney who “walked calmly, knowingly and completely unarmed to a terrible death at the hands of his cousin Hakon Paulson.” Told through the eyes of several peasants, it is both atmospheric in capturing the spirit of the islands, and descriptive in recounting the hardships and terror of life in the 12th century. Poet Seamus Heaney once remarked that Mackay Brown passed everything “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” That is true in Magnus, where Brown takes off on a dream flight in the midst of the description of the killing of the 12th century martyr to meditate on the murder of famed German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis near the end of World War II. This is a serious and powerful work from one of Scotland’s most accomplished 20th century writers.

The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture (2021) is philosopher and historian Matthew Stewart‘s wide-ranging survey and urgent call to action on wealth inequality. Most of us assume we are not “rich” because we are not billionaires, allowing us to fall into the 99% and scapegoat the world’s wealthiest individuals. Stewart reframes the issue, noting that the really wealthy make up only 0.1% of the population. When you examine the top ten percent to find the people who control more than half of the country’s wealth, it is those other 9.9% — looking a great deal like many of us and our friends — who are doing so many things to entrench inequality in our system. There are many suggestions and conclusions in this brilliant work which are worthy of mention. In the end, Stewart calls for a strong recommitment to liberal democracy, which works to raise everyone up and which he describes as a truth machine. Its most fundamental premise is that every step in the direction of reason is also a step in the direction of justice. Highly recommended.

Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) (2012) is architect Daniel Solomon‘s call for all of us to understand and care for our cities. In this short collection, Solomon is focused on what makes cities vibrant, livable, and sustainable; places where we would all want to live. Cities are complex, with innumerable moving parts, and the need to find solutions that work is made more urgent by factors such as climate change, justice, and inequality. Solomon’s voice is an important one, as he as argues that we need to pay more attention to nurturing “continuous cities” where “new buildings, new institutions, and new technologies don’t rip apart the old and wreck it. They accommodate, they act with respect, and they add vibrant new chapters to history without eradicating it.”

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967 – 1975 (2021) is British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson’s witty, moving, and un-ponderous (to use one reviewer’s description) memoir of his early musical career in Fairport Convention, as a session guitarist for hire, and then in a musical duo with his wife Linda. The work is as well-crafted as Thompson’s music and is a delight to read. Throughout there are unforgettable lines, thoughtful passages about tragedy and resilience, insightful descriptions of 1960s London, and laugh-out-loud stories.

Edvard Grieg: His life and music is a 2002 work written by Erling Dahl, Jr. and published by the Edvard Grieg Museum — Troldhaugen. It was an excellent short intro for those — like me — who may have heard a number of Grieg’s compositions through the years but do not know much about the life, influences, and work of Norway’s most famous composer. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók said that “Grieg was the first to cast off the yoke of Germany.” There is much packed into this short biography, but I was most fascinated by Grieg’s connections to, and love of, Norwegian folk music. That connection flowered in an especially creative period in the mid-1870s, when he lived in western Norway. The well-received work from this era has been seen as a group of highly personal, heartfelt compositions.

Enjoy reading!

More to come…

DJB

NOTE: To see which books I read in January, FebruaryMarchand April, click on the links. You can also read my Ten tips for reading five books a month online.

Image: My to-be-read pile from a couple of years ago…some of those books remain in the pile, which grows along the lines of Strega Nona’s pasta bowl.

The joys of returning to travel

Preparing to return home after more than three weeks of professional and personal international travel, I am reminded first of our privilege to be able to move about the world so freely and second of how much we’ve missed these connections with new places, new friends, and new ideas during the pandemic.

There will be several more posts in the coming days and weeks before I exhaust what I have to say about the things we’ve seen and learned in our visits in Scotland, Norway, and France, but I’ll just end this post with a quote from Pico Iyer that I like to use in my talks.

We don’t travel …in order to move around – you’re traveling in order to be moved.  And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see…

More to come…

DJB

Image of Arc de Triomphe by DJB