Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L'Engle

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

Last year, the kids and I listened to the first book in this series, A Wrinkle in Time, which, oddly, I had never read as a kid. They rather liked it, so we decided to listen to the next one. 

The book continues the story of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin; but sets off into the microcosmos rather than the macrocosmos. Charles Wallace is growing sick, and his mother (and a doctor) believe there is a problem with his mitochondria. Meg and Calvin, along with a cherubim, Proginoskes, and the school principal, Mr. Jenkins (who is most certainly not an expected participant in this adventure), have to go pass a series of tests, and go inside one of Charles Wallace’s mitochondria to save him - and the universe.

Like the first book, the story is more than a story. It contains layers of metaphor and speaks to universal ideas. Without getting too deep into the plot, L’Engle’s core belief that love is the strongest power in the universe - and the core of what is good. It is love alone that can - and must - conquer the forces of evil.

Likewise, L’Engle identifies the root of evil as what in our world we would call dehumanization. (For the books, which contain both extraterrestrial and supernatural beings, “dehumanization” would obviously be too narrow of a term. Perhaps un-being is a good one.) At various points, the supernatural characters insist that war is always insanity. And I must agree with that one. The very concept of a “just war” assumes that it is necessary because someone else started it - the just war is to end the threat. In this universe, the forces of evil are responsible for wars (and all suffering) because they act to destroy, and to turn groups against others. (This is why Hitler gets a prominent mention.) In another great line, the connection is made explicit when the forces of evil try to convince the (fictional) creatures within the mitochondria (which are real) to rebel and seek power and glory at the expense of the others. That this will lead to an imbalance that will destroy not just the mitochondria, but the larger organism - and thus every part of said organism - is lost on those who wish to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others.

I believe that L’Engle is correct that we are all interconnected, and when harm comes to others, we all suffer. I also believe that the evil throughout the ages, from the legend of Cain and Abel through the horrors of war over the last hundred thousand years, to the present re-invigoration of tribalism, hate, and racism all has the same root. The desire to win by causing others to lose, to be preeminent, to dehumanize the “other.” “[A]ny man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” as John Donne put it.

This does seem rather relevant right now, when the forces of White Supremacy and Nationalism are newly emboldened. “We are the only ones who matter.” The more things change...

L’Engle uses an interesting concept to illustrate the idea of love, and that is through “naming.” To be named is to exist, to be, and to be as one’s true self. My children are loved in a sense because I have named them. And to continue to love them, I must identify them by name, as individual beings beloved. To be unnamed in that sense is to cease to exist. But L’Engle insists that once named, always named.

This also ties back into A Wrinkle in Time, where L’Engle also notes that what evil desires is conformity. The idea of interconnection is not in tension with individuality, actually. To be is to exist both as one’s unique self (and none of us are exactly alike), and in reference to our interconnectedness to each other. When we cease to be unique, we also become replaceable, like cogs in a mass manufactured machine. If one breaks, just swap another in.

Not so with true being, where one’s “faults” are important too. One of the tests Meg has to pass is to correctly identify which Mr. Jenkins is the real one. It ends up being his faults and weaknesses that give away which one is real - and also the only things that Meg can readily love about Mr. Jenkins. Indeed, it is through his weaknesses that she is able to see him as fully human - as being.

These books are a bit unusual, particularly as literature aimed at older children and young adults. They are not “easy” in the traditional sense, and much of the action takes place in the mind. That I would enjoy this sort of thing is no surprise - I find the psychology of characters to be the best part of many books. But my kids also liked both of these books, even the younger ones.

In the audiobook versions we have listened to, the author herself has read them. That is always an interesting experience. I wouldn’t say L’Engle’s voice is the best I have heard. It is deep and a bit raspy. But she also reads her books with great pacing and expression. Not as highly expressive, but low key expressive. I have come to enjoy her reading, which is why we got the second book with her as the reader, rather than the other option.

I find these books (so far) to be interesting in their ethical implications as well as the imaginitive use of science. A few things on the latter are a bit dated - which is to be expected with all science fiction. But in general she does her research. Just one particular thing to mention is that mitochondria are indeed believed to be the result of one creature ingesting another, and the two learning to live as interconnected organisms. If this is true (and there is good evidence it is), then our bodies are in a manner of speaking, not entirely ours. As it is, humans contain more bacterial cells than human cells in their bodies, our DNA contains insertions from viruses, and within our cells may be hundreds of “foreign” organisms which are necessary for life, and yet not quite “us.” It is a crazy thought, and also sobering. We are interconnected in ways we do not fully understand.


If you want, my friend “Hester” blogged about this book too. Her blog on books and stuff is worth reading, as is her old blog on Christian Patriarchy.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Was It Worth It? My Post-Election Prediction

This was my post on Facebook the day after The Narcissist Who Shall Not Be Named was elected. 

Since that time, me and my family have left both our long time church (for hate group related reasons) and Evangelicalism as a whole. We have not attended church since. I know of a number of others who have left. In many cases, we are those who have spent literally decades in dedicated service. The reasons we left our church were specific to that situation. The reason I am not inclined to try again is that politics have poisoned things, and the benefits do not seem worth the risk.

Actions - and votes - have consequences. I’ll be here (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise) to remind you all of that.



If you want, here are my posts before and after the election. Sadly, it has become obvious that Le Toupee and the GOP were not joking when they promised to exclude immigrants and refugees, retaliate against civil rights protesters, gut healthcare for the poor and disabled, and generally implement the KKK platform of the 1920s.

Aftermath: A Way Forward For Those Of Us Who Still Believe In Basic Human Decency

And also:

Since When Is Exclusion of Immigrants a "Christian Dream"? 
Hate Groups And Why They Matter


Update November 16, 2017:

Miguel de la Torre wrote this outstanding piece for Baptist News (of all the unlikely places.) I feel like I could have written it myself.

The Death of Christianity in the United States 

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own this.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. Indeed, he is one of my favorite authors, period. Since I started this blog, I have been reading one of his novels every year. This is no small task, as his books are generally quite long. The Last Chronicle of Barset is 891 pages long in the Oxford edition I own, for example. Here are the previous posts regarding Trollope novels:

Barsetshire Chronicles

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Other books:

These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.


The Last Chronicle of Barset is the final installment in the six book series set in the fictional Barsetshire area. The books are best read in order, as certain characters appear in multiple books, and the happenings in earlier books are referred to in the later books. However, they are not a continuous story. Dr. Thorne in particular seems to be its own tale, and can be read separately. The Last Chronicle, however, should not be read unless one has read all of the previous five books, because it brings together all of the major characters from those books for a final epic story (epic by Trollope standards, anyway) before Trollope informs the reader that he is done with Barsetshire, despite their demands for more.

As I have noted before, Trollope isn’t all that concerned with plot. True, the books do have plots, and those plots are carefully thought out and are internally and externally consistent. However, Trollope’s concern is for character. Thus, in many of his books, it is possible to understand how the book will end fairly soon after the first chapter. In some ways, The Last Chronicle is an outlier, in that a few key outcomes are very much in doubt until near the end. But, like his other books, the point is how each character in turn thinks and feels as the plot unwinds.

In this book, the main plot concerns the Reverend Josiah Crawley, first introduced in Framley Parsonage. Crawley holds a very small position in the poorest part of the parish. On his meager income, he struggles to keep his family fed and clothed. He is also a hard worker, takes his job quite seriously, and is by most measures a model clergyman. (Particularly in contrast to many with far greater wealth.) His main flaw is that he is prickly. He has some reason to be. Compared to many a wealthier man, he is better educated, more intelligent, and more diligent. He just lacks the connections to advance. And he knows it. He is conscious of his own superiority, and unhappy that his family lives in poverty. He is also extremely proud, and refuses assistance from others.

Mr. Crawley finds himself in hot water after he pays a debt using a negotiated check (fellow lawyers, remember negotiable instruments?) that turns out to have belonged to Mr. Soames, agent for Lord Lufton. Crawley is convinced he was given it by someone, but he is too scatterbrained to remember where he got it. Crawley is charged with theft, because he is believed to have accidentally pocketed a check Soames dropped at his house, then passed it. So basically a textbook case of conversion.

Crawley is already unpopular with Bishop Proudie, because he was appointed by the other faction in Barchester. Actually, as anyone who has read the first two books knows, the Bishop doesn’t actually care much. It is the domineering Mrs. Proudie who cares, and who attempts to insist that Crawley be dismissed from his position before the trial, as she believes he is absolutely guilty.

Meanwhile, there are some subplots going on. Archdeacon Grantly’s son, Major Henry Grantly, wants to marry Reverend Crawley’s daughter Grace. His father objects, and Grace won’t have him as long as there is a blot on her father’s name.

There is ongoing drama between the Proudies, as she goes further than ever before to interfere in his affairs and humiliate him in front of his colleagues.

Miss Dunstable (from Dr. Thorne and Framley Parsonage) has become engaged to Bernard Dale (from The Small House at Allington).

Bernard is cousin to Lily Dale (also from The Small House at Allington), who is cousin to Grace Crawley. Lily is still being sought by Johnny Eames, who she is not in love with, despite his being a mostly decent sort, and recently enriched by inheritance from a wealthy stranger.

Johnny is friends with Conway Dalrymple, a London painter, who is a main character in the major subplot involving financiers in London, a suicide, a few attempts by designing women to capture eligible men, and a painting by Dalrymple of Jael putting a stake through Sisera’s head. In which a certain young lady sits as Jael behind her mother’s back.

And that is why the book is so long.  

As always, the delight is in the details.

I won’t quote it here, but the description of the lawyer, Chadwick (who isn’t even a character, just the partner of a character), is delightful.

Or how about this exchange involving Grace Crawley, Lily Dale, and Lily’s mother?

“Have you ever observed, Grace,” said Miss Dale, “how much amusement gentlemen require, and how imperative it is that some other game should be provided when one game fails?”
“Not particularly,” said Grace.
“Oh, but it is so. Now with women, it is supposed that they can amuse themselves or live without amusement. Once or twice in a year, perhaps something is done for them. There is an arrow-shooting party, or a ball, or a picnic. But the catering for men’s sport is never ending, and is always paramount to everything else.”

I wasn’t much of a fan of Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, but she comes off much better in this book. She has grown up, and is no longer mooning after the worthless Mr. Crosbie. Here is another line, about how she expects to be an old maid.

“I see it in people’s eyes, and hear it in their voices. And they all talk to me as if I were very steady, and altogether removed from anything like fun and frolic. It seems to be admitted that if a girl does not want to fall in love, she ought not to care for any other fun in the world.”

Sadly, this often is still the case in our modern times. Single women tend to be dismissed.

Another quote shows just how much Lily has grown. She is talking with her mother about Mr. Crosbie, who has been widowed (after having jilted Lily in the last book…) Crosbie wants her back now, and she won’t have him, even though she retains some feelings for him. But she also knows she shouldn’t marry him.

[Mrs. Dale:] “He has nothing, at least, for which to condemn you.”
“But he would have, were I to marry him now. He would condemn me because I had forgiven him. He would condemn me because I had borne what he had done to me, and had still loved him - loved him through it all. He would feel and know the weakness; - and there is weakness. I have been weak in not being able to rid myself of him altogether. He would recognize this after awhile, and would despise me for it.  But he would not see what there is of devotion to him in my being able to bear the taunts of the world in going back to him, and your taunts, and my own taunts. I should have to bear his also, - not spoken aloud, but to be seen in his face and heard in his voice, - and that I could not endure. If he despised me, and he would, that would make us both unhappy.”

This is amazingly perceptive about the dynamics at play here. I have indeed seen similar issues lead to a divorce later. It is never a good thing when one spouse knows he or she owes the other.

The Dalrymple subplot leads to some interesting lines too. (Weird fact: I had a friend with the last name of Dalrymple when I was a kid. His parents were ninja-level birthday party planners…) Dalrymple first meets Clara Van Siever at a party, and is not attracted to her...except that he envisions her as Jael. She, naturally, isn’t particularly flattered at his idea either.

“I think it no compliment, I can assure you,” said Miss Van Siever.
“And none was intended. But you make observe that artists in all ages have sought for higher types of models in painting women who have been violent or criminal, than have sufficed for them in their portraitures of gentleness and virtue. Look at all the Judiths, and the Lucretias, and the Charlotte Cordays; how much finer the women are than the Madonnas and the Saint Cecilias.”

I think I may never look at art quite the same way again…

 One of the original G. H. Thomas illustrations.

In the end, Clara agrees to pose, and Dalrymple falls in love with her. Because of course. But not before a big row occurs with Clara’s mom and Mrs. Dobbs Broughton and Dalrymple tears the unfinished painting in half. Mom offers to pay for the painting at a paltry price, and Dalrymple names an exorbitant one. It is a great example of how an artist might bargain.

A few lines from or regarding minor characters also stood out. Mr. Toogood is Mrs. Crawley’s cousin and a lawyer. He is talked into taking on a bit of the case by Johnny Eames (who is likewise related, if you recall.) Mr. Toogood has a large family and a wife who hates it when he takes on pro bono work. Toogood goes ahead anyways.

“One doesn’t have a cousin in trouble every day,” said Toogood. “And then you see there’s something very pretty in the case. It’s quite a pleasure getting it up.”

I’m sure most of us attorneys have done this before. There is a pleasure in taking a case that won’t pay much if anything, but presents something truly interesting to do. Or at least some sort of justice which needs to be done.

Speaking of the law, there is something sadly pathetic about Mr. Crosbie and his ill fated marriage. In The Small House at Allington, he jilts Lily to marry the daughter of an earl. The marriage is a disaster, before she dies, leaving him with a pile of debts and without the inheritance from her family they both expected. He ends up in debt a few thousand pounds as a result of this disaster.

Another hilarious scene is between Johnny Eames and Sir Raffle Buffle, the pettifogging politician that Johnny works for as private secretary. Since Eames is now independently wealthy, he doesn’t have to work, even though he prefers to. Eames therefore pretty much writes his own work ticket, much to the annoyance of Buffle, who prefers to bully his staff. When Johnny informs Buffle that he will be taking a vacation (to go track down the Arabins, whose testimony is necessary in Crawley’s case), Buffle blusters and threatens, and when Johnny goes anyway, changes his tune by telling everyone that he urged Johnny to go. Everything must be spun, right?

There are two marriages that get a close look in this book, and I find the contrast to be telling. The first is between the Proudies. As everyone became fully aware in Barchester Towers, the bishop is weak, and dominated by his wife. Mrs. Proudie is worse than domineering, however. She makes a thorough hash of just about whatever she touches. In the earlier book, her attempts to change the religious observances of the residents of Barchester do not endear her to her people. Her favoring of Obadiah Slope, who is about as close to a true villain as any Trollope character gets, causes much damage and backfires badly.

In this book, Mrs. Proudie again puts her nose in where it does not belong. The bishop’s “wait and see” plan has sense. After the trial, if there is a conviction, he can certainly remove Crawley if he wishes, but before that, he has no legal grounds, and Crawley knows it. When Mrs. Proudie insists on sitting in on what should be official business, she not only fails, but humiliates her husband.

As a feminist, it is interesting to evaluate Mrs. Proudie. Is she frustrated with the role allotted to her? Of course. But it is also true that she has no business in a position of power. She lacks the ability to work with people. She has the supreme conviction that she is always right (and everyone who disagrees is wrong), a pettiness and vindictiveness that makes and keeps enemies, and a pathological need to control everyone around her. I can think of a person or three that I know like this, and it is not a recipe for success in relationships.

Trollope rarely paints any characters as one dimensional, however, and Mrs. Proudie is, in her own way, a complex human. Trollope also makes some astute observations about her - and people like her.

Mr. Crawley belonged to the other party, and Mrs. Proudie was a thorough-going partisan. I know a man, - an excellent fellow, who, being himself a strong politician, constantly expresses a belief that all politicians opposed to him are thieves, child-murderers, parricides, lovers of incest, demons upon the earth. He is a strong partisan, but not, I think, so strong as Mrs. Proudie. He says that he believes all evil of his opponents; but she really believed the evil.

I guess politics hasn’t changed much. Trollope later in the book makes a particularly damning evaluation of her.

She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided.

A sober warning to us all, and one that I fear the American church is ignoring right now.

In the end, Trollope says of the bishop, “He might have been a sufficiently good bishop, had it not been that Mrs. Proudie was so much more than a sufficiently good bishop’s wife.”

The contrasting marriage is that between Archdeacon Grantly and his wife Susan. She has been a very minor character in the series, and no particularly well developed until this book. It turns out that she has quite a bit to recommend her. The archdeacon is, in many ways, the perfect counterpart to Mrs. Proudie. He is emotional, volatile, petty, and conceited. But he lacks her fortitude. So he never really manages to harm anyone. One of the reasons for this is his able management by Susan. I have observed before that the women run everything in Trollope’s world. The men fuss and fume and rattle about, but the women make the real decisions for good or evil. Susan Grantly actually has more real power over her husband than Mrs. Proudie, in large part because she is smart and subtle about it. She knows her husband and his moods, and always picks the right time. Mr. Grantly is determined to threaten his son with disinheritance if he marries Grace, but Susan knows that he will never follow through. So she strategically uses delay and gentle persuasion to keep him from taking any action he will later regret. In the end, he calms down, and all is well. This does irritate the archdeacon, because he knows how things stand.

After this, the archdeacon walked away, and would not argue the matter any further with his wife at that moment. He knew very well that he could not get the better of her, and was apt at such moments to think that she took an unfair advantage of him by keeping her temper.

Indeed. Also, I resemble the archdeacon sometimes, I must admit....

Mrs. Grantly also makes a great observation about the father and son, neither of whom is willing to give in.

“They are as like each other as two peas,” she said, “and though each of them wished to be generous, neither of them would condescend to be just.”

That’s just fantastic. And true. It is more fun to be generous than to simply admit the other party’s rights.

There is another great line near the end, when it becomes clear that all the fuss was for nothing, and the archdeacon finds he must kind of sort of eat crow.

It must be acknowledged that Archdeacon Grantly always kept his promises, and especially such promises as these. And indeed it was the nature of the man that when he had been very angry with those he loved, he should be unhappy until he had found some escape from his anger. He could not endure to have to own himself to have been in the wrong, but he could be content with a very incomplete recognition of his having been in the right.

That last sentence is just fantastic. One of Trollope’s best, in my opinion.

One final observation about another proud character. Mr. Crawley finds himself the in-law of the archdeacon, and the two must get along. Mr. Grantly, for all his faults, plays his cards right in the end. He stresses that he considers Crawley to be an equal, despite their difference in wealth - a sore point for Crawley - and then offers him a set of sermons published by old Bishop Grantly, the archdeacon’s late father. “And thus the archdeacon had hit his bird on both wings,” as Trollope puts it.

The Last Chronicle of Barset is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Don’t start with it, however. Go back and read the earlier books first. As usual, Trollope shows his timeless understanding of human nature and frailties. His characters, while in a setting most of us will never know, are three dimensional and true to the psychology that inhabits us all. The complexity of life, relationships, and emotions are all on display throughout the series. If you haven’t experienced Anthony Trollope, I highly recommend you give him a try.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reclaiming Halloween

Somewhere in my parents’ photo archives there is a picture from when I was about 7 years old and my brother was 5. We are dressed up in costumes. I had a large box over my shoulders, with hand drawn buttons and stuff. I’m pretty sure I was a robot, but maybe a computer. It is hard to tell - my artistic ability wasn’t top notch at that age. My brother has a mask made from a paper bag and a printed frog face. I believe it was a promotional thing at the grocery store in our neighborhood. To go with it, he had aluminum foil on his arms, legs, and body, and a cardboard sword my mom made. I remember that he was a “Famous, Fierce, Fighting Frog.” (My mom was and is skilled at wordplay, including alliteration.)

We were dressed up for Halloween, for trick-or-treating. I remember this specifically because it was a year I really worked on my costume. (We never did commercial costumes - that wasn’t in the budget. I still love the idea of using creativity rather than lucre.) I also remember it because soon afterward, my family stopped trick-or-treating all together. For a couple of years, we did “harvest festivals” at a church. Then we stopped that, and my mom just bought candy for us to enjoy. Eventually, as we got older, that went away too, and we just spent Halloween with the lights off and the curtains closed, ignoring any kids that came to our door.

There were a couple of reasons why we did this. The first was the 1980s panic about tainted candy. (Good lord, the 1980s were full of panics, moral and otherwise…I think I have spent a lot of my adult years deprogramming from all the crap I was taught that stemmed from these panics.) Unsurprisingly, the panic was based nearly entirely on a myth. (And the one documented poison was the murder of a child by his father looking to collect life insurance - not a stranger.) Yep, “alternative facts” are nothing new.

But the other reason was based on a panic of a different sort. A moral panic. Despite the previous generation’s enjoyment of the whole trick-or-treating experience, the 1980s brought with them the beginning of the Culture Wars™, and that meant a new focus on cultural separation from the unwashed masses, and the discovery of a demon lurking behind every door. And that meant that Halloween (which actually has a Christian origin) now became “the devil’s holiday,” and thus verboten. Crucial to the acceptance of this myth in my own family were the tracts by Jack Chick (who among other things, was virulently anti-Catholic). His tracts condemned all kinds of things, from rock music, to belief in an old earth, to Dungeons and Dragons. (The last I realized was false the first time a fellow law student explained the game to me, when it became clear it was mostly nerdy in the extreme.)

My memory fails me, but the latest we would have actually gone trick-or-treating in our neighborhood would have been when I was 9, and it may have ended a year earlier. After that, no more. (My wife grew up even more Fundie than I did, and is younger by a few years, so she too missed out on a lot.)

Now, nothing against “harvest festivals.” They can be fun. I remember a few with cool games and bounce houses and stuff, and going with friends or cousins was a blast. However, I think something is missing compared with the trick-or-treat tradition.

That something is engagement with the community. Even in comparison with my childhood, neighbors do not know each other as well. Some of this is due to the ever-expanding extra-curricular activities that prevent kids from playing in the street like we did. Some is the very way our homes are constructed these days, with everyone’s car in a huge garage and nobody out in the front yard. With those changes, it is already harder to meet the neighbors and their kids. The shift from going door to door to a “safe” environment with a more exclusive group is significant, in my view. This isn’t the only cause, but it is a factor in the shift from finding a social group from those one lives next to, to finding it in those with similar theological and political beliefs, from one’s own socioeconomic strata, and often mostly with one’s own race.

The other thing that I think has been lost in the transition is the embrace of the spooky and macabre. One near-universal rule of “harvest festivals,” at least in my experience, is no “scary” costumes. Or, perhaps, no traditional death or terror related costumes. While I do not necessarily chose macabre costumes for myself, and my kids have been all over the map on this, I do think that part of the point of a holiday like halloween is to enjoy some good clean fun at the expense of our fears. I mean, death sucks enough as it is: might as well learn to laugh at it once in a while. Likewise, we defuse our monsters when we make them part of a silly ritual. Humans have done this since the dawn of civilization. If we could not laugh at terror and death, we would be paralyzed by our mortality. On the flip side, it is good to look death in the face seriously too. I am reminded of the many old portraits where the subject has his hand on a skull - a reminder that we all die. So both of these are represented in human culture, in our rituals and observances. We soberly remember our mortality, and make light of it in turn. 

For what it is worth, my kids seem naturally a bit macabre, as evidenced by their love for Neil Gaiman

During our kids’ youngest years, we didn’t observe Halloween. Mostly, when we had infants, we were too tired to want to add yet another thing to the list. We also lived on a busy street, so we didn’t have kids come to our door much at all. Also, I often had a rehearsal that night, so it just didn’t happen. Once life got less crazy, though, we decided to go back to trick-or-treating. Often, with friends. The kids, naturally, loved getting dressed up - and planning their costumes well in advance. My wife is a fantastic seamstress and fabricator, and can make pretty much anything.

Because of what we didn’t get to do, my wife and I have also dressed up for fun. The candy is just for the kids, but there is a lot of fun to be had in going out in costume. I have noticed a lot of parents are doing it these days, which is a positive development. Fun doesn’t end with adulthood, and kids should see their parents let their hair down once in a while.

Along with our decision to have fun trick-or-treating, we also have decided to let the kids have significant discretion in choosing - and creating - costumes. So, one daughter and one son have gone with vampires over the years. My eldest the last couple of years has gone as a Dia de los Muertos skeleton. My wife made me a Victorian outfit - originally used for a party in which we went as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Fun for my wife to create stuff, fun for all of us to wear them.

Basically, we decided to reclaim Halloween. Reclaim it from the falsehoods propagated by Fundamentalism and the Evangelical-Industrial Complex. Reclaim the fun. Reclaim the thrill of safe fear and horror. Reclaim the reminder of our mortality. Reclaim the truth that fiction helps us understand that the real dragons and monsters in our world can be defeated.


This year, we also did something rather different. Our local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce puts on a Dia de los Muertos festival at the Kern County Museum. My eldest daughter has adored the Muertos aesthetic for years, and talked my wife into making her a dress for it last year. (See pictures below.) The date worked for us this year, so I took the kids.

Let me start with a caveat: my parents both grew up overseas (in Mexico and the Philippines), and, depending on where you are, both the Hallows Eve and Day of the Dead celebrations can be somewhere on the creepy/disturbing/superstitious continuum. (My dad and his siblings used to dress up in sheets and flashlights and scare the crap out of people coming back from mass. It runs in the family. His dad used to pull real pranks on Halloween, and he and his buddies would tip outhouses over. He really caught it, however, when he tipped his own over - with his mother in it. Considering my genes, it is a marvel that I am such a square…) How one experiences Day of the Dead does vary, depending on how devout (or superstitious - depending on your worldview…) the celebrants are.

Here in Bakersfield, at least, I don’t find much to object to. One of the ways the festival is financed is through family memorials (“altares”) displayed in a designated area. These were surprisingly (to me) touching memorials with poignant snapshots of what was important to the families honoring their departed. Family and community were central to many of the displays, and I felt a human connection through them, even though all of them were for perfect strangers.

The kids got to paint sugar skulls, and we listened to a local mariachi group, Mariachi San Marcos. (The Bakersfield Symphony did a concert with them last year. They are fine musicians - one of the members used to play in an orchestral group I played in 20+ years ago - and a microcosm of Mexican-American immigration and assimilation, from the elder generation who mostly speak Spanish to the grandchildren who are totally Californian.) My kids didn’t grow up with mariachi like I did. The neighborhoods in which I was raised were predominantly minority, with lots of Latino immigrants. On big occasions - weddings, quinceaneras, etc. - live mariachi bands would be hired. And the whole neighborhood could hear them. It was a beautiful thing. Even though I never did learn Spanish - I know some words, and that is about it - I know music, and mariachi is music.

Although it wasn’t the only reason, one reason I did want to experience Muertos this year was that, in our nation these days, immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, have been in the crosshairs of a reinvigorated white nationalism. Bakersfield is a weird town. On the one hand, we have a large Latino population. (Agriculture is big here, so migrant farm labor, but also, we have many who have been here since California was part of Mexico…) On the other, we had an active KKK well into the 1980s, and we still have certain parts of town infested with white supremacist gangs. We also skew very Republican - the whites at least - compared to the rest of California. Unfortunately, this has meant that many shockingly racist things have been said before and since the election. A number of my Latino friends’ kids have been subjected to racial slurs and threatened with deportation (including kids at school), never mind that their families have been Californians longer than many of the creeps threatening them.

So I wanted to show a little solidarity with the local Hispanic community. My kids mentioned that we were the only white people there. That wasn’t really true, but we were in the, ahem, minority. I think it was good for my kids to experience that. (Hey, I grew up that way…) Experience of other cultures is good for everyone. Also, street tacos. Need I say more? Okay, tamarind sodas. Which my kids love almost as much as street tacos with all the goodies. Dang, they were good! I pity the poor folk elsewhere in our country who do not have access to street tacos.

Anyway, also Aztec dancers, traditional Mexican dances, plenty of people in imaginative costumes, and a fun afternoon.  


I know our parents, like most, were acting as they thought best. The sad thing is that in so many areas, from the horror of Halloween to the cults we suffered through in our teens, the decisions were not based on sound evidence or an embrace of Christ’s radical message of love. Instead, they were based on fear, which is the opposite of love. It has been sad - and sobering - to realize that pretty much everything negative from my childhood - and even long afterward in dealing with my family - that I look at seems to be rooted in this fearful cultural Fundamentalism. So many avoidable conflicts, lost opportunities, and so many hours spent in needless worry. It makes one wonder what might have been. Fear is a powerful motivator, particularly when it is a fear for one’s children combined with a call to “purity.” It so quickly becomes a fear of contamination by “undesirable” people. (See e.g., the last election…)


I won’t duplicate all of this, but an Orthodox Christian blog has a fantastic set of articles on all things Halloween related. When my wife and I started seriously reexamining our beliefs after the kids were born, this was a crucial resource in understanding just how much modern Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism has engaged in historical revisionism.


Pictures, of course:
Fritz, 2017. Costume by my amazing wife.

 The kids, 2016. Lillian as a penguin (costume off the clearance rack), Ella as a Muertos girl (costume by Amanda, makeup by her friend Marina), Cordelia as a vampire - she is my macabre child (costume by Amanda), Fritz as a mad scientist (costume cobbled together from stuff we had), Ted as Uglydoll "Wedgehead." (Costume by Amanda.)
The kids, 2015. Cordelia as a Dalak ("Exterminate!") (costume by Amanda), Ella as Princess Leia...plus cat ears for reasons I forget (costume by Amanda), Ted as Wedgehead (Costume by Amanda), Fritz as an explorer (a rare commercial costume - it was on clearance...), Lillian as Anna from Frozen (costume by Amanda - her Disney princess costumes are mostly designed freehand by her - did I mention she is amazing?)

Amanda and me, 2016. She made my costume originally for a Valentine's Day party in which we went as Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice) - I even shaved the beard down to mutton chops for that occasion.) The hat is from The Village Hat Shop. Amanda is a Tardis (from Doctor Who.) Yes, she made that costume too. And the shawl, which is a fairly accurate representation of the star chart for the northern hemisphere.

Ella in her Muertos costume. I just had to include one of her alone, because the dress and the makeup are so perfect on her.