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Posts Tagged 'seattle'

Ochlophobist on the dilemma of being “young, male, and Orthodox”

Owen made the following comment on a recent post:

There is a certain type of young man who generally pursues the priesthood. We dance around it, but in my mind it is unequivocally true. In Orthodoxy there are certain forms and postures that are, aesthetically speaking, humble, but which are easily practiced and replicated, and do not necessarily reveal the inner heart – soft, slightly effete voice, a way of walking in the cassock, a way of mentioning the contrary opinions of others and pleading one’s ignorance on matters even as it is quite clear you’ve got a strong opinion and you want it to be deemed the right one, a slightly affected, sentimentalish manner of being around icons, prayer ropes, the altar &nave, and so forth, a slightly affected manner of quoting sayings or hagiographic tidbits of the saints, etc. But beyond all that, you spend some time with the fellow and you realize that he loves and is naturally given to didacticism – here is a man who likes to be in a position of teaching others. It is also clear that he has a hunger to be in a position of spiritual authority over others. In my opinion, keeping in mind that opinions in Orthodoxy are worth as much as wax stains on nave carpets, a desire to teach in the Church and have spiritual authority over others is usually, but not always, instigated by demons.

Okay. We’re adults here; let’s not be coy and play dumb. We all know what he’s talking about, and we all know people who are more or less like this — assuming we ourselves don’t fit this description! I’m going to let Owen’s words speak for themselves, and I assume that he is savvy enough to know that he has just profiled a chunk of his readership (although I would be hard-pressed to say whether or not he would particularly care if he offended any of them).

So, neither adding nor subtracting nor commenting directly on the particulars Owen discusses, my question is, why are young men who tend to have these characteristics the ones who seem to be drawn to the priesthood like moths to flame? (Perhaps people can weigh in on whether or not the ordination-bound in other confessions/communions also behave this way.)

In the interest of full disclosure, the priesthood is something I feel reasonably certain to not be in God’s plan for me. This is not a conclusion I have reached lightly; in one form or another, the question of pastoral ministry was one that really troubled me, at least off and on, from my teenage years up to late twenties. During my time in Anglican circles, there were a couple of people who were really pushing me to consider seminary, and I think it was only the fact that I did not yet have an undergraduate degree that kept these individuals from forcibly sending me off to someplace like Trinity or Seabury (Nashotah House is not a place one hears about in the Pacific Northwest). Being an excitable young man, of course the question resurfaced for me as an Orthodox Christian, and immediately following my chrismation in February 2005 it seemed (as it does for so many of us) that surely seminary would be the logical next step for Somebody Like Me (particularly since that would make the matter of grad school much simpler). In the fall of 2005, I visited the St. Vladimir’s campus, fell in love… and then the whole issue just seemed to dissipate as a compelling force. It hasn’t resurfaced since. I sometimes wonder if the point was simply to bring me to a place where I would finally be willing to go that route, and then to redirect me elsewhere. At this stage of the game, I am no longer afraid of the priesthood (and haven’t been for awhile), but it seems more likely that, if I were to wind up at a place like St. Vlad’s, it would be as a member of the faculty (or potentially as a visiting student while I’m writing my dissertation) rather than as a candidate for priestly formation. As it is, I have a desire to teach, but not in the Church — at least not as a catechist. No, thank you. That’s not responsibility I care to have. Maybe I could help illuminate a couple of things here and there within my own area of expertise, maybe I could teach a chant lesson or two, but I’m not the person to entrust with forming the holiness of others.

Extending maximum charity to the type of gentleman Owen describes (particularly given that, for all I know, there could be people who read those words and think, “Yep, that’s Richard Barrett!”), what pushes this person onto the path of the priesthood and gives them such a desire for spiritual authority? I am not totally unwilling to discount the explanation of demons, but let us say I feel more at ease discussing what might be the concrete instruments of said demons than the demons themselves.

My favorite ’80s teenage rom-com is Say Anything… In a lot of ways, it’s really more properly considered a ’90s movie than an ’80s movie (it was released in 1989) — rather than somewhere in California, it takes place in a rather idealized and curiously rearranged Seattle four years before Meg Ryan would get from the 520 floating bridge to Sand Point in a matter of seconds (it takes twenty minutes to half an hour assuming no traffic, folks), it’s got Soundgarden and Joe Satriani on the soundtrack, it’s got John Mahoney as the problematic Seattleite father (prefiguring Frasier by about half a decade), and it’s got John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, in what amounts to his first adult role. Young adult (the script goes out of its way to explain that Lloyd is graduating high school a year older than his classmates because of various familial matters), but he’s not fantasizing about dancing hamburgers at his fast food job anymore. One perhaps could argue that he starts the movie as a kid and finishes as an adult (cf. Lili Taylor telling him, “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man“). More to the point, you can see Lloyd as potentially growing up to become Martin Blank (and I have occasionally wondered if Say Anything… wasn’t discussed, even if only in jest, as sort of a murky back story for Grosse Point Blank).

Anyway, Lloyd is a nice, if slightly off-center, guy. He wears a Fishbone t-shirt and a trenchoat. He’s a bit disconnected from his family, since his parents are in the military and stationed elsewhere, and he lives with his single-mom sister and her kid while he figures some things out. He’s not intelligent or obviously talented in conventional ways, he’s graduating high school a year late, he has no college plans, but what he does have are some very definite principles (“I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career”), and when he’s dedicated to something — like kickboxing, for example — he gives it his all. His guidance counselor buttonholes him at a party to try to persuade him to make some conventional decisions about his future, and he dismisses her advice, saying, “I’m looking for something bigger, you know? I’m looking for a dare-to-be-great situation.”

Let’s just imagine for a moment that Lloyd one day wandered into St. Nicholas Cathedral (ROCOR) in Seattle and found his dare-to-be-great situation there, giving it his all just like he did with kickboxing. I think he’d wind up a lot like the kind of young man Owen describes.

My point is this. I think there are a lot of smart guys with a genuine faith in and love for God, who want to give something the whole of their effort, who maybe just haven’t had the right — or at least the obvious — opportunity come their way and who at least know that there are some specific things they don’t want to do. Maybe they’ve had an interest in various aspects of the humanities and social sciences, enough to be broadly informed about a wide range of topics, but they’ve never had the discipline or the right setting to rise above being a dilettante, or at least an undergrad who shows some promise. Maybe they’ve had something of a taste of church service in another setting, enough so that they put on a cassock or some other kind of vestment and realize that they’re visibly part of something bigger when they do that. Maybe there are other circumstances in their life that make them determined to never do anything halfway, so that they never have to apologize for their own presence or participation.

And when these guys discover Orthodox Christianity, with all of history and all of its richness of faith and practice and all of its demands, with all of the ways it can order one’s life in the service of Christ, the various facets of their person which otherwise make it hard for them to fit in suddenly have a place, a context. They’ve discovered their dare-to-be-great situation. This is their life’s work, they just didn’t know it before. How can the priesthood, if not monasticism, not become a draw, the call that surely was always there if it could only have been perceived?

(By the way, unlike what I suppose about Owen, I care very much about offending people, so I really hope nobody thinks I’m saying this to mock or be critical. I have observed much of the above, yes, but much of it I have observed in myself. I cannot mock without mocking my own person first of all.)

I think what it often (perhaps not always) boils down to is that, for the young, male, zealous convert, it is not difficult to develop the desire to spend as much time in church as possible. Eventually, and naturally, this turns into the question — perhaps unconsciously — “If what I want to do is be in church all day, then wouldn’t a vocation just make sense?” Since there’s really only one way somebody can work for Orthodox Christianity in this country as one’s day-job, the direction becomes pretty clear from there.

Does it have to be this way? Maybe not, and I would hope that a seeming one-to-one ratio of zealot to cassock could be a reasonably short-lived phenomenon. (I say that as a cantor who wears a cassock.) The truth is, there is something that drives young men who behave as Owen outlines. If it might be healthier that not all of them get tonsured as readers the day after their chrismation and start teaching catechism after their second Divine Liturgy as a communicant, then there needs to be some active spiritual guidance about what to do with whatever it is that drives them. I have no doubt that for priests and bishops who have long lists of things to get done, young men with a lot of energy and desire to serve are hard to tell, “You need to sit back and chill for a while.” Still, it raises the question of whether or not the desire specifically to be the one serving in a visible, set-apart fashion can’t itself turn into a passion.

Ultimately, I think Owen is absolutely right from a descriptive standpoint. I’ve remarked before that there’s a certain self-consciousness of the American convert that we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with, and what Owen talks about is part and parcel of this self-consciousness. If there is a sort of contrived and constructed manner of holiness that has been assumed, then the answer is that we need more models of holiness that haven’t been contrived or constructed. Still, I think there are deeper reasons for why this occurs that we’re also going to have to figure out how to understand and deal with, and we will need to do so compassionately and productively.

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Reflecting on shame and identity

Rod Dreher has what is, at least for me, a very thought-provoking essay over at Crunchy Con. Actually, “thought-provoking” is a euphemism. I’ll be blunt — it hits what is, for me, a permanently raw and open nerve. The next 3200+ words will reflect this. Turn back now if you don’t want me to take you there.

Mr. Dreher begins with a discussion about shame, obesity, and race, and how he has personally experienced them function and interrelate as someone who considers the American South home. He takes it someplace else, however, and the key part for here at the conclusion:

A fellow Southern exile once said to me that it’s so easy to love where we’re from when we don’t live there, because we can edit out the stuff that’s hard to live with. That’s very true. And yet, I confess it’s hard for me to feel quite at home anywhere else. When I go back to visit, there’s something about the place and its people I dearly love, and treasure as part of myself. […] [However,] I chose to separate myself from it (and anybody who thinks Dallas is the South is sadly mistaken; it’s the southernmost Western city)… [F]or me, [what motivates my writing is] a sense of cultural rootlessness, and a craving for a sense of belonging to a place. Too much has happened to me over the years to form the kind of man that I am to make me feel at home in my actual homeland. And yet, when I’m away from Louisiana, I think about it a lot, and long for it. True story: I used to walk around Brooklyn romanticizing Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana and after a few days, start pining for my old borough home in Yankee Babylon.

[…] For me, displacement and a resulting craving for authenticity. But the fact that I chose displacement and exile adds a shake of shame about disloyalty into the cocktail too. […] Me, I don’t have anybody to show anything to (this was the greatest gift living and working in New York City gave me). When I sit down to write, almost always I think not about showing myself, but about finding myself.

I’m somewhat circumspect about elements of my personal life in this forum. This is not out of any sense of needing to protect anything, exactly; leastways, it’s not about protecting myself. Anybody who happens upon this blog knows my real name, my wife’s name, and more or less where to find me; this may or may not be wise, but there we are. There are certain things I have not discussed here, like politics, because I don’t want to detract from my main objective — namely, some record of my path as an Orthodox Christian on the way to something vaguely resembling an academic career. It’s also, by far, primarily for my own use, rather than being intended as any kind of a public news service. So, since I find myself heavily burdened talking about politics — feeling in the main that I ultimately can’t pick a side because I’m not at all sure anybody is on my side — I just don’t go there for my own sanity.

Other things I haven’t discussed simply out of respect for the fact that the blog is public, and I have to be mindful of what that can mean. I was stuck in a horrible, horrible, horrible employment situation until April 2008 that I could not (and can’t) discuss here, because if certain parties were to run across my blog, it would only make things quite a bit worse. Even once I was out of that situation, I had to be careful about how I discussed the unexpected ways my grad school opportunities were developing, because out of respect for my new employers, about whom I cared very much, I needed to time how I told them what was happening in a particular fashion.

All that out of the way, Dreher’s essay hits home for me in a number of ways, not the least being shame over the struggle with weight I’ve had as long as I can remember, but even more in how he discusses his sense of displacement. Unlike him, I have no particular pride in any particular place as home — but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

There’s not much to say about my weight that’s, um, earth-shaking — as I’ve said before, my ancestors were swinging battleaxes in northern Europe; I grew up swinging a backpack full of books, there was never anything about sports that was terribly attractive to me growing up, and I have spent much of my adult life behind a desk of some sort. My parents both had weight struggles they didn’t want me to have, which unfortunately meant that my weight as a child was monitored with the unapologetic and militantly nasty use of shame as a motivating tactic. (This is still hashed over yet today from time to time, and the parent who primarily engaged in this practice continues to defend their techniques, saying that they did these things because they wanted me to be healthy, and the only alternative they saw was to simply not care. That what they did didn’t actually work is only evidence to them that they didn’t do it enough for it to truly be the behavioral deterrent it was intended to be.) A growth spurt in junior high made me tall and reasonably thin (not skinny, I guarantee you — my frame does lend itself to skinniness to begin with) for the first time in my life, and I mostly stayed that way strictly by virtue of having a teenager’s metabolism. I put on a lot of weight my sophomore year of college as a result of various stresses (which I will discuss), lost it the next summer from even more stress, gained it all back (and how) once the school year started up again, and then got back down to my freshman year weight (more or less) about ten years ago. It stayed off roughly until my wedding, at which point it crept back on. When I moved to Indiana, a fencing class and a soccer class my first semester here took care of a good chunk of it, but then required courses edged further such intentions off of my schedule, and it came back on. For the last fourteen months, I have diligently made use of a treadmill, which between August and June took about ten pounds off very slowly; walking around Athens for two months got rid of another fifteen, and while much of it came back once I returned to the States, the addition of hand weights and other exercises to my routine has gotten me down to within five pounds of where I bottomed out in Athens. I am down two belt holes from where I was in August of 2008 one way or the other, and while the weight loss is slow, there is some very clear weight redistribution happening, as well as a development of muscle tone that didn’t used to be there. It’s a problem that anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I know about; the irony is that I am not sedentary by any means — I walk everywhere I can, in addition to the intentional exercise I get — but I also still eat the teenager’s portions of an adult diet, so I have to be very intentional about being active. This is more difficult when I’m not happy about large chunks of my life, and that’s been the case for most of the last six years. In the last year that has changed in some big ways, and my hope is that the physical aspect will also change concurrently. So that’s that.

The displacement issue is more complex. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is where both of my parents had been born and raised and where the vast majority of their respective families were; when I was four, due to some disagreements over business matters within the family, we moved to Wenatchee, Washington where my dad tried to reinvent himself as a small businessman. Wenatchee wasn’t an active enough town for him, however, so we moved to the Seattle area when I was seven, he bought another small business that he was going to try to grow, and we built a big house with the intent of it being the family homestead. Four years later, a combination of factors, including economic collapse in Alaska and further business disagreements within the family, led to us basically losing everything. Over the next five years, we bounced from rental house to rental house, my mom went back to work, and my dad poured more and more of his soul that he wasn’t going to get back into a business that really couldn’t exist anymore (namely, office supplies) given the initial appearances of big box competitors in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

In 1993, Dad moved back to Alaska, having been offered a job by an old friend. As he likes to say, he was lured back to Anchorage with one word: “Saturday.” It was my senior year of high school, so the plan was for Mom and I to stay in Washington until I graduated, after which she’d move up there with him and I would start my freshman year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

My senior year was a real struggle; not having a father at home, that year of all years, was a nightmare, and it wasn’t easy for any one of the three of us. It wasn’t easy for the two of them getting along with each other, and it wasn’t easy for me getting along with either of them. It was made worse by the fact that I started dating for the first time that year, and I also developed a close relationship with a couple of male teachers as sort of surrogate father figures, all developments my parents had trouble regarding with anything but suspicion and resentment.

The day before I graduated high school (Inglemoor High School, class of ’94), my dad flew into town. The day after I graduated high school, he and my mom flew back to Alaska, leaving me behind to supervise the load-in of their moving truck. I spent the summer going back and forth between Anchorage and Seattle, decidedly not feeling at home in a place of which I had no particular memory, and not being allowed to feel at home in the place that had been home for the previous ten years.

Freshman year at Western was a disaster. I had been to the campus all of once before; we lacked the resources, in terms of time or money, to really launch any kind of a school visitation effort, and the main reasons we picked it were because it wasn’t University of Washington, but it was in-state, close enough to home, and yet far enough away. With my parents’ move, however, none of these really meant anything anymore. I was at a school with no good reason to be there. I had no family left in the place that I had considered home for two-thirds of my life, and had no place to go back to that I could really call home. The place where my family now was, despite being my birthplace, was unfamiliar, and being now at the beginning of adulthood I had no compelling reason otherwise to be where they were. In short, I felt like they had left me. Unfortunately, when it became clear this arrangement wasn’t making any of us happy, the rhetoric that I heard more often than not was that of me having left them.

I no longer belonged where I had grown up, so I was being told, and where I was being told I belonged by virtue of my parents having moved there just as I was starting college was not anyplace that felt like home, and since the end result was that I felt like I had no home, I never really felt comfortable at Western. My two and a half years there were a miserable attempt at trying to eke out an undergraduate existence with no familial or financial support; lacking any particular guidance, I made very poor decisions during that time regarding money, my heart, and school (among other things). I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Anchorage trying to figure out how to put my relationships with my family back together, and found that at that particular point, there simply wasn’t anything to reassemble. My parents couldn’t deal with each other at that stage of the game, let alone me, and that summer was the lowest I had ever been up to that point. I lost weight simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping for about a month; eventually a psychiatrist put me on both Soma and Serzone, and things evened out enough to be able to survive the rest of the summer. (I took myself off of both as soon as I returned to Bellingham.) After one quarter back, however, it was clear that college was something I just wasn’t in any position to be able to pursue properly, and I dropped out after having thoroughly ticked off virtually everybody in the Department of Music with my inability to cope and what had become a tendency to lash out.

I now had no particular reason to stay in Bellingham, I wasn’t going to move to Alaska, and that left me with no real place to go except back to Seattle. I started job hunting, selling classified ads in Bellingham for the time being to at least have some way to live, and after a year finally had the opportunity to take a contract position (which was fulltime within a year) with a Major Software Company.

Life settled into enough of an equilibrium over the next year, and my parents appeared to have put enough of their own lives back together, that there seemed to be some kind of peaceful relationship that could exist with me in Seattle and them in Anchorage. They still nudged and wheedled me to consider moving to Alaska, but the fact remained that beyond the two of them, there just wasn’t any reason for me to be there. I sometimes thought that maybe once they’d retired, they would move back to Seattle; I dreamed that, having made my initial couple million working in the software industry (with subsequent millions to be made as the Great American Hope of lyric tenors, of course), I could buy back the house they built that was supposed to be the Barrett family home and give it to them.

Except that, about the same time that Megan and I started dating, in the early spring of 1999 (she and I having met freshman year at Western, so I guess it wasn’t a total disaster), my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. This was not the first time they had made this announcement, but this time it was final. The one time my wife ever saw us all together, apart from our wedding day (when they studiously avoided each other as much as possible — the family photo has them at opposite ends of the line), was a few days before the divorce was finalized, and they were yelling at each other over a snowblower.

By 2001, we were married, and shortly thereafter my dad left Alaska to spend a couple of years in West Virginia. By 2003, we moved to Indiana so that I could finish my undergraduate degree; part of the idea was that we’d be five hours away from Dad, which would have been the first time in a decade that I had lived within driving distance of a parent. Shortly before I left for Bloomington, however, he headed off to Phoenix, Arizona to be near the older of his two daughters (from his first marriage) and her children. Living near family was simply not to be.

Six years later, we’re still here. We’ve lived in our little rental house for a tick over four years; at 32 (less than a month away from 33), it is the longest I have ever had the same address. Ever.

My dad is still in Phoenix; my mom is in Wasilla, Alaska. Megan’s family is in the Seattle area. There is no one place we can ever live and be reasonably close to everybody.

Jaroslav Pelikan once quoted Robert Frost in saying that “home” is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you, but “home” has come to mean, at least for me, where my wife and I are able to share a life. It has no meaning relative to roots or family, at least not for me; for it to take on that meaning would mean choosing between my parents individually, or choosing between her family and mine. Everybody has an argument for why we should do one thing or the other, but there’s nothing we can do without having to make a painful choice. In some ways, it seems best to live near nobody, thus treating everybody equally.

Like Mr. Dreher, I crave roots and something authentic, but unlike him, I feel at home precisely nowhere. I have never walked around Bloomington pining for Anchorage (or Seattle, for that matter), nor vice versa. My parents both live in houses in which I never lived, in zip codes I never visited until after I was an adult. The place where I grew up has exactly nothing to offer me now. I have lived for years with a lot of shame and pain because I belong nowhere, but not because of a sense of disloyalty — unlike Mr. Dreher, I didn’t choose this displacement. Ironically, my displacement is precisely because I didn’t choose it. Rather, my parents moved away just at the very moment I needed them to stay put. (I will emphasize that I say this descriptively, not to assign blame; they did what they had to do. This has not made it any easier over the years from an experiential standpoint, however.) No, my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant. A stray who married up and who gets to eat pretty well for a stray, but a stray nonetheless.

Like Mr. Dreher, much of the work I have chosen is implicitly a means of trying to “find myself”; unlike Mr. Dreher, I’ve been trying to “show them myself” for years — to show “them” that I’ve risen above the rootlessness, the struggles with finding a path, the forced independence, the displacement, the lack of any visible connection to anything except a woman who loves me with all her heart, the confusion about how to simply be that burdens me from lack of guidance. I’m still trying to “show them,” which I guess means I haven’t actually accomplished rising above any of those things yet.

I don’t know if this pain ever goes away. I managed to get saddled with it at 17, and I keep waiting to feel normal again, keep thinking that understanding of the last several years is right around the corner. I at least feel less stuck than I have in years, like I’m working towards something now, something productive, so maybe it really is right around the corner. I don’t know.

School’s in for the summer: in which the author tries to figure out how to make Nescafé bearable and nearly gets lost during inter-suburban transit

I’ve alluded to my opinions about Nescafé before; alas, it really does seem to be what most people drink here in terms of day-to-day coffee consumption.

When your options are Nescafé, Nescafé, and Nescafé, as they are at the Athens Centre, you start getting creative with how you can make that work. You explore your options. You do things you wouldn’t normally have done with real coffee. You make sacrifices. You lose illusions about purity.

You add ice and cream and sugar, in other words. Anything, and I mean anything, to get rid of that freeze-dried-for-aeons, cigarette-ash-mixed-with-stale-sweat aftertaste. What’s that you say? Sacrificing a goat would make this taste better? Great — is my pencil sharp enough to work, or should I just tear its throat out with my teeth? Do I add the blood to the Nescafé, or do I grind up the bones into powder for use as a non-dairy creamer?

Well, the discovery I have made here in my first week in Greece is one that may have monumental implications — and that is: Add condensed milk. (Along with the ice and sugar, of course.) This may get me through my mornings for the next seven weeks.

I’m through my first week of the Level III Immersion class; it’s going really well, and it is putting together a lot of pieces for me. Skipping from 100 to 250 as I did this last school year made sense on several levels, but it also meant that there are some holes in my vocabulary and in some various little things, and it also means that my ear is behind my brain in terms of comprehension ability. Level III here starts out a bit behind where I was at the end of 250 in terms of grammar, but is also a bit ahead in terms of vocabulary. There is some review and some new stuff to learn, in other words — probably an okay way to go while I’m adjusting to being in a foreign country for the first time. My teachers have said that they think I could have started with IV if I wanted to, but that this is also just fine.

The bus ride from Halandri to the part of town where the Athens Centre is located is a bit long, and hotter than would be entirely comfortable (I have to say, much to my own surprise, that I am finding it to be a lot more pleasant outside than inside as a general rule, even with 100 degrees Fahrenheit as we had Wednesday), but it really could be a lot worse. I left a bit early the first day to allow time for getting lost, and, sure enough, lost I got.

Problem number one: I was originally advised to get off at one stop in particular, and then walk up a particular hill. Then a different person advised me to get off at the next stop, that this would likely be quicker. I followed the second person’s advice; they were wrong.

Problem number two: clarity in street signage is not a highly-prized virtue in Athenian municipal government.

Between these two factors, I was walking in the absolutely opposite direction of what I wanted for a good ten minutes. I realized this was the case, and thankfully, the map in the Athens Moleskine notebook got me to where I wanted to be. (I had one of those on our London trip, too, by the way. Can’t recommend those things enough.)

My class is small; four people including myself, and then the teacher. From left to right in the picture is Alexander, who is from Switzerland, with a Greek mother and a Swiss father; Aspasia, a Texan woman with a Greek father; Anna, the teacher, who is as native Greek as the day is long; and Maro, a woman from Wisconsin who lives here now and also is of Greek heritage.

Yep, I’m the only Anglo. So it goes.

After class on Monday, I met with Ioannis Arvanitis at the café of the bookstore Eleftheroudakis. (To give you an idea of the size of this bookstore, I will tell you that their café is on the sixth floor, and there are still a floor to go after that.) We talked for about forty-five minutes — he’s an extraordinarily nice man, and we have a decent amount in common when it comes to academic paths which haven’t been entirely linear, and he told me about the work on Byzantine notation that he’s done for his in-progress dissertation. We set up a meeting for Tuesday, which was not altogether a simple thing to do; he lives an another suburb, doesn’t drive, doesn’t have a studio in the city, and his house is a little off the beaten path. I’m not terribly concerned, I told him; I’ve come this far, after all.

I killed some time amidst the seven floors of books. While I’m here in Greece, I want to see if I can find an Ancient Greek textbook written in Modern Greek; I also need to find an Ieratikon, and there are a couple of other things for which I’m keeping my eyes open. I didn’t find any of these things, but there were double-takes as I realized that this is a store where one can commonly find things like an Irmologion on the shelves.

I also found my inner voice murmuring — Good Lord. I’m in Greece, and I’m being paid to be here before I start my PhD work. I’m going to get to study Byzantine chant with a master. I am getting to do everything I was miserable about not being able to do this time last year. The one thing missing from this picture is my wife, and she’ll be here before the end.

I have no excuses anymore, my inner voice gasped in shock.

To call this a sobering, and not a little bit intimidating, thought is to understate the matter. I remember an interview with “lyric heldentenor” Ben Heppner in which he said that after he won his first major competition he wasn’t quite sure how to feel. He likened the experience to a child who finally ties his shoes on his own, then breaks out into tears when he realizes that means he will always have to tie his shoes on his own from now on.

But then I slapped my inner voice a few times and said, You’re telling me now that you’re nervous because things are going too well????

My inner voice promptly shut up. For the moment.

In the early evening, Stefanos Fafulas, the other IU student who’s here on the FLAS, met me at Syntagma, and Anna also joined us. We met up with Frank Hess, Stefanos’ and my Modern Greek teacher at IU, and his wife Vasiliki, whom I had never met before. We went to a café near the Acropolis for a frappé and caught up some. It was odd seeing all these people whom I know from school suddenly in the context of the Parthenon being visible over Frank’s right shoulder, but there you go.

Tuesday I discovered this view from the roof of the Athens Centre. That’s the Acropolis on the left. You know how in movies set in Seattle, the Space Needle is visible from every point of view in the city, even though it isn’t in real life? Well, in real life, the Acropolis is pretty much visible from any point in Athens. It’s a city that hasn’t really discovered ultra-tall skyscrapers, and while there are a number of smaller buildings that crowd together and make it difficult to see a lot of the surrounding hills, you can catch a glimpse of the former cathedral of Athens virtually everywhere you go.

In the evening I had my first lesson with Arvanitis. Getting there was, as promised, interesting; he texted me in the afternoon to tell me that he and his wife Olga would pick me up at Kifisia Station at 6:15pm and take me back to their house. All well and good, but there was still the matter of getting to Kifisia Station from where I am in Halandri. I am in a somewhat awkward part of Halandri to get to other suburbs; this time next year there will be a metro station a five minute walk from here, and there used to a be a metro station about a fifteen minute walk from here, but construction means that we’re in an in-between period at the moment where that’s concerned. So, I can walk twenty, twenty-five minutes to catch a bus that will take me straight there in about half an hour; alternately, I can take a ten minute bus ride to the nearest metro station, have a ten minute metro ride into downtown Athens, then take a forty minute train ride from downtown Athens to Kifisia Station; another option is to take a half an hour bus ride to its terminus point and then take another half an hour bus ride to Kifisia Station. Particularly when it’s roughly a twenty minute drive, these are not exactly ideal options, but there we are.

I took the option that started closest to where I’m staying. I wasn’t sure exactly where I needed to grab the second bus; I asked, and the driver seemed to not quite know himself, but sent me in a particular direction and said I should see it one way or the other.

After twenty minutes, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. I turned around.

Back where I had gotten off the first bus, I saw the bus that I wanted, but it was nowhere near where I was under the impression I needed to catch it. I verified with the driver that it was going to Kifisia Station, and then on the way out it became clear why there had been confusion — the sign for the stop I had wanted was covered in tree branches. Only somebody looking for it who knew exactly where it was in the first place would have seen it.

Anyway, I pulled into Kifisia Station right at 6:15. The Arvantises pulled in exactly as I was getting off the bus; then we had another twenty minute drive to their house. He was not kidding when he said it was not going to be easy to get to him.

The good news, on the other hand, is that he and his wife are genuinely warm and friendly people, and spent a lot of time just talking to me and giving me coffee and ice cream before we worked. And work we did; he gave a thorough exposition on his approach to explaining what Byzantine notation is, where it came from, what it does, and why it does what it does; in short, it is notation that developed to serve the text. You couldn’t really use this notation for instruments, because the signs themselves assume a relationship to syllables in a word. We spent a bit of time starting to read very simple, stepwise exercises, and then it was time to call it a night. It was time well spent, and there is no doubt there is much I will be able to learn from him. He said that there was a place within walking distance of Kifisia Station where we could meet in the future, and that this would be a lot easier on everybody.

Wednesday, I went with Anna, Stefanos, and Liana to a concert at Theatro Vrahon, one of what I’m told are several picturesque outdoor venues in the area. The show was an Athens-based pop singer named Monika, a very young (early twenties, I think) performer who reminded me of what Tori Amos songs might sound like if reinterpreted by Chrissie Hynde. She’s very engaging as a performer, has a really nice natural voice, and the songs show a lot of interesting musical instincts. I think she needs to work with a native English speaker when it comes to writing her lyrics, and she doesn’t quite yet know how to end a song all the time, but there’s a lot there to like. The only place I have found where somebody in the United States might buy her music is here, and at $1.17 for the album that’s a steal. Let me recommend “Bloody sth” and “Over the hill” as places to start to see if it’s your thing. For a 100% cost-free inquiry, here is the video for “Over the hill,” which is evidently the radio-friendly favorite off the album, given that she played it twice during the concert.

Thursday, I made an important discovery: Greek uses the same verb, κλίνω “klino” to describe both the conjugation of a verb and the declension of a noun. This explains why my inner grammar nazi has been scratching his head for the last year hearing people talking about nouns conjugating.

Also, Coraline (subtitled “The house in the fog” in Greek) was a lot better with Greek subtitles than Angels and Demons was. (Not, mind you, that we should be surprised by this.)

Friday I was an hour late to my lesson with Arvanitis. Bottom line is that the second bus just never came; I wound up taking a taxi to Kifisia Station. He hung around and waited for me, God bless him, and still worked with me for an hour and forty-five minutes, but it was nonetheless frustrating. The useful discovery that came out of it, however, is that door to door, the cab ride between where we’re meeting and my front door here is a tick less than six Euros and it takes twenty minutes. I think that’s a much more economical use of time, all things considered.

Dinner was with Stefanos and Liana; Liana made pastitsio (sort of Greek lasagna, although I don’t think they would describe it that way), which nobody ever has to twist my arm to eat, but also melitzanopita, eggplant (melitzana) baked in filo dough. I never thought I’d develop any kind of taste for eggplant, but slowly but surely, I’m making my peace with it, and melitzanopita is quite tasty. The pastitsio was different from how I’ve eaten it before, having been made with a more Turkish array of spices. (As I said, food will probably justify its own post at some point.)

Then I went home and crashed. It was a very full week.

And so it was that I survived my first week of school here, Nescafé and all.

The death throes of various business models

Virgin Megastore is closing down; The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, my childhood newspaper, is going web-only, and its competitor/codependent sibling, The Seattle Times, may be following suit soon.

As a small child I once harbored fantasies of being able to organize clippings to create a real-life equivalent of Sherlock Holmes’ index; all I really managed to do was make a mess and hoard a large stack of issues of the P-I I would never be able to go through. For awhile I at least had a decent collection of clipped Phantom comic strips, and I still have virtually every item run between January and August 1989 on Tim Burton’s first Batman film in a scrapbook.

The music stores I frequented as a kid aren’t there any more; Love Music in Redmond (where a friend of mine and I drove late one night to get the new Hammerbox album on vinyl, speaking of things outdated), Easy Street Records in Kirkland (where I encountered Harry Connick Jr. once), Tower Records in Bellevue — all dead and gone, years ago. Borders and Barnes and Noble, my later retail enablers, seem to be increasingly less interested in CD sales. (“increasingly less”? Does that even make any sense?)

I will mourn the newspaper when its ultimate end arrives. It has been inevitable for some time; most of the last decade, it seems, has been the story of the decline of Seattle as a town where two dailies were viable. For a very brief period I worked for The Bellingham Herald; it was an illuminating look at a business which was horribly troubled even in 1998. It will be an odd day when the presence of a physical newspaper in a movie will be an anachronism which dates the work, but it is coming, and fast. Still, I’ve gotten the vast majority of my news via online sources for years now, and it hasn’t occurred to me that I want to buy a copy of a daily newspaper since at least 2003.

Much as I hate to admit it, however, I could not care less that the bricks-and-mortar music store is dying. Really, it’s been dead for awhile, depending on what your musical interests are — this is just a matter of the physical reality catching up with the industry. I have bought most of my music online since probably 2000 or 2001. If I see something I want in a physical store, unless it’s a copy of something that I’ve been looking for forever which has long seemed otherwise unavailable, I write down the name of it for reference and look for it on Amazon later — but the fact is, it is so rare that this happens it’s barely even worth mentioning. I’d love to be able to “buy local,” but the sad truth is that it’s been forever since small shops have been able to afford to stock what I like. I can’t find it at a small, local store even if I want to buy it there.

Regarding both the daily print newspaper and the bricks-and-mortar music store, there is simply no incentive, at least from this customer’s perspective, to stick with either business model when I can get what I want more easily, more quickly, and more inexpensively in other ways. Classical music, for example — and by that I mean the body of recordings which a classical music aficionado would actually want to buy, not Hooked on Mozart — has become harder to find at a physical retail store every time I walk into one for the last decade and a half. There’s just no point in even trying, when every time you walk in, you walk out frustrated — not when you can quickly search on Amazon and find the CD within seconds, usually even if it is out of print. I might also add that iTunes, which I originally thought would be a horrible format for classical music, seems to have figured out how to manage to make the “per-song” model work when each “song” is actually part of a bigger work. This is not just classical music, either; the further your tastes stray from the Billboard 200, the more this will be the case.

As far as the newspaper goes — y’know, nostalgia aside, let’s be honest. It’s intended to be a disposable medium anyway. Ephemeral as it effectively is (heck, the Greek word for newspaper is εφημερίδα ephimeridha), getting rid of the physical means of conveyance only makes sense, however much somebody like me, who wishes he could be cool enough to be a real Luddite, might want it to be otherwise. People aren’t going to pay for something disposable when there’s a free version that you don’t have to bother recycling, period. That said, I hope we don’t ever reach the point where we’re 100% paper-free; there is something about the interaction of content with substance that it would be a shame to totally lose. (There’s part of me that would like to argue that this is ultimately a form of Gnosticism, where media are irrelevant and content is everything, but I will need to revisit that another time.)

I raise a glass in memory of the newspaper; I frankly wish the CD store good riddance.

FARMbloomington

As one or two of the links on my blogroll might suggest, I tend to support the local food movement, or at least parts of it; I have a membership at my local food co-op, I’ve read Crunchy Cons and The Oldways Table, and even subscribed to The American Conservative just to make sure I could read the Rod Dreher/Michael Pollan interview. (I simultaneously subscribed to The Progressive for purposes of balance.)

So, when a restaurant opened up here in Bloomington which was touted as “local, seasonal and simple, while still original” and claimed “to reach out to local growers and utilize their products,” naturally I was interested — definitely the kind of thing locally-minded foodies should want to support, yes?

Well, after months of hearing that it was good but expensive, Megan and I went to FARMbloomington Tuesday night. We were looking to celebrate the beginning of the new school year, and it seemed like as good of an opportunity as any to give it a shot.

Bottom line, in case you don’t want to bother with the gory details: it’s good, but expensive.

The problem is this — it’s okay for a restaurant to be expensive, as long as the customer isn’t thinking after paying, “Wow, that was expensive.” Ideally, the quality of any restaurant should be proportionate to what it costs to eat there; in other words, one should look at the check and always think, “Yep, about right.” Paying through the nose is fine — I just don’t want to feel like I’m paying through the nose. So, if I’m thinking on my way back to the car, “That was good, but expensive,” what that really means is that it wasn’t good enough, not by half.

Walking in, the place has a country-style restaurant feel; some have called it a “high-end Cracker Barrel” and that’s not too far off, but the postmodern twist sneaks up on you when you’re looking at the west wall of the dining room and you realize — that’s a wall covered with bedpans. Evan, our server, was pretty upfront when we asked him about it — “Those are bedpans, all different styles,” he told us. Evidently that’s what says “local” to chef Daniel Orr.

The other problem is that it seems like nothing can just be “local” or “normal”; it’s gotta have a gimmick, as the song goes. Sometimes it works, as in the case of the pineapple vodka which is spiced on-site; that stuff is tasty (many thanks to David, who brought them to us unprompted). Sometimes, however, it just leaves you scratching your head — my wife’s cocktail, a house concoction called “Sweet Lucy in the Rye” made from Sweet Lucy bourbon, Wild Turkey rye, orange juice, and… a ginger cube. A ginger cube? Speaking as an aficionado of Manhattan cocktails, I found this drink to be bizarre. That said, when they do something straightforward, it works very well — my mojito was quite refreshing and very much appreciated, it having been hot and muggy all day.

For appetizers, we went with a plate of sea scallops (as Megan pointed out, not exactly a local selection, unless there’s something about Lake Monroe I don’t know), thinly-sliced and served raw, topped with lime, chilies, dill, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and sea salt. Not bad, worth trying, the plate size is simply too big for two people. After a couple of them you realize it’s more interesting than good, but you’ve still got a whole platter left. Some of the chunks of sea salt were a little too big, but that bothered die Frau more than it bothered me. I also had a caesar salad, which was good but the gimmicky touch here was the shredded seaweed on top. I guess it worked okay, but only because it combined with the taste of the caesar dressing and was effectively blended out. Since it didn’t add anything in terms of flavor or texture, why bother?

My entrée was the Coffee Rubbed Buffalo Nickel Farms Bison Ribeye, served with truffle, mushroom grits, and soubise (a kind of onion white sauce). The mushroom grits and the truffle were fantastic. The meat was… not bad, not great. I asked for medium rare, but danged if I could find a millimeter of pink on the thing. It wasn’t horrible despite being overcooked, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I ordered it, either. Megan ordered an off-the-menu Fielder pork chop with potatoes and a reduction sauce; again, the potatoes were terrific, and the meat was, well, fine.

Dessert was coffee an espresso parfait — like the mojito, quite tasty and refreshing on this particular day. The problem here was Megan asking for cream for the coffee and being given nonfat milk; I guarantee you, she doesn’t have an ounce to lose, so it wasn’t that they were trying to send a message, they just weren’t paying attention. Had that been the only thing questionable about the evening, it would have been a minor quibble, but it contributed to an overall sense that FARMbloomington is still figuring some things out.

Pre-tip, the tab came to $108.07; had everything been wonderful from — if you’ll excuse the expression — soup to nuts, I don’t think I would have blinked at that, but it sure felt expensive. Had it been about two-thirds of the price (or less), it would have felt a lot closer to reality.

Now, all of this is not to say that it was terrible and I don’t ever want to go back. Seattle’s Cafe Flora* it ain’t, at least not yet, but as I said, it’s the kind of place I’d like to be able to support, it wasn’t absolutely terrible, there were definitely things that were really good, it’s just that they clearly do not yet have the ship sailing as smoothly as it hopefully will be eventually. I plan to go back after the menu rolls over for fall or winter and see how things change. If they’ve improved some things, I look forward to being able to report that.

* Home of the best cheese grits in the universe. Check out their cookbook.

Things I wish Bloomington had

Seattle, my old hometown, has a loooooooooooooong way to go before it reaches the “Real Cities Have Trains” standard, but I gotta say, this is at least a baby step in the right direction. For Bloomington to have a streetcar system wouldn’t hurt my feelings—to say nothing of a waterfront…


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