Sunday 23 February 2020

Lent, again

I received an unusual number of comments about my Fat Thursday post, sent or spoken privately.  One reader was curious as to what a Traditional Catholic Lent really looks like, and another was cross because  he felt I gave a false impression of it. Still others are amused that I'm going to Poland, land of meat, during Lent.

So I have looked up the Official 1962 Lent, and here is what I found.  Compared to what the Greeks do today (when they actually do it), it is astonishingly lenient. In the 1940s, Latin Catholics were actually weighing their food, lest they eat too much.

Thanks to the 1962 Discipline, I feel better now about having such relaxed Lenten Sundays, and we will be following the rules for 1962 while we are in Poland (e.g. wine and beer, not vodka). The no-booze, not-eating-meat-except-on-Sundays regimen (at home) is just our own offering, so nobody else should feel that this is something THEY should do.

Just remember, whatever you DO do will probably be done better by our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox brethren (or their monks and nuns). But if any of the Greeks get snide about lazy Latin practises, be sure to tell them about the Russians and how they don't eat ANYTHING from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Writing Muscles and Memory Muscles

Last week one of my students read me her essay about Aristotle's influence on Alexander the Great, and I almost cried with happiness. It was beautifully argued, beautifully structured. Did I mention she is twelve? Afterwards I handed back her previous paper, which was heavily bloodied with red ink corrections. She was not happy, and I certainly understood why. Therefore, I explained what editing is supposed to do.

Learning to write well is like bodybuilding. When you decide to develop your physical muscles, you go to a gym and lift weights. The effort actually shreds your muscles, which heal--and grow bigger--after you feed them protein and rest. Eventually you grow into a strong, wiry athlete. (In my own athletic days, an admirer once told me I resembled a Greek goddess. I didn't tell the children that part.) The next-day ache of a good workout makes you feel good because you know the process is working.

Naturally it is a good idea to have an accredited coach to teach you proper form in weightlifting so that you don't injure yourself. And when you are learning to write well, it is important to have a teacher who is herself a good writer. There are tips and tricks to discovering whether or not your teacher is a good writer, but that's a topic for another day. A good teacher cares more about developing your prose--and your ear for prose--than being popular, so when she reads your assignments, she will thoroughly ink them up. She will go through every sentence with a fine-tooth pen and mark out everything wrong. This is the literary equivalent of a muscle shredding.

You feel the writing muscles shred when you get back your formerly immaculate paper, the pride of your heart, and see it lying bloody before you. Your heart hurts. Your self-love is squashed. Your confidence is bruised. You may be tempted to think that your teacher is an idiot or a Philistine---and if you are unlucky, your teacher MIGHT be an idiot or a Philistine or BOTH. However, if you (or your parents) have chosen your teacher carefully, you should just trust that your aged teacher knows more than you do.

The next step is to rest and feed your writing muscles protein, which in the writing context means to write or type up your paper with all your writing teacher's corrections, recalling the reasons for the corrections, which hopefully she has explained to you.

Then naturally you must write another, perhaps longer, paper, and submit it to be shredded in its turn. Keep this up for six years, while reading the prose of the greatest writers slowly and carefully (and, if possible, aloud), and you will be a splendid writer. P.S. Try to write every day.

My twelve-year-old student reads very quickly while her eleven-year-old brother reads more slowly, and when I remarked on the importance of reading slowly, my twelve-year-old added that she reads most books twice. A few hours later I mentally kicked myself because I had not pointed out that this is not as effective a way to learn to write prose as reading slowly, nor does re-reading alone cement things in the memory.

Thus, yesterday I told my students the equally invaluable lesson that the only way to truly learn is through memory. I am very passionate about this because I once believed that academic success depended on reading, re-reading and (especially) marking up notes with a highlighter. I now know that highlighters are GARBAGE, and the secret to learning anything by heart is spaced repetition with homemade flashcards.

I am currently memorising my concise Polish dictionary. I am on Flashcard 281. The marvellous thing is that the more I memorise, the easier it is. I make and study ten new cards a day so I can easily determine how many days I have dedicated to the quest. Also, trying to memorise ten cards a day is not that onerous. I realised how much my memory muscles have grown when I began to learn the Apostles Creed in Polish on the bus yesterday. It was much easier than I thought it would be.

The bad news about flashcards is that they alone will not improve your foreign language conversation skills--although they certainly will help you pass written exams. No, to improve your spoken fluency, you actually have to have foreign language conversations. This means, of course, that you have to embrace the reality of making mistakes and sounding foolish to yourself. Naturally, this hurts as much or more as having a teacher ink up your deathless prose or doing 50 reps with a heavy weight. However, if you chose your language and your interlocutors wisely, the rewards of every conversation will outweigh your embarrassment.

Now, time to make a chocolate tart for tonight's pudding.

Friday 21 February 2020

Fat Thursday

The Poles have a marvellous pre-Lenten institution called Tłusty Czwartek, which is literally "Fat Thursday." It is roughly analogous to what the British unchurched call "Pancake Tuesday," which the British churched call "Shrove Tuesday" (unless they are of a Calvinist bent--orthodox Calvinists recognise only Sundays as special).

Anyway, the wonderful thing about Tłusty Czwartek is that eating doughnuts that day is almost a religious obligation. Polish doughnuts are called "pączki" (pronounced paunch-key), and they are of the light, filled, icing-covered variety.  It is traditional to eat as many pączki as you can and then ask other people how many they have eaten.

Since I have been on a diet since New Year's Day, I have been looking forward to Tłusty Czwartek and walking into my favourite bakery for the first time in 2020. Thus, yesterday I bounced gleefully in and bought two sugar-dusted gourmet doughnuts, one filled with "blood orange and ricotta" and the other with "pistachio cream." Then I took the bus to the nearest Polish grocery store, which was heaving with large stacked supermarket trays of white icing covered fat pills pączków.

The trays were labelled things like "toffi" (toffee) and "budyn" (pudding) and "marmolada" (normally marmalade), which disappointed me as I wanted the ones filled with rose petal jam. However, I bought 3 pączki of the marmalade sort and was delighted to find them full of good old rose petal jam. British-Canadian that I am, I was half-expecting golden shred orange.

I had two of  Polish grocery ones after my brunch and then a half each of the gourmet ones after supper.  The Polish ones, which cost half the price of the gourmets, were better.  This is something I will remember next year.

"Only three?" asked Małgorzata over Facebook, and I enjoyed the slight frisson of shame. While chomping through my brunch dessert, I revelled in my total lack of guilt in eating two doughnuts in a row.

This morning I reflected on a truth that slim Europeans all seem to know, which is that dessert is more fun if you don't usually have one. It is definitely more fun not to eat doughnuts for months and months and then to eat three in one day.

On Shrove Tuesday Benedict Ambrose and I will not eat pancakes. Once again we are going to keep the pre-1965 fast this Lent, and so we are going to say "carne-vale" at our local Argentinian steakhouse instead. Abstaining from meat and alcohol for six days a week (B.A. simply won't do meatless, wineless Sundays) is a doddle. I'm always enormously impressed by the Eastern Catholics and Greek Orthodox Lenten practises, which are a bit complicated. The Russians, I think, go too far. Fortunately, very few Russians keep the Russian Orthodox Lenten fast to the letter, and most of those are monks.

Saturday 15 February 2020

Christie Blatchford and the so-called death of journalism

I have been reading tributes to the late Canadian journalist Christie Blatchford. Most of them are wonderful, as if the authors were channelling her shining prose as they typed. The Canadian conservative blogger Kathy Shaidle keeps posting links to these offerings on Facebook and has added Blatchford's meditation on the death of her cat. At the time Blatchford had no idea she was going to die in 13 months. In fact, it appears that her death came as a surprise visitor. 

Shaidle also posted an offering by Siri Agnew, who drew a line between Blatchford's death and the supposed demise of journalism. It too is well-written, but there were touches of snobbery in it that annoyed me. For example, Agnew writes:  

"Journalism was a profession I thought would be filled with smart, fearless people who stayed up too late telling stories about the stories they had told. It was a club defined by the work and the honor and the principles of the thing, which we all knew if we were invited to the party [thrown by Blatchford], and that we would all defend if someone tried to get in who didn’t. Journalism was something aspirational and proud, a privilege and a joy - the chance to be a part of a rarified group of truth tellers and level setters, of people who hold power to account. It was fun and it mattered and it was not to be messed with."
As a social conservative, I have a vested interest in the outcome of Harry "the Owl" Miller's challenge to police investigations of tweets critical of transgenderism. Thus, I do not like the idea of journalism as a club or of journalists as a "rarified group." I liked Blatchford or, rather, her writing (I never met her) because it was good. Now I know she was a workhorse, too, and fought her editors as hard as she fought for victims of crime. That's rather different from belonging to "the club" and being invited to "the party" even though, in that anecdote, Blatchford threw the party. 

Agnew blames the internet for the apparent end of journalism, mentioning that this party was during Canada's Newspaper Wars "which was a time when reporters were competitive with one another while the Internet snuck up behind them and ate their lunch." 

I laughed, but my grandfather was a typesetter for Maclean-Hunter, and his profession disappeared shortly after he retired. In Britain, there was a civil war between the typesetters union and journalists. Typesetting was a trade as old as the printing press, and therefore as old as journalism, and yet  computers put the typesetters out of work. Made them redundant. Obsolete.

Journalism isn't obsolete, though; it has just changed. The Internet sparked the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the television, if not the printing press itself. I do think the internet is as big an upheaval as the printing press, though, for many reasons, one of which is the democratisation of the press. Anyone with an internet connection can publish news and opinion. Anyone. The trick is getting readers. The next trick is getting them to pay.

Most readers are attracted by good writing, stories that interest them, and opinions that mirror their own. A few enjoy hate-reading, which means reading opinions that make them angry or contemptuous, for the fun of feeling angry or superior. However, most people want to read material that speaks to them, and millions of social conservatives feel that left-leaning mainstream media simply despises them. It often does and has for a long time.

One of my earliest memories of the Toronto Star was a column by Doris Anderson in which she sneered at a play by Karol Wojtyła solely because he was also the reigning Pope John Paul II. I was only a child, but her anti-Catholic (and, by the way, anti-Polish) prejudice was crystal clear to me. Fifteen years later I was so distressed by another anti-Catholic slight in a Canadian newspaper that I shut myself in a cubicle in the ladies' washroom at work and cried my heart out.

Around that time I succeeded in getting two fluffy pieces published in the Arts section of the National Post and was paid what seemed like, and actually was, an enormous sum for each. Almighty God clearly didn't want me writing stuff like that, for both times I saw my work in print, my guts went into spasm. The second time I was in so much pain I thought my appendix had burst. So that was that for my new career writing witty fluff for the Post, which shortly thereafter gutted its Arts section anyway.

That was my only foray into mainstream media, to which I did not think I belonged because I was a practising Catholic. My favourite high school English teacher told me I should become a journalist, but when I paid a visit to my university's newspaper building, I was too intimidated to walk into the offices. I forced myself through the Varsity's front door but got only as far as the bulletin board.  The Varsity openly sneered at social conservatives. I think I feared they would be able to smell my Catholicism on me. The Varsity, incidentally, helped launch the careers of both Stephanie Nolan and Naomi Klein. Yes, that Naomi Klein.

I did not know at the time that millions of other people felt frozen out by the far-left university newspaper editors their fees funded. Nor did I realise they would feel the same way when the editors graduated and joined the "rarefied group of truth tellers" who ruled mainstream media. The internet revolution gave the millions new options, and the Americans, at very least, were willing to pay for it.

This, by the way, is the secret of making money from material anyone can access for free: donors. Yes, advertising is important, but donors are even more important. Donors are as important to the New Media as they are to U.S. Congressmen. The great thing is that people will donate if they feel strongly enough about a cause, whether that is the pro-life movement or keeping the left-wing Guardian afloat.

My guess is that the Guardian will survive because it is part of the very identity of the "rarefied group" who live in North London or wish they did. Possibly the Catholic Register will survive if enough Toronto Catholics continue to think it is part of their identity as Catholics. LSN is a powerhouse because we all work our butts off for the social conservatives the mainstream media despises.

We do work our butts off, No, seriously. I write two or three articles a day, and I'm not the fastest person on staff. We have full-time reporters in both London and Rome. If my husband retires early, we'll have a full-time correspondent in Kraków. Diane Montagna famously interviewed Bishop Sorondo in Rome last week. Claire Chretien interviewed Cardinal Zen in New York yesterday. I interviewed Harry Miller by phone. Journalism is not dying; it's just been democratised. Social conservatives are no longer kept out of the fusty old club because we stopped trying to join. We took advantage of the internet revolution to get our arguments out there and to tell the pro-life, pro-family stories that were screaming to be told.

The one thing that hasn't changed, though, is the need to write beautiful sentences. Blatchford was so good at that.

Monday 10 February 2020

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

Well, I took down my last post because I thought I was a bit too angry about Jennifer Lopez. I'm angry too often these days. It's corrosive.

Monday 3 February 2020

A Good Morning

Alarm goes off at 7 AM. Coffee. Twenty minutes of Polish study. Depart. Ten to fifteen more minutes of Polish study on the bus.

9:30 AM spin class. Very enjoyable. Ablutions. Grocery shop. Half an hour of Spanish study on the bus.

11:30 AM breakfast of omelette followed by a healthy chocolate brownie. Begin reading The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes.

Now time for work!

Sunday 2 February 2020

Weekend Microadventures

A view from the descent
Yesterday B.A and I climbed Arthur's Seat and were quite alarmed. First I was alarmed by the evidence that Arthur's Seat is a big tourist draw even in February. Can you get coronavirus from a hill? Then the wind was so strong by the time we got to the top, I thought it might blow us off. Next as we clambered down the hill, B.A. reported that he was feeling dizzy, so I worried that he would fall down. But by the time we were halfway to the ground, wind roaring, tourists and foreign students mincing up and down, I felt euphoric. I love Scottish country walks, but if I can't go on one, risking life and limb on Edinburgh's hills will do.

Having worked up quite an appetite while hill-scrambling, we popped into an eatery for and by Brazilian hipsters and had quite a nice lunch for not very much money.

Then we bought B.A. a tweed suit from a good shop. I have wanted to buy my husband a tweed suit from that particular good shop for years and years and years, and at last I could, so I did. I myself was wearing a cotton tunic, mud-stained leggings, hiking boots and a battered old mac that used to be B.A.'s.

Finally we went to Brew Lab for coffee, and having spent a tidy sum on the suit, I felt a bit anxious that our coffee, cappuccino and B.A.'s brownie cost £10. Ten pounds! I mean to say.

Incidentally I have lost 12 lbs in weight since January 1st, in part because I stopped going to the glorious pastry shop across the street from my health club. It has ruinously delicious croissants. Not eating these croissants has helped to make me thinner and richer. As wonderful as croissants can be (and, really, these are among the best sold in Edinburgh), I would rather be thin with a well-dressed husband.

Today was a bit fraught as, for ecclesiastical political reasons, I went to the Novus Ordo, and then to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and then to the parish hall to prepare Coffee Hour. In the first Mass the homilist mentioned "active participation", which was rather funny, for there wasn't actually all that much action going on in the N.O. The Extraordinary Form community, however, celebrated Candlemas with candle-blessings, candle-fetching, a procession, and three sessions of lighting and blowing candles out. Afterwards there were Eve of Saint Blaise throat blessings, and when I rushed out of the hall to have my throat blessed against coronavirus, persons unknown ate all the biscuits.

"I had one," said B.A. later.

"Having one was okay," I said, feeling inordinately cross. Normally I do not point the finger at those who eat more biscuits than they should, but as a matter of fact, I am not made of biscuits and had brought only 40, an emergency supply in case nobody else brought any. They were Jaffa cakes, too. Yes, I was cross. I am turning into an cross old Church Lady. How old am I now? Get off my lawn!

After the kitchen and hall were returned to the state expected by our brothers and sisters of the Novus Ordo, I went along with B.A. to look at a lovely old historical house. The sad thing is, though, that I simultaneously fell in love with this historical house and into a pit of grief about our old Historical House. And it wasn't even the Historical House itself I was so suddenly distressed about: it was the manner of our going.

"We weren't evicted," said B.A. "The way they put it was that the job had changed."

"We were evicted," I said. "While you were being treated for cancer."

I had never been evicted in my life, which is to say, I have never been forced to leave my home, let alone my home of 9 years. Maybe this will make me a better person to work with refugees, should I one day work with refugees, but that's it for the golden lining. By the time B.A. and I were back on the bus, my stomach was in knots, and I eventually felt nauseous, and it was all very irrational.

Well, grief from trauma is cyclical, so it's to be expected from time to time. The reason why I am writing about it now is that I just read a blogpost talking about how contented people admit to their sad feelings instead of squashing them down, so that is what I am doing instead of eating a sack of milk chocolate. My mantra is "What can I do today to make tomorrow better?" Having written myself into a slightly better mood, I am now going to make flourless, sugar-free and yet still delicious brownies.

Saturday 1 February 2020


I'm trying to sort out how I feel about Brexit. A pal put a Last Night at the Proms performance of "Jerusalem" followed by "God Save the Queen" on his blog to celebrate. As I watched, a tear actually came trickling down my cheek, even though another part of my brain was thinking "There's no mention of Scotland in that song, bub."

I suppose a good way to start is that being British does not mean hating Europe. It just means noting that Britain is distinct from Europe and is rich enough not to need whatever the European Union offers. Hundreds of thousands of British, including tens of thousands of civilians, died because Britain refused to be controlled by a Western European power; the spirit of British independence is  strong to this day.

At the same time, being British does not mean being English, Scottish, Welsh or Ulster Irish,  or even born in the British Isles, as many people from the British Commonwealth would attest. The Union flag flew over Canada until 1965, and my Scottish-Canadian ancestors fought under it. Canada--that is, the English-speaking parts of Canada--was solidly British until then.

By the time I went to elementary school, the Canadian chattering classes were wringing their hands and having an identity crisis, in which I soon shared. I literally wished I were Swiss, for then I would have a clear identity, and possibly live a romantic, fresh air life like Heidi. However, despite experiments in thinking I was "Irish" (despite no-one in my family living in Ireland since 1847) or "Irish Catholic" or "unhyphenated Canadian", I have come to the conclusion that I am just a British Canadian, living in Britain, married to a Scot.

The part of Britain I live in is Scotland, which is a bit tricky because the Independence Referendum tom-toms are banging again. Although I could see why rich Britain would leave the European Union, I can't see a good reason why poor Scotland should leave rich England-and-Wales. To give the current First Minister a special place in the history books? No, thanks.

But at the same time--and this is grossly unfair--the flag of England (i.e. cross of St. George) gives me the heebee jeebies. I enjoy visiting England, but I am not sure I would want to live there. On trains north, I get tremendously excited when I realise I'm in Scotland again. Home, it seems.

Meanwhile educated Europeans, like the Czech brain surgeon who, under God, saved B.A.'s life, will still want to move to Edinburgh. It's a truly wonderful city. The Polish workforce will still move here, by hook or crook. All the EU money doesn't keep Poles in Poland, I notice---which is great for Scotland. As I keep telling Polish pals, nobody wants them to leave. Well, maybe a few bitter drunks on the Rough Bus do, but the people running things do not.

I am a migrant myself, and I never was a citizen of the EU, so my own status doesn't change a whit. The one big change is that B.A. and I will probably be in the same non-EU passport queue at airports from here on in. At least, I hope that's the one big change. I am really afraid that the Union will be dismantled, and my decision was to move to Scotland-part-of-the-UK, not some future People's Republic of Scotland. My shock when I found myself plunged socially into Scottish republican circles was acute. I had never heard of such a thing.

Terror of the United Kingdom crumbling under my feet is much more of a force in my life than hurt European feelings and monolingual Guardianistas in North London moaning about soggy cake-fuelled isolation. At the same time, I am in foreigner in Edinburgh, and so I am sorry for the continental European foreigners who feel sad about the extra paperwork Brexit means for them.

As for British, or English, nationalism, I went to the Polish Independence Day March one year, and although it was not what the lying polonophobic American media said it was, it still scared the living daylights out of me.

I once read the account of a Polish woman married to a British bricklayer who went to Last Night at the Proms and felt hurt and left out. Well, I packed myself into St. Barbara's Catholic Church in Warsaw an hour before the Marsz Dzień Niepodległosci when I suddenly discovered that I did not know the "Our Father" in Polish. I realised at once that this could mark me out as a non-Pole and therefore a potential Polonophobic Western Media Spy. I did not feel hurt. I felt terrified.

All the same, I am now going to go and write out another page of my Polish children's Encyclopaedia and help B.A. buy a suit for my Polish god-daughter-to-be's baptism in Poland. Her daddy once worked for UKIP; how we all laughed.