Labor Day South of the Equator

I used to think (I avoid assuming because of the consequences) that the rest of the world followed the general contour of the seasons in the United States.  Is that a consequence of American greatness and status as leader of the free world?  Perhaps.

But now I am woke.

While still flying solo last night I viewed a documentary about beach resorts in Argentina, Balnearios.  It was pretty good.  It was more orchestrated than some documentaries, but provided a glimpse of Argentinian life that fascinates. I give it three stars.  The cats are still voting.

One aspect that struck me was that summer there is our winter.  Of course, since I spent time in Brazil a couple decades ago during the month of February, I knew that their summer matched our winter.  But since I was teaching at a seminary and classes were in session (which they also seemed to be at the affiliated university), I had assumed that the school year below the equator lined up with ours in North America.

I saw vividly last night what this website confirms (by the way, I checked to see about South Africa and discovered they have four terms that run almost the entire year):

The school year in Argentina runs from March to December and lasts about 200 days. Schools are closed for national holidays, such as Good Friday and Easter, and two weeks in July for vacation. Normally, public elementary schools are in session four and a half hours each weekday. Saturdays are generally reserved for extracurricular school activities. Often, a school will have a morning and afternoon session, allowing pupils and teachers to choose their sessions. Some elementary schools offer evening classes for adults.

Imagine that. Stocking up on notebooks and pencils about the same time you are throwing out Christmas gift wrapping and determining this time really really to lose a few pounds.

What may even be harder to conceive is not having a Christmas recess from classes because the school year just ended.

Talk about American myopia.

Postscript: Ellen Marie Jones and Jay Glenn Hart were married on this day seventy-five years ago at Metropolitan Baptist Church (now Capitol Hill Baptist). Need to mention this here since in heaven, where they are, there’s no marriage and so likely no wedding anniversary celebrations.

Newsflash: My Parents were Right

The world is not a safe place.

Even the University of Chicago agrees with Ellen and Jay Hart:

Looking for safe spaces on campus or trigger warnings on a syllabus?

Incoming students at the University of Chicago have been warned they won’t find either in Hyde Park.

They all received a letter recently from John Ellison, dean of students, which went beyond the usual platitudes of such letters and made several points about what he called one of Chicago’s “defining characteristics,” which he said was “our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Ellison said civility and respect are “vital to all of us,” and people should never be harassed. But he added, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

To that end, he wrote, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

What I (mmmeeeeEEEE) can’t fathom is parents rearing children to expect that the world will be safe. I thought this was the age of the helicopter parent, the one who is always worried about something going wrong. Or is it that helicopter parents have been so successful in keeping their children from danger that the kids really do think the world is a safe place, and if it is not something’s wrong?


My father may have had problems with the post about same-sex marriage, but my mother, Ellen, who was born on this day in 1923, would appreciate H. L. Mencken’s view of marriage (minus the cocktails):

Every man, I daresay, has his own notion of what constitutes perfect peace and contentment, but all of those notions, despite the fundamental conflict of the sexes, revolve around women. As for me — and I hope I may be pardoned, at this late stage in my inquiry, for intruding my own personality–I reject the two commonest of them: passion, at least in its more adventurous and melodramatic aspects, is too exciting and alarming for so indolent a man, and I am too egoistic to have much desire to be mothered. What, then, remains for me? Let me try to describe it to you.

It is the close of a busy and vexatious day–say half past five or six o’clock of a winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach her with my hand, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking and well-dressed–above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice. As I snooze she talks–of anything, everything, all the things that women talk of: books, music, the play, men, other women. No politics. No business. No religion. No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious–but remember, she is intelligent; what she says is clearly expressed, and often picturesquely. I observe the fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut of her frock, the glint of her white teeth, the arch of her eye-brow, the graceful curve of her arm. I listen to the exquisite murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall asleep–but only for an instant. At once, observing it, she raises her voice ever so little, and I am awake. Then to sleep again–slowly and charmingly down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and then asleep again, and so on.

I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful? (In Defense of Women, 207-208)

Personality Disorder Is No Fun

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birthday (I never called her mom or mum, though dad was fine for my father — perhaps Paul Weston could help me with that one). Aside from June 15 reminding of Ellen Marie Hart’s (nee Jones) birth, technical problems with Netflix last night were the circumstances for our viewing (with Isabelle) The United States of Tara, which provided another reminder of mother. We had begun our Roku experience with Parenthood, a series that the Mrs. has enjoyed when I travel. But when we moved from the Pilot to Episode One, Netflix wouldn’t cooperate. In searching for an alternative — we had partial access to Netflix on-line streaming, we came up with UST. It is about a middle-class interior designer, wife, and mother of two adolescents, who has a personality disorder. The posters for the show reveal four different Tara’s. We only saw three in the Pilot, which was plenty. In addition to the “normal” Tara, we saw T, a raunchy, drug-taking, sex-seeking floozy, and Buck, a Tom-woman who cross dresses as a working-class carpenter-like figure.


As much as I admire Toni Collette, her skills could not over my discomfort with how nonchalantly the show treated psychiatric “challenges.” The children, one in high school, the other in junior high, were never phased by the arrival of the floozy or seeing their mother as a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed, get-er-done ruffian. For them it was fun to have mom show up in different characters. And dad was not any more help. The versions of his wife caused no ripple in his countenance and the possibilities of amour with T made him wish (though he knew he shouldn’t) that Tara had more gitty-up in the boudoir.

Are you kidding? My mother was bi-polar, God bless her. For the last 43 years of her life, starting with a hysterectomy, she varied between highs that saw uncontrolled and unexplained spending, and lows that parked her in front of a steady stream of bad network television, including news about murders in Philadelphia that made her think her son was always in danger. As an adolescent, college and graduate student, young husband, and even middle-aged man, those swings were never easy to take. At first they were embarrassing. Over time they produced sorrow for the torments my mother had to endure (though she never wanted to take her meds).

If two versions of my mother were hard to handle, I don’t think doubling the trouble would have made mood swings or multiple personalities pleasant, entertaining, or life spicier. Disturbing is the notion that people in Hollywood or somewhere connected to it can trivialize psychiatric disorders in the way that this show does. I can imagine some genuine comedy material here if writers and producers explored the genuinely funny moments that come with manic-depression, say the way that Whit Stillman does in Last Days of Disco. But UTS doesn’t cut it. Meanwhile, Parenthood is premised on the family angst that comes with the discovery that a young son has Asperger’s. Go figure.

Ideas Have Consequences for Genes

The following was originally intended to appear in the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal. But when my father died on April 28th, the timing for tributes changed. Since today is the birthday of Ellen Marie Hart (nee Jones), it seems a fitting day on which to run it.

Within thirty-six hours of my mother’s death on March 26th, 2010, I was responsible for teaching a lesson in Sunday school on J. Gresham Machen. Since this was the second of a thirteen-week series, I needed to cover his upbringing, education, and church background. This meant that I was going to be talking about Machen’s relationship to his mother, Mary Gresham Machen, aka Minnie. In turn this involved talking about her background as a native of Macon, Georgia, her father’s business and political activities, the townhouse of the Greshams, now a four-star Bed and Breakfast – the 1842 Inn – that still features photographs of young J. Gresham Machen attired in a dress (the custom of the day), and Minnie’s own literary pursuits; she wrote The Bible in Browning and was published by MacMillan – the same company that published her son’s Christianity and Liberalism two decades later.

As I prepared and taught I became aware of a major problem in my own existence, namely, that I know more about Machen’s mother and family than I actually do about mine. This reality became all the more glaring on the day of my mother’s burial when one of her sisters and one sister-in-law traveled to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from Green County, North Carolina for the service. I had not seen these aunts for almost four decades. They seemed to revel in catching my brother, wife and me up on family news. And through it all they let us know, not in a didactic way, but simply as part of the ordinary quality of their lives, that all of my mother’s siblings had remained in North Carolina, reared their families there, and that most of their grandchildren were still in the Tar Heel state. Not only was I jealous of this side of my humanity – after all I am as much a Jones as a Hart. But the Jones and the Crawfords and the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Pridgeons – the other families with whom they had bonded in marriage – were practically the embodiment of the localism, agrarianism, and family ways that I have come to admire and be haunted by in the writings of Wendell Berry.

One of the most pressing questions I have had about my mother which bears directly on my growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia rather than in the land of Jesse Helmes, is why she decided after graduating from high school in 1941 to move to Washington, D.C. and work first as a telephone operator and then for the federal government in the accounting office. It made no sense that a woman, the oldest of ten children, would leave a farm and nine young siblings to work in the “big” city. Since she was a born-again Christian, it made even less sense, given the fears that evangelicals generally have of cities, combined with the unwritten code governing a young single woman’s opportunities. My aunts, however, made some sense of the move by explaining that mother had moved to Washington with her oldest sister, and that they lived with one of their future aunts. So it was not a career move but a family connection that brought my mother to the nation’s capital during wartime.

But that move was decisive for her and me because she met a man in a Marine’s dress-blue uniform at a Baptist church (Mark Dever’s, by the way) and fell in love. That man, my father, hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania and after he served in the Pacific and then attended college at Bob Jones University, thanks to the G.I. Bill, they bypassed North Carolina on the way to “go” in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the armpit of Bucks County and the horror of post-war suburban development. But much like my Jones relatives in the South, my parents didn’t know any better. They hadn’t read Jane Jacobs or Howard Kunstler or Wendell Berry or Russell Kirk. They simply did the best they could to rear a family. For the Harts that meant finding affordable housing near a good church and close to kin; for the Jones that meant rearing families and supporting them in the opportunities provided by ditch digging, tobacco farming, auto sales, and real estate brokering.

Unlike my kinfolk, I am a deracinated academic who knows how to find literature on family ties or who devoted a good portion of his life to the life and writings of one man and became so enamored of those ideas that he found out more about Machen than about either of his grandfathers, Robert Jones or Clyde Hart. I suspect that this is a problem that afflicts many aspiring intellectuals – the lure of some author or thinker from the past whose writing has changed their outlook on the big questions. In turn object of intellectual desire directs and guides the student more than the pupil’s own parents and family. Ideas do have consequences. They help to define our understanding of ourselves, and our situations, and become the motive for action. They even tempt us to discount the influence of parents and the legacy of families.

In my own case, I continue to regard Baltimore as more of a home than either Levittown or Greenville, North Carolina. Part of that owes to spending six years there while in graduate school. But a good chunk of it also stems from the subject of my studies during that time – Machen, whose family residence was four blocks from our first apartment, not to mention the reading and writing I did on H. L. Mencken, the bard of Baltimore whose home was only two blocks away from our grad school dwelling. Some of us eggheads get so caught up in a historical figure’s life that we actually place ourselves in their narrative. Meanwhile, the real story to which we belong lies strewn across the informal conversations and fading memories of aging aunts, uncles, cousins, and grand parents.

One way to try to justify this identity confusion is to portray myself as the victim of declining family ties. Whatever the legitimate reasons my parents may have had for moving to Levittown, they did not choose a place that would sustain links to kin (for starters). Again, they were not in the habit of considering pedestrian-friendly streets, interconnected street grid networks, mixed-use zoning, increased density, or “green” transportation when looking for a place to live. They had experienced a depression and a war. Having survived Iwo Jima my father had freedom to buy a home where he darned well (humanly speaking) wanted. He and mother didn’t need some guilt-ridden baby boomer historian of a son to come along and claim his rights as a victim of poor parental housing choices and the accompanying industrial military complex.

That said, as soon as I saw the city I knew I wanted to get out of Levittown as fast as I could because it had none of the interest or energy that people living together in one relatively self-sustaining polity had. And once that switch flicked on, gone were circumstances that would sustain identification at least with the Harts, not to mention the Jones.

Then again, maybe my loss of roots stems from my mother’s own decision to leave the farm in Green County where her grandmother Jones (nee Crawford) was born and move to Washington. Is it too tidy to think that she passed on to me through her egg the appeal of urban life and the dislocation that cities yield? After all, when she moved to D.C. her life would not be the same as her siblings. (The one sister who moved with her married a soldier from North Carolina, thus making easier a return to her native state.)

And what of my mother’s temperament and interests that might have predicted my interest in Machen? Mother’s disposition was toward stubbornness and contrariness, attributes that many have attributed to the Presbyterian “bad boy of Baltimore.” Mother was also militant about the Christian faith in modest ways that resemble Machen. At the same time, she was generous to a fault, something that she also shared with Machen. As difficult as my relationship could be with her – she was the bad cop always telling me to cut my hair, wear a tie to church, and hang around more with Christian friends while my dad was the good cop (except for the execution of corporal punishment, a decidedly male activity), always telling my mother to relax and not be overbearing – she was always sending me back to college stocked with food, clean clothes, and a couple of extra ten dollar bills shoved in my coat pocket.

Of course, it is a stretch of cosmopolitan proportions to attribute my intellectual interests to my genetic inheritance. Too easy is it to let myself off the hook for following ideas more than family. But from the perspective of providence, the gap between ideas and genes is not terribly great. If God could take a privileged, smart, and indecisive son of an urbane and hospitable southern lady from Baltimore and turn him into one of the giants of American Presbyterianism, he can also take the shy, sports-absorbed and sometimes bookish son of a southern exile in the Philadelphia suburbs and turn his life around through studying the kid from Baltimore.

God works in mysterious ways, his wonders and horrors to perform.

P.S. Mother’s birthday is actually June 15th. Having been in Maine for an OPC affair, the sense of the heavenlies caused me to lose track of time on planet earth.