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I’m in Virginia for a few days, since Friday evening, spending time with family. I grew up in Maryland, a short way north, but I am a Virginian by birth, and as my parents’ families come from (and have tended to remain in) the state, generations back, southward travel ‘home’ is a fact of my life from earliest memory. For a couple of years now (as the regular reader knows), I’ve been living in New York; and the increased distance is something more than physical. But then too, my parents have at last made the long-planned move back to Virginia, where my siblings already were (apart from a brother in North Carolina); with no family to go back to in Maryland, Virginia is more ‘home’ now, in a way, than it was even when it was I who was resident here for a while some years back.

This post isn’t about being a native in some terms, though, so much as it is about having a certain American sense about place and time. Being a Virginian (to the extent that I am) gives that a particular color, and it comes into what’s to follow here, but I don’t mean to pretend that I have anything very special to say about Virginia, or about Americanness for that matter. What I do have to say is something in development, something undergoing re-orientation, as previous posts will suggest. It’s the evolution I want to note, not something uncommon in my views.

wait, there’s more.

Very gradually I’ve found my way in to some fiction, even to novels, again, after a long time doing without. It’s hard to account in clear terms for getting away from this kind of reading in the first place, and likewise hard to account for coming back to it. It’s not a matter of having time for it, exactly. This kind of reading — even (or so it often felt) when it was reading that had to be done for class — has always meant neglecting other business I should, on one ground or another, be about. But it is partly a matter of practical opportunity in a different way, since I’m terribly cautious these days about buying books on one hand, and on the other rarely now feel, and even more rarely follow, any inclination to poke around in a library. What’s had to happen is some alignment of two conditions, my minimal-effort access to free or very cheap stuff and my attraction to stories conceived & written more than a few generations ago. With the internet, of course, minimal-effort access to free or very cheap stuff covers a very wide range of stuff. And a lot of it, especially stuff more likely to be under copyright, is junk or appeals to quite specific sensibilities. Then there’s the great store of stuff that is no longer subject to copyright — if you want it. The missing connection has been in that I haven’t really wanted the older, uncopyrighted stuff for a while. Until recently. Thinking a bit, as I read, about why that is, what’s changed or is changing.

I turned 40 last weekend. This weekend, in a juxtaposition not to be interpreted too feelingly, my grandmother — last remaining grandparent — is dying, age 92. A week ago she was at a relatively advanced stage of a long decline, so gradual that some months more among us seemed not unlikely. But gradual turned to rapid a couple of days ago, and today I made the trip with my dad and little sister — my brother and his family having been through yesterday, Mom staying there with her already — for a last opportunity to see her alive. It wasn’t much. Mostly I sat in the family room with an uncle and a couple of aunts, switching, according to Sunday afternoon custom there in Richmond, between NASCAR and the Skins game. I am grateful for a moment before I left, though, standing some minutes by the bed, alone except for the hired caregiver, when my grandmother unexpectedly roused a little, with some coughing, from medicated sleep and saw me, recognized me, and said groggily, toothlessly — but otherwise just as she’d have said it on my paying the affectionate homage at the end of any other visit — ‘I appreciate you coming, son.’ There’s been little or nothing of self-disclosure, direct or roundabout, of invitation to know & be known, of effort (or even hint of a wish) to cross interpersonal distances in that family as I, at any rate, have ever known us. We aren’t close. But there has been setting differences to the side with humor and, especially with my grandmother, simple, persistent, sincere fondness, because you are family. I’m grateful to have this final expression of it from her — the last thing she will have said to me. A little while ago, before midnight, there was a call to let us know that she’d be gone in a few hours. She may be gone as I type this. I think to myself now, maybe naïvely, that I’ll be deeply disappointed on finding, if I come to such an end in another 40 or 50 years, that I haven’t learned to live with any more effect, any more grip, on people I’m connected to than she’s had on me. Which is partly to say, in a backhand way, that I’m sorry now not to be more sad at her passing. The effect her angle on life has had on me, still, the kindness she knew how to show particularly, I want to mark where I am now with reflection and gratitude.


 

Dear Editors,

I like your magazine, generally, and I’m currently a subscriber. I thoroughly dislike this cover on the newly mailed issue, though. I suppose it’s an attempt at high-toned ‘cheek,’ but seriously, this one-two-three-badump is nothing more than crass. It’s awful. I can’t help wondering if you invited a bunch of high school kids in to put this thing together.

Even without that third item — ‘Mitch Albom is an idiot’ — it would have been cheap composition. But that one I took like a slap in the face when I saw it. I’m not a fan of Albom, and I don’t doubt that his book is tripe. But he is not an idiot (take a moment to look up the word, if that’s helpful) just because he’s added a title to the long, long train of contemporary spiritualistic bunk publishing void of real religious understanding. I can hardly express to you how distasteful it is to me to find a serious journal coming to my box with this foolish sneering attitude in raw display on the cover. It’s insulting, not just to that big public target Albom, but to the little nobody readers like me. I’d be glad to see a prominent editorial apology both to your readers and to Albom. Make the reviews as hard and pointed as need be. But cut out the name-calling.

Paul Bowman
Baltimore, MD

UPDATE 12/16/09 —

I received a quick — next-day — reply, below, from head editor Joseph Bottum. To which I want to say, Well, well. And also Wow. I really am a nobody reader; certainly not used to receiving explanatory correspondence from anyone in Mr. Bottum’s position. It’s gratifying, but heartening too. Somebody’s listening.

Dear Mr. Bowman,

Thanks for the note. That’s pretty much what I told the staff. We’ve brought in some energetic new editorial talent, especially Dave Blum and Joe Carter. I’ve given them their head, and they’re doing great work lining up exciting material for issues down the road: a college evaluation, some nice reporting, some art work — all stuff to add on top of what we already do in the magazine and on the website. In the meantime, though, they’re going to make mistakes, and they need to get up to speed on the audience of FT and the pose the magazine offers to the world.

I will say that the effort to be cute on this cover was run by me as an experiment, and I let them have it — so the blame for it belongs to me. Our circulation among paid subscribers is again what it was at its peak from four years ago, I’m told. But we’re still lower than that peak in total circulation — entirely because of the utter collapse of newsstand sales. The idea of the cover on the issue was to test something that was aimed at newsstand buyers rather than subscribers. While I didn’t like the cover, particularly, I let it go as the test the staff wanted.

Ultimately, though, you’re right: It’s a wrong direction. I want to redesign the magazine to handle some of the new things we want to do — art reporting in particular — which will require at least some glossy pages. But the direction should be toward greater elegance, not greater vulgarity. And until we redesign, it’s probably a mistake to try to tweak the current design to do work it was never intended to do.

Still, the numbers from this month’s newsstand sales should do nicely for the test. No mention from you of the new call-outs and subhed decks in the pages? Dave et al. were excited about them — which is probably proof that editors get excited about things readers don’t even notice. A strange breed.

A Blessed Advent,

Yours,
Joseph Bottum

Dear Editors,

I was a little taken aback to pick up a copy of your magazine in my parents’ home, today, and find what I thought terribly superficial and even sloppy reporting in Alisa Harris’s article about American Anglicans and the Vatican’s recent provision for Anglican churches’ transference. I’m neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic, but I’ve followed this story with some interest elsewhere, in Christian and secular publications and in conversation among informed Christians. I understand that this World piece is not about all the history or all the complexities of ecumenical dialogue and negotiation, but a look at the way things are unfolding for the Episcopal Church of the U.S. and its spinoffs. It really surprised me, though, that there appeared to be hardly any hint of more substantial appreciation in it, than in articles that have appeared in a lot of secular newspapers and magazines, of either the sheer magnitude of the event as a historic turn in relations between communions, now many years in development, or of the specific character and subsequent evolution of the English Church’s split from Rome, in theological and political terms.

I hope you’ll hear from readers who can critique the article, preferably from an insider’s point of view, better than I can. I have to say, though, that when I read for instance that one of the Vatican’s “concessions” is to allow married Anglican priests who make the move to “stay married,” I know immediately that I’m reading the view of someone who has quite a thin grasp of church history generally and of Catholic history and teaching particularly.

But more problematic, to my mind, is the author’s extremely loose way of treating Anglicanism’s position in the spectrum of ecclesiastical identities among Protestant and Catholic bodies, defined and redefined from the 16th and 17th centuries’ upheavals, across Europe, until today, globally. It’s true that Anglicanism is a very complicated subject, theologically and otherwise speaking. But this is all the more reason that it should be handled in a Christian magazine by someone who understands the essential issues. I’d venture that a writer who says that the question of the authority of the Church, in the choice between Rome’s position and a Protestant position (leaving aside in what sense Anglicanism is or isn’t a form of Protestantism), is a question of whether her authority “comes from” the Bible or from the Bible plus the magisterium, doesn’t understand essential issues very well. To have two basic problems confused — the historic debate over whether the Church’s authority, as an expression of Christ’s accession to reign over all things, does or doesn’t reside in the episcopacy, and the historic debate over whether the word of God has been given to the Church in the Bible alone, or in the Church’s very transmission of her apostolic establishment through time with the Bible and its preservation — is not a minor muddling of details. Confusing the most fundamental kind of questions (e.g., what is a question of ecclesiastical authority and what is a question of divine revelation) obscures, finally, the remarkable and perhaps inherently unstable nature of the English Church, as a national and then as a global communion. It leaves an enormous gap for the reader’s effort to get what the story really is, here, as a story about churches since the Reformation or about English-speaking and American society in the 21st century.

A Christian publication should do better.

Thank you for considering my concerns.

Paul Bowman
Baltimore, MD

My friends at Brennan + Company are standing for recognition as keepers of one of Maryland’s Outstanding Blogs — that’s a ‘Mobbie’ from The Baltimore Sun. If you don’t think the whole thing is too damn silly and your conscience doesn’t threaten to bug you because you voted without knowing anything about the rest of the field of candidates and because, heck, you don’t even live in the United States, let alone Maryland, do go vote for them. Take my word for it, the Brennan folks are due acknowledgement; they’re talented and hardworking and friendly. And you can walk in the door from Main St. in Catonsville six days a week and find that out for yourself.

Yes, the name of the Sun award is confusing. This isn’t about blogs around Maryland, surely, it’s about blogs around Baltimore. Baltimore is a place in Maryland, many Marylanders not from Baltimore would gladly have you know. It isn’t Maryland, much of which even today is farmland and forest (and ever more of which is historyless, name-defying sprawl where farmland and forest used to be), whose history earns it that association with the ‘mob’. It’s Baltimore. And Baltimore’s namesake mob, by the way, isn’t The Mob of New York and Chicago in the 1930s and following, it’s the unruly crowd in the city’s streets in the 1830s and following. The curious can get a little taste of our distinctive hometown heritage here.

My regard for this remarkable filipina compels me, against every other inward inclination, to offer here for general audience ten more or less disconnected facts about myself. If I weren’t a number of times lately the beneficiary of her excellent conversation, if I didn’t take such pure pleasure in her wit, if I hadn’t learned a great deal from her in the time I’ve known her or didn’t expect to learn still a lot more (about … well, try a topic, she’s encyclopedic … indeed, one might almost say, she’s all over the map … which after all is a very Catholic way of being), this post certainly wouldn’t appear. But that a woman’s friendship, allowed a very little time, can lead a man to do things contrary to his own judgment is hardly news.

Alright then, ten facts, each one excruciatingly honest down to the smallest detail:

1. My middle name, Darron, is the name I’m called by among family and among friends who’ve known me since I was young. As I was her first, the weight of this idea of an unformed identity held in her hands perhaps not yet fully felt by her, it seemed to my mother good to choose a spelling for my name precisely for its virtue of distinctiveness. That’s to say that although the name would generally sound familiar to people who might meet me, ever after that day, their assumptions about how it should be spelled, if they needed to spell it, would always require correction.

2. I am a Virginian by birth.

3. My father’s family were rural and small-town, from mountainous southwestern Virginia — not Scotch-Irish but quiet, businesslike Germans. They leaned New-Deal-Democrat and were quietly sympathetic to Civil Rights and racial integration. My mother’s family were urban, from Richmond, and politely, not vocally, Segregationist.

4. My mother’s polite Segregationist upbringing and sympathies (when I was a child) notwithstanding, the name she gave me for its ‘different’ quality appears, from what I gather, to have put me in a select group disproportionately made up, at least in the U.S., of black men. (I can’t verify this in any strict way — it’s partly anecdotal — but I am being honest.)

5. I started introducing myself by my first name gradually, for reasons of convenience, in college classrooms. When college took me to the D.C. area, away from where my family and friends lived, I went to first-name use entirely. Because of circumstances I won’t go into here, this choice ultimately made my life a bit more, not less, complicated and interesting. That’s purely my own fault.

6. My experience kissing a woman is limited and, many years afterward, very memorable.

7. Fact number six notwithstanding, one of my favorite things to sing in the shower (though I don’t sing in the shower all that often anymore) is Besame Mucho. Yes, in Spanish!

8. There’s nothing under my bed, because at present I sleep on a mattress that lies right on the floor.

9. I will not necessarily participate in your meme if you tag me. And if I do participate, I won’t necessarily follow the rules.

10. My favorite drink in the world is coffee, black.

One rule, anyhow, I’ll follow: Thank you, Cristina. Your friendship is very good for me, on the whole.

: )

Wells Fargo:

Please cancel my credit card account, Visa # ****, immediately.

I can hardly believe your company billed me for not using this account. I’ve been penalized for paying off one of my credit cards and not closing the account before I had reason to use it again. Brilliant.

I have no doubt that the inactivity fee is listed in a schedule of fees that I have read at some time. I accept responsibility, and I’ve paid the bill. You have my money and you have your fine print. What you won’t have from now on is this customer.

Sincerely,

Paul Bowman

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