Art of Citizenship

Civic:  relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area.

It’s like history:  people think of history as these broad narratives usually of, by, and for white men.  Digression.  Back in March 2018, the Hoover Institution (on War, Revolution, and Peace) sponsored a conference on “Applied History.”  Thirty male historians, one female historian, ALL white, ALL associated with American institutions.  Not having been there, I couldn’t tell you what “Applied History” actually means; my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder whether anyone talked about the use and misuse of history by policymakers, or whether this was just a bunch of white Americans telling policymakers what they should be doing on a national and international basis.

What do people mean by civic?

Yesterday, a very young and lost boxer followed me for a mile.  I went back to my Airbnb and not knowing what to do, asked my host to help me.  She cut me off:  “The dog needs to go back on the street, he can’t be here, and I can’t help you.”  After the initial panic, I realized that I can in fact take care of the problem.  I called the local no-kill shelter, they referred me to Animal Control, and I sat with the dog until the officer showed up thirty  minutes later.  He assured me the dog would be scanned for microchip information, held for 24 hours to wait for owner, then taken to the no-kill shelter.  Today, I have a “civic” survey in my inbox, asking me what I think civic means.  Based on the choices on page one, civic would seem to mean citizen action of the obvious sort recognizable by the general public:  voting, demonstrating, petitioning.  Yesterday, DH and some neighbors sent out postcards to registered voters encouraging them to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.  Yesterday, I rescued a friendly young dog with no common sense.  Yesterday, I found out my Airbnb host, who has a full life as a feminist/Democrat/community activist, did not see my action as a civic one.

I must admit that I was tempted to ignore the dog . . .  but he was so obviously lost and clueless.  A couple of local neighbors helped figure out that the dog belongs to a family not far from where I am staying, his name is Bruno, and he is quite young (about 5 months old).  I am hopeful his family picked him up from Animal Control last night.

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On my last morning in Santa Fe, I found this heart hanging on a fence outside a Canyon Road art gallery.  I am indeed grateful that I am lucky enough to live in a country where civic action — or inaction — is (still) a choice and a right.

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Red Chair Reads: One Fine Day

One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes (1946)

It is summer of 1946, and Laura and Stephen Marshall are trying to adjust to life in post-war England.  Their little village of Wealding seems the timeless, quintessential English village: the Manor House, the rectory, the High Street with the requisite independent shops, the winding country lanes, the picturesqueTudor cottages. The Marshalls — and the village — have survived the war, and now it is time to live the peace.

What is that peace?  Look closer and there are signs of upheaval everywhere: Laura’s house is falling down around her, the weeds are winning, and a sense of disquiet pervades her life.  She is prematurely grey, she stands in endless lines for her family’s rations, she sees rusting coils of barbed wire, she runs across the remaining German POW still working English farmland.  The owner of the Manor House has sold the crumbling pile for institutional use, and the future is personified by the ambitious and ethically challenged Mr. Rudge, and the good-natured by sly Mrs. Prout, a charwoman who knows her worth, who never says “madam,” and who understands her “place” is not where the “gentry” thinks it is.  So Laura continues her everyday day: she finds her wayward dog, climbs the chalk down and catches a glimpse of her future, and finally sees that her world has undergone a fundamental change that she may not have wanted, but that she can in fact embrace.

Nothing much happens in One Fine Day —  nothing, except one woman finding reasons for hope and optimism.

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Red Chair Reads: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey (1932)

Virginia Woolf apparently thought highly of this work, originally published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1932.  Other people must also have loved it, as both Penguin Books and Persephone Books have republished it, and somebody turned it into a movie in 2012.  Anyway.  I wish I loved the book too.

On a blustery day in March, the pampered elder daughter of a wealthy family marries a dull man destined for an acceptable career somewhere in South America.  Dolly knows it is a mistake, and spends the pre-wedding hours in her room with a bottle of rum, even as her friends and family (including a young man she may or may not have loved and who may or may not still love her) gather downstairs for the celebration.

The book is sharp, funny, and short, which turned out to be a good thing.  Julia Strachey populated her work with a cast of characters one expects in certain novels set in English country houses, but the trenchant observations left no room for sympathy.  The book is unflinchingly unsentimental, but nevertheless I wished for a glimmer of likability in the main characters: just when I thought something interesting was going to happen between Mrs. Thatcham and Joseph, it didn’t.  As I said, disappointing, but ultimately a fitting end to the book.

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Let’s read something else, OK?

Red Chair Reads: The Murder of Halland

The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin

Whodunit, who cares?

Halland and Bess live in a small town where everyone knows your name.  One day, Halland is shot dead in the town square, and not surprisingly, this is the catalyst for Bess to reassess her life.  Who killed Halland? Bess is not all that interested, even as her life lurches on and unexpected people keep showing up on her doorstep.  Who, after all,  was the Bess who lived with Halland and yet did not share his life, and who is the Bess who seems unable to grieve for her not-quite-husband?

The book might be called The Murder of Halland, but that is not the actual subject of the book.  Bess is the focus, and we are meant to see the world from her viewpoint.  She is smart, she is skewed, and she may be slowly unhinging.  She does not mourn Halland so much as mourn for the person she may have been: he was never in her life, and neither was she ever in his.  Bess finds out about the pregnant foster-niece in Copenhagen, about the apartment she lives in for which he paid the rent, about his share of the apartment, a small locked room with a gigantic poster of Martin Guerre.  What does it all mean?  She speculates, she gets drunk, she finds out things that she doesn’t share with the police, she loses interest . . . .  and so did I.  In the end, Bess was just too irritating to be intriguing.

The Murder of Halland was my first dip into the Peirene Press, “two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”  Clever, well-written, claustrophobic, perhaps too interested in “intellectual dismantling” of an entire genre, and ultimately a most unsatisfying two hours of my life.

Chia, the assitant Red Chair Reader
Chia, the Assistant Red Chair Reader

Chia, who is quite perturbed that Martin Aitkin, PH.D in Linguistics, does not know the difference between further and farther.