Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Happy Election Day

Celebrated: Across the United States on the first Tuesday of November

The polls in Gardiner don't open for another half hour or so, and I probably won't be there when they open, because the early voters need to get to work and I have all day to vote, if I want. Today my precinct is voting not only for President and U.S. Representative, but also for an open Senate seat (Olympia Snowe is retiring), State Senate, State Representative, District Attorney, several bond issues, and a referendum to allow same-sex marriage (Question 1).

Most of these aren't going to be close decisions in Maine, and I hope Question 1 won't be, either. The leading state Republicans have all declined to take a position on the issue, which I consider a very good sign: the arguments against this basic civil right sound bigoted and misguided, rooted in a willful disregard of the principle of separating church and state. It never ceases to amaze me that the most vocal proponents of Constitutional absolutism have no trouble skating right over the Fourteenth Amendment:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
We ratified that amendment in 1868. It still took another 52 years to enact the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women's rights to vote, and another 45 years after that before the Voting Rights Act preempted state laws that effectively disenfranchised African-American voters throughout the South. Native Americans didn't have full voting rights across the country until 1968, when the Havasupai finally won the right to vote in Arizona and federal elections.

Although the media do their best to cover politics like a sporting event, the reality is that the business of self-government is tedious. It's hard, boring, detail-oriented work that requires balancing countless interests and egos, toward compromises that leave everyone feeling discriminated against. It's never a zero-sum game: sometimes it's more than the sum of its parts, but just as often it's less. It's inefficient and wasteful and frustrating.

It's also the price of freedom, and when it works there's absolutely nothing like it. Nothing, nothing feels as good as working together toward a common goal. It's why we play sports, it's why we form rock bands, it's why we put on plays and stage parades and organize flash mobs. We can't agree on everything, but we can agree on enough. We can agree that we're glad to be Americans, and we can all go vote today.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Happy Guy Fawkes Day

Celebrated: in the United Kingdom since 1605

On this date in 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvet, acting on orders from King James I, happened upon a Catholic mercenary named Guy Fawkes as he was leaving the cellars beneath Parliament. Behind Fawkes were several barrels of gunpowder, set to explode during the opening of Parliament that day, and thus intended to kill King James I and as many members of the House of Lords as possible. Fawkes and his co-conspirators believed that this would force the accession of James' daughter Elizabeth, only nine years old at the time, as a Catholic queen.

The Gunpowder Plot was actually led by an English Catholic named Robert Catesby, but Catesby managed to flee London after word of Guy Fawkes' arrest. He was shot three days later, at the head of a small group of rebels under siege at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.

So why, then, is this called Guy Fawkes Day instead of Robert Catesby Day? Well, he was the first one captured and identified; he was in charge of the gunpowder; he pled "not guilty" in a well-publicized trial (while Catesby never got a trial, being dead); but most memorably of all, he defeated his executioners by jumping from the scaffold rather than waiting to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

That execution happened on January 31, 1606, but on the night of November 5, 1605, King James I encouraged his subjects to celebrate his safety by lighting bonfires. The bonfire tradition continues to this day, and often includes the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy. Our use of the word "guy" to refer to any random man comes from these effigies; while the slang word originally meant an oddly-dressed person, it expanded to cover just about everyone.

James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, went on to rule Great Britain and Ireland for almost another 20 years, until he died of dysentery following a stroke at the age of 58. He oversaw not only the Golden Age of English literature, but also the beginning of the era of English colonization (the colony at Jamestown was named in his honor). He was also, not incidentally, the sponsor of the King James translation of the Bible. The Gunpowder Plot gave him an excuse to crack down hard on English Catholics, but he became more tolerant of both hidden Catholics and Puritans as his reign continued, which set things up nicely for the Civil War that deposed his son, Charles I, in 1642.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Happy All Souls' Day

Celebrated: by Catholics and other Christians, worldwide

I've been gone for a month, I know. Sorry about that, but what a month it's been. Thanks to everyone who gave me and Books to Die For shelter, sustenance and support, and most particularly to John Connolly, who was a friend before he was a client. He and Declan Burke have many reasons to be proud, not least of which is this review from yesterday's Washington Post, which pays the book the tremendous compliment of taking it as seriously as it deserves. Because in the end, isn't that the only thing that matters: to have someone pay attention, and take one's effort seriously? Attention must be paid, as the lady said.

The official name of this day, in the Catholic Church, is The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Yesterday was All Saints' Day; the promise of our faith is that we can all be saints, and therefore, as my old CCD teacher Sister Anne Matthew used to tell us, it is something we should all aspire to. But God's ways are not our ways, and because we cannot know what happens to us after death, we pray for the souls of the faithful departed — on this day, particularly, but every day, and not least because one day we'll be one of them. The prayer we say is simple and direct:
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Last week I was briefly in Quebec, a magical city I'd never visited before, and got to see Notre-Dame de Quebec, seat of the oldest Catholic diocese in North America. The cathedral, rebuilt in the 1920s, is a dazzling display of gilding and stained glass, but it was the ceiling that mesmerized me: a long panel of blue sky, with white clouds illuminated by an invisible sun. I couldn't find any public-domain photos to post here, but you can see other people's pictures of it here, here, and here. I toured the old city on a bright, sunny day, but what a magical thing that ceiling must be in the depths of a Quebec winter: the promise of sunshine, and warmth, and rest.

I've come down with a cold, the first in a year, and am rather terrifyingly behind on many different projects, so I apologize if you're waiting on something from me, and I'll get it to you as quickly as I can. The sun's come out after days of gray skies, and I have power, Internet and coffee, which is more than so many people have this morning.