Seek Out The Glorious

It has been a rough year, to say the least. Disease and ‘isolation’, those “premodern idea(s) of quarantines, closures, and measured lockdowns.” A way of thinking that is “not just premodern; (instead) turning the logic of modern medicine on its head.” The effects have been catastrophic, not just for our public and private finances (the bill for this mess has been $20 trillion and counting), not just in the knockoff effects of isolation and misery and suicide. In my particular case, or my environment, it has meant war and incompetence. Incidentally, these things go together – they are related. Chaos follows governmental incompetence mostly. They are the ones with the ‘legitimate use of force’ to misuse after all.

“A theme has emerged throughout (the hundreds of years of analysis of government ‘help’): policy officials are quite often ill informed or have bad incentives compared with what individuals, markets, institutions, and society can achieve on their own. Economists have documented how government intervention leads to various unintended economic consequences and even human rights abuses.” What is the answer? “We prefer private governance to public governance. We have applied this logic against socialism, fascism, war, macroeconomic planning, public goods, monetary policy, countercyclical fiscal policy, environmental regulation, and a hundred other issues. We’ve made a solid case for pure freedom.”

We are losing this debate. Or perhaps we lost it, in the face of the overwhelming power of Burnham’s “Managerial Elites”, our new aristocrats so puissant that they brought down a president. The 2020 pandemic is their wet dream, that moment when they have a cart-blanch to order any intrusion on life public and private. Always wanted to shut down churches? Check. Want to censure speech? Check. Want trillions of dollars in unaccountable money to do whatever you want with? Check. Al Jazeera free commercials declaring “there’s a little hero in all of us” as they show a fat man watching TV on his couch? Oh, if we all would just stay home, so many of the world’s problems would be solved – right? Mark my words, the death-eating apocalyptic climate crowd is salivating – just waiting for their turn.

And what did we get for our colossal efforts of discipline? 7,000,000 dead – that’s the #5 pandemic for a new disease in the history of history. And this might very well be the most global, affecting every human on the planet – that has never happened before. For me personally, as I mentioned, it has also meant war. Those seeking to return to violence to settle old scores while the world is preoccupied and the peacemakers are eating Doritos in front of Netflix. And governmental incompetence on such a massive scale it takes the breath away. Hundreds of billions of ‘relief’ payments stolen by Nigerian hackers. Unemployed waiting for weeks and weeks on hold to talk to an agent of government, somebody who can help them cover rent since the normal way was destroyed by lockdowns. Websites crashing. ‘Guidance’, that aristocratic word which has come to replace ‘orders’, it sounds more gentle – though it means the same thing — the ‘guidance’ changing daily, from the ‘scientists’ we are told to worship. It’s airborne, no its not, oh wait yes it is; you can’t have sex, ok now you can go ahead, oh wait maybe not; don’t wear a mask, no wear two; take this vaccine – oh wait maybe not yet, ok now its fine! Teachers abandoning their sacred duty – a lost generation of children some are saying. An explosion of inequality as the ‘aristocracy’ cashes in and everybody else fades away. Not a stellar record to justify this mess. I know, I’m not an epidemiologist nor an economist – just a man with a little bit of common sense and enough life experience to call “bullshit” on those who consider themselves my betters.

Tocqueville warned us about all this. The countries that have done the worst are the big ones. The city states did much better. Perhaps the virus circulated in equal measure (how do you stop a pandemic?), but the societies did better. More humane. Rallying around each other. Meeting each other’s needs. Debating the nuances, calculating risk, giving people choices. Consent this used to be called. All the while the Coming Anarchy Robert Kaplan warned us about came, burying the big countries – India and Brazil and EU and USA. But what about China? You say – buying their propaganda (do you really believe a country of 1.4 billion has 15 new cases in a day?) And even if they did, an oxygenless dictatorship can do a lot. The USSR challenged the USA for 70 years – but they had to turn their country into the largest forced-labor camp in the history of humanity to do it (read Solzhenitsyn for a good summary of that). I sure as hell would not want to live there; stuck in my re-education camp while the Chinese Communist Party harvests my hair.

At this point you are probably accusing me of a bait-and-switch. “What does any of this have to do with anything glorious?” Thanks for asking!!! Because there is only one way to fight the wicked incompetence of the death-eaters. And that is to remind the world that there is nothing glorious there, no life there, nothing there that touches our heart-strings of humanity – if nothing else, the misery of the last year might prompt you to agree with that. There is rarely anything glorious to be found in groups – especially collectivities based on shared ideology – for another word for a group is a mob.

So what to do…? If I might proffer an option, seek out the glorious and write about it!! The extraordinary beauty of a Caucasus mountain valley. The amazing power of book well-written and moving. The pure joy of a little boy at play. The gentle love of man’s best friend at your side as you hike the storied places of your land. The individual stories of resistance and resilience in the face not of a virus – that is not an ‘enemy’ insofar as it has no motivation – but instead in the face of the massive dehumanization that has arisen over the last year, where we all have been reduced alternately to vessels of government ‘economic stimulus’ and vectors of disease. If you do that, and tag me I’ll re-blog those stories here and share them to my (admittedly limited) audience, thereby reminding those out there who think of us only as tools in their attempts to control us – that we aren’t so easily controlled, we who love our lives, our families and the natural beauty of our world. That the aristocracy that eats souls cannot have ours for the price of a few thousand dollars deposited in our account and 17 hours on hold with the Bureau of Labor office. That we will write alone, dream alone and continue to build our world in spite of the thousand-papercut-murder attempts by our betters.

I’ll start (I actually did) – I wrote a post about my time in Armenia the other day, because Armenia Saved My Life – I invite you to read it and make common cause as I have with something ancient and timeless that has weathered lots of pandemics since Noah marched down off the great Mountain of Ararat. And secondly, here’s a picture I took, in the highlands of Armenia, which made me tear up at the natural beauty of our world. Go forth now, and be glorious!!!! The world needs that.

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The First Man

I’ve never been a fan of Albert Camus; I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I found Plague and Stranger interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. I am changing that impression for the record here. I just finished reading “The First Man”, a fictionalized auto-biography of sorts of Camus’ time growing up in French Algeria. It was found among his things after his death, and is published unpolished and occasionally missing pieces and words.

This novel is an extraordinary work of art, of fiction, of literature, and of life. It is imbued with a passion for life and nostalgia for a childhood of poverty and squalor which was nevertheless not dehumanizing – as poverty is for so many people – but instead somehow formative. We think a lot about money, to control it and thereby be controlled by it. Best I can tell Camus sought the opposite, to not think very much about it and thereby not be controlled by its presence (or lack). Granted, a tremendous feat if there is not enough food on the table or if the souls of your shoes are wearing thin. But to live a life more abundant, to seek out a more intense significance where we are placed by chance or providence – that is a trick, the trick perhaps in a world where we have all become jealous and mean, even the most prosperous of us.

But note to reader, meanness does not produce good literature, or good art. An overflowing heart (overflowing with gratitude mostly) is the fount of all blessings, including amazing novels like “The First Man”. The plot is simple, it is the search of a boy-become-man for the spirit of his father, who he never knew because the man died in the trenches of the first world war, in the place from whence he came – Algeria. French Algeria – rubbing up against Berbers and Arabs but not in that “colonial against oppressed” narrative of now but in the bitter poverty of the settler. A boy who was extraordinary, from a family that could not read or write. A mother’s love, a grandmother’s presence – a father’s absence. The simple joys of childhood made more heady through privation.

The lack of any bitterness – that is the amazing thing here. Our world has become jealous; maybe it has always been so but I am feeling it more acutely these days. Everything seems to be zero sum. I guess that is the way of the world; if you are not besting somebody, you are not making your mark. Even in my career, as I think back over the years in places not unlike Camus’ Algeria, every achievement I have had has been at the expense of others who saw my successes as their failure. Even when I assumed I was right, for who fights for what they thing is wrong – except the truly wicked – so too they… And who knows which side history will favor. I once beat Hugo Chavez in an election, a new constitution meant to pave the way for communism. His most bitter defeat and darkest night, until the cancer. I successfully laid the seeds of peace in Mali, finally arriving at a peace process – the Tuareg rebels’ lasting defeat of their so-desperately desired homeland. I held off ISIS in Nigeria, forcing the overthrow of their commander. Building a path to the rehabilitation of their soldiers; their caliphate again unfulfilled by the disturbances of the meddling west. And my defeats – Romney pumping his own gas the morning after a crushing defeat to the forces of incompetence and prejudice; that was a hard day. War returning to Armenia, befuddling the dreams and hopes of the reformers. But these are the grand games; there are also the private ones, a book unpublished (or worst published and unread). The hopes of a job that went to another, of an opportunity passed by for those I deem inferior. Powerlessness, and in that can come bitterness – which is why I read Camus.

Because this is all life, the jockeying and push-pull of significance. And that is the life for which Camus has such a great love; a love that comes seeping out of this his greatest novel (for which he received no praise, for he was dead) – but yet which he bequeathed to us to remind us that the joy is to be found in the journey, in the wonder and magic of an Arab night sky or a Caucasian mountain range at dawn. The crispness of a walk in the snow and the love of a beautiful woman. The pleasure of a good book that makes our heart stop for a moment, reminding us that we are alive now and that our best task would be to live our lives, the ones that we have – not hoping instead desperately to somehow live somebody else’s, through the shadow existence of envy.

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Burnham on England

As I continue to digest the far-reaching impacts of James Burnham’s magnum opus “The Managerial Revolution“, I keep stumbling upon things that require at very least a cursory reflection; an organization of thoughts as I try (like Burnham did) to figure out “What is Going On?” in the world.

Specifically, I’ve been chewing on something the author said about the post-WWII geo-political organization of the world. Burnham saw three poles arising to dominate the world at the end of the conflagration. These would be the United States, Japan and a united Europe. He believed that Russia would split, due to the dissimilarities between Europe-facing Russia and Russia of the far east. And he never really considered China.

He was, as most prophets of foreign affairs, only partly right. But his analysis of Europe is by far the most interesting. Because he considered that a Europe whose borders had been broken down by the war would never again return to Westphalia. The failure of the Maginot line and the reality of fortress Europe united was something that was far too powerful in the imaginations of the policymakers. However, he assumed that a united Europe would exist under the tutelage and supervision of a powerful Great Britain. It was his belief that the great island kingdom would bring its extraordinary power of order to bear on the organization of continental affairs, creating a world power par-excellence.

Its ironic, and sad but just also a reality that it was Germany and France who came to dominate the continental project (not England and France), with England after Brexit returning to a status on the peripheries. Not that this is bad – a glimmer of a new England can be seen in the vaccine rollout and the dramatic quashing of a virus that still ravages a Europe that cannot even manage a vaccine rollout strategy – much less a world empire. And what a United Kingdom unencumbered by EU nonsense can achieve is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the UK never played anything more than a back-seat role in the European Union.

I often wonder why this was – why is it that post WWII England did not take her rightful place as the indispensable European nation. Could be it was Charles de Gaulle’s successful blocking of England’s EU membership (in that case it was the common market) until 1973. It might have been British fatigue at war after war after war; or maybe imperial malaise after the dissolution of their empire which left them without the energy to embark upon the massive organizational efforts of forging a new alliance. It probably has not-a-little to do with the fact that British Labor Party has always been too close to communism (as exemplified in the Corbynites), making them unable to engage in the construction of union under the imposing threat of the USSR (I wonder if this isn’t why de Gaulle kept them out).

My point, if I have one – things are not always as they seem they will be. England’s status of world domination was so secure following WWII and was lost, squandered, puttered away or perhaps just abdicated. Although to be sure, nothing is eternal – England has been written off before – and I for one have hope that an England returned to her roots can find again her voice in the world without the dour ‘supervision’ of the technocrats in Brussels – but we’ll see.

My final thought on this, there has been a lot of debate on how its a shame for the UK to have left the EU. How it will diminish them. The reality is that the real shame is that the UK was not given its rightful place at the core of the European project. I was talking with an Armenian friend yesterday, a wide ranging discussion about the pandemic and the war and the future. “The problem with Europe,” he said – in relation to the conflict with Azerbaijan, “is that they cannot project power.” This statement, alas, sums up why the EU has failed as a geo-political block. They assume that their tremendous prosperity (brought by capitalism) and the security provided by the United States’s nuclear umbrella, along with their newfound humanitarianism product of apologetic revisionist moralizing as a lament for their role in colonialism will give them the clout they desire in world affairs, to have their word heeded. But this is still a world of guns and bombs (and now cyberattacks). England has always been a martial island – it has had to be. What would Europe have become, under the supervision of England not afraid of power and its use? It certainly would have been a better world for the US. We are tired of global dominion – it would be so nice to share it with a positive actor in the world for a change.

For heavy weighs the crown…

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Springtime In Yerevan

It’s springtime again in Yerevan. The crisp early-morning air smells like croissants and coffee and cigarette smoke over cologne or perfume wafting from a wandering passerby on a labor of purpose. A bustle of movement, new-construction around which deliveries – milk and meat and cheese parade hurriedly. The streets start to fill, Yerevan is a late riser – only the most dedicated or industrious out before the shops open, and those only after 10:30. A flower-vendor laying out his assortment – for Yerevan is the city of books and flowers after all. A minstrel plays his accordion and I stop to drop in 1000 Dram – two bucks and he nods as he keeps up the playing. “Please, come see,” a salesman standing on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant beckons me inside, but I refuse. I too have someplace to be.

Yerevan is waking up from its dark night of the soul. 2020, that worst of all years – I remember when the borders slammed shut, when the airlines stopped flying. This island in the Caucasus somehow gathering up its determination to accept a year with no tourism (like so many places, a lifeblood here) – a year with no diaspora visits for weddings and funerals and christenings – a year that we all knew would be like no other. And it was. There is nothing like the feeling of isolation, perched precariously on a mountain in the South Caucasus. Would the food run out? Would the imported gas be allowed through? What if we got sick – and there were no flights? But we kept our heads down, and weathered the lockdown – and began our glorious Armenian summer of 2020, strange to say because it was also tragic and hard but surrounded by the beauty of an ancient land that had seen so many plagues before, it became my summer with my little boy. And that made it epic.

But that was then; because then came the war. An unfriendly neighbor, an existential fight – that Armenia lost. A winter of sadness and mourning and loss. I will write more about that later, for it is still foremost in the imagination of everybody I talk to here – and rightly so. This year, they are again – as Armenians do – shrugging it off, ready to start fresh. To rebuild, as they so often have – isn’t Yerevan even older than Rome, after all? Were not people building their lives and going about their flower businesses when Romulus and Remus were still crawling inside the wolf’s lair? Yes, they build, and rebuild, and build again – and you can feel it. New hotels, people polishing their restaurants, painters out under the trees – it is springtime in Yerevan. Because they are ready to shrug it all off, remind themselves that the ancient story of Armenia has a lot of ups and downs – where the downs outnumber the ups – and see what the fresh new year will bring. I, for one, wish them well. Things are changing, yet the more they change, the more also the old ways remind us of why they are important and unchanging – family and faith and hard work and friendship. BBQ on a Friday afternoon, a cold stone chapel black with the smoke from the candles that took a millennium of prayers to God.

It is springtime in Yerevan.

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Armenia Saved My Life

“That is why I love America,” he said to me this morning, eyes watering. “A land where immigrants are welcomed and can free themselves of the shackles of the past – of the old country which we love so much, with a love that is laced with sadness.”

That is what Armenians feel about America. There is something special about Armenia – about Armenians. You feel this in the Diaspora, people who have found a way to fully embrace the chaotic turbulence of America without losing their serene passion for the “old country” – being both from there and from here, fully a part of both – which is in fact the spirit of America. A spirit which is exemplified in brilliant prose by Armenia’s amazing American writers. Leon Surmelian “I Ask You Ladies And Gentlemen“, the penultimate chapter of which was a sonnet to immigration, to the yearning for the old country that finds itself in a gratitude to the land of the free so beautiful that I had to put down the book and rush to find my wife, sitting her down – for she is also an immigrant to America (she from South America) – and read it to her aloud. Or “Song of America” by George Mardikian, a restauranteur and philanthropist from California who was also from Western Armenia and found upon the slanted streets of San Francisco what he could never find in Istanbul: washing away from himself the misery of Ottoman violence and Soviet oxygenless totalitarianism with all its myopic brutishness to experience the joy of opportunity in making amazing food for a grateful American public.

“I don’t understand this new generation of Americans,” my new friend went on. “They somehow don’t see it, don’t see that even though they don’t feel like they are privileged, they nevertheless are – juxtaposed against anybody from anywhere else.”

“Civilizations rarely survive so great a prosperity as we have known,” I responded. “It makes people think only about stuff, and makes them greedy. And the greedy know only bitterness and theft. They cannot see beauty anywhere in anything, which only makes them angrier and more dangerous.”

This morning I was sitting quietly on a leafy street in Yerevan reading “The First Man” by Albert Camus (review forthcoming, for it is Camus’ best work!) when my new friend approached me, representing as he did for me everything I love about Yerevan, about Armenia – and why it saved my life. “Camus!!” he said. “Great writer!” to which I of course responded. We then got into a wide-ranging conversation about why America was so divided, the sadness of seeing people who have so much, tearing each other down in so terrible ways and our joint hope that we would somehow find our way (we, because my new Armenian friend was American too). “America saved us,” my friend said. “It is a land of so many people, from so many different places!”

Its ironic that I had to fly so far from home, to a tiny land-locked war-locked country trapped in the mountain fastness of the south Caucasus to be saved. What was it that saved me?… you might be asking. Armenia is a conservative place – not in the political sense but in the civilizational one. A place where days are measured by hard work sunup to sunrise, weekends are weighed by the amount of meat on the BBQ and the number of family members at the wedding, and love is measured to the height of the great Mount Ararat that sits in silent supervision upon Yerevan, a reminder both of the timelessness of Armenians’ sojourn on this piece of land and of a bitterness like the black Armenian coffee – for Ararat sits in Turkey (what was once Western Armenia). I was saved by beauty. The painters that sit in Saryan square across from the Opera House (and where I bought not a few paintings); the alpine valleys where the delicate flowers grow beside crystalline mountain springs runoff from the melting mountain snows; the dark forests where the Divs still live and hunt their prey in solitude and mystery. The monasteries still in use by the monks who see the world not in years or decades but still talk about the Council of Nicea, of Gregory the Illuminator and the times when the apostles wandered through these places. I often wonder what Thaddeus and Bartholomew must have thought, replacing the vast open expanses of desert for the alpine mountains and the delicate rivers and the smells of sheep. Did they also look up at Ararat and wonder if the Ark was to be found there? I think they too loved Armenia, which is why legend places their graves here.

I was saved, more than anything, by the literature. Armenians from the Armenian boom days (in the 20s and 30s, behind Churchills Iron Curtain): Gevorg Emin, Yegishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Gurgen Mahari. So many others who nourished each other and often met their doom at the hands of Stalin or Beria’s brutes. Those who fled Western Armenia, from the genocide, making their way to America: Leon Surmelian and William Saroyan. Poets and composers like Komitas – the greatest of all composers – who lost his mind in sadness at the wickedness and died in Paris. His olden lament “Krunk” played mournfully, heart-wrenchingly in a recently bombed out church reminding us that the story of the Armenians goes on, that the ‘weeping nation’ continues to weep. “We live in a bad neighborhood,” my new friend says. And he is right, this place is so vulnerable, so weak and yet so resilient and full of the past and surprisingly the future.

Armenia saved my life, because America under the new maoist ‘dictatorship of culture’ has become an oxygenless place, especially for those who don’t really believe in ‘progress’, for those who think of an ancient faith born in Ur as still having the answers, and those who know that a great God sees the suffering of His people and rewards them for the trials they face on earth. Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that prosperity is tyranny in its own way, because it sets us apart from our God and asks us to put our faith in men, and they wicked and self-dealing; because it creates a natural client-body that is grasping and wicked and mean; and Armenia reminded me of the paradox that material wealth and spiritual poverty often go together, and that those without great affluence are more often more in love with the beautiful things and the quiet lovely places, the hope of peace in times of war, the gentle caressing of a pomegranate and the silent mountain vigil, beside a fire and warmed by brandy as the soft grunting of the sheep clustered together for warmth pervades a peaceful mountain night. No gadgets, no iPads, no tunes (Apple or otherwise) – just a man alone with his thoughts.

Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that there are still good places of beauty, good people who love their families and their freedom as a natural reaction to lives of difficulty which they are nevertheless not bitter about, though they are often sad; that despite the rise and fall of countries, empires and dynasties, there are things that remain good and true.

Back to Camus, there is very little of Camus’s existentialism here – to say nothing of the Nietzsche nihilism of America these days; except that one piece of yearning which does pervade Camus’ prose, the desire to live a good life, the discovery of wonder, and the hopefulness for a better tomorrow.

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The Struggle for the World

James Burnham was the most influential conservative intellectual you’ve probably never heard of. Oh, I suppose if you are of a previous generation, or if you are yourself (or strive to be) an intellectual, you probably have run across the name. You certainly have heard of William Buckley and the National Review. The National Review which was as much a brainchild of Burnham and reflected his “war for the world” as it was Buckley’s.

Burnham was the first neo-con. He probably would have objected to that moniker. Neo-con, in that he was a fan of Machiavellian approaches to winning the Cold War, his “world struggle”. He was not a moralist, like so many today pretend to be. Neither was he an ideologue, thank God. The Lord knows we have enough of those, who can only think in terms of random words their “influencers” drip upon them and which stack themselves up helter-skelter in their minds and which they defend to the death, convinced as they are onto something original.

He was instead a realist, an Aristotelian (as all true, good conservatives are) and a cold-warrior who knew that man could not be perfected but by a perfect God, and never in this life. Although Burnham was an atheist, until the end – when upon his death bed he returned to the Catholic Church (everybody is an atheist when they are strong and healthy. But give them a stroke, a heart attack or a battle with cancer, and all of a sudden they can belt out “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” like they were back in Sunday School).

Burnham lived an extraordinary life; and this amazing biography by Daniel Kelly captures it extremely well. It was well documented, written without judgement (pro or con) and gives us an inside glimpse into the man who wrote “The Managerial Revolution” (the analysis, written 80 years ago which – terrifyingly – came true). What a momentous time it must have been, to be living in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. This book drips with the names (not name-dropped in the “oh look at my selfie with Obama” way, but instead as an organic part of the story of a man of true influence) of people we all (at least should) know about. It starts with Burnham’s correspondence with Trotsky (he burned all those letters when he abandoned Bolshevism – what a tragedy!!!). Late night conspiring with Arthur Koestler; editorial battles with Frank Meyer; criticized by Ezra Pound; dinner with Richard Nixon; his eternal friendship with William Buckley – receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.

Burnham was first and last and foremost an intellectual, of the caliber we have not seen in a generation. A man of learning, whose command of the currents and trends and historical implications of everyday debates and decisions was profound. As many great thinkers, he started out sympathetic to the communists’ political project. And with all clear-headed visionaries he abandoned it with the utopianism of youth when he realized there was nothing to be found in the visions of perfection beyond the blood-soaked breadlines except more tyranny and death. He became conservative, as all smart people do, because he realized that life is cyclical, that things go by only to come around again – perhaps in a different form and dressed up in a new frock but if we sit on the bench long enough we can recognize the patterns of the human condition for what they are, and apply what we have learned to the lazy and inexperienced minds before they bring ruin and disaster. At least that is the hope.

I don’t know what future historians – what future biographers like Daniel Kelly will say about the Burnhams of the 21st century. I often wonder if they even exist; I sure can’t seem to find any of them. Which is a real problems, because the Maos, the Lenins, the Chavez’s, the Pol Pots and the Ivan Marquez’s are alive and well and to be found behind a repainted old slogan atop an old mantra bemoaning the eternal victimization of man and pleading, again, “To each according to his need.”

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Grant Matevosyan

I love literature that is grounded. Stories that emerge from the darkened forests, crystal lakes and crisp mountain pastures where sheep are raised in the summer and which are lost to the forbidding snow, sequestered away and quiet during the dark cold months of winter. I like stories that tell of the travails of people who live as people have always lived, ‘peasants’ we like to call them – we who have moved to the cities and lost touch with who we are, where we came from and who thereby were thrown out of balance with the world around us. Who don’t know where the waste goes when the porcelain toilet is flushed, where the water comes from as it flows from the tap or why the power bursts forth at the click of a switch – but who nevertheless have the nerve to rage when these things sporadically malfunction. We who like to lecture those who live on the land about its correct use, from our perch hundreds of feet up into the sky, riding our disconnected lives through the clouds in order to avoid the smells of the cow herds or the nuisance of a sheep-jam.

I once entered one of these, here in Armenia, a cramped single lane road that filled with the bleating – the only path from one pasture to another, in that time it was late November and the shepherds were returning the animals to the warmth of Ararat valley from their storied summer of pasturing, of fresh water and clean air and of the boredom of watching the sheep as generation after generation have done in the mountains of the South Caucasus going back into prehistory.

Grant Matevosyan connects us to these people, these times, and reminds us that their travails are not that different – though unchanging – than the travails of we the condo-dwellers. That whether living in a little village clinging to a cliff or in boxes stacked one atop the other, the intercourse brings the same friction and our responses to each other – we who think we are more educated – are perhaps worse and we, who believe ourselves masters of the universe, are so extremely vulnerable to the simple cracking of a pipe of fraying of a wire and the apocalypse that would ensue.

“Orange Herd” is one of Matevosyan’s most famous stories. With a great deal of humor, he introduces us to the frustrations and conflicts and joys of people living in Tsmakut, a tiny village on the border of Armenia with Azerbaijan and contested in war after war with their ancient enemy. Tsmakut is the Macondo of Soviet literature, in my opinion. Its ironic we all know what Macondo is, that village captured in amber time by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s pen – and that nobody has heard of Tsmakut (or of Matevosyan even); especially given what is by now (for those who read my reviews) known of my opinion of Gabo’s epic tale. I guess that is the drawback of living behind the iron curtain, there is little about a planned economy which allows for the ‘viral’ popularity of unexpected success – unlike in even the messy and corrupt ‘free’ economies of Latin America. Which is ironic too, given how much Gabo pined for the Soviet Union.

Matevosyan is one of Armenia’s great writers, of a generation of amazing writers – an Armenian boom which started maybe in the 30s and extended for a decade or two. His best works, evidently, are not even translated into English; and it is we who lose out for it. Because there is so much to like about Armenian literature – just like there is so much to like about Armenia; the deep jagged gorges and the high mountains and the delicate flowering trees of spring – the bees, everywhere bees; and the lives of people lived close to the land in that existential way of the farmer but not in that tragic way of the African farmer. Something wholesome about the well-tended plots and the carefully grown pear trees. The yearning for Yerevan, the big city, by the young anxious to find something going on – and the desire of the writers to be known, and read.

I keep being amazed by Armenian literature, the more of it I come to know. Literature that has transplanted itself – through the diaspora and writers like William Saroyan and Leon Surmelian – and become American literature as well. But also through writers like Matevosyan and Gevorg Emin becoming Soviet literature. Well told stories imagined in the small villages and flowering gardens of Armenia and exported to a world hungry for stories that are good and honest and true; told with tragedy and some humor; that remind us of what matters.

My little Armenian library keeps growing – I think it will continue to grow well into the future.

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3,000,000 – I Grieve

Does the earth itself despair, when the strain is too much? When the tears fall down like rain upon screens shorting-out from the warm salty deluge that makes its way onto hardened cement floors of basements or the solid stone of bunkers tucked away in terror – fear and loneliness and loss, seasoned with betrayal at last moments missed and the emptiness void of closure that might never be filled; running then into the sewers and out to the sea to join the nameless un-mourned dead?

Does mother nature grieve as she receives to her bosom the assembly line of ordered orifices laid out into infinity, of fresh-dug earth, into which go the quick-dried coffins unevenly assembled, watched over only by the cardboard countenances of the anonymous plastic gravediggers proffering their trade? I think she must. But do we?

We can weep for one tragic death. A car accident that takes a child from her mother; a disease striking down singer or surgeon in their prime – robbing us of them, and them of that which fills our spirit, giving breath not just life. We can grieve for a boy as a tear splashes upon the loose-packed earth under which lies his love, the one he knew was once and for eternity. Those things we understand, for they burst with overflowing of humanity and our condition. But these numbers, the endless deluge of tales of hardship and loss, friend and stranger alike — the daily ticker-march of death in ones and twos and tens and hundreds — 10,000 a day, more now. What do we do about numbers like these? How does the callous not grow ever thicker with each article, each report, each anxious missed phone-call or sleepless night – until our emotions are so overgrown with exhaustion and with use that they no longer register touch?

And it’s more than the death, as if there is more than death. The aged, robbed of their last years as they stare through the saran-wrapped windows to a world that quietly, quickly slips away – at least for them; grasping at each last minute, breathing deeply of their final breaths as their nostrils fill only with the stench of bleach where the delicate aroma of rosebuds before flitted upon the delicate caress of the warming spring breeze. Last birthdays lived alone; the pale glow of a phone or pad giving off an unsatisfying unhealthy light where there used to be a candle that glowed. Dreams, cut short – lives, interrupted before they began – the Peace Corps worker abandoning the cradled vision of the African village to look down with a shrug as the debt-pile grows and the want-ad column shrinks, and sighs deeply and dejectedly — this is the harsh reality of now, best not to rage. For how can we rage at a thing such as has befallen us? The Olympians, their one chance – waiting breath baited, will they compete this year…? Or will this season pass them by; returning them to the high-school gymnasium with only laments of what might have been to deliver with a bitter grimace to the next generation of champions. Businesses, shuttered – vacant lidless eyes staring down upon the main street of a town that no longer boasts a chocolatery, a wine bar, a specialty soap shop. Only a fleet of canned-good delivery trucks; anonymous beetle men, shielded in plastic, plying their perilous business – essential, in a world where all else has become superfluous.

How do we mourn for all this? And how do we mourn the 3,000,000 dead? How do we not let the sheer size of the number numb us to the reality that each of them was, like us, a living-fighting-kicking-breathing person to the end. Do we light a candle for them? Such a blaze would be perilous. Do we dare shed a tear for the empty places at the dinner table – and risk the torrent, a great salty river flowing to the sea, and the devastation that would ensue? Do we all scream out loud at the powerlessness of our loss, and risk the shaking of the earth? Or perhaps instead we simply say a silent prayer, for each life…? Isn’t there too much silence these days – long after the Italian canticos to their healthcare workers gave way to the unsung hum-drum of shattered illusions and the shelving of once-bright dreams? Yes, would that we could mourn loudly – that is what this morbid milestone moment demands.

As for me, I choose to listen to a song, over and over like I often do when I am melancholy; and like the ancient preachers did in plagues of old, consecrating the waters when the cemeteries filled to bursting – I channel the mariners’ in a simple prayer for the departed:

“Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”

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“By far the best fiction I’ve ever read” she said

“The narrative is masterfully crafted, and I find it baffling the author is someone other than Charles himself. (…) I, Charles from the Camps, is by far the best piece of fiction I’ve ever read.”

Read the full review below…

“Charles is one of the few novels I truly believe everyone should read. The narrative is masterfully crafted, and I find it baffling the author is someone other than Charles himself. It is a testament to the author, whom I learned, spent his life raised in foreign lands as the son of missionaries and observed a world from a perspective that third-world travelers (tourists, or short-term service volunteers and missionaries) completely miss. Akin to Ishmael Beah’s, A Long Way Home, or Girl Soldier, co-authored by Faith J. H. McDonnell and Grace Akallo, Charles describes what life is like (or could be like) for one African boy displaced by war, disease, and famine, raised in refuge camps with his parents, and four of nine surviving siblings. His account, albeit fiction, is not really fiction at all, but a story well crafted of what is, was, and what for many, could be if the hands of fate drop them situations of opportunity or uncertain peril. That in its own sense is as terrifying as it is tragic. If I were to describe to the ‘highlights’ of the tale, it would be easy to dismiss the storyteller as a thug, or part of the problem, but when you get to know Charles in the first few pages, you cannot help but root for him. Glimpses of his humanity, his desire to love and be loved, his hope to be regarded as a valued creation of the creator, the aspiration of securing a place for himself to have security and a future – all these things we too want for ourselves and our families – unite us. No matter how bad things get for Charles, or how dark his paths take him, I held hope that he’d find redemption and his happily-ever-after. With about 10% of the story left, I felt stuck, wadding through a repulsive bog of vile and repulsive muck. While this may sound like a dig to the author, it is quite the opposite. I found myself giving up on Charles. His decisions, his actions, the man he’d become made it hard to look at him with forgiving eyes. The author takes the reader on a dark journey, one that makes it easy to judge…in the way we tend to do when we feel the possibility of rehabilitation has passed. There were many times in that last 10%, where I had to look away. …And when I did, it forced me to consider my own role in the lives of the boys and girls who would become Charles. An American, with a roof over my head and food at an arms reach any moment of the day. What is my role? Certainly not what it has been. The story of Charles is not a lighthearted tale and stays with you long after the last page is read. I highly recommend this story to…well, to everyone who considers themselves able to handle a mature read. I, Charles from the Camps, is by far the best piece of fiction I’ve ever read.”

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Wind in the Willows

Is there anything for little boys like the adventure of Mole and Badger and Rat – and of course the ineffable Toad? Of Toad’s exuberance, Mole’s gentle loyalty, Rat’s wisdom, and Badger’s bravery? Up against the evil weasels who have seized Toad hall?

I just finished reading “Wind in the Willows” to my little boy; we’re making our way through as many classics as we can while he still has the patience to put up with me; while he still eagerly awaits the nightly chapters before bedtime; while he still stands the sound of my voice and my moralizing. I want to give him these works of literature, of wisdom and culture and civilization as stepping stones he can cling to as he seeks to pass the turbid waters of adolescence and adulthood – waters that will seek to wash away everything he knows. Only these classics, firmly rooted to the bedrock of who we are, can last. The cartoons, the pop-modern books of now (and there’s nothing wrong with them) can’t anchor him, and without roots you cannot have wings.

This book was magnificent, magical – a story of friendship and loyalty, but fun and lively and so extremely well-written it at parts took my breath away. This is a year of misery and frustration, of politics and pandemic both of which are guaranteed to make us all miserable. It is only in classics that we can escape the nonsense into something of our past that remains as true and good today as it was when it was written. More and more I turn back, to the olden works that never change as I realize what really matters and come to the conclusion that things that others say matter actually don’t that much – that nothing is so important as my little boy giggling at the antics of Toad.

And that is good.

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