My First Haka

I was ignorant till last week of the haka, the Maori dance. Often known as a war dance since its popularization by New Zealand rugby team, it apparently has lots of other ceremonial uses as well.

Here are two elite schools in New Zealand bringing their best haka to their annual match. Remarkable to see the student bodies themselves doing it, mixed with the beanie cap aesthetics of the English public school system. Weirder than a Philippine prison yard doing the “Thriller” dance.

I can imagine it having its desired effect, especially if a team sprung it on you without warning. I did a search of it to see how controversial it is in the whole authenticity-versus-appropriation discussion, and its Maori critics seem focussed on the specific circumstances when they feel it’s inappropriate; over all it’s rather widely adapted as a New Zealander thing. Becoming the leader of a prominent haka seems to be a coveted position – an honor almost always reserved for a young man of Maori descent.

Tokenism? I have nothing to say on the matter, living in a place where most of the indigenous people are long dead, their closest descendants far away.

One of the scariest parts of it is the hyper-precise timing, something militaries around the world do to intimidate. If they’re capable of this type of precision and coordination, what else could they do to us?

Compare it to this wedding haka at what looks like a mixed wedding. Rhythmic and full of that part of feeling that’s bordering on mania: too much juice; bat shit crazy.

Knowing nothing about it, it sure seems like it’s not just to scare people, but to use the occasion of a life milestone to open up the hood of the car of “civilization” and its institutions – school, adulthood, marriage, the family, the nation, the passage of time itself – to look at the motor, and show off what’s inside: raw emotion and the threat of violence, but also loyalty. (Pardon the automotive analogy. I am still really just a guy from New Jersey.)

And about that Philippine prison…there was a time when it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t get to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas on TV. Now it just ain’t Halloween without the scariest, most  beautiful “Thriller” video:

 

 

Raking Leaves

“Who do you think you are? Andy Goldsworthy?” isn’t something you hear every day. So when my neighbor asked me that last fall,  I took it as a compliment.

If you told me just two years ago that the most rewarding part of my day, and my creative life, would soon be raking leaves, I would have wondered if I was on my way to drug addiction or maybe a head injury. But here I am most mornings, cerebrum intact, stone cold sober as a matter of fact, tweaking the piles of leaves in my back yard, nudging them into semi-concentric waves.

You have to do something with these leaves, and it seems like a lost opportunity to blow them into a pile in the woods once a week. And once you start – once you stop once or twice to appreciate it as a vision, it’s harder to stop than to keep at it.

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My first intersecting line, with wind blowing toward the lower left.

You can create a soft line at the edge of a leaf-covered patch of grass by raking away from it – and a harder one at the edge of a pile by raking toward it, especially when the leaves are damp.

It was the 2017 documentary about Goldsworthy called Leaning Into the Wind that made me take leaves seriously as an artistic medium.  That film gives one a pleasantly weird feeling, partly because Goldsworthy himself is such a slow-talking hobbit of a man, and partly because it forces you to keep revisiting a question: “Is he dressing the set for a deceptively elaborate photo, or is this photo or video I’m looking at the documentation of an artistic practice itself?”

In my case it’s all about the practice. At least in October. It’s a little like cutting hair that grows back again overnight – and like the feeling you get when you leave a barber and tussle your own hair so it’s imperfect just the way you like it. It’s also about looking at the lines as if they’re in motion and imagining where they’re going – and then rake them there. In that way, it’s more like animation.

 

Is it art? Sure. Can you go public with it, give people the chance to appreciate it on a bigger scale? I suppose you’d have to find a bigger venue than my yard, and more people and more rakes.

One day the Fedex guy drove up and caught me in the act. “I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those,” he said, meaning a rake. A little overstating it, in my opinion: They weren’t steel sheep shears, after all; you can still buy a rake at the hardware store.

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With lines from morning shadows.

Not a comment at all about the geometry in the deciduous piles around me, but I’m still good for a minute-long chat with anyone, and he kept talking, chipper as ever while dealing with a giant box of cat food that blocked his vision. Seeing a man struggle with a box with the word “Chewy” printed across it looked to me like an artistic expression.

So far, I figured, I’ve gotten few to tune in. But once you start, everything starts looking like art.

 

 

How Did I Get Here?

I’ve missed your birthdays, your anniversaries, and a few funerals. I chose to leave town and you’re excused if you never want to see me again. I moved from New York City to the Central Hudson Valley at the end of last summer. Since then, I’ve often asked myself, “How did I get here?” occasionally peppered with “Am I right? Am I wrong?”

Only once or twice did I say to myself, “My God, what have I done!”

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Minnewaska Sate Park, with the Catskills in the distance. The English tried renaming them the “Blue Mountains,” but the Dutch name meaning “Cat River Mountains” stuck.

Mostly I feel like life started over last fall, and there was nothing before it, when I moved to a hamlet in Ulster County. It’s near Stone Ridge, which is near Kingston. When friends visit I take them to High Falls or Rosendale and limit my history lesson to the ten minutes it takes to get there, but I insist that they hear it, because you can’t get your head around the place without it:

You have to remember, I tell them, that well into the 1800s cities weren’t industrial, the country was. Most of the forests got leveled for farms and dairies, yes, but also for fuel for tanneries and ironworks. My area, the Roundout Valley, had its first boom in the 1830s after the Delaware and Hudson Canal came through.

So to ship coal from the Poconos to New York City you put it on a barge that crossed the Delaware on a viaduct and descended through the Western Catskills till it joined the Rondout Creek and followed alongside it for its last 25 miles before it reached the Hudson.

That’s going about 80 miles out of your way just to work with gravity. Railroads made this obsolete by the 1850s, and the area had its first bust. Then came the cement boom after the Civil War. Towns like Rosendale discovered that certain layers of their dolostone were perfect for making cement. Much of the cement that made New York City and monuments around the East Coast came from these canal towns. You can still see the kilns where they baked dolostone to prepare it for pulverizing at random places on walks in the woods.

Then that went bust when synthetic cements became more cost-effective, and finally the small-production dairy business, which was always up and down, went bust for good a generation ago.

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The ruins of a cement mining operation, now flooded. Rosendale, NY.

At this point I try making eye contact, and my friends are either hooked, or we change topics to cooking and Netflix.

If there’s a pall of sadness around the Hudson Valley, even on a beautiful day, it’s because it’s been post-industrial longer than it was ever industrial. It’s the original depressed place, where artists have been going to get away from ambition for generations now.

In all the years I was a visitor here, I often got lost. As someone with a good sense of north, south etc., I can drive without a map in many places, but here I was easily disoriented. I realized one winter night while reading a history of the Ice Age (as one does up here), that we can thank the last major glacier 13,000 years ago for the geological oddities in these towns.

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Near the point of the lowest arrow the glacier breeched the western wall, creating odd southwest- to-northeast-flowing riverbeds.

The rivers run northeast! It defies the senses of most people who grew up anywhere else on the East Coast. The ice that was carving the Hudson Valley got too high for a time and broke through the western wall of rock in a southwestern direction, and now water flows out in the opposite direction…

..and that’s why gravity-based transport of the 1830s came this way; and why I get a text every time someone comes to visit for the first time saying they got lost.

We imagine that back in Brooklyn we’re remembered with tomb-like, pitiable epithet, “moved upstate.” Meaning we retreated. Couldn’t take it. Gave up. Nobody likes a quitter! And that’s all half-true.

Up here neighbors say, “This is not upstate,” meaning we haven’t reached the boonies yet. I have thousands of peers around me who work on the Web and now want to live a few hours from the city but no more, so that they can go in for a meeting or a day or so of work or play.

I still get in to the city once every 6 to 8 weeks, it seems, but more often when I get a free day I want to go further: further north, higher in the mountains, deeper into the boonies. To some perch where I’m more likely to get the feeling it’s just me and this big, living mountain range.

If you sit on my front porch and look in one direction, it’s the flat Roundout Valley. Look in the other, and it’s uphill. The foothills, where the Catskills begin. A good place to sit and think.

 

An Easter Errand

I had no plans this Easter except to read a few poems, do some stone work in the yard, and have pork chops with my wife. I ended up going to a church – long enough to haul a deer carcass away from its steps and into the woods behind it.

It started last weekend on Palm Sunday. A deer had been hit and was lying dead near the road in front of the historic church next to my house. I know the church has a small congregation of long-time residents, and figured one of them would take it on himself  to persuade the town to send a truck out. Certainly before their marquee weekend.

Notre Dame burned. Good Friday came. The deer was still lying there. I asked a neighbor, who told me I could try calling the town, but by Friday on a holiday weekend they would probably give me a runaround.

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#13.

I don’t know about the Methodists, but the Catholic churches I grew up in were all adorned with the Stations of the Cross: fourteen plaques of sometimes graphic violence for the semi-literate, showing the murder that’s a part of our central mythology. One that always got me was Number 13: “Jesus is taken down from the cross,” or sometimes, “Jesus is laid in his mother’s arms.”

It always shows a lifeless Christ, heavy in the arms of someone. Its point seems to be, He isn’t merely dead, he’s really quite sincerely dead.

This occurred to me on Easter morning. I slept late – I’d been up late. As faithful readers know, I’ve been too busy to blog lately. The Sunday service next door was already finished. I thought of the limp and bloody body of Christ when I put my garden gloves on and walked around the church to see the deer. Scavengers had chewed through her hind leg, and a wild tomcat was helping himself when I got there. Her eyes had already been eaten out, but she was otherwise intact.

A woman I met at an antique stand this week told me a story about a fawn she found in her yard that was trying to avoid being eaten by a fisher. I’ve never seen a fisher that I know of,  but they’re a feisty species of wild cat that chicken and pet-owners fear.

I have nothing against fishers and suppose one is entitled to eat a fawn if they can find one. Likewise I had nothing against this cat, nor the coyotes and vultures who would feed on this deer – and who could do so more safely away from the road. So I grabbed her by her back hooves and pulled her many yards behind the church’s shed, to a clearing in the woods.

It was odd feeling the weight of the deer’s body resisting my pull at first – and feeling the reverberating friction of its bumping against tree roots – a final scratch of its neck. Within a minute I got used to it. Some animals you’ll never touch alive. Only when they’re dead do you feel how soft their fur is.

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Judging by the amount of deer droppings in the clearing, it was a place she was used to feeding, and now she’s being fed on there. Later we brought her forsythia branches and incense and wished her a peaceful rest.

Deer are regarded as a nuisance in the country. They eat gardens and make driving slower at night. Such peaceful creatures though! We vowed that no matter how long we live here we we would try to keep regarding them as good neighbors, friends even.

Michel Legrand

Rest in Peace, Michel Legrand. Though it seems like you could write about little else these days besides politics and the death of the great artists of the 1960s, Legrand is a big one.

A composer of film scores and film songs, he straddled the world between the New Wave and the middle brow establishment. He was the French Mancini and Lalo Schifrin and Bachrach, and made music with Miles and Coltrane. Few of us can forget the first time we ever watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and I’ve written in the past about Jacques Demy’s next film, The Young Girls of Rochefort).

Not long after discovering that, my wife and I watched The Donkey Skin (Le Peau D’Ans) and were blown away by the twisted Freudian fairytale.

It was years later when my mother gave me a CD of Legrand playing solo piano. I put it on for some background music one day, and my wife came into the room, spatula in hand, and recognized one of this songs, singing its chorus from memory.

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Legrand made music for 250 films…and looked good doing it.

“Is this from Le Peau D’Ans?!”

I looked it up and it was. Music is alchemy to me, and I was amazed that she remembered it so many years later, having heard it once. I guess it’s not so amazing, considering that’s what musicians do, put aural nuggets into our brains that we can’t forget. They add spiritual substance and feeling to narratives, and everything else.

His niece, incidentally, is Victoria Legrand, a graduate of Vassar and one half of the band Beach House. Rest in peace, Uncle Michel.

Poem For a Winter Morning

It’s hard to take good photos of sunrise. It’s worth trying only because of the sad but warm feeling you get when you try showing someone the cell phone snaps you took, and then explain to them that they really had to be there.

People present at bombings and other violent disasters sometimes say it was “just like in the movies.” In nature when the sun is at its most expressive, we think of landscape painters. This morning, blinded by the sun gleaming off the frosted branches, I thought of Turner:

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Coffee In Bed

We told each other stories about

our own courtship – biscuits made from

comic memories. The farmstand

milk in the coffee had a dank

terroir, unmistakably cow shit.

Deer outside fed on bushes just

an armslength from the carcass of

their roadkill sister. Everyone

was trapped in their own completion.

©2019 Charles Bowe

 

 

 

100 Years of Armistice Day

There was a curiously crude World War I monument in the middle of the oldest intersection in my town, a suburb of Trenton, when I was a kid – my first encounter with World War I.

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The Hamilton Square monument, before my time.

At the corner of Nottingham Way and Mercer Street, what had been a little farming town with a factory, a few churches and a greater Trenton street car line in 1918, was already surrounded by aluminum-sided Cape Cod houses by the 1970s, when the local suburban housing boom went into overdrive, but that squat block of cement and ill-fitting stones was still there slowing traffic down.

It honored “the citizens of this vicinity who served our country in the Great War of 1914-1918.” Sometime in the ’80s it was moved to the corner lot, which the town turned into a mini-park that no one ever visits.

It was and is, all too fitting. A war so weird we didn’t have a definitive name for it. A nebulous scope (“this vicinity”?) and an oddly misleading timeline (1914-1918) for a country that couldn’t take a side till 1916. A war that those of us who grew up on World War II and the Cold War could never get our heads around: it had none of the moral certainty, and none of the heroism. A war that we remembered mostly for the great generation of alcoholic writers who were scarred by it.

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A few years ago a friend loaned me Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which I promptly put on a shelf for a year, then picked up one night and couldn’t put down. Like me, Dyer’s encounter with World War I was through memorials.

Like the World War I vets marching down Nottingham Way on the Memorial Day parades of the 1970s, everything about it seemed old, old, old, even 40 years ago.

Yesterday my friend Rick Carney wrote about “the greatest and most powerful anti-war films ever made.” Here are his  “5 absolute must see films in this category”:

“J’Accuse”- Abel Gance
“Westfront 1918”- GW Pabst
“All Quiet on the Western Front”- Lewis Milestone
“Paths of Glory”- Stanley Kubrick
And in my opinion the greatest (and most humane) of them all, Jean Renoir’s, “La Grande Illusion.”

November 11 goes by the name “Armistice Day” or “Remembrance Day” in other countries – countries that suffered a lot worse than ours did. To us, “Veterans Day” is a time to thank the vets. This year the Left is using it to try shaming Trump; every year the Right uses it to try shaming anyone who ever questioned any war.

How often I’ve wished that I lived in a time and place when respecting the dead of past wars was not purposefully confused with supporting the possible wars of today. In any case without question the journey of remembering, to appreciate the scope of what happened and how it changed people at the time – and how we understand it through the ways others chose to remember it – makes you a more sensitive person.

Tony Hoagland on D.H. Lawrence

I was sad to hear this week that the poet Tony Hoagland died. I’d only met him once, but when I got married eight years ago my wife and I never discussed whether to have one of Tony’s poems read at our ceremony. We only discussed which one.

We settled on “The Time Wars,” a poem that hit some unexpectedly dark notes for a wedding, but got one of the points of a wedding across: that we plan to get old together.

I also frequently cite his poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine,” when I encounter a certain kind of connoisseur, in wine, in food, or in literature:

“His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.”

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His Times obituary rightly focusses on his humor and accessibility, and surprising wallops of truth, and I guess that’s what drew me to him too. I first found him when I asked my friend the poet Jay Leeming the impolite question, “Who does what you do but better?” and he did not hesitate: “Tony Hoagland.”

I’ve enjoyed turning many people onto his collections Donkey Gospel and What Narcissism Means To Me. The latter book makes a cameo appearance in Joe Swanberg’s film Drinking Buddies. (I can’t find our copy, so I must have given it away, again.) Donkey Gospel includes a poem called “Lawrence” that captures his fun, slightly cranky voice.

Good night, sweet prince.

LAWRENCE

by Tony Hoagland

On two occasions in the past twelve months
I have failed, when someone at a party
spoke of him with a dismissive scorn,
to stand up for D. H. Lawrence,

a man who burned like an acetylene torch
from one end to the other of his life.
These individuals, whose relationship to literature
is approximately that of a tree shredder

to stands of old-growth forest,
these people leaned back in their chairs,
bellies full of dry white wine and the ovum of some foreign fish,
and casually dropped his name

the way pygmies with their little poison spears
strut around the carcass of a fallen elephant.
“O Elephant,” they say,
“you are not so big and brave today!”

It’s a bad day when people speak of their superiors
with a contempt they haven’t earned,
and it’s a sorry thing when certain other people

don’t defend the great dead ones
who have opened up the world before them.
And though, in the catalogue of my betrayals,
this is a fairly minor entry,

I resolve, if the occasion should recur,
to uncheck my tongue and say, “I love the spectacle
of maggots condescending to a corpse,”
or, “You should be so lucky in your brainy, bloodless life

as to deserve to lift
just one of D. H. Lawrence’s urine samples
to your arid psychobiographic
theory-tainted lips.”

Or maybe I’ll just take the shortcut
between the spirit and the flesh,
and punch someone in the face,
because human beings haven’t come that far

in their effort to subdue the body,
and we still walk around like zombies
in our dying, burning world,
able to do little more

than fight, and fuck, and crow,
something Lawrence wrote about
in such a manner
as to make us seem magnificent.

 

The Shipwreck We Missed in History Class

The first time I heard Stuff You Missed In History Class, I knew I’d found some some kindred spirits in Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson. Each episode is like you drove a Subaru hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, to arrive at a college town just in time for a dinner party where everyone’s educated, and you sit between two engaging women with subtly different Southern accents, who tell you all about a topic in thirty minutes. All that, except you didn’t have to leave your Subaru.

The conversations – and there are hundreds of them – could be about Victoria Woodhull; about Copernicus; a concise history of air conditioning; the Lumiere Brothers (two episodes); Martin Luther’s wife; the woman who led the repeal of Prohibition; the Sepoy Rebellion; or anything else.

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I mention them today because they recently told the harrowing story of the sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, which left Skagway, Alaska on October 23, 1918, around 10 pm, three hours later than it should have, going a lot faster than it should have, and you can either guess the rest or listen to them tell it.

Theirs is the only podcast I’ve ever truly binged on, more than once in fact, and what’s remarkable about it is how spare the story-tellers are at injecting any kind of first person. Sure, they’ll say “I think” here or there, or leave you with some impression about them while having an ironic chuckle, usually at the expense of some ill-informed or overly confident participant in their stories, but they graciously keep that to a minimum.

I guess I do know that one of them is a mother and the other an animal lover, and any mention of cruelty to animals or kids gets a “You know this pushes my buttons” comment. Otherwise they leave out any of the personal-voyage-of-discovery anecdotes that tend to flatten every story in the National Public Radio orbit. It’s like, you can’t hear about a murder-mystery without the narrator mentioning the nature of the epiphany she had while on her way from the coffee shop to the crime scene.

Others have written about them with more access than I have. They have lots of stories about women, a sympathetic appreciation for religious subjects, and a sense of wonder about entrepreneurs.

Stuff You Missed History Class has that rare balance, both a sense of humor and a reverence for its subjects. In those hundreds of hours you rarely hear any theoretical rhapsodizing, though Holly Frey has a knack for stepping back and reminding you of the context of the story. In the case of the S.S. Princess Sophia, she muses, the end of World War I and the world flu pandemic kept us from committing this utter disaster to public memory.

What a vision, by the way, to think of a ship full of the bodies of the dead pulled from the water, arriving at a Canadian port on November 11, while people are celebrating the just-announced Armistice that ended the war.

I, for one, would have been tempted to stop the story and say “Think about that! Now that’s irony.” The Stuff You Missed History Class ladies, however, almost always stick to the third person and keep answering the question every story-teller should: Then what happened?

The Environmental “About Right” Point

I took a trip down Hippy Lane last month staying with old friends in Ithaca, New York. This is a guy who was a mentor of sorts, though he’d bristle at that responsibility. I used to tease him about his being a descendant of pilgrims on the Mayflower – often enough that I suspect he regretted ever telling me that.

I hit it off with his wife too, but hadn’t been to visit in years, since their wedding, and their daughter is now 6. My texts from the road saying I was running late had gone unanswered, and when I got there we sat right down to dinner.

Like friends in the city, you tend to “lose” them when they have a child. You naturally get replaced by their peers in childbirth and child-rearing. They’ve entered a new economy of baby-sitting favors and pre-school fundraisers, and when you do get together it takes a lot of explaining the new reference points. Since I’d hardly had a chance to see these friends anyway, we wasted no time apologizing for being out of touch.

I’ve always taken pride in good manners, and still feel the need to excuse myself to use a cell phone, even to check a message, when I’m with real people having a real conversation. I was expecting an email and excused myself once to check it after I got there. Then I remembered to text my wife that I’d arrived. After that I figured I’d better wait and see what the local customs were regarding cell phone use.

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E-Waste processing in China.

And I waited, and waited, and the phones never came out. It was just good conversation late into the night in a house full of books – “late” with a different numerical meaning upstate, in a house with a child in it.

That’s when I realized I’d forgotten my iPhone charger. The only one on offer was the older, wide “30 pin” model, circa 2010. I said “No problem!” I’d figure something out the next day. Which I quickly realized meant buying another. I admit that I kept this to myself in a house where we composted walnut shells and wore sweaters instead of hitting the thermostat on chilly fall nights. (“Chilly” in Ithaca meaning “cold” in points south.)

The next morning on my way to make the purchase, at the local gas station of all poetic places, I thought about a private message I’d gotten back in July after posting about Apple, the company.  I’d accused Apple of the environmental crime of planned obsolescence, among other things, and a friend of mine called me out on it. Instead of pissing and moaning about having to buy a new iPhone, did I even think about buying a new battery for $29?

Answer: Well, no.

The conventional wisdom among everyone around me was that I just had to suck it up and buy a new one, and I didn’t question that.  This would not have happened if I’d just called my friends in Ithaca – on their landline.

If there’s a spectrum from environmental angel to environmental devil – with the hero being the vegetarian who carpools to work and only takes airline flights when he knows he’ll stick around for a few weeks on the one end, and the villain tossing plastic bottles one after another in the trash (or littering them! I mean, why not?) while driving a Hummer to a ribfest with outdoor air conditioning – I feel I’m more conscientious than most, closer to angel.

I also suspect that most of us would place our own position on that spectrum at the “about right” point, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit that.

When presented with a basic consumer choice I decided not to question, but to dig a little deeper in the cobalt and nickel mines for a new phone because that just sounded easier. I could blame the nice guy at the iPhone store for not saying, “You could just get a new battery,” but then I’d be holding Apple to a higher standard than any other business.

Puritanism and its effects on the American pscyhe is something I honestly think about every day. Those Pilgrims on the Mayflower, my friend’s ancestors, are still with us.

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John Calvin.

On the one hand, their perverse belief in predestination – that we are already chosen or damned by God  when we’re born, and that our life is a series of signs that illustrate that choice – can make us maniacal in our pursuit of being good. As if the decision about whether or not to carry the seltzer can the extra few minutes to the recycling bin is more than a practical choice, it’s a reflection of one’s soul.

But Puritanism also gave us our faith in the perfectibility of our community or society. Without John Calvin there’d be no Billie Sunday, and no Ted Cruz, true. But without John Calvin there’d be no Karl Marx, and no Bernie Sanders either.

So here we are, the generation that has to make the biggest decisions yet, with implications for centuries to come. And we’ve got 16th Century minds to do it with. You don’t get to pick the cosmological hand you’re dealt.