Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The weekend began with bizarre weather and ended in serene beauty. There was a light snow storm Friday morning. Pretty, fluffy snow, nothing difficult to negotiate. I worked at home in the morning and when the snow turned to rain around 1pm, began to drive up to MIT. Halfway there, all hell broke loose. The wind rose into a gale and the snow drove in with such density the visibility dropped to nearly zero. With a lot of luck and some tense maneuvering, I got my Jeep into the parking garage in the basement of the Stata Center and fought through the weather to my office. Two and a half hours later, like turning off a switch, the snow ended, the sky cleared and there was a lovely coral sunset. But during the worst of it, I saw conditions that I'd seen before—one Monday night in January 1978 when the great blizzard put Boston under marshal law for a week and four feet of standing snow and ice clogged the streets for days. Happily, this storm moved out to sea a great deal faster.

Saturday evening I had the pleasure of hosting the third QBB, or Queer Boston Bloggers gathering. On the agenda was a pot luck supper and poker. There were six of us (Karl, Bryan, Keith, Sean, first timer Atari and myself). Chris began the trip down from New Hampshire but was turned back as close as Saugus by completely jammed traffic. He sent an email regretting and hoping he can make it next time, as do all of us.

I think the success of the evening can be judged by the fact that we sat down to dinner just after 8pm and all of a sudden realized that it was ten o'clock. So the dining table was cleared and we began to play cards. Now, I hadn't until that night played so much as a single hand of poker, but the rules of Texas Hold'em are extremely simple. By the third hand I was relaxed and beginning to enjoy myself. I won a couple of hands and began to see some "now we're agoin' to break yer hands, hustler" expressions around the table. But it was all in great good cheer and, again, time flew. We broke up at 1am. These guys are a lot of fun.

Sunday I drove up to Fritz's to help out with a couple of repairs and to host the December Sweat with him. There were fourteen men in all. We got a really hot fire going, so the soapstones came out of the coals translucent and glowing red. They held their heat so long that the Sweat lasted a good forty-five minutes. Walking back through the woods at the end, the night was bathed in moonlight, sending long bluish shadows of the trees across the luminous snow. A pair of Canadian geese flew over us, their calls echoing off the stone outcropping that shadows the trail at one point. Just magic.

Every city has its own profile and stories unique to its culture. Here's the first of several that tell something about Boston and why it is what it is.

The witch hunt, trials and executions at Salem in the early 1690s are pretty well known, but Boston's role in the affair is less often reported. Despite trial records that seem to indicate everything was run out of Salem, a lot of strings were being pulled in Boston by figures, one very prominent figure in particular, who may have been extremely conflicted at this moment in time. Cotton Mather was the dominant cleric in the area, scion of a family of strong Puritan ministers. Son of Increase Mather, first president of Harvard College, and grandson of ministers Richard Mather and John Cotton, Cotton Mather presided over Boston's historic Old North Church and authored of over four hundred works on all aspects of theology.

But scratch the surface of both Increase and Cotton's lives and some major contrasts begin to appear. Increase ruled a college that from the beginning exhibited a generally liberal philosophy and Cotton received his degree as a teenager from his father's hand. Increase had lost faith in "spectral evidence," the impossible to confirm or deny but damning accusation that was used to "prove" the great sin of witchcraft. Had his influence in the trials been stronger, the hysteria might have collapsed. The fact that so many of the denunciations were based on the greed of neighbors who wanted to grab the land of the condemned or executed might have been exposed and the trials stopped a great deal sooner. Yet Increase used his position and influence to become involved in major international affairs of state and civil government in an unprecedented manner, thereby uniting church and state in a way that forged a theocracy in Massachusetts. A theocracy made the witch trials possible and guaranteed a high body count in the verdicts.

Cotton had no second thoughts about spectral evidence. His god was not a benign spirit but a stern and vengeful deity who held mankind suspended over the abyss of hell, to cite one of his most memorable images, like a moth over a flame. The judges in Salem came mostly from Cotton's congregation, were picked by him and mentored by him via correspondence. He set foot in Salem only once, to view the execution of defrocked minister George Burroughs. On the gallows, Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer faultlessly, something thought impossible for a witch to do. As the crowd cried out for Burroughs to be freed, Cotton Mather ordered the hanging to go forward. Yet he was an early and embattled advocate of rational science. His promotion of smallpox vaccination and use of his own son as an example of the ease of the vaccination process earned him an incendiary device thrown through a window of his house. His belief that doctors should take into consideration the state of mind of a patient rather than depending on analysis of symptoms based on medieval beliefs earned him acceptance into the Royal Society in London.

But when the chips were down he chose religious orthodoxy--he was an ardent supporter of the founding of reactionary Yale University as a counterbalance to the liberalism of Harvard. And then there was this fascinating, documented incident: a woman in Boston was brought to Cotton's house said to be possessed by a demon. As she lay on the floor writhing and moaning, he knelt straddling her hips, pinning her firmly under him with his legs. According to witnesses he then leaned over and began wrestling with her until the demon was released. I've always wondered what else might have been released that day. The description of his exorcism technique sounds an awful lot like dry humping to me. Just how "pure" were those Puritans?

Quick update: The Golden Globe nominations were announced this morning and "Brokeback Mountain" led with seven, inluding Best Picture, Drama.

You blogger gathering sounds like it was a whole lot of fun.

Please excuse my ignorance what is a sweat. Some kind of sauna? Your description of the return trip sounds stunning.

Puritan indeed? lol. I suspect not pure at all.
The opening line to this post was absolutely beautiful.
It is my belief the the early American Puritans were a lot like the Jewish Pharisees, who claimed they were without sin (although the contradictory truth was evident).
Your posts are always interesting!
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