The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A SHORT NOTE: My apologies for not posting more; besides being in the middle of a prolonged dry spell vis-à-vis ideas for these essays, the demands on my time at work have gotten frantic, for reasons I’m not sure I fathom. I mean, haven’t these people heard that libraries and all those who work in them are a thing of the past, an informational coelacanth like the Western Union telegram, papyrus scrolls, and the Pony Express, an analog institution thrust rudely aside by the triumph of the digital goddess, Web, and her high priest, Google? I am obsolete, as is the institution wherein I labor, so why are these people coming in here and annoying me with their damn questions? Go look it up on the Internet, damn it, and leave me alone!

Well, be that as it may, here is something from the archives to while away the time until I can think of something new. I have something on the burner, so to speak, but whether it actually pans out, to mix my metaphors thoroughly, is something else again. So enjoy; it's from April of last year; and I will back with you just as soon as I can with something new.

INSURANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS: James M. Cain, a much underrated writer, in my opinion, wrote in Double Indemnity, his classic story of love, murder, and getting what you prayed for and finding out that it's not what you wanted, that in a lot of ways the insurance business was a lot like casino gambling. Not in any flashy Vegas way, of course; I wouldn’t mind getting a good front row seat at a revue with beautiful showgirls wearing sequins and phony ostrich feathers and not much else every time I sent in a check for my car insurance, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will never happen; but rather the two resemble each other in that you and your insurance company are placing bets on the great roulette wheel of fate. You take out insurance because you know that bad things happen to people and you want protection from the consequences of those bad things; you’re betting that something awful is going to happen to you. The insurance company, on the other hand, is a giant slot machine willing to take your money because they’ve got rooms full of actuarial tables that analyze down to the minutest detail every possible thing that can go wrong in your life and frankly, no matter what your Aunt Irma tells you about her friend’s uncle’s best friend’s cousin down at the beauty shop, the bad thing you’re worried sick about isn’t likely to happen and would you kindly remember to write your policy number on your check, please, thank you very much.

Given the essentially sporting nature of their business one would think that insurance companies would employ a much happier set of people than they do. I can’t prove this scientifically, of course, but just from my personal observation over the years I’d say that insurance companies probably employ a higher percentage of humorless anal retentives than almost any other large American institution I can think of, including banking, the military, and the humanities department of any large university you could name off the top of your head, and if you think I’m overstating the case then try this: file a claim. Your friendly insurance agent is more than happy to take your money when you don’t need their help; your giving them a premium check fills them with a near ecstatic bonhomie and a love of their fellow man most touching to behold. Paying out on a claim, however, upsets their digestion, no small problem in a group so prone to constipation, and causes their skin to break out. You’d almost think that the pot of money they are sitting on belonged to them from the tenacious and usually unpleasant way they defend every penny in the pot. Having real croupiers, pit bosses, and casino managers would, I think, do wonders for the collective image of the insurance industry, since those guys know how to convince people that they are having a good time while handing over their hard earned money to complete strangers, and they know that every so often one of the suckers hits the jackpot. The people working in insurance these days make paying your premiums seem like what it is: another damn bill that’s got to be in the mail by the end of the month. I make the check out, I sign the check, I mail the check; let’s face it, at no point in this process am I having fun. Maybe if they sent me lottery tickets I wouldn’t mind giving them the money so much.

And the hoops they make you jump through to get what is, after all, your money, convinces many people who have legitimate claims to forego the opportunity to file a claim and to settle their problems themselves, an outcome that frankly causes some mixed emotions amongst insurance insiders: they are glad that you aren’t filing a claim since that leaves them with more money to invest in miniature golf courses in Miami Beach, but they also dislike the policyholders depriving them of the opportunity to drive your premiums through the metaphorical roof. I know this because the children’s librarian here in the egregious mold pit in which I while away the hours until my death sideswiped my car some years ago. When she came into the library to tell of this unfortunate event I immediately dashed out of the building, if you can call it dashing; I suspect most people would classify my actions that afternoon as more of a slightly animated slow mosey, my heart racing…well, more of a slight uptick, really, in gruesome anticipation of the horror without.

It wasn’t that bad, all in all, although I’ve rather unfairly used the damage as the basis of more than one guilt trip over the years, and I immediately called my insurance company to have them take a look at it. They sent a man out, a very nice fellow, as I remember, but he made it very clear very quickly that he wasn’t going to give me a red cent for the damage and that he regarded my even asking about it as an unconscionable waste of his valuable time, but he was nice about it, so I guess that counts for something these days. The children’s librarian, on the other hand, was utterly aghast that I’d said anything to an insurance company at all, her opinion of her insurance carrier not being something one can repeat in polite society or in front of children, and offered to pay to have the minimal damage to my car fixed out of her own pocket. I took her money, and no, I never did have the damage fixed; I spent the money on graduate school and a three volume edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I read volume one, but not the other two, and now I get this awful twinge of guilt whenever I look at those damned thick square books; she didn’t give me the money so I could indulge a loathsome taste for gladiatorial combat or to learn about the fetid and utterly decadent fever swamp of imperial politics in the declining centuries of Rome's greatness, with the Praetorians selling the Empire to the highest bidder as the Christians worshipped in the catacombs next to Rome's recently deceased without an air freshener or a can of Lysol spray nearby. But then I get over it—guilt, like caffeine, only works for so long before you’ve got to take another shot of it.

But almost all insurance people are positive party animals when compared to those sad and somber actuarial wretches who must peddle life insurance for their daily bread. Like cardcounting at a blackjack table, life insurance is the one area of the insurance casino where the advantage lies entirely with the policyholder; even with the best efforts of doctors and life insurance salesmen to dissuade them, the vast majority of people insist on dying. This is disheartening, to say the least, for your average life insurance peddler, who must constantly rethink his commitment to capitalism and the free market in the light of the millions of people willing to drop dead on the least pretext in order to get their hands on the insurance company’s money. Your insurance representative may, like the good neighbor, be there for you during the worst periods of your life, lending comfort and support to you, but he certainly doesn’t want to give you a check. Sympathy is one thing and a good thing too, after all, and has the added advantage of being free, but money is something else again, and who can tell what might happen to the life insurance business if the companies started handing out money to people because they’ve run into a prolonged bout of decomposition? The insurance-minded imagination boggles at the possibilities inherent in inanimation and its long-term effects on the company's bottom line.

The refusal of many in the life insurance business to admit that they will eventually have to pay off on all of those policies causes some odd behavior on occasion. The news that the life insurance companies spent millions of dollars a year on psychic research, especially in the field of spiritualism, did not surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the broad range of people in this country, if the opinion polls are anything to go by. If the life insurance companies can definitely prove the existence of an afterlife, that Mr. John Q. Public, recently deceased policyholder, is still alive, albeit on another spiritual plane, then there is no need to pay off on Mrs. Public’s claim. Alive in heaven or hell is still alive, after all, and your friendly life insurance company does not have to pay off if the deceased isn’t really deceased. That Mr. Public is, given his current circumstances, unable to pay his premiums every month is a shame, but not one that requires an insurance company to pay off on his wife’s claim.

What did surprise me was the extent to which the insurance companies’ support Christian Science and its missionary efforts. I suppose if you can convince enough people that death is an illusion then paying off on a claim becomes moot, since there is no death, only, as with the previously mentioned Mr. Public, a sudden and altogether unfortunate inability to pay one’s premiums in a timely manner. And when the existence of heaven and hell is finally proved, of course, this opens a whole new field for insurers: afterlife insurance, in which one pays a reasonable premium in this life in order to avoid the pain of hellfire in the next. This has the further advantage of turning insurance companies into religious organizations of a sort, and hence, tax-exempt entities, a prospect that will maximize profits and bring a smile to the lips and a song to the heart of even the most hard-hearted of insurance beancounters.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

AND SO: I should write something here, but I don't have anything written out and so I am just aimlessly slapping words down here left, right, and center with no real thought, just slapping them puppies down and hoping that sooner or later I get an idea for something. Yes, I am in a dry spell here, one of those awful periods of time in which I have no ideas for essays and all I can think of is the eggplant parmigiana I will have for supper when I finally leave here at eight tonight. Cheese, as it is wont to do, brings up something I heard yesterday at the deli where I usually get my lunch; a woman called in and ordered the meatball parmigiana hero with cheese, thereby causing a moment of cognitive dissonance for everyone in the deli. But other than that, I don't have any fresh ideas at the moment, so my apologies for not posting and wasting your time; I'm sure you didn't come here to listen to me kvetch. Maybe tomorrow or the next day I'll have something.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

THE ALA AND THE INDEPENDENT LIBRARY MOVEMENT: The trouble with being Orwellian, other than it doesn’t pay very well and requires the practitioner to wear some fairly unfashionable clothing in public, is that to do a proper job of it you can’t have the non-Orwellians pointing out to all and sundry just what it is you’re doing. In the Orwellian universe, life tends to go much more smoothly when the assembled multitudes of proles chanting the praises of Big Brother don’t think too much about what they’re saying. The mass bleats of war is peace, freedom is slavery, and buy term life insurance all work best when there is no smarmy troublemakers around to tell the multitudinous proles that they are spouting absolute rubbish. Hence the aggressiveness of the Orwellian state; for it to completely dominate its captive population the state must eliminate anyone or anything that might disturb the façade of lies, half-lies, and intimidation such states rely on to maintain their control. In a society like ours, however, the Orwellian faces an entirely different problem: there are all too many people willing to point out that they are spouting nonsense. Mr. Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, learned this the hard way in San Antonio last month.

Before I go on, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention, for those of you who don’t know this already, that I am a librarian, a real one, complete with the master’s degree from an ALA-accredited university, so let’s not have any semantic quibbles here, and that for years I was a dues-paying member of the ALA. I never ran for an ALA office and I was content to support the organization’s good work in fighting censorship and to get a better deal for American librarians. I left the organization a few years ago because of the ALA’s constant support of every left-wing position on every political issue that came down the pike, issues that often had nothing to do with libraries, librarians, and librarianship, and its willful blindness on an issue that did. That issue is the independent library movement in Cuba.

If there is any personality quirk that distinguishes the Orwellian from the broad mass of their fellow creatures it is this: the ability to believe both parts of an oxymoron equally. You can see this mindset at work in the ALA’s position on the Cuban independent libraries. The ALA, which stands foursquare against any parent who wants to remove the works of Judy Blume or Mark Twain from their school library will say nothing, do nothing that publicizes the plight of the independent librarians, first, because they are not “real” librarians, second, these libraries are not “real” libraries, and third, there is no censorship of library books in Cuba. That’s right, there is no censorship of library books in Cuba; you read it here first, folks.

To return to Mr. Gorman and his discomfiture, non-Orwellian reality came in the person of Andrei Codrescu, who gave a speech at the ALA’s Midwinter Conference in San Antonio. In his speech, which you can read here, Mr. Codrescu defended the independent librarians and compared Castro’s Cuba with the Ceaucescu dictatorship in Mr. Codrescu’s native Romania, blasting the ALA’s position on this issue as hypocritical. To say that this has put the ALA’s institutional knickers in a twist is something of an understatement; the grand panjandrums who run the ALA are not used to having their good opinion of themselves disturbed.

In replying to a letter from Robert Kent, the co-chair of Friends of Cuban Libraries, Mr. Gorman breezily dismisses Mr. Kent’s concerns about the independent library movement, as well as the concerns about the movement from such “foaming right wingers” as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Cornel West, and Nat Hentoff. Mr. Gorman goes on to say that he is “old-fashioned enough to think it is both rude and devious to accept an invitation to speak on a topic and use the opportunity to attack your host.” Mr. Gorman’s statement is perhaps scarier than he may realize. The supporters of the American library as an institution must wonder what sort of future can there be for the library when the organization created to defend it and the traditions of free speech, free expression, and free thought that it embodies cannot or will not recognize the vicious assault on all of these traditions occurring a scant one hundred miles from the United States. The very idea that an organization dedicated to protecting a person’s right to read what they want should play lapdog to a tyrant who holds the basic mission of that organization in undisguised contempt is nothing short of sickening. And yet this Orwellian situation is the reality facing American librarians today, and those of us in the profession must wonder if the ALA’s commitment to the principles espoused in the Library Bill of Rights* is absolute or merely conditional, that condition being support for a leftist ideology. It is difficult, at best, to credit the ALA’s commitment to the value of free expression when it so willingly looks the other way when the Cuban government tramples that same value underfoot.

And the American Library Association is looking the other way. The first step in the ALA’s willful blindness is semantic: the Cuban independent librarians are not “real” librarians, which is to say, they do not have a master’s degree in library or information science, and therefore do not merit our concern. This, frankly, is baloney piled on top of balderdash and garnished with poppycock. As Mr. Kent quite rightly points out in his letter, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress and the man who runs the largest library in the world, does not have a library degree; Dr. Billington is a professor of Russian history. Neither does the president of the National Library of Cuba, Eliades Acosta, nor does the president of the New York Public Library, Paul Leclerc, for that matter—Dr. Leclerc is a professor of French literature—and yet I would assume that the ALA believes that the organizations these three men head are “real libraries” worthy of its respect despite the fact that none of their leaders has a library degree.

Second, the independent libraries are not worth of the ALA’s notice because they are not “real libraries.” This, of course, brings up the whole question of just what constitutes a library. A warehouse full of books is not a library, and neither is a bookstore, although I am willing to go along with the notion that if bookstores are not libraries, they are the next best thing, and neither is; what make a library different is that the materials in the library are for use, to slightly paraphrase S. R. Ranganathan. Providing the user with what they want is the driving force of the library as an institution, and since many library patrons have an incomplete idea of what they want, and since one idea often leads to another, the library helps when it can provide the broadest possible range of materials available on a subject, which stands at odds with the Cuban government’s belief that it and only it is the sole arbiter of what the Cuban people ought to think about any given subject. Not everyone in Cuba agrees with this, however, and if a library is a collection of materials organized for the use of the patrons before it is anything else, then it does not matter if these books are housed in the architectural glories of the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library or in a private home, and it does not matter if the person who organizes those materials for the patrons to use has a degree in library science from a ALA-accredited university or simply the love of reading: that place is a library and that person is a librarian.

Then there is the third reason for the ALA’s disinclination to say anything about the Cuban independent library movement: it is unnecessary, because there is no censorship of library books in Cuba. The ALA knows this because the association’s former president, John W. Berry, went to Cuba in 2001 and 2002 at the head of two ALA sponsored missions and could find no evidence of censorship in Cuba’s libraries. Every so often, I find, that clearing your mind of the daily hurly-burly and returning to basic principles help me see past the tumult of events and understand what is actually going on around me. In this case, one must ask, who actually rules Cuba? The answer, as we all know, is Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party, a self-selected nomenklatura with no interest in sharing political power with anyone outside their group. This group maintains itself in power by rigorously controlling every aspect of Cuban life, both private and political, and by a constant surveillance of the country’s population, treating any tendency, thought, or word that does not support the government’s hold on power as counterrevolutionary and therefore something they should punish harshly, which, of course, is exactly what happened to the independent librarians. In 2003, the Cuban government arrested seventy-five librarians, sentencing them to terms of twenty-eight years in Castro’s prisons, and this in a country, Mr. Berry assures us, that does not censor library books.

As for Mr. Berry’s charge that “there is some evidence that it’s really the U.S. Interests Section” behind the library movement, and the United States is involved in a plan “to destabilize the Cuban government”, well, I’ve checked my calendar and it says 2006, not 1962, and I am reasonably certain that John and Robert Kennedy are still dead. Mr. Berry does not define what he means by “some evidence;” if he means that the Interests Section is handing out books to the independent librarians then what of it? There is no censorship of library books in Cuba; I know this because Mr. Berry tells me so, and he went to Cuba twice in order to find it; and so the Cuban government shouldn’t care one way of the other whether or not if the populace is reading the Spanish language translation of The Federalist Papers or Stephen King’s newest shocker or an examination of the Cuban political system by someone with no vested interest in whether that system survives or not.

And who provided Mr. Berry with the “some evidence” of American nefariousness? If he got the information from the American Interests Section in Havana then why doesn’t he say so? Or could it be that his source is the Cuban government, which is hardly a disinterested party here? And why would the United States want to destabilize Cuba? Fidel Castro is the avatar of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch, the ancient dictator of a sclerotic dictatorship, one of the last true believers in an obsolete and disproved 19th century economic theory now going the way other such 19th century quackeries as phrenology and the Welsh origins of the American Indians, a tyrant whose grip on power the United States helps, not hinders, with this long-lasting embargo. Without the embargo, the Cuban government would have no reason to curtail the individual liberties of the island’s citizens, no excuse for fifty years of economic and political mismanagement, no excuse, period. The embargo provides Castro and his minions with an all purpose excuse for their failures to make good on the promises of the Cuban Revolution; if the United States government really wanted to destabilize the Cuban government then it would lift the embargo tomorrow and to do so unilaterally; any attempt to negotiate the embargo away with the Cuban government will always falter—the leaders of that country know better than anyone just how much they need to keep the embargo in place in order to deflect popular discontent away from themselves. So no, Mr. Berry’s contention that it is all the fault of the evil gringos doesn’t wash, and his statement that there is no censorship in Cuban libraries goes beyond the incredibly absurd into the actually insulting. A totalitarian state, by definition, accepts that there is no source of truth outside itself, and cannot accept that the people have a right to access information that may contradict the state’s version of the truth; in order for the proles to believe that freedom is slavery, there can be no one to tell them that this is not so.

For those who wish to learn something about this situation, please follow this link to the Friends of Cuban Libraries website. Mr. Kent has a collection of articles and other information about the Cuban independent library movement and the hypocrisy of the ALA in its dealings with that movement, as well as its craven sucking up to the dictatorship in Cuba. This is, for me, perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this whole sorry business. The ALA once stood for the protection of the right to free thought and expression everywhere; today leftist ideology and hypocrisy rule at ALA headquarters in Chicago, and the American public must sit and listen to this organization constantly whine about nonexistent threats to American liberties from the present Administration while ignoring and then excusing the actual crushing of Cuban liberties. If you are a member of the ALA and you do not like where the association is heading, then I strongly urge you not to renew your membership. Once it becomes clear to the leadership that they and their chumminess with Fidel Castro is causing disaffection among the people they claim to speak for, then perhaps there can be some positive change in the association; losing members and their dues is a sure fire way of getting the attention of almost any organization.

I'd like to thank Mr. Kent for bringing this latest information to my attention; I have written about the independent library movement previously, but to be honest, I haven't kept up with the situation, and again thanks to Randy at Beautiful Horizons, for the mention and for getting the word out about this issue.

*Library Bill of Rights
The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.


Adopted June 18, 1948, by the ALA Council; amended February 2, 1961; January 23, 1980; inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

THE SPECTER OF CRIME IN THE STREETS: Crime is down here in our happy little burg, if you can believe what you read in the newspapers. That is usually a dangerous thing to do, I know, but in this case what I read in the papers and what I see around me every day seem to coincide: crime really is going down. Of course, the crime rate here in our happy little burg was never that high to begin with; we are a fairly law-abiding place, with our mountains and the river serving us in the office of a wall against the envy of less happy little burgs. We have a few troublemakers and congenital miscreants, and what small place does not have their quota of such riff and raff, but they are no more active than they need to be and the local constables know them all by name, and so they do little more than supply the police blotter of our local weekly newspaper with plenty of copy and be a source of permanent embarrassment to their family and friends. So the average citizen here should not be surprised when he sees the chief of police trumpeting the good news as if the Messiah had arrived in Jerusalem and was taking reservations for dinner and dancing at that city’s finest hotel, but we should take his claims that the drop is the result of his new crime-fighting strategies with more than the usual amount of salt reserved for such announcements. The truth of the matter is that the chief’s new crime-fighting strategies have had little or nothing to do with the drop in crime here; his fiscal policies, on the other hand, have had a lot to do with it. That’s because the chief shops at Target.

The success of Target’s private security force in solving crimes is gaining a great deal of notice in the media these days, especially since the retail giant has helped numerous local police departments throughout the country with their investigations. The ability of Target’s undercover operatives to spot a shoplifter at seventy-five yards is nothing short of uncanny and their ability to perform surveillance on everything that goes on in their stores, everything that goes on in their parking lots, and everything that goes on in the homes of anyone who has ever bought anything at Target is nothing less than astounding, as well as being a great asset to local law enforcement agencies who would not otherwise be able to perform such surveillance themselves.

As a result of the demand for Target’s services, other retailers are now trying to get into the market. Sears has already announced that they will be providing a full range of investigative services next year, including homicide and armed robbery investigations. Macy’s is already in the crime market with a full product line of specialty investigations that emphasize crimes committed during the January white sales. But as yet, despite the interest and the example of Target, Sears, and Macy’s, most retailers are eying the crime market cautiously. Bloomingdales, for example, planned to get into white collar crime, stock fraud, and real estate fraud early next year, but after a board meeting late last year the chairman put those plans on hold; an in-house study showed that investigating and convicting people responsible for these crimes would cut sharply into Bloomingdale’s corps of loyal New York City customers and so the chairman of the board dropped the whole idea pending further thought. For most retailers, however, the whole question of this market comes down to what Wal-Mart intends to do.

At the moment, no one can say if America’s largest retailer has any immediate plans to enter the crime market; the corporation is not saying much about the subject one way or the other, which is disquieting for other, smaller retailers. No one wants to spend the money needed to make a play for a share of this market if Wal-mart intends to get into law enforcement in a big way, so faced with the frightening prospect of the biggest kid on the block taking away their market share, many smaller retailers are developing specialty crime-fighting skills in order to dominate niche markets that Wal-mart and the other large retailers may overlook. Filene’s, for example, is looking for opportunities in stock fraud and prostitution, Barnes & Noble has already moved quietly into bank robbery and arson for hire, and the deli where I buy my lunch everyday is setting up its own coroner’s unit, which reminds me that I should avoid buying their roast pork sandwiches—there’s no telling what’s going into those sandwiches these days.

Still, the introduction of market forces into a traditionally public sector area cannot help but drive down crime as it becomes more profitable to solve crimes than commit them. Given that there will always be a certain demand for these services, human nature being what it is, companies that make the plunge into this market should never fear that they will lose their shirts entirely even if Wal-mart decides to get into the market; there is enough business here for everyone, it seems.
I should hope so, but you can never tell these days, what with the young undead wanting to hang out in bars all night long. That sort of lifestyle just sets a bad example for the young, I think, but then I'm a bit oldfashioned. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

SOUND OFF: This being a free country and all, I figure I’m as entitled to my opinion the same as the next guy, so I’m going to take this opportunity to bloviate a little, if you don’t mind. There’s a great fight going on these days and some of the people you’d expect to be in the forefront of this struggle are surprisingly AWOL. The question facing Western civilization these days goes beyond the multicultural let’s-be-inclusive politically correct pap we’ve all been listening to for I don’t know how many years now. It goes beyond whether or not you find those Danish cartoons funny or in poor taste. Muslims throughout the world have responded to the publication of those cartoons by boycotting Danish products, denouncing Denmark in the media, and demonstrating outside of Danish embassies and consulates. All of this is, to my mind, legitimate protest; one need only remember the reaction to Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ,' Martin Scorsese’s 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' and Chris Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ to know that the faithful of all religious persuasions dislike the idea of having their beliefs mocked or the idea that they should simply sit back and accept these insults without a fight. What any society, however, cannot accept is the threat and use of violence to enforce any one religion’s dogmas as civil law on those people who do not accept that religion’s doctrines. And yet, many of the people whom you would think would never under any circumstances accept a confessional exception for the tenets of Christianity or Judaism in the law seem fully willing to accept such an exception for Islam.

And why is that? There are many reasons, but the simplest one is the easiest to understand, and has the benefit of truth as well: they are frightened; they don’t want an Islamic rent—a—mob sacking their offices and harming their families, co-workers, and friends. Who are the they I am talking about here? The media, for one, which is censoring itself in a manner it would not dream of doing for Catholic or evangelical protestors, and seems more interested in playing gotcha with the Administration over the Vice-President's hunting accident that in showing the American people what the cause of all the rioting is. Not one major media outlet that I am aware of has actually published these cartoons, and I think it is a strange commentary on the American press that their main objection to this accident is that the White House did not stroke their outsized egos as much as they would have liked. The artists and Hollywood celebrities for another, who cannot wait to give us their opinions about everything under the sun whether we want to hear them or not, but who seem very quiet in the face of this blatant attempt to blackjack Danish press and artistic expression and leave it bleeding in the gutter. Where are the celebrators of transgressive art in this controversy? These are the same folks who can’t wait for some representative of the Catholic League to denounce their latest transgressive piece of dreck in order to gin up some interest in their work, but in this matter they find that there’s nothing to be said, nothing to be done, please go away and leave us alone; what you say may be true, but first we must cultivate our gardens.

This, I think, is not something I’m sure I believe: a few Danish cartoonists create the most brilliantly transgressive art of our young century, and the local purveyors of such art have nothing to say about it, preferring, no doubt, to find new ways of dipping crucifixes in bodily waste. This is all very far indeed from Voltaire’s cry of Ecrasez l’infame (Crush the infamy!) and Flaubert’s dictum that the job of the artist is to epater le bourgeois (shock the middle-classes). When Voltaire spoke of crushing the infamy of superstition, the Roman Catholic Church in France was as powerful in is way as the state itself, and equally interested in using the temporal power of the state to enforce Catholic religious teaching and dogma as the law of the land; the law forbade anyone from questioning the doctrines of the Church and blasphemy was as foul a crime as murder. And yet, Voltaire attacked the Church again and again, using his wit and invective to stir men’s minds against the dead weight of centuries of dogma and to get people to think for themselves.

Today, however, we have artists who want to be transgressive, but only if that gets them a show in a expensive gallery in SoHo, or, barring that, in some hot new edgy place like Beacon, and afterwards a nice wine and cheese party and then a good review in the New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section. Today, we have artists who want to crush the infamy, but only if the infamy provides some buzz for their work; today, we have artists who want to shock the bourgeoisie as much as Flaubert did, but not if the bourgeoisie close their checkbooks first and go home. No one wants to deal with maniacal critics willing to use riot and intimidation in order to protect what they deem holy. Today, we seem to have a media and an arts establishment utterly unwilling to show the American people what the fuss is all about and equally unwilling to say anything in defense of the very freedoms that make their livelihoods possible. It was easy for the media and the artists and the limousine liberals to criticize the Catholic Church’s objections to a painting of the Blessed Virgin that came complete with a lump of elephant dung and photographs of female pudenda cut from porno magazines, and talk about what a brave thing this was for the artist and the Brooklyn Art Museum to do in the face of Rudy Giuliani’s threats to cut the museum’s tax support, but in the face of Islamic mob violence these same people are saying nothing, doing nothing.

I wonder if this apathy in the face of real danger is because we are a softer people than we once were. Once upon a time, people knew that taking a moral stand meant taking a risk. In the past few months, the nation has lost Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, both of whom knew that tyranny does not crumble easily and that bringing down such tyranny may cost you everything and everyone you love. In the past few months, Jack Anderson passed away, a man who dedicated his life to uncovering what actually went on in Washington, D.C. and bringing the secret into the public light, so that the American people could judge for themselves what their representatives were doing in their names, despite the pressure from the politically powerful to keep what he knew to himself. None of these people thought that what they were trying to accomplish would be risk free, or that those who stood to lose the most if the old dispensation were to join Marxism in the dustbin of history would go quietly into that good night. But they stayed in the fight, they stayed and fought for what they believed in. We don’t seem to do this anymore, we seem to say, as we often do about marriage, that this is for better or forget it, forgetting, as we make light of ourselves, that there are others watching.

Yes, there are others watching, for whom freedom of expression is a blasphemy, who believe, as St. Augustine did, that error has no rights, and everything not found in an ancient Arabic text is unworthy of existence. Perhaps the Caliph Omar did not order the destruction of the great library at Alexandria in the seventh century by saying that if the books in the library agreed with the Koran then they were superfluous, and therefore not necessary and could be destroyed, and if they disagreed with the Koran they were heresy, and therefore harmful and should be destroyed forthwith, but his co-religionists of today deeply believe that this is nothing more or less than the truth, and that even unbelievers must accept the dictates of the Prophet and the ummah, if they know what is good for them. These people will do everything in their power to reduce the corrupt and decadent West, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, and its will to resist the coming of the True Faith, and there are more than a few of those people Lenin once called useful idiots willing to help them along. We see this in the anxious kowtowing to the notion that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance when we see every day that it is not; we see this in the twisting of news and language so as to avoid offending always sensitive Muslim sensibilities, and we see this in the playing up of Western mistakes and the playing down of Muslim ones. Robert Frost once famously defined a liberal as a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. We, it seems to me, no longer want to take our own side in this argument, that we are content to let the Danes fight the good fight for freedom of expression. And if they fail, if they buckle under to the threats of mob violence, then what of it? What is Denmark to us, or we to Denmark, that we should trouble ourselves for them?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

RACING STORY: All right, I need to say something here. Unlike some people I could mention here, and you know who you are, don’t you, I don’t get a lot of play out of my penis. It’s not that I have anything against my penis except for my boxers; it’s just that my penis is simply not as articulate as some other people’s penises. Like all penises, my penis tends to be slightly autistic and somewhat shy, and consequently it didn’t do as well in school as it might have done. Being both shy and learning disabled, my penis beat a hasty retreat from most social interaction, finding that this was the fastest and easiest way to avoid the humiliation that comes with pubic exposure. This tended to put a crimp in my social life, which is important when you are young, but nowadays I find social life something of a grind and I try to avoid sociability whenever I can.

I think the penis thinks more or less along the same lines these days. When you’re young, of course, a penis is a wonderful way to have a good time, but as middle age creeps up on you other things start to grow in importance and the penis’s needs tend to take second place to the priorities of work, family, and how you’re going to pay the electric bill and the kids’ tuition this month, so at this point the penis and I have agreed to more or less live amicably together, but our lives are more or less separate at this point. It was not always thus, of course, but time passes and the caravan moves on, as they say.

The penis, however, retains its power to embarrass, but this does not happen very often anymore and the last time it did happen the whole unfortunate matter was not the penis’ fault; I should have known better. A few years ago, the brothers and me set off for Saratoga during the racing season. I don’t usually go along on these fraternal debauches; it’s not that I don’t like my brothers, far from it; it’s just that I have never seen the point of gambling. If I go to a bookstore and give them money, I get a book in return, and both they and I are happy and content. If I go to a racetrack or buy a lottery ticket and my horse does not come in, then I am out the money with nothing to show for it. This means that I, a person who is usually happy and content as only a confirmed pessimist can be, is neither happy nor content, but rather surly and snappish, and therefore rude to small children who can’t beat me up.

Be that as it may, however, I suspect that the invitation to Saratoga had less to do with some brotherly guilt at leaving me behind—they all remember in detail the time I decided that I was sick of having little brothers and ditched them all in the toy department of Alexander’s Department Store when we were all little kids, and then tried to tell my mother that they’d run off to join the Marines. My mother did not believe this excuse for a moment; she thought it unlikely that the Marines would accept three recruits ages five, three, and two, even at the height of the Vietnam War. Maybe I would have had better luck if I’d said the French Foreign Legion, but at the time I didn’t know such an organization even existed or if the Legion spent much time trolling through department stores in the Bronx searching for underaged recruits; than it did with my knowing the way to Saratoga, having attended a library conference there once a few years ago.

I delivered the brothers and the sister-in-law to the racetrack, where they left me to my own devices while they bet money they couldn’t afford on horses that would be dog food by the end of the year. I stood by the fifty dollar window and watched the races on the giant Jumbotron screen located in the track’s infield directly opposite, and as I stood there I started to think about the one hundred and one other things I could be doing instead of standing by the fifty dollar window thinking that I’d just driven eighty something miles just to stand on this bare concrete floor and watch television.

The less said about such nonsense the better, I think, after they had lost the last of their money and told each other how much fun they’d had losing it, we all went to the sister-in-law’s aunt’s house for supper and libation. The aunt was ready for our enthusiastic crew of unsuccessful horseplayers, with plates of food, desserts, wine, soft drinks, and great conversation in abundance for everyone. Looking over the tables groaning with food and drink, I was happy for the first time all day, and I sat down to enjoy this Lucullan feast just as any hearty trencherman would. I partook copiously of the food and drink, skipping the wine and beer; I was, after all, the designated driver for one part of this merry expedition. Steak, pizza, lasagna, sausages and peppers, garlic bread, cherry pie, apple pie, and pineapple upside down cake all disappeared down the gullet with the swiftness of embezzlers caught in mid-audit, and all of the above washed down by a tidal wave of Coca-Cola Classic, then the beverage of choice. I was the happiest of happy campers when we finally left the aunt’s domicile, intent on returning to our happy little burg just as soon as possible.

Then things started to go wrong. Before I go on with this, permit me to say that my brother’s stories of what happened tend towards the exaggerated, if not the utterly hyperbolic. Yes, I did point out to another motorist that I had the right of way in the lane I was traveling in; I don’t think anyone who looks objectively at the facts can really dispute this, but I did not accelerate, drive up onto the sidewalk and down a block just to make sure I cut him off at the next light. I don’t know how or why he came up with this story, but it is definitely not true in all of its particulars. Neither is it true that I screamed obscenities at other motorists, back up on a crowded highway at sixty miles an hour to get back to a missed exit, or try to run down a group of kids who didn’t get out the crosswalk fast enough to suit me. I’ll have you know that I’ve only gotten two tickets in my entire life and I have an excellent driving safety record, no matter what the brother says.

I did miss a couple of exits, though, that much is true, and missing them perturbed me deeply, since I don’t like driving at night on roads I hadn’t driven on in at least ten years, and that the idiot in the next lane kept blocking me whenever I tried to get over into the right hand lane to catch my exit did not improve my mood any; his blocking began to irritate me no end and I contemplated the risks of simply smashing into his side and forcing him off the road entirely. My brother, however, believed this a bit extreme, and suggested instead that we take the Massachusetts Turnpike to that thoroughfare’s intersection with the Taconic State Parkway and then take the Taconic south to hearth and home. This seemed an ideal suggestion, though I hadn’t thought the brother still capable of rational thought after all the wine and beer he’d imbibed with his dinner, but a good suggestion is a good suggestion, no matter what its source, and soon we were heading east towards New England.

The drive went well, I thought; we didn’t miss our exit this time around and the drive south was fairly mundane, except for the guy who passed us going north in the southbound lane; the brother and I both thought that somewhat odd, to tell the truth. We had just crossed over the Columbia County line into Dutchess County, home of Vassar College, the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States, when we began to acknowledge that we, or rather, I, had a problem.

The problem, of course, was the full spread awaiting us at the aunt’s house, as well as the large amount of junk food I’d already eaten at the racetrack. I mean, if you don’t gamble, and I don’t, then the only thing for you to do at a racetrack is to consume the overpriced food and drink, said food and drink being high in sugar, salt, fat, and carbohydrates, four of my favorite things in the world. Now, I know that many of you, remembering my youthful misadventure with a statue of the Blessed Mother, have already jumped to your conclusions and said that I should have gone before I left Saratoga. The trouble is, I did. I am also pretty sure that some of you who have been reading these rants for some time now are scratching your heads at the descriptions of gluttony written above and saying to each other, isn’t he a diabetic? How can he stuff his face with all of that crap and still be alive? It’s silly for him to take chances with his health like that, you know. I agree, it was silly to take those kinds of chances with my health, but at the time I didn’t know I was taking any chances; I was, like a good many people with my problem, undiagnosed. So I dug in and fed like a pig at a trough, armored in my own ignorance. My penis, however, knew the full extent of my problem and tried to warn me of the dangers, but, as I said previously, we’d more or less drifted apart over the years and I no longer paid much attention to what it had to say about anything. I should have known better, and I have no excuses for not knowing better; I chose to ignore the penis' warnings.

The drive south was, as I’ve said, largely uneventful save for the wrong way driver and a growing urge to go to the bathroom. I thought little of the problem, deciding that I could wait till I got home to relieve myself. I totally ignored the warning signals my penis sent me, which was a big mistake. The penis, while not the liveliest wit in a social situation, has many interests, including stamp collecting, Spanish language and culture, pinochle, and medicine, a subject he reads widely in. The penis knew, as I did not, that diabetes derives from a Greek word for a spout, and that while I was not a little teapot short and stout; I am six feet tall, too large for any teapot designed for home usage; I was filling up like a teapot at full boil. My ongoing efforts to ignore the problem did not work, and I shortly had to tell my brother that I was stopping the car. I tried to tell him this in as calm and collected a tone as I could manage under the circumstances, and then tried to put the car in park while it was still moving at fifty miles an hour. The resounding metallic screeching sound that resulted roused him from his drunken stupor and he demanded to know what the hell I thought I was doing.

I’d like to say here to all the inhabitants of North Carolina that I am sure the Tarheel State is a fine place to live and I would like to assure all of you that New York is a fine place to visit and spend your tourist dollars. Just remember that accidents do sometimes occur here, just as they must occur in Raleigh or Asheville or Charlotte or the Great Dismal Swamp, for that matter, and that sometimes these accidents are an unavoidable part of life, and that wanting to help your fellow man is a noble thing and something that society should foster, even in the face of the occasional negative reaction from those whom we would assist. There may be factors involved that you are unaware of in the situation; there are no omniscient human beings, after all, except for my mother; I know that because she told me so.

I say this because I’m sure those people from North Carolina meant well when they pulled up in front of my car. The Taconic is singularly devoid of lights for most of its length, and so I am sure that we must have looked like stranded wayfarers to these good people. I am not a Randian objectivist—I believe that altruism is a good thing when altruism is a personal response to a situation and not a government requirement—but the fact of the matter was that I did not want them to stop at all; rationally explaining to a good Samaritan that you do not really need their help while trying to relieve yourself is not the easiest thing in the world to do, and this is that much harder to do when your urinary system is performing the biological equivalent of the Johnstown flood. Like that disaster, there was no turning this flood off in order to politely explain that no, I did not need any assistance, thank you very much; there would be no quick shoving of the penis back into the trousers and then telling them to please move on, there was nothing to see here. No, the sphincter was wide open now and there was half digested sugar water backed up all the way into the kidneys and beyond, and I would have to stay rooted to the spot until my urinary tract was empty.

No, the disaster was general and ongoing, well beyond the ability of any normal sphincter to control, and so I had to wave one arm at a time behind my back to indicate to these people that I did not need their help. They, however, did not get the message. The window on the passenger’s side came down and a woman’s voice said something; it may have been, do you need a hand, but I wasn’t really paying attention. You may imagine for yourself how profoundly embarrassing such a moment can be and things were only going to get worse, as hard as that may be to believe.

You may not know this, but embarrassment and profound humiliation last for only a short time, and then having to experience these emotions makes you angry. There is only so much embarrassment you can take before you become enraged at the person putting you through this ordeal and I was no exception to this rule. I started screaming at these people to leave, to kindly get lost, to go to hell by the shortest route available, while at the same time questioning the South’s moral right to exist, what with their genetic predisposition to mate with close female relatives and their fondness for intimate contact with barnyard animals. Unfortunately, none of these insults seemed to make an impression on my would be saviors, and the light came on in their car and I was under the impression that the driver was about to pop out any second now with a cheery howdy do, neighbor, need a hand here? I tried to put an end to the urinary flood, to dam up the works, as it were, but to no avail, so I could tell this yahoo to go pound salt in as polite a tone as I could manage under the circumstances. This was not to be. My sphincter, an otherwise witty and intelligent muscle with no vices I know of beyond a tendency to hum Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana over and over again in a singularly monotonous tone of voice, refused to cooperate, and the flood proceeded as before. This weighed on my mind, causing me to lose sight of common courtesy, goading my rage and humiliation on to ever-greater heights. Finally, I could bear the psychic weight of this oppression no longer, and I turned and charged the helpless Tarheels, shrieking oaths, imprecations, and anathemas while soaking their vehicle with urine, my genitalia flapping wildly about like a gushing fire hose with no one holding the nozzle.
Needless to say, the Tarheels fled, their vehicle tearing away from the side of the road in a cloud of pebbles, grass and other roadside debris.

At length, the flood finally crested and subsided, leaving me with a terrible sense of shame for having so shabbily treating those poor people and for humiliating myself and the Empire State. My brother had sat in the car the whole time, watching the sequence of events unfold the same way nightmares unfold as we dream, slowly, conscious of impending catastrophe, but unable to avert the coming doom. We traveled on from there in silence, as men who have lived through a great trauma will, and as soon as I pulled my car into my driveway he informed me that he was never, ever, not under any circumstances then or forever after imaginable going to ride in a car with me at the wheel ever again. He still tells stories about that night, and I always point out that he got home safely, didn’t he, but I must say that the one thing I do regret about those events is what I said and did to those poor family from North Carolina. I do hope they will come back to New York someday. New York is a beautiful state with a host of interesting things for people to do, and I would hate to think that anyone would not come back here simply because I was having a bad day. We’re not all crazy here, you know, and the insulin does help a lot.
THE TIES THAT BIND: Turnabout is always a philosophical good; everyone like fair play and the golden rule and all that sort of thing, and as that great philosopher Yogi Berra once put it, if you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours. This is true, of course, and people die in sufficient numbers so that there’s always a funeral to go to if you really feel the need; funerals are a lot like the movies in that way. You go to the same few places to see basically the same thing over and over again, and while the feature may be different each time you go, there’s a certain comfort in seeing how much stays the same. I read once that there are only twenty or so basic plots to cover every story you can imagine, and yet the differences between Melville’s Moby Dick and Proust's A la recherché du temps perdu are so great you can hardly imagine you can describe them both as novels, and yet you can, if you are sufficiently unimaginative enough, and let’s face it, most people are unimaginative enough.

I bring this up because I have received an invitation to a wake and funeral of a person I did not know and, as far as I can tell, I never met in my, or her, life. The dead woman’s nephew, a somewhat addled young man who is a connoisseur of the gorier sort of horror film and a long-time supporter of the egregious mycological slough wherein I labor for my daily bread, called and invited me to the wake this coming Saturday. To be honest, I had never heard of anyone actually trying to drum up business for a wake before, but there is a first time for everything under heaven, to paraphrase the Preacher, and I suppose he is trying to give the aunt a good sendoff, which is very nice of him, I think. It speaks well for someone that they think that much of their relatives to make sure they get a nice wake and funeral; I strongly suspect most of my relatives would just as soon stuff my carcass into some heavy duty trash bags and bury me in the back yard next to the dog before dividing everything in the house up between themselves. I also strongly suspect some of them wouldn’t mind doing that right now while I am still among the quick, if only they could avoid the twenty-five years to life sentence up in Attica that came along with dumping me into a hole next to the dog. I liked that dog, too.

The trouble here is that I don’t like going to wakes and funerals, which is odd because most Irish-Americans love this sort of thing, since it’s a chance to pay your condolences to the widow and to gloat over outliving the poor dumb bastard stuffed in the box, and maybe get some free drinks after the funeral. I’m all in favor of free drinks; if you can get them then more power to you, that’s my opinion; but free drinks or not, I don’t see why I should go to the funeral of someone I don’t even know, with or without the invitation, and whose family will shake my hand as I offer my condolences and say, who are you? I mean, who am I really offending here, anyway? These people won’t come to my wake, and even if they did, how would I know? It’s not like I can check the guest book afterwards, can I? I don’t even like going to the wakes and funerals I have to go to, which have been mercifully few and far between these past few years. I didn’t even want to go to my father’s funeral and I would have skipped going if there was any honorable way to get out of going, which there wasn’t, I’m afraid. So I went, if only to please my mother and to make sure that the various aunts, uncles, cousins, and other assorted mountebanks assembled for the festivities didn’t make off with my tie.

My father disliked wearing ties and for the last few years of his life he owned only one, a long red thing that looks like the bow off of a wrapped Christmas present. He hadn’t worn the thing in years, which is just as well since he didn’t own a suit that went with it. My mother wanted him to wear a tie that matched his suit, demanded such a tie, in fact, as if the fashion police were going to swoop down on the funeral parlor and arrest the lot of us for committing such an egregious fashion no no on a poor defenseless dead man. I pointed out to my mother that no one cared if we buried Pop with in clashing colors, but she would have none of this and demanded that I provide the tie immediately. So she marched into my room and pulled the first matching tie she saw out of my closet, a nice blue Italian silk tie that cost me fifty dollars down in the city. I offered her another one that looked just as good, matched just as well, and cost me ten dollars on sale at Burlington Coat Factory, but she said no, this one is fine. Realizing that I was going to get nowhere with her while she was in this frame of mind, I took aside the funeral director and told him that I wanted the tie back before the funeral. I love my father, make no mistake about it, but I didn’t spend fifty dollars on a blue silk tie just so this undertaker could drop it and my old man into a hole and cover them with dirt.

I went to the wake and to the funeral Mass the next day; I had to—I could see the assembled relations plotting to make off with my tie. It became very clear very quickly that if I was going to get my tie back and my father was to get the funeral he deserved then I would have to stay near the coffin to make sure none of these miscreants got near enough to my father to snatch the tie from around his neck. So, I was the perfect son, greeting the people who came to pay their condolences to my father, never leaving my mother’s side or letting the coffin and the tie out of my sight for one second during the whole ordeal.

There were a couple of close calls; I spotted one cousin trying to work the tie over my father’s head while our parish priest said the Our Father; I had to hit him surreptitiously with a vase full of lilies, and he apologized for his few weeks later after the stitches came out. I also spotted an uncle I have no use for fingering the tie and looking nervously around to see if anyone was watching him. He saw that I had my eye on him, and he came over to ask me how I was holding up and what a terrible shame my father’s passing was, but he wasn’t fooling me, the two bit goniff; he had larceny on his mind and he’d have snatched that tie if I wasn’t there watching him like a hawk.

Irony, however, was going to have its way with me, however. In the end, I wasn’t able to get my tie back; my mother wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted that my father rest in piece with my fifty dollar tie around his neck; the funeral director apparently told her about my plans for neckwear retrieval on the evening before the funeral and she was, as they say, utterly aghast at my proposal. I argued that I was not tossing Pop into a hole or anything like that, which would have been wrong, if much cheaper; I just wanted my tie back. There was a question of principle involved here, I thought; I had given the funeral director the tie on the condition that I would get it back shortly, not on the Day of Judgment, where it will do me no good. My mother insisted, insisted and wept and used the vast reservoirs of guilt all Roman Catholic children have against me until I surrendered the tie in perpetuity.

That was a deeply emotional funeral for me, knowing that I would never see my tie or my father again, but time heals all wounds, as they say, and I have some new ties that put the one around my father’s neck to shame. Still, I suppose it’s the principle of the thing involved; it was my tie and I lent it for a specific time and a specific purpose on conditions that later turned out to be fraudulent. I love my mother dearly, but if she ever pulls something like this on me ever again I’m going to call the immigration people and have her shipped back where she came from.

Friday, February 10, 2006

SAINTS AND SEATS: February 22nd is Washington’s Birthday, and a great day for all Americans, but for those of us of the Papist persuasion the day is also the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which may or may not mean anything to you, largely because it doesn’t mean all that much to us, either. Every day of the year has some saint associated with it, and usually more than one, with some days pulling triple and even quadruple duty, and you couldn’t possibly remember who goes with what day even if you tried. Some days are fairly definitive, of course; March 17th is always Saint Patrick’s Day whether or not any of the other saints associated with the day like it or not, and October 15th is always the feast of Crispin and his brother Crispianus, simply because Henry V fought the battle of Agincourt on this day in 1415, and one of the greatest of Shakespearean speeches mentions the two martyrs over and over again (“…and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day until the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered..."), and now they shall be remembered, even if Crispin and Crispian were already long dead when the English and the French had at it on their feast day and they had nothing to do with the fighting one way or the other. The English won, of course, which is why Shakespeare wrote such a flag-waving play about the whole thing.

The Church makes things a little easier for the clueless Catholic by publishing calendars that tell whose feast day it is on any particular day, but even the Church does a fair bit of editing. Today, for example, is the feast of Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order of monks and the man who probably did more to save the literature of the classical world than anyone else. He did all this neat stuff at his monastery atop Monte Cassino, a mountain on the road to Rome, and the site of a major battle during World War II. There is film footage of the United States Army Air Forces bombing the place to kingdom come in 1944, which I always enjoy seeing on the History Channel. I realize that the horror of this largely unnecessary bombing (the Germans hadn’t actually occupied the monastery before the American bombardment; they moved into the ruins afterwards) should appall me both as a human being and as a Roman Catholic, but it doesn’t, really; I’ve always thought Monte Cassino blew apart nicely for a monastery—you don’t usually associate monasteries with air strikes, and so watching the Army Air Force violate the sanctity of this holy place with five hundred pound bombs packed with high explosives was nicely ironical, if I mean ironical in this case and not paradoxical or even oxymoronic. In any case, watching the monastery blow apart is fun to watch, or at least I think so, but then I am easily entertained, I suppose.

The important point, however, is that February 10th, the feast day of Saint Scholastica, is also the feast day of Saint Trumwin of Whitby, amongst others, and why shouldn’t Trumwin’s name be up there on the calendar as well? He is a saint too, assuming he is a he and not a she, and I was not aware that there was a star system when it came to sainthood, with a select few getting all the choice dates and the others trying to get the faithful to notice them. The competition is especially fierce in countries with Eastern Orthodox majorities, since children in those countries regard their name day, the feast day of the saints they are named for, as more important than their birthdays, and saints line up trying to get the attention of prospective parents, with some saints offering a cut rate on the parents’ mortgages and others offering to pay off those outstanding student loans for only pennies on the dollar. I’m always surprised that some enterprising saint hasn’t started advertising on television like the lawyers or the telephone companies do, letting the faithful know that the saints are already in heaven and have a personal line to the Almighty that you too can use for only $15.95 a month and no overage charges, and family and friends can talk free.

Saints should not have to do this sort of thing and frankly, this is why I find the Church’s dedicating feast days to furniture more than a little troubling. I should say here that I have nothing against St. Peter having a chair of his own, preferably a nice Barcalounger or a La-Z-Boy so he can put his feet up and give the sports pages a quick check as the masses of souls stand outside the Pearly Gates waiting for him to find their names in the Lamb’s Book of Life, but the idea that there should be a day honoring his chair seems a more than little odd to me. Using the same logic, Muslims could demand that everyone honor the Prophet’s ottoman and Buddhists could insist that society honor the Buddha’s floor mat. The possibilities are more or less endless, when you think about it; if you’re going to demand the sanctification of furniture then you can demand all sorts of silly things, like a feast day honoring Saint Valentine’s love seat, the sanctification of Saint Lawrence’s waffle iron, although that’s more of a household appliance than a piece of furniture, now that I think about it, or the reliquary devoted to St. Patrick’s stool down at the corner in Kelly’s Bar & Grill, wherein the faithful can see a piece of the original phony leather from that blessed stool, where St. Patrick sat and devoted many of the best Friday nights of his ministry preaching the Gospel to the heathen, baptizing a people lost in darkness into the light of the Truth, and talking with his brothers and sisters in the Lord about how the Dodgers will never leave Brooklyn, not in a million years.

It’s just wrong, I think, and will inevitably lead the blessed filling the many mansions in Our Father’s house with furniture covered with those awful plastic slipcovers. You know the kind I mean, the kind that your persnickety Aunt Tillie insisted on putting on her “good” furniture so the nieces and nephews wouldn’t get grass or food stains all over it when they came to visit. She’d never take the damn plastic off ever, not when those slip covers had gone yellow with age and were literally falling apart at the seams, and you couldn’t sit on them on a hot summer’s day for any length of time because you’d wind up sitting there in a pool of your own sweat and worrying about the sharp end of the cracked plastic slicing through your pants and into your backside. This is always massively uncomfortable and leads inevitably to the horrors of selling life insurance and Anabaptism, which we should all scrupulously avoid for the sake of our immortal souls.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

ART ON THE HALF SHELL: Now that our happy little burg is home to a full-fledged, no two ways about it museum of extremely modern art, I suppose I should know more about this sort of thing than I actually do. My education vis-à-vis modern art is fairly sketchy, which is not something I’m proud of, what with those who do know about such things flooding into town every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I know, for example, that all paintings of Elvis Presley on black velvet are not art, great, modern, or otherwise, and that Jackson Pollock’s reputation as a great American artist stands on the most firma of terra, since there’s been a movie made about him and any number of documentaries you can see every so often on PBS, and because the rich people who own his work will never admit that they paid the gross notional product of a man buying a Megamillions lottery ticket for the privilege of hanging a housepainter’s drop cloth in a place of honor in their homes.

There’s a lot of modern sculpture in the museum as well and on the other side of town there’s a foundry with its own sculpture garden so the motorists passing by can get an eyeful of the newest fashions of oversized lawn bric-a-brac on their way home from work. A lot of modern sculpture is in what’s called mixed media, because today’s hot young sculptors, not content with the traditional materials of stone, wood, and metal, employ a wide variety of materials not usually associated with sculpture in their works, materials like cloth, paper, broken glass, and plastic. I suppose it was because of the bold vision of these artists in creating these works that I am surprised that Tibetan butter sculpture is not as popular as it might be.

Obviously, using butter instead of marble, wood, or bronze as a medium for statuary expression has certain disadvantages. A detailed study of the masterpieces of Tibetan butter sculpture shows that most of these great works have been lost to the vagaries of time, who like their rolls buttered and smothered with strawberry jam, and they’ll usually have some pancakes and sausages with their rolls and coffee. The rolls and pancakes alone would cut a buttery ‘David’ down to Davy size well before the lunch crowd comes rolling in looking for something to eat. In addition to this, you have to keep a butter sculpture, like an ice sculpture, in the freezer, lest it get soft and start to collapse under its own weight. You would not want to read the Declaration of Independence, for instance, anywhere near a half life-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty made from Land O’Lakes finest butter on a hot and humid Fourth of July. Many of us have great goals in life; some people have goals that are not quite as ambitious as those of others, but all of us share one great goal: no one wants their obituary to be an occasion of mirth, a condition you cannot aspire to if Lady Liberty’s buttery torch breaks away from the rest of her and lands on your head, thereby crushing you to death as you proclaim Jefferson’s great words to the assembled multitude. Most of us, I think, aspire to irony-free deaths. And, of course, ice sculpture doesn’t go bad; if worse comes to worse you can just refreeze the water; rancid butter is rancid, period, end of story.

These quibbles aside, I don’t understand why modern sculptors don’t use butter more often than they do. I don’t think it’s any lingering prejudice against Tibetans; the Dalai Lama is one of the most sought after men in the world, with political leaders and celebrities hanging on every word he offers, and the Tibetan cause is one of the better celebrity causes out there; it permits them to feel full of themselves without exposing them to the slings and arrows of outraged conservatives, who largely agree with them on the issue of Tibet, as strange as that might otherwise seem. So why isn’t butter having a bigger impact on the modern art scene?

I suspect that the reason is medical correctness. Butter is on the outs with the diet gurus who control the nation’s dietary fate and who profit from keeping their customers away from anything they like to eat. Perhaps if the dietary worrywarts could get the Tibetans to sculpt in margarine or frozen olive oil or whatever they think is sufficiently low fat to warrant inclusion in a museum collection then their attitude might be different, but I don’t think that’s going to happen; margarine, I’ve heard, offends the Tibetans’ aesthetic sense and their religious sensibilities in a way that butter, rancid or otherwise, does not. So for the time being the Tibetan version of Rodin’s Le penseur (The Thinker) will have to sit and contemplate just how much bad cholesterol he really represents, assuming that art, in our postmodern age, represents anything at all, and the Tibetan copy of Brancusi’s Bird in flight on display at the Culinary Institute of America will remain, at least for the time being, a flightless butterball.

Frankly, I don’t see why there should be this prejudice against foodstuffs as artistic media. I once saw a bust of George Washington made entirely of lox, with eyes carved from two hard boiled eggs and pupils made from dyed Cheerios, and not only was it a magnificent likeness of the Father of Our Country, but it was nutritious as well, especially with a bagel, a knish, and a celery soda on the side. That bust was not worse than some of the things I’ve seen in the museum or over at the foundry, whose display of statuary sometimes leads me to think that the same stuff that makes my mother’s garden grow works in sculpture gardens too. In any case, I am going down to the deli now; they’ve got a copy of Canova’s Venus Victrix in spiced ham there now that I don’t want to miss.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

APOLOGIES TO ALL: Once again it is that time of year, folks, the time of year in which I have absolutely nothing worth saying and nothing even vaguely amusing crosses my mind. I've heard that in order to make a success of this whole blogging thing you've got to keep a constant stream of posts going at all times or else you will lose your place on the greasy pole of Internet success to someone younger and hungrier. I suppose I could flirt with my female readers, the way Neil over at Citizen of the Month does, but frankly, I think I am probably a more ursine personality than Neil is, and so he can get away with that sort of thing. When he flirts the whole effect is one of lightness and charm, and there are those long philosophical discussions with his penis and the whole separation from the always lovely Sophia that gives his blog its romantic tension. I, on the other hand, am not separated from the always lovely Sophia or the always lovely anyone else, for that matter, and my attempts at flirtation do not come off as light and charming, but somehow more than vaguely threatening, as if I were a neophyte serial killer trolling for his first victim. I recently took one of those 'which character from the Lord of the Rings are you' tests, and I was sort of hoping to be Sam Wise Gamgee, you know, the trusty sidekick type, the Sancho Panza to Frodo's Don Quixote, the Chester (or Festus, for those of you who came late to Gunsmoke) to the Hobbit Matt Dillon, always there with a word of encouragement to buck up our hero when times looked bad and the situation was hopeless, but not altogether lacking in seriousness. That's what I was hoping for. Instead, I find that I am an Ent. An Ent. I'm not even a person, I'm a damn tree. I'm probably poison ivy, too; maybe that explains this damn constant itch on my arm.

So I don't have much to say at the moment. I guess I could talk to my penis, but it is a rather inarticulate organ, unlike Neil's, and is not known for its philosophical insights into the human condition. Or we could discuss the situation in the Middle East, but frankly you're better off going to SimplyJews and asking Snoopy what he thinks of the situation; he actually lives there, unlike myself, who am cocooned here in our happy little burg. You know what I think I will do? I'm going to have me a pretzel, yes I am, or maybe a pistachio as well, although it's been a while since I've had a pistachio. The last time was Thanksgiving a few years ago, when my brother and me ate a two pound bag of pistachios between us before going in to dinner. That' s when I learned of the joys of biliary colic; a chunk of fat from the pistachios wedged itself in my bile duct and sent me to the emergency room, where I had to share a bay with a correctional officer who'd almost had an ear severed by a shank-wielding inmate. This was an embarrassing moment, to be sure; here this guy is with an actual emergency, cut down in the line of duty, whereas a pistachio laid me low...but it was a very tough pistachio, I'll have you know, a very tough pistachio.