Archives for December 2007

On Sansho the Bailiff

I watched this movie (Sanshô dayû in Nihongo) the other night, one of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s very last. It was made in 1954, and is certainly one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve ever seen. The opening scenes of a family traveling through the woods reminded me of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring: the same dazzling black and white contrast in the forest, the scintillating surface of water, the mysterious light at sunrise and sunset – it all made me want to live in a world without color for a while. Well, for two hours anyway. There are other similarities with The Virgin Spring, especially regarding revenge and what it really accomplishes, but I won’t give the game of either away by saying too much here. I’ll go along with everyone else who calls it a Great Film, although I won’t go so far as to call it the greatest ever made. Read along with Anthony Lane:

I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.

I’m not so sure the human heart was designed to weather this kind of rodomontade, but the movie is certainly very, very sad.

A govenor runs afoul with his superior and his family is broken up and sold into slavery. As he prepares to leave, he tells his son that mercy is important above all else: “Without mercy, man is not a human being. Be hard on yourself, but merciful to others”. We then watch as his son, Zushiô, loses sight of this and then tries to get it back. Does he? I think it’s more open to question than what I’ve seen in most other responses to the movie, leaving his hope of redemption unresolved. So: maybe not the best movie ever made, but more evidence that the world’s best cinema produced so far is that of Japan, particularly in the years after World War II. As a drunk Faulkner once wrote (or maybe it was one of his characters that was drunk): “Defeat iss good for art; victory, it iss not good.” Or as a drunken Lane might write, whatever you might weather in life, art iss sure to do you in.


from an interview with Rene Girard by James Williams

JW … You said that for you the resurrection is an objective event. Do you distinguish between “objective” as you use it here and “historical.”

RG I am not certain I understand the difference. You see, the thing about the Gospels is that there may be tiny mythical infiltrations in them, but their basis is not mythical. The mythical mentality can take them and construe them mythically, but quintessentially they are the destruction of myth. Early Christian faith intuits or understands the nonmythical element and discerns, one way or the other, the mimetic phenomena that are unraveled. The structure of mythology is repeated in the Gospels, but in such a truthful way that the mythological structure is unmasked. The fathers of the church saw this, but were not able to express it in terms of generative scapegoating and the liberating representation thereof. Our mimetic interpretation is less important than their faith but, if it can help our own vacillating faith a little, it is useful.

Part of the problem in the history of Christian interpretation, beginning already with the fathers, was that the Passion was for them a unique event. That is understandable of course. They saw it as a unique event, a single, unique event in worldly history. It is indeed unique as revelation but not as a violent event. The earliest followers of Jesus did not make that mistake. They knew, or intuited, that in one sense it was like all other events of victimization “since the foundation of the world.” But it was different in that it revealed the meaning of these events going back to the beginnings of humanity: the victimization occurs because of mimetic rivalry, the victim is innocent, and God stands with the victim and restores him or her. If the Passion is regarded not as revelation but as only a violent event brought about by God, it is misunderstood and turned into an idol. In the Gospels Jesus says that he suffers the fate of all the other prophets going back to Abel the just and the foundation of the world (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:50).

So what theology needs is a corroborating anthropology. This anthropology will open up the Gospels again to their own generative center and witness.

JW You have already presented an atonement theory, in effect. Would you care to say more about it?

RG The word “atonement” is unique to English as far as I know. Atonement is what the French, I believe, would call expiation. Atonement is “at-one-ment,” becoming reconciled with God, and this is the work of Christ.

JW The doctrine that has dominated Christian thought, certainly since Anselm, is the satisfaction theory. According to it, the justice of God and God’s honor are satisfied by the one who dies, who is allowed to be scapegoated for the sake of all.

RG What you can say, in my view, is that the Father is working on a sort of historical schedule. Christ comes at the right time, at the right hour. I think Gil Bailie’s paper is very important because it suggests that kenosis, emptying, here the emptying of the personality, is crucial. Bailie refers to Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, and helps me understand it. I had struggled with the book. I think the title “God without being” could be translated as “God without the sacred” — God without sacred violence, God without scapegoating. (pp. 281-282 of The Girard Reader)

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Sweeney Todd

I saw Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd last week: no denying it’s a very good movie, well directed, well acted, well filmed, etc., etc. The trouble is that a good 20% of it was, for me at least, entirely unwatchable. The reason, as the friend with whom I saw it said, is that film is the most aggressive artistic medium ever invented. This will be true, I guess, until we get our holodecks, but after seeing this movie I think I can wait for that day. Sweeney Todd is the most violent movie I’ve ever seen. By far. I haven’t watched a whole lot of slasher flicks, but I can’t see how any of the Friday or Nightmare movies can top this. Okay, maybe those Saw movies are worse, or Hostel, but it’s clear to me that Burton directed this to be way, way over the top. Although he doesn’t deviate from the original Broadway production in any appreciable way, the meticulous attention he pays to getting every last drop of horror out of every last drop of blood spattered from slit necks and crushed skulls … Ugh. I’m exhausted by just describing it.

What works so well on the stage with music and choreograhy – not to emphasize the horror, but to mitigate it – was just too much in my face at the movies. And as much as I like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter … try as they do, they just can’t sing like Angela Lansbury and whoever happened to be next to her. Good thing we have the original cast recording, with Len Cariou as Todd, and video from the London production with George Hearn.

[Introduction][The Worst Pies in London][A Little Priest][By the Sea]

Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Sixteen

After his assignation with Julie, Tom had the day off from Videosyncracy, as he’d scheduled the evening for his continuing education down at the studio with the pornographers. Things didn’t usually get started for that crowd until the afternoon, which was a good thing for Tom since he hadn’t gotten in until well after three in the morning the night before. He’d left the hotel room after just a few hours with Julie, leaving her in a tangled swirl of sheets and clothes. She didn’t stir when he got out of bed; she actually didn’t stir until 10:00 the next morning, when the maid knocked on the door and she woke up just enough to yell “I’m still sleeping, come back later!” Tom had taken a long, hot shower when he’d got back to the condo, then quietly slipped between the sheets and stayed as close as possible to his edge of the bed until morning.

He naturally felt a little sheepish when he got up the next day. Did Helen know? Probably not, but he wasn’t sure she’d let him know if she did. No, she probably knew, but she’d never let him know she knew. Not right away at least; this was one way she maintained control. When they first moved in together she said that sooner or later they were bound to be attracted to other people, and that he or she would just as likely act on these instincts as not. The point was not to hurt or embarrass the other. At the time Tom wasn’t sure whether she was reserving the right for herself or for Tom, knowing his past and not wanting it to mean the end. Helen may not have known the specifics, but she was a realist and Tom wasn’t about to hide it from her if she’d asked about it. What they had couldn’t exactly be called an ‘arrangement’, much less an ‘understanding’ or anything else that suggested that a boundary had ever existed for their extra marital activities, articulated in advance and established for mutual maintenance by each. Their ideal was to not have an ideal, at least when it came to sex. Helen was obviously doing her part for Tom and Tom, for his part, was happy to go along with that. What she wanted out of him he wasn’t exactly sure.

He’d started stocking the store with her videos, and though it wasn’t much of a moneymaker for the store or her, it nevertheless provided an important service for concerned customers – especially since Purple Video (a smut store down the street) had been closed a few years before. Pay per view, pictures on the Internet, streaming video, mail-order porn: all this was profitable and in its own way convenient, but the trouble was with the inevitable trail which, however thoroughly erased, never leaves the more paranoid lecher comfortably secure. The humble video store fills that need. Nothing beats a cash transaction: no names, no numbers, and a hat, sunglasses, and even a false mustache can be used by those paranoid clients imagining pesky, investigative reporters searching for another exposé on the sordid activities of some of the shameless, shame-filled citizens of Seattle.

At the kitchen counter next to the breakfast nook, Helen poured an orange juice and with a smile (half a smile, a third… gone) she said “Hello, good morning, there’s fresh coffee, just made it.”

“Yeah, I’ll need that. I’m not used to three or four drinks at one sitting.”

Helen cheered up a little as he talked. “You’re going down to the studio today, right?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Roger was asking if you could fill in for Tom today.”

“I am Tom.”

“The other Tom, dummy. He was busted again a couple of days ago. At least he’s not missing anymore.”

“Wow, my chance with a camera.”

“It’s a nice break for you. I’m telling you, Roger likes you, you’re doing well, you’re getting to know the equipment, and you’re going to be doing whatever you want before too long.”

“It’s a good gig, I know. I’m lucky. I’m thankful.”

“Thank Roger. Thank yourself.”

“Well I’m starting with you.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

They both sat and stared at each other for a moment.

“So … you got in kinda late last night,” said Helen.

“Yeah,” said Tom, noncommittally. “You shoulda stopped by the store.” He sat there feeling stupid for a second. Helen let it all sink in for a good couple more.

“So … been working on any scripts lately?”

“Sure,” said Tom, feeling somewhat relieved. “Tossing a few things around up here,” he said, tapping the top of his head with his index finger. He was eyeing the Sports section the way hikers look for a cave before the rain comes.

“Talk to Roger. He really knows how to put a movie together. Even if it’s just, a, you know…”

“Yeah, sure. Fleshing stuff out is always a good idea.”

“Well, he could help you figure out what shots would work for whatever you’re thinking.”


“Tom, are y’all there in there? You seem a little distracted this morning.”

“Yeah, sorry. Maybe a little. But I definitely have some of good ideas about some projects. But I could always use some new ideas and scenarios. Now I keep thinking of porn stuff myself. Maybe I could help Roger out with some of them.”

“Like what?”

“Like a mother and daughter show.”’

“It’s just so old, Tom. Nobody cares anymore, and if nobody even thinks it’s perverse, it’s not really perverse. On the screen they’re all just bodies now. We’re all just bodies, really. And you know I think we should just work or way down to erotic instruction videos.”

Tom was wondering whether these reactions had as much to do with personal static as it did with the idea itself, but he knew it was better to let that one go. It was a good thing he had going with Julie, after all, and he didn’t want to lose it, not yet. He’d been on the verge of trying to get some pictures of her, and at that point there was no saying where it could all lead. Where exactly did he want it to lead? He pondered this for a moment, but was uncomfortable thinking about Julie in front of Helen. He wondered whether Helen could tell. He’d heard about married couples that were able to read each other’s minds, although in their case he realized this would only work in one direction. Of course Helen had always seemed to know more about him than he did himself.

They sat together in silence for five minutes or so, finishing breakfast and reading the paper. His was simple – a banana and a cup of coffee. Helen had an English muffin, covered in butter and raspberry jam, which were now running together in tiny marbled swirls, down into the honeycombed crevices of the bread. After she had finished, a few two-toned, oblong drops remained. Because of her nails, she could only get at the sugary blend of butter and jam by pressing her fingers almost flat against the blue porcelain plate. After licking her index and middle finger, she stood up and walked the plate over to the sink. Tom had discarded the Sports in favor of the Arts section, but looked up when he sensed her standing by.

“I’m doing the radio show this afternoon, so I’ll catch up with you later.” Had her tone changed as she was preparing to leave? It was impossible to say.

“That’s right. Go easy on them, okay?”

Being in the business, Helen was sometimes called on by various members of the media to act as an ad hoc spokeswoman for the adult entertainment industry. It was a position from which she’d like to resign, but some of them had become friends for whom she liked to do the occasional favor. This particular show was a kind of Howard Stern imitation, always looking for the latest sensation on the strip circuit. Helen didn’t take her clothes off much anymore, not that it would have mattered on the radio, but she’d been on the show a number of times before, accompanying some of her fresh talent.

“Oh yeah, I’m easy, you know me. Good luck with Roger.”

“Yep. I guess I’ll see you down there.”

They didn’t kiss, but smiled at each other before she headed down the hall and he went back to the daily TV guide.

After awhile he pushed the paper aside and took a fresh cup of coffee into the living room. He was thinking about last night, thinking that maybe he’d crossed the line in his conversation with Julie. He was used to skirting the edge of something forbidden in a lot of his conversations, but with Julie he wasn’t sure how much he wanted her to know about the rest of his life. After a few minutes he picked up his notebook and began fishing for ideas. Even bodies need a plot in which to be placed. As had become his habit lately, he began by trying to make up titles for porn. Something witty was best, something sexual, certainly, but better still if somehow tied to popular culture. He worked at this for a few minutes before lifting his feet onto the couch and stretching out into a more comfortable position. He needed to get his mind off of porn; there would be plenty of time for all that this afternoon. He tried to think of something that was really on the cutting edge, something like the independent movies or the European films he’d always wanted to make. He turned on the television and settled into a recent release on one of the cable stations, looking for inspiration. He was able to follow it for almost an hour before he fell asleep.

He was back at the fraternity, although it wasn’t clear if he was twenty years old again or was just there for a reunion. Everyone was upstairs enjoying the party, which he’d left because he was wearing only his white briefs. He’d held his hands in front, worried that he might flop out of the fly. Downstairs he looked for a shirt, found one that was blue, or one that he’d hoped was dark blue because he really didn’t want to wear black. He had a thing about black. He convinced himself that the shirt was blue by merely saying the words to himself, “royal blue”, and certainly couldn’t have seen the color in the dark. He got tangled up trying to reach back into the sleeve, began turning around, and then became more and more disoriented as he spun around in the dark. A light nearby, and then a lot of lights were burning so brightly that he was blinded, and a crowd in the room seemed to be moving in on him like a pack of wild dogs. His head was throbbing, was he on the set already? He was, until his eyes opened, and then everyone left, leaving Tom alone on the couch under the lamp he’d turned on for writing. Now sunlight was streaming in from outside. The sky was an immaculate blue. ‘Like a swimming pool,’ he thought to himself, ‘or my shirt,’ and then forgetting the dream he rolled off the couch to take a walk outside. He wanted his head to be clear when he went down to the studio later in the afternoon.

Sweet Mother of Mercy – I’m Officially Old

So I went to see Juno last night. I won’t go on about the film here – that’s not the point of this post – except to say that it’s probably worth seeing, especially if you need the feeling of completion provided by a third pregnancy movie, a capstone to the trilogy begun by Knocked Up and Bella (hey, one for each trimester!) No, the point of this post is to note that the song during the opening credits is sung by one Barry Louis Polisar, who was my favorite singer in the world when I was five years old. In 1978, he released his first live album, performed in front of a bunch of five year olds. Awesome songs about Sunday morning food fights with one’s brother, about tormenting babysitters, about shutting up in the library, about sending snotty children to Iran, and on and on and on. Here is one of this albums from back in the day:

Now he’s heading up the soundtrack to an indie flick. Which most likely means that the director decided to mine his own childhood for inspiration. Which means I’m old.

NYT business section: repository of plain-spoken truth

We don’t usually get the paper-type newspaper ’round these parts, but the Old Man was in town, and left the Business Section of his copy of the New York Times lying about. And it was in said section that we came across this deliciously dry (like a good martini) bit of captionary wit, which we thought we’d share:

Birthday Haiku

René Girard found
the mimetic nature of
desire reading

great novels closely,
and then discovered the ties
between violence

and the sacred in
ancient mythology. By

the errors as well
as the insights of Lévi-
Strauss, Freud, and Nietzsche,

Scripture as the key,
and that true knowledge always
begins with the Cross,

he has shown how Christ
revealed to us our great
need of forgiveness.

For Whom Your Heart Yearns

Dear children! With great joy I bring you the King of Peace for Him to bless you with His blessing. Adore Him and give time to the Creator for whom your heart yearns. Do not forget that you are passers-by on this earth and that things can give you small joys, while through my Son, eternal life is given to you. That is why I am with you, to lead you towards what your heart yearns for. Thank you for having responded to my call.

Søren Says

The Ironic Catholic posted a great Kierkegaard quotes a couple of weeks ago, which I’d never read until I stumbled upon her NaPraGoMo site the other day. Maybe the best quotation ever. And I’m sorry I missed the Prayer Month, IC; hopefully you’ll sponsor it again next year?

Anyway, take a minute or two for some silent prayer this Christmas Day – perhaps by following along with Kierkegaard and IC here.

Dalrymple on What Atheists Don’t See

If you are not yet familiar with the British writer and physician Theodore (Greek for ‘gift from God’) Dalrymple, I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with his books and articles, one of which you will find by following the link by way of the title above. It’s a kind of hybrid review of the recent spate of books by hectoring atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins, as well as a meditation on the both the personal loss of religious belief and the loss of religious sensibility in the West since the Enlightenment. Dalrymple is decidedly humble about his own non-belief:

I first doubted God’s existence at about the age of nine. It was at the school assembly that I lost my faith. We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God? In such illogical leaps do our beliefs often originate, to be disciplined later in life (if we receive enough education) by elaborate rationalization.

It’s worth noting that this last sentence can apply to Dalrymple’s belief in God’s non-existence as well as the beliefs of believers. I should have written “understated humility”. Anyway, from this point much of the essay is devoted to castigating the intellectual sloppiness of his atheistic confrères and extolling the thoughtful elegance of two obscure seventeenth century churchmen, the painter Juan Sánchez Cotán and the bishop of Exeter and Norwich, Joseph Hall. I’ll return the gesture by saying that I’d much rather read Theodore Dalrymple than, say, Matthew Fox. Or Philip Larkin than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Philip Larkin is no Sam Harris, although it’d be interesting to have them both over for lunch and see what kind of conversation ensued. If Dalrymple were there as well, here’s what he might have to say:

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

And I’ll finish by adding that “an existential shopping spree” is exactly what Christmas has sadly come to mean for many in 2007. Gifting and all the rest is entirely fitting – we have it in the gospels, after all. But let’s remember where it all comes from. Merry Christmas everyone!

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Christmas Song Parodies from Bob Rivers

One of the great things about Seattle is the Bob Rivers Show on KZOK 102.5 FM, 5:00 AM to 10:00 AM every weekday morning. I think you can actually listen to it online, so if you live in the midwest or say, San Diego, you can tune in by just going to Bob, Spike, Mike, Joe, Kaci and Arik are a great blend of radio “personalities”, and unlike any other host I can think of (Stern, Imus, et al) Rivers doesn’t run roughshod over the rest of his crew. They can all be plain laugh-out-loud funny, and many are the bad mornings made better by listening to the show.

Most of their funniest moments are unscripted, of course (it’s live radio, after all), but they do some pretty hilarious song parodies – thanks mostly to the absolutely amazing vocals by Spike. Every once in a while he performs live with his band “the Impalers”, which often means he’s assembled some of the best rock musicians from the last 30 years. In fact they have a show coming up on January 19th at the Little Creek Casino, and I’m going to try to make it.

Some of their parodies of Christmas songs are pretty great as well. I’m not sure all of them are by Spike and his Impalers (I don’t know who the other artists are or where they come from), but they’re all funny as … er, they’re just funny. The album White Trash Christmas is available at, although a good number of them can be found on YouTube with home grown videos to go with.

[The 12 Pains of Christmas][Carol of the Bartenders][Chipmonks Roasting on an Open Fire][Be Claus I Got High][White Trash Xmas][Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer]

Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Fifteen

Diana began her regular shift at Queequeg’s at 10:00 in the morning, which gave her an hour to get everything ready before the restaurant opened up for lunch at 11:00. On this particular morning there was a disheveled woman waiting outside, who then followed Diana through the open door. Diana was about to tell her that they wouldn’t be open for another hour, but the woman was able to get the first word in.

“Can I get a cup of coffee?”

Diana noticed a few things right off. Her hair was a tangled, wiry mess, and it seemed likely that she was far too young for all the lines in her face. Odder still was the French horn in her left hand. Diana wondered if the woman had spent the night on the street, or in one of the nearby parks, and felt a surge of empathy flow into her like a flock of pigeons landing in a public square for a few pieces of bread. And yet all she could do was answer her as if she were answering any paying customer.

“We’re not open for another hour or so, and I haven’t even started the coffee yet.” She said it with as nice a voice as she could find, but she was sorry for her answer before she even gave it. She also knew that the cooks had probably already started a pot, and felt guilty for lying.

As she put on her apron she watched the woman turn and walk past the statue of Queequeg, changing the French horn from one hand to the other. Strange that she didn’t have a case to go with the instrument. Assuming that she’d found it in the garbage, it had probably seemed like an extraordinary find.

Allen, the manager, came out of the office wearing his trademark, pastel-colored oxford shirt and a plaid tie. He stood with his hands on his hips at the entrance to the hallway leading back to the office and the bathrooms. As she was stepping behind the bar to get started, she looked back to watch him watching the woman go out the front door with her horn.

“Was she in here?”

“Yeah, but I told her we weren’t open yet.”

“She was playing for the rush hour traffic this morning, or at least the people who were waiting at the bus stop.”

“Was she any good?”

“She got a few notes out. Her clothes looked a little funny. She seems kind of a mess.”

Just then they heard an uneven note from outside. Through the window they could see the woman beginning to play.

“That’s just a nuisance. I’m calling the cops,” said Allen, and turned to go back into the office.

“What for? She’s not bothering anybody.”

“She’ll drive away the customers”

Diana was about to ask, “What customers?” but decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble. The woman had by then worked herself into a steadier note, although it couldn’t really have been called a tune. Diana set to work, beginning with the coffee for herself. Allen came out a few times to check on the horn player, who had managed to make a few dollars from some of the people passing by. The police hadn’t show up yet, or perhaps Allen had decided to take matters into his own hands. Diana watched as he went outside and began waving his arms at the woman.

She heard his muffled coercion. “You can’t play here like that. It’s too loud, and we’re trying to run a business. You can’t play here.”

He brought his bulky frame back inside, shoulders pulled back a little more for all the exertion of authority, and stood at the bar with his arms stretched out in front of him.

“That oughtta take care of it.”

Diana nodded while pulling bottles out of the rack one by one, wiping them off with a damp towel. The night bartenders just couldn’t seem to clean up after themselves. She looked past Allen through the window and saw that the woman had picked up her horn again. She gave out a quiet chuckle and Allen, thinking that it was meant in a sense of solidarity with him, started in again.

“I guess we don’t really need the cops. If she comes back let me know.”

“She’s still out there, Allen. She’s just not playing anything.”

The woman wasn’t playing anything, but she wasn’t just standing there either. She seemed to have embellished her presentation with a more visible sense of passion, even if the horn was silent. Her back was arched a little more, and occasionally she dropped one of her shoulders to put a little more effort into a note that never sounded.

Allen realized that his authority was being mocked, but wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Hopefully she’ll just go away soon. I’ll be in the back, but let me know if she starts playing again.”

“No problem. I’ll take care of her.”

No sooner had Allen turned the corner when the woman came back inside, holding out two hard-earned dollar bills and asking again for a cup of coffee. Diana indicated a place at the bar by setting up a cup and pouring it full. The woman put the horn on the bar beside her and leaned heavily on her left arm, holding a thick hedge of hair back and propping her head up at the same time. Diana noticed that her shirt was inside out, and when she came around the bar she saw that her jeans had been put on inside out as well. The front pockets lay limply down her hips, like floppy ears. She talked a little bit about being followed, which, considering Allen, was true enough, although it sounded like a story that had been told many times before. The face was tanned and grimy, and there was a fairly pungent smell about her as well. She had definitely spent the night outdoors.

Diana went back to the kitchen and poured a bowl of soup for her. After setting the soup down next to the coffee she went to the far end of the bar to make a phone call to a local shelter. After Diana briefly explained the circumstances, a woman on the other end of the line told her that they’d had a woman with a French horn hospitalized once already. This must be the same person. Diana asked her why the woman was back on the streets, but the woman on the other end of the line only promised that someone would be around in a few minutes to pick the woman up. Then she hung up. Diana hung up her own phone and watched the woman spooning soup into her mouth, which she had lowered to a point almost level with the bowl.

No sooner had Diana hung up the phone than Allen came out of the office. When he saw the woman at the bar he screwed up his eyebrows and clenched his face. ‘He can’t know how ugly he looks’, Diana thought, interrupting him before he could finish his first word.

“Relax Allen, I’ve already called the police.”

Allen sputtered for a few seconds and then turned around and went to check up on the servers in the dining room. It was close to 11:00 and the restaurant would be open for lunch soon. When it did, the French horn player was still at her place in the center of the bar. The instrument sat on the stool next to her, and the look of her clothes and probably the smell had caused a few of the customers to turn their heads. The woman herself was peaceful enough, occasionally sharing a few of her thoughts with Diana.

A man and a woman from the shelter showed up at around 11:15. The older women in a parka took the French horn player, arm in arm, and led her out the side door. The man confirmed that Diana had been the one to make the call. Diana let a few of the drink orders from the dining room pile up while she tried to find out what else there might be to the story.

“So you’ve seen her around before?”

“Yeah, but usually downtown. What she’s doing up this far I have no idea. It’s such a sad situation. We’ve taken her into the hospital a number of times, but after a day or two they just release her. They say that there’s nothing really wrong with her. They can’t afford to keep her, and she has no family to come and take care of her. So we take her in for a while, but she doesn’t really like it with us, and after a day or two she runs off by herself. I’m surprised she’s coming as peacefully as she is right now.”

“Why are her clothes inside out?”

“Probably a statement of some kind, but I’m not really sure. She says things like ‘The world is upside down!’, and the way she gets turned around so much, I think she’s actually on to something. She needs some serious help. We’ll do our best, but we’re just a temporary shelter for short-term cases. We’re really not equipped or staffed to take care of cases like hers.”

“Well thanks for coming by. My boss was throwing a fit.”

“It’s a normal reaction.”

“I guess so.”

“Thanks for calling.”

At that time of day there was usually some spillover when the dining room filled up. Not much in the way of drinks either, as fewer and fewer businessmen seemed to be having martinis with lunch. Or businesswomen. She usually had to pour a few dozen beers, but for the most part it was just a lot of diet cokes and coffee. The lunch rush was over by 1:30 or 2:00, and form then until 4:00 it was dead. During those hours she took over as the only server for any customers who came in later, helped out with any ordering that needed to be done, and did a lot of cleaning. It wasn’t especially hard work, but she did it thoroughly and consistently, and there was very little left for the evening shift to do except pour drinks.

At around 3:00 her regular customers began showing up. First was often Pete, consistently armed with a stock with new jokes. Many of these, of course, were bartender jokes, which Diana was only too happy to hear and then recycle for some of the other customers. Pete was one of her favorites. Somewhere in his late sixties, good looking, with thinning white hair combed straight back. Many customers came because they had crushes on her, which Diana encouraged up to a point, but she wasn’t sure she could say that about Pete. He played the part of surrogate father more than would-be suitor. Maybe it was all the same.

There weren’t many women who sat at the bar alone; it seems to be one of the few places left in the world where a division of the sexes was still naturally maintained. Not by mandate, of course, and not all the time, but for the most part it was just a fact that most of the customers were men. Her job could be done just as well by a man or a woman (there is no ‘glass ceiling’ when it comes to tending bar), and she wondered if there would be more female customers if the day bartender were a guy. Maybe, but there probably wouldn’t be many less men.

Pete came in as usual, took off his hat, put it on the bar beside him and unbuttoned the letterman-style jacket. Underneath the jacket he was wearing one of what he called his ‘retirement shirts’; this one was a bright blue Hawaiian print with large, tropical fish swimming across his chest, towards the buttons. He ordered a lager. After filling a pint jar she leaned against the bar in her usual manner, right hand on her hip.

“So how’s the day so far?”

“Good enough. Have you heard the CIA is hiring?”

“I can imagine.”

“Yeah, I guess they’re looking for assassins. It’s all hush-hush, of course, but they’ve been having people in for endurance tests, psychological profiles, that sort of thing.’”

“Really? Thinking you might come out of retirement?”

“Oh no, they’re tough. Recently they had three people get through the physicals and they were running them through the final round. After all of the background checks, interviews, and testing were done there were three finalists … two men and a woman. For the final test, the CIA agents took one of the men to a large metal door and handed him a gun.

“An agent said, ‘We must know that you will follow your instructions, no matter what the circumstances. Inside of this room, you will find your wife sitting in a chair. Kill her!’

“The man said, ‘You can’t be serious. I could never shoot my wife.’

“The agent said, ‘Then you’re not the right man for this job.’

“The second man was given the same instructions. He took the gun and went into the room. All was quiet for about five minutes. Then the man came out with tears in his eyes.

“‘I tried, but I can’t kill my wife.’

“The agent said, ‘You don’t have what it takes. Take your wife and go home.’

“Finally it was the woman’s turn. She was given the same instructions to kill her husband. She took the gun and went into the room. Shots were heard, one shot after another. They heard screaming, crashing, and banging on the walls. After a few minutes, all was quiet. The door opened slowly and there stood the woman.

“She wiped the sweat from her brow, and said, ‘This gun was loaded with blanks. I had to beat him to death with the chair.’

Diana couldn’t help but laugh, but at the same time gave him the ‘you-can’t-get-away-with-that-sexist-crap-in-here’ look. She’d given it to him before, and it was a general rule she held with him when it came to jokes about the sexes, or just sex. So she snapped him with the towel she was using to wipe the counter while pausing to think of something to say.

“Y’old codger, that’s something only someone from your generation could come up with.”

“Nah, any generation, you just have to have been married a few years.”

“Or a few times -”

“Oh, that hurts. Maybe you’ll like this next one better.”

“I’d have to.”

“Okay, but listen up,” he protested, shaking his head a little. “I can redeem myself here. This one’s a true story. Heard it from a guy I used to work with.”

“You mean that last one wasn’t true?”

“Probably is, but I heard it as a joke. So is this, but my friend swears it’s true. His son is a medical student over at Harborview; was doing a rotation in the Emergency Room. Some woman called in, fairly upset, because she found her young son eating ants. Of course he tells her that the ants aren’t harmful and there’d be no need to bring her daughter into the hospital. So she calmed down, and at the end of the conversation she happened to mention that she’d given her son some ant poison to eat in order to kill the ants. So he told her that she’d better bring her daughter in to the Emergency Room after all.”

Diana laughed harder this time, and more naturally. “No way! Gawd that’s funny. What are some of these parents thinking? If it’s true, I mean.”

They chuckled together for a moment. “I wish I had another to pay you back with, but I get all my best jokes from you, Pete.”

“Oh I know that, don’t worry about it. That’s all we retired folk do, just sit around and trade jokes. Better than war stories.”

“Well I appreciate that, Pete.”

And she did, too. She actually liked all her customers for what they were, but Pete was definitely one of her favorites. He drank the rest of his beer and smoked a cigarette, standing rather than sitting beside the bar, as was his habit. After a few minutes he stood up and put on his jacket. After zipping up the jacket he waved to Diana with his right hand holding the crown of his Mariners cap.

“Well, I’m off to look at lawn mowers.”

“Way to think ahead, Pete. I’ll see you next time then.”

Always light, always trying to make everybody laugh, that was Pete. But who picks up a new lawnmower in the middle of winter? Mulling it over, she picked up his glass and wiped the bar underneath it as she looked through the window. She saw him climb into the old pickup he always parked in the loading zone in front – it was a truck, after all, and the meter maids seemed to understand it belonged there.

Cumulative bliss revisited (for the holidays)

It’s a transnational corporation with one mission-critical fulfillment goal: Every kid who celebrates the holiday gets a toy on Christmas eve.

The Thanatos Children

… or The Boxcar Syndrome. Take your pick.

What I’m alluding to here is something I noticed while reading Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children to my daughter the other night. Towards the end of the book, Violet, the youngest of the two girls, gets sick and so the children are taken in by the benevolent Dr. Moore. Dr. Moore also manages to orchestrate the reunification of the children with their grandfather who has been searching for them since their parents died. (The children had been hiding from their grandfather under the mistaken notion that he was a bad guy.) Pleased with how everything has worked out, Dr. Moore remarks: “Well, well!”

Readers of Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome might recall that that book concludes with the very same utterance from Percy’s Dr. More: “Well, well, well.” So here we have a Dr. More with one less ‘o’ adding an extra “well.” Just as The Moviegoer ends with a scene that pays tribute to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, was Percy here paying conscious homage to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children? Could be, could be.

And then of course we have the utterance echoed in our own Quin Finnegan’s novel a few chapters back. Is everyone following along?


Well, well, well, well, well.

The Sit-Down Pee: Two Views

In the movie About Schmidt, the lead character (played by Jack Nicholson in his subdued-neorotic mode as opposed to his manic-neurotic mode) sits down to pee because his wife has berated him into doing so. By contrast, consider the Sherman Alexie short story, “Saint Junior” (from The Toughest Indian in the World). In that story, the lead character sits down to pee as an act of love towards his wife, reflecting that, no matter how good an aim you are, the ordinary stand-up pee inevitably results in droplets going astray.

The moral of these two stories? Wives: try to be less bitchy, don’t be like Mrs. Schmidt. Husbands: love your wives, try to be more like Junior (who also pours gasoline over a snow-covered basketball court and lights it in order to clear the way for a little midwinter hoop action, which is another sort of act of love).

Birthday Haiku

Heather walks Lily
by flowers, shores, and forests,
feeds her cheddar Chex,

and wakes as the pog flails
away, dreaming of
fields of purple heather.

Nine More Lines in need of Nine Rings

Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
How I came there I cannot really tell,
tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
I was so full of sleep
che la verace via abbandonai.
when I forsook the one true way.

Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
But when I reached the foot of a hill,
là dove terminava quella valle
there where the valley ended
che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,
that had pierced my heart with fear,

guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle
looking up, I saw its shoulders
vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
arrayed in the first light of the planet
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
that leads men straight, no matter what their road.