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Archives for March 2005

Self-Interview…

…because if I don’t ask me this stuff, who will?
Ah, the awful purity of it – finally getting off my duff and pasting in a link because I got to do a self-interview about my book in the San Diego Reader, also known as my day job. I think I’m pretty admirable in my restraint as an interviewer. I don’t ask, “Who do you think you are?” or “Why aren’t you funnier?” or even, “When are you gonna stop pestering Amazon to post your Publisher’s Weekly review on your bookpage?”

Rest in Peace

Terri Schiavo has died.
The sky is blue. The butterflies are migrating past my window in streams.
A friend of mine wrote, saying that he thinks this will ultimately prove more significant than a thousand 9/11s.
I remembered a line from the generally forgettable movie Elizabeth, in which Geoffery Rush orders the execution of a lecherous Catholic noble. The noble spits out something like, “I’ll be hailed as a martyr. The people will remember me.” “No,” replies Rush coolly, “they will forget.”
I don’t know what will happen here. My heart is heavy. I wonder if someone will open her cause. I wonder if someone will attribute a miracle to her.
Lord have mercy.

A Good Friday is Hard to Find

Last Friday — Good Friday — was Flannery O’Connor‘s birthday. She would have been eighty, and probably would have enjoyed observing her birthday and the crucifixion of Our Lord on the same day.

Pitching Robots

“Um, lessee… you’ve got this hero, and he’s got these parents, and when the Mom tells the Dad to keep the kid from going to the big city to chase his dream, Dad defies her. He puts the kid on the train, says he’s happy with his life but wishes he’d chased his own dream. Mom accepts this without protest.”

“THEN, you’ve got this villain, a soulless corporate greedhead sociopath, and he’s got parents, too. A castrating so-and-so of a mother who is forever ordering him around and demanding his affection even as she twists him into a monster (“Oh, no, I’m as crazy as my mother!”). And Dad is hung up in the rafters, totally ineffectual, limply waving and wishing his wife and son luck with their dastardly plans.”

“THEN, you’ve got this theme of making do with hand-me-downs, of preserving what can be preserved and not chasing after the latest, good-looking upgrade. Pure anti-consumerism. In a kids movie. Hello? Marketing tie-ins? Rodney Copperbottom in every Happy Meal (TM)?”

“How the hell are you gonna sell this thing?”

“Two words: Sex jokes. Five more: Robin Williams aping Britney Spears.”

“You’re on.”

Several Days Late, Several Dollars Short…

…story of my life.
But still, this was interesting, as my brother noted when he sent it along:
From David Denby’s review of Constantine in The New Yorker:
A Times Square audience sat in rapt silence the other week at a showing of the religio-satanic horror spectacle “Constantine.” … Since “Constantine” is based on a DC Comics/Vertigo graphic-novel series called “Hellblazer,” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprise by the feral jolts and shocks, but the theatre was filled with rapt adults as well as teen-agers. Which raises a touchy point. “Constantine” turns Catholic doctrine, ritual, and iconography into schlock. God’s warrior wins, but is tha enough to justify the tawdry, promiscuous borrowing? Will the trashy exploitation of Catholicism in movies ever end? Imagine a Jewish version of the spectacle—“Angel,” starring Vin Diesel, in which God’s messenger stays Abraham’s hand in mid-sacrifice and then earns His approval by lowering himself into cursed pharaonic tombs with tied-together prayer shawls. In a Hindu version—“Vishnu,” with Nicolas Cage—Shiva unleashes his snakes on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie and starts a war between truck drivers and apple pickers. Somehow, I think these projects might be shelved. Yet terrible movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Passion of the Christ” and “Constantine” get made and become enormously popular. I will leave the issue of blasphemy to experts. But maybe some of the audience should wonder if they aren’t performing the Devil’s work by sitting so quietly through movies that turn wonders into garbage.
My brother was struck by the language: turning Catholic doctrine, ritual, and iconography into schlock? Trashy exploitation of Catholicism? Turning wonders into garbage? Gosh. He also notes that Denby misses a point a bit with The Passion – it wasn’t borrowing anything, it was depicting it. But on the whole, it was fascinating to see a voice at The New Yorker stand up for the Church, and on something approaching more than purely aesthetic grounds. (He did mention doctrine.)
It also raised an interesting question – why doesn’t somebody make a Jewish version? A Hindu version? Anyone?

The Passion, Uncut

My poor wife. Born on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, her birthday has always been an oasis of rejoicing in the midst of the Lenten desert (no abstaining on such an exalted Holy Day!) During college, that meant her birthday was the occasion of a grand party, full of the booze and ciagrettes that we poor sinners had set aside on Ash Wednesday. The relaxation of penances was made possible by Our Lady’s assent, but my wife was the reason for the party, and lots of warm fuzzies flowed to her from all who attended. Happy day.

Not so, March 25 of 2005. Good Friday trumps all. Second son is on a no-desserts-til-Easter punishment. “That means I won’t get any of your birthday cake!” he moaned. “Mommy won’t be having a birthday cake,” came the reply. “She gave up sweets for Lent, and her birthday is on Good Friday.”

The family made it to church, but apart from that, it wasn’t an especially edifying day. My column was due, and had taken forever to get together. Mom had to take First Daughter to the hair salon to repair the deep, deep damage done by Second Son and First daughter and a pair of scissors. (Gone, my wild blonde thing. Now she sports a bob.) Wife got into an argument with her mother about the Schiavo case during a happy birthday call. And I didn’t get a chance to go out and get her present. Bleah.

What she asked for instead: “Watch The Passion with me.” Last year, we’d seen it apart. Her grandmother gave us a copy of the DVD. I wasn’t especially keen to see it – though I will defend Gibson’s personal vision and his execution of that vision, it was not something that gripped me the way it did my wife. Unlike her, I was not reminded of my own sins, my own relation to the suffering Christ. I wasn’t engaged enough to forget my inner critic, the one that complained about the big music and the slo-mo and suchlike. But it was Good Friday, and her birthday, and she asked. So we watched.

What I came away with, the second time: what a tremendous performance by Maia Morgenstern as Mary. She does so much with her face, and yet her expression hardly changes. Her face when she mops up the blood after the scourging. Her face when she meets Jesus as He carries His cross. And her presence haunts (fills, permeates?) so many scenes. Reminded me of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. The second viewing also reinforced my opinion that the scene in which Mary and Satan walk along opposite sides of the Via Dolorosa is one of the finest in the film.

Fat Girl in the New York Times

My editor Judith Moore’s book Fat Girl just got an amazing review in the NYTBR. Rarely does a reviewer give so much room to the author’s own prose – Jane Stern just sets Moore up and lets her speak. Fantastic. Here’s the review:

Judith Moore’s book just might be the Stonewall for a slew of oversize people who do not fit the template of what every ostensible expert on beauty, health and nutrition tells us we should strive to be. ”Fat Girl” is brilliant and angry and unsettling.

Moore is a fat woman who decades ago was a fat girl. This is the story of how throughout her life and to the present day, her weight has made her a large, slow target for other people’s prejudices. But Moore is neither a whiner nor a victim. She does not poor-me the reader with weepy confessions or beg for a pat on the head from all the slim, pretty people who have mocked or pitied her.

Moore’s welcome to this book acknowledges the pitfalls into which true confessionals all too often fall. As she puts it: ”Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won’t. I will not endear myself. I won’t put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.”

Like most fat people in America, Moore is a veteran of every diet and exercise plan around. ”I know so many diets. The pineapple and watermelon diet I stayed on for 10 days. I did the seven-oranges-per-day diet. I did the rice diet. . . . I did canned diet drinks. . . . I did water-packed tuna and asparagus diets. I do three-day juice fasts.” She has put in time dancing around her apartment watching the Richard Simmons videotape ”Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” Despite all the calorie counting and exercise, Moore remains a fat person. ”My flesh resists loss. My fat holds on for dear life, holds on under my bratwurst arms and between my clabber thighs.”

”Fat Girl” is not a book about the author trying to get thin. It is the story about a family, a miserable one, that created a hole in Moore’s soul that she tried to fill with food. ”I will tell the story of my family and the food we ate. We were an unhappy family. . . . Everybody was pretty much in it for themselves. We were hard American isolatos. We were solitaries. Unhappy families, though, still have to eat. For my father and for me, who are this story’s primary fatsos, food was the source of some of our greatest pleasure and most terrible pain.”

The author’s father was a fat man whom everyone called Ham (short for Hamilton). Ham was 6 feet 4 and ”at his fattest he must have weighed 300 pounds”: ”My father could have been mistaken for Charles Laughton or Whittaker Chambers or Harold Bloom. He had the same outsized morose face as those guys and he had the heavy stomach that hung, in rolls, from his breasts.”

Food figured into the hellish marriage of Moore’s parents from the day she was born: ”At the moment I entered the world my father was across the street from the delivery room at a delicatessen run by Germans. He was eating Muenster and headcheese and bratwurst and long pale strands of fresh kraut. When he leaned over to kiss my worn-out, weary mother, she tasted garlic and sour pickle and cabbage on his lips. She would never forget this, never forgive it.”

Ham was eventually tossed out of the house by his wife when Moore was nearly 4. Without her father’s sturdy presence, Moore was shuttled back and forth between her maternal grandmother, who lived on a farm in Arkansas, and her mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. About the time spent with her grandmother there are no comfy memories: ”She hated my father. She minced no words. My father was my ‘no-good, spoiled, rich-kid father.’ I was ‘his spitting image.’ ”

Moore’s meals at Grammy’s farm were both splendid and lethal: ”She fed us bacon and eggs, sausage patties, strawberry jam, butter-soaked hot biscuits, molasses-sopped flapjacks, fried chicken, baked hams, thick pork chops, puffy dumplings, potato pancakes, homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, apple and cherry pies and three-layer coconut cakes and huckleberry and peach and boysenberry cobblers, crisp gingerbread cookies, Kadota figs afloat in clotted cream, cows’ thick milk and the butter she churned from that milk.” Fed like a Strasbourg goose, Moore grew large; and she remembers her grandmother’s withering comments about her size. ”I grew ‘big,’ Grammy said, ‘as Man Mountain Dean.’ ” Dean, a popular professional wrestler, was unknown to Moore. ”I never knew who Man Mountain Dean was. I assumed that he was a monster who opened his vast gutted mouth so wide that it ached and then ran down mountains, and while he ran he ate every tree, every house, every horse, cow, mother hog and piggies, boar and goat and sheep and bleating lamb that got in his way.” In the eyes of her unloving family, Moore was turning into a golem.

Anyone who grew up fat (and please include your reviewer in this group) will find himself in the chapters that follow. In all the books about weight and the effects it has on the psyche and the impossibility of ridding oneself of it, there has never been a book like ”Fat Girl” that lays it all out with such take-no-prisoners prose. Much of it is not pretty. We learn how it feels to wear clothes that don’t fit, sweat too much, smell bad, become winded walking up stairs and be unable to do the simple things of childhood, like a somersault. There are so many things that thin children take for granted, such as being lifted up effortlessly on the shoulders of their fathers.

And as Moore grew up, things got even more dire. One man bluntly told her she was too fat to go to bed with. In college a man who Moore thought was sensitive and kind conned her into performing oral sex on him while his friends watched and laughed. A day at the pool turned ugly when a mean boy loudly said, ”Old Fatso is going to break the diving board.”

”Fat Girl” is not a litany of complaints. Moore carves out a rather good life for herself. She married (twice), had children and became a writer who was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. For those of us who have lived this same life to one degree or another, this book should be a rallying cry. We are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore. But take it, unfortunately, we do, and we will continue to, as the ”obesity epidemic” receives endless press and fat haters coast under the radar as do-gooders.

One last thing I must say about this book. For a writer of Moore’s talent, ”Fat Girl” has been published to appear second-rate. Its sloppy editing and uninteresting jacket design look like something you would pawn off on a fat girl, no matter what her age. Moore and her audience deserve better.

Pace, T-Muffle

The Minor Fall, The Major Lift is frequently brilliant, particularly when it comes to literary satire. He doesn’t often comment on political matters. He has, however, commented on the Schiavo case, most recently with a riff on those colored bracelets that signify support for this or that:

“Are you sick of being mistaken for a parking lot attendant, delivery person, run-of-the-mill loiterer or completely impressionable right-wing shithead when you’re busy trying to help the Federal government by inserting yourself into a family’s private medical drama? In, say, Florida? Outside of Terri Schiavo’s hospital building? Protesting her Godless demise via starvation? Well, when you wear your TUBESTRONG bracelet, this will never happen again!”

There’s more, but you get the gist. I’ll take the third part first. Why not just protest her demise via starvation, Godless or otherwise? I’d say starving someone to death warrants protest (and that is what people believe they are protesting), whether or not God has a say in the matter, though I’m happy to admit I think He does. Second part: “inserting yourself into a family’s private medical drama.” What about the way the state allows minors to get abortions without notifying their parents? How’s that for insertion into a private family medical drama? But that’s beside the point. The fact is, the family has begged for public involvement. Terri’s parents are her family – and were long before Mr. Schiavo entered the scene – and they have sought public support because they don’t want to see their daughter starve. First part third: “completely impressionable right-wing shithead”? How do you know? How do you know they’re not thoughtful, principled centrists (or leftists) who are convinced that Ms. Schiavo ought not to be denied food and water? (I’ll admit that I consider myself neither completely impressionable, nor right-wing, nor a shithead.)

Mr. The Minor Lift is a fan of Walker Percy’s earlier novels. I can understand why, but I would argue that the same mind (and, the case could be made, the same sensibility) that produced those earlier novels produced the later ones. I suspect that, given his attitude toward Qualitarians as evidenced by Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome, Mr. Percy would have opposed the removal of the feeding tube. I think it would be a mistake to characterize Mr. Percy as a completely impressionable right-wing shithead.

This case digs deep.

Sacrament

Over at one o’ them thar English Observer/Guardian-type papers, the inestimable Tom Waits gives a brief rundown of his 20 most cherished albums. Mr. Waits is a genius artist-type, so heads up for the following:

11 Startime by James Brown (Polydor) 1991

I first saw James Brown in 1962 at an outdoor theatre in San Diego and it was indescribable… it was like putting a finger in a light socket. He did the whole thing with the cape. He did ‘Please Please Please’. It was such a spectacle. It had all the pageantry of the Catholic Church. It was really like seeing mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas and you couldn’t ignore the impact of it in your life. You’d been changed, your life is changed now. And everybody wanted to step down, step forward, take communion, take sacrament, they wanted to get close to the stage and be anointed with his sweat, his cold sweat.

“Seeing Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and you couldn’t ignore the impact of it in your life.” When was the last time you attended a Mass like that? For me, it was a Holy Thursday Mass about three years back – in Vietnamese. The church was packed; I stood in the vestibule. Before Mass began, the people rose and chanted en masse while bowing toward a shrine for the Vietnamese martyrs – young and old, all together, all from memory. For the washing of the feet, twelve elderly men in blue robes rose and ascended into the sanctuary. It was magnificent – but it was foreign, in more ways than one.

I have no idea whether or not Tom Waits believes it. But he gets it.

Story via The Minor Fall, The Major Lift (I really must figure out how to insert links.)

Tenebræ

Korrektiv is in the shadows this week, looking forward to Sunday.

The Blood-Flecked Rim of Tomorrow’s Horizon

Joseph O’Brien is a friend of mine. He’s also a poet. He sent me this today.

Euthanasia
– for Terri Schiavo

It won’t take long for the flash of false mercy to do its work
On flesh, momentarily reflected on stainless steel,
The maculate evil of vain hearts. Judge:

The devils decamped and capering that pierce the darkness
Of noonday – the evil that clusters like wasps stinging
Fallen apples’ rotten flesh. Legislate:

The evil that musters itself, rank and petty,
En masse, pricking along the eastern path of night.
Execute:

The evil with breath hot and straining through tiny slits
In the state’s official mask, affixed, a nice, bored expression
That holds all and sways with cold law,

Whispering in easy assassination, the good death is always best…
A point of law, a point of pride. No, it won’t take long
To understand the starvation of stars at dawn

(At daybreak the stars begin to disappear, dehydrated spittle
At a mouth’s cracked corners, the blood-flecked rim
Of tomorrow’s horizon):

The birthday of death – row and wade through it: here,
A grim world, death of innocence, emergence
In time for time’s divorce and destruction –

In predatory moments, a lone hill
Riding out noontime on a heat wave,
A voyage with mirage for destination,

A bark without pilot or command,
Triple-masted, naked, trolling the air,
Sparred without sails, lookout’s flesh

Nailed to itself as if in love with the world
It’s vessel has made passage through.
It clings to a makeshift crows’ nest,

Its gaze narrowing for new land,
And dimming in its view of the old:
O Jerusalem!

Counting all down, down to earth, earth
Beneath its own heavy lidded eyes, centuries of inhumanity
In humanity’s quivering, drooling, incomprehensibly tender face.

“No more!” said heaven. Cobalt punctures our eyes.
Pang of the ordinary. And creation answered back: “Wake…sleep.”
But who could see that it was good?

Meanwhile, no one should talk. Rather, be quiet
As cicada’s day is quiet. This day, the air is grey as rat’s hair
And the moon is lodged in the sky at midday,

A cat’s eye chasing away with a single pale blue glance
The last precedent of courage shadowed by the helpless inching of hours
And a fear that quickly quiets without calm.

The long needle of silence – the principle sleep – the dead clock’s single truth –
A new ally of law. It doesn’t take long to consider it done.
Judge. Legislate. Execute.

Not at all.

Cold Sober

This has been one of the wettest Lents on record, and we got a lot of rain, too. (Playing host to my friend the carpenter for two months led me to eschew my normal Lenten ride on the wagon.) But not tonight. After an hour spent battling the 18-month old, who didn’t want to go to sleep without Mom (who was out running errands), I was deeply ready for a Manhattan or two. I thought of Terri Schiavo. I decided not to slake my thirst, and to offer it for her. A tiny offering – but not, I have reason to hope, a worthless one. “The smallest act of love has merit.” The smallest sacrifice for another’s sake is still a sacrifice. I prayed for her rescue. I prayed for her peace of soul. I prayed for her final perseverence, whenever she may have need of it.

She’s In

Judith Moore is one of my editors at the San Diego Reader. Her first memoir, Never Eat Your Heart Out, was a New York Times Notable Book – a notable achievement. But her second, Fat Girl, got a review in The New Yorker:

Fat Girl: A True Story, by Judith Moore (Hudson Street; $21.95). For Moore, who weighed a hundred and twelve pounds by the time she entered second grade, food was both her eternal enemy and her only solace; she was neglected or despised by almost everyone around her. “People said when I was a child that inside every fat person a thin person longed to pop out,” she writes. “I did not believe that. I believed that inside every fat person was a hole the size of the world.” But Moore is less concerned with the why of her childhood than with the whatness of it. As a result, much of this brief memoir reads like a sustained shriek of terror and need, stifled only by more food. It also documents, with a child’s wretched matter-of-factness, the hatred that fatness provokes in others. The author’s tormentors never get their comeuppance here, but for the rest of us­who inevitably divide into the contemptuous or the contemptible­there’s plenty of shame to go around.

Now, I have no idea of the relative influence/buzz/cachet of the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker, but I think it’s fair to say that the New Yorker is still the king of the lit mags, however tarnished its crown might be, or however diminished its kingdom. Judith Moore has made it into the court. Huzzah!

My wife just finished reading it, so now I get a chance. I’ll keep you posted.

Telling?

After 9/11, there were hand-wringing comments from the newly serious-minded about how irony was dead and this was a new, less satirical age. Even The Onion took a week off. But the week after that, they did what everyone was saying couldn’t be done – they were funny about 9/11. “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” – fantastic. But so far, nothing on Schiavo.

The Sad Fate of the Self-Googler

Let’s say that our wretched Self-Googler (call him M.) has just written a book entitled Swimming with Scapulars (“with” is a very common term and was not included in your search), and is, despite his best efforts at spiritual detachment, curious to see if said book has caused any twitches upon the threads of the Interweb. Certainly, it is a thrill to see his title nestled into its very own page on Amazon, and it’s nice to be noticed by the alumni of one’s alma mater.

But see what a wretched end M. comes to as he presses on beyond page one of his search results: suddenly, he is finding entries entitled “Notes on Winter Feeding Behavior and Molt in Wilson’s Phalaropes.” Phalaropes? And who is Wilson?

Though alarmed, M. perseveres, only to encounter the Spotted Redshank, the Common Goldeneye, the improbably named Hottentot Teal, and the all-too-appropriate Brown Booby.

Self-Googling: it’s for the birds.

Thanatos Revisited

Father Smith, from Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome:

“My brothers, let me tell you where tenderness leads. To the gas chambers! On with the jets! Listen to me, dear physicians, dear brothers, dear Qualitarians, abortionists, euthanasists! Do you know why you are going to listen to me? Because every last one of you is a better man than I and you know it! And yet you like me. Every last one of you knows me and what I am, a failed priest, an old drunk, who is only fit to do one thing and to tell you one thing. You are good, kind, hardworking doctors, but you like me nevertheless, and I know that you will allow me to tell you one thing – no, ask one thing – no, beg one thing of you. Please do this one favor for me, dear doctors. If you have a patient, young or old, suffering, dying, afflicted, useless, born or unborn, whom you for the best of reasons wish to put out of his misery – I beg only one thing of you, dear doctors! Please send him to us. Don’t kill them! We’ll take them – all of them! Please send them to us! I swear to you you won’t be sorry. We will all be happy about it! I promise you, and I know you believe me, that we will take care of him, her – we will even call on you to help us take care of them! – and you will not have to make such a decision. God will bless you for it and you will offend no one except the Great Prince Satan, who rules the world. That is all.”

I know it doesn’t quite mesh with the Schiavo case. But it keeps coming to mind.

Question for the Philosophical Community

Aren’t all philosophers arm-chair philosophers, after all?

When I was in college, I once saw my philosophy professor out jogging. It was one of the most grotesque visions of pain and strain I have ever seen.

Lorica of Saint Patrick

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power
….. that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.