Archive for the 'rant' Category

And The Morbid Signs Multiply

I found myself befuddled after being drawn, more than willingly, into a political discussion with an old friend. At one point I was accused of advocating “Socialiam” (gasp!), and I let the comment go unchallenged. Later I drafted the reply below. The reply that remains and will remain unsent.

I do rankle at the use of the word “Socialism” as a pejorative term to cover any political, economic or social viewpoint left of free-market Republican capitalism. If millions of people say something absurd, it remains absurd. To get a term like “socialism” even relatively right, one needn’t wade through all 455 pages of Edmund Wilson’s “ToThe Finland Station” (Doubleday Anchor edition). I would recommend anyone seeking precision simply to go on Wikipedia, punch in “Socialism” and see what you get.

Barak Obama and the Democratic Party are not socialists, not even close, and as I see it, more the shame. To characterize him and his party in that way only further diminishes an already deteriorating level of public discourse. Despite my active dislike for the previous administration, I never would have referred to Dubya and his cohort as “Fascists,” probably the closest analogue for those now labeling Obama and the Democrats, Socialists.

Like the citing of the scriptures, every talking or writing head seems to be quoting Orwell to their own ends (me too). But Orwell was unequivocal in his contempt for the didactic abuse of language. And now we’ve reached the point where some fucking Tea-Party moron in Denver can describe a program to encourage the downtown use of bicycles as the work of “socialist revolutionaries.” I would say that’s a reasonable measure how far down the slippery slope of stupidity and madness this country has traveled in just the past few decades. In the words of old Simon Dedalus, “Jesus wept and Christ knows why.”

The actual reason stopping me from sending my friend any of the above lies in the even deeper truth spoken and sung by David Byrne (no relation) “Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

John Brown’s Body

imagesDriving through cold rain and heavy traffic to pick up some lunch, I overtook an old barge of a car waddling along doing about twenty-five in what was a forty-five zone. A disheveled early 1980s station wagon, its flashers were on and its read-end was plastered with “Right to Life” stickers. As a card-carrying subscriber to The New Yorker and the NYRB, my opinions can be largely predictable. I shook my head as I sped past the crawling low- end heap and what I reflexively assumed was its yahoo driver.

Given all of the above, I am caught between a willingness to doubt all, my own opinions included, and the dangers of doubt’s smug certainties. While I remain instinctively predisposed to support a woman’s right to choose, I have no illusions about the reality of what an abortion entails. Having become of late a doting grandfather probably also undercuts the clarity of any absolute position on so volatile an issue. Moreover, I suspect that my antipathy to so many of the Pro-Life advocates and their fanaticism is reaction based upon style, upon reasonableness, upon taste. The not-so-easily dismissed truth that enters my mind is the fact that even the worst of assholes are not of necessity, wrong.

To state the obvious, one shouldn’t judge the merits of a case by the nature, behavior or even the stupidity of its adherents. A self-styled Left Libertarian, a leveler of sorts, I like to believe that where I feel compelled to choose sides, I do so after having listened to what’s being offered. And even when genuinely convinced that a position on an issue is the work of what Mencken would have called “serfs, goose-steppers and poltroons,” my conclusions are too often tempered by reference to Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650, “I beseech in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

images-1In coming to grips with an issue as disturbing as abortion, the most powerful touchstone against any kind of certainty could be the case of John Brown, the anti-slavery John Brown of Russell Banks’ novel “Cloudsplitter,” the absolute fanatic Pottawatomie Brown, the unrepentant murderer Osawatomie Brown. Deemed a deranged psychotic by most of his fellow Americans and executed by his government, poor, mad John Brown, in his time and in his place, just may have been the only sane man in The United States of America. His example is one to give pause to received, hasty or unexamined opinions.

A Highway Vigilante Hangs It Up

imagesA revelation yesterday on my way to Home Depot. On a four-lane county highway, a forty mile-an-hour zone, I was in the right lane moving slowly past an Infiniti sedan that was blocking the left lane despite there being no one in front of it. In my rear view mirror I spotted a rapidly approaching BMW, looked like a new one, a convertible with the top down. I could see that the driver; white-shirted, lots of hair, sunglasses on top of his head and talking on a cell phone, was closing the gap between himself and the Infiniti. Mr. Wonderful swung sharply in behind me, nearly riding my back bumper. He seemed to figure he could push me until I got far enough ahead of the Infiniti so he could swing left, pass me and leave the lane blocker behind. My default setting in these situations has become more and more to succumb to an irresistible urge to play fuck-around.

I slowed just enough to form a two-lane block with the oblivious Infiniti. Behind me the BMW driver was getting increasingly agitated. I loved it as I watched him, obviously frustrated, swing back over into the left lane and then back in behind me. He never stopped yakking into the cell phone

What happened next remains a mystery to me, but I found myself suddenly thinking, “why am I doing this. The guy is in the BMW is probably a fourteen-carat asshole, but what does all this make me?” I remembered that old admonition about arguing with a fool, that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It was also obvious that my social insecurity and economic envy had me engaging in some classic passive-aggressive behavior. Did I really want to reflexively react to the absurd and dangerous behavior of some jerk-off in such an infantile way. This guy was not my problem. Let him find his objective correlative in somebody else, a state trooper for example, and not me. Taking a deep breath, I slowed down enough to allow my nemesis a quick to swerve to the left and around me. At a good thirty-miles-per-hour above the speed limit, he zoomed past the Infiniti, toward wherever it was he was in such a hurry to get.

I made myself a promise to try never to repeat what had become of late a pattern in my driving. It is a relief of sorts to know that it’s no longer up to me to teach the rules of the road to the multitudes of arrogant, stupid or the self-absorbed motorists. There are so many others out there, some with badges and sirens, so much better-suited than me for that role.

Arrivedeci Roma!

imagesWhat ever has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, my church, the one I knew in the nineteen-forties and fifties, the church that seemed to utterly dominate my childhood? What happened?

The end of the church as I knew it, and it is over, might have begun more than a century ago in Rome’s choice of battles. Throughout its history, Catholicism has found itself involved in what it always proclaimed were the clear-cut struggles against the universal forces of darkness. In recent times, the battle for Christ was joined against the rise of atheistic communism. At the end of the Sunday masses of my childhood, there was an addendum directing us to pray for “the conversion of Russia.”

When the settling of scores in Central Europe after the Second World War resulted in the jailing of a couple of cardinals, the party line pushed on us by the nuns suddenly cast a name we’d never heard, the Yugoslav communist dictator, Tito, as the personification of all evil in the world. Tito’s demonization, not at all unwarranted, involved his arrest of a Croatian Cardinal named Stepinac, implicated rightly or wrongly in the wartime mass murders of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians at the hands of his Croatian Catholic brethren.

I suppose that the church’s vehement anti-communism reflected a valid understanding of a threat posed to the status quo by the godless scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. In seeing the survival of Catholic Christianity in terms of stopping communism, the church had always to choose among what it believed would be the lesser of evils. I learned later that during World War II, political expediency dictated that there would be no call from Rome on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews in the face of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

Like the Soviets themselves, the church seemed never to appreciate that history follows no dialectic, but more often than not chooses the ironic. Catholicism never saw it coming. While Cardinal Spellman schmoozed with J. Edgar Hoover about the enemy within, a less visible but lethally profound threat was devouring the foundations of every traditional way of looking at life. In less than fifty years following the end of the Second World War, a tsunami of change, an exponential acceleration in the rate of social, economic and cultural change, would engulf, transform and in many cases destroy the traditions of centuries and millennia. The successful counterattack of the Roman Curia against the reformist trends of Vatican II, the long reactionary reign of John Paul II, continuing now with Benedict XV, and finally, the tone-deaf and foot-dragging institutional response to the horrendous clerical sex-abuse scandals, would seem to deny Roman Catholicism much of a vital role in the future of this world. But then again, who knows?

Many in my own generation were the last of their kind to have lived their daily lives in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A continuity spanning a thousand years has been snapped in a half century. I have no idea of what it all means, but for many of us who remember what was, it somehow seems to embody the sense of anomie that marks so many of our lives in this first decade of a new century.

This latest Fall of Rome, certainly hastened by the church’s distracted irrelevance in the ordinary lives of its people, particularly by its blind obstinacy in matters of human sexuality, has probably already occurred. While I mourn the accelerating passage of the church of my childhood into Trotsky’s historical dustbin, I also mourn the passage of many other things that were a part of my childhood. The ultimate historical significance of the demise of the Roman Catholic Church may not even outweigh the end of knickers, the A & P, or the Studebaker. Because, within the context of the validity of the Word, none of it is any big deal. In fact, it actually could be a prerequisite condition if a vital new Catholicism is to ever arise from the messy ruins of the one we thought we knew. One of the many interesting things included in the primitive theology I was taught so long ago by the Sisters of Saint Joseph was the idea that for the true Church, the Mystical Body of Christ to continue on, all it really takes is one or more of true believers gathered together in His name. No danger of that not happening

Life Imitates Art: Suburban Surrealism

images5The Surrealist movement of the early to mid-twentieth-century has not held up very well. It’s all come to seem and feel rather quaint; the soft clocks, the agoraphobic landscapes and supposedly jarring juxtapositions. The avant-garde aspects of life as it’s now experienced has rendered the entire idea of “surrealism” irrelevant.

Living in a near to mid-suburb of a major American city, I’ve had reason to revisit the concept of the surreal. The gym I frequent is a few minutes drive from our house. With one car in the shop, I decided to walk that short distance, an easy fifteen minutes stroll.

All was well for the first five or so minutes down our deserted tree-shaded street. Coming out onto an arterial four-lane township road, things immediately began getting weird. A continuous flow of high-speed traffic and the absence of a sidewalk made the enterprise boderline hazardous.

Making it safely to the major intersection where a county highway, another crowded four-lane raceway, I watched the maze of overhead traffic signals for the break I needed to reach the sidewalk on the far side of the highway. There were no concessions at all to foot traffic.

From my crossing point, the rest of the walk was easy, but that’s where things got really strange. In my half-hour afoot, coming and going, there were probably hundreds of cars within my field of vision. And yet, I saw not one other pedestrian, not one other human being who wasn’t inside a buttoned up car.

It was like one of those post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, where a world is filled with activity, but no signs exist of other human beings. I drive this very stretch on a daily basis and think nothing of it. But on foot in what I thought was my own intimate environment, I begin to feel myself, very much a stranger in a strange land.

The Iron Laws Of Sartorial Splendor

images1As expected, the bible says it best: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Once the requirements of necessity are met; the covering of our nakedness, comfort, protection from the elements, think if you can of any plausible reason for attending to your appearance beyond the following two considerations: 

1.     To signify, hold or advance your position in society.

 2.     To get laid. 

I find it difficult to posit any other reasons* for concern about personal appearance that do not fall under those two simple umbrellas. 

This small revelation into the human penchant for adornment, for gilding the lilies of our physical selves, struck me decades ago on a rainy winter’s morning. Like Poincare’s sudden grasping of the mathematical theorem that bears his name. “I was stepping up onto the omnibus, when it came to me,” I was stepping down off a local train when I noticed the variety, narrow as it was, in the raingear of my fellow commuters. This was in the foppish nineteen-seventies, and while tan or beige raincoats dominated, the more stylish proclaimed their presence in black or russet or even among the ladies, white. Aside from the basic London Fogs and their knock-offs, there were even the retro trench-coats from a forgotten war, some with woolen collar liners, and some even had the Burberry belt clips for officer’s equipment. 

This small awakening led me to a conclusion regarding the first part of my Iron Law, the one about status. Again, once necessity is dealt with, all else represents choice, and choice in matters of style becomes statement. This is who I am, or even more important in our own times, this is who I wish to be taken for. 

Going from there, I began to study the clothing choices of my fellow worker bees and drones within the large corporate bureaucracy where I was serving my time. In sorting out the proclaimers of status form the aspirants, I noted that an absence of attention to detail was as much a statement as conscious choice. To not participate was a decision. Those who appeared to take no care in their appearance seemed also to have lost interest in the advancement of their careers. 

While many of the top-tier executives were graduates of Ivy League schools, an outsider if asked to identify the Yalies and Princeton Tigers among us would have probably chosen a couple of the aspirational night-school or day-hop graduates, several of whom  who took more care in appearing preppie than their casually entitled superiors. I can’t remember who coined the phrase about “the imposter defining the type,” but it was applied to a public-school, officer-type like George Orwell who became the compleate working-class bloke. Then there was Irwin Rommel, the lower-middle-class Bavarian as Prussian Junker.  The ambitious up-from-the-ranks guys in my office were significantly   more Ivy than the guys they were imitating. Hmmm. 

As far as Law Two, the sexual imperative: Ask yourself, why do so many   people, particularly men, cease to take care of their appearance as they age? Maybe there isn’t much point to preening when you know you are no longer in the game. As for the lifelong, competitive appearance drive exhibited by so many women, I offer the Van Morrison line that, “the girls go by dressed up for each other.” 

* The only possible dispensation I could grant to the dogmatic rules of appearance goes to the those happy souls who see life as nothing more than a continuing costume party, and array themselves in accordance. 



Crisis? What Crisis?

sb43_090102_140x1051I got cranky last night watching the Super Bowl. Other than the playing of the game itself, the whole self-congratulatory vibe of the NFL has always kind of pissed me off, seeming to exemplify everything that’s gone wrong with this country over the past forty or fifty years. They did have Bruce on at halftime, and last year it was Tom Petty. But last night, awash in the worst a crassly commercial culture can dish out, I couldn’t help but contrast the celebratory hype for so many lousy overblown movies, the outrageously overproduced commercials for sugar-water sodas and the pitches for more outsized, gas-guzzling cars and trucks, all of it against the backdrop of an ongoing economic disaster. It all seemed just so inappropriate, so tone-deaf, so like striking up the orchestra on a sinking ship.

Status Quo Ante Bellum?

images-1It’s easy to forget the shallow Cold War triumphalism, particularly from the American Right, that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with free-market economies worldwide in disarray, the words of Juan Goytisolo’s 1993 novel, The Marx Family Saga echo with prescience. 

“…you wanted to show how at the very moment when communism was being buried and the system was bankrupt, when [Marx]’s doctrines had really been discredited and the whole world was submitting either willingly or of necessity to the harsh law, but law all the same, of monetarism and the free market, the so-called leap forward was simultaneously a leap backward, things had returned to their point of departure…four-fifths of the world lived in dire poverty, millions of children were staving to death in the midst of saurian or reptile indifference, encouraged by its victories and the death of its enemy the capitalism that ruled over Europe and America was still, as its most lucid critics admitted, savagely destructive, based on immediate profit-taking and the jettisoning of civic responsibilities, and while aggressive nationalism, inter-ethnic struggles and racial cleansing spread from the underdeveloped world into the heartlands of Europe, you were all witness in your impotence to the waste of absurd military budgets, to the pillaging of nations and entire continents, to the systematic devastation of the planet, its polluted seas and sickly forests!” 

For the above quote, thanks to Terry Pitts and his blog site Vertigo: Collecting & Reading W. G. Sebald at

A Succinct Explication

There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of many of those complicit in the current economic debacle, they and their political running dogs, to shift the blame off and onto the impersonal forces of market dynamics, or to the government’s “irresponsible” encouragement of home-ownership or to the well-documented sleaze of Bill Clinton. Forget about it. 

The following is the final paragraph in a lengthy piece that appears in the February 12, 2009, edition of The New York Review of Books titled, “How We Were Ruined & What We Can Do,” by Jeff Madrick, editor of Challenge Magazine, Visiting Professor at Cooper Union, and Senior Fellow at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School. 

“This is, as many economists now concur, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Financial market participants created a financial bubble of tragic proportions in pursuit of personal gain. But the deeper cause was a determination among people with political and economic power to minimize the use of government to oversee the financial markets and to guard against natural excess. If solutions are to be found, the nation requires robust and pragmatic use of government, free of laissez-faire cant and undue influence from the vested interests that have irresponsibly controlled the economy for too long.” 

Couldn’t say it better myself. I did try; See The Compost Heap, “Whadda I Know About Economics?”  Posted July 28, 2008. Apparently just enough.

Bless Us Oh Lord And These Thy Gifts…

freedomfromwant1On finding myself alone at a mealtime, I’d reach for something to read while eating. It was multi-tasking, something I still considered a virtue. Too often after a mealtime spent reading, I could barely recall what I had eaten. 

As a child in Catholic school, I had been taught the Graces Before and After Meals, prayers that were rarely if ever said in the absence of clergy. On a day last year, alone in the house, and ready to tuck into one of my ample lunches, I rooted the recent mail for the latest New Yorker or New York Review of Books. To my surprise, an obvious and disconcerting reality entered my mind.  Despite my best efforts not to think about such things, I found I was facing one of my own “inconvenient truths;” there were at that moment, millions of people all around the world for whom hunger was more than a marginal urge, for whom eating was more than a function of choices. 

Unable to banish or deny the realization that there is actual widespread starvation in the world, that there were really children stunted by malnutrition, I fell back upon that long-remembered prayer, “Bless of Oh Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” I put aside my intended mealtime reading material before starting my lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

In the course of my life, I may have skipped a meal now and then. There were the Lenten observances and the days of fast and abstinence during my far off childhood. And even those, in our marginally observant family, were far from rigorous, and always open to the most liberal of interpretations.  But among the far too many things I’d chosen to ignore was an unquestioned assumption that I held an entitlement to eat whenever and whatever I choose. 

Being human is, of necessity, to live within the context of history. In this time and this place, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve been granted a unique dispensation from the flow of history. Solidly, if newly, middle-class in what still feels like the first of first world countries, I do not have to look very far back in my own family; three, four generations at most, to find more sobering attitudes toward the prospects of securing one’s next meal. 

I’ve no personal documentation, nor do I need any, to assert that my Irish peasant ancestors faced periods of absolute need, of hunger and exposure, experiences utterly removed from my own experience. My father spoke of his illiterate and penniless parents emigrating here from the barren West of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s people, more assimilated, deracinated might be the better word, laid claims to being in this country at the time of the Civil War. Only recently was I able to parse that assertion into the probability of their being what were called at that time, “Famine Irish,” a term that carries its own horrific story. 

Never having known genuine scarcity, most of us have come to accept plenitude as our due. The very idea of “normal” presumes an unwarranted and illusory sense of permanence, an exemption from the too often dire consequences of history. It no longer seems necessary to sanctify the routine acts that are the basis of our sustenance, of our very existence. Once a year on the fourth Thursday in November, somewhere amid images of Pilgrims and Indians, we collectively participate in ritual expressions of gratitude for our bounty. For most of us, that’s about it. With my ancestral history as a personal context, the tuna salad sandwich on my plate began to take on sacral qualities, not something to be taken absent-mindedly with the day’s Op-Ed page. 

I can no longer read while eating. Instead, I do my best to focus on my every mouthful of food, be it a bowl of cereal, a fast food sandwich or a holiday dinner. Within my small   insight lies the possibility of ever more openings to gratitude, and within those, a hope that such revelations will encourage a more generous, more active charity on my part, particularly toward those who would find my need for distractions at mealtime beyond  imagining.