Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deep Thoughts for Christmas

I heard Fr. Peter Steele, SJ, a Jesuit poet from Australia (above), give the following homily today. Though the occasion was the 4th Sunday of Advent, the themes fit really well with Christmas, too. Thought you might enjoy it.
No More Homeless, No More Orphans

One feature of the vernacular in Australia is that it is possible, and indeed customary, to use the word ‘bastard’ affectionately. ‘How are you, you old bastard?’, while not the peak of civility, can be quite without animus: and ‘the poor bastard’ approximates to ‘the poor wretch’, or ‘the poor devil’ – it is in effect, if anything, an expression of solidarity.

But this is not the whole story, in Australia, or elsewhere. To call someone a bastard can be to discredit him – or her. And even though one thing for which none of us can have responsibility is who begot us, and when and where and how, a taint continues to attach to the name.

Consider three instances of this. First: on the occasion of the first atomic explosion (very ironically called ‘Trinity’), one of those present, Kenneth Bainbridge, said, ‘Now we are all bastards’. I don’t know just how deeply he thought the implications of that to be, but nobody could think that it was good news. Second, the profoundly unattractive Jean Paul Sartre, although in the conventional sense a legitimate and accepted child, chose bastardy, in the sense that he saw himself as unfathered in the world – saw us all as such, if only we would be authentic about the matter. And thirdly, the idea of the ‘gaucho’, under its romantic overlay of boldness and energy, is the idea of bastardy – of having no legitimacy in respectable society, and perhaps none in the world.

Each of these three figures – Bainbridge, Sartre, the gaucho – is distant in time or in place, but the notion of bastardy (or if you wish to be gentler about it, of orphandom) is not. ‘I a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made’, A. E. Housman wrote, and the notion expands, easily, into ‘In a world which nobody made’, and certainly nobody cares for.

It is a commonplace notion that much modern thought and art hinges on the supposition that, fatherless and motherless as we all are, neither this nor any world can ever truly be a home to us. And even if one rejects the proposition as a proposition, one may for any number of reasons come to sense life as being, essentially, pathos: as being in no happy sense ‘pathetic’. Illness can do this: poverty can do it: anxiety can do it: wealth can do it: absence of people can do it: presence of people can foster it: and so on. Nobody may call us this as long as we live, but a voice at three o’clock in the morning can tell us that we are homeless, and bastards, and that this will never change.

The feast of Christmas, and the season of Advent-expectation, is a retort against all such thinking. In the first of our readings today, we have the Lord God saying to King David, in effect, ‘Wherever you have gone, I have been with you: I have bit by bit been establishing you in the world: I have been the maker of your ‘house’ all the time, and I shall continue to be so: I have been a father to you, and when you die, I will be a father to your son Solomon’. This is a vision of the Lord as home-maker, as maker-of-us-at-home. It has not been, and it will not be, without struggle and challenge: it will certainly not be stress-free. But there is a world of difference between battling on, even heroically, in a deserted cosmos, and living hopefully and generously in a milieu which is at once fatherly, sacred, and accompanied. This is what is held up before David, and this, both Judaism and Christianity say, is what is held up before us.

The gospel passage today is the inexhaustibly rich account of Mary’s being promised that the ‘Son of the Most High’ will be housed first in her, and then through her, housed among us for ever. ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ The bringing of this good news, good news for her, and good news for us, has always to be portrayed as taking place somewhere.

It may, as in the great Van Eyck ‘Annunciation’ here in the National Gallery, be seen as occurring in a church, which would of course have been impossible: but it is dead right for Van Eyck to be seeing the Church as a great germinal home. It may be seen as in more open-ended, casual circumstances. But whatever the scene, it is a scene of God’s coming home to his own world, and in so doing, making it definitely a home for us too. And it is as it were a scene of the Father’s re-uttering his fatherly heart among us and for us. It is the abolition of homelessness: it is the abolition of bastardry.

And in so being, it presents us with a challenge, at this of all seasons of the year, to be hospitable to a degree which we have not so far managed, and to brother and to sister as we may so far have been afraid to do. ‘Welcome home once more’, the Father says to us: and, in giving us his Son, ‘open the door of your heart some more’. All this is said, as it will be done, through the Father, and the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.

-- Peter Steele SJ

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Have a Very Creepy Christmas

My sister sent me this last week. Truly disturbing.

If you need something to cleanse the palate after that, let me offer two options:

Darth Vader's worst day ever.

or Barack Obama -- very cool.

OMG: Rod Whatever

The last time I wrote on this blog was a week ago, and it was about Liza Minelli. OMG. What is my problem? How is that I could have gone a week without commenting, if on nothing else, on the cost of a Senate seat in Chicago today? Can I just say, ugh. And also -- dude. A corrupt governor -- who everyone has been trying to get out for some time now, if for no other reason than his last name is simply unpronounceable -- does not a recurrence of the 1920s or 1970s Chicago corruption make. Seriously... let my people go.

The fact of the matter is, I spent last week in Milwaukee. In summary: Cold. Slush. Unanswered prayers for spontaneous waterproofing of my shoes. Meetings. Meetings. Pizza Man. Meetings. Christmas cookies, college reunion and chicken quesadillas. Return flight.

I'm off again soon to Washington for a story, and then Chicago, to try and get a piece of the action.

But today, noticed this story in the New York Times. Apparently, some here are jealous of Chicago's supposed status as corruption capitol.

When It Comes to Political Corruption, New York Can Hold Its Own
Clyde Haberman

New Yorkers have every reason to feel demoralized in this season supposedly of good cheer.

The economy is — well, you know what it is. The city budget is in a deep hole, and the state is staring at a deficit of $15 billion, a figure larger than the gross domestic product of about 50 countries.

As for some of those who still have lots of money, their priorities seem grotesquely skewed. While thousands of poor schnooks are losing jobs and homes, the Yankees find this the perfect time to spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars — that’s right: billion with a B — to hire two pitchers. This as they boo-hoo-hoo about needing hundreds of millions in municipal aid for their new stadium.

But perhaps the most serious blow to New Yorkers’ morale is a sense that we have been thoroughly outclassed in an area where we have always excelled. We’re referring to corruption and other forms of wrongdoing by public officials. When it comes to bozo politicians, we like to think of ourselves as king of the hill, top of the heap (though a colleague correctly points out that our neighbors in New Jersey and Connecticut are hardly slouches in this regard).

Then along comes Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, he of the implausible hair and the hard to pronounce name. The damage that he has done to New Yorkers’ self-esteem cannot be overstated. It’s not easy topping someone who, if the federal charges against him are true, tried to sell the Senate seat of the president-elect. Years ago, Mike Royko, the great Chicago columnist, called his hometown “the city of the big wallet.” That label may well apply to all of Illinois.

So New Yorkers are understandably smarting. We don’t mind being taken nearly as much as we do being overtaken, and there is an unsettling sensation that Illinois has gotten the better of us.

But in the spirit of the holidays, we come to say: Buck up, New York! Don’t let the Blagosphere get you down. Hold your heads high at the breadth and depth of your leaders’ misdeeds.

In this week’s New Yorker magazine, Roger Angell revives a tradition that had gone AWOL for a decade, this being his name-crammed holiday poem called “Greetings, Friends!” What a field day Mr. Angell might have had if he’d focused solely on our miscreant politicians.

We have Spitzer, Hevesi and Fossella,

Kerik, Rangel and of course Velella.

Really, how can a state feel second-rate when it has a preternaturally sanctimonious governor who is forced out of office after hanging out with prostitutes? That would be Eliot Spitzer, in the unlikely event that you forgot. Nor is there anything second-rate about having a state comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, who also had to resign because of scandal, in his case because he misused state money.

Representative Charles B. Rangel is being investigated for an impressive array of possible ethical lapses. Bernard B. Kerik continues to face federal corruption charges, a fine mess for a former police commissioner and nominee (for something like an hour and a half) for homeland security secretary. Former State Senator Guy J. Velella was jailed for being more sticky-fingered than was absolutely necessary — and then made us all proud by whining about his punishment.

Of late, we have the spectacle of the drunken-driving Vito J. Fossella, the congressman who was caught both red-handed and red-lipped from all the wine he had knocked back. Mr. Fossella’s disgrace did not deter the mayor and other politicians from gathering on Sunday to say what a swell fellow he was. He even heard himself compared to — we kid you not — Jesus, Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa.

You want corruption, be it proved or alleged?

We have Joseph L. Bruno, until recently the State Senate majority leader, under investigation. Our City Council has been investigated for hiding millions of dollars in secret accounts with phony names. A former assemblyman and former Democratic leader in Brooklyn, Clarence Norman Jr., is doing time for extortion and other crimes. Another former assemblyman, Brian M. McLaughlin, pleaded guilty this year to racketeering charges. Corruption also earned former Assemblywoman Diane M. Gordon a prison sentence.

The list of officials who have run into trouble with the law includes, but is most definitely not limited to, Assembly members Roger L. Green, Gloria Davis and Anthony S. Seminerio, who was indicted last week on federal charges of trading favors for buckets of cash.

And to show how diverse we are in New York, judges land in hot water, too. The latest to be indicted is Judge-elect Nora S. Anderson of Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan, who may well be suspended moments after she takes the oath of office on Jan. 1.

So yeah, Illinois, give us your best shot. New York will go toe to toe with you any time. We might even claim a motto in Latin that Mike Royko proposed for Chicago four decades ago. It works for us, too: Ubi est mea.

Where’s mine?


Friday, December 5, 2008

Lastly, Liza!

Lastly, Liza Minelli has a new show on Broadway. Anytime she performs, half the entertainment is seeing what the critics do with her. Some fun posts.

AM New York
In her new show, is Liza the toast or the train wreck of Broadway? She’s kind of both. At Wednesday’s opening night performance, not only did Act One and Act Two feel like completely different shows, they also displayed different versions of Liza.

Act One was pretty problematic. In between forced, mostly spoke-through performances of “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret,” Liza appeared like a marionette on strings on the verge of falling down. In between songs, she panted desperately for breath and her hands shook. We couldn’t understand a single lyric she uttered in any song.

But Act Two was fantastic.

The (giddy) New York Times
I wish I had met Kay Thompson, the creative whirlwind who inspirits the second act of Liza Minnelli’s new show, “Liza’s at the Palace ...,” or simply had the chance to sit at her feet and absorb her presence. From the moment Ms. Minnelli joins forces with a male singing and dancing quartet to resurrect parts of a famous nightclub act Thompson created in the late 1940s and early ’50s with the Williams Brothers, the Palace Theater blasts off into orbit.

There it remains, deliriously spinning until the end of a 2-hour-20-minute show (with intermission) that leaves the star in a state of breathless exaltation. The end of the opening-night show on Wednesday found Ms. Minnelli panting, drenched in sweat, her hair matted, as if she had just finished running the New York marathon, which in a sense she had....

...I would love to report that Ms. Minnelli’s voice and physical agility have been magically restored to their former glory, but those days seem to be gone. On Wednesday night her voice was in tatters, her diction unsteady. When she belted, her wide vibrato wobbled to the breaking point. Most of her s’s were slurred sh’s. Frequently short of breath, she swallowed phrases. Many of her highest notes were dry, piercing caws.

New York Times Slide Show

The New York Post
Sorry to disappoint all you vultures out there, but she's done it again: "Liza's at the Palace . . . !" is the sort of late-career triumph of which show-business mythology is made.

Repeal Day

Today is National Repeal Day. 75 years ago, in fact, on this day, the state of Utah gave the final ratification necessary to officially repeal the 19th Amendment, which in 1919 had instituted Prohibition. In some parts of the country, including New York, there are 30s style parties this evening at bars turned into speak-easys.

But the more lasting significance is in the fact of repeal itself. For us, the Constitution is a highly stable document. Though a few amendments have been kicked around in the last 10 or 15 years, it's pretty hard for most people to imagine seeing a new amendment of any kind at this point.

But our history reminds us that we remain capable, through amendments, of making corrections. Prohibition seemed like a good idea at the time, and only caused problems; it probably should have been a law, not an amendment. And 75 years ago, we corrected that. As stable as it seems, the Constitution retains a pliability, and that's something to be happy about.

So tonight at 9pm (when Prohibition was officially ended), raise your glass for the Constitution!

For more fun information, try here; to hear about some places in your neck of the woods where they are celebrating, try here or here.

The Little Drummer Boy

I'm working on a piece for the magazine on the Little Drummer Boy song. And I came upon some great video clips. The first is David Bowie & Bing Crosby -- I swear, it will make you a little vklempt.

The second is from a Rankin-Bass special about The Little Drummer Boy. I don't think I ever saw it, though I bet we're all big fans of Rankin-Bass specials: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, featuring not only Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman (who knew Frosty had a goatee) but the fantastic Hermey the Elf and the Island of Misfit Toys -- a term I have heard used in reference to any number of religious communities; Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (with Fred Estaire), Frosty the Snowman (with Jimmy Durante) and The Year without a Santa Claus (which features my favorite characters, Mr. Heat Miser and Mr. Snow Miser; 20 years later, I can still sing that song).

Anyway, the video is a bit ridiculous; Aaron the shepherd boy...with a drum (?).... comes to the baby Jesus and plays his drum for him, hoping that the baby will be able to save the life of his sheep Baba, who had been the victim of a chariot hit-and-run. (I hate when that happens.) Just the idea of him banging on a drum before a sleeping infant, well, it's kooky.

But somehow it works.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Our Deepest Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Nelson Mandela (quoting Marianne Williamson)

Reasons I Love My Nephew Jack #307

From my sister's blog:
Well last night we thought we were going to have a low key night. We were going to read books after baths and showers and just relax. So, there were are getting Jack dried off and dressed. He went to put his arm out on the bed and at the same time Meg decided to push him and goof around. Well he missed the bed and hit his head on the bottom of our bed foot board. Which of course has a piece of decorative metal (that is smooth) that runs across. He pulled his head up and there we had a big opening over his eye.

We could not tell how big of a cut it was until the blood stopped. Once it stopped we attempted a butterfly band aid, but I thought it looked pretty deep. So, I had my friend Christie come over and she said Yeah he needs to go to the hospital. Sure enough we went to the hospital and they had to give him 4 stitches.

Jack had 2 concerns: 1) "Are they going to remove my eyeball?" and 2) "Don't let Meggan touch my other eye because I don't want her to hurt that one."

Jack, I hope you feel better!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Signing up with a Gym as a Microcosm of What's Wrong With Me

So last week I joined a gym. First time ever. I've been eyeing this particular establishment for some time; they're right next to my office, many at America work out there (come see us!), and they have always a deal running. In fact, I've learned more about the fiction that is the retail sale by watching them than I would at any mall. The sign "Sale Ends This Week" never leaves their awning. Truly.

Which makes you wonder, who exactly are they targeting? If you live or work in the area, you know the sale hasn't ended, probably never will end, or more likely never began, you fool. Unless you get hoodwinked as soon as you come to the area -- oh my God, I better get my membership now! (you have to love marketing that creates a false sense of urgency) -- you're not coming. Or not for that reason, anyway.

So that leaves visitors or passersby. There are plenty of visitors in the Midtown area. Especially from now until January, Midtown sidewalks are usually stuffed with tourists walking their gentle way through the war zone which is the New York City sidewalk.

But that's another story.

The thing is, tourists don't need yearly gym memberships. So that leaves passersby, i.e. I live in Brooklyn, but wouldn't it be great to go to the gym in Midtown? Again, no sense this make does.

I guess I don't know who they're marketing for.

So, part of the membership is an opportunity to an "orientation" (read: sales pitch for a workout package) with a trainer. Which made me... nerrrvous. I've never worked with a trainer before, and the image of an oversculpted, head-shaved weightlifter (they all have their heads shaved) yelling at me to PUSH had something to do with it.

But mostly, it's because I didn't want to feel any pressure to buy something more. I was born without the retail vertebrae. In stores where I think the agents are going to ask me more than one question, I run, even though I might be interested in the merchandise. Likewise with a small shop, fuggedaboutit. I ain't goin in. I just don't want the conflict. Leave me alone, play some dance music that makes me replace whether I can afford what you're selling with a desire to get jiggy, and we'll all be happy.

So -- right up front I tell them, sure, I'll do the orientation, but I'm not buying a package of sessions. Fine. Look at me -- I'm tough.

Except I didn't want an orientation session. I want some aerobics classes, a treadmill and some other aerobic machines. That's it. But I'm sitting in this very small glass room, just me, the salesman, his desk (which blocks the way out), and eventually the trainer, "Rick". And the kid working with me asks, will I do the orientation? And somehow it seems rude, very rude to say no. As though he and I are friends -- he's just been kind enough to offer me something I don't really want, the only polite thing to do is to take it. (I'm not saying it ain't crazy. See blog title.)

Today I had that orientation. Sort of. It lasted about 3 minutes, beginning with me saying I don't do weights and ending with me calling the whole thing off when he asked me to do push-ups. (Grade school gym flashback -- not pretty.)

And the crazy thing, the thing that made me want to write it all up, was this -- later, after my workout, I came downstairs and ran into "Rick" and my trainer and another guy talking, laughing. And my trainer was all, "Hey, I told Rick you can come back for that orientation every time." And Rick was all, "Hey, buddy, what happened?" And for just an instant -- just an instant -- I felt the nub of what should have been that fully-grown vertebrae, straightening out my back just a fraction, and I looked at Rick, said, "Didn't want to do it" and went in, victorious, to take my shower.

It was my Hoosiers moment. My final steps should have been in slow mo.