Comments, criticisms, or (one can hope) compliments are more than welcome! Please let me know what you think, tell me I'm crazy (I suspect this) or what you'd like to hear about. Comments are screened before publication, so if you want to share something with me only, just put that in the comment and I'll keep it to myself.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Girlyman in N.Y. 4-22-12

Third Sunday in Easter

On a rainy Sunday we visited a grad school professor of mine, Diane Mitchell and her husband Marko Gosar at their studio in YOHO, a wonderful cooperative gallery space in a converted prewar factory building in Yonkers, N.Y.  They work, sometimes collaboratively and other times on their own, in a variety of media.  In this show, they featured a number of panoramic prints from their travels in Europe and the Chesapeake Bay area.  Diane works predominately in digital art, and Marko is a photographer and printmaker, and also creates decorative textures for custom interior designs

After checking out some of the other art, we headed back into Manhattan for our first Girlyman concert in a while, at City Winery.  This is a fun venue if you pick your seat carefully and don't mind sharing a table with strangers.  You can have dinner during the show if you want to, but this time we hit Bubby's Pie Company beforehand instead.

The opener was new to us, a singer-songwriter named Edie Carey who is touring with Girlyman this time around.  Her banter between tracks was light-hearted and self-effacing, contrasting with a somewhat melancholy set.  A stand-out for me was "Lonely" off her 2006 collection Another Kind of Fire. She is definitely worth further exploration. 

Girlyman also brought a few guests, including cellist Julia Biber and Ingrid Elizabeth from Coyote Grace, whom we "discovered" when they opened for Girlyman in this same room last year.  Carey also joined them on a number of tracks.  Rather than a typical box-format, the foursome-plus were set up in a line right at the front of the stage.  I was happy because I love watching drummers ply their trade, and Girlyman's percussionist J.J. Jones was at our end of the stage, moving in a hypnotic dance with what seemed like eight limbs producing a wealth of sound.  Jones joined the band in 2010 after they were well-established (percussion used to be a shared task with Ty Greenstein frequently playing the djembe) and I was a little bit concerned about the effect the shift would have in their sound.  Luckily it was for naught; Jones complements the others without giving the band an outright rock feel.  On this tour Nate Borofsky introduced a keyboard to the line-up, producing some effects that were previously only included in studio versions of their songs.

Maybe it was the weather but Girlyman's set was also a little downbeat, dipping heavily into their newest release Supernova.  This offering was shaped in part by band member Doris Muramatsu's recent experience with leukemia (she's in remission, thankfully) which she relays in the title track.  Towards the end they brightened things up a bit, including their tribute to the Andrews Sisters, "My Eyes Get Misty" and Greenstein's rallying cry to tomboys everywhere, "Young James Dean".

The band's rapport with its NYC audience remains strong despite moving from Brooklyn to Atlanta and signing with Indigo Girl Amy Ray's Daemon Records.  The crowd hollered out requests and laughed knowingly at the inside jokes between songs.  I was glad to see that they haven't forgotten about us amidst their success; after a stint in Europe they will be back for a show in Brooklyn in July.  Check them out if you can.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Those Madcap Nuns

Many of us, even those with little or no direct experience, are amused by the notion of nuns behaving badly.  The idea that religious sisters, whom we associate with placid, regimented lives, might get up to all sorts of mischief has been a popular theme in entertainment for generations. From Julie Andrews' Maria and Sally Fields' airborne Sister Bertrille to the gaggle under the stern eye of Maggie Smith in Sister Act, we identify with the idea that these disciplined figures might have a frivolous or even wild side bubbling under the surface. A line of greeting cards and calendars featuring the habit-clad doing everything from riding motorcycles to skeet shooting pokes gentle fun at this concept. Listening to some rather timid hymnody in church, I couldn't help but wish that Whoopie Goldberg's Sister Mary Clarence would appear and encourage us to start singing so God might actually hear us. Even the feisty Sophia Petrillo gave religious life a go, but found difficulty adjusting to the point where the Mother Superior told her, "I'm going to go pray now. I won't tell you what I'll be praying for, as it would hurt your feelings."  These are just a few of the dramatizations portraying nuns, in varying degrees of accuracy.

In fact, there are orders who shun all or most of the world's distractions, and being forced to partake of them can be extremely traumatic when one feels called to do live in seclusion. In 1988, while I was involved in a Catholic youth organization called Antioch, we learned that four Carmelite nuns at the cloistered convent nearby barricaded themselves for nine months in the infirmary in an attempt to shield themselves from what they viewed as an imposed modernization or diluting of their "rule of life". The changes, including eating candy, watching videos and leaving the facility for walks around the parking lot, were contrary to what the sisters and novitiates saw as their calling.  The prioress and her supporters contested that these things were not new to the house, and it was a question of alliance to her predecessor and resistance to her authority vs. the acts themselves. As with most conflicts, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between.

 A community of brothers in Vermont, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, live almost completely as hermits in solitary confinement.  Each brother has a small apartment with a workshop, walled garden, and indoor space to eat and pray.  Food and other necessities are received through a "turn", a pass-through of sorts that does not require interaction with the person delivering them. These brothers gather only for communal prayer and one weekly meal, eaten in silence, and they leave the monastery only a few times each year for a group walk in their wooded surroundings.  Annual visits from their families are their only contact with the outside world.

Most religious, of course, live and work among -- and more or less like -- the rest of us, vows notwithstanding. I attended high school under the Sisters of Mercy and Brothers of the Sacred Heart, but by that time the ruler-wielding tyrants of my parent's generation were reduced to folklore (thank you, DYFS!) so my impression of those in religious life was generally a positive one. I mostly stayed on their good side, with the exception of the morning my friend Staci ran up to the school bus one morning with a made-up "emergency" that was in reality the desire to have me join her for a few minutes of new-found freedom, thanks to her newly-acquired driver's license.  Needless to say the bus driver (who was also our science teacher and the wrestling coach... our school was so small, the jocks had to moonlight as drama geeks!) dutifully reported said "emergency" to Sister Pat.  When we arrived a few minutes later (coffee and bagels in hand, such grownups!) she was waiting for us at the door, wearing an expression right out of the Book of Revelations.  Generally though, she was a benevolent and fair leader, and an interview when she left a few years after my graduation revealed she had survived a difficult childhood, losing both parents at a young age.

My strongest association with a religious community, however, has been with the brothers at Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery and working farm in the woods of Vermont (more on that next week!) that my family has been visiting for most of my life.  My sister and I agree that the Priory would be our post-apocalypse "go-to place" assuming we could fight our way past the zombies on the New York Thruway.  If anybody would know how to deal with whatever was coming next with zenlike grace, it would be the Weston brothers.

After moving to the Episcopal Church for other reasons, I discovered that religious orders exist for us as well, albeit on a smaller scale, like everything else.  In our area is the mother house of the (Augustinian) Community of John the Baptist, and up the Hudson a bit is Holy Cross Monastery, a Benedictine community.  Both host retreats and invite visitors to their historic grounds.

All of this means that I was, as were many, very disheartened by the idea that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of what used to be known as the Inquisition, and most recently led by the current Pope) this past week portrayed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which oversees some 57,000 American nuns, as an unruly gang of Pied Pipers who are leading the unwitting Catholic faithful away from its doctrines, particularly on its favorite subjects of late, abortion and homosexuality. It wasn't so much that the sisters were making statements contrary to church doctrine; but they were not using their influence with the people they serve to echo the party line about the dangers of same-sex marriage and the scourge of free condoms.  It called elements of Sr. Laurie Brink's 2007 address to that body a "serious source of scandal." in that it suggested sisters might find a spiritual calling "beyond the church" or even possibly "beyond Christianity."  The Congregation announced that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle had been appointed to give the Conference a thorough going-over and knock them back into line. 

The reaction was, predictably, swift and overwhelmingly on the side of the sisters. The Rev. James Martin, who writes for America, says, "More often than not, it is women religious who precede the men in working with the poor, in giving voice to the powerless and in dying on the fields of martyrdom. It is the women who do, do, do, and have done so with little recognition and historically even less pay, and all in a church where women's voices are often unheard, ignored or denied."  Martin started  a Twitter hashtag #WhatSistersMeanToMe, which has taken off with a life of its own.  In her Washington Post blog, Melinda Henneberger says "The Vatican, of course, knows a lot about scandal — to the point that the nuns are the only morally uncompromised leaders poor Holy Mother Church has left."  Sr. Joan Chittister, a well-known writer who once led the group facing the charges, said that a reformation from outside threatened the unique relationships sisters have with the people they serve, and that the questions this work causes them to ask must be answered if the church is to remain vibrant, relevant and respected.   "When you set out to reform that kind of witness, remember when it's over who doomed the church to another 400 years of darkness. It won't be the people of the church who did it."

From my perspective, the nuns are the only participants in this quarrel who are dealing in reality at the moment.  A person discovering an unplanned pregnancy or attraction to the same sex is less likely to be shunned by secular culture today than thirty years ago, so if the response is anything other than empathy and compassion, he or she is more likely to just walk away  and seek help elsewhere.   The sad reality is that Americans are abandoning organized religion in droves, in part because they are no longer afraid of what the church or society will do to them if they don't follow its rules.  While the mainline Protestant denominations and reform Judaism are responding (admittedly in fits and starts) by wrestling with these issues and trying to put them into context, the Vatican and the U.S. Council of Bishops seem to be stepping backwards and snuffing out any room for conversation.  Comparing gay activists to Nazis or the KKK and other extremist rhetoric from the pulpit will not draw the disaffected back into the fold; it will only cause them to tune the church out.  Withdrawing from social services ministries to avoid complying with laws requiring equal treatment of everyone won't get the laws rescinded, it will just punish those who benefited from those worthwhile ministries. Unfortunately for us moderates, the increasing ranks of the unchurched seem to make little distinction between one group of Christians and another. In the end, we get lumped together as an anachronism from a another time, amusing at best and destructive at worst, and we all stand to lose. 

It remains to be seen what the sisters will do. As described above, a calling is not something a person walks away from easily. This is not the first time a religious order has run afoul of the Vatican, and the response hasn't always exactly been timid. Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California responded to a similar 2009 inquiry, "We can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn’t ask, the questions should be answered accordingly."

If all else fails, they can always steal  Archbishop Sartain's carburetor.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Are the Lifeboats Seated According to Class?

Saturday in Easter Week

By now you are probably sick unto death of references to the R.M.S. Titanic as we approach the centennial of her sinking.  Actress Kate Winslet reportedly cringes when she hears "My Heart Must Go On" and every time a cruise ship encounters any kind of mishap, breathless passengers insist "it was just like the Titanic!"  Of course it was... except that it was 2,800 miles away, 90 years later, within sight of land and your inconvenience was limited to warm beer for an afternoon in the Anchors Aweigh Lounge til the lights came back on.

Simulated Size Comparison:
vs. Oasis of the Seas(Caution: Contains Music)

For those with no other references, the Titanic remains the "go-to" vessel, to which every new passenger ship is compared.  However, for ship geeks like me, the most interesting thing about her is that she almost immediately failed at her job: that is, to get her human cargo safely from one side of the Atlantic to the other.  Her speed and size statistics were almost immediately eclipsed by other vessels, and few can name her two sisters, both of which also met with disaster in varying degrees.  Since then, hundreds of liners -- ever larger, ever faster -- came and went, most of them long forgotten except by a nostalgic handful.  Today's plodding cruise behemoths bear little resemblance to the ships of that time, yet passengers who -- when asked what ship they spent their vacation -- answer, "Um, Carnival?" know Titanic.  People who have never seen the ocean know her name and remember her story.

To me the human dynamic of what happened that night, and what it says about the time in which it occurred, is far more interesting than the ship itself, or even the human errors and vices that made it happen.  We recently started watching the British "costume drama" Downton Abbey, which is set in England in the same time period, and seeing the characters interact with those in their own and in different social strata is helping to understand a little more about the way events unfolded. Just as scullery maid Daisy knows that she is never to set foot in the family dining room, some in third class seemed to accept as normal that their station in life meant that it was more important that a wealthier person should live while they would die.  Just as the Dowager Countess has no problem with the idea that the townspeople let her win the village rose competition every year regardless of merit, the mother of Winslet's fictitious character Rose is more concerned that nobody of lesser pedigree be seated next to her in the lifeboat than the fact that -- for the vast majority of souls on board -- there will be no seat at all.  While that remark was fictitious, it was probably not especially unlikely.

Fast-forward a century, the lines of class -- while not erased -- are certainly blurrier than they once were.  While it is taking an embarrassingly long time to get past the concept of race or ethnicity as a marker of your human worth, at least we've evolved to the point where making such crass remarks is considered bad manners in most circles.  And if someone on the Costa Concordia tried to assert that a balcony suite meant he was entitled to evacuate the tilting cruise ship first, he would have likely been thrown overboard.

Butt-Millet Memorial by Daniel Chester French (1913) (SOS! Control # IAS 77002684)

The Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain
Washington DC
My friend Julio mentioned in his new pop culture blog recently that a novelist used simple statistics and known cultural facts to surmise that "the love that dare not speak its name" was most certainly in bloom aboard the ill-fated ship, and that -- unlike the preposterous inter-class romance in The Movie -- males from from various passage grades and even the crew were free to roam past barriers and interact.  While his assertions are mostly speculation, I learned recently that at least one pair of men on board were widely assumed to be a couple.  Major Archibald Butt, who served as chief military aide and close friend to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, shared a home in Washington DC with a painter named Francis Davis Millet, and the two were traveling together aboard Titanic after Millet got Taft to convince Butt he needed a recuperative vacation.  Both died, and the fact that a fountain bearing both their names was constructed the following year near the White House signals that their relationship was both recognized and respected by the President is telling considering that -- 100 years later -- the Current Occupant is "still evolving" on the issue.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Verizon Resident Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Thursday in Easter Week

 "Have you ever wanted to take a young person's face gently in your hands,
look into their eyes, and say, lovingly, 'Are you in there?'"

In the constant battle against encroaching clutter, I have endeavored in recent years to get myself removed from as many mailing lists as possible.  The organizations I actually deal with have -- for the most part -- figured out how to interact with me electronically and limit the amount of paper they foist my way.  With the exception of American Express, who are apparently required by law to send you a paper letter to tell you they sent you an electronic letter, they've been pretty good about it.

The same goes for shopping.  If I don't actually go look at something and carry it home, I'm most likely to buy it on-line. I do not need a miniature paper version of your store sent to my house.  Even the supermarket now sends the weekly specials to my phone and lets me add them to a virtual shopping list I can look at as I traipse the aisles. When I see something I want, I can zap it with my scanner gun, bag it right away, pay and lug the lot home, usually without talking to anybody.  Whether or not this is progress, I realize, depends on your perspective, but I prefer not to prolong the experience any longer than needed.

Key in the fight against the postal onslaught has been Catalog Choice.  This handy service makes it easy to opt out of catalogs, phone books, and other paper detritus.  Even some non-addressed services like those envelopes of coupons that seem like such a great thing until you go to use them can be held at bay.

There are only two hold-outs that neither I nor Catalog Choice have been able to subdue, and a surreal interaction with one of them led me to write about my travails today.

Due to my ongoing, mutually-satisfactory relationship with Blue Phone Company, I have absolutely no interest in Red Phone Company.  I will never be their customer.  Even if -- for some reason -- Blue and I were to part company, I would not run -- weeping -- into the arms of Red.  I've tried to tell them it just won't happen "It's not you, it's me... okay, it's you." but they remained unconvinced, and tried to woo me with offer after offer in my mailbox. I half expected the "can you hear me now?" guy to show up in my driveway one night with Peter Gabriel blaring on a giant boombox held over his head.

Shortly after I argued my way all the way to some V.P. of Marketing in their labyrinthine headquarters (popularly known as the Death Star) and she actually got my name removed from their files, we started getting mail for someone named Verizon Resident.  Mr. Resident  apparently once occupied our home (along with his wife, Current) but moved away to parts unknown, and never told his telephone carrier.  They continue to send the pleas and sonnets I've managed to escape, and I must admit I feel a little bit miffed that they were able to transfer their unrequited love so easily.

If it was not a federal offense, and I was not the kind of person who would likely be arrested for re-using an uncanceled postage stamp, I'd give in to my temptation to fill out a change-of-address form for the Resident family and redirect all their correspondence to that woman's office aboard the Death Star.  However, I know that I'd be thrown in the back of an unmarked van with a bucket over my head and hauled off to Washington for a Very Uncomfortable Audience with Wilford Brimley.

Today's misanthropic rant, however, has to do with Sears, Roebuck and Company and their slightly downtrodden relation, K-Mart.  The fact that K-Mart bought Sears and not the other way around should tell you something, I'm just not sure what.

Against my better judgment, I purchased a solar motion light from kmart.com solely because they were part of my favorite airline's shopping portal and promised more points per dollar than their competition.  The light arrived in a battered box covered in tape. It resembled the "suspicious package" you should run away from if you ever see it unattended on a bus.  When I opened it, it was missing directions and some of the hardware.  After arguing with either a non-native English speaker or a particularly poor customer-response bot for several weeks via email, I was told they would neither replace the light nor refund my money.  As this was not my first terrible Sears/K-Mart shopping experience, I concluded it would be my last, and told them so in no uncertain terms.

So today, I got a catalog in the mail from K-Mart, addressed to me (or Current Resident.  Has she been reading my mail?). I promptly called their 800 number and was greeted by a perky, confident female voice, which was quickly deflated when I told the poor child on the other end that I wanted to be removed from their records.  Nonplussed, said she could help with that right away.

After disappearing for several minutes, she came back and asked me for my e-mail address.  I told her no; I wasn't calling about e-mail, and I didn't want to start getting e-mail.  She had to think about that for several minutes, and then had me repeat my name postal address again.  I did so.  Then she asked for a phone number.  I said no, I really didn't want to hear from or think about her employer ever again, so I certainly wasn't expecting them to call.  She apologized, and then claimed it would be taken care of.  I remained unconvinced, especially when her next question was if she could help me get started on my spring shopping.  What part of "I will never buy anything from your store ever again" wasn't clear?  I took a deep breath and remained calm, and repeated that it was not my intention to trade with them further.  There was a pause, and I knew she was reading the queue card that said she should ask for my e-mail for a customer satisfaction survey.  Bless her heart, she caught herself, and told me to have a nice day.

I sure will, Honey. We're playing golf with the Brimleys.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jesus Meets his Mother


She was going to be there at his end-- she who had been there with God at his beginning. She was his mother. She had fed him and cradled him and watched over his growing. Whatever he had said and done, he was still her son and she would not desert him now. Whatever pain of his she could embrace, she would. And in the meeting of their eyes, there was love, suffering and shining.