Thursday, August 30, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Cubs Announce “Live Goat Sacrifice Night”
Move Is An Attempt to End Century of Futility

CHICAGO -- In an effort to end the nearly century-old “Curse of the Goat,” the Chicago Cubs today announced plans to sacrifice a live goat in a ritual ceremony designed to appease the baseball gods.

The “Chicagoland Meat Packers Association Reverse the Curse Live Goat Sacrifice presented by Haroldson Foods” will be held between games of a September 8 doubleheader between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins, team officials said.

(left) Cubs got your goat? If it's September 8, you'd better hope not.

“After nearly one hundred years, it was clear to the team that dramatic action was necessary,” assistant Publicity Director Ken Randolph said. “We’ve tried blockbuster trades, spending wildly in the free-agency market, and hiring high-profile managers, all to no avail. And even though we’re seeing some signs of life in the team this season, it became obvious as we analyzed our history that something drastic had angered the baseball gods, and that only a blood offering would totally appease them.”

The so-called “Curse of the Billy Goat” supposedly dates back to the Cubs’ last World Series appearance in 1945, when a man trying to attend Game 4 with his pet goat Sianis was denied admittance to Wrigley Field. Subsequent attempts to “reverse the curse” by bringing goats into Wrigley Field have failed to stem the tide of futility and loss which have dogged the Cubs since their last championship in 1908.

“The vengeful baseball god Homeron is clearly not satisfied with our meek attempts at redressing the injustice,” Randolph said. “We concluded that the only possible step available to assuage Homeron’s wrath was to sacrifice a male goat between the ages of 18 months and two years, after which his blood will be drained into a clay pottery bowl and offered up in humility to Homeron, along with a meek plea that he might take pity on the Cubs and remove the curse which he so justly invoked upon us these many decades ago.”

A stone altar will be constructed midway between second base and the center field bleachers. Akwar Abandai, a Verdic priest, will preside at the ceremony, assisted by veteran slaughterhouse butcher Duke Mantel. The ritual sacrifice will be telecast live by Cubs broadcast partner WGN, and will be available via streaming video on the station’s website.

For a city still reeling from the 1979 “Disco Demolition Night” fiasco at Comiskey Park on the south side which resulted in a riot that forced the Chicago White Sox to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader, announcement of the sacrifice brought apprehension to many fans.

Cubs follower Dick Blutus spoke for many, calling the sacrifice “a cheap stunt” and comparing it to “a gimmick the Sox might pull, but unworthy of our Cubbies.” Teresa Sims offered her own concerns about the promotion. “I mean, what’s to keep other bizarre cults and religions from storming the field to offer their own ritual sacrifices?” Sims asked. “I’m all for diversity, but I’d hate to see something like this get out of hand. The Cubs can’t afford a loss, even by forfeit, this late in the season.”

PETA spokesperson Victor Benjamin illustrated the unease with which his group views the Cubs announcement. “Of course, we completely deplore this inhumane treatment of an innocent goat. This announcement by the Chicago Cubs is another example of the corporate influence of American culture, putting greed and profit ahead of the lives of animals. On the other hand, one hundred years is a long time to go without winning the Series. If it works, well, it is only one small goat.” A representative from the Illinois Humane Society said the group would defer comment until November.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig declined to intervene in the Cubs promotion, issuing a statement that since there were no drug tests in place for animal sacrifices, there was no action he could take. Selig also refused to confirm nor deny that he would be in attendance at the sacrifice ceremony.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Although more widely known as an artist, Marsden Hartley (1877 - 1943) was also a poet. As a matter of fact, I read his poetry before I knew he was an artist. Born in Auburn, Maine, he was sometimes included in local anthologies that I read growing up, as I was also born in Maine.

His contemporaries - some of them his friends - were all the other poets we've been looking at over the past few weeks, but his mentors were of another time: William Blake, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson. He never studied poetry; he just read it. Form was not formal, rhyme and metre did not fit into a type. He liked how a phrase sounded and how it looked on a page; perhaps he approached writing the way he approached painting.

Gail R. Scott in her preface to the volume of Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley she edited in 1986 said, "Many visual artists are able poets on the side or articulate spokesmen for their work. Some writers also paint with varying degrees of competence." William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were also dual creators. Closer to home, our friend Terry is both an artist and a writer. So we shouldn't be surprised that someone of one creative bent would embark on another. Or that a person could be successful in more than one medium.

In fact, music was also a large part of Marsden Hartley's life. Although not a musician, he appreciated good music and musicians and wrote in a style that was often as lyrical and flowing as a musical line. Today's poem is one about, and inspired by, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (with a nod to William Blake).


Those piston-driven fingers at the key-
board like tigers burning bright in the
middle of a cataclysmic rage,
tearing the tones apart as fish-hawks tear,
one claw holding them down, fish-snacks from
fish skeletons,
scattering the bones upon wind-bitten waves.

This sense of being aware at once of everything
in the full-fledged instance, leaving immortality
like a fleck on the face of the sun,
the man himself pulled out of a sheer mirage
leaving him bare of heart,
with stately soul drawn upward by the hair
like some mad thing in a Blake drawing,
only when we LEARN - are we suspended between
crashes of thunder and jabs of lightning
do we know the glory of the single moment
it is the certainty that we have lived what
the sense contrived outside all metaphysical
flat pauses,
that music like this is made,
giving credence to wisdom's fiercest surmise.

The Cult of Celebrity

By Drew

The cult of celebrity is something that we've alluded to here from time to time, most often in the idea that celebrities, like everyone else, are role models whether they like it or not. And then there's what we've called the "Oprafication" of life, the wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve mentality that substitutes feeling for thinking.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In "The Dianification of Modern Life," Theodore Dalrymple of The New Criterion sums up what a commenter refers to as the "vapidity of celebrity culture." It strikes at one of those things that seems so very wrong about our society today:

Her death provoked a reaction of sociological and psychopathological interest. Her combination of inaccessible glamour and utter banality (on her own admission, she was not very intelligent, and it was evident that she had no taste for threateningly elitist intellectual or artistic pursuits) appealed to millions of people. Apart from the fact that she was extremely rich and married to the heir to the British throne, she was just like us. Her personal tribulations were just like ours: at base, rather petty and egotistical. She was the perfect character for a soap opera, in fact, and those who ‘grieved’ after her death were really protesting at the deprivation of a large part of the soap opera’s interest.

He also makes an excellent point about how this very tendency was leapt upon by Tony Blair, eager to find the hook for his prime ministership. It was Blair who made popular the phrase, "The People's Princess," and as Dalrymple shows, the impact on Britain (and Western culture, for that matter) has been extensive:

In the orgy of demonstrative pseudo-grief that followed her death, Mr Blair said that the people had found a new way of being British. Indeed so: they had become emotionally incontinent and inclined to blubber in public when not being menacingly discourteous. They had come to believe that holding nothing back was the way to mental health, and their deepest emotional expression was the teddy bear that they were increasingly liable to leave at the site of a fatal accident or at the tomb of someone who had died in early adulthood.

A wonderful phrase, that: "holding nothing back was the way to mental health, and their deepest emotional expression was the teddy bear." Whether or not you agree with that, you have to like the way it rolls off the tongue. Say it a few times, and you'll probably begin to see the truth of it as well.

Dalrymple begins his essay with a quote from the (viruently) athiest Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, who writes, "Three million souls can be starved and murdered in the Congo, and our Argus-eyes media scarcely blink. When a princess dies in a car accident, however, a quarter of the earth’s population falls prostrate with grief."

That is the scandal of modern life, the scandal of the cult of celebrity, the scandal for the believer. And it is a scandal, because we can do better than that, we are capable of far more than we are showing. If we fall into these traps, if we sanctify the dead simply for being dead (as Dalrymple puts it, "How could anyone who personally hugged people suffering from AIDS and was against the planting of landmines not be a force for good?"), then we give those like Sam Harris no reason to look further into the eternal truths of Christianity. If the only object is to feel good - well, you can get that anywhere, can't you? Hardly seems worth needing a Redeemer, what?

Life is a challenge, and oftentimes the only way to meet that challenge is through reason, combined with faith in the power of the mind. Sadly, thinking is something that seems passé all too often, now.

Dalyrmple's essay comes from a fascinating forum at Britannica Blog, "Diana and the Cult of Celebrity." It's a discussion well worth checking out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

My Sentiments Exactly

By Drew

Over at NRO, Peter Robinson struggles with his five-year-old daughter's announcement that, after two days, she's had it with kindergarten. In response, Fr. George Rutler, one of my favorites, comes up with this (dryly humorous) opinion:

I'd encourage your youngest one to abandon kindergarten altogether. Almost everything I learned was learned outside the classroom, and school itself interrupted my education. Moreover, school locks you in with your peers. That is a mistake. One's social circle should never include one's equals. From my earliest years I found children uninteresting and always preferred the company of adults. This was an advantage, because I got to know lots of folks who are dead now whom I never would have known if I had waited until I was an adult. - So I have a collective memory - and oral tradition - that goes back to the eighteenth century, having spoken with people who knew people who knew people who knew people who lived then. - The only real university is the universe and a city its microcosm. That is why an expression like "New York University" is foolish. New York City is the university….Instead of school, children should spend some hours each day in hotel lobbies talking to the guests. They should spend time in restaurant kitchens and shops and garages of all kinds, learning from people who actually make the world work….One day spent roaming through a real classical church building would be the equivalent of one academic term in any of our schools, and a little time spent inconspicuously in a police station would be more informative than all the hours wasted on bogus social sciences. Formal lessons would only be required for accuracy in spelling and proficiency in public speaking, for which the public speakers in our culture are not models, and in exchange for performing some menial services a child could learn the violin, harp, and piano from musicians in one of the better cocktail lounges, or from performers in the public subways….So I urge you to keep your child out of kindergarten, because kindergarten will only lead to first grade and then the
grim sequence of grade after grade begins and takes its inexorable toll on the mind born fertile but gradually numbed by the pedants who impose on the captive child the flotsam of their own infecundity.

Wonderful stuff! It's very hard for me to disagree with any of it. Fr. Rutler may be speaking humorously, but I think at the same time he's trying to make a serious point about education - not just here, but everywhere.

I never liked school. Not from the first day of kindergarten to the last day in college. I wouldn't pretend that it was because I was too smart for my classes (although this does date back to the beginning of the "lowest-common demoninator" style of education), nor would I say that there were any particularly traumatic experiences associated with school.

No, in my case it was pretty much a case of being bored with the classroom. Like Fr. Rutler, I found much of my education outside of school (I learned more about American history from Alistair Cooke's America and my own reading than anything I was taught), particularly the freedom to develop and pursue my own intellectual interests. Some will say that school is necessary to broaden your horizons, but I think that, if this was ever true, it is surely false today. Instead, school often serves to stunt the imagination, kill intellectual curiosity, and teach conformity to a false standard. One only has to look at the inane "zero-tolerance" policies put in place by foolish administrators and school boards, and how teachers' unions habitually kill any real hope of education reform, to see how a lack of discernment and critical thought, a sacrificing of intellect in favor of PC-mumbo-jumbo, permeates every level of the system.

Also, like Fr. Rutler, I preferred the company of adults during my youth. I can't pretend to have associated myself with such varied and esteemed company as he did, but I can't complain about it, either. There was something about adult company that gave one an adult sensibility - again, people may suggest that this atmosphere forced kids to grow up too soon - didn't leave enough time for "kids to be kids." Back then, growing up too soon meant you might be engaged in adult conversation about politics, religion and the world, instead of romping around in the back yard, tossing the football; you might be thought of as too "serious," or even be called "precocious." Nowadays, it means drugs, sex, dressing like a pimp or a slut. I don't know about you, but I still think I got the better of the deal. Better to be precocious than promiscuous, I always say.

My contempt for the public education system in this country is pretty much complete (perhaps the single most damaging institution in our society today), and based on what I've read there are a lot of private schools that aren't much better. (However, I base this mostly on my own experience, public grade and high school, private college.) But I don't think that we can say education elsewhere is immune from that which has so damaged education in this country. There were, as I recall, schools in England that were going to stop making Churchill a mandatory part of their curriculum (in defending this position, a spokesman said that these were merely guidelines, that it wasn't meant to be inclusive as to what would be taught in the classroom, which shows more confidence in teachers than I'd be willing to have.)

(And actually, at this advanced age I wouldn't mind going back to school; I think I'd be emotionally and intellectually ready for it, seeing it as something to augment my education, rather than provide it entirely. However, what with modern economics and the need to make a living, I don't see it happening any time soon.)

The inflated importance attached to the acquisition of a college degree is yet more evidence of this; it's a mark of how far we've fallen into a service mentality that a sheepskin is valued so much more highly than a useful trade. I don't suggest you can lay the blame for it all at the feet of the education system, but you can enough of it. The growth of homeschooling is one of the great education movements we have; like anything else, it's not perfect, but I think it's a darn sight better than the mess we have now. And it's nice to know that there's at least one person out there who just might agree with me.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

By Mitchell

Not a weather report, but more like a book report. Or perhaps something like, "books, books, everywhere, and not a thing to read."

While researching an unrelated topic, I ran across this list by National Review of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. The list of names on the selection panel are almost as inpressive as those found in the list. For what it's worth, I can say that we either own or have read 16 of the books on the list. Would anyone care to guess which ones they are?

It's hard to limit this kind of list to 100. I can't comment on the ones I haven't read, but of the ones I have I can't disagree with any of them. Wouldn't it be interesting to find out what books just missed the list? I can think of several I would have added myself - The Making of the President series by Theodore H. White, for example. These books, written every four years from 1960 to 1972, may or may not be good history - White was wrong about some things, naïve about others, and wasn't always as well connected as he thought - but this series is wonderfully evocative of a time and place in history when politics was more interesting, when it was actually fun to be involved. I wonder how many poli-sci majors cut their teeth reading about these campaigns?

Robert Caro's The Power Broker goes on the list, not simply because I've spent most of the summer reading it, but because it presents an unadorned picture of the lust for power and how the rammifications can affect generations to come. If you want a good idea of how our cities wound up the way they are, this volume is an excellent companion to one of the books on the NR list, Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of American Cities.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, Ball Four by Jim Bouton, and The Biggest Game of Them All by Mike Celizik are sports books that all deserve mention. The Boys of Summer, the beloved story of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ball Four, the first sports tell-all book, present two different yet complimentary views of the national pasttime, and again it seems like an era long past. The Biggest Game of Them All, Celizik's story of the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State college football showdown, literally comes from a different era, and tells us much about how sports grew into the media monster it is today.

A Night to Remember, Walter Lord's memorable telling of the sinking of the Titanic, has introduced generations to the wonders of the true-life epic disaster. If you're a Titanic buff, you probably already have it. If you aren't, you will be once you've read it. William Manchester's The Death of a President remains one of the definitive tellings of the events surrounding the assassination of JFK. Some will prefer Jim Bishop's The Day Kennedy Was Shot, but Manchester's book should be on the shelf if you have any interest in it at all.

And that's just a sample - I'm sure there are more on our bookshelves that I'm overlooking, but isn't this enough for starters?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

"Vicks" Latest Casualty of Michael Vick Scandal

CINCINNATI, OH -- Say goodbye to Vicks VapoRub.

In the wake of the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, the fallout has claimed another victim. Despite the fact that “Vicks” in actuality has absolutely nothing to do with Michael Vick, parent company Proctor & Gamble announced today that the company was changing the popular brand name to avoid association with the disgraced pro quarterback, who recently pled guilty to federal dogfighting charges.

It was a tough decision, but P&G marketing director Hector Nelson said the company had no choice but to act.

(left) Separated at Birth? Not if Proctor & Gamble can help it.

“As you know, over the years Proctor & Gamble has had its share of difficulties with misinformation being passed around. For several years, we had to fight the accusation that our corporate logo was in reality a Satanic symbol. The last thing we need is to get mixed up with a person whom some people think is worse than the devil.

Proctor & Gamble joins a long list of companies entangled in the Vick fiasco. However, most of the other companies – including brand names such as Nike – enjoyed an endorsement relationship with Vick that became an embarrassment once the horrific details of Vick’s alleged crimes became public. P&G is the first company to react despite having no discernable connection whatsoever with Vick.

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs thinks P&G may be overreacting. “You have to give the American public credit for not being stupid,” Dobbs said. “I think they can tell that Vicks VapoRub has nothing to do with Michael Vick. It’s far more important that we find out what connection Proctor & Gamble has with goods being imported from Communist China. Now, if we were to find out that Vick was importing his dogs from overseas, instead of using American-bred dogs, that would be another question entirely. But I guess that doesn’t have anything to do with Vicks VapoRub, does it? Maybe I've just gone over the top.”

Nelson said the company had not yet decided on a replacement name for “Vicks,” but that criteria had already been established.

“I can assure you of one thing, our new brand name will be one that doesn’t carry even the smallest whiff of scandal. There is no way that our new product name could ever be associated with any kind of misconduct or suspicion.” Nelson denied a report in today’s Wall Street Journal that suggested the company was considering the name “Bonds” as a replacement.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Although Sara Teasdale (1884 - 1933) was of the same era as the other modern poets we've been looking at, she decidedly was not a "modern." The poets of this time wrote the way their contemporaries in the fields of art and music approached their craft; life played out in a rhythm of ragtime or jazz. This was a time of change, of uncertainty.

Sara Teasdale's work was more like a stroll in the park at twilight: quiet, dewy, somehow other-worldly. Her comtemporaries looked only forward; it seemed as though she looked back toward the Pre-Raphaelites such as the Rossettis (Dante Gabriel, the painter and poet and his sister Christina, the poet). In fact, Christina Rossetti was one of Sara Teasdale's favorite poets (mine too!). Figures from the past, fictional heroines, and modern legends inspired her (Helen of Troy, Beatrice, Guinevere, Eleonora Duse).

Like her contemporaries, she spent time in Europe, but while Paris seemed to call to the Bohemians, it was with England she felt most compatible. But home wasn't the Continent, and she came back to America again and again and traveled it from coast to coast. Each place inspired her. From Maine to New York City to Tucson to Santa Barabara, she found something everywhere that spoke to her, while never being at home anywhere. She was something out of time, out of place, belonging neither to the past or the future. While this strange nature could sometimes produce poetry that was less than profound, there was a lyric beauty about all that she wrote and I find myself coming back to her poetry as much as I do to Christina Rossetti's.

Here is a poem from her second book, Helen of Troy and Other Poems (1911).

Central Park At Dusk

Buildings above the leafless trees
Loom high as castles in a dream,
While one by one the lamps come out
To thread the twilight with a gleam.

There is no sign of leaf or bud,
A hush is over everything-
Silent as women wait for love,
The world is waiting for the spring.

Quick Notes

By Drew

  • At The New Criterion, James Panero gives us further evidence (as if we needed it) of the decline and fall of Western civilization. He brings us Jay Nordlinger’s report from the Salzburg Festival, which features (surprise!) yet another example of the infamous Regietheater (Director’s Theater) we wrote about here a couple of weeks ago.

    This time, the opera in question is Der Freischütz, by Carl Maria von Weber. According to Nordlinger, it’s a Christian tale, "But how do you handle a Christian tale on a continent whose elite culture is decidedly post-Christian, to say the least?" Well, here is how Falk Richter, a director from Hamburg, handled it:

  • At the end of Act II, we have some hot nude models, parading around in high heels. They kneel down to take communion, in a kind of black mass. And the characters now and then leave German for English, speaking words we don't exactly expect in "Der Freischütz." One of Samiel's acolytes declares, "Money is everything." And John Relyea's Kaspar speaks some of the pivotal words of the opera — Mr. Richter's opera, that is:

    "Destruction, death, corruption, rape, war, invasion, burnt children, low taxes, and religion — that is what we would kill for; that is what our hearts yearn for."

    Yes, low taxes, to go with burned children and religion.

    Is it any wonder more people don't go to the opera?

  • Speaking of which, Greg Sandow frequently explores the future of classical music. Does it have one, unless it adapts to the necessities of modern culture? This piece (and its comments) continues a fascinating discussion on the merits of classical music vs. pop. I'd like to weigh in on it myself, but it takes a lot more time than I have right now. But I think you might know where I come down.

  • Have you ever wondered what your favorite composers would look like if they lived in the The Simpsons universe? That's the hilarious question Drew McManus (like the name!) asks at Adaptistration - take the quiz and find out for yourself. And while you're at it, follow the link to this piece by Drew as he goes back to a classic (and classical music) Simpsons with the immortal line, "The Philharmonic is playing Gustav Mahler in abject squalor!" The entire episode is full of very, very funny scenes, such as: "In an effort to keep the people from leaving the hall one of the more dedicated Cultural Advisory Board members rises up to say "Don't leave now, the next piece is an atonal medley by Phillip Glass" at which point the audience stampedes for the exits (including the orchestra musicians).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wish I'd Written That

By Mitchell

"I'm still impressed--if that's the word--by the way in which the Internet facilitates idiocy. Or, in the words of an unknown commenter quoted in Daniel J. Solove's forthcoming book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, 'The Internet makes fools into stars and stars into fools.' "

Terry Teachout at About Last Night

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bridge Loan

By Mitchell

OpinionJournal has a very interesting editorial on the economic consequences of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, which should be required reading for everyone - not only those outside the area with an interest in how this story turns out, but those within the Twin Cities who very much have a vested interest - both in terms of transportation and taxes - in what happens next. Among their findings:

James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who runs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently stood beside the wreckage and recommended an increase in the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax, as a way to prevent future bridge collapses. His wing man, Alaska Republican and former Transportation Chairman Don Young, agrees wholeheartedly.

As it happens, these are the same men who played the lead role in the $286 billion 2005 federal highway bill. That's the bill that diverted billions of dollars of gas tax money away from urgent road and bridge projects toward Member earmarks for bike paths, nature trails and inefficient urban transit systems.

Hardly a surprise, I suppose.

People from outside Minnesota keep asking me where the outrage is. I'm not always sure what we're supposed to be outraged about - there's always so much from which to choose - but a common theme centers around how our tax money is being used. As I mentioned in a piece last week, Thomas Sowell points out that there's plenty of money being spent on infrastructure; the question we should be asking is how that money is being spent. The OpinionJournal piece seconds these concerns: while Oberstar brags of "secured more than $12 million in funding" from a recent spending bill, the actual disposition of the money goes unnoticed: "$10 million of that was dedicated to a commuter rail line, $250,000 for the 'Isanti Bike/Walk Trail,' $200,000 to bus services in Duluth, and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl. None of it went for bridge repair."

It's not as if we're not paying enough taxes: seventh in the nation in personal income tax, third highest in corporate tax rates, and a budget surplus of $2 billion. Additional spending goes not to infrastructure, but to things such as "health care, art centers, sports stadiums and welfare benefits." Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.

Very little of this will be a puzzlement to people who live in Minnesota, or have spent some time here. But it needs to be mentioned nonetheless. There's nothing like a tragedy to stampede people into action. This was true even when people voted with their hearts much less than they do in our Oprahfied era. Even though the attempt may be doomed to failure (see Drew's post earlier today on doomed heroes), someone has to bring up the facts. Someone has to stand athwart history, yelling Stop.

The doomed hero

I've linked a couple of times in past weeks to James Bowman's site, where he's been discussing a series of movies he's presented, entitled "The American Movie Hero." Bowman presents three architypes of movie heroes: the virtuous hero (Gary Cooper, John Wayne), the "cool" hero (Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen), and the cartoon hero (Harrison Ford, in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

It's difficult to craft a good story without a hero of some type, even if's only an anti-hero. Show me a flawed story, whether movie, show or book, and I'd suggest one of the major problems is the lack of a hero. Bowman doesn't presume to discuss all types of heroes, and therefore I'd suggest the existence of another: the doomed hero.

The doomed hero encompasses elements of all three types listed above. He probably comes closest to the virtuous hero, the one who fights for an ideal; who, as Bowman says, sees "the work that needs to be done," and this is perhaps the defining characteristic of the doomed hero. However, the doomed hero can also share elements of the cool hero in the sense of fatalism and world-weariness that accompanies his mission, which can include a moral ambiguity about his work. It's more difficult to see the similarities with the comic, or larger than life, hero, although the doomed hero often appears in works of an epic, larger than life, scale.

Most of all, when watching or reading about the doomed hero, there is the sense on the part of the witness that "this isn't going to turn out well." Think of Maximus, the character portrayed by Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Not only is there a sense of foreboding about Maximus throughout the film, that although he's certain to triumph he's also going to pay a heavy price, there's also the feeling that this is as it should be, that there really isn't any other way it could happen. The doomed hero meets this with a sense of resignation - the resignation that you see in Steve McQueen's face in The Towering Inferno, as his character, Fire Chief O'Hallorhan, heads back into the burning building in a last effort to save the lives of those trapped inside. The expression on McQueen's face (through which McQueen usually did his best acting) tells you that he doesn't expect to come out of this building alive, and it's perhaps more a testimonial to McQueen's star power than anything else that he somewhat surprisingly survives his mission, rescuing those inside to boot.

This has been perhaps a somewhat roundabout introduction to Declan Walsh, the doomed hero of Walter Murphy's 1978 novel The Vicar of Christ, a book that probably should be better known than it is. We know he's doomed before the story even starts, really: in a brief introduction, the unnamed narrator explains that he's on a mission to write the biography of the martyred Walsh, who died as Pope Francesco I. So, having been told in the opening pages that our hero dies, we are immediately plunged backward into the remarkable story of Walsh's life: a Korean War hero and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Chief Justice of the United States and, finally, Vicar of Christ.

If all this sounds a little like just a too much for one lifetime (not to mention straining the credulity of the reader; even a favorable reviewer called it "preposterous"), there's good reason. I'd read the book myself one summer during my college years, afterward discussing it with a professor who enjoyed discussing that type of thing, and making this very point. Of course, he shrugged in response - after all, the story wasn't really about realism. It was about the epic, mythological hero. Were the adventures of Ulysses, Beowulf and Arthur any more realistic? It was big book for the reader to get lost in (over 600 pages), a bigger-than-life story that reminded one that life itself, in fact, is bigger than life.

The Vicar of Christ tells this epic story through the eyes of four people who knew Walsh well – a fellow soldier in Korea, a Supreme Court associate justice, the Cardinal who spearheads Walsh’s election as Pope (the book’s longest section), and, as a type of coda, the journalist who provides the inside story of (the now) Francesco’s final days. In doing so, Murphy tells us as much about the narrators, who appear and reappear through Walsh’s life, as he does about Walsh. Their distinctive voices, their (at times) compelling stories, their frequently contradictory opinions of characters they each come in contact with, and their insights into the enigmatic Walsh/Francesco all serve to weave the disparate threads of the story together. We know Walsh as they did, but in the end it’s unlikely that we know him any better then they did, for Murphy as author only lets us see Walsh through their eyes, giving us as much knowledge as he does them.

Murphy, given the chance to provide us with easy answers about Walsh, declines the opportunity and leaves the task to us. Occasionally one of the narrators will provide us with insight that another narrator lacks, but ultimately we’re left to guess about Walsh as much as they do. And while it’s clear that we’re meant to admire Walsh, it’s not at all clear that we’re supposed to understand him.

Murphy is never blind to Walsh’s faults. In an effective use of the narrative form, Walsh’s actions – good and bad – are always given to us as seen through the eyes of others, denying Walsh the opportunity (common to so many fictional characters) to provide a self-serving explanation. (When we do hear those explanations, they’re filtered through the translations of the narrators, further separating Walsh from the reader.)

As to those faults, they are a mixture of the objective (adultery, arrogance, crudity) and the subjective (a liberal Catholicism that will not rest easily with many more orthodox Catholics, though ultimately it does not get in the way of the story). But if great men have great faults, they frequently also have great virtues as well. A towering intellect, a driving ambition, an inner confidence that helps to hide an uncertainty self-knowledge, and an uncertain growth that (depending on your own reading of Walsh) either leads him far away from his old self, or brings him to the fulfillment of his destiny – these are the traits that Murphy uses to confirm his verdict of Declan Walsh/Pope Francesco I as a great, if flawed, man.

It’s always been a wonder to me that The Vicar of Christ, which was published in the heyday of the television miniseries, was not made into one. Its truly epic scale that covers all of the American passions – politics, religion, war, justice, lust – made the story a natural, and I’d thought that at one time I’d read of the story being optioned; alas, however, nothing apparently ever came of it.

So what, ultimately, do we make of Walter Murphy’s The Vicar of Christ? Doubtless it represents many things to many different readers – a hoary relic, the last gasp of a fading liberal Catholicism; a reminder, through the mists of time, of the legendary hero-warrior; a story, uniquely American, of ambition and accomplishment; or perhaps a universal story, that of triumph and tragedy, loss and redemption. At the very least it presents us with a doomed hero that would have done Wagner proud, a man sacrificed on the pyre of his own beliefs. Was he martyred for the faith, or stopped from destroying it? Or could it perhaps be both? That is one of the many mysteries the reader encounters, mysteries likely to be mulled over in the mind for some time to come. Not everyone will like it, or agree with it. Some may be bored with it. Fewer, in all likelihood, will quickly forget it.

One thing is for certain, however. As the college professor told me those many years ago, it is a modern demonstration of the power of myth, the need for heroes, the drama of life. And life itself requires some suspension of ordinary, mortal belief, doesn’t it? For even the most ordinary of lives is so full of miracles that, were we to write about it in simple truth, nobody would believe it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Report: Rain Falls on Just, Unjust

(MINNEAPOLIS, MN) -- Meteorologists from the National Weather Service confirmed today that the thunderstorms which battered the Twin Cities area Saturday morning equally affected both the just and the unjust.

“There is no doubt that God did not play favorites in this storm,” Chief Meteorologist Barton “Storm” Front said in a press conference Tuesday. “After consulting with trained climatologists and local theologians, we have concluded that pretty much everyone in the Twin Cities area got wet this weekend, regardless of their current moral standing in the eyes of Almighty God.”

Doppler radar images were used in conjunction with analysis provided by the Rev. Leroy Declaimer of the Last Baptist Church, Fr. Eugene O’Donnell of Our Lady of Deep Regret Catholic Church, Rabbi Yefrim Shamir of Temple Al-El, and Kareem Abdulah-Mobutu of Dar-Al Fooey Mosque to make the determination that, in this case, all men and women were equal in God’s eyes.

“Our unanimous conclusion was that, in this case, a cold weather system moving down from Alberta combined with moisture coming up from the Gulf - not the sins of the fathers - was responsible for the widespread damage and power outages reported as a result of the storm,” Front concluded. “Although it may be hard for some to accept, it appears that all men, good as well as evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, faced the same consequences from this storm, in this way fulfilling the words of Matthew 5:45. How they accepted their fate, of course, is another matter.”

God-fearing churchgoer Randall Simmons provided first-hand testimony to the even-handedness of the Lord’s Judgement.

“I came up from the basement to find several of my windows smashed and a tree downed in my front yard,” Simmons said. “My first thought was to ask myself why a just God would permit this to happen to me. I go to church on Sunday, I give 10 percent of my paycheck to my congregation, I read the Holy Bible every day. Why, I asked, am I being singled out for punishment in this way?

“And then I looked across the street at my neighbor Ed’s house. Everyone knows that for some time Ed’s been carrying on a secret affair with his secretary, and that they meet every Wednesday afternoon for a quickie at the Starlite Motel. Well, when I saw that the winds had torn off a portion of Ed’s roof and a tree limb had fallen and crumpled the hood of his new Lexus, I felt much better. I realized that even Ed had not escaped the wrath of God as expressed through Nature’s Fury.”

Front stressed that the Weather Service’s analysis was limited to last Saturday’s storm, and had no bearing on the Department of Agriculture’s continuing investigation into the plague of locusts affecting Kansas last month.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Farewell, Scooter

By Mitchell

Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto, who died yesterday, was not only a Hall-of-Fame shortstop, a much-beloved announcer, a commercial spokesman for the Money Store, the first mystery guest on What's My Line?, the announcer who coined the phrase, "Holy Cow!" and the unwitting participant in a Meat Loaf song (or, as the Wall Street Journal would have had it, "Mr. Loaf), he was also my boss's favorite ballplayer.

As he tells it, when he was a young lad, in the early 60s, the Yankees came to town to play the Twins. My boss and a couple of his kid buddies went downtown one morning to the hotel where the Yanks were staying. The rest of the kids went for the obvious stars: Mantle, Maris, Ford. But my boss, alone of all the kids, kept looking, camped out near the elevator, until Rizzuto - by then the team's radio voice - came down for breakfast. He asked for Rizzuto's autograph.

"You know who I am, kid?" Rizzuto grinned, looking at the other kids swarming around Mantle and Maris.

"Sure," my boss replied. "You're the greatest shortstop to ever play the game."

Rizzuto beamed. He put his arm around the young boy and asked him if he'd had breakfast. When he said no, Rizzuto took him to the club's dining room, to Rizzuto's own table. He then made an announcement: "I want you to meet my friend," he said, introducing the boy to the assembled ballplayers. "Now, he's going to come around to your table and ask for your autograph, and I'd like you all to help him out."

You'd think that would be enough adventure for one day, but Rizzuto had only begun. If he didn't have any other plans for the day, Rizzuto asked the boy, how would he like to accompany Phil to WCCO, where he would record his radio program. "It was boring as hell," my boss remembered, but that didn't matter. It was his day with Phil Rizzuto.

Before it was over, Rizzuto had given the boy a couple of tickets for that night's game between the Yankees and Twins, and told him to bring his mother along and to stop by the radio booth during the game. They did so, and Rizzuto welcomed them in like long-lost friends. "That's a fine young man you have there," he told my boss' mother.

So he left that day with a book full of autographs from hall-of-famers, a trip to a radio studio, a couple of tickets to a ball game, and a lifetime full of memories. He beams every time he tells that remarkable story.

And it was my boss I thought of yesterday when the news of Phil Rizzuto's death came through. The obits, particularly this gently elegant one from Cliff Corcoran at, seem to have gotten the essence of a man who loved baseball, both as a player and an announcer, a man who both on the field and behind the mic introduced generations to the game and invited them to share that passion. As one commentator put it on ESPN today, there is a special bond between a baseball team's fans and its announcers. (I mentioned this earlier this year in my obit of the Twins' longtime announcer, Herb Carneal.) That bond existed with Phil Rizzuto, and it apparently wasn't limited to those who heard him on the radio; it extended even to those who met him.

I never met Phil Rizzuto, but I know someone who did (which is closer than many may have gotten), and sometimes that's good enough. It's memories like this that remain for a lifetime, in the effect a simple act of kindness can have. It's why our athletes and celebrities are role models, whether they like it or not. It's why they, and all of us for that matter, had better live up to that obligation.

George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, was quoted yesterday as saying something to the effect that Heaven must have needed a shortstop, and so they called Phil Rizzuto. It was an impossibly corny statement, one that could only come from the mystique that is the New York Yankess; and one that, on this day, seemed totally appropriate.

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

While I've mentioned Ezra Pound several times, I have yet to post a poem of his. So here we go.

Known for his bohemian lifestyle and his unpopular opinions, Pound (1885-1972) may not have been very well liked, but his influence on modern poetry was enormous. A champion of other poets of his time, his own poetry went through many stages until it now is considered some of the finest of the modern era. His early influences were the Pre-Raphaelites and medieval poetry. After 1945 his poetry took a decided turn toward probing his own collapse in the face of the collapse of Europe.

But today's poem is from an earlier era. The language belies the form; what sounds old and formal is not. It's as though the repeating refrain, "Free us" is both a plea and a bold statement. And probably every college student who is tired of study and wants to escape for some "easy on the eyes" fun can relate. Here is Pound's "The Eyes."

The Eyes

Rest, Master, for we be a-weary, weary
And would feel the fingers of the wind
Upon these lids that lie over us
Sodden and lead-heavy.

Rest, brother, for lo! the dawn is without!
The yellow flame paleth
And the wax runs low.

Free us, for without be goodly colors,
Green of the wood-moss and flower colors,
And coolness beneath the trees.

Free us, for we perish
In this ever-flowing monotony
Of ugly print marks, black
Upon white parchment.

Free us, for there is one
Whose smile more availeth
Than all the age-old knowledge of thy books:
And we would look thereon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

By Mitchell

You may recall that Willie Stark, the Huey Long-esque central figure in All the King’s Men, originally comes to power through a literal collapse of the infrastructure. Stark, who winds up as one of the truly sinister political figures in American literature, starts out as an earnest crusader, thrust into the limelight when a tragic school accident confirms his earlier charges of corruption in the bidding process used to construct the building. As one character puts it, “I am punished for accepting iniquity and voting against an honest man!”

You don’t see scenes like that much in American politics today, and it isn’t only because we don’t have novelists like Robert Penn Warren writing the dialogue. It’s because we live in an era in which the idea of a political white knight, a populist hero of the people, is a concept totally foreign to the average American.

Now, at this point in All the King’s Men Stark is, in fact, a relatively honest man. (This is before he goes on to become a poster child for the “power corrupts” school of political science. For more information look under “Moses, Robert.”) And therein lies the difference. Stark himself, in one of the novel’s most memorable lines, says, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”

Again, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a politician today (or anyone else, for that matter, outside of an evangelical pulpit) who would put it in quite precisely those terms. But Robert Penn Warren’s words lie at the heart of the debate that is to come, and the way in which our times have changed.

A friend of mine from out-of-town asked me if the outrage had started yet over the 35W bridge collapse. Certainly, if you’re interested in pointing fingers there’s enough blame to go around. You’ve got, just for starters, inspection records that might have sent up red flags, pork-barrel spending that might have taken needed funds away from supporting the infrastructure, a constitutional amendment that was supposed to take care of funding for roads (and might – several years down the line) and two new sports stadiums going up. (Wonder where the money for those is coming from, hmm?)

I told him that while I supposed the outrage would be there eventually, frankly people were still a little too stunned to get going on it. Not to worry though, I assured him – it will happen soon enough. (In fact, there are already arguments going on over the design and speed of the bridge replacement, not to mention the likelihood of a gas tax increase to pay for everything.)

So it’s easy to imagine the blame game to come. (Because, after all, we do have to have someone to blame for it, don’t we? The human heart is far more comfortable with that scenario. Something goes wrong, it has to be someone’s fault, right?) The question, however, is who will benefit from it? Who’s going to be the white knight? And I don’t think that’s a crass question to ask, when you’re talking about someone the public will turn to.

The days of Willie Stark are gone now, or fading quickly. If you look at the literature, the movies, the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, government leaders are generally the good guys. If there are monsters to fight, the military takes them on. If there are gangsters on the loose, the feds are there to protect us. Aliens, mind-control, different types of sinister plots, might even bring the president into the mix.

Hard to believe that would happen now. The general perception of politicians today is not a particularly positive one. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any politician is going to be able to ride to the top on a wave of outrage over the bridge disaster. Between the earmarking, the pork-barreling, the vote trading, and the general level of corruption and politics-as-usual that most people associate with politics, today’s leaders are probably more likely to be blamed for causing the collapse (or at least the conditions that precipitated it) than looked to take care of the problem. That won’t stop them from trying, from talking a good game about it, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap.

Thomas Sowell had a brilliant column last week regarding the subject of tax increases to pay for infrastructure. He doesn’t think much of it. There’s plenty of money to pay for infrastructure, he said;

The real problem is that the political incentives are to spend the taxpayers’ money on things that will enhance politicians’ chances of getting reelected.

There may be enough money available to maintain bridges and other infrastructure but that same money can have a bigger political payoff if spent building something new instead of maintaining and repairing existing structures.

So where is one to turn to find the white knight? Not the politicians. They’re all guilty to one extent or another, most people would say. Or, as Stark puts it, “conceived in sin and born in corruption.”

(We probably ought to be suspicious of politicians who promise to take care of the infrastructure, anyway. They have ways of turning out to be something other than we’d expected, even as they fulfill their campaign pledges. He made the trains run on time, anyone?)

In truth, the politician of the Willie Stark era has been replaced, in most cases, by the trial lawyer. (See Edwards, John.) No matter what type of calamity occurs today, if you look closely enough you’ll probably find a lawyer somewhere in the aftermath, already working up his first briefs. It’s not that we look to the lawyers to remedy the situation. No, what we ask from them is simpler, more straightforward: we want justice, retribution, financial restitution. We look to them to assign the blame, to hand out the punishment, to hold the guilty parties up to ridicule.

It’s almost as if we’ve given up on the idea of changing things, and are content to simply react instead. We can’t prevent bad things from happening; we can only punish those responsible. The trial lawyers have punished a lot of people over the years, and they’ve certainly made a lot of money for the victims of disaster and their families (and a great deal of money for themselves, in the bargain). They’ve also been responsible for adding to the cost of even the most basic services, of skyrocketing costs (in the medical field, for example), and in attaining a level of trust just about as low as that of politicians. The only difference is that the lawyers might at least be able to get you a few bucks; anytime you talk to a politician it usually winds up costing you money.

There is one other possibility, of course. Oprah. She’s always got a sympathetic ear, unless you do her wrong. (See Frey, James.) Her audience is huge, heart-on-the-sleeve-wearing, inclined to believe the best about you and the worst about them. Maybe she can’t redress the wrongs you’ve suffered, but at least she’ll give you a hug and a shoulder to cry on. And there’s always the chance you’ll get a few minutes of fame, and maybe a book or movie deal. How good is that – a chance at the money, and you don’t even have to go through the trial lawyers to get it. Remember in Three Days of the Condor how Robert Redford goes to the New York Times to expose our corrupt government? Forget that; the Times is so passé. Oprah is the crusading journalist of our time.

I don’t mean for this to sound too cynical, although it undoubtedly is the product of a cynical age. It’s just that the times have in fact changed. Not necessarily for the better, or the worse; Willie Stark was hardly a bargain, as is usually the case once someone gets that first taste of power and finds he likes it. It’s just that we don’t look to the crooked politicians anymore, but to the ambulance chasers.

So when we demand answers, when we call on someone to do something, when we ask, “Where’s the outrage?” we’d better be careful what we ask for. We might just wind up with Willie Stark. Or John Edwards. Or even Oprah. Which one is worse? You be the judge.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Merv Griffin, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

Perhaps Merv Griffin never displaced Johnny Carson as the king of late-night TV, but you could make the argument that Merv was, in many ways, more successful than Johnny. After all, starting out as a $100 a week singer and winding up as a a business mogul, a friend of presidents, a true TV icon (who could forget Rick Moranis' hilarious Merv Griffith sendup on SCTV, a fusion of Merv's talk show with Andy Griffith's Mayberry) - well, that's not too bad for one lifetime. We all know about his two creations - Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune (he also composed the Jeopardy theme), and he probably could have lived off the money from those alone and had a pretty comfortable life.

He was also into real estate - The Donald might have thought he saw a band singer and comedian accross the table instead of a shrewd businessman, and Merv took him to the cleaners in taking over Resorts International. He dabbled in horse racing, and his horse Stevie Wonderboy won horse of the year in 2005. He was a close friend of the Reagans, and viewers might remember seeing him as an invited guest at Ronald Reagan's funeral.

On that note: in the August 17, 1968 issue of TV Guide (with the cast of Gunsmoke on the cover), Joe McGinniss - soon to become famous for The Selling of the President and Fatal Vision - writes a profile of Merv, who has just taken his syndicated show to CBS to challenge Carson. Merv is shown preparing for his show, trying out a new game show idea, working the suits because that's how you get ahead in the entertainment business. The topic, as one might expect with McGinniss, turns to politics. Merv voted for Nixon in 1960 - but calls him "Darting-eye Dick" - and LBJ in 1964, but his misgivings about Vietnam soon turn him against Johnson. They want him to interview Humphrey, and he says he will, but comments that he's not very enthusiastic about it "because I honestly can't think of a single question I'd like to ask him." Trying to express this dissatisfaction, he concludes that "[w]hat we need in this country now is someone like DeGaulle. Someone to give us pride in ourselves." And it's not unreasonable to think that he, like so many Americans, found that someone in Ronald Reagan.)

So maybe he didn't bump off Johnny - nobody was going to knock out Carson, after all - but the Merv Griffin Show did run for 20 years, longer than any of the other challengers. His syndicated show was a fixture on daytime TV; CBS recruited him as the late-night challenger to Carson in the late 60s, and after that failed he went back to the syndicated airwaves, where his show continued to 1986.

As I've said before, anyone can write an obit; it's actually pretty easy to do. And so you can go to any number of news websites and read about Merv's life and career. But, as cultural archaeologists, what we try to do around here is dig a little deeper, to come up with the things not everyone remembers. For example, I always thought of Merv Griffin as being just right - comfortable, like an old shoe. He was glib, charming, smooth, even (as Judie suggested) a bit randy . Remember Arthur Treacher, the dignified English comedian who (besides selling fish & chips) was Merv's sidekick? Remember Charo, the Cuchi-Cuchi girl? Or Orson Welles, who made his final appearance on Merv's show and died just hours later?

It's easy to forget, as I did, that many thought Merv was too "sophisticated" for daytime TV - his guests included Pablo Cassals and the historians Will and Ariel Durant, and his stint with CBS was filled with controversy, as this exerpt from The Muesum of Broadcast Communications demonstrates:

He immediately ran afoul of network censors with controversial guests and topics. Concerned with the number of statements being made against the War in Vietnam in 1969, CBS lawyers sent Griffin a memo: "In the past six weeks 34 antiwar statements have been made and only one pro-war statement, by John Wayne." Griffin shot back: "Find me someone as famous as Mr. Wayne to speak in favor the war and we'll book him." As Griffin recalls in his autobiography, "The irony of the situation wasn't wasted on me; in 1965 I'm called a traitor by the press for presenting Bertrand Russell, and four years later we are hard-pressed to find anybody to speak in favor of the Vietnam war." In March of 1970 antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman visited the show wearing a red, white and blue shirt that resembled an American flag. Network censors aired the tape but blurred Hoffman's image electronically so that his voice emanated from a "jumble of lines." The censors interfered in other ways as well, insisting Griffin fire sidekick Arthur Treacher because he was too old or that he not use 18-year old Desi Arnaz, Jr. as a guest host because he was too young.

This was enough for Merv, and soon enough he was back where he was most comfortable, in the world of television syndication, where he continued to thrive. And so what was it about Merv Griffin that brought him from the world of band singer and game show host to become a television icon? Some of it is undoubtedly what he was not: there was none of the volatility of Jack, the ocasional edginess of Johnny, the acedemic bookishness of Dick. He was more successful than Joey and, unlike Mike, made a successful transition to nighttime. No, as I said, Merv was comfortable, and that was undoubtedly one reason for his longetivity. (And if you're too young to remember Merv, the wonderful TVParty site has a couple of great clips from his show.)

But perhaps there was another reason why the audience was always there for Merv. And if so, I think it can be found in the closing lines of McGinniss' TV Guide profile. But whether this explains it or not, I can't think of a more fitting way to conclude a tribute to one of my favorites, the TV icon Merv Griffin, who died today of cancer at 82.

You work a lot and smile a lot and if you are, in your guts, an exceptionally decent person, then you are nice to everyone you meet and you meet everyone you're asked to.

And when the show is over you walk out onto 47th Street, into the bright electric night, with the new Gore Vidal play across the street, and Cyril waiting to take you home. But there is a crowd waiting and you sign your name for everyone and make pleaseant little remarks and the people see that you really are a good, warm person, just the way you seem on the show, and they walk away happy because for once, maybe for the only time, someone they admired from a distance did not turn ugly up close.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Cultural Archaeologist

By Mitchell

Through what I can assure you is no fault of my own, I seem to have become a character in a long-running soap opera at the Recovering Dissident Catholic site (with graphic embellishments by Abbey Roads). It’s flattering, to be sure, to be cast as your own character. And far be it from me to discourage comparisons with such sartorial luminaries such as Amos Burke, John Steed, or even What's My Line's John Daly.

But this does bring us around to the golden age of soap opera on television. You don’t see many soaps on TV nowadays, and in fact why would they be needed? Between Opera and Springer and The View and all the rest of the daytime talkers, your dramatic and lascivious needs are pretty well taken care of.

Such was not always the case, however. There was a time, back in the day, when daytime television was ruled by a combination of sudsers and game shows (now also largely forgotten, alas), with a few movies and variety shows thrown in for good measure.

The April 27, 1957 issue of TV Guide (with Groucho Marx on the cover) gives us a fair measure of what the average housewife might be able to choose from. (And housewives were the primary audience back then, in the age of stay-at-home moms, when men dominated the workplace and televisions weren’t yet a staple of college dorms and common areas.)

Soap operas had started back on radio, of course, and many of them made the transition to early television (including a lawyer who was once a character in The Edge of Night – Perry Mason). The Guiding Light was one of them, although originally the show had something of a religious, inspirational subtext – the guiding light, after all, was pretty much what you’d expect.

The soapers were broadcast live, back then, five days a week. They even provided listings in the TV Guide as well, if you can imagine that. Here’s a week’s worth of Guiding Light, for example:

Mon: Bill goes to see Dr. Fletcher. Tues: Dick tries to advise Paul about his attitude toward the patients. Wed: Bill tells Elsie not to let Albert know she is aware of his condition. Thurs: Dick tells Marie he is taking Kathy as a patient. Fri: Robin comes to visit Meta.

There you have it. No need to even tune in; you know the whole week right there. (By contrast, yesterday’s listing: Natalia alerts Gus that Harley knows that they slept together.)

As you could tell, doctors (and nurses) were popular subjects for soap operas. Some, like The Doctors and General Hospital, were primarily about them (at least at the start). But almost every serial had a doctor or two somewhere in the mix.

So let’s look back at what you might expect to see that week.

CBS was the king of the soapers back then, with Brighter Day (Rev. Dennis talks to Max and tries to explain Grayling’s resentment), Secret Storm (with an opening theme based on the second movement of Brahms' Concerto in A Minor), The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, The Valiant Lady, Love of Life, The Guiding Light, and As the World Turns (which was, of course, the program interrupted in November 1963 by the news of JFK’s assassination). NBC was in the mix as well with Modern Romances, although they relied more on variety and game shows, and their prime afternoon feature was the hour-long “Matinee Theater,” which sounds as if it belonged more properly in prime time. (Sample program: “The Professionals,” by Stan Cutler. A professional golfer employed by a country club is stunned to learn it will no longer finance his expensive trips to golf tourneys. He has lost too many matches to make it worthwhile.) ABC also gave the nod to movies, with Afternoon Film Festival, and cartoons (Mickey Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle, etc). Both NBC and ABC would follow suit eventually, however, introducing such classics as The Doctors, Another World, Dark Shadows (a story in itself), One Life to Live, and a daytime version of Peyton Place.

You might wonder how they were able to squeeze so many soap operas into the daytime schedule, back then. Well, it was because most of them were only 15 minutes long. It was a big deal back in the late 70s and early 80s when some of the most popular serials expanded to an hour, but it was just as big a step in the 60s when many of them went from 15 to 30 minutes. The longer form meant that more than one storyline a day could be explored, and the hectic back-and-forth cutting of the modern soap opera can probably be traced back to that original 15 minute timeframe.

So, as is the case with so much of television nowadays, the daytime lineup has changed greatly over the years. And not for the better, I’d suggest. With 150 channels to choose from, anyone can probably come up with a better lineup than that which was available with only 4 or 5 channels – but that means there’s a lot more dreck out there as well. Which is a shame, because many of the plot-driven soaps of the era, with five shows a week and no reruns, required a fairly high quality of writing and acting. Relatively speaking, of course; I don’t think anyone would ever confuse The Edge of Night with Playhouse 90 (a reference for you old-timers like me out there). But there’s no doubt there was a style in those days which is missing today.

Unless, of course, we can produce more writers like Cathy of Alex. With her, the soap opera might make a comeback after all.

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Another of my favorite modern poets we've been looking at more or less regularly over the past few weeks is William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). A friend of Ezra Pound's and others of that era, Williams lived not at all like them. He decided that the life of a starving artist wasn't for him and he became a doctor. While other artists were prancing around Europe, Williams lived almost all of his life in New Jersey. The discipline of his life gave wings to his words and he was as creative and talented as any artist.

The poem we look at today came from late in his life; in fact, the book it is from, Pictures from Brueghel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry shortly after he died. The poem "The Wedding Dance in the Open Air" is after Brueghel's painting of the same name. Whether you view the painting or not, you can't help but picture these people in their bright clothing, dancing with abandon. I often use paintings as inspiration for some of my own poems and I love these ten poems for their ability to bring out aspects of the paintings that you might otherwise overlook. Here is number 8 from the collection.

The Wedding Dance in the Open Air

Disciplined by the artist
to go round
& round

in holiday gear
a riotously gay rabble of
peasants and their

ample-bottomed doxies
the market square

featured by the women in
their starched
white headgear

they prance or go openly
toward the wood's

round and around in
rough shoes and
farm breeches

mouths agape
kicking up their heels

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

“National Night Out" Events Creating Fear, Isolation in Many Neighborhoods, Study Shows

BETHESDA, MD — “National Night Out,” a grassroots movement created 30 years ago to foster a spirit of community and good will, and to give citizens a chance to meet and get to know their neighbors, may actually be having the opposite effect, according to a recent study.

(Left) "Are they gone yet?" Bob Windmere peers cautiously out his window, wondering if his "neighbors" have ceased invading his personal space through their National Night Out "festivities," which in reality are more like torture sessions.

“What’s happening is full of irony,” says Dr. Suzanne Loudwright, of the National Center for Community Research. “People actually hate these gatherings so much that many of them turn out their lights and pretend they aren’t home rather than attend them. We hear stories of entire families, sitting in the dark, frightened, almost cowering, peering out of their windows, and waiting for it all to be over so they can get back to their normal lives.”

As one man in a northwestern Washington D.C. suburb describes it, there’s a lot to be afraid of out there.

“It can be scary,” says Bob Windmere, who lives in a typical middle-class neighborhood with neatly-manicured lawns and large shade trees . “You get the Night Out flyer inviting you to a potluck dinner fixed by who knows who, consisting of casseroles made of who knows what. You have to try some if you’re brave enough to go out there, and it scares me to death of what kind of intestinal attack I might have later.

“Then you get stuck talking to people you don’t know and probably don’t even like, about subjects that are meaningless. It feels like your head could explode at any minute. But you feel the pressure to get out there. Haven't these people ever heard of 'personal space'? It’s easier to just hide in your house until it’s all over. Last year my wife and I went to the local Starbucks and sat drinking coffee for three hours until we knew it was safe to go home. Only problem was, it wasn’t decaf, and it kept us awake half the night. Thank God this happens only once a year.”

Let's Hear it for Television!

By Mitchell

As a cultural archaeologist, as well as a devotee of classic television, I would be remiss if I did not note this statement from Andrew Stuttaford at NRO, in response to Jonah Goldberg's admiration for parents who ban TV from their childrens' lives. I think there's a lot of bad stuff on TV today, and there's no question in my mind that it has had a destructive element on society; nonetheless, I think Stuttaford hits the nail on the head with this comment:

There's plenty that's rubbish (or worse) on television, and there's plenty that's not. What's more, like it or not (and I like it) television is an essential part of our culture. For parents to try to control what their children watch is absolutely within their rights, perfectly understandable, often necessary, and frequently futile, but to deny their offspring the entire medium is, I suspect, to ensure a certain degree of cultural illiteracy.

This is a point that I've made time and time again: to attempt to minimize the impact of pop culture on you, to keep from being overrun by its excesses, is admirable. To pretend it doesn't exist, or to refuse to try to understand it, is foolish and shortsighted, like sticking your head in the sand. Not to mention impossible.

Monday, August 6, 2007

La Boheme, or the Beauty of the Ridiculous

By Judith

Saturday night marked the end of the classical music portion of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest. As has become the custom, this last concert was a semi-staged version of an opera. This year it was Puccini's lush, melodic La Boheme.

For those of you who haven't seen Rent, the updated Broadway version of this story, the staging of this performance may well have been similar to that of the musical. The stage was sparsely set, in keeping with a partial-staging idea, and the performers wore tattered jeans to let you know they were poor, starving artists. (Aside: then why do torn, pre-worn-looking jeans cost so much more than those that look brand new???)

Unlike a usual opera venue, the orchestra for this performance was crowded toward the back of the stage instead of being in a pit, mostly unseen. The singers played out their story in front of the orchestra. Whether it was because of this set-up, or because the hall isn't really right for unmiked singers, or whether it's because these singers didn't have voices up to the task of singing in this size hall, there were many times when the orchestra covered completely the singing.

Maureen O'Flynn as the consumptive Mimi did well enough most of the time , her voice soaring in the higher, louder passages. Sarah Hagstrom as the coquette Musetta was mostly shrill. Perhaps it's hard to prance around in stiletto heels and sing smoothly. Raymond Ayers played Marcello, the put-upon, on-again, off-again lover of Musetta. Mr. Ayers has performed before with the MO, including last year's performances of Tosca and Carmen, as well as with the Minnesota Opera as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. While his voice is serviceable enough, his acting ranges all the way from agitated to stolid. Andrew Gangestad as Colline showed much more emotion in his bittersweet aria to his beloved coat as he prepared to pawn it for the sake of obtaining money to pay for Mimi's doctor.

Clearly, the star of the evening was James Valenti as Rodolfo, the poet who falls in love with Mimi. After one false high note in Act 1, his voice became stronger in each succeeding act. He has performed this role many times and it shows. However, his familiarity does not lead to boredom. He was animated and passionate. He was the sensitive poet, yet had the confidential swagger of a young man in love with a beautiful girl. Only the story itself let him down.

While Puccini could probably make a gorgeous opera out of the Paris phonebook, he certainly had his work cut out for him with this ridiculous, repulsive story. While classified as verismo opera (Italian for realism), there is much of the Romantic about this. Mimi and Rodolfo meet in his cold, dark garret when she asks for a light for her candle that has gone out. They see each other for only moments before his too goes out and they spend the last part of the act in the dark singing of their endless, undying love. The truth is, that no one in the story has the least idea of what real love is about.

As soon as it is clear to Rodolfo that Mimi is gravely, probably terminally, ill, he makes up an excuse to leave her, claiming that she is a flirt and wishes to be unfaithful to him. He cannot deal with her illness and fools himself into thinking that his poverty will drag her down, even though she has no prospects of a better life without him.

As for Marcello and Musetta, they are no better role models. They fight and make up, they yell and scream, they taunt and torture one another. One begins to think that it would be better if they all contracted consumption.

Puccini triumphs over all. His lyrical melodies touch our hearts, even when the characters sing about shoes and sore feet, as in the reprise of Musetta's beautiful aria "Quando me'n vo' soletta" (known as Musetta's Waltz). In the opening of Act 3, one can almost see the falling snow that is evoked by the flutes and harp. Lines and phrases that would become Tosca and Turandot are heard throughout and one can almost forgive the silliness of the plot for the beauty of the music.

As usual, the Minnesota Orchestra was superb. Conducted by Andrew Litton, they not only served as accompaniment for the singers, but were able to make the instrumental moments important in the structure of the play. The Minnesota Chorale, under the direction of Kathy Saltzman Romey, is beginning to have quite a talent for being an acting opera chorus in addition to fine concert work.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Music of Angels

By Mitchell

Over at Stella Borealis, our esteemed colleage Ray keeps us all up to date on developments in the Catholic liturgy. Recently, Ray posted his desire for a more revenent Mass, whether it be the "Tridentine" traditional Latin Mass, or a richly celebrated Novus Ordo. I think this is something may of us hope for as an outgrowth of the Pope's recent Motu Proprio: not necessarily a wholesale return to the "old" Mass, but rather a restoration of the solumnity, reverence and rich tradition, applied to the contemporary Mass.

For many, the bane of the current Mass lies in the often banal music that is frequently heard. (See this site for an explanation, if you need one.) Ray goes so far as to remark that in his perfect Mass, "any music with music or lyrics created after 1945 would be specifically prohibited."

Now, is this possible, or even desirable? Is everything from the postwar period nothing but hopeless dreck? And what are we to do with those who insist on performing contemporary music within the Mass? Well, although many may be unaware of it, there is a host of quality, reverential music composed after 1945 which is suitable for the Mass, and also suitable to rebut the suggestions of "progressive" liturgists who insist on eschewing the old in favor of the new. With a little help from our cohort Drew, we've come up with some suggestions for more modern music that would definitely be an asset to the restoration of the reverent Mass.

Among my favorites are the Masses of Gian-Carlo Menotti (1979) and Igor Stravinsky (1948). These are both classical Masses which, nonetheless, were written for liturgical use and can be presented by any competent parish music program. Although Menotti’s Missa O Pulchritudo lacks the Credo (for reasons too complicated to go into here; see here for a little more info), it was composed for use in the Mass. Most parishes will prefer a spoken or intoned Creed anyway.

Of his Mass, Stravinsky once commented, “My Mass was not composed for concert performances but for use in the church. It is liturgical and almost without ornament. In making a musical setting of the Credo I wished only to preserve the text in a special way. One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe.” At 17 minutes, it is a setting that is eminently doable within the (admittedly arbitrarily) one-hour timeframe fo the Novus Ordo.

Of even more recent composition is the Missa Seraphica composed by the Rev. Br. Scott Haynes (b. 1971—) of the famed St. John Cantius in Chicago. The music program at SJC, which also includes contemporary works such as Joseph Phibbs' Ave Verum, is among the very best anywhere, and musicians from their tradition are not to be doubted. SJC also features the Missa Brevis in D by one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976). Assumption Grotto in Detroit is another parish with a rich music tradition, and in their repertoire is Paul Paray’s, St. Joan of Arc Mass. Although composed in 1931, it remains an excellent example of reverent contemporary music. Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe of 1990 was composed for Pentecost; he is also the composer of the Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (The Passion According to St. John ) in 1989.

Lest we forget, there is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died in 1958. Many of the hyms we hear at Mass today were set by Vaughan Williams; he also composed the Christmas oratorio Hodie in 1954, and a setting of The First Nowell in 1958. (He also composed the Mass in G in the earlier part of the 20th Century.)

And finally (just for starters) there's the haunting O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Laudidsen (1943 - ), one of the most gorgeous contemporary pieces you'll ever hear, a piece made familiar locally by the renowned Dale Warland Singers.

As I suggested, this is not by any means to be taken as a comprehensive list. Our intent is to merely remind everyone that not everything written since the end of World War II is to be thrown out, and to give hope that there are outstanding composers out there, both living and of recent vintage, who share a desire for reverent liturgical music and who, along with the late Msgr. Richard Schuler, view sacred music, beautifully composed and performed, as a window - however brief - unto heaven.

Cross-posted (with revisions) to Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

By Mitchell

Wednesday night is usually grocery night in the Hadley household. When you live downtown there aren't all that many grocery choices; the nearest one, Lunds, is just across the river, but it's not the kind of place you go when you live on a budget

So for us, the choice is usually to go over to Roseville, where there's a Cub and a Super Target. You get there by going out on Washington Avenue and taking a left on to the 35W bridge that runs over the Mississippi River, about six blocks from our condo. I'd get home from work and do a half-hour on the exercise machine, we'd have a quick dinner, and then we'd head out between 6 and 6:30.

But it was hot today, in the 90s with a forecast of rain, and Judie had been out to lunch with my aunt and was tired and didn't really feel like going back out, and so we decided to wait until tomorrow. Because of that, we were home at 6:20 when the first bulletins came on the local news that the bridge had collapsed, that there were perhaps 50 or 60 cars in the water, that it was a disaster.

About that time we became aware of the sirens outside. Now, living where we do (downtown, not far from Hennepin County Medical Center), you get used to the sound of sirens, and so perhaps they'd been going for a few minutes. But these were continuous, and there were so many of them. Police cars, fire engines, ambulances. It could only be for one reason.

As I said, we're only about six blocks from where the bridge collapesd. By going out the front door of our condo and crossing the street, we could walk across the Stone Arch Bridge, which parallels 35W. A woman from our building was headed out there; her husband usually drove across that bridge to get home, and she hadn't heard from him yet. Judie asked her when she'd last talked to him; she thought about 20 minutes, which would put it after the collapse, but when she looked at her watch she thought it might have been longer ago than that. She was shaking, fighting hysteria, headed down to see what she could find out.

There were perhaps hundreds of people already on the bridge, with more coming from every direction. Emergency vehicles screamed across the bridge, which is usually limited to pedestrian traffic. Black smoke rose from the scene, the fire from the semitrailer that was shown prominently on TV. We could see a portion of the bridge standing up at a 45 degree angle, other pieces beyond our sight, in the river.The street was jammed with cars, trucks, people. The sirens were endless; police and fire boats coming from Stillwater, a town located further down the river from Minneapolis. More police cars, patrolmen hanging out the doors, asking people to get out of the way. A blue command center being set up. Flashing lights everywhere. A Metro bus, slowly moving toward the river, the sign on the front reading "Rescue Bus." People were taking pictures, taking videos, talking on their cell phones. We ran into a co-worker from my office, who took that bridge every day to and from work. He didn't really know what to do, just kept walking down, to see what he could see.

For all its faults, Minneapolis is a pretty ordinary place. Sure, there are the murders and the gang violence, but there's never been a major airplane crash here, the most famous fire we've ever had was in an empty office building on Thanksgiving night and didn't hurt anyone, there just isn't anything to compare to what we saw and heard tonight, at the far end of our neighborhood.

It's dark now, at 9:30. The sirens have eased off; everyone who needs to be down there is already there. The large surface parking lot behind our building has emptied out, and there isn't nearly as much traffic out there as there was a while ago. The rain that was forecast has held off, but the temperature is still high, the air heavy and still. The news coverage, locally and nationally, will continue into the night, and the headlines in tomorrow's Strib will be predictable.

Tomorrow is Thursday, and it will be grocery night for us. We'll have to find a different route to the store, of course, or a different store. It's true we could easily have been on that bridge when it went down tonight; it was the right night, and while we often would have been going over it around 6:30, there have been nights when it's been closer to 6:00, or 6:10. It might be somewhat melodramatic to suggest that we should have been on that bridge tonight. A lot of people should have been, and weren't, and we can be grateful for that. But I don't want to put that fine a point on it, though, on how close a call it might have been. It was enough to have been that close to it, to see the flashing lights and hear the sirens and see the helicopters hovering over the neighborhood, to see your city and a road you take being featured on CNN and Fox News.

It was enough to be that close, to see and hear it all, to listen to people worried for their friends and loved ones. It was enough, to remind you once again (as if you really needed reminding) of the fragility of life, the fleetingness of it all. And for those of us of faith, it doesn't mean that life is meaningless; rather, it it reminds us of how packed with meaning every second of life is. It was enough to make you think about that decision to stay home tonight, and to go on your knees in Thanksgiving. It was enough, perhaps, to remind you that life is never enough, that there is always more to experience, more to do, and less and less time in which to do it.

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