Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Gathering of Geriatric Men: The Papal Conclave and the Critical Mom

I'm gazing at a photo of Boston's Cardinal O'Malley on his Air France flight to Rome.  He's looking pretty frail himself in his brown Franciscan robe, trying to hide behind a newspaper.  As frail as the realism of the church whose ideals he wants to uphold?

Wisdom doesn't come from virginity.  Or celibacy.  Mary may be pure, but she's not Sophia, and Sophia was no virgin.  Not if we take her name, which means "wisdom" seriously.  Various church teachings ally her with Mary, but Sophia's name allies itself naturally with the fruit of the forbidden tree, as in experience, that "name we give to our mistakes," Oscar Wilde remarked.

The gathering of geriatric men forming the papal conclave likes to present itself as pure and untouched by the world.  Without cell phones, without TV, without any word from the outside world, sequestered in secrecy, they will surely do what most people do:  choose what makes them feel comfortable.  Or worse, what makes them feel moral.  But never what makes them feel realistic, because reality remains the thing that they avoid the most.

Once upon a time, becoming a priest or a nun meant a good opportunity, especially for a person of extremely modest means and high ambitions.  You had a roof over your head, a full stomach, and job security.  You got to learn to read and write.  The vow of celibacy meant secrecy if you were a man, and if you kept it you got used to it.  If you were a woman, it must, often, have been a small price to pay.  Marriage, until the mid-nineteenth century, meant renouncing your entire fortune and it meant running the risks of childbirth, which, in a world without ultrasound and antibiotics, rendered you at high risk for a short life.  Independence for women remained moot.  A nun, however, had her body to herself and her finances intact.  Lesbians were good at remaining invisible; heterosexual women in a pre-information age could remain as blissfully unaware as Bernini's Saint Theresa in Ecstasy of their orgasms, if they were lucky enough to have them. 

I have yet to meet a member of a religious order who fails to show signs of strain, presumably as a result of celibacy or of sexual problems.  There was the priest with a Ph.D. in psychology who seemed so vibrant at first, who enthused that "we don't spend enough time praising God!" and who threw himself into revitalizing the church garden.  His hands shook every time I saw him.  If you didn't look at his hands, he looked normal.  There was the nun who is president of a large American Catholic college, who chatted with me at length at a party when I was nursing my infant daughter.  I felt impressed that she seemed friendly and unperturbed that I was nursing.  She and I talked about students, good and bad times we had experienced teaching, and the wear and tear of everyday life.  Just as I was thinking to myself that I had finally met an entirely normal nun, she brought up a student of hers who liked animals, and whom she had encouraged.  "One day," she confided, "he brought a snake to class."  She shivered almost convulsively with disgust.  "Ooooooh, I just cannot stand snakes!" she breathed.  I had the impression that because she felt comfortable talking to me she had confided her real emotional state, and that she remained unaware of doing so.  Here was a woman whose bad experience with a "snake"--her drunk father?  a priest?  a stranger?  had condemned her to a celibate life.  Then there's the nun who is directing my daughter's first communion class, a bracingly vivacious woman who appears to love teaching, and who plays soccer with the toughest boys in the school.  We ran into her on a tram platform not long ago.  In a friendly manner, she asked how we were and we chatted.  As we talked, she started to pat my daughter on the head in a cheerful way, but the patting went on much too long--just as I was about to jerk my daughter away, our tram came.  That woman is lonely.  Profoundly, pathologically lonely.  What happens to that kind of loneliness?  What happens to a dream deferred?  The intensity of this nun's loneliness struck me forcibly, and I looked her up in a parish newsletter.  She had wanted to be a mother of six, but "it did not work out," and she became a nun.  What didn't work out?  Some guy left her?  She felt unable to conceive, and the only other career left was being a nun? 

Not now.  Not anymore.  Ten minutes on that tram platform, and I wanted to airlift that woman into a therapist's office. 

What I wish for this gathering of geriatric men is a bunch of good books, and I didn't have theology or even the bible in any of its myriad translations in mind.

What I'd like them to read is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, a trilogy that re-writes the fall of man from what you might call a creative feminist perspective, ending with the idea of building a republic of heaven, and with plenty of Milton's Paradise Lost thrown in.   A young girl becomes a Christ who harrows hell and an Eve who seduces in order to save the world.  And she ends up a scholar, possibly even on her way to an unwanted celibacy, but she's already lost her virginity.  "The history of human life," says an angel in the book, "has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity."  She and the rebel angels, we are told, are the followers of wisdom who have "always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed."  God is an ancient, pathetic creature in this novel--he dies.

The church does not like this book.  All the more reason why those men in their conclave should read it.  Think about it.  Study it.  And if there's a God out there, enjoy it!

It is a great story.  And in so many ways a true one.  It is a guide to wisdom--that wisdom is born in uncertainty, in doubts, in difficulties, that nothing is permanent, that flexibility is divine, that a vice and a virtue are two sides of the same dynamic.

Happy reading, conclave.  At least you can't burn folks like me at the stake anymore.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Pistorius Criticized

No one disputes that on Valentine's Day Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through the bathroom door four times in the head, chest and arms with a 9mm handgun.
He says he mistook her for an intruder.  He loved to shoot, and went to a shooting range when he couldn't sleep.  Did he really need a gun in the house? 
The more we hear about Oscar Pistorius, the more complicated the story gets, and the less sense it makes.  The lead investigator, Hilton Botha, was removed because he faces seven counts of murder himself, and his investigative work was allegedly sloppy.
Was Pistorius drunk or on drugs?  Was Steenkamp?  Was that substance found in his home steroids or an "herbal remedy" or some entirely different potion?
Oscar Pistorius' father Henke said: 'If anyone makes a statement, it will have to be Oscar. He's sad at the moment.'
His publicist, Peet van Zyl said: 'Oscar is a humble person and lovely guy - am sure what's happened was terrible mistake'.  But an ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, says he's a charmer, a ladies man, not who people think he is.  Impulsive, apparently accident prone, and loves to shoot.  After the shooting, a police spokeswoman revealed there had been "previous incidents" at the home, including "allegations of a domestic nature" but did not say what they had been. 
A South Africa  celebrity gossip magazine published what it said was Ms. Steenkamp’s last interview, a week before her death, in which she said the couple had not been discussing their relationship publicly in the media “because I don’t want to get it tainted. I don’t want anything coming in the way of his career. He’s such an amazing athlete.”  Tainted is a curious word to choose, suggesting that the relationship was already adulterated with ambivalence.  Ms. Steenkamp must have been aware that gossip magazines love to spice things up.  She could have chosen to refuse to be interviewed, or she could have said something friendly and indefinite about their relationship:  "He's wonderful to be with" would have done it.
Did something make Pistorius snap on Valentine's Day?  Had she refused him?  Could she even have said "I want a man with legs?"  I can imagine Pistorius snapping under those circumstances.  Could he have been drunk or high and imagined things?  Did she slip into the bathroom to prepare some secret Valentine's Day present and refuse to answer because she wanted to surprise him?
All of these imaginary scenarios are possible--or impossible.  The most frustrating aspect of the case remains that each new tidbit of news only further complicates our sense of motive.  I don't have much sense of that yet.  Do any of my readers?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Down Home at the Homeopath's with The Flu and The Critical Mom

The first thing is the living room, I mean the waiting room, but it looks like the former.  So soothing.  Gorgeous velvet pillows checked in magenta, tan and brown squares atop a black leather sofa so like ours at home--except that non-standard usage of our couch (children jumping on it or sitting on it with such gusto that several springs have lost their verve) has rendered ours less than pretty, and covered with black duct tape to hide the holes.
So there we are in the low-lit lovely room, with paneled walls that remind me of what I imagine a Nantucket ship's captain's cabin would look like in the 1800s.
We sit coughing and sneezing until we are called into the doctor's office.  She is a Chinese lady.  I think she's my age or maybe four years older but it turns out she is 71.  She peers at us as we talk, asking about symptoms.  And what medications are we taking?  Nothing.  A Krill oil capsule.
"What is medication?" she asks.  Anything that goes into your mouth can be construed that way, especially coffee, peppermint, wine, and ethereal oils, all of which are now strictly VERBOTEN.  Instead, we are handed a little vial, and in the little vial are five or six of what look like grains of salt on steroids.  These must be dissolved under the tongue.  I take mine.  No water or food for an hour before and an hour after.
Actually I am so dizzy I forget this, and drink hot water as soon as I get home.  But I get well anyway.
Beats antibiotics any day.  My health insurance covered it.  
Wooo wooo.  Try homeopathy?
There's nothing like the flu, and statistically speaking, homeopathic treatments work better and faster than antibiotics and other stuff.  The cure didn't work fast enough for my husband, who couldn't stay in bed and had to go to the office and then went to the regular doctor in hope of getting a quick antibiotic fix.  But the doctor only gave him a plant-based decongestant, a few more mineral-and-herbal remedies, and a prescription for antibiotics that was only to be used in desperate circumstances, which the doc trusted would not occur.
I'm still a little sick, but I made a big pot of chicken vegetable soup.  This is the real thing, Jewish penicillin if you will, so try it:

In a big, deep pot, put a 3-lb (about 1.5 kilos) chicken.  Half a "soup chicken" will do.  Peel and slice in half four carrots and lay them on top of the chicken.  Peel and slice in half one large onion and add that.  Peel and slice in chunks a few pieces of celery root, or a few stalks of celery.  I added fresh parsley.  Add enough water to cover all, and bring to a boil.  Then let simmer until the meat is practically falling off the bones.  You can skim the fat or scum off the top from time to time while the soup is cooking.  When the meat and vegetables are  really soft, lift them out and put them in a bowl.  Pour the soup through a sieve into a separate bowl and discard the grease and slime in the sieve.  Chop the vegetables and add them into the broth, which is now all back in the pot.  Remove and discard chicken skin, cut meat into small pieces and return to broth.  Add salt and pepper and stir.  Serve hot.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Beyond Benedict

Oscar Wilde remarked that "Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don't think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful." 
With the exception of momentary detours in the direction of radicalism, Pope Benedict does tend to fit Wilde's description.   The Roman Catholic Church, he has stated, became his bulwark against the Nazi regime, "a citadel of truth and righteousness against the realm of atheism and deceit."
The trouble with citadels is their inflexibility. They are solid.  As a rock.  Inflexible.  Shields, not dynamic forces.  Any faith worth its salt stays dynamic--a force, on the Star Wars model.  Not a citadel, on the Remember the Alamo model.    Besides, can one really consider atheism and deceit to be the same thing?  The Nazis weren't about atheism.  Atheism was their excuse.  The Nazis were about Nihilism, which is entirely different.  To be an atheist is not the same as to see life as meaningless.  Deceit is not a quality I'd attach to modern atheists--they tend on the whole to be bracingly forthright, as a short dip into Richard Dawkins will show.
Since the last pope to quit back in the 1200s got sent to hell for all eternity, according to Dante, people are asking questions.  Is Benedict now just a man, now that he's stepped down--minus the infallibility?  Is it the pedophilia scandals?  Are radical American nuns getting him down?  Is he really not powerful enough to overwhelm his more conservative cardinals?  How come he let that holocaust-denier back into the church after ex-communicating him?  Along with three other excommunicados who happen to be ultra-conservative?  Or is the guy really just tired? 
The ideas Benedict perpetuates--that the Roman Catholic Church is the only faith offering salvation (spoiler:  you want salvation, you're on your own) that women should not be priests (that would lead to matriarchy) that gays are agents of the devil (when they are really only agents in the service of clean living and high thinking) do not fall well on contemporary ears.  The love of ministering to the people that, to be fair, Benedict amply displayed--going so far as to eat french fries in public with teenagers--reveals as much about the desperate longing for a father figure as it does about his essentially friendly nature.  I can imagine his love of young people and I can imagine his shock at discovering the percentage of his young flock that has been molested, and his desire to alleviate their pain.  I can imagine his urge to protect the priests involved too--so much so that he bowed to the need to cover up, since some statistics place 99% of Irish priests in the guilty category. 
Benedict is a warmhearted man from a warmhearted area of the world, but one that remains insular.  Bavaria is not known for embracing many faiths and many colors.  I sometimes wonder what kind of man he would have become growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in New York City, surrounded by Italian and Russian Jewish and Irish kids.
Would he have become open-minded?  A man who could imagine many ways, many salvations?
And what's next?  Since they won't go for a woman, how about an African?  How about a Chicano?  How about an Asian?  How about any old non-European Catholic who manages to pave the way for a woman without mysteriously dying 33 days into his papacy?

There are things beyond Benedict people don’t know.
I took him past "Citadel." As far as I could.
And I think, perhaps, maybe I did him some good…

*with apologies to Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Moishe Pipik, Philip Roth, and The Critical Mom

In her spare time, the critical mom pretends to be an academic the way Miranda Hobbes pretends to be a lawyer when baby Brady is keeping her up all night.  The critical mom teaches four courses a semester, squeezing them plus her office hours into Monday and Tuesday mornings, then runs to pick the youngest child up from school, or buys groceries.  Wednesdays are devoted to mountains of laundry.  She manages to write maybe one academic essay per year.  She does have a study that her husband intended to be all her own, but the last essay was written while her daughter sat at her feet, periodically yanking her ankle and asking to be handed a yellow crayon, Mommy, not another blue one.  Which necessitated going downstairs to grab one and returning before being allowed to finish typing a sentence.  On a normal teaching day, the critical mom need only exit the university and start heading toward the tram in order for her mind to lose all grip on why women were not admitted to the Cambridge examinations before 1885, why the Salem witch trials seem to have inaugurated cycles of mass hysteria, like the current animus toward Arab-Americans in the U.S., or why Fanny Burney sympathized with her doctor after her  non-anesthetized mastectomy--and whether all this will be on the final exam.  By the time the critical mom is halfway to the tram, her mind has emptied itself and filled up again with "Should I stop to buy sushi rice and Chinese vegetables?  But then I'll be late to pick up my daughter, and I think we do still have some chicken and bulgar." I come home, promise to wash the fourteen-year-old's Nantucket reds, and forget all about it, since lost fencing foils, shin guards, and water bottles are simultaneously demanded by the boys, who need them "right now, Mommy" just when Mommy needs to take daughter to ballet.  And then stay for her own ballet or tap class.  The critical Mom is in a tap dance troupe that does nursing homes and local dance festivals.  She comes home after ballet, cooks dinner for her husband and oldest son, puts those Nantucket reds in the washer, and gets yelled at when they are not dry by the next morning.

The e-mail comes out of the blue.  Moishe Pipik would very much like to invite me to contribute to a new volume on Philip Roth that will be published by SuperHotAcademic Press and that already has "a star-studded cast of many well respected scholars in the field of American literature."  She provides a list and offers a flattering aside:  She appreciates my expertise in both psychoanalytic theory and literature, whereas some of the others are only grounded in literature.   Would I write a "psychoanalytically themed" essay?  Yes indeedy.  I feel moderately surprised, since I've never written a word on Roth, although I've enjoyed his novels and even taught a course called "The Writings of Philip Roth."  I have however written a couple of psychoanalytic books.  Which is probably how Moishe found me, I tell myself.  Instead of surfing the net for anyone with any vague connection to Philip Roth.
Moishe would like an abstract ASAP! She bubbles over with enthusiasm and hopes to meet me soon.  Could I send my cell phone number?
I had always thought it would be interesting to write a paper on Philip Roth and now I had a reason to do so.  I write my abstract after an evening of red wine but Moishe writes back that she finds it "breathtakingly good! Very, very good!"  This is music to my sleep-deprived menopausal ears, although some tiny voice of reason is reminding me that the abstract is hardly trailing clouds of glory, and that nobody requests academic essays by advertising a "star-studded" group of contributors.  But I am basking in praise, and besides, Moishe has after all written a book on Philip Roth.
I write the essay.  Googling Portnoy, I discover that my former psychoanalyst went to high school with Philip Roth.  I call the analyst, tell him about the paper I am writing.  Does he have any reminiscences of Roth other than those I've read on the net?  No, alas.  But my ideas interest him and he could give "Phil" a call, and by the way, who is this paper for? I ask whether "Phil" knows Moishe.  An analytic silence descends.  But the analyst volunteers that "Phil" would like my ideas.
Emboldened, I send the essay off to Moishe Pipik and hear nothing.  I write; she writes back, "Thanks for your very exciting contribution to this volume!"  She finds my ideas "very subtle," which is a dubious distinction since I don't.  I find some of them unclear, and I've disagreed more than exuberantly with someone whose face may pop up at a conference some day, but Moishe is eager for me to produce these thoughts of mine that she seems to cherish, so I pump them out like a good student.
I send Moishe another e-mail:  is my essay accepted?  Yes, Moishe assures, and it is even now, now, very now "in the hands of the publisher's editing staff" and "we are certainly making progress!"  Moishe is nothing if not upbeat. 
A month goes by.  Meanwhile, Philip Roth announces his retirement, and this seems like a good time to add that to my essay and say something about it.  I send Moishe a link about Roth's decision to quit writing, and she writes that she has been "meaning to write to you.  The editing staff says that your essay is not clearly written.  Can you re-write it quickly?"
I phone Moishe.  What exactly do they want?  Well, it's just unclear, and please re-write it soon.  ASAP!
So I do.  I take a few weeks and my husband takes the kids until finally I read it over and decide it's good to go.  I send it to Moishe, who writes that I have "missed the deadline" and that the book is "in galleys." 
 I then do what common sense--always in short supply and anything but common--should have urged in the beginning.  I write the press and ask if Moishe actually has a contract for a book on Philip Roth.  She does not, nor has she ever, had any such contract. 
Is there a moral?  Answer a fool according to her folly, and she will write you an essay.
P.S. Philip Roth, can't you do something with this?  Call your 32nd novel "Moishe Pipik and the Golem Go to The 80th Birthday Party."  Set it in Newark.  Make sure to include a "star-studded" cast of academics who all love to write about you.  Build some tension, so that we wonder whether the Golem will eat Moishe or Moishe will trick the Golem.
And in the novel, please turn the tap-dancing amateur into a professional tapper who studied with Gregory Hines, is twenty years younger than I am, and has written at least five books about you on the side.