The Littlest Heathen
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Today Lauren went to a Brownies camp out in Abbotsford so we only had Rebecca to spend the day with us. We had a Jewish lunch. I prepared coleslaw and made some pastrami sandwiches on rye with strong honey mustard. I served it with some pickles and we drank Doctor Pepper which is one of Rebecca’s faves.
I am trying to keep my shutter button finger from atrophying by taking pictures when I can. Rebecca is a great model but not always a willing one. She was reluctant but she posed for me in the end. She might have been attracted to my little candle altar in the dining room. I told her she was La Santa Muerte the patron saint of the Mexican drug mafia.
At age 12 Rebecca has some opinions on religion which are probably based on little knowledge and mostly hearsay at that. Of all the Polaroids (the Fuji version) I took (we used film after) she liked the one with my grandmother’s Mass veil over her head. “I look like a nun
,” she told me. But then she gave me a mouthful. “I don’t see how anybody can worship death.”
I tried to explain how Mexicans are more willing to accept its inevitability. But this was to no avail. "I don’t understand this Virgin Mary thing. I simply don’t believe in God,"
and that ended my hope of reasoning with her.
I am in an uncomfortably strange position of being an almost atheist who believes that atheism (for those who will come to believe in it) must come to it slowly. How can one be a 12-year-old atheist?
Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, goblins, the Three Wise Kings are childhood beliefs that I think are important. Children must have a fantastic and an imaginary life to protect them and to serve them when in later life the reality of our existence becomes only too obvious. I think that parents who would stop children from having such fantasies would be in error.
I went through my own rite of passage and I made my first communion. I believed in something and that belief at the very least has made me appreciate sacred music, sacred art, the soaring Gothic cathedrals and trying to figure out the Holy Trinity and transubstantiation has been, in itself a rite of passage for me and for many including St. Augustine.
The story as St. Augustine told it began with him at the beach trying to understand how three distinct persons (God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Ghost) could all have one nature (God) while being three distinct persons. He spotted a little boy who was scooping water from the sea with a shell and emptying it into a hole in the sand. The little boy kept doing this and this made Augustine curious. “Little boy what are you doing?”
“Sir, I am emptying the sea into the hole.”
“Why that’s impossible!”
“Sir it is far easier than to try to understand what you are trying to understand.”
And the little boy then suddenly vanished.
Special effects in modern films have eliminated the question mark on most impossibility. We now live in a purely logical world where we make friends with people we will never meet and essences have been blurred. A telephone is now a book. It is a book that can help me find the closest Pizza Hut and tell me where I’m at in perfect latitude and longitude.
That the Virgin Mary went up to heaven in body and soul (and if you don’t believe this and you are a Catholic you are in heresy, believe it or not!) is a mystery that is illogical and because of it is beautiful and necessary if only until you might not believe it anymore. That Isaac almost sacrificed his son in his blind obedience to God also has something to instruct us that is illogical in its logic.
Rebecca told me that at age 8 or 9 she began to have her doubts about that fat man being able to deliver all those presents in one night. It is tragic but inevitable when a child stops being a child. But it is also important to try to understand that the willingness of those Christian martyrs to face hungry lions has some merit even if it does not fit the logic of our 21st century. If I were to tell Rebecca the story of those martyrs she would probably tell me that they were silly.
It was not all a loss today. I placed 21 sheets of blank paper on the living room floor and instructed Rebecca to start with the first where she was to write 1 to 100 (I erred here as it should have been 1 to 99), and then 100 to 200 and so on. When she finished she wrote the names of those centuries (she had figured it out by then). I then told her that if we were to continue back in time to our African ancestors the line would extend perhaps as far as Oakridge Mall. She then wrote events, deaths and births on each paper. I was pleasantly surprised that she correctly put the crusades in the right century and knew all about Henry the 8th.
St. Augustine famously had prayed to God: da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli mod
(Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.) I would pray (hope) that Rebecca believe in something and not be the little atheist, at least, not yet.
Tittymouse & A Perception Of Distances
Friday, November 27, 2009
In my last few posts I have been a bit of a ranter and writer of stuff that is much too heavy to counter the dark and rainy days of November. Today it is sunny outside and I can see the bright gold leaves of my gingko on the lawn (they all fell in one day during a windstorm a couple of weeks ago). I could almost assert that I feel a tad uplifted. So I have found another excuse to be able to include, here, pictures of two very beautiful women. At age 67 I keep wondering if my obsession (mania?) to photograph undraped women is finally over. Is this sort of obsession an obsession that one outgrows? Have I seen it all? Or must I keep at it to satisfy what seems to be, now, a faint but unceasing little voice in my head that nags me that it is never over until it’s over?
In my years in Mexico City and Vancouver I have purchased many art books and photography books. Many are about the nude. My granddaughter Rebecca likes to sit in the living room to look at them. One of her favourites is the great big book with large photos taken of the Hollywood stars of the 30s, 40, and 50s by George Hurrell. In particular she likes his portraits of Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. It was the picture that made me take her by the hand, (while her interest was high) and drive to Videomatica one Saturday afternoon. We rented Tarzan The Ape Man
(1932) with Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. We had an enjoyable afternoon. Now Lauren (like her sister did some few years ago) hangs from the stair banisters like an ape. We will have to teach her the Tarzan chest stomping yell.
I will not deny that Rebecca also looks at the “other” books comfortably reclined on the psychiatric couch of our living room. She had asked me last week if I had used any of the pictures in the nude books as inspiration. I answered, “Yes,” and then she made a startling statement, “Papi your pictures, the ones in your hard drive, are a lot tamer than the ones in the books.
I feel that Rebecca has seen enough paintings and photographs in museums and books to make up her mind what she likes and what she doesn’t. At age 12 I did not have the library that she has now at her disposal or the image banks of the internet. I think that Rebecca has intelligence and good taste to look for what is good.
All the above makes me think of a book, The Naked and the Veiled - The Photographic Nudes of Erwin Blumenfeld (note his picture below)
(1999 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London) which has a most interesting introduction by his son, Yorick Blumenfeld was, 1999, a correspondent and features editor for Newsweek.
Yorick Blumfeld’s introduction is the best and most persuasive apology I have ever read about the merits and benefits of the study and exectution of nudes in painting, sculpture and photography.
In particular he cites his father as a little boy and his relationship with his nanny Tittymouse. There is an illustration, a reproduction of Hans Memling’s Eve, From Adam and Eve, 1479 that reads:
Memling’s classic ‘gothic’ elongations appealed to Blumenfeld’s sense of the erotic. He [1897-1969] was introduced to Cranach, Memling and the Flemish school of painters when he first visited the Berlin museums with his nanny around 1906.
It seems that I may be my Rebecca’s art nanny so I don’t feel at all uncomfortable at the fact that she pours over my art books. Of Blumenfeld’s nanny this is what Yorick Blumenfeld writes:
Before he ventured out into the world he took his heterosexual apprentiship in the nursery. His beloved nanny, ‘Tittymouse’ was the daughter of a talcum-powder manufacturer. ‘And she smelt of it,’ Blumenfeld wrote. ‘She had tiny pock-marks which I tried to kiss away. In return she taught me the butterfly kiss…’ Secretly in an era when it was considered risqué for a ‘lady’ to show her ankles, he already longed to see naked women.
He claimed that that his enduring obsession with transparency and veils was born, when at the age of nine, he was taken by his governess to visit the studio of a Berlin painter. The model, surprised by their entrance, quickly threw a diaphanous cloth over herself. But the outline of her body was still visible against the light. Later in his teenage years, the thin suggestive veils employed by such admired painters as Memling, Cranach and Botticelli made Blumenfeld realize that naked women could become ‘even more naked by their transparent veils.
And more to the point of what you cannot see in my photographs here (breasts) Yorick Blumenfeld quotes his father:
In all the widely ranging variations on the theme of the nude shown in this book, the youthful female breast plays a dominant role. I don’t think my father had anything like a breast fixation, but breasts were obviously a source of titillation deeply rooted in his psyche. The breast was something of a personal shrine to him and he eroticizes its form by focusing on the nipple. He always depicted the breast with great delicacy and something akin to reverence, striving to capture the elusiveness of perfect symmetry while trying to define photographically the ideal of the beautiful form. His photographs of breasts (unlike some of his collages and drawings) are never ironic, pornographic or even jokey. They are pure evocations of joy and celebrations of the feminine.
‘It cannot have been the influence of my nurse’s breasts alone which led to the development of this development of this addiction to golden sections. (“Our first perceptions of the distance between the nipples determines our sense of proportion for life”) he wrote in Eye to I. The highly evocative and and often voluptuous female forms shown here may therefore be interpreted in part as an effort to improve the gender. And there is no doubt that many are erotically linked to his early recollections, and to his dreams, as well as to the classical education he received in the Berlin ‘Gymnasium’in the golden era before the First World War.
The two women in today’s blog were as beautiful as I ever saw. Anna, left, was curvaceous and her breasts would have instantly attracted Blumenfeld’s interest and camera. The other woman, Mae-Britt was the only person I ever met who was born in Greenland. Her father was Inuit and her mother was Danish. The combination of her voluptuousness and the blue-green-gray shade of her eyes, which resembled the colour of the Antarctic ice I had seen so many years ago drifting by in Ushuaia, could melt me one moment and freeze me the next.
A Splendid Lapse
Thursday, November 26, 2009
When I return from a trip from downtown Vancouver I generally take the Fir Street exit off the Granville Street Bridge. I like to look at the Filipino bakery and eatery, Goldilocks which is at the corner on Broadway. I sometimes stop to buy enzaimadas, polvorones
or I splurge on a scoop of Magnolia brand macapunu
ice-cream which is the most heavenly coconut flavour imaginable. But I also remember the location for another reason.
It was sometime in the middle 80s that I received an extraordinary phone call in the middle of the night from one of the most sensually beautiful women I ever photographed, Sarita the belly dancer. She said something like this, “Alex I am proposing that you take a full session at est. I will foot the bill. Est will remove your sense of guilt in leaving your wife. You will then escape with me and my daughter and we will live happily ever after in Hawaii.” As you can imagine while I was most flattered by such an invitation I turned Sarita down.” EST which stands for Erhard Seminars Training was an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard and it offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as ‘The est Standard Training'. The purpose of est was to allow participants to achieve, in a very brief time, a sense of personal transformation and enhanced power. I personally thought it was pretentious bunk.
And by now you might suspect that the yellow and blue Goldilocks building was once painted white to look like a Hopi Pueblo dwelling and it was the headquarters for est in Vancouver.
Just like birds have an innate sense of direction I think that many of us have that same sense even when the landmark beacons of the places we might have frequented are long gone. It’s almost as if the ghosts of old buildings pass through the thick concrete walls of modern condominium developments. When I drive down Richards on my way to the Granville Street Bridge I glance at the Blenz on Davie and Richards and I can pinpoint on the second floor where Mac Parry had his office in the old building that housed Vancouver Magazine upstairs and Western Living downstairs. I remember fondly how Mac would drop heavy books, on purpose, on the floor of his office. His former art director, Chris Dahl was now art directing Western Living downstairs “Alex,” he would say to me, “I like to do this because he works for that terrible magazine that features bathrooms and housed devoid of people.” He did not yet know that a few months later he would pack his books and move downstairs to edit the very magazine he disliked.
I remember even the older Vancouver Magazine office on Howe that overlooked what is now Robson Square. I remember seeing photographer James La Bounty taking pictures of an elegantly dressed Arthur Erickson ( wearing an immaculate London Fog) while standing in Mac Parry’s balcony. What was behind Erickson would be the Law Courts. The skating rink that Erickson designed is now the GE Ice Rink. The names of the people who built Vancouver are being erased and replaced by nameless memorial names.
Driving, walking or especially when taking the bus I sense these ghosts of buildings that once were. There are so many and they have been replaced by grim, lifeless towers which are paeans to urban density, affordable housing, sustainability, greenness and all those other euphemisms that we now use to replace the verb – filling the pockets of developers with mounds of cash. This is the price we must pay for a booming economy based on people wanting to come to live in our city who are less inclined to walk the seawall, visit our parks but more likely to whisk themselves into an underground parking garage, go up to their condo, turn on their espresso machine and sit down to a surround-sound experience from the flat-screen TV over their gas (much greener and much more sustainable) fireplace.
It was five years ago that my granddaughter Rebecca, my wife Rosemary and I entered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world in Buenos Aires. El Ateneo Grand Splendid on the most fashionable and elegant Avenida Santa Fe was designed by architects Peró and Torres Armengol for the empresario Max Glücksman and as a theatre named Teatro Gran Splendid in May 1919. In the late twenties it became a cinema and in 2000 it was converted into a bookshop.
My father and mother had taken me to many films in the late 40s and early 50s to that grand cinema house. Here I now was with my granddaughter and wife so many years later feasting my eyes on people sitting in the higher boxes reading at leisure. We sat down on the stage (a café) and sipped cafes con leche
while a pianist played Piazzolla on a Steinway Grand.
A prominent Vancouver journalist (not born here) told me today, when I questioned him on the sorry day of the Vancouver Parks Board voting to close down the extraordinary Bloedel Conservatory, "We live amongst barbarians."
I would agree in that we should not have to think up of relevant or logical arguments to defend the keeping of the Conservatory. Sustainability in our city is seen purely as sustainability of the corpus and an abandoning of our soul. I don’t exactly want to how our city celebrated the opening of the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It wasn't an event that could have been that memorable. I read it in the paper and I forgot immediately. Indeed we do live amongst a legion of barbarians that do not have a sense of what this city was and still is hidden underneath all that concrete. My journalist friend explained that nobody would be interested in the preservation of exotic plants and the roof overhead as long as the occupants of the towers could keep their guilt (if any) at bay by watering their balcony mini roses.
I wonder how much money the city will grant and shower on Montreal artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer so that he can dazzle all those Olympic visitors with his spotlight project at English Bay. Consider, to that the man specializes in creating "temporary anti-monuments for alien agency." (Ken Lum, you have a lot to learn still if you are going to help us achieve a "world class" city with your outdoor sculptures.) I would much rather have seen the investment of the money to buy and line the bases of the parrots and cockatoos at the Bloedel Conservatory with pristine copies of the Vancouver Sun.
Perhaps I might save up money to visit by city of birth, Buenos Aires, where people still have a desire to live amongst the still-in-place memories of those who came before them. That would be just Splendid.
The above sounds a lot like a rant. I think it is. I have been steadfast in my commitment to not rant in this blog. I hope I will be forgiven for my temporary lapse.
The Bloedel Conservatory - A Botanical Tower of Babel
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Many of you may be aware that the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park has been hoisted onto the chopping block due to more funding cuts on the behalf of our government. The Bloedel Conservatory is a true relic and has been a part of the Vancouver cityscape for 40 years! It is the unique geodesic dome home to a collection of more than 500 plant species, a pond filled with koi fish, and about 100tropical birds of various species. It's downfall in business in recent years has been largely due to the Canada Line construction on Cambie street and closures to parking lots around the park due to renovations to the reservoir below which put a big damper on the number of tour buses that could reach the facility. But as of 2008 the Conservatory's numbers have been on the rise, causing many of us to think the City board should look elsewhere to make it's cuts.
The CONSERVE THE BLOEDEL CONSERVATORY
Petition to Vancouver Parks Board was created by and written by Nadiya Chettiar.
I received the above letter today via my friend and artist, Alan Storey. I often question the effectiveness of this computer-button advocacy. We can feel that we are contributing to the health and welfare of the environment by the mere pressing of that Send
button. We can stay in the comfort of our home, drink our coffee and feel that we are helping. But, who knows, maybe this time it will have positive results.
I love the Bloedel Conservatory as does my wife Rosemary and my granddaughters Rebecca and Lauren. We go there at least three times a year. It is about now (and in those bleak gray days of January) when the Conservatory’s birds with their brilliant plumage beckon to make our life seem less bleak. I love to see my granddaughters talk and smile at Charlie the cockatoo.
But it is that blue Mexican agave that transports me to the Mexico I lived (and loved) for so many years. Its colour reminds me of driving by the Tequila district near Guadalajara that has miles and miles of the startling and stately blue agaves. I can smell that hot humid earth when I am at the Conservatory staring at the agave (I am beginning to call it my agave).
The problem of the Conservatory and the decision by the Vancouver Parks Board to shut it down to save money for me has its origins in a misguided (again my personal opinion) attempt by the botanical gardens of Vancouver to be independent of each other.
1. Nitobe Memorial Garden
(located at the University of British Columbia)
2. UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research
(and a nearby rose garden by the Chan Centre).
3. VanDusen Botanical Garden
4. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden
(sometimes called the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden)
I regularly attend these four and one more, Darts Hill Garden
(run by the Surrey Municipality) which was donated to Surrey by my friend the expert and passionate gardener, Francisca Darts
. My wife and two granddaughters accompany me to these visits. In particular we like to go to the nearby VanDusen where my Rebecca and Lauren like to navigate the maze, watch the Koi, smell the roses and admire the fall colour, spring with the magnolias and enjoy the paradoxically bleak but lovely garden in the winter. We go to the plant sales at both VanDusen and at UBC.
You would think that these gardens would link to each other through their web pages and try to think up of joint projects that would attract more local patrons as opposed to the tourists who seem to know of their attractions.
But there are a couple of issues. One of them is the special status of UBC. It is not Vancouver when it is convenient for UBC. It is part of Vancouver when it is convenient. They have at UBC their own independent zoning laws. I know of at least one well known musical organization in Vancouver that had a problem getting city grants when the city found out that they were using UBC venues!
Consider that both the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research and the VanDusen Botanical Garden have a large army of unpaid volunteers. These unpaid volunteers (as an example at VanDusen) cannot pull weeds (even when they see one) because this would infringe on the duties of the paid parksboard employees who maintain the garden. This has been a smoldering issue for years. It is a shock to find out that the garden is not private (it seems to be) and that it is indeed run by the Vancouver Parks Board. Its ambivalent nature (Is it private? Is it public?) is similar to the ambivalent nature of the UBC Botanical Garden (is it in Vancouver? Is it not in Vancouver?)
Another issue that prevents linkage among these gardens is that the only truly botanical garden in Vancouver is the one that is not in Vancouver but out in UBC. Consider its name, UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. That implies that it communicates with other botanical gardens around the world. They exchange plants and seeds. They introduce new and highly desirable plants to us and to the world.
The other gardens in our city, including that Japanese on out at UBC are in reality display gardens. They are not strictly speaking, botanical gardens.
It is perhaps this difference that keeps the only real botanical garden, the one at UBC such a secret from the rest of our City. To me it is isolated. Yet its garden shop is a beauty with a massive garden book collection and its yearly plant sale is the only one that features plants for sale that you would never find anywhere else in the lower mainland. That botanical garden at UBC is a treasure waiting to be discovered by us the residents of this city.
It is my belief that the problem of the Conservatory would be resolved if all our gardens got together in a spirit of cooperation (as our politicians so often say without meaning).
One other place to begin would be to take our children to these gardens and make it part of their exisitence. When they grow up our gardens will not seem to be lofty places of academia but warm, beautiful and inviting refuges from the stresses of modern life.
UBC Botanical Garden
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden
VanDusen Botanical Garden
Addendum: In her statement above Conservatory defender and enthusiast Nadiya Chettiar calls our Conservatory a "true relic". I know what she means. Perhaps in English we have lost the original meaning of relic( a most Catholic one) which used to be the word we used for the bones and other remains of saints. They were prized and kept in beautiful showcases or vaults in cathedrals and churches. It is a particular Vancouver flaw that we don't see the treasured relics of our city. They become invisible to us and we only realize their value when they are gone.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Robert Cameron, a self styled World’s Oldest One-Eyed Aerial Photographer died last Saturday. He was 98 and he might have been shooting stuff almost until the end. There are 59 6x9 foot photo murals illustrating environmentally healthy sites along the Pacific Rim at the Metreon Gallery in San Francisco right now. It was in San Francisco that Cameron in 1960 started a company that sold champagne-formula shampoo. He was a moderate drinker so he self-published a little book called The Drinking Man’s Diet
in which he championed the idea that sipping a martini or Scotch on the rocks while eating something like a steak could take off weight because of the low carbohydrate count. He sold 2.4 million of these little books at $1.00. He made enough profit so that he could get started on his real love, helicopter photography. He published several
(19) including Above San Francisco
, Above London
, Above Mexico City
, Above New York
(the best seller of them all), Above Los Angeles
and Above Paris
. I have his Above Paris which is written by no less than Pierre Salinger. His most famous picture, for me, (in his Above London) is one he took over centre court at Wimbledon. He was almost shot down because his helicopter was flying so low. You know that one of the little dots down there is Björn Borg. One of the other dots is Queen Elizabeth.
Cameron used a heavy Pentax 6x7 camera that was mounted on a gyroscope to offset the helicopter vibrations. He had special harnesses made so that he could hang precariously (but safely) outside the craft. His pictures are superb. It was in his later life that he developed a macular degeneration in his left eye and left him blind in that eye. But he kept shooting.
In his pre-Google Earth time his pictures are superb and his touch elegant.
Your friendly blogger here never had that elegant touch. I was always too busy swallowing Dramamines like candy and usually being quite out of it before the various helicopters and small planes I have flown in my past took me up to photograph mills or women wearing fur coats in the summer.
The first time I ever flew to take pictures was in Mexico City. I was hired to photograph a soft-drink bottling plant. I was scared to death but managed to take my pictures. I did not feel too good but felt lucky when a week later the pilot of the plane hit a cow in a pasture and killed himself.
Since I was a child I became dizzy in swings, cars, trams and just about anything that moved. It was only when I was in my 30s that I was finally able to control myself enough that I could fly with some equanimity.
I quickly found out what Cameron would have told me and that was that the finest aerial camera was and is the Pentax 6x7. It has a fast enough shutter speed (1/1000) to minimize most vibration and its lenses are very good. It has one flaw (for me). It is difficult to remove spent film as you have to look down a lot and grab the film just right. Looking down in a helicopter or airplane is murder for me. I never did get sick in any of those flights over lumber mills in BC or Alberta because I had really drugged myself with Gravol and Dramamine cocktails.
I took the picture above for a chain of Vancouver stores in the early 80s called Gray’s Apparel. They wanted to feature fir coats for their fall catalogue. The only place with snow in the middle of summer was near Agassiz. We flew in a helicopter to find a suitable glacier. I remember that my seat companion was a foppish young man called Klaus. He was very German and pleasantly gay. He was scared to death but probably not as scared as I was. I decided to make him more scared and perhaps in the process entertain myself and forget about my vertigo.
“Klaus,” I told him, “you must be aware that helicopters cannot glide. They are rocks with a rotors. If the rotors fail they plummet like rocks.” He looked at me and I could feel his panic!
The best thing about a helicopter shoot is when you are back on terra firma and you know that if you throw up you will not have to clean the field (or the cockpit).
In my years in Vancouver I have braved many flights in De Havilland Beavers. On those few moments when I am not worried about my stomach and my vertigo I will admit that flying in a Beaver is exhilirating and exciting. Taking pictures from them is a tad more difficult than in helicopters as the windows are usually clouded or yellow with age. Pilots have offered to open the door but I have in almost all cases (that I can remember) declined their generous offer. For more on Beavers:BeaversMore BeaversAnd more Beavers
That Ingenious Hidalgo - Monsignor Quixote
Monday, November 23, 2009
“Monsignor,” he said, “there is one question I have often asked myself, a question that is perhaps likely to occur more frequently to a countryman than to a city dweller.” He hesitated like a swimmer on a cold brink. “Would you consider it heretical to pray to God for the life of a horse?”
“For the terrestrial life,” the bishop answered without hesitation, “no – a prayer would be perfectly allowable. The fathers teach us that God created animals for man’s use, and a long life of service for a horse is as desirable in the eyes of God as a long life for my Mercedes, which I am afraid, looks like failing me. I must admit, however, that there is no record of miracles in the case of inanimate objects…"
“I was thinking less of the use of a horse to its master than for its happiness – and even for a good death.”
“I see no objection to praying for its happiness – it might well make it docile and of greater use to its owner – but I am not sure what you mean by a good death in the case of a horse. A good death for a man means a death in communion with God, a promise of eternity. We may pray for the terrestrial life of a horse, but not for its eternal life – that would surely be verging on heresy. It is true that there is a movement in the Church which would grant the possibility that a dog may have what one may call an embryo soul, though personally I find the idea sentimental and dangerous. We mustn’t open unnecessary doors by imprudent speculation. If a dog has a soul, why not a rhinoceros or a kangaroo?"
“Or a mosquito?”
“Exactly, I can see, father, that you are on the right side.”
“But I have never understood, monsignor, how a mosquito could have been created for man’s use. What use?”
“Surely, father, the use is obvious. A mosquito may be likened to a scourge in the hands of God, it teaches us to endure pain for love of Him. That painful buzz in the ear – perhaps it is God buzzing.”
Father Quixote had the unfortunate habit of a lonely man: he spoke his thoughts aloud. “The same use would apply to a flea." The bishop eyed him closely, but there was no sign of humor on Father Quixote’s gaze: it was obvious that he was plunged far in his own thoughts.
“These are great mysteries,” the bishop told him. “Where would our faith be if there were no mysteries?"
Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York
Of late I have stumbled into wonderful books (and films) thanks to my new policy of relinquishing my addiction to buying books and settling into enjoying the charms of the hidden/random (via raiding the shelves without a plan) stacks of the excellent Vancouver Public Library.
It was only yesterday that I was in search of a book for my Rosemary who is struggling with an intense computer course that involves Word, Quick Books, Excel and PowerPoint. I am unable to help her as my knowledge of Word is limited to writing on my monitor and availing myself of Word’s best feature, Word Count. My friend Paul Leisz put together a PowerPoint presentation (he was in dismay when I told him I didn’t want fades, music or any kind of special effects). I use that PowerPoint presentation, over and over and all I do is replace the old pictures with new ones. That is as far as I can go with PowerPoint.
The Renfrew Branch of the library had a copy of Word 2002 for Dummies. Off I went to get it. It was there that in the stacks I randomly found a made for British TV film I had seen back in 1987. It was from the series Great Performances and directed by Rodney Bennett. It was the adaptation of Graham Greene’s slim 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote
. The film (what I remembered of it with a glow in my heart) has Alec Guinness playing the stoic small-town (El Toboso on the plains of La Mancha in Spain) parish priest and Leo McKern as his friend the recently ousted (with a sort of fair election) communist mayor. Ian Richardson plays (in a short but extremely satisfying performance) an Italian monsignor (with lots of clout we find out) from an obscure local in Africa who is saved by Quixote’s vague knowledge of car engine repair. The prelate is stuck in the middle of nowhere, a parched Manchegan plain, in his Mercedes when Father Quixote drives by in his ancient Seat (a Spanish Fiat which he affectionately calls Rocinante). The Bishop of Motopo enjoys Quixote’s hospitality especially his Manchegan wine and the steak (the bishop never catches on that it is a horse meat steak). Quixote’s hospitality is rewarded by a letter from his local bishop (one with whom Quixote cannot get along) informing him that the Holy Father has promoted him to monsignor (via a recommendation from the Bishop of Motopo) and that he can now wear the purple bib and socks of that lofty ecclesiastical office.
I will not reveal anymore about this really good film that had me feeling entertained and happy but also depressed as I watched it alone last night while Rosemary struggled with the inhuman logic of Microsoft. But I must mention that the dialogue was so good that in one particular moment (see below) my head opened up to a rush of memories of my past that it reminded me of the intensity of the rains we have been getting of late. As soon as the film was over I took out my Monsignor Quixote and I was delighted that Graham Greene with the help of the credited writer Christopher Neame and the uncredited Miguel Cervantes somehow made that dialogue just about identical to the novel. Both of the passages here which I copied from the book are virtually the same to the film’s dialogue.
He [Sancho] stared gloomily into his glass of wine. “Oh, I laugh at your superstitions, father, but I shared some of them in those days [as a young student in Salamanca]. Is that why I seek your company now – to find my youth again, that youth when I half believed in your religion and everything was so complicated and contradictory – and interesting?”
Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York.
The philosophical musings on the possible existence of a soul in a dog charmed me. But it was in the latter quote (when I heard it in the film) …everything was so complicated and contradictory – and interesting…that grabbed my attention and suddenly I could feel and miss the ghostly presence of the amputated limb that I had lost slowly, surely and inevitably all these years. It was my complicated, contradictory and interesting Catholic faith.
Thanks to my daily-mass-going grandmother and Brother Edwin Reggio, CSC
, who taught me religion at St. Edward’s High School, I was able to practice in reality that tune that my father and I used to sing in bed, usually after we sang My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, (I didn't know then that my father’s rousing singing may have been alcohol induced):
Onwards Christian Soldiers.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Lyrics, Sabine Baring-Gould, music, Arthur S. Sullivan.
It was Brother Edwin who had taught me that one of the most important sacraments of the Catholic Church was the almost forgotten one (it used to happen between Baptism and First Communion) called Confirmation. This sacrament girded the recipient as a metaphorical soldier of Christ. Not as one that would climb up on a war horse and swing a broad sword at Moors in Spain but as one who would defend one’s faith by knowledge of it. The knowledge would help explain and perhaps even entice that curious nonbeliever to join. For years when people asked I could explain such comlicated stuff as transubstatiation, the Holy Trinity and the misunderstood concept (and doctrine) of Ex-cathedra. I felt happy in being able to explain and I never had the intention to convert anybody.
The first seeds of doubt began when my friend John Straney in our 11th grade at St. Ed's paraded his nonbelief in the existence of God in a most vocal manner. The Brothers of the Holy Cross in our Catholic school used General MacArthur tactics and simply moved around him and let him wither in isolation. They never made it an issue. I would have thought that they would have expelled him. Straney graduated just like the rest of us. I remember trying to reason with him and using the so-called proofs of the existence of God taught us by Brother Edwin. I tried Aristotle’s unmoved mover but Straney was not fazed by the human tendency to reject infinite infinities which can be so problematic to most of us. “Why does there have to be a beginning,” he would counter my arguments. “Why cannot time be a circle?” he would suggest.
In the late 60s and early 70s my mother had terrible vertigo Ménière's and she was no longer able to play her piano and she could no hear us most of the time because of the constant buzzing in her ears. The vertigo was terrible. I have suffered motion sickness most of my life and I can attest to her belief that pain was more bearable than vertigo.
My mother began to bitterly tell me she did not believe in a God that cared or a God that participated in human affairs. “I have lost my belief in the power of prayer. He does not listen. He is not interested.” Suddenly all my Catholic education did not help me in countering my mother’s journey into despair. This despair reminded me of Graham Greene's own Scobie in his Heart of the Matter
. I was helpless until she died in the early 70s. It almost seemed that we had been living in that strange area that Graham Greene scholars often called Greeneland
. It was an area populated by doubt about one's beliefs.
When theologians and others were arguing about the ultimate fate of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter
, Graham Greene commented:
"I wrote a book about a man who goes to hell -- Brighton Rock -- another about a man who goes to heaven -- The Power and the Glory. Now I’ve simply written one about a man who goes to purgatory. I don’t see what all the fuss is about" (Time, October 29, 1951, p. 103).
The 1966 issue of Time, Is God Dead?
had put those seeds of doubt in my head. In the 60s I read Time every week. It was my bible.
"Have I complete belief?" Sancho asked. "Sometimes I wonder. The ghost of my professor [Unamuno]haunts me. I dream I am sitting in his lecture room and he is reading to us from one of his own books. I hear him saying, 'There is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty which whispers in the ears of the believer. Who knows? Without this uncertainty how could we live?'"
Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York.
A few months ago as Abraham Rogatnick was slipping away at VGH we discussed for hours our mutual shared belief in the nothingness that awaits. I read to Rogatnick Ambrose Bierce’s wonderful and poignant story of the man who does not fear death until it is suddenly confronts him, Parker Adderson Philosopher. We discussed Epicurus’ logical reasons for not fearing death.
Now as I look back at my evenings and days with Rogatnick I understand why Sancho’s comment on complexity and the Bishop of Motopo’s statement, that we need mysteries to have faith, is so important. That is what is missing in my life. The complexity and mystery of my willfully suppressed Catholic faith have not been replaced by any equivalents. I tell my students that even if you are not religious you must have some knowledge of religion (and in particular the Roman Catholic one) in order to tap into the stories of the saints, the mysteries, the accounts in the bible (both the Old and the New) to find inspiration for photography. After all it was the Catholic faith that gave us soaring cathedrals, soaring Bach cantatas and Masses, El Greco, Raphael and Leonardo.
Somehow the complexity of Ruby, Leopard, HTML and XML cannot replace the mystery and complexity of the faith that I once had. The former codes may be complicated but they don't have the challenge of an unsolvable and unresolvable unknown that will always be rooted in faith. Of what use is Twitter and Facebook and how do these social networks operate? The answer is much too complext for me and the question itself does not interest me. Have I underrated faith for so long?
My eldest daughter Ale (41) was the last member of our family to go to catechism and have a traditional First Communion. This happened around 1974 in Mexico City before we came to Vancouver. Because Ale has kept her connection with her Mexican friends she has a pretty good idea of some aspects of Catholicism that my youngest daughter Hilary (38) lacks. When my mother died in 1973 all semblance of a religious education for her granddaughters stopped.
My Argentine relatives like many Argentines are devout practicing Catholics. One of my nephews is a member of the Opus Dei. When Rosemary, Rebecca and I went to Buenos Aires in 2004 I made it a point to go to mass with my first cousin and godmother, Inesita O’Reilly. I thought it would please her. We brought Rebecca along who thought the Mass was most entertaining. She kept waving at the extremely handsome and young priest. We did our best (between us) to explain to her what she was seeing. For me there was the satisfying symmetricity of Rebecca being in a church to which I had attended many a time as a young boy. It was at La Redonda
(so called as the church is a miniature version of Rome’s round Pantheon), that I had pushed my own idea of what was proper in my faith. I had arrived late (with all the intentions) when the Offertory began. According to my confessor if I arrived late at Sunday Mass but got to the Offertory that was considered a full Mass. I never told him that this was not an accidental lateness. As soon as the priest said itte Missa est
(Latin for go, the Mass is ended
in the traditional Tridentine Mass) I was out of there. Because of the Buenos Aires heat I would usually be outside the church’s doors looking into the Mass. I often wondered if going to Mass involved being physically in the church!
When we took Rebecca three times to Mexico (Guanajuato, Morelia and Mérida) we went to see lots of churches (the picture here is of Rebecca at the Jesuit church in Mérida). Rebecca wanted to know what saint was where and she wanted me to explain the paintings. Being a baptized Christian who was Confirmed I could give her the explanations. She is now able to explain each station of the cross as I have had to tell her the story every since I started taking her to the Pacific Baroque Concerts at St James Anglican
. Rebecca knows that this Vancouver Anglican church is about as Catholic as it can be without being so.
Rebecca can believe (or not) in whatever she wants and that’s up to her busy parents to deal with. But when I am with her I can at least explain to her those mysteries, those complex mysteries that make life and an appreciation of the arts that much more challenging and fun.
I started something last Saturday. I threw a fork on to the kitchen floor. I watched Rebecca as she saw me do it. I asked her later how the fork had gotten there. She correctly told me I had dropped it. From there we went to discuss how any movement or change precludes a mover or changer. At the table I asked her in the presence of her mother, “Rebecca what comes to mind when you see a fork on the kitchen floor?” She answered, “It takes me to the concept of Aristotle's unmoved mover.” "And who or what is the unmoved mover?”
She answered, “God."
I do hope my life will get more complicated again.
Graham Greene On Sharks, Vultures and Palenque
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
Sunday, November 22, 2009
During my stint in the Argentine Navy in the mid 60s I learned to manipulate my superiors. It was the only way that I could prevent my immediate superiors, the Argentine Marine Corps corporals and other petty officers from making my life hell. This technique had all to do with appearances. Captain USN Onofrio Salvia, who was the senior US Naval Advisor in Argentina, and my superior since I had been seconded by the Argentine Navy as his translator, had a chauffeured black Chevrolet Impala. The Impala would not have turned heads in the US. In Buenos Aires it did. There were very few American cars in Argentina in the 60s. I decided to play a game. Captain Salvia had instructed me to deliver a letter to the Argentine Admiralty. He told me, “I need this delivered immediately so ask Juan to take you in the car.” I looked for my beautiful and supple black Argentine leather gloves, I picked up my very nice Lopez Taibo black briefcase and put on my sunglasses. I told Juan to take me to the admiralty and that I was going to play a trick and sit in the back seat. When we arrived at the admiralty I asked Juan to open the door for me. When I left the car every posted guard saluted and came to attention. They all ignored that I was simply a lowly Argentine Navy conscript. My appearance had trumped it.
A few months after that funny incident, I was being harassed and given orders to go to refresher boot camp sessions. I hated them. In boot camp I had no protection from the understanding Captain Salvia
who tried his best to bend the rules to keep me in his office. But even he had his limits and his pull only went so far. One of my methods for avoiding boot camp was plain and square insubordination masked as forgetfullness. This did not work and I spent many a day in the brig and still going to boot camp.
One afternoon as I nursed my sore muscles from the many push-ups I had been forced to execute I had an idea. I went to the Captain’s picture files and I removed a glossy 8x10 of Almirante Benigno Varela who was the Argentine Chief of Naval Operations. In my best handwriting I wrote in Spanish (to my good friend Conscripto Jorge Waterhouse-Hayward and signed with a flourish Almirante Benigno Varela, Comandante de Operaciones Navales, ARA. I slipped the picture under the glass of my desk. It was soon noticed.
As I expected the harassing stopped and I was treated with kid’s gloves by the corporals and petty officers. I had learned the importance of appearances.
It was my intention to write about elitism today. I began it with the chauffeur incident above and quickly realized its connection to elitism was tenuous. I will continue tomorrow.