Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tortured haiku

Pain inflicted on
  foreign bodies, not human
  Bring the cleansing rain

Muscle, sinew, soul
   torn, punctured, quashed. Is there no
   Balm in Gilead?

Haiku of the season

Scent of evergreen
  pepperminted chocolate
  Now just need a hearth

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Italian Hypertype Hit Parade

  I’m concluding a Coursera course entitled "Latino Popular Culture for the Clueless." The instructors, Frederick Luis Aldama and Paloma Martinez-Cruz, are from Ohio State University and they're really fantastic. Aldama has written over a dozen books, many of them in the collection of the library where I work.

  To sensitize us to ways that Latinos are stereotyped in the media, the instructors have us doing assignments about stereotypes of our own ethnic background.  The last assignment was a “hypertype”  -- in other words, a super souped-up stereotype.  We had a choice of submitting an image, a poem, or a sound file.  So I put together clips of stereotypical Italian songs.  Ironically, some of them are sung by Italian-American singers, like Louis Prima and Joe Dolce (who emigrated to Australia).  We had to write an essay too, talking about how the elements of the hypertype express our identity and also our “otherness” with respect to the dominant culture.

  I also learned about the website, where you can upload sound files and also search and download others.

   While I've learned a lot about Latino pop culture, this course has really been an opportunity for me to spend time reflecting on my own feelings and relationship to my own Italian-American culture ...reflections that I've avoided for quite a while, as some of the experiences are painful. There are Italian-American writers whose works I've also bypassed for the same reason.  However I now feel ready to approach them without fear.

Track 1 - Tarantella - traditional
Track 2 - Where Do You Work-a, John? sung by Louis Prima
Track 3 - Shaddup-a You Face - Sung by Joe Dolce
Track 4 - That's Amore - Sung by Dean Martin
Track 5 - C'e la luna mezz 'u mar - Sung by Jimmy
Track 6 - Theme from film The Godfather - composer: Nino Rota
Track 7 - La Bohème, Act 2 Finale - composer: Giacomo Puccini

The Italian immigrants that came to America at the end of the nineteenth century originated principally from the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Campagna, Basilicata, Apulia, and Calabria, located in central and southern Italy, as well as Sicily. My maternal great-grandmother came from the town of La Fara San Martino, a town in Abruzzo known for the De Cecco pasta factory. My father's family came from this region as well.

This hit parade is an expression of that is often a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage. The hit parade starts, of course, with a traditional tarantella. Track 2 (with echos of the tarantella in its introduction) and Track 3 hold a great sense of identity for me, as they remind me of my great-aunts and uncles who spoke English with a strong Abruzzese accent. I have my doubts about the affections of Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren who wrote “Where Do You Work-a, John?” And the scolding Italian mamma is --well-- something I know too well. So I sort of feel that it exposes family secrets to the greater public. However, when sung by Louis Prima and Lou Monte, songs like these strike me as inside jokes. Children of immigrants, these performers felt secure enough in their American identity that they could laugh affectionately both at and with their elders.

On the other hand, I feel the “otherness” in the memory of the menial jobs Italian immigrants held when they came to this country, and I think of Latinos currently supporting themselves and their families at low-wage jobs. My grandmother and her sisters and brothers worked in the garment factories of Philadelphia. They did piece work, and my grandmother told me how she would limit her trips to the bathroom so as not to miss the next shirt coming down the assembly line. While I have fond memories of their accented English, I also know that it is a stereotype evoking lack of education and a lower socioeconomic status. Dr. Aldama reminds us that Latinos do not all come from Mexico or Puerto Rico, but from other countries of Central and South America as well. Many Americans also do not realize that Italians who have emigrated more recently come from the northern regions and have a very different accent when speaking English.

“That’s Amore” (Track 4) evokes the Italy of romance and the stereotype of the great Italian lovers, like the Latin lovers mentioned in one of last week’s videos. Dean Martin, of course, projected this stereotype, as did Rudolph Valentino, Rossano Brazzi, and Marcello Mastroianni. By the way, take a moment to savor the mandolin and the tambourines –the stereotypical Italian instruments-- in “That’s Amore.” “C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare” (Track 5) is sung in Sicilian dialect. I found many interpretations on the Internet, but I liked this one the best, although I have no idea who the singer “Jimmy” is. This song is sung in one of the early scenes of the film The Godfather and is associated with Italian weddings, although few people know that it is full of double entendres. My grandmother, who learned to understand many Italian dialects while working in the garment factory, told me that “it was fun” when this song came out. The lyrics are a conversation between a mother and daughter. The moon is full and shimmering on the surface of the sea (c’e la luna mezz ‘u mare), and the girl is feeling romantic. She tells her mother she wants to get married and her mother starts to tick off various suitors... commenting on the sexual appetite of each. The reality is that the Italian immigrant milieu of my grandmother’s time was very strict and sex was not a subject of polite conversation. This song was fun because everyone got the double meanings and could share a knowing laugh.

Track 6, the theme from The Godfather. This is the most difficult song for me to discuss. I abhor the stereotype of the Italian as Mafioso, an image similar –perhaps—to the bandido, as described by Dr. Martinez-Cruz. I have seen only the first film of the Godfather trilogy. While I must acknowledge Coppola’s cinematic talents, I am appalled that there are Italian-Americans who find the Mafia a source of pride. I have not bought into the dynasty of Mafioso products spawned by the Coppola series, nor have I watched a single episode of the TV series The Sopranos. (OK, end of rant.)

Giacomo Puccini hailed from Torre del Lago in Tuscany, not my family’s place of origin. However, my first exposure to Italian opera was through 78-rpm Victrola recordings that belonged to my grandfather, and it was love from the first scratchy earful. Since La Bohème is my favorite work, I thought I’d bring this love-hate hit parade to a close with the rousing Act II finale.

I'm grateful for the insights I've acquired in this course. Learning the meaning behind the Dia de los Muertes and the Quinceañera celebrations has helped me understand and appreciate the lived experience of Latinos/as.

Grazie for listening and reading!


"C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare.” (Traditional). Sung by Jimmy. mp3

Dolce, Joe. “Shaddup-a You Face.” mp3

“Harry Warren.” Wikipedia.

“Napoletana Tarantella.” (Traditional). mp3

Puccini, Giacomo. Act II, Finale. La Bohème. Thomas Schippers, Conductor. Opera d’Oro, OPD-1143. 
       1969, reissued 1998. CD

Rota, Nino. Theme from The Godfather, 1972. mp3

Warren, Harry. Lyrics by Jack Brooks. “That’s Amore.” Sung by Dean Martin. mp3
Downloaded from Amazon

__________. “Where Do You Work-a, John?” Sung by Louis Prima. The Wildest 75. mp3 downloaded
from Amazon

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The magic will go on

It was hard to distinguish the tears from the sweat this morning. Another rockin' Zumba class led by the incomparable Julie White at Unique Phyzique, only the most fun fitness studio in PA if not the world. However, hugs and fond farewells followed today's class, the last until UP opens its doors at a new location in the (hopefully) near future.

So, along with so many other UP members, I'm sending my very best wishes to Julie and husband John for success in their future ventures. And to the owners of that little strip of business real estate on Rt. 30, expect a large water bill getting it to cool down!

Speaking of which, today's cool-down was "Magic" by Cold Play.  And indeed, the magic will go on...

(BTW, if you have to develop arthritis in your knees, I highly recommend Zumba as the most entertaining way to do it and the easiest way to remain blissfully oblivious to the symptoms.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Because signing Internet petitions isn't enough

 Updates, 2/4/2014:
 Witness Against Torture just uploaded these videos to YouTube

Andy Worthington speaking

Ret. Maj. Todd Pierce speaking


  Been so busy at work all week that I haven’t had time to unpack and share my impressions of last weekend’s Close Guantánamo events in D.C.

   Friday, January 10. I took a vacation day so that I could attend the screening of Doctors of the Dark Side, Martha Davis’ documentary on the complicity of psychiatrists, psychologists, and medical personnel in the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the CIA. I especially wanted to attend the screening because it was going to be followed by a panel discussion by British journalist, blogger, and author of the Guantanámo Files, Andy Worthington. I had the pleasure of meeting and saying a few words to him before the film.

  Doctors of the Dark Side was disturbing, to say the least. Subjecting any human being to physical or psychological torture for any reason is always illegal and immoral. Period. (Never mind the fact that torture is ineffective.) No matter what they may have done or what information they supposedly possess. The fact that White House attorneys agreed to walling, stress positions, enclosing prisoners in a small box with an insect (who thinks up this stuff anyway?), and of course, the pièce de résistance, waterboarding, is absolutely repugnant. It is even more shocking and sad to learn that medical and psychological professionals, whose sword duty it is to safeguard individuals in their care, collaborated instead in their torture. I have to agree with Nathaniel Raymond of Physicians for Human Rights that these acts of complicity constitute “the single greatest scandal in the history of American medical ethics.”

 Yoo has appealed to history, pointing out that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Pierce, however, asserts that the Geneva Convention supersedes any sort of war powers that would allow the president to suspend habeas corpus or authorize torture.
Panel members: Maj. Pierce, Andy Worthington, Stephanie Rugoff
  Another panel member, retired Judge Advocate General, Maj. Todd E. Pierce, offered some interesting remarks on the legality of rulings handed down by White House attorneys John Yoo and others.
  Also participating in the discussion following the film were retired CIA officer Ray McGovern and Stephanie Rugoff of World Can’t Wait.

Saturday, January 11. Well, I can say that I’ve taken part in vigils and marches in Washington, D.C. in falling snow, in withering heat, and now in drenching rain. Still, I was proud to join with members of National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Amnesty International USA, Code Pink (who lent me an orange t-shirt), Witness Against Torture, World Can’t Wait, Center for Constitutional Rights, Veterans for Peace and others in marching from the White House to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I parted with the group and headed home at that point. However, dedicated members of Witness Against Torture entered the museum and conducted a living exhibit, urging us all to work to Make Guantánamo History. View their courageous action:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Time paused, resumed, then paused again

  Our first snowstorm of 2014.  Went back to work yesterday after a wonderful twelve-day holiday, only to have a snow holiday today.  Everything seems almost eerily quiet and still.  The branches are lined with snow, and only the wind shakes off a few stitches now and then.  At 17° it's way too cold for any melting.

   I've been doing some work at my desk by the back window. The sun is shining and shadows slowly cruise from one side of the ocean of white to the other. Listening to classical music on Radio Swiss Classic (French announcement version).

   Reigning over all is the calm that only a snowfall can bring.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tree of Life

During Meeting for Worship this morning we remembered one of our beloved members who recently passed away.  Louise was a birthright Friend.  The Spirit spoke eloquently through her words and actions, especially during the last few years when her delicate health forced her to become a shut-in. We rarely saw her, but she would send Spirit-filled greetings and messages to us in response to cards and phone calls.

Thanks to one of the Haverford College horticulturalists, we obtained a cutting from the great elm tree of Shackamaxon.  According to tradition, it was under this tree that William Penn signed a Treaty of Amity and Friendship with the native inhabitants of the land.

After silent worship punctuated by inspired readings, we took turns spreading soil around the base of the tree.  Louise's daughter sprinkled some of her mother's ashes, and our First Day School children scattered flower petals and seeds.

 Then our Friendly horticulturalist added supports so the sapling would withstand harsh winds and grow strong and tall.

One of the readings was this touching excerpt from William Penn's More Fruits of Solitude:

  And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.
They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies.
 Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
 This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reza Aslan, Jesus, and me

  Update:  some real reviews that discuss Aslan's work, not his religion:

Dale B. Martin in the  New York Times

Anthony Le Donne's blog


 Hard to express how profoundly disappointed I am with media reaction to Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. I won't talk about (or link to) the ambush conducted by a Fox News interviewer. John Oliver's three-parter is friendly and fun, and Sister Rose Pacatte's interview is a respectful exchange. However, an NPR interview was just long enough to allow Aslan to give a bare-bones version of his viewpoint., while an essayist on Huffington Post takes the author to task for doing serious scripture criticism. Come on, scholars established long ago that the "Evangelists" adapted and embellished the Jesus story, even putting words into the Nazarean's mouth.

   Someday maybe I'll read a scholarly review that gives a more substantial and nuanced analysis of Aslan's portrait of Jesus. In the meantime, here are my personal impressions. I'm no scripture scholar. I cannot read Koiné, Hebrew, or Aramaic and have taken only a few introductory courses in biblical studies. I'm just a lay person --and practicing Christian-- who has always had the suspicion that Jesus of Nazareth was very different from the Christ of the Nicene Creed, the dreaded authoritarian God-Man who sits at the right hand of the Father judging us all. To satisfy my curiosity, I've devoured historical studies by investigators from Ernest Renan and Albert Schweitzer to the Jesus Seminar. Jewish scholars such as the last Geza Vermes hold a special appeal for me (after all, Jesus was a Jew). So, when Aslan's book was published I needed no prompting by Fox News or Comedy Central to run out and get it.

SPOILER ALERT: OK, so you probably know how the Jesus story ends. However, if you'd rather discover Aslan's version on your own, skip the paragraphs in blue.

    Aslan recounts "the story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation." (p. 169)  Jesus of Nazareth figures in a long list of unsuccessful messiahs who lived and died in what we know as the first-century-B.C.E. Holy Land. He was a zealot (not to be confused with a member of the Zealot Party, which would come much later).  Zeal constituted "a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation...The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it. But God's reign could only be ushered in by those with the zeal to fight for it." (p. 41)

    The priestly class was the target of Jesus' particular ire, "those who profited most heavily from the Temple's commerce, and who did so on the backs of poor Galileans like himself " (p.99) and who secured their position and livelihood by colluing with Rome. Jesus healed the sick and forgave sins without charge, thus undercutting the Temple cult and rendering the priests unnecessary. Jesus' message was always directed at his own people, whom he wanted to liberate, and it was always as political as it was religious. Although Jesus was not the pacifist that some modern theologians make him out to be, he was not "a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion" either, "though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed."  Jesus may have spoken in parables about the Kingdom of God, but his disciples knew what the coded language meant. His dramatic cleansing of the Temple revealed him as an uncompromising adversary of the reigning political system and led to his arrest. (His execution was not, however, preceded by the dramatic confrontation with Pilate, as recorded in the gospel of John.) The titulus nailed above Jesus' head proclaimed his crime. He was a common lestes who aspired to be King of the Jews. In other words, he was executed for sedition. Because crucifixion marked a Jew as accursed, Jesus' followers infused a salvific message into his death, and a later generation of learned writers scoured Hebrew scripture for prophetic words to explain the mission of the Nazarean.

   Why did the story of this would-be messiah not perish with him? Because his followers were convinced that he had risen from the dead and did not stop proclaiming it. While the Resurrection is a phenomenon that cannot be submitted to historical inquiry, "there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony....It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world." (p. 174, 175.)                                  .  
    However, what we know as Christianity got off to a fractious start to say the least. Conflict arose between James the Just, brother of Jesus and head of the "mother assembly" in Jerusalem, and Saul of Tarsus, who took the name Paul after his conversion. Paul and James clashed over the extent to which Jewish law should continue to be observed, although the writer of the Acts of the Apostles downplayed the animosity existing between "these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries."  However, once the mother assembly in Jerusalem was annihilated by Rome, "Paul's Christ ...obliterated the last trace of the Jewish messiah in Jesus." (p. 190)  The gospels, written six decades after the death of Jesus by persons who had not known him personally, were addressed to non-Jewish audiences. "Scattered across the Roman Empire, it was only natural for the gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jewish independence movement by erasing, as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus, and to adapt Jesus's words and actions to the new political situation in which they found themselves." (p. 149). Thus did the no-account peasant and would-be messiah become God incarnate, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ.

  Reza Aslan has a B.A. from Santa Clara University, a master of theological studies from Harvard,  an M.F.A from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from the University of California at Santa Clara. He currently teaches at the University of California, Riverside.

  That master of fine arts is certainly evident in Aslan's vivid, you-are-there writing:

    The priest takes your sacrifice to a corner and cleanses himself in a nearby basin. Then, with a simple prayer, he slits the animal's throat ... This is as close as you will ever by to the presence of God.  The stink of carnage is impassible to ignore. It clings to the skin, the hair, becoming a noisome burden you will not soon shake off.  The priests burn incense to ward off the fetor and disease, but the mixture of myrrh and cinnamon, saffron and frankincense cannot mask the insufferable stench of slaughter.Still, it is important to stay where you are and witness your sacrifice take place in the next courtyard, the Court of Priests.  Entry into this court is permitted solely to the priests and the Temple officials, for this is where the Temple's altar stands: a four-horned pedestal made of bronze and wood --five cubits long, five cubits wide-- belching thick black clouds of smoke into the air. (from the Prologue, pp. 4, 5, 6).

   This kind of writing is a rare joy.  If you don't believe me, we can spend some time together in the Bible studies section of the university library where I work and sample tomes written over the last 200 or so years. See if you're still awake after a half-hour of erudite, footnoted prose, liberally sprinkled with essential Bible vocabulary in the original ancient languages. Aslan has the good sense to organize his references into a separate 50-page section following his narrative. He knows how to construct a good read and plunges us right into the turbulence of the era.

  I perused those 50-pages of scholarly notes, by the way,  lingering over those that were most interesting to me.  I recognized many sources cited by John Dominic Crossan and others, although  Aslan sometimes reaches different conclusions. Notably, Aslan's Jesus believed the end times to be near, a view not shared by Crossan and other recent scholars.

   More problematic, even painful for me is Aslan's treatment of Jesus' teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. Although he is not unique in this, the author affirms that Jesus in no way departed from Jewish law, and he considers the contrasting formula "You have heard it said ... but I say to you" to be later a later interpolation. I'm familiar, of course, with Jesus' assertion, "I have only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24). However, if Jesus did not mean his teachings to have universal application, I guess I feel a bit...well...left out. I too want to be part of bringing the "upside-down kingdom" into being. However, what role can a 21st-century follower have if "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is just code for "please Lord, help us kick the Romans out as soon as possible"?   What bearing does the message of a nationalistic Jesus have on Marcus Borg's vision of "the world as if God were in charge?" Or on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Beloved Community?  Jesus becomes just another liberation figure, no more or less admirable than Garibaldi....

      Bring it on. I find these challenges to my own Christology every bit as passionate as the quest for the historical Jesus.