Feliz Natal e boas festas!

Feliz Natal!

All the very best for Christmas to all my readers, whether you are of the Christian persuasion or not. May this Christmas be a fine one for all of you.

One bright morning when my work is over, man will fly away home…

Image: DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

When you are 93, if you have lived a full life, death can be an old friend, like one of those distant relatives you met as a child and who pops in to visit with somewhat rhythmic regularity throughout your existence. She’s something of a constant – grey haired now, with bifocals, but still wearing that unfortunate green cardigan and that odd air that leads to so many uncomfortable pauses when she stays for tea. She always attends funerals, but occasionally comes at Christmas, clutching a bottle of cheap sparkling red, or sometimes in the dead of night.

As an old friend, she’s not that scary anymore. Your interactions with her are generally quite civil, as most of your gripes with her are in the past, smoothed over and forgotten like the time Aunty Ethel took Mother’s diamond earrings while the old dear was on her deathbed or what Uncle Frank said about Ethel at the funeral afterwards. You know that someday soon she will ring the doorbell, grinning that toothy grin she grins at times like these, and if you are lucky she will be kind and it won’t hurt very much.

But sometimes death is a spiteful bitch, and she shows up one September day at the office or on the plane you caught that morning, or you see her on a bus in London or at a nightclub in Kuta or on a desert battlefield somewhere, or she drops into your daughter’s wedding somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan and, as death is wont to do, she wipes out young lives, old lives, lives fraught with promise, with one twitch of her hand, and every life lost a tragedy.

You’d think that, at 93, and as a lover of words, I’d know what to say on days like this. However, it’s about this point in the proceedings that such facility with words as I have deserts me, so I will just point you to the story of one man killed ten years ago today, who seems to me to have had the right idea.

When planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Father Mychal Judge ran into the North Tower alongside the firemen he served. Not long after, he became the first recorded victim of the terrorist attacks.

But 10 years later, his friends and colleagues remember Judge as vividly in death as they knew him in life: a gregarious, irreverent man wholly devoted to God, whom many considered a saint, in large part because of his own personal struggles.

Judge was also a celibate gay man in the priesthood, a fact he revealed only to a select few. Brendan Fay, a gay activist who co-produced The Saint of 9/11, a documentary about Mychal Judge, says the chaplain’s struggles drew people to him.

“Mychal sort of weaved his way in and out of groups that wouldn’t be caught near each other,” Fay says.

Republican Mayor Rudi Giuliani and Democratic Mayor David Dinkins; conservative and liberal Catholics; stock brokers and street people — all claimed him as a friend. One reason, Fay says, is that even in the dark hour, Judge could make life a celebration.

“His mother always reminded him, ‘You can’t go wrong with a song. When you don’t know what to do, sing,'” Fay says.

Judge was famous for his rendition of the murder ballad, “Frankie and Johnny,” which he sang at birthday parties. He once sang “God Bless America” at the funeral of a gay man in the middle of the AIDS epidemic.


Top Image: Jill Colvin, DNAinfo:

Bryant Park’s normally bustling lawn was transformed into a solemn memorial Friday ahead of the 10th Anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Midtown office workers looking for a place to soak up the sun instead found the lawn lined with 2,753 empty chairs facing south toward the fallen towers — one to honor each person who died in the attacks.

Bottom image: Holy Name Province Franciscans

H/t: Towleroad for both articles.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice.]

The Sad Long Life of David Brooks

An Arab and his Dogs - Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

Yesterday I posted a link to David Brooks’ most recent magnum vomitus in which he referenced an article by Dudley Clendinen called “The Good Short Life”. Clendinen’s article is a beautiful, brutal, prickly and funny thing, which you should read immediately, if you have not yet had the pleasure. It will be the best thing you read all day.

Then, if you will, come back and I’ll dare to append some of my own poor scribblings. And a bit of ranting about David Brooks. There will be swearing and David Brooks’s writing may even be compared in a very insulting fashion to baked goods.

Off you go.

See what I mean? That’s the sort of extraordinary writing that David Brooks will never succeed in producing – because the Clendinen article is written by a fine, honorable and self-aware human being and David Brooks’ articles are written by … well, by David Brooks.

I have never met Mister Clendinen, and it saddens me that I almost certainly won’t have the chance to know him. I wish him much joy of the time he has left, much dancing and much walking of dogs, and a quiet and happy death.

On the other hand, David Brooks is a person I would move continents to avoid. While I wish him a long life and little pain – because that is the decent thing to wish for anyone, no matter how morally bankrupt and intellectually turnip-like they may be – I don’t say I wouldn’t be happy if he was to suffer a little accident which removed his ability to write, such as it is. To be frank, I’d probably open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but it’s generally not something I actively wish for. Actually, if I’m brutally honest, I will admit that rereading both articles made me angry, and that there were moments where I allowed myself to imagine graphic acts of violence against Mr Brooks, but that’s as far as it went, I promise. It was something lingering involving two kilos of anchovies in his pants and an hungry petrel, I seem to recall.

Most satisfying. Very Tippi Hedren.

There are a lot of things wrong with Brooks’ article.

However, I can ignore his willful blindness about the root causes of America’s related healthcare and budget crises (Hint: It’s not the fault of the sick people who would just like to not die in a gutter).

I don’t mind his blithe acceptance that the way to fix the system is to keep the broken system we have and reduce costs by encouraging people to die, rather than reforming (or even socializing) that system (Hint: In most countries with a form of socialized medicine, the political debates are about the details of the socialized system, not its existence, because every politician knows that to mention abolishing socialized medicine will lose you every election in a landslide. People like socialized medicine).

I can make my way through the most repellent Brooks prose without having my palms itch or my temperature rise.

Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.

I love how he veers from those authoritative pronouncements of what “we” are going to allow, and what it will be hard to see “us” doing, straight into the declaration that “people and their families” (but presumably not “we” and “us” anymore) will have to stand eye to eye with rabid death and pay their dues to their nation.

I can forgive his mangled metaphors, his twee primness (or is it prim tweeness?):

But in large measure it’s about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon.

and his complete failure to engage with his subject or educate, inform and/or entertain with his prose. I can even forgive this:

There are many ways to think about the finitude of life.

Can’t you just imagine Davey typing “finitude”? Mouthing the word to himself under his breath, his lips pursed into a little moue of satisfaction, perhaps a wry smile at his own cleverness.

I can accept that, although in this article Brooks has veered dangerously close to inserting a valid point, lurking there beneath the layer of smugness that coats his every pronouncement like the royal icing on a particularly loathsome wedding cake, that point rises no higher than:

People might want to raise my taxes to pay for the poor and the dying. As I am fit, healthy and rich, someone else should do something to prevent their problems impacting on me. I like both free enterprise and cheese.

However, none of these egregious sins against good taste, intellectual rigor and human decency made me angry.

What made me mad, what sent me scuttling for my phone to order a batch of muffins for Mr Brooks*, is that, as the lovely Mr Levenson pointed out in the comments, Brooks appropriates Clendinen’s words and twists them:

Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.

But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.

Brooks takes Clendinen’s words about friendship and family and joy and struggle and his right to die with dignity, about his choice (as Mr Levenson puts it):

to live the life he thinks worth and worthy of living, and not one moment that is not,

about his decision to say no to the operations and the pain and the blood and shit and piss and the loss of self that disease can bring, about planning his own death as honestly and lovingly as he can, and about how one’s right to die is necessarily also the right to choose to fight on …

David Fucking Brooks takes those wonderful, painful words and uses them in a prim little sermon on how the aged and the infirm and the poor should grit their teeth, think of the Stars and Stripes and just die already.

That is simply unforgivable.

* If you make very good friends with a New York baker, like I did, you can get laxative-laced muffins couriered to people you hate in the most gorgeous baskets you have ever seen, and at very reasonable rates. Nobody can resist a nice, fresh-baked muffin.

[Image – An Arab and his Dogs – Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)]

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice.]

Go back to where you came from

Over the last few days I have been privileged, by means of my various international connections, to have watched a reality TV show called “Go back to where you came from”, which has recently been broadcast over three consecutive nights on the Australian television channel SBS. (You probably won’t be able to watch the show at that link, but there is a massive amount of background information available.)

Immigration issues have been a matter of significant debate in Australia in one form or another since the 18th century. However, the debate is particularly heated in the context of what are called “boat people”.

The first boat people – an unauthorized boat carrying five Indochinese men – arrived in northern Australia in 1976, and was followed by a further 2059 Vietnamese refugees arriving by boat over the next five years. There was a further wave of predominantly Indochinese refugees from 1989 to 1998 at the rate of about 300 people per year. Since 1999, however, boat people arriving in Australia have been predominantly (and unsurprisingly) from the Middle East. It is worth noting that boat people have never made up more than a tiny percentage of migrants (or even refugees) reaching Australia.

Public reaction to boat people has been extremely polarized. The refugee issue was used successfully by the conservative Liberal government as a wedge issue in at least one election, finally resulting in the implementation of the so called “Pacific Solution” where boat people were prevented from landing on the Australian mainland (where they would have rights under the UNHRC rules) and instead were transported to detention camps on small island nations in the Pacific.

While these arrangements have come to an end, they seem in recent years to have been replaced by the “No One Has A Fucking Clue Solution”, and debate in Australia continues to rage.

In the SBS program, six ordinary (in some cases very ordinary) Australians were placed in the position of refugees, over 25 days retracing their steps backwards from Australia to the source countries of many refugees.
Read the rest of this entry »

Why does Peggy Noonan hate America?

I adore plane travel.

I love the sheer improbability of nine hundred thousand pounds of steel, people and fuel flitting through the air like Nijinsky on a coke binge. I love the fact that there are beautiful women and handsome gay men whose sole function for eight hours is to bring Grammy more champagne. I love not having to elbow incontinent old people in the head in order to watch what I want on TV.

Most of all, I love the fact that I can have a nap and wake up in Amsterdam or Barcelona or Sydney or Rio de Janeiro. I’ve spent most of my life trying to travel to as many foreign places and meet as many foreign people as possible, even if I’ve had to hock my shoes to get there.

One of the other advantages of plane travel is that the enforced down-time waiting in airport terminals gives me a chance to browse around those corners of the internets I usually don’t get to. For example, the other day, while I was at LaGuardia waiting for Gloria’s plane to be refueled, I stumbled across an unusually coherent article by little Peggy Noonan.

I’m not suggesting it is a great article. After all, when Peggy writes, you’re usually just happy if the piece uses recognizable words and the smell of vodka doesn’t filter all the way down through the printing process and transpire off the page. However, I thought her conclusion was interesting, if only because it looks like Peggy has managed to stumble in the gutter and land on her hands and knees next to half a truth:

The whole world is in the Hilton, channel-surfing. The whole world is on the train, in the airport, judging what it sees, and likely, in some serious ways, finding us wanting. And, being human, they may be judging us with a small, extra edge of harshness for judging them and looking down on them. We have work to do at home, on our culture and in our country.

My real problem with Peggy’s conclusion is that the real situation is much worse than she thinks.

The world doesn’t look at America and find it wanting. The world looks at America and worries what the hell it is up to now.

Now before anyone accuses me of being an America-hating Limey immigrant bitch, let me hasten to add that I love this country with all my heart. Any nation that produced bourbon whiskey, blues music, the cheeseburger and George Clooney’s ass can’t be all bad.

Further, many (perhaps even most) Americans are fine, generous, inventive, kind people.

I’m also not suggesting that the rest of the world isn’t messed up as well. One look at the Italian Parliament or the Japanese film industry or the slums of Brazil or anything involving Steve and Bindi Irwin or the Wiggles would suggest that the rest of the world has enough of its own problems to be getting on with.

America is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, the refuge of the homeless and the tempest-tost, that more perfect union whose alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

And yet, most of the time what the outside world sees is a nation of bloodthirsty war-mongers and religious dogmatists who think the way to world peace is more guns and more war, that democracy can be imposed at the end of a Gatling gun, and that drilling for oil, bringing on Armageddon or the fact that the indigenous population wears their handkerchiefs on their heads are legitimate reasons for invasion.

They read their papers and they read about a nation that went to war to throw off the shackles of a hereditary monarchy and then spent the next 200 years replacing it with the most dysfunctional political system this side of Pyongyang, a hereditary argentocracy in which the electoral prospects of a fat multiply-bankrupt television star with a triple combover can be seriously discussed, rather than being relegated to the funny pages.

They wonder at a nation that has the best medical system in the world in which 90% of the population can’t see a doctor without selling either a kidney or their oldest child into slavery – a nation that has the best education system in the world, and yet 72% of the population is so terminally incurious that it doesn’t have a passport and couldn’t find America on a map with a torch and a pointy red arrow marked “You are here”.

They deal with fat tourists from Texas in walk socks and flip-flops who travel overseas merely so they can shout at the locals in English in order to be understood and get directions to the Hard Rock cafe, and thereby avoid being exposed to anything remotely foreign while in a foreign land.

They fear America as a country of cultural imperialists, racists, Jesus freaks and Amway salesmen who want to turn the entire world into a sanitized theme park of sexless talking mice, big-eyed virgins, plastic cheese and expensive time-limited parking.

In the family reunion of nations, America is the crazy aunty with halitosis and a moustache who bails you up in the corner and tells you off because you need to lose weight and stop smoking, while all the while scoffing all the vol-au-vents and bogarting the joint.

America is a great nation. Americans rightly think so. The rest of the world rightly thinks so.

The real problem is that when much of America looks at itself all it sees is a great nation.

The rest of the world looks at America and, however much they may envy or love its wealth and its celebrity and its power, they see a great nation that is often demonstrably, certifiably fucking insane.

Grammy either needs a drink or to stop reading the newspapers. Probably both.

[Image from Artrenewal.org]

Vale Elizabeth Sladen

I am horribly saddened to hear of Elizabeth’s death.

We worked together in about 1975. That’s actually me in the shrubbery costume in the picture above, waving my leafy tentacles made of old hoses and garbage bags painted green.

It’s best not to ask why I was on set that day, dears. Let’s just say that the mid seventies were an interesting time in the world of international espionage.

She was a fine person and a fine actress and she will be missed.