Thursday, May 29, 2008

Language Abuse

Corporate Speak is an occupational hazard in the business world. Pointless phrases like "it is what it is" and bizarre constructions such as "recycle your interactions by designing rituals and addictions" that epitomize vacant intensity and pseudo-wisdom crop up more frequently than is safe for human consumption.

Sometimes the attempt to come across as spontaneously profound falls flat on its vacuous face. Such is the case I experienced when a fellow I knew declared that he was going to "focus on everything." Now, the point of focusing is to exclude a majority of elements or considerations so as to pay greater attention to those that remain; thus, to "focus on everything" is a contradiction (and not an oxymoron). And contradictions, like mixed metaphors, are imperfections -- i.e. evidence that the speaker or writer has not troubled himself to work out a reasoned remark, but has decided to inflict his incoherent ramblings on his neighbors. The proper response to a nonsensical contradiction (and not a paradox) is to quit paying attention to the rambler post-haste.

Other times Corporate Speak sours expressions that are actually suitable for general use. Recently I heard a professional apologize for using the "marketing jargon" of "dovetail." The term "dovetail," it turns out, is a perfectly legitimate word meaning "to join elegantly or congruently." To persons with an ever-shrinking vocabulary, however, even reasonable words like "dovetail" are beyond the pale, devoid of significance beyond their ability to impress dull listeners conditioned to give Pavlovian responses to Corporate Speak.

One effort at compensation (I have several) is to read extracts from my truncated copy of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. Consider:
* Kiss: Salute given by joining lips
* Puppet: A wooden tragedian
* Stockjobber: A low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares
* Uxorious: Submissively fond of a wife; infected with connubial dotage

Reading a few passages such as these becomes a form of verbal therapy or lexicographical rehabilitation that stimulates the mind numbed by jargon and soothes outraged sensibilities.

Militia est vita hominis super terram

Militia est vita hominis super terram is brought to you by the Book of Job; loosely rendered in the vulgar tongue, it means "man's life on earth is a warfare."

I ended the post on Alice's Daughter with the quotation; hopefully the point was not too oblique -- i.e. that the most satisfying solutions to life's enigmas can't be discovered by following the convenient path, and that Heaven is won not by people who embrace the spirit of the age, but by those who overcome it.

Not that I'm a Latin scholar (though I know one), but I've developed an interest in the tongue after becoming Catholic. The little chapel I attend has its Masses in Latin, so I've incidentally picked up a few words and phrases along the way.
* Dominus vobiscum = The Lord be with you.
* Et cum spiritu tuo = And with thy spirit.

* Pater noster, qui es in caelis = Our Father, who art in Heaven, etc.

For my part, I took Russian in high school and college. It's a pretty harsh-sounding inflected language at the best of times -- for instance, to express the romantic sentiment "I love you," one must cram together a number of consonants in Slavic fashion and spit out, "Ya tebya lyou-byou." I did have a few moments of fun with Russian, though -- for example, the word for "stupid" is "gloopy," which is itself a stupid-sounding word.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


In 2002 National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story about Joan Hinton, an American nuclear physicist on the Manhattan Project who moved with her husband to China in 1948 to support the Communist revolution. Afterwards the Hintons started a dairy farm, which the now-widowed Joan still runs.

With no sense of irony, the interviewer encouraged Hinton to relate her marvelous experiences in the era of the Chairman Mao regime -- a period that saw various Five-Year Plans, Mao's Great Leap Forward, his Cultural Revolution, and the criminal genocide of 65 million people.

Joan talked about her happy life during the Mao years with relish (I gathered she never had to endure the routine "thought reform" indoctrination that was obligatory for native Chinese). I waited in vain, however, for the reporter to ask Hinton to elaborate on her unabashed support for her chosen murderous government. As the segment drew to a close, I realized I'd just listened to several minutes of Communist agit-prop; it is not without cause that today I still think of NPR as National Proletariat Radio.

Alice's Daughter

I saw the film The Color Purple when I was a high-schooler. I don't recommend the movie -- aside from the indecent content, the characterization of men as irrelevant (at best) and oppressive (routinely so) is a sad affair.

So I was fascinated to come across a recent article by Rebecca Walker, the author's daughter. As a girl Rebecca was treated as a burden (at best) and betrayed (routinely) by her mother, a womanist luminary who professed that having children enslaved women. Rebecca describes growing up with Alice the unwilling mother, who simultaneously protested the dehumanizing truculence of others and inflicted psychological and emotional cruelties of her own on an insufficiently actualized daughter.

Rebecca's article:

Caveat: Rebecca has made unfortunate decisions of her own -- e.g. children are vulnerable and dependent for a number of years, and they need the stability of a home where the parents are bound perpetually in marriage; thus the "father-as-partner-rather-than-husband" scenario is another dark dream that Rebecca needs to wake from. The long-term vulnerability of children is one reason why marriages should be permanent -- which isn't to say that there aren't times (e.g. infidelity, alcholism, abuse) when it's necessary to call it quits, only that deliberately having children when there is only a casual, non-permanent relationship of convenience is unfair to the kids. Militia est vita hominis super terram.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Interviews with David Lawrence

Up until about the age of three I put in occasional appearances with my younger brother at the Palm Beach Post-Times (now the Palm Beach Post) where my mother wrote features for the Women's department. Sometimes mom would sit us down on the desk of David Lawrence, the paper's managing editor, and he would engage us in conversation. Not that I have any recollection of this, but it is fun to say I was interviewed by Lawrence.

Monday, May 26, 2008

This Little American Went to Ireland

In 2002 I spent two weeks in Ireland. After returning home I attempted to write a short description, but I failed miserably: the description was long. I tried to organize my account chronologically with a few random tidbits at the end that I thought might be of general interest; hopefully the headings will help readers identify the parts they're interested in so that they can skip the rest.



Ports of Call in Eire

Thursday, May 30
Flew into Shannon Airport. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, our cabbie humored me by pronouncing the names of all the road signs in Gaelic; I gave him a good tip. My first official meal was fish and chips and a pint of Guinness. Viewed the beautiful Cliffs of Moher, an impressive wall of rock that rises to nearly 700 feet; the site was breathtaking. Climbed to the tower atop the cliffs while to the sound of a busker playing his Irish bagpipes.

Friday, May 31
Drove through Limerick and the Glen of Aherlow to Cashel. Saw the ecclesiastical ruins at the rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick’s original cross is displayed. Cromwell’s troops burned the roof off the place and slaughtered many of the locals in the 1640’s, and it never really recovered (a common theme for many of the spots I visited). The place was originally a pagan site; it was St. Patrick who baptized the local king. Legend has it that during the baptism, the aged cleric stumbled and caught himself with his crozier; unfortunately, in planting the crozier he landed on the king’s foot and pierced it through. The catechumen king, not familiar with the details of the new faith, thought a pierced foot was just part of the ceremony and said nothing; the remaining locals proved understandably slow to convert afterwards. The Mass for the day was of the Queenship of Mary.

Saturday, June 1
Visited Ardfert Cathedral in Tralee, a complex of churches linked to St. Brendan. Had the best weather in months to see the verdant Dingle Peninsula, the westernmost point of Europe. Stopped at Gallarus Oratory, the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland. Today being first Saturday, I went to Confession: Fr. Kinney and I “borrowed” the confessional in a nearby cathedral; when we came out, the priest and a short line of penitents were eyeing us curiously. I lost a roll of film I had taken the first few days, and 10 rolls of unused film (pronounced “fill-um” by the locals).

Sunday, June 2
Saw the Ring of Kerry: around the highest mountains, the Magillycuddy’s Reeks, and several remote villages (favorite village name: Sneem). Saw Skillig Michael from a distance. During the bus trip Fr. Kinney let me lead the rosary; someone said I prayed with an Irish accent. The tour guide said that a name with the letter “O” in it signifies “son of,” so that “O’Neal” means son of Neal (or Niall of the Nine Hostages); he also said that “Fitz” means “illegitimate son of,” though an Irish acquaintance disputed that point. And we learned that “Kennedy” means “ugly head.” Thus, if our driver is to be believed, “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” means “John the illegitimate son of Gerald the Ugly Head.”

Monday, June 3
Visited the beautiful Bantry House. Kinsale next: a pretty yachting town. Then to Cork, the country’s second largest city. Its cathedral -- named for the city’s patron, Saint Finbarr -- was magnificent; a funeral was just finishing when we arrived. Mass was held in the SSPX chapel, a pretty little church.

Tuesday, June 4
Visited the Waterford Crystal showrooms and factory. Then to Kilkenny to tour Kilkenny Castle (a real eyepopper) and St. Canice’s Cathedral (now Church of Ireland). I didn’t see the signs that said no photos, and took a great frontal pic of the main altar; a local promptly grabbed me from behind and gave me a shake to warn me off -- apparently they consider it bad form to take photos inside a church. So I amused myself by looking through the card and gift shop situated in the back of the church’s nave (no, I’m not making that up).

Wednesday, June 5
Traveled through Vale of Avoca to Glendalough (my favorite spot of the trip), with the 6th century monastic settlement of St. Kevin with the ruins of seven churches and a round tower in a lakeside setting. Saw the Powerscourt Gardens.

Thursday, June 6
Dublin with a tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ireland’s largest church, founded beside a sacred well where St. Patrick baptized converts; Christ Church Cathedral; and Trinity College, which houses the Book of Kells. The tour guide for the two cathedrals was an apologetic Catholic who said she was proud that Ireland’s first president was a Protestant. When she gave her account of the plight of the poor Huguenots who had fled to Ireland to escape persecution in France, she found that a few of the pilgrims liked their history on the less revisionist side. During the city tour we also saw Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in the company of a local city official; we didn’t stop for autographs. On our own we hiked about until we found the church where Venerable Matt Talbot is buried: this saintly man helped start a group called the Pioneers, a Catholic society that helps drunks get sober. Fr. Kinney left us today, and we met Fr. Gallagher, who remained with us the rest of the trip.

Friday, June 7
Saw Boyne Valley and Drogheda; visited St. Peter’s Church and saw the skull of St. Oliver Plunkett. Next was Monasterboice, dating from the 5th century and famous for its collection of Celtic high crosses. North to Downpatrick and its Cathedral, the burial place of Saints Patrick, Bridget, and Columcille. The trio of saints of Downpatrick are buried in the same spot under a great slab of stone; I gathered seven shamrocks from beside the three-in-one grave. Ended the day in NewCastle; my room overlooked the sea, and the sound of lapping waves was a welcome change to the drink-inspired ballads of late-night Dubliners.

Saturday, June 8
Ancient city of Armagh, the spiritual capital of Ireland for over 1,500 years, with two cathedrals of St. Patrick (one Catholic, the other Anglican). Saw the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh. Traveled to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, an inhospitable island where penitential souls can mortify their senses for as long as they can bare the strong cold winds. Bedded down in Donegal.

Sunday, June 9
Morning Mass was in the hotel conference room. Today was the feast day of St. Columcille, and Donegal was the saint’s diocese – which made it a first class feast for us, a real grace. Headed south along Donegal Bay to Sligo by Lough Gill, with a Mass rock and the holy well at Tobernault. Visited the grave of W.B. Yeats; didn’t know he’d been Anglican. South to Knock Shrine, site of an approved apparition of Our Lady. In 1879, the Blessed Virgin appeared with St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist; she did not speak, but the image was witnessed by about 15 people. A holy well also stands in the town next to the shrine, as well as a horrifically ugly modern basilica. Evening cruise on Lough Corrib.

Monday, June 10
West of Galway through the mountainous Connemara region. Saw Kylemore Abbey, a 19th century neo-Gothic mansion. Quick stop at Croagh Patrick, an isolated quartzite mountain, on which St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights, fasting and praying.

Tuesday, June 11 – Saturday, June 15
Most of the pilgrims flew home June 11; I flew on to London to visit trad friends. I toured Parliament building, Westminster Abbey, London Tower (where the body of St. Thomas More is locked up and seen only by special appointment), and Oxford University (got a picture of me standing outside the Eagle and Child tavern). Flew home the 15th.


The Land of Scholars and Saints
Roughly the size of the state of Maine, Ireland is dotted coast to coast with ancient churches, cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries, and cemeteries. Most are ruins; those that have been maintained are likely not Catholic any more, but the property of the Church of Ireland. After seeing a number of once-Catholic structures in the hands of the Anglicans, several pilgrims became a bit warm under the collar and were heard to mutter, “This is *another* beautiful church they stole from us.” It was both moving and sad to see so many clear signs of the Faith, and to see so little awareness or even thought about it: drinking, the World Cup, and the European Union were the hot topics; one day I even sat next to a nun in a cafeteria, and all she would discuss was the exchange rate on the Euro. Though still a very charming people, the piety that inspired their Irish ancestors seemed all but lost.

Irish Piety
The Irish were always devout people, who were strong on pious devotions if not on doctrine. It was a common occurrence for the faithful to pray rosaries, offer novenas, attend Mass; what they were not prepared for was the defection from the Faith of their bishops over the past forty years, who have been leading the flock down the same path that has led to the general apostasy that afflicts the rest of Europe and America. Northern Ireland (called Ulster) was formerly the stronghold of Catholicism, so the English imported many English and Scottish landlords there to weaken that bastion of the Faith. The city of Cork in the south has always been strongly Catholic – so much so that legends claim when Ireland sinks beneath the waves at the time of the Antichrist, pious Cork will float (see “Irish Humor” below).

The old Irish people were Catholic inside and out, working their religion into all their affairs. For example, a thousand years ago an Irishman would greet his neighbor in the Irish tongue not with “Hello” or “Good day,” but with “God be with you,” to which his neighbor would reply, “God and Mary be with you.” And if the first fellow was in an especially talkative mood, he might reply in turn, “God and Mary and St. Patrick be with you,” and so on until an Irish litany of the saints had been exchanged. That’s changing these days as the Irish culture is being steadily secularized: the Gaelic being taught in the schools is deliberately devoid of religious allusions, so that “good day” is simply “good day.”

In Ireland many girls are named Mary, or Mora in the Gaelic, in honor of the Mother of God. There is, however, a special form for the name of the Blessed Virgin in Irish, which is Moira, and no Irish girl is ever given that name (just as little boys in English-speaking families are not named Jesus).

The Irish Cross
The pagan Irish worshipped the sun. When the people of the land were christened, the symbol of the cross was merged with the symbol of the sun, thus producing the Irish cross we’re familiar with today. Irish cemeteries are filled with tombstones and markers in the shape of the Irish cross (no graves marked with simple name plates for these people).

Irish Humor
The Irish I came across laughed a good bit, and were quick with the witticisms. For example, when asked why most of the stone bridges were arched instead of flat, the tour guide said it was so that the fish could fit under them. One pub boasted the sign “Drinking Consultants,” and a women’s hairdressing shop was named “Curl Up and Dye.” The folks of Kerry (called Kerrymen) are the butt of many jokes, though the English are usually fair game as well. I heard that the Irish play Bingo in Latin so that the Protestants won’t win. A group of Irish locals known as the travelers are the Gaelic version of Gypsies, and are said to be the sort of folks “who find things before they’re lost.” The Museum of Natural History is known among locals as the Dead Animal Zoo.

Keeping Ireland Green
Though it boasts a population of only some five million souls, Ireland today is among the ten wealthiest nations in the world: the Irish have learned a thing or two from the Americans about the lucrative tourism industry (i.e., no more ashes for Angela). Many tourists want to punctuate their forays among the ruined abbeys in the Land of Guinness with trips to the country’s many quaint gift shops. The Euro is the coin of the land.

Troubled Times
Ireland was publicly Catholic until the years following the reign of Henry VIII. Life didn’t really become desperate for the Irish, however, until the arrival of the Puritan cavalry commander Cromwell; it was a common theme to hear from the tour guide, “And this church stood for ten centuries, until Cromwell burnt it to the ground and killed the inhabitants.” For over two centuries, the Irish were not allowed to practice the Catholic Faith; the faithful had to hide their priests and conduct Masses in the wild on Mass Rocks. Catholics paid a fine for being Catholic, could not vote, be elected to an office, or own property or an animal worth more then five pounds -- they even built their houses with narrow windows because the English taxed them for the amount of sunlight let into their homes. The official persecution ended in the 19th century, and Irish independence followed in the first half of the 20th century.

Tuber Terror
In the mid 19th century Ireland was afflicted by a potato famine. The potato crops were infected by a fungus that had blown across the Atlantic from South America; the problem was compounded by the actions of absentee landlords (usually in England) who evicted starving peasants that could not pay their rents during the famine. At the time the population of Ireland was eight million souls; about one million Irish died in the famine, and another two million left the country, often for America. Today about 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry (including yours truly).

Irish Breakfasts
I ate a big breakfast nearly every day of my trip. The normal routine in the hotel was to help yourself to fruit, a bowl of cereal, yogurt, and fruit juices; after sitting down to this repast, a waiter would come by and ask how you would like your eggs, bacon (ham for us), sausage, and tomato prepared; once when I said I wanted only the egg and bacon my waiter stared at me disbelievingly. Coffee and tea were served with every meal.

The Irish Harp
The Harp of Brian Boru (the 10th or so century Irish king who chased the Vikings out of Ireland) is the official emblem of Ireland.

Some Irish Words
* Beannachta Dia leat = God bless you
* Oro se do bheatha bhaile = Welcome home

* I acquired an Irish drum called a Bodhrán, which is pronounced something like "BOW-run."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Vintners of the World, Unite!

What: Karl Marx Wine
Where: Trier, Germany (birthplace of Karl Marx)
When: June 8, 2007

Questions: Proof of the lasting influence of Karl Marx, fomenter of atheistic communism? Or the commoditization of Marx and the triumph of capitalism? And why isn't it a red wine?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Song of Angels

A few years back an Indian co-worker pointed at a printout of a Bouguereau painting I had thumb-tacked to the corkboard at my desk.

"Your picture reminds me of the story of the birth of one of the Hindu deities," he said.

During the conversation that followed I asked him which Hindu deity he worshipped.

"Kali," he answered. "She is a goddess of light."

"Kali?" I asked. "As in Thugs and Gunga Din and Indiana Jones -- the Black Earth Mother who eats her own young?"

He'd never heard of her.

"No, my Kali is a goddess of light."

I let it go at that.

Gideon's Drink

The Jordan River (February, 2008)

Judges 7: And when the people were come down to the waters, the Lord said to Gideon: They that shall lap the water with their tongues, as dogs are wont to lap, thou shalt set apart by themselves: but they that shall drink bowing down their knees, shall be on the other side. And the number of them that had lapped water; casting it with the hand to their mouth, was three hundred men: and all the rest of the multitude had drunk kneeling. And the Lord said to Gideon: By the three hundred men, that lapped water, I will save you, and deliver Madian into thy hand: but let all the rest of the people return to their place...

The soldiers who laid down to lap the water from the river were judged to be more inclined to gratify their animal nature. Their ready appetite for the sensual neutralized their holy calling, rendering it sterile.

The kneeling soldiers, meanwhile, drank by cupping the water of the Jordan in their hands. This elemental form of decanting -- of raising the water to what is noblest in man instead of debasing what is exalted by lowering it to the level of the carnal -- epitomized Homo sapiens sapiens: it betokened a facility for discernment, wisdom, and spiritualized deeds.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Maps, Keys, and Clocks

Trinity Sunday

Maps are tools for making sense of the world as it presents itself to the senses.

Keys give passage to the realm of knowledge and substance: they allow the mind to apprehend the workings behind what the senses detect.

Clocks, calendars, and the like point the way to time, numbers, infinity, universals, eternity, the absolute, the immeasurable, the never-ending, permanence.

All three are products of minds capable of thought, memory, and imagination.

From sense to substance to permanence: because not everything is relative.

Noverim Te, noverim me.