So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

First ride

skatefeet

My new skateboard came in the mail the other day. It’s an Enuff, a British brand that didn’t even exist when I quit skating 20 years ago. I did the easy thing and ordered a complete board because I couldn’t remember all the components or even be bothered to decide between all the available parts. On their website they have a message about using wood from renewable forests, their boards are considerably cheaper than well-known brands, and so far I can’t even tell the difference.

As soon as I unwrapped the board I began cruising around the kitchen. I was surprised that I didn’t fall immediately. Within hours I was downstairs carving in the parking lot and doing short manuals (riding on the back wheels, if you don’t know). I left work early that evening and hit a spot I’d been eyeing on the way home. Stop for a moment and think about what you just read: A 40 year old man stopped on his way home from work to skate, alone, in the dark after two decades of not having so much as rolled on a skateboard. And what do you think happened? I slammed. Twice.

Slamming is skateboard jargon for falling hard. I had found a nice smooth area to roll around in. As this is a rather pleasurable activity to do fast, I began to go faster. An unseen pebble sent my flying across the pavement: glasses on face, keys and phone in jacket pocket, button-down shirt and all. It was like a slap in the face from my mother. So what did I do? I swept the pebble away with my foot, muttered something about “goddamn pebbles” and got back on the board again.

It felt triumphant, although my elbow hurt. I imagined I might be able to ollie, and after a few tries I think I got off the ground slightly. A man about my age with a large German Shepherd walked up to me and asked if there was a ramp at the local church. I told him I didn’t know, but thought it unlikely. I added that today was my first day skating. “E sai già fare l’ollie!?” (“And you can already ollie!?”) Well, it’s been a while, I added. He mentioned that he had also recently begun skating again. Cool. “Ci vediamo.” “See you around.”

Skater language is always the same. No matter how much Shaksepeare you’ve internalized through years of reading, as soon as you step on a skateboard it’s back to monosyllables. Cool, yeah, right, wow, u-huh. I’m always pleasantly taken aback when I see a skater who can speak well, like Rodney Mullen in his recent TED talks. I guess I have an old prejudice (based in part in personal experience) of skaters as mainly an anti-intellectual crew. This, at least, was the image projected in the 1980s when skateboarding was synonymous with lawlessness, hardcore and Satanism. These Reagan-era memes must have contaminated my mindstream, despite minimal contact with teenage Satanists.

As I was heading towards the car there was a short drop from the sidewalk into the parking lot. Sweaty and self-confident, I ollied lightly off the curb – a routine move. But the parking lot was gravelly and the board stopped dead and sent me stumbling across the asphalt. My body contorted itself in an effort not to fall and scrape my hands, and as a result I got a bruise between my ribs which began to hurt immediately (and still does two days later.) This time I thought, you are a stupid forty year old oaf. Skateboarding is dangerous. You can kill yourself. Even the instructions that came with my new board spell it out clearly: if you are married and have children, choose a different sport.

Then I remembered what drew me to skateboarding in the first place as a restless tween: skateboarders are known for their independence, non-conformity and defiance of authority. Not unlike atheists. No wonder my feet feel so at home on the griptape.

Skateboarding

My friend Pat has started a blog about his return to skateboarding after a hiatus of over 20 years. I met Pat in 1989 when we began going to the same high school together in a suburb of Maryland. We were part of the same skate circle and together we followed all the fashions and developments of skateboarding through the early 90s. We were dedicated to and passionate about the sport. Neither of us were good enough to have imagined a future in skateboarding, though, and when we left for college we put our boards aside and moved on to other things. (I’ve written about my experience here.)

But skating never really left either of us, apparently. I can attest that I have always mentally skated my surroundings. The ex-skater is always silently scanning the landscape for skateable surfaces. There was a time I attempted to bury these tendencies, somewhat embarrassed about their unintellectual nature. But it wasn’t really up to me; the mind, as we know, has a life of its own. It’s not easy to tell yourself what to think about and what to block out. So when Pat began posting videos of himself re-learning to ollie, I took it as carte blanche to dust off the skateboard of my imagination once and for all.

A lot of this involves finding clips of old skate videos on You Tube, videos I used to watch on a daily basis on our VHS player. Trying to remember all the details is a challenge: what boards did I ride? I can only remember the first two: a Mark “Gator” Rogowski was my first board, in 1987. Sometime after that I got a bit more sophisticated and bought a Santa Cruz/SMA Natas Kaupas, the one with the black panther. I still remember the excitement of getting that one. I can’t for the life of me, however, recall any of the other boards I had between 1989 and 1992.

I do recall that the shape of the boards was changing constantly. In fact, the basic shape of a skateboard in 1992 is essentially the same as today: the nose and tail are indistinguishable from one another. There are minor variations, I suppose, but nothing like the variety of shapes one saw in the late 80s. I guess skateboard evolution selected the model which works the best for the most people. Here is a good breakdown of this evolution (via Pinterest)

Skateboard Shape Evolution

Suffice it to say that I have been getting more and more into watching and thinking about skateboarding. I’ve heard that this is a not uncommon phenomenon for those hitting forty, but so be it. Today I ordered a new skateboard online and a I really can’t wait to finally learn tre flips, a trick I could never get down even back when that was all I wanted out of life. Stay tuned for further updates!

Not a Halloween costume

Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable creating text-on-images (and having a lot of addictive fun) my Phonto app went poof. Now the app won’t load a photo. While they fix the glitch I’ve been trying Font Candy, but it’s less intiuitive and automatically puts the Font Candy logo at the bottom of your pictures. That’s lame (I suppose that goes away if you purchase the app). I’m hoping Phonto comes back to life soon, because I have a lot of ideas I can’t wait to try out.

In the meantime, here’s another one from my Toture Museum series. Just in time for Halloween.

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I did a drawing today

I studied painting and sculpture in college and used to be rather passionate about (making) art. I’ve always been passionate about viewing and thinking about it, but it’s been a good long while since I bothered trying to make anything more than a cartoon character for my daughter.

This evening I got the urge to try something a bit different. So I found a painting more or less randomly and decided to make a copy of it. All I had handy were some magic markers and graph paper, but it felt good to swim in the warm waters of impresssionism for a while.

Art is a habit, like writing. If you make time for it regularly, it becomes like second nature. Let it drift for too long and there it goes. You’re lucky if you ever get it back again, too.

The original artist is Elmer Bischoff. I don’t know what this painting is called.

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Red flags

I constantly find myself using the term ‘red flag’ whenever I notice something suspicious. I’m not at all sure many people know what I mean when I say it, though. It’s a skeptical term meaning, “Watch out, there is something fishy here.” Here is an amusing entry from RationalWiki citing some common red flags. I made this today.

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Making memes

When I was in college I was there to study graphic design. When I began to study, however, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the graphic design crowd (and my teacher and I mutually loathed each other) so I opted for “sculpture”, a loosely-defined major which basically included anything you could invent in three spatial dimensions. We sculpture majors looked down our noses at our ad-agency peers. “They aren’t real artists,” we’d scoff. “They just want to get a good job one day.” We still believed real artists lived in broken-down lofts without plumbing and ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner (black coffee for breakfast, please). This, of course, made them artists.

Of course, I’m no longer eighteen. I have developed an – ahem – appreciation of other forms of creativity that don’t perforce involve splattered paint and vodka. One of them is the internet meme. Meme is an interesting word because most people who use it use it to mean ‘internet meme’, or photos with catchy slogans or witty quotes. Memes, of course, were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. They are a bit more complex than lolcats, but we can love them both.

I have recently taken to reworking some of my photos via cool apps that make it simple to do. Here’s one I like – made with Phonto – which uses a photo taken at the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, Tuscany to make a point I feel is worth stating. I’ll upload some of them here from time to time. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to spread them.

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The Velvet Underground

I remember a time before there was such thing as the Velvet Underground. It appears in my memory as a time before music, a time in my life before music was important, relevant, defining. And then, at some point when I was around nineteen, they took over my attention. The world was then divided into pre-Velvets and the contemporary world, a world in which Sweet Jane and Heroin were part of the landscape (soundscape?) There were always other groups, other music. There was Sonic Youth. They came before the VU, but were overshadowed and engulfed by their predecessors. There was (and is) Dylan, who had influenced the young Reed and has now outlived him, and whose songs (Memphis Blues Again, Visions of Johanna) were and are capable of inducing in my post-adolescent imagination something unique and hard to describe, something akin to influence. After those songs you are not the same again. They change you. The Velvets changed me. Patti Smith did, too, when I first heard Piss Factory. Marquee Moon changed me. Heart of Darkness. And all of them were indebted most to the Velvets and, perhaps less directly, Dylan. But it’s the VU I go back to, who’ve never left me. CDs, vinyl, cassettes, iPod, YouTube, streaming…I keep them close no matter where I am listening.
I remember a time when nobody I knew would listen to them. (They do now, of course.)
I miss you Lou.

What I’ve been reading

First, a lot of articles about reading: e-reading versus paper reading, are people losing their ability to read long, involved texts? is reading dead? That kind of thing. Also, books. E-books, paper books, whatever. I’ve finally opened my four-volume Montaigne from the Limited Editions Club (1946) and begun The Satanic Verses to see what all the hoopla was about firsthand. Montaigne is sobering and delightful; Rushdie is funny and surreal. I recommend both to anyone looking for a cure to monotony or ennui. I also read a lot of Dr. Seuss with my daughter. She loves Horton the Elephant.

I’m also trying to write again. As anyone can see, I’ve only written six posts in the last year. Now that I’m no longer writing my monthly column, I have no writing obligations. That means no writing. Say what you will about obligations, they do keep you doing things. So I’m trying to revive this blog which has spent two years gathering dust. (I think I’ve said this before.)

I’ve changed the look and feel of the blog. I’ve gotten rid of all the sidebar links (half of them linked to dead pages anyway) and images. There is a search bar and an archive for those who wish to go back and read what I’ve written since March 2009, when I started this blog. Gone, too, is the header. Now it’s just good old-fashioned text. That’s what writing has always been about, right?