An embarrassment

I still haven’t seen the controversial statue of Pope John Paul II at Rome’s Termini Station. Next week I’m taking a train in and hope to gawk at it as it deserves.

Openly criticized across the political spectrum, on social networks and by commuters, the statue has also brought dim views from the Vatican’s daily newspaper itself. L’Osservatore Romano said it ”resembles a sentry box” and that its head is ”excessively spherical”. The city commission has listed several points it sees in need of intervention. Among them are the statue’s face, the head’s welding and inclination, the arm, the cloak, and the shoulder.

And that it reminds not a few of a very famous Italian dictator:

Some Romans and tourists think the giant artwork looks more like Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

”That bullet-like head on top, it reminds me of Mussolini,” said Enrico, a 42-year-old computer programmer who commutes from Latina south of Rome.

American tourist Sandra Hillhouse, 24, from Arizona, said: ”I don’t understand it at all. He looks more like one of those weird creatures from Star Trek”.

Well, anyone but the conservative religious leader Karol Wojtyla. But here’s the surprise:

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno has since been facing calls from political and cultural figures to ”do something” about a statue some think gives visitors an embarrassing impression of Rome’s contemporary cultural scene.

He said he would bow to popular opinion.

”If public opinion coalesces around a negative view, we’ll have to take that into consideration”.

So, presumably, if popular opinion were to express a largely negative view of the Vatican, Mayor Alemanno would have it renovated. It seems a negative view has been steadily coalescing for a few centuries around the papal palace, and has taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

But who ever took a politician at his or her word?

Are we really “militant” atheists?

A quick post in response to James Wood’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “Secularism and its Discontents.” Wood misses no opportunity to take a swipe at “militant,” or “Darwinian” atheists (as he calls them) in his review of The Joys of Secularism. I used to admire Wood as a critic, but ever since he became an apologist for faitheism I can’t even make it through an entire article he publishes.

Discussing Philip Kitcher’s contribution, Wood writes:

His essay is characterized by its humanity, and by its willingness to borrow from religion. He will get no reward from the Darwinian atheists for this…

Oh, presumably because “Darwinian atheists” are incapable of humanity? Or unfamiliar with the religions they reject? Why are we always reading that religion is brimming, just overflowing with humanity? And that atheism is cold, and cold-hearted? Has Wood ever read a single book or blog by his nemeses, the New Atheists?

I think not. If he had, he would see clearly that they are not bereft of his much-prized humanity. It’s a patently ridiculous dichotomy he has set up. Aren’t we a little tired of this gnu-bashing already?

If you want to read a collection of very human essays by atheists – and Kitcher contributed to this one, too – try 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. You’ll understand just how wrong Wood is on this one.

Samuel Menashe, 1925-2011***

Poet Samuel Menashe died on August 22, 2011. He was a friend of mine in my New York days, and I’ll remember him fondly. He was a very old school kind of person. He lived alone in a walk-up apartment on Thompson St., in Greenwich Village. He’d wander into New York bookshops and start reciting his poetry to complete strangers, which was how he sold his books. He had a gentle voice, a wild shock of white hair and a congenial presence. He’d sit for hours talking about the war, William Blake and the Hebrew Bible. His poems were “concise” (his term), mostly condensed into few lines of concentrated musicality. Below is a poem I wrote about him. I was told my a mutual aquaintance that he read it and enjoyed it. Goodbye, Samuel.

Samuel Menashe Reads at the Harvard Club*

You’re reading your poems at the Harvard Club
in New York City. The hall, rimmed with oak,
sputters a dying light suffused with thick
brown shadows, like intellectual antelope
gazing at their reflections on the wall.
You can’t believe you’re here.
Poems leapfrog
from your throat (already you’re older
than most of the old men in attendance here)
poems so short that if you miss a word
you miss the point. I listen, neither
graduate of Harvard nor university-bred,
but a young man seeking encouragement
from an elder such as you. Invited here,

I hold your book open and read along
but the light is bad. My clothes are shot. No tie
is knotted in the hollow of my neck.
My shoes, the worn-out patent leather ones
from the J. Crew catalog, are more like husks
that hug my feet.
In private, you told me
to give up poetry and dedicate
myself to writing narrative instead.
“No one reads poetry,” you said.

Certainly you spoke from experience.
They used to snicker when you’d ramble in
off 47th St. to the Gotham Book Mart.
“Here comes the poet Samu-el,” they’d joke.
“C’mon,” I’d say, “He’s really not so bad.”
You’d stop and talk about the war, recite
Blake and the Hebrew Bible (KJV)
and then your own compacted prosody
which stopped the tourists in their tracks. “A pot
poured out fulfils its spout,” your voice
intoned. Then you’d explain, to the stupefied
clientele, what the poem really meant
based on its lingustic roots (“the pot
fills up the spout, fulfilling it etc.”)
You’d sign their books before they’d even bought:
“To Jo, from Canada. Best, Samuel.”

That said, your poems are now canonized
in the Library of America.
You snagged the “Neglected Masters Award”
the kind of name you always called yourself
alluding to the New Yorker and “Talk of the Town”
the only place they’d publish you back then.
You felt yourself a curiosity
in your hometown, an underdog, the last
of your generation, a congregant
of Homer’s, the Greek café long since shut down.

What more could anybody do for you?
Your wish-list is complete, you have become
a famous poet with a style, to boot.
Menashesque. I can almost hear it said
in college classrooms, by professors younger
than I am, too obliviously young
to have attended the Nutcracker with you
at Lincoln Center.
Wedged between Masters
and Michelangelo, your volume rests
on my bookshelf. I flip through it, recalling
your evening reading at the Harvard Club
ten years ago. Like Emerson, you blurred
the distance between poetry and faith,
the kind one has in literature, not God.

That evening you gave your best performance.**

* Published in Italian Americana, Winter 2011

** WordPress can’t handle proper line breaks. So be it.

*** Oh, yeah, this is my 500th post!

Apikoros and proud of it!

Here’s my favorite Jewish atheist joke, c/o Leo Rosten:

A brilliant young student goes to an old, learned rabbi and defiantly exclaims, “I must tell you the truth! I have become an apikoros. I no longer believe in God.”

“And how long,” asks the elder, “have you been studying Talmud?”

“Five years,” says the student.

“Only five years,” sighed the rabbi, “and you have the nerve to call yourself an apikoros?!…”

• Apikoros is a rabbinical term for unbeliever, skeptic, agnostic, atheist.

Bye bye birdie

Tim Farley has the scoop on the Mabus arrest. He was a notorious spammer who even spammed me on Twitter (I guess that means I’m a true skeptic now).

He would spend hours at it. For example, on February 25th I found 25 separate accounts he used. Based on the timestamps of the posts, he started around 7:30am, and posted more or less continuously until about 10am. He continued somewhat more slowly until noon, when I presume he took a break for lunch. He resumed at 3pm, and posted until 9pm that night. I counted almost 700 tweets. And because of the way Twitter was deleting each account (and all its output) when they noticed the spamming, all of that output from that day was gone within minutes. Disappeared.

It’s really a great story. Read the whole thing.

Bringing up baby

When my mother in law decides it’s time to let us know her opinion, I try to restrain myself. Her latest op-ed began with the time-honored incipit, “Feel free to ignore me, but…” She then swiftly descended into a tirade about how we’re damaging our daughter by speaking to her in two languages.

I replied, “So you think it’s better if we wait 10 years, then pay for expensive private lessons with an English tutor? What planet are you living on?” I might have expected some opprobrium of the traditionalist variety (“What do you mean you’re raising her without any religion?”), but I hadn’t anticipated this kind of nitpicking. Since when is a learning second language considered hazardous to cognitive development?

I didn’t grow up bilingual. My parents spoke three languages between them, but I was raised speaking — and understanding — only American English. There was a half-hearted attempt to offer some Italian, but it mostly boiled down to the kind of language one uses in conjunction with a stubbed toe. I got pretty good at the bad words, at the expense of all the rest.

In my twenties I began to bemoan my status as a monolingual American. I’d taken four years of Spanish in high school, but had just gotten by with a C average. I wondered what had happened to that other language I’d almost learned, and which was closer to home — Italian. I might still learn it, I thought.

So I found an Italian language school a few blocks from my Manhattan apartment, dropped the cash and began studying. Immediately I decided to memorize the first canto of the Divina Commedia — in Italian. Without really knowing what I was saying, I recited the first 20 or so lines before my class one evening. “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…” The teacher — a bold Florentine beauty — listened, stunned. (Now that I understand the words, however, I can no longer recall the verses.)

After a year or so I stopped going to classes. I desperately needed to save money. My then-girlfriend and I were breaking up after a quarrelsome four-year relationship, and I was set on living alone (for the first and last time in my life). Not long after, I left for Italy; my Italian has improved dramatically ever since.

I’ve now taken four years of Hebrew, and studied Yiddish independently. I speak neither language well, but I do have a general grasp of both, which is more than I’d have thought possible a decade ago.

When my wife and I decided we were ready to have a child, we had varying opinions on all aspects of child-rearing — all, that is, except the desire to raise our daughter as bilingual. And that’s a point on which we won’t cede ground to anyone: not family, friends or the public opinion that governs so much parental decision-making in Italy.

It’s taken some discipline, but I’ve gotten in the habit of speaking to our daughter Melissa primarily in English. When we’re alone, that’s all she hears from me. And, after three weeks in the United States, she’s begun approximating the English names for preferred objects: duck is “duh”; water is “wawa”; cantaloupe is “catabu.” She’s now added “nonno” and “nonna” to her repertoire, in perfectly pronounced Italian. That’s bilingualism in action.

I remain perplexed by my mother-in-law’s cavalier attitude. When I asked her to explain her resistance, she went on about confusing messages. “It’s like one of you is saying ‘yes’ and the other ‘no.’” When I asked her about the sources of this insight they turned out to be predictably nonexistent.

Maybe she should meet some of the people we know who were raised bilingually, and who are raising bilingual kids. When I sent out my feelers on Facebook, I got a bunch of very enthusiastic responses — not one of which expressed the least bit of concern that we were “confusing” Melissa.

One friend even told me about her son, who was born deaf. Her Italian doctors — who had cured her son’s deafness through an implant — instructed my friend to speak only Italian to her son, saying two languages would only confuse him. She’s convinced the advice was a needless setback. Now her son is learning English, slowly but surely, with the help of his younger brother.

On a different note, another friend observed that her daughter not only started speaking later than other kids her age, but understands less. She attributes this to her bilingualism. I’ve heard from others along similar lines.

A quick Google search yielded a treasury of articles with a recurring theme: “People used to think bilingual children were slow/confused/challenged, but new research shows…” Basically, it seems to show that some children are slower than others in certain things, but likely not for reasons related to their bi- or multilingualism.

That sounds like good news to me.

From The American

Science vs. religion

I just wanted to get this down before I forgot it:

• Science is like walking into a pitch-dark room with a small, powerful flashlight. You may not see much at first, but it may stop you from stumbling. Slowly, painstakingly you’ll begin to form a pretty good idea of where you are.

• Religion is like walking into that same room with a glow-in-the-dark Lightsaber. Sure, it feels cool, but you keep swinging away at invisible phantoms. And the light cast is too weak to actually see by. May the force be with you!