Mother Said

What can I say about Hal Sirowitz?  Imagine that Alexander Portnoy, the hero of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, grew up to be a performance poet instead of a NYC Commissioner.  Sirowitz wears his family like several layers of clothes on a hot day.  The poems he sweats out are a deadpan testimony to the sort of care a young man needs to take, just to get through his day without suffering death or dismemberment.  According to his Mother, that is.  He’s one of the best exponents of Jewish angst I know, including Woody Allen.

Nice man.  He gave a poetry reading in Borders at Westlake Mall in Seattle, and signed my copy of Mother Said (1996), his most famous collection.  Here’s a video of Sirowitz reading Chopped Off Arm and No More Birthdays.

And now you’ve got the intonation, here’s one you can imagine him performing.

Missing Finger

Don’t stick your hand in the water,
Mother said, while your father is rowing.
A fish might think that one of your fingers is a worm-
I heard that the constant water in their eyes
makes them nearsighted-& bite it off.
Then you won’t be able to count to ten
on your fingers, & you’ll flunk
all your math tests. And you won’t
be able to get a good grip on your baseball bat,
& what would have been a home run
will now become a single. And don’t think
that just because you’ll have one less fingernail
to cut, we’ll make your life easier, & treat you
like a cripple. Your remaining fingers
must learn to work harder.

Hey, let’s be careful out there.

James Joyce’s Ulysses on BBC Radio 4

The splendid news is that BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloomsday, June 16. All five-and-a-half glorious hours of it, broken up into seven, easily digestible chunks. I’m sure it will be as tasty as Leopold Bloom’s breakfast, which makes me drool every time I read it.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

June 16, 1904, is the day in this fictional alternate reality when Mr Bloom, an everyday hero, sets out on business and returns, after many trials and tribulations, to his beloved Molly.

For those who think the novel difficult, really, it isn’t. The fearsome reputation, like rumours of a fire-breathing dragon, sends prospective readers fleeing. But help is at hand. If you want to get the gist in 18 animated cartoons, without having to read the book, here is Ulysses for Dummies. For the more committed there is the extended comic version – quite a serious undertaking, though less time-consuming than the novel. There is also a 1967 film, the component parts of which can be found here.

A short review of the book by Stephen Fry.

But you should read the book for the full experience.

Rain City Superheroes

America takes its superheroes seriously. They’ve become icons of American exceptionalism, personifying perceived national values like freedom, capitalism, and democracy. It’s true that in these ironic times superheroes are allowed to have their darker aspects, as in Michael Keaton’s portrayal of a brooding Caped Crusader in Batman. Tim Burton seems to be a sort of licensed Hollywood court jester who is allowed to go where other directors fear to tread. But they’ve usually been portrayed in films as a fairly wholesome bunch.

Another, more radical, interpretation is provided by the splendid 2010 black comedy, Kick-Ass. This is about Do It Yourself, aspirational superheroes, where a geeky high school kid puts on a silly costume and goes out to kick ass, suffering bone-crunching injuries before he learns to dish it out to the bad guys himself. It’s also notable for the foul-mouthed 11 year old girl he teams up with, who teaches him the tricks of the trade. Even then, he’s still a geeky kid at heart.

Which brings me to Rain City Superheroes, a group of 10 wannabe superheroes who patrol Seattle’s mean streets and glory in such personas as Phoenix Jones, Mr. Xtreme, Urban Avenger, Pitch Black, Knight Owl, and Ghost. Here’s a news report featuring Phoenix Jones, their spokesman, and couple of his cohorts.

But every superhero needs a villain and, not surprisingly, one has popped up to challenge Phoenix Jones. This is Rex Velvet, a faux-British sort of chap, who comes over as an evil, demented John Steed. I’m impressed. Can’t wait to see Phoenix Jones and Rex Velvet go head to head.

Where Rex Velvet is obviously a satirical poke at the Rain City Superhero Movement, I’m actually a bit worried about Phoenix Jones and the “superheroes” who are taking this seriously. We have enough vigilantes already, what with the likes of  George Zimmerman provoking confrontations based on the dubious stand your ground laws, now being endorsed by the NRA.

What happens when “superheroes” carry concealed firearms, as they are perfectly entitled to under the crazy American laws on gun ownership? What is now an entertaining clown show could turn into something tragic.

Jesus and Mo: Storm in a Beer Mug?

Good news for University College London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They put this cartoon on a FaceBook page, advertising a society event, but the Student Union wanted it taken down. The atheists stuck to their guns, and the Student Union have now backed off. See the Guardian article for a complete account of the brouhaha.

So, a victory for freedom of expression. I’m genuinely surprised there was so much fuss about what is a rather charming cartoon about two friends having a pint together. How do I know they’re friends? Because the cartoon is the second frame in a strip. All 4 frames are drawn the same, but the first has the caption, Today Jesus, Mo, and the barmaid have pledged not to say anything which might cause one of them to be offended. The fourth frame has Mo saying, This is nice, isn’t it? Gentle satire on the stupidity of religious conflict, with a sideswipe at political correctness.

Jesus and Mo is a series. Behind the personae of verbally sparring college room-mates, they are the mouthpieces of Christianity and Islam. They also spend a lot of time in the pub, debating among themselves and with the barmaid, who always wins the argument.

Now let’s turn to a far nastier cartoon. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy is well-known, and I don’t need to rehash it here. The cartoon on the right is the most egregious of them all, and I’m including it only to illustrate my point.

To be completely clear, I’m a atheist, I think all religions are doctrinal nonsense, and none of them should be allowed any institutional power. No belief should be immune from criticism, and I firmly believe that no-one has the right not to be offended.

That said, the devil’s in the motivation. To my mind, the Danish cartoons spring from bigotry, as does the burqa ban in France. Just in case anyone should think I want to condemn Muslim women to living in a sack, there is provision for a fine and imprisonment if convicted of forcing them to wear it. See my previous blog post here for further thoughts on the subject.

It’s telling that while most newspapers recognized the bigotry, and did not reprint the Danish cartoons, the media that thrive on bigotry pounced on them with glee. I give you, reluctantly, Human Events, which glories in the likes of Ann CoulterNewt Gingrich, and Pat Buchanan. The last thing we need is propaganda.

Jesus and Mo, in contrast, is a humane take on religious belief, bringing it right back to human beings where it belongs. Better yet, it’s funny. Exactly what the debate needs, rather than hatred masquerading as fundamentalist principle.