Senator Amy Klobuchar on CNN

When I watched Monday night’s CNN town hall in New Hampshire with Senator Amy Klobuchar, I’m reminded of the old saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Trump riffs for an hour or more, saying nothing, and  he wins the undying and uncritical adoration of his base. Klobuchar answered questions for an hour. She spoke with substance, humor, knowledge of the issues, honesty — no to free four year college for everyone — depth and integrity. She’s also quick on her feet, and I could see her on the stage debating Trump, turning back some of his casually nasty remarks without stooping to his gutter level.

Will it be enough, for her or for another Democratic candidate of substance? I hope so.

What To Do About the Children?

The collapse of the ISIS caliphate and the deaths of many of its fighters has left an excruciatingly difficult problem: what to do about the wives, often European or some U.S. citizens, and their children. Now in refugee camps, some of the women want to come home.

Governments in Europe, not to mention the deeply anti-Muslim government we have now with the Trump administration, are understandably wary of women who went voluntarily to join the caliphate, and in some instances worked actively on its behalf. Their children are often young, have lost their fathers, and are deeply bonded with their mothers. Letting the kids come home to be raised by other family members willing to take them risks severing that maternal bond and causing the children harm. So does leaving all of them in refugee camps, some to starve to death or die from illnesses easily treated here. But no one sounds terribly interested in believing the mothers when they say “Oops, I made a mistake.”

I have no idea what is the fair or just or right thing to do here. The ISIS caliphate was a tragedy, one whose effects will clearly reach far into the future as these little ones grow up. And these are just the children whose mothers want to bring them home, not the ones whose mothers are still ardent supporters of the cause.

Edie Falco’s Greatest Act

I don’t watch a ton of TV, but I loved the mob drama The Sopranos, now celebrating the 20th anniversary of its completion on HBO. Part of it has to do with the fact that many of the mob scenes were filmed in my home town of Kearny, New Jersey. Tony’s family scenes were in the more upscale suburb of North Caldwell. Satriale’s Pork Store, the site of many mob meetings and the early-in-the-series murder of Emil Kolar — whose name Christopher pronounces as “Email” — is right next to my grandmother’s house on Kearny Avenue. When the camera angle was right, I could see her house, three identical flats one on top of the other, and St. Cecelia’s Church up the street and the firehouse right next door. The Sopranos feels to this day like my home-town drama, and it’s the biggest thing Kearny ever had going for it.

This complex moral drama had a host of powerhouse actors, including James Gandolfini as Tony, Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, and Edie Falco as Tony’s wife Carmela. According to Lizzie Feidelson, writing for the New Yorker, Edie Falco takes the prize.

Falco’s performance as Carmela Soprano, the sharp, bejewelled wife of the mobster Tony Soprano, had a wholeness and an independence to it; it was never defined by Gandolfini and her other scene partners, however excellent they were. Especially when crying, Falco was virtuosic. I recently rewatched “The Sopranos”—as many fans were inspired to do as the show marked its twentieth anniversary, this January—and I was struck again by Falco’s ability to make herself, through fleeting expressions of sentimental piety or grief, the linchpin of the show’s explorations of moral frailty.”

I first saw Edie Falco in the 1999 Indie film Judy Berlin. The Sopranos began on HBO that same year, January 1999, and ended in June of 2007. Falco’s subsequent major role as Nurse Jackie on Showtime ran from June of 2009 until June of 2015.  Since then she’s been on Broadway, and won another Emmy nomination for her role in Law and Order: True Crime. This is a hard working actress.

I thought all of the acting in The Sopranos was incredible, and so did the people who give out things like Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards. But I have to agree: Edie Falco is brilliant. Her best work was in The Sopranos, and if you don’t yet know Carmela Soprano, you should.

Next Vatican Scandal: “Children of the Ordained”

For centuries the Catholic Church, its internal workings shrouded in mystery, seemed to control the message and present an exalted, mystical face to believers and non-believers alike. Now, with simple DNA tests that can confirm paternity, social media that can connect people in like-minded situations, and the collapse of tolerance for one scandal after another, the Church is entirely losing control of its own narrative. The mystical and exalted face is looking pretty tawdry.

The latest scandal — the one after a global pedophilia crisis, then the one about priests and bishops raping nuns, then the one about ordained clergy falling off the wagon re celibacy — has to do with what the Vatican labels “children of the ordained.” Stands to reason that if the all-male supposedly celibate clergy is having sex, children are the result. The Vatican has rules for how these children are supposed to be regarded, which apparently do not include compelling their fathers to support them or providing for the children out of Church assets. The document outlining the rules is confidential. The Vatican will confirm that it exists, but not reveal the contents.

With DNA tests, it’s far easier to prove paternity. With social media, it’s easy to discover you’re not the only one and gain solidarity and a stronger voice. And with the collapse of tolerance, offspring of ordained clergy have a compelling public case to get better treatment from the still fabulously wealthy Catholic Church.

There’s no way the current confab of bishops in Rome is going to be able to confine their deliberations to the pedophilia scandal. Too much other bad stuff is hitting the fan.

I’m afraid Pope Francis, whose amiable and personally generous spirit was evident during his recent trip to Panama, is going to be know as the guy in charge when it all fell apart.

Panama in the News

Panama is in the news, and not in such a good way. Panama, along with Miami, Spain, and Nicaragua, has long provided corrupt foreigners with an easy way to launder money.

“On Avenida Balboa, Panama City’s premier seafront avenue, the 50 story tower blocks form a near continuous wall of glass to the Pacific Ocean. At night, however, most of the luxury apartments remain in darkness and the basement casinos are eerily deserted.

Panamanian real estate was a favourite investment of the boliburgues,Venezuelans who grew rich on the back of their political connections to the late president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

But in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal it has become increasingly hard to launder money through the country, cutting off a potential exit route for those looking to cut loose from Maduro’s embattled regime.”

The Panama Papers, in case you forget or were not up on the scandal, involved the leaking of millions of documents from a tony Panama law firm that revealed how dodgy lawyers help offshore entities hide their wealth and evade taxes in their home countries.

Oddly enough, the influx of Venezuelan money touched our recent trip to Panama. Pippa’s bar, on the beach at nearby Farallon, used to be a sleepy little place which offered cold beer or rum and Coke and simple food. Now the place is owned by a Venezuelan, and is expanding exponentially. You can get Thai shrimp, and a full bar menu. You have to pay $5 for parking. I don’t know that the new owner qualifies as a millionaire evading taxes, but he’s clearly a Venezuelan expat with a lot of money to spend.


Reading Michelle Obama

For Christmas a friend gave me Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. I didn’t take it to Panama, as it’s the hard cover print edition and weighs a lot more than my Kindle. I’m deep into in now, and relishing the read.

Atlantic reviewer Hannah Giorgis has a phrase about Michelle Obama that encapsulates our former First Lady’s entire life: conspicuous excellence.

Barack Obama chose politics and the minute scrutiny and public judgment that follows. Michelle Obama didn’t. But she took the conspicuous excellence of her life up to that point and created an iconic model of what a First Lady might be. Hard not to contrast the rich family life and warm public welcome to the White House that the First Lady created with what we have now: a pinched, angry president roaming the White House alone and Melanie barely to be seen. No cultural events. No welcoming school children, or speaking up for the education of girls around the globe. No anything, really.

I am continually amazed that the Republican family values crowd loves the morally vacuous Trumps, and was withering — and often overtly racist — in its criticism of the Obamas. Remember the West Virginia woman who called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels”? Or the Wisconsin Congressman who said Mrs. Obama had a “big butt”?

The Obamas were and are surrounded by a strong network of family and black professional friends. I always thought that part of what enraged the people who became Trump’s base was the Obamas’ ease with who they are. They don’t try to act white or pass or get along in white culture. One of my Iowa relatives included me on an email chain that derided Michelle Obama as “uppity” — until I asked firmly to be taken off my cousin’s distribution list. The Make America White Again crowd tolerates, barely, blacks who signal subservience and a desire to fit in. People like my cousin, a woman you’d find gracious and lovely if you met her, are infuriated by the slightest whiff of whatever constitutes “uppity” for them.

I hope we haven’t seen the end of Michelle Obama’s public life, although I’m sure it won’t include a run for public office. I hope she keeps on being uppity, out there, speaking up and speaking out. I’ll be fascinated to see how she and former President Obama, who are still quite young for a post-presidency, yet again create new lives.

And I hope she writes another book.

Et Tu, McCarrick?

Until recently, 88 year old Theodore McCarrick was a prince of the Roman Catholic Church, an influential and widely known Cardinal who had the ear of the Pope, and who influenced Church policy at the Vatican and before his retirement, in the powerful diocese of Washington D.C.

McCarrick also abused his power by sexually assaulting seminarians and altar boys to whom he had unfettered access. The abuse went on for decades, and was apparently known at highest levels of the Vatican, who continued to promote McCarrick to increasingly more exalted positions.”Uncle Ted”, now an old man, says he doesn’t remember being the quintessential funny uncle at the party that everyone tried to avoid.

Uncle Ted has been defrocked after an investigation, his removal from the priesthood ultimately sanctioned by Pope Francis. Funny Uncle Ted is now simply “Mr. McCarrick”. No more red berettas or pointy cardinal hats for him.

A new book coming out by Frederic Martel called In the Closet of the Vatican claims that 80% of priests who work in the Vatican are gay, although not necessarily sexually active. This volume joins others written over the years on the same topic. Prominent Catholics like the late Cardinal Spellman of New York and theologian Henri Nouwen have long been alleged to be gay. There has been widespread speculation about retired Pope Benedict, who dresses in ruby red slippers and ermine capes and is often seen in the company of his personal secretary Archbishop George “Gorgeous George” Ganswein.

Now things get complicated. Being gay does not equate to being sexually active, and clearly Catholic priests both gay and straight struggle with celibacy and often fall off the wagon. Being sexually active as a priest is arguably not always coercive — arguably, because of the power differential. Being gay or straight and sexually active does not equate to pedophilia, although American Cardinals like Raymond Burke want to cleanse the priesthood of all gay men and therefore “solve” the pedophilia crisis.

Writers who have long studied the issue of gay clergy often suggest that the most vociferous and vindictive Cardinals doth protest too much, and are hiding their sexual orientation themselves. Et tu, Cardinal Burke, he who wears scarlet gloves and jeweled red hats and a 20 foot silk train?

But official Catholic teaching does label homosexuality as “objectively disordered”, so having to live in the closet as a gay priest is a problem of integrity and authenticity. And the pedophilia crisis, along with the now recognized problem of priests and bishops raping and impregnating nuns, roils on. Uncle Ted apparently keeps his pension and his savings, and has the good will of prominent Catholics who are likely to provide him a place to live after he is turfed out of Church supported housing.

At the very least, my take is that the Catholic priesthood attracts seriously sexually immature men who then act out in ways that are deeply damaging to the people who look to them for spiritual guidance, not sex. The inherent power of the priesthood for observant Catholics amplifies the damage, which for many victims is lifelong.

This is a structural problem, solved only by changing the structure of the ordained priesthood. In my view, admitting both married men and ordaining women would go a long way. We’re beyond the point where Church tradition of an all-male clergy can legitimately be sustained.

My Mapache is Back

Enough snow has melted so that my mapache is back hunting for grubs. I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and my motion sensitive lights were going on and off and illuminating the yard.

Here are the footprints. There’s still enough snow cover so that the raccoon didn’t get at my sod, but the battle is clearly once again joined.

Where is my Panamanian machete-wielding gardener when I need him? Trapper Jon is being too deferential by half.

Conscious Aging: Mother of the Bride

I’m not in any sense of the word “planning” my daughter’s wedding — Sara and Ben have that well in hand. I get to do all the fun stuff, like go with Sara to find her dress, and work with her to order my MOB dress online. I’m not an easy fit. I have what I call my “Irish peasant” body — broad shoulders and back, hardly any waist, and slender hips and legs. Finding a dress that works is a trial — I do better with separates. Fortunately, Sara is pretty relaxed about the whole thing, as long as I look smart and classy and fit the occasion.

The actress Tyne Daly has the same body shape, and the same Irish heritage. She once thought she couldn’t play the role of Maria Callas onstage because no one would mistake Daly for having a wasp waist, as did Callas. Daly got the role and shone in it, and somehow conveyed the aura, if not a physical match, with the real Maria Callas.

The wedding is about seven weeks away, and things are moving quickly. They’re going to have food stations, not a plated dinner — great idea. They’re putting together a playlist; we attendees get to suggest songs on their wedding website. Since it’s a destination wedding, we’ll all be there together for at least the long weekend, and so more events than the wedding itself need to be planned. Attire needs to be spelled out. This is a beach wedding, with the reception outdoors on grass. What does that suggest for footwear? They have to sort out who is going to sit at what tables — always hard, especially in this era when people seem not to RSVP on time.

This will also be a chance for a great family gathering and catch-up, as people are coming from Germany, New Jersey, Boston, Maine, and other locations. Remember when you used to drive to a wedding at the nearby house of worship, and have the wedding dinner at a local place? Not any more. People have become used to traveling for such occasions, and it becomes an adventure as well as a huge celebration.

Will keep you posted as things continue to unfold. 🙂