Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Ninth Circle of Heaven

Monotheism can be a drag. It inhibits our natural human tendency to elevate revered figures to the status of gods. I’ve been building my own pantheon from the worlds of sports, politics, cinema and especially jazz all my life, evidence of which can be seen here. This One God concept is in direct contrast to our highest goals of democratic capitalism, i.e. maximum consumer choice.

One might think that monotheism would bring the peoples of the world together, but the Middle East alone has spawned three separate monotheistic traditions. While neither the Jewish version of an eye-for-an-eye God nor the Islamic version of a God urging perpetual jihad has done a whole lot for world brotherhood, one would think that Christ’s message of loving one’s neighbor as thyself could have helped us all get along, but the idea never gained much traction, no matter how numerous His professed followers have become.

In our polarized society it seems only fair that I should be able to worship Venus and Bacchus while my Republican friends openly profess their devotion to Mars. For some time now Neo-Cons have elevated Ayn Rand to the status of goddess, despite public protestations of devotion to the One God. Some prominent GOP figures of a strong Christian bent have recently been confusing their constituents and their congregations by appearing to have divided loyalties. Those good folk in SC and NV should remember that Jesus Himself said: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…”, suggesting His acknowledgement of dual loyalties.

The Catholic Church has accommodated our irrepressible urges toward polytheism through the creation of saints. This works up to a point, but its limitation is in its insistence that its saints measure up to the relatively conventional standards of piety exalted by monotheism.

Working within the limits of Catholic tradition, Dante Alighieri elaborated the various regions in Hell with spaces reserved for every species of sinner. Alas, Hell has fallen out of fashion lately; other than in the occasional invective that we hurl at our enemies, “May you rot in Hell”. However, references to Heaven still do occur with some frequency, as in ”she’s moved on to a better place”

Following Dante’s lead, (but not too far) I would suggest that that there are different circles of Paradise. Our Muslim brethren have led the way with their special designated zones for martyrs, but the fascination with people of self-destructive urges is not confined to Islam. We regularly assign our greatest esteem to people with such tendencies. My personal jazz pantheon may feature Miles, Monk and Trane but the real gods of the jazz world remain Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, whose sublime skills were matched by their unrelenting urges toward self-annihilation. Still, they remain minor gods, since their talent was never appreciated in the wider society.

There is a special circle of heaven reserved for the celebrity gods, those larger than life personages who capture the imagination and devotion of the teeming masses. Many aspire to it but few arrive. The requisites for popular canonization are ambiguous but surely, Blondie’s advice to “die young, stay pretty” is fundamental. A long productive life and happy dotage just won’t cut it. We’ve seen Liberace lose his spot in celebrity heaven by overstaying.

The good news is that the elite ninth circle of heaven is now complete. Michael has joined Elvis and Diana to form the perfect triad of popular gods. At future memorial ceremonies marking the decades, a larger number of the weeping matrons placing large bouquets at the various temples and shrines will be black, which seems only fair in this day and age, although in truth, at recent appearances Michael seemed almost as white as Diana. Never mind. Michael’s shrine at Neverland will rival that of Graceland. Despite the news that Diana’s shrine at Althorp House has been closed due to a diminishing number of visitors, we’re confident that when William eventually ascends to the throne, pilgrimages and worship services will return to levels of the glory days.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Paramus, Umbria

Being born and growing up within five miles of the intersection of Route 4 and Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey has conditioned my whole life. Route 4 connected Bergen County to the George Washington Bridge and Route 17 was a major highway, which carried thousands of New Yorkers to the Catskills on weekends throughout the summer. While other towns had severe residential zoning and restrictions on commercial development, Paramus was a free for all. Both of these four-lane highways came to be lined with stores of all kinds and from the 50’s until the 70’s shopping centers grew like cancer along both, rendering them useless for travel other than from one shopping center to another. Alternate highways, such as Route 80 and the Garden State Parkway were built at great expense to take traffic from the increasingly clogged older roads. This process was going on throughout the United States but I believe Paramus was the leader, the first and worst in the development of the suburban sprawl model. With the growth of the Bergen Mall and the enormous Garden State Plaza, the nearby downtown shopping areas went into irreversible decline. Hackensack, the county seat, was seriously impoverished, but the larger and once bustling city of Paterson, established by Alexander Hamilton to be the major industrial city of the east coast, simply was transformed into a large depressed ghetto. It took years but the wealthy neighboring town of Ridgewood eventually lost all its fashionable shops, replaced by a tidal wave of new restaurants serving the increasingly rich population of nobody’s ever home families.

How did all this condition my life? Well, Paramus was one more element that made me want to get as far away as possible, for example to a city or village where every movement is not necessarily by car. I’ve lived in Italy since the early 1970’s so I thought I had escaped, but one should never underestimate the power of progress.

Perugia sits on a big hill with the Tiber Valley passing below it to the east. One of Umbria’s main north-south highways, E45, passes through this valley connecting Terni and Rome to the south with Cesena and other cities to the north. The A1 autostrada is half an hour to the west and , except for some coastal roads, most north-sout traffic in Italy is on A1 or E45

Sometime following WWII, a Jewish philanthropist owned a large parcel of land in Collestrada adjacent to the path of the highway. He wanted to set up a summer camp for poor children on the land. Most Italians in such circumstances would donate their resources to a charity run by the Church, but being Jewish, he decided to entrust the land to the Comune of Perugia to be used as the site for the desired facilities. Alas, the city or provincial fathers knew better. They decided that the land could be put to better use by putting a big shopping center on it. There was some resistance but when large commercial interests are at stake, resistance has a way of being overcome.

Some scandals did come out of the construction of the center, built around a IperCoop market, with one of the developers doing some jail time, but they seemed to concern payoffs in the construction process rather than the misappropriation of the land.

The commercial center is less ugly than most and the COOP ipermarket is one of the best places to shop in the Perugia area. The Italians apparently learned something, a little at least, from Paramus. E45 is a limited access highway so there is no direct entry to any of the big stores that now line the road. Nevertheless, on major shopping days, traffic running up and down Italy on E45 is totally blocked near the Collestrada exits and there is no alternate route. The point of blockage is just a kilometer or two before the turnoff for the rapidly expanding Perugia airport, so if you’re flying out of Perugia it’s wise to check if your departure date is on a big shopping day or not. For shoppers, the whole idea of monster shopping centers is a leisurely wandering and choosing from the glut of stuff, so the delays are a minor inconvenience. For the long distance travelers, both private and commercial, it’s one more unwelcome incitement to road rage. As for those poor children, well, they never carried much weight in the deliberations over what to do with the land donated to their welfare.