It’s Opening Day, and I have a confession to make.
It’s not an April Fool.
Here it is:
it’s Opening Day, and I don’t care.
And I’m not sure why.
Is it part of the pandemic hangover, part of the “Old Normal” that was ripped away from us a year ago, now lost somewhere amid the endless charts and graphs of debility and deaths? The exhaustion of these masked months continues, and has left me no spare “disk space” for wondering about trades and predictions and highlight reels.
Or is it another side effect of surviving the long brutal years of 45? That could be a big part of it. As the renegade Republican sage Rick Wilson put it in his first best-seller, Everything T—— Touches Dies. His reign certainly sucked the pleasure out of so many other things. The toxicity of this anti-Midas touch was clearly in evidence by October 2019. That’s when the White House Occupant paid his sole visit to a game. Sports Illustratedtold it plainly:
“President Donald T—— was greeted with loud boos from the crowd at Game 5 of the World Series between the Nationals and Astros on Sunday.
T——was shown on the big screen at Nationals Park during the team’s salute to veterans after the third inning. Fans in attendance loudly yelled “lock him up,” a chant T—— supporters began in 2016 directed at his opponent and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. . . .
T—— did not sit with the Lerner family, the principal owners of the Nationals. According to WUSA, a representative for the Lerner family requested that MLB not put the family in a position to turn down a request from the White House to sit with Trump.
Except T——, every president since William Taft in 1910 has thrown out a ceremonial first pitch, either for Opening Day, the All-Star Game or the World Series. In 2010, President Obama threw out the first pitch on Opening Day at Nationals Park to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Presidential Opening Day first pitches.
According to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, T—— decided not to throw out the ceremonial first pitch “in order to make the fan experience as positive as possible.”
Sunday marked T——‘s first [and last] major league game since he took office in 2017. [Note: Trigger word emended as a public health measure.]
How do we find “truth” about what’s going on in our confused & confusing society?
One source many often turn to for answers is public polls. If a big time pollster says something is happening, many of us still choose to believe it must be so.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the decline in U. S. Church attendance & membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Gallup is just out with a report saying it’s happening, on a major scale. So if there’s a poll behind such an assertion, it must be true:
Gallup: “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.
In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.
U.S. church membership was 73% in 1937 when Gallup first measured it. It stayed near 70% through 2000 before beginning to decline, to 61% in 2010 and 47% in 2020.. . .”
Nick Kristof is the New York Times’s Certified Good-Guy columnist. While he’s an intrepid reporter, who has earned two Pulitzers, he’s best known for an uncanny ability to make even an unfolding tragedy like the one he recounts here feel like an upbeat family story.
Almost effortlessly he turns it into what could be the trailer for a newly-discovered Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore movie, complete with cameos by Fred MacMurray and Mister Rogers, and a sunny happy togetherness ending. Guaranteed.
It’s only nattering nabobs of negativism, like me, who could think otherwise.
“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.
While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .
. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.
It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .
[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter.
But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .”
He walked out. Left just in time, too, because, someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]
My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.
For him, the Ghent altarpiece
. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.
[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.
In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Revelation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.
. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing toward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.
The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.
Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.
But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.
However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.
In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.
One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).
I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.
Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.
In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there — A junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.
I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.
I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.
But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.
Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.
At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is not only evoked, but in fact repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours, seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.
Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?
One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.
The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up, no doubt deservedly, as, well, trash.
The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? The oversize, chained up, abandoned storage bin in Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.
Yet what will happen to that mound of old French reliquaries?
The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.
Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.
But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions in cash from long overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.
Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.
Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundineeds to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s earthly holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust”(Genesis 3); they already said it.
As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.
Regina Marler: Fire season in California ended in mid-December, but I can’t bring myself to unpack the boxes near the front door.
I threw them together overnight—family photos, backup drives, mementos, passports—in late September, when three wildfires merged, creating the Glass Fire, and burned west into rural Sonoma County, where I live. The Walbridge Fire, which came closer, had been contained only ten days earlier.
For weeks I kept the gas tank full and wore a respirator mask on my trips out for groceries and bottled water. (The electricity had been cut, and without it the well doesn’t work.) Mostly I stayed in with the windows shut, watching birds materialize through the smoke to land on the feeder. Blackened, blistered bay leaves spattered the driveway.
At night, I woke hourly to scan the surrounding woods for an orange glow. What if no warning came? Like almost everyone in the Bay Area, I have friends who’ve fled fires at night, driven through flames. I ran my risk assessment daily. You could say the fire had already gotten me.
Climate fiction is a genre of necessity—a new, rapidly expanding chorus of alarm. It’s beginning to seem strange not to mention climate change in realistic fiction, and not only because it’s an existential threat.
As Bill McKibben wrote in these pages, “we are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth.”
The term “climate fiction” itself came into use around the turn of this century. (Its catchy abbreviation, “cli-fi,” was coined by a blogger and environmentalist, Dan Bloom, in 2007.)
While environmental disasters have been a staple of dystopian science fiction since the late nineteenth century, writers before the mid-1960s rarely envisioned anthropogenic climate change. Terrible things just happened, like the hurricane that sweeps humanity off the planet in J.G. Ballard’s first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961).
But more recent climate fiction tends to assign blame. The reproductive toxins that render most women infertile in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example, derive from leaking nuclear plants and discarded chemical weapon stockpiles—very much humanity’s doing. Almost all climate fiction is political now. It wants to kick the reader’s chair. . . .
In The Inland Sea, an artful debut novel by , the effects of climate change have become inescapable and relentless. The book opens during the record-setting Australian heat wave of 2013—until 2019, Australia’s hottest year on record:
Ambulance crews raced towards Circular Quay and Parramatta to tend to the elderly, the pregnant, and the very young. In the western suburbs dogs and babies were discovered comatose after five minutes left inside locked cars…. At Taronga Zoo, the lions were given milk-flavored ice blocks. Carrot-flavored ice was fed to the zebras.
Dozens of fires break out along the south coast, and flash floods follow the fires: “The ocean bled into the land. Salt water seeped into the crops. Rivers not rivers. Homes not homes.”
The narrator, who is unnamed, is adrift after dropping out of a one-year postgraduate honors program. She moves to a semi-seedy part of Sydney and takes a full-time job at an emergency call center, a temporary stopgap, she thinks. She knows the work might be stressful, but
the script we were taught on our first day was meant to shield us from distress. If all went as planned, the person calling didn’t tell us about the fire raging down their cliff or the body they’d discovered at the bottom of a gully. We waited to hear the caller engage with the paramedic or the firefighter and then quietly hung up before hearing the details. We were not meant to hear the problem. We were not meant to hear the woman howl for the baby turning blue in her arms.
[But] at work, she finds that others’ emergencies are “leaking through the borders” of her own life.
Riveted by the calls that come into Triple Zero—Australia’s emergency call number—she jots down details in a notebook. When more than 135 fires are burning across New South Wales, a woman calls to let the fire service know that she has “chosen to go instead of stay. I lived through the fires of ’94, she told me. It’s like a war zone. Smoke everywhere. I’m not going through that again.”
The narrator thinks, but does not say, that she also remembers driving through those fires with her mother, “remember[s] the smoke and the heat and the roads blocked off and no way home.” She connects the caller to the fire brigade and writes “like a war zone” in her notebook. . . .