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The Spirit of Uncle Arthur at Christmas

From left: Charlie Gargiulo Jr; Charlie Sr (the author) & Uncle Arthur

The Spirit of Uncle Arthur at Christmas

By Charles Gargiulo

I remember reading somewhere that a great songwriter is somebody who can say more in just a couple of lines than most people can say about the same subject if they talked all night about it. If that’s the case, then my Uncle Arthur’s ability to say a lot with the fewest words would put Bob Dylan and John Lennon to shame.

I don’t know if it’s because he was embarrassed to have people learn he couldn’t read or write, or because he was practically deaf and couldn’t make out what most people were saying if they didn’t yell their heads off at him, but when it came to talking my Uncle Arthur was very shy and tried not to say anymore than he had to in a conversation. He also said things so quietly it was hard to make out what he was saying. Which would often lead to a weird scene where the person who was trying to talk with him looked like the deaf person because they couldn’t hear what he was saying, so they’d start repeating things like, “what?…I can’t hear you…what did you say?” over and over again, louder and louder each time, because he kept talking quietly as a mouse, and acted like it was their fault if they couldn’t hear him.

I think over time he just figured out that it was pointless to try and carry on a conversation like this and adapted by breaking down all he had to say about a subject to the bare minimum of words. As a result of doing this for decades he became a master at making up standard short phrases to respond to almost every situation. No beating around the bush with Uncle Arthur, no long windbag speeches and no hyperbole. He just made his point quickly and directly enough to get the hell out of discussing the topic at hand any further. In case anyone missed the fact that he had nothing more to say about something and tried to prolong the conversation, or ask him any questions about what he said, he would sharply raise his right hand with his palm out, like making a stop sign, while turning his head slightly away from you, thrust his jaw out like Mussolini and declare, “That’s it!” Making it clear that you would have a better chance at moving a stubborn mule than getting another word out of him on the issue.

Sometimes for variety, instead of saying “That’s it,” to make it clear he was done talking about something, he would substitute either the phrase “No more,” or “All done” in its place. If somebody couldn’t take a hint, he’d grumpily make one of his Mussolini stop sign gestures with extra emphasis and say all three phrases together in rapid fire. When Uncle Arthur told you, “That’s it, All Done, No More,” you knew he meant it.

Uncle Arthur had so many of these short, clipped, right to the point phrases that me and my friends started to collect them and incorporate them into our own language. For instance, you know how we are always ranking and comparing our favorite artists and entertainers with other people? Usually, it gets really annoying after awhile because we all tend to exaggerate or overblow things trying to get across how much we really like someone. Well, Uncle Arthur never had that problem. He didn’t throw around flowery compliments and turn every half decent performer into a freaking legend. As a result, when he praised somebody you knew they had to be pretty special.

In fact, Uncle Arthur had the perfect ranking system. If you wanted to know what he thought about a singer, a ballplayer or some actor all you had to do was ask him if he liked that person and he’d answer one of four ways. If he thought they sucked he’d wrinkle his nose, make a sour looking face and say, “Nuh, nuh, nuh, no.” If he thought they were average or very good, he’d slightly shrug his shoulders and grunt, “eh.” If he thought somebody was absolutely hall of fame level amazing, he’d very matter of factly state, “they’re alright.” And only reserved for those he thought were the very greatest, the people he admired and put on a plane above everybody else, would he utter his highest words of praise. For those rare few he would look you in the eye, press his lips together, make a very slow up and down nod of his head and then solemnly say, “They’re good.” In my entire life with him I think I only heard him say that about the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and the Three Stooges.

My friends and I used to laugh about his tough grading system and had a lot of fun using it ourselves trying to figure out who would make our own personal Uncle Arthur “they’re good” list. For me it’s the Beatles, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and the Three Stooges. I guess I might have to add Bob Dylan to that list too.

Ask Uncle Arthur his opinion about anything and he had one of two answers, “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” Period. Unless it was about the Red Sox. After years of having his heart broken rooting for them, if you asked him what he thought about the Red Sox he’d elaborate and say, “I like them, but at first they go up, up, up,” and he’d put his hand up with his palm facing down and jerkily raise it each time he said the word up, then give a hard thumbs down and make a fart sound. If you pressed him on why he keeps rooting for them, he’d always say, “I like them” then give a slight pause, look at you with a pained expression and say, “but they just never win.”

Uncle Arthur was only really a fan of two different sports, boxing and baseball. He’d watch the Celtics with me on TV but didn’t really know that much about the game except the score. He was a big fan of listening to the games on the radio, or should I say, he was a big fan of listening to their announcer Johnny Most. He didn’t really care or understand that much about the game or what he was saying, he just loved it when Johnny went all psycho when the Celtics were getting screwed. I had a record album with highlights of Johnny Most’s most famous calls and his face would always light up whenever I put on the famous, “Havlicek Stole the Ball” segment. It was fun to watch Uncle Arthur try to imitate Johnny losing his voice with excitement.

It was sad to realize that Uncle Arthur’s lack of hearing was so bad that it was clear one of the reasons he talked so little was he couldn’t really make out much of what was being said to him unless someone said it loud and slow. So in addition to not being able to read books and things because he never learned to read or write, he was also not able to enjoy TV or movies like me or you can do because he could hardly make out what was being said on the screen. It was no wonder that he loved the Three Stooges and his favorite movies were either full of action, physical comedies or Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because the only entertainment he got was from the visual stuff.

It was interesting how this lack of following the dialogue in movies gave him a unique perspective in how he appreciated and understood them. For instance, the reason he liked Clint Eastwood so much was because he literally became known as the “Man with No Name” character from his spaghetti Westerns. And watching his movies gave Uncle Arthur a chance to give his stock answer whenever I’d ask, “What do you think of that?” after Clint shot somebody. He’d give a grin, shake his head in amusement and say, “He’s dead now.”  Which always summed things up pretty well. Unique visual moments also had a way of sticking with him like a memorable line from a movie does with most of us. Uncle Arthur appreciated the way Clint told a story. There probably have been a million scenes of people shooting somebody in movies, but Uncle Arthur knew what made Clint special was that he shot somebody in an outhouse. Ask him about Clint, he’d make a shooting gesture and he’d smile and say, “Boom” then chuckle and say, “shot him in the shit house.”

Sure, Uncle Arthur might not go into great detail critiquing a movie but his right to the point opinions might be responsible for the greatest movie review in history. After becoming a fan of the “Rocky” movies, I went with Uncle Arthur  to see Sylvester Stallone branch out into a terrible gangster comedy called “Oscar” and when I asked him what he thought about the movie he replied, “Stick to boxing.” Roger Ebert, eat your heart out.

His bad hearing did lead to a couple of funny by-products for those who loved him.  One was that he ended up creating new names for a lot of famous people that me and my friends loved to adopt as our own. Since he couldn’t hear well, he didn’t alway pick up the correct pronunciation of somebody’s name. The problem with that is, in addition to being half-deaf, Uncle Arthur was also a pretty stubborn guy, so if he thought he heard a name like Nixon as Dixon, then he wouldn’t let you correct him on it. So it didn’t matter that Richard Nixon became Vice-President and President, he thought it was Dixon the first time he heard it, so it remained Dixon forever. The same with Dukakis, he thought it was Contakos, so Dukakis remained Contakos and everybody else was an idiot for pronouncing it incorrectly.

The other funny thing about his lack of hearing was how it impacted his volume control. Remember how I told you that he would usually mumble so quietly when he talked with somebody that they often couldn’t understand what he said? Ironically, he had the opposite problem when he was trying to conceal what he was saying. You know how when you get angry at someone or something you might swear under your breath because you don’t want others to know how you’re feeling? Well, poor ol’ Uncle Arthur’s volume control was so messed up that even though he thought he was cussing too softly for anybody to hear him, his true emotions let those swear words fly out so loud that everybody within ten miles could hear them. So when he got mad you’d hear a whole scattering of French and English swear words come flying out of him, while he would act like nothing was wrong. All of sudden, Uncle Arthur could blurt out a loud string of swear words so fast and foul it would make Ted Williams blush. And if you asked him what was wrong, he’d give his mild-mannered smile or act puzzled and genuinely be surprised that anybody would think he was upset at something.

These memories of the little unique features of Uncle Arthur’s personality and charm are the kind of things that shape all our important relationships with the people we love. It’s not how much somebody made or what titles or honors they achieve that we remember, it’s the gift of being close enough to somebody to know all of the little quirks about them that only can be earned through the privilege of loving familial intimacy.

My Uncle Arthur passed away on Christmas Eve in 1997 after his health began failing for a couple of difficult years. So the holiday season always comes with a bit of melancholy, never forgetting the pain of losing him on a day that was associated with a lifetime of warm memories of Christmas pasts with Uncle Arthur. But those memories are so full of love and gratitude for the smiles and joy he gave me that death can never come close to ending the bond we will share in this lifetime and whatever comes next. Merry Christmas Uncle Arthur.

 

“Nativity” by Malcolm Sharpes

Portrait of the Virgin by Sandro Botticelli

Nativity

By Malcolm Sharps

She didn’t audition for the part specifically; she didn’t need to. The instant Keith saw Katie at the casting rehearsal he knew that she, and only she, could play the vital, crucial, essential role of Mary in his Nativity. She was a natural Mary, the ideal of every Italian Renaissance painter, clear blue eyes, pale skin with suggestions of ripening fruit, hair coppery gold interlaced with shining strands of every other precious metal.

“Pure in heart,

Gentle in thought,

Kind in deed, modest in word,

Is my Mary in her maidenhood.”

These lines I still remember, being one of the better demonstrations of Keith’s literary skills. Strange how much they stick in my mind to this day. I was cast as Joseph, the most substantial speaking role, and Mary – Katie – responded to my faltering delivery of the lines and turned them into rhapsodic poetry simply by the look of intense rapture in her eyes. She was just nineteen and she spoke her own lines with the precision of a conscientious scholarship student, enhanced by a velvety tone which assured the hearer that behind every word she spoke was the sincerity and conviction of the entire English Reformation. She had recently started University after gaining exam results like a matching line of top scoring fruit on a games machine; I felt academically outclassed but comfortably senior, having begun the third year already at the promoted polytechnic; in reality still a poor man’s University.

To be honest, in spite of his cooing on finding the perfect, crucial, essential Mary, Keith hadn’t actually given Mary all that much to say; perhaps that was authentic writing given the time and the location. For most of the scenes she was to listen with devoted attention, stare meaningfully into space, or make consenting responses of five or six words at most, and sometimes only one. I compensated making the more comprehensive observations of an adoring spouse.

“Strange, though I am not the father of the child she bears,

I feel a kind of pride in it being hers.

My young wife is surely above blame

For she carries in her womb,

Let no one doubt her claim,

One who bears a heavenly father’s name.”

Besides being a virgin, Mary was a mother; and Katie embodied this miraculous contradiction sublimely. Her eyes suggested purity not simply as a void, but as a state of grace filling them to the brim; her glance managed to enfold whatever it encountered in a protective swaddle of maternal warmth, conveying a love not compromised with one single touch of selfish expectation. She offered only an infinite capacity for giving. Katie complemented Mary’s maternal identity with a bosom that could have been a template for all virgin mothers’ bosoms, an organ giving no offence through its over-abundance, simply a container perfect in shape and proportions, fitted to purpose – there could be no other – for the dispensing of the milk of human kindness. I stood beside Katie, in envy of the fortune of the smothered doll she enveloped in her arms and held against herself.

“I’ll tell you right now I think my part is awful and I’m awful in the part.”

“Don’t worry, Vic, old son, it can only get better. Just treat it as a bit of a laugh like the rest of us.”

The encouragement came from one of the shepherds who actually in real life was a shepherd at one of the local farms and – there must be a law to such things – was the least convincing of the shepherds playing his part. Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Naturally, I didn’t entirely mean what I said. Self-criticism is always the best safeguard against more wounding charges from outside. Let’s say, I was doing the best job I could coping with the vagueness of purpose in Keith’s stage directions, not to mention the script he had hobbled us with. Keith, director and writer, was our local renaissance man, a former Art teacher who was now a freelance teacher of piano, clarinet and singing and sometime church organist, while still taking on portraiture in oils as a sideline and supplying local scenes in various media to the town’s open air market. Knocking off a verse drama in his odd spare moments between serious work came naturally to Keith. Imagine, all those tens of minutes and quarter hours added up to three masterpieces a year, not works that came to him through scant labour and minimal effort, but through inspiration, the unearned dividend of genius.

“A helpless, homeless child brings in the new dawn.

The son of man, my son, soon to be born,

In time will grow to find his rightful place

In hearts of men of faith, good will and peace.”

It was one of Katie’s longer speeches. She delivered it in the most caring and cared for voice imaginable; with eyes closed I could envisage her as the schoolgirl she had been until recently, loved daughter of proud parents, the perfect prefect trusted by the teaching staff, artistic rather than seriously involved in sports or school politics but still best friend and confidant to the head girl, too modest to seek the position herself. I loved her uncritically for it, it was Katie, it was what she really was. I closed my eyes involuntarily, drifting out of my role into a reverie, drunk on purity, the most potent of all love potions; high on innocence, the most erotic of all aphrodisiacs.

“I can just see the whole thing turning into the greatest, most disastrous, awful, resounding, humiliating flop!”

This was Keith in confidence at a mid-point rehearsal when none of the shepherds and only one of the wise men – a non-speaking one – had turned up and he had been hoping to rehearse the crib visitation scenes. He looked like a man about to have a mental breakdown. Katie and I would be present to support him if ever it happened; usefully, Keith had written us into almost every scene.

“Well, we’ll just have to do the Joseph Mary scenes again. Sorry about that, Katie, Victor. I do apologise. Your scenes, at least, shouldn’t fail.”

Nativity plays have never been known to fail and, indeed, cannot fail – that is the reason for their endurance. A Nativity is a game of numbers where all the advantage is with the bank. Virtually a small town of people is required to represent a not much bigger one. The church puts it around the parishes there is to be a new production, everyone hears about it and in they flock, home congregation and outsiders, the believers, the non-believers, aspiring talents and first-time carriers of wooden swords, all wanting parts. A Nativity cannot fail because even if everyone were to forget their parts, the audience still knows what should happen and can fill in. More importantly, family and friendship guarantee an audience, roughly the number on the stage – multiplied by at least four – filling the pews. The math of Nativity never fails. Nativities are always sell-outs. Nativities are always successes.

“All lodgings are taken hereabout,

Our journey is shadowed now in doubt.

The sky no longer bright,

Together we face an uncertain night

Without comfort, without light.

Look, Mary, a stable, lowly and bare

With whose animals we may humbly share.”

At the end of our scenes together, Mary and I were usually left staring into each other’s eyes. But in this scene – thanks to dear Keith’s directions – Mary and I got to touch. Having found the stable, I help my pregnant wife down from the donkey, a worn leather exercise horse with a papier maché head, and lead her across to the back of the stage strewn with straw. It was in the action of guiding her down that Heaven dipped for a moment as Katie exposed something seen on neither the real Mary nor a Renaissance Madonna. As she stooped, the modestly open collar of her blouse gaped sufficiently to expose a narrow expanse of soft, young neck upon which Christ naked in his passions hung on a small gold cross attached to a fine chain. The chain was tight across its cushion of clear, gleaming flesh and Christ strained in his suffering, held securely, rapturous against the luxuriant background. The potential eroticism of the crucifixion – admitted by Art critics more than by believers – was provoked unendurably by the expressive purity of Katie’s unsullied, unlined, innocent neck. In vain did the intimations of almond and peach blossom work to smooth away more sensual suggestions and keep the statement chaste. The emphasis of her innocence only heightened its violation.

I stared at Katie’s neck, censoring the violence done against the Saviour from my thoughts. I was falling in love, I knew. I might even be turning into a believer. If I could be as close to her neck as the suffering Christ, I would accept whatever belief, undergo whatever initiation, I was willing to be anything Katie was and follow her in any creed she chose to follow, be it Jainist, Hindu, Christian, Jew, whatever. If I could enter into the inner realms of her glory through the disciplines of Buddha, I would become a Buddhist. If I had to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, I would go to Mecca barefoot with heavy stones around my neck, as long as I could be accepted also as a worshipper at her personal altar.

Attendance for rehearsals was still as dismal as ever, in spite of a ‘final warning’ Keith had given several times. We arrived at a particularly chilly, empty rehearsal one evening; nearing the actual night; we were now practising our movements in the church itself. At the end of one of the aisles the light on a small nativity was kept aglow throughout the evening, a scene in paper and cardboard, with drinking straws representing reed thatch over the stable roof; and the holy family, Kings and shepherds and an assortment of animals standing and kneeling in adoration about a lolly-stick crib. Somehow these painted figures had their own internal force of existence they communicated to each other and to the exalted child, a charge of sanctified fellowship passed between them and unified their assembly, an awareness of the hallowed moment they were witnessing overcame the opaque deadness of the brush applied dots that were their eyes and they seemed to look on the scene with spellbound wonderment. Although unskilled in execution, this artless gathering put the raggedness and unpreparedness of our larger staging to shame.

The wise men, the poor shepherds, all have given praise

And full of hope have gone their separate ways.

This is not the place for us to linger on in ease;

Our child has enemies that even love will not appease.

The unoccupied cast hung around in the gloom of the nave, whispering, laughing, the younger ones idly pushing each other, while the only other source of light was directed on the stage constructed at the front of the nave, the spots illuminated the space created for the celebration of the coming of new life, which appeared vacant, disregarded, desperately short of engaging vitality. Keith was filling in for one of the speaking shepherds and Katie and I took up positions out of the spots ready to augment the depleted group. Katie’s eyes looked to the remnants of the cast in the nave, they glowed like droplets of gold from the reflected light of the toy nativity scene as she whispered closely to me.

“Isn’t it terrible, the way people have let poor Keith down? Can you imagine, most of the cast only joined because they want to be seen on stage by their friends in the village. There’s no loyalty, very few of them have any faith, very few of them have the spiritual commitment to the play that we have.”

My eyes widened with something close to shock. But I don’t think Katie noticed it. I was full of fear. What if she asked me why I was here? What if she asked about my spiritual commitment? What if she asked me if I believed or what I believed. What could I answer? “I believe in you. I believe in everything you do, but only so long as you are the one doing it? I believe in the wearer of the cross, not the man god on it. No more than that. I have no faith, I believe in people because I believe in what I can see, and sometimes I doubt people too because what we see is often just a fraud. But I have faith in you, Katie, I want to believe in you. I believe in the miracle which your flesh contains and soars above it pointing the way – as if such a place were to exist – to a greater miracle, to eternity, to Heaven itself. Isn’t that enough for you?” I feared it wouldn’t be.

Somehow, regardless of the disordered state of the play, the dress rehearsal came upon us; Keith wrestled frantically with the logistic problems of so many costumes and so many absent players not filling them. In the impromptu dressing room there was a mood of intoxication with the discovered delights of stage make up, of Leichner sticks and liners and powder, of dyed cotton wool and spirit gum, of wigs and padding; and each had its own glorious narcotic smell. We were fascinated by the strangeness of our costumes and showed them off tirelessly to each other, or waited impatiently to view ourselves in the full-length mirror, one for the entire cast. Our hearts were pumping, even those too young to experience a nervous rush of blood around their veins, to experience the nausea that precedes the first sighting of the audience, were unusually activated and showed obsessive curiosity adjusting sashes, cloaks and belts.

I was timing my own scheme against the progress of the play. I was determined I would ask Katie for a date. I would need to ask before she vanished from the play, the village and my life and went back to her University. I couldn’t leave it later, but I couldn’t risk the possibility of a refusal before the play and then face the final rehearsals and the premier in an atmosphere of awkwardness or constrained resentment. That might wreck my performance as well; and out of the personal pride which anyone who chooses to expose themselves to public judgement knows, I was pledged to its success. This was the only kind of commitment I knew. I planned to wait till the last line of the play was spoken, then in the vestry dressing room I would ask her. If I had rehearsed my own lines a hundred times, who knows how many more times I repeated those imagined words I wanted to say to her?

“No! No! No! No! No!”

Keith’s professional spirit was stoically holding out against a breakdown. He had taken on an air of martyrdom which looked somehow becoming on him.

“This will not do! Who put those two children in cotton wool beards? This is not that kind of nativity. Authenticity, I’m trying for authenticity. We already have enough real old men to play the old men parts, but we are short of children to be children. Really! Can we get the cast from the last scene off the stage and can we have the Roman soldiers, priests, Judean royalty, artisans, merchants, beggars, wailing and non-wailing women on stage for the next scene? And, Jonathan dear, if you do dry again this time, can you at least carry the star over to the stable rather than leave everyone standing around not able to move. If anything goes wrong, everyone, remember to keep the action going, won’t you. And where on earth is our Herod?”

In no time at all the next important scene became the vestry on the night of the performance.        Our Herod had gone down with a bug and Keith had to be crowned in his place, a double performance pretending he wasn’t relishing every minute of this extra opportunity to shine. He sat amongst us in the dressing room in costume like a medieval king with his men, raising them up to face the terrifying field of battle which awaited them at dawn. We were an odd army, some actually dressed as soldiers, unused to handling spears and shields; while others looked insecure in long black beards that strongly hinted they wouldn’t stay the course. From some primal instinct groups kept together with others of their own kind. The ones wearing colourful head coverings kept on with headbands that had recently been their wives’ skirts and jumpers took to one area, the priests in costumes resembling old striped dressing gowns, because that’s what they were, found another.

I came later to the church than for the dress rehearsal. I wanted to cut down the period of tension between changing into costume and going on stage. Keith’s look told me of his terror waiting for my arrival. The rest of them were already well advanced with their transformations into character. I was surprised to find amongst our Eastern bazaar a single young man in contemporary mufti seated coolly next to Katie as she adjusted her classic blue Madonna head covering. He was short cropped, cleanly handsome; and wore a dark, thick, close-fibred coat and an endlessly wound scarf with the thin stripes of, no doubt, some famed place of learning. Dressed in winter street clothes he should have seemed more out of place than he did, but he carried an air of easy presence that would have prevented him from appearing odd in any circumstances. The young man’s glance seemed to take us in and dispose of us in the turn of his head as simply a lot of foolish amateur players. His indifference emphasised our oddity in our fancy dress, our pretences and fantasies and our awkwardly assumed personas that we hardly knew how to accommodate sensibly alongside our true identities. When I saw the easy familiarity with which he spoke to Katie, I felt possessive, wanting to be her protector. I went over to ask how things were going and wish her well. Katie was radiantly exultant and calmly serene: no more a paradox than her virgin mother role sanctioned.

“Vic, I’d like you to meet Greg, my boyfriend. He’s just come down today from Oxford especially to see me, us. Greg, this is Vic, our Joseph. As you’ll see, by far the best performance in the whole play. He puts the rest of us to shame.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

The handsome man stood up and smiled and took my hand firmly in a sporting grasp; I imagined him shaking the hand of the captain of some opposing team in the same way before a game, any game, it didn’t matter what, somehow I knew he would be good at all of them. And he would be wearing the same smile, the smile of the male who had already known triumph and was confident in the knowledge that more triumphs would follow. I flexed my fingers unseen, the assurance of his grip remained with me, and something terrible remained with it, something almost obscene, I sensed in the persisting ache of that grasp the assurance of the male hand that was certain of its own power. No other use for that power occurred to me, none seemed to fit better with that smile, than to take away the innocence of a beautiful young woman. A virgin.

Smiling and saying I was pleased to meet him was the more difficult performance of the evening before the much easier one I had to get through on stage. As I said my lines, my heart no longer beat as before, there was a slow subdued funereal drumming there that replaced the rhythmic pounding, a march to mark the death of someone I had loved, but never really had the chance of loving.

In search of safety our family to Egypt has gone.

Here we trust Herod’s sword will not touch our little one.

Let Rachel and all the other mothers weep and pray

For the lives of their children so cruelly snatched away.

Strange, was it nerves? It was as if we were all stumbling blindly through an entirely different play at a first rehearsal. Everyone was speaking their words without conviction; the flight to Egypt gave no reflection of Jerusalem in chaos, neither on last night’s television news nor two thousand years ago, and when Mary spoke I heard only Katie and not the Madonna that could give birth to God, the sum of human suffering seemed to come to nothing or was mocked by human shallowness. She was a protected nineteen year old, after all, that thankfully had never known bloodshed, as close to the agony of slaughter as perhaps privet-hedged suburbia can know. But against her words of suffering, she sounded comfortable four bedroom semi-detached, she sounded middle management, she sounded last year’s registration Rover in the driveway. Surely I must have noticed it before. Why hadn’t it bothered me until now?

But when I looked into those eyes, there was the seat of a more catastrophic change. I could not find the thing I had grown to expect, that look had gone or I had lost the seer’s eye to see. No, dear Katie, I am unfair, as unfair as I am about the shallowness of your Mary who betrayed the suffering in her lines. In my disappointment and jealousy how could I hear or see anything? Though I’m sure there was love there still, love that was there for everyone, there for me too along with all the rest, but no more than for the rest.

When I had stared into your eyes before I had imagined the belief I saw there could be in myself and I returned the look with eyes which blazed with borrowed conviction. Perhaps it was the nearest I was capable of to faith or would ever be: not for me the embracing of eternity in the insubstantial and unseen; I was a convert to grace and glory of a human kind, such a weak conviction compared to the spiritual, I know. Just a smile of triumph and an assured handshake was enough to crush my nascent faith.

The sound of the final applause began hesitantly, respectful of the edifice of the church. As the audience began to take courage the sound grew to fill the space around my head. Like someone coming out of a trance, I was aware of Keith pulling us all forward in a line towards the audience, directing us to bow. It was his great moment, I could see, he signalled for Katie to make a personal bow, then me, and I made my bow towards him willing to concede all of the triumph to him without experiencing any forfeiture. I felt a double relief that it was all over. Relief that nothing more would be expected of me, that I expected nothing more of myself. I felt released, I felt empty, I was back to my old self, I believed in nothing once again.

Chinese Pie

Earlier this week, radio station WBUR presented an audio essay on the fuzzy origins of Chinese pie. The story included interviews with several notable French-Canadian historians and cultural observers from around New England including our own Paul Marion.

A link to the audio of the piece plus a full transcript is available here.

I found the story to be a fascinating piece of history, but it also inspired me to make Chinese pie for dinner today. It was delicious and easy to make.

The WBUR story, which was more cultural than culinary, kept it simple, defining Chinese pie as a combination of meat, potatoes, and corn. Having grown up in a family entirely of Irish descent, Chinese pie was not on our home menu. It wasn’t until I went to Biship Guertin High School that I first encountered the dish which was in regular rotation in the school cafeteria. Most of the students at the school back then (the late 1970s) were of French-Canadien descent, and many of the teachers were members of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, a French-dominated order, so having a traditional French-Canadien item on the menu made sense. Plus, as a type of casserole, it was perfect cafeteria food.

In fact, my own Chinese pie concoction drew inspiration from Army mess halls. In the four years I was in the service, I never encountered Chinese pie, but I was served a lot of creamed chipped beef, which, when served on toast, was called SOS, for you-know-what on a shingle. Having watched Army cooks making it, I discerned that you took ground beef, fried it in a scramble, then used flour, butter and milk to create a cream sauce that engulfed the meat.

If, instead of spooning it over toast, you pour the resulting mixture into a casserole dish, then add a layer of frozen corn kernels and top it with a thick layer of creamy mashed potatoes, you have a Chinese pie, ready for heating in the oven.

As I said, the batch I made today was delicious. I took a picture of my plate before I dug in, but let’s just say a serving of (my) Chinese pie tastes much better than it looks so I omitted the picture.

Thanks to WBUR and Paul Marion for inspiring me to try something new in the kitchen.

World Cup Diary, part II

Photo of my TV during Tuesday’s US v Iran game

The United States team lost to the Netherlands yesterday at the start of the “knockout” round. At least the Americans made it into that group. They did so by defeating a tough team from Iran on Tuesday afternoon by a score of 1 to 0.

The Americans dominated the start of that game. Anytime an Iranian player got the ball, an American would be on him instantly and often take the ball away. But Iran knew what it was doing and played patiently. In the second half, the Americans weren’t stealing the ball anymore. The hot temperature in the desert brought them back to earth. Fortunately, the Americans had scored their lone goal two-thirds of the way through the first half. Iran had several excellent chances to score in the second half but couldn’t put the ball in the net.

The American players had two opponents: Iran and exhaustion. Had Iran scored and the game ended in a tie, the US team would have been out of the tournament and Iran would have advanced.

Playing fast at the start and fading at the end was not unique to the Americans. I saw it happen to the South Koreans and the Japanese in separate games. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s report, I’m a soccer neophyte so this is in no way a criticism of the US players who are all superb athletes or of their coach. It’s just an observation.

As for the Dutch victory on Saturday, they just played better and looked like the better team. The final score was 3 to 1 and it was far from a blowout. The Dutch had gone up 2 to 0 with about 20 minutes left in the game when the Americans scored their first goal. The US players upped their aggressiveness after that but paid the price. The Americans tried to force the ball inside, lost it, and surrendered the killer third goal to a Dutch counterattack.

The Americans had a terrific chance to score just eight minutes into the game, but the player who got the ball in front of the Dutch net was only able to dribble a weak shot that was easily handled by the Dutch goaltender. Something similar happened early in the second half when another American player with an excellent chance couldn’t drive it home. Great scoring chances are rare in soccer. Great teams take advantage of them.

Likewise, on the defensive side on at least two of the Dutch goals, the Americans seemed to lose track of the player who ended up with the ball. The more experienced Dutch players didn’t miss when they had open shots.

One thing that stood out was the size of the Dutch players. Their goalie was 6’8” and one of their defensemen was 6’5”, much taller than any of the Americans. In a game where a “header” in front of the opponent’s net is a reliable means of scoring a goal, having to jump against an opponent much taller than you isn’t a recipe for success.

Nevertheless, congratulations to the American team. Four years ago, the team didn’t even qualify for the World Cup, so this is great progress.

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A big risk the Americans avoided against Iran was committing a foul in front of their own net. The consequence of committing one would be a penalty kick for Iran which would almost certainly result in a goal. With a penalty kick, the offensive player stands alone in front of the goaltender who is anchored to the goal line. It’s not like a penalty shot in hockey where the goalie can come out of the net to cut down the angles available to the shooter. In soccer, the goalie must stand there until the kick is made and only then react. Because the shooter is so close and the net so big, the goalie must guess what the shooter is going to do and react prospectively. The offensive player must only pick out a corner of the net and kick the ball into it. Occasionally, the kicker will miss the net or rarely the goalie will guess right and make a save, but usually a goal results. That’s what happened in the first game of the tournament for the US. The team was up over Wales 1 to 0 when with 10 minutes left the referee called a foul on an American defender. The star of the Wales team was awarded a penalty kick and scored easily to tie the score. That’s how that game ended.

Because there is a great deal of gamesmanship in soccer, perhaps more than in other professional sports in America, the Iranian players would have dropped to the ground as if shot had an American defender even breathed upon them in the closing moments of Tuesday’s game. But the Americans avoided that fate. Even in the desperation to clear the ball and keep it out of their net, the US players kept their composure and had no game-altering fouls called on them. That cannot have been an accident.

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Usually the World Cup is in the early summer. That’s what Fox TV expected when it won the bid to televise this tournament. But host country Qatar seems to do what it wants so after all the contracts were awarded, it moved the games to the early winter due to the extreme temperatures that would be experienced in Qatar when the games normally would be held. This was an unfortunate twist for Fox which was already a prime presenter of American football (another huge cost for the TV network). Now, the World Cup and the NFL would occur at the same time, diluting Fox’s ability to get maximum return on the two big investments.

Despite the contractual gyrations caused by rescheduling the games, it’s probably for the best that the games were moved from summer to “winter.” The TV announcers frequently mention the high temperatures there. The stadiums are partially enclosed with some air conditioning, but all have open roofs and in many of the games, the sun was shining on at least part of the field. By the second half, every player looked parched. As mentioned above, you can see the speed of the game slow as it progresses. Running for 90 minutes straight in high heat will do that.

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The World Cup might be more interesting to me than the English Premiere League or America’s Major League Soccer because countries from different corners of the globe with different languages and cultures find themselves playing against each other in a common game under a common set of rules. Cameroon v Serbia; Netherlands v Ecuador; South Korea v Ghana; Japan v Germany; Australia v Tunisia; and Wales v Iran were contests I would not expect to see.

Some cultural differences were readily apparent. When Argentina scored a goal, its players raced to the corner of the field where most of its fans sat, and interacted with the fans. When teams from the Middle East scored, their players dropped to their knees and a prone position, presumably in prayer. Fans of some countries sing continuously. I think this is mostly a South American thing and when you’re listening on TV it can get annoying. So can the horns and whistles which, for an American viewer, are easy to confuse with a referee’s whistle or the horn that sounds at the end of the half in a basketball game.

Perhaps my favorite cultural marker came from the Japanese. After one of their matches, my social media feed filled with pictures of their fans with open trash bags, cleaning up the stands in which they sat. That was matched by a photo of the Japanese locker room after the team had left. It was spotless, with the towels folded neatly in a pile in the center of the floor.

Living in a community troubled by litter, it’s tough to imagine a place where people don’t casually throw trash on the ground, never mind pick up after everyone else.

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Two major European soccer powers, Belgium and Germany, were knocked out in the first phase of this tournament. Commentators mentioned the significance of Germany’s exit on the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Disgrace of Gijon. Although I was unfamiliar with that term, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

Back in the summer of 1982, I was midway through a three year tour of duty in West Germany with the US Army. For some reason, I picked up a lot of chatter about the World Cup, particularly a match between Germany and Austria that was played on Friday, June 25, 1982. I think it was declared a national holiday. We weren’t in the field so we were dismissed from work at lunch time. The streets I traveled on during the drive from the base to my apartment were completely deserted.

I’d purchased a TV at the PX in Stuttgart, so it had two bands: one for American TV which consisted of one station, Armed Forces Network; and another for European TV which I hardly ever watched. On that day, I pressed the PAL button to switch to the European frequency and immediately got the live broadcast of the soccer match. Since it was a German TV station, the commentary was in German spoken so rapidly that it outpaced my limited comprehension of the language. But I could still watch.

I don’t ever remember being so bored. All the players did was pass it back and forth at midfield. Germany had the lead, 1 to 0, but even when the Austrian players got the ball they didn’t advance it. They too passed it back and forth until a German got the ball with the same result. The fans were whistling loudly which even I knew was European for “Boo” but I had no idea of what was going on and jettisoned soccer from my list of things that were interesting to follow.

Years later, I learned what had happened in that game. It took place in the portion of World Cup play that we were in this past week with groups of four competing to make it to the elimination round. Germany and Austria were in the same group along with Algeria and Chile. Those two had played the day before and with the outcome of that match already known, the German and Austrian players knew that if Germany defeated Austria by more than two goals, then Germany and Algeria would advance to the next round. But if Germany won by just one or two goals, then, because of the “goal differential” tie breaker, Austria and not Algeria would advance.

Germany and Austria gamed the system so that Austria and not Algeria advanced to the next round. They were able to do that because they already knew the result of the game between the other two teams in their group. To prevent this in the future, World Cup organizers changed the schedule so that the final set of games among teams in the same group would be played simultaneously.

Up until this past Tuesday, games were at 5am, 8am, 11am, and 1pm EST, but starting on Tuesday, there would be two games at 10am which would involve all the teams in one group; then two more games at 1pm, involving all four teams in the next group. That way, players would not know the outcome of the other game in their group and would have no real time incentive to throw the match.

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Each Sunday during the World Cup, I’m posting my observations on global soccer’s biggest event. Last Sunday’s entry is available here.

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