Friday, July 7



The View from New York, 07/06/06

Cusack gave me his best bewildered Brit stare. He’s very good at this.

It was a summer evening in New York, and in the big plate-glass window, the street was still bright with sunlight. Andrew Cusack was still puzzled, the No Idea Bar on 20th was humming, and the air thick with darkness and conversation. I was crashing the New Criterion’s social hour with the connivance of lady journalist Dawn Eden, and she was doubling up with laughter right next to me. Dawn’s taken me under her wing of late since I got to Manhattan, my hip big city big sister—though only in a figurative sense as she only comes up to my chin. Good things come in small packages.

It was Dawn that had gotten the three of us together, leaning against the bar on the edge of the New Criterion crowd. I’d just met Roger Kimball, and made a fool of myself in appropriate Matt-meets-celebrity fashion. And yes, he counts as a celebrity, to me anyway; so would Florence King, Roman Genn or anyone remotely connected with National Review. I realized suddenly that I had no memory of any single article he’d ever written, and I’d read so many of them. I guess I never look at the bylines. I managed to stutter out something appropriately adulatory and look intelligent as Dawn introduced me, and the conversation shifted safely away from me at about the right moment.

I would call Dawn, conservative convert-Catholic, Chesterton-loving, pop music-geek, pro-life warrior reporter, a celebrity too. Though she’d doubtlessly dispute the claim with her typically bouncy humor. She’s well-known enough to have published a book—or about to publish one anyway—and done a guest spot on NR Online, which is enough in my book, not to mention earning the cognomen of the Petite Powerhouse, which suits her soft, bubbly, blonde energy to a T. She’s that rarest of creatures—someone who can out-talk even me. Even so, she crests and troughs, with long quiet stretches of listening when the topic takes a serious turn, articulating her thoughts with a certain silvery sobriety.

(Incidentally, if you’re still listening, the title of that book, on living the Christian life, is The Thrill of the Chaste--she’s only been a Catholic formally since Easter, and she’s already mastered the Peter Kreeft/Scott Hahn-style pun.)

Dawn and I were attempting to mess with young Mr. Cusack’s head, feeding him what purported to be all the slang—“Dude, you are totally smashing onions, man!”—he’d missed in the last four years he’d been out of the country studying at St. Andrews in Scotland. He wasn’t buying it, hence the stare. Still, we’d just topped off an immensely pleasant conversation about Gothic cathedrals, leaning on the bar, and Dawn was enjoying the strange—and strangely typical—contrast of it all.

She’d come straight from a dinner with songwriter Alan Merill (author of the astonishingly self-referentially recursive hit "I Love Rock and Roll," which alludes to a fictional hit called "I Love Rock and Roll," making it a song about listening to a song about a certain type of song), full of rock music gossip, and had landed herself in a neon-lit, dark bar (free drink today if your name’s Michael, which it isn’t) with two young fogies, one with an acquired Scots burr, discussing Ralph Adams Cram. Like many of my friends, and like myself, she straddled three or four different parallel pocket universes with her job, her vocation and her faith, humor, God, rock-and-roll, Max Kolbe, miraculous medals and more all swirling together in ways strangely apt and even providential.

Cusack didn’t join us for part two of the evening. Dawn wanted to meet some libertarian friends of hers—not necessarily for their politics which neither of us quite shared, but for their enthusiastically nerdy zest for life. I don’t mind small doses of libertarianism—it’s sort of as if The Onion were to go right-wing and start a political party, but I don’t really buy it either. Any group that has to debate in Byzantine detail on C-SPAN whether private citizens have a right to own nuclear weapons strikes me as cranky even by my stringent standards. But they have their moments. This evening would prove to be one of them.

The Jinx Society was meeting that evening in a long green room under a pleasantly boho bobo hangout in the East Village, on an agreeably shabby shabby-chic tenement block that had gotten cleaned up just enough to be authentic rather than grubby. The bar was dark and agreeably streamlined inside, with dark wood and strong subdued mod colors. There were little puddles of golden-amber light from stained-glass lamps and big lurid bits of modern art, the kind of stuff I wouldn’t want over my mantel but serve to make me feel edgily and suitably au courant when playing at la vie Bohème.

Dawn took me around a corner and to a plain, unassuming narrow door and down a flight of steep steps. I could hear the voices of debaters and a long row of polished shoes and feet that turned out to be the audience, seated on a long bench that ran the whole length of this odd, narrow basement painted in a vivid artificial green reminiscent of a theater backstage. I murmured something about feeling as if I was being led down into the Central Anarchist Council from The Man who was Thursday, a favorite book of Dawn’s.

Tonight’s event was a mock debate in flawless Robert’s Rules of Order style asking whether—I’m quite serious now—superheroes should be made to register with the government. With a pitch like that, it was impossible to resist. Young Cusack had turned down the offer to join us, demurring he didn’t have much to add to the subject of the graphic novel, but I wasn’t quite an initiate either. I own two comic books—one issue of The Far Side, which doesn’t quite count, and the other, the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which, despite some objectionable bits involving the Invisible Man, was a charmingly Vernean read, and was radically different from the eponymous and now-forgotten movie. But I get the jokes, I get the humor, I get the strange tangle of universes and multiverses and omniverses. I’m not sure from where. I blame late university nights alone with Wikipedia.

The debate was in full swing as we slipped in and found the two last slots on the bench. Pro and con were, respectively, Ken Silber—a libertarian journalist of some stripe who Dawn didn’t know at first—and the self-described West Indian Catholic black Republican Robert George, who manages to also do a bit of standup comedy in his (presumably rather sparse) spare time. He’s a big, friendly, well-groomed fellow with a shaved head and glasses, and who eventually won me over to his side by the end of the evening, at least momentarily. Had Mr. Silber had the savvy to bring out the Big Bertha of argumentation—to mention his position was endorsed by none other than Spiderman—I might have thought differently. Maybe. The Church already tried to do something similar when she exercised her prudential judgment and attempted to ban the crossbow—and it didn’t work. Hence the famous fifteenth-century hay wain bumper-sticker, “Ballistae don’t kill villeins, villeins kill villeins.” It struck me that the few folks who would register would be the kind not to cause a whole lot of trouble in the first place. Maybe the Blue Raja (you know, with the spoons) or Super President, or Invisible Boy or something.

(These are real—cough—superheroes, I’m not making those up.)

I won’t even try to describe the debate. We were all laughing too hard, Dawn the hardest, with me keeping close behind. It was a funhouse-mirror McGlaughin Group out of the parallel world of X-Men or possibly some even edgier graphic reality, studded with serious rhetoric oddly echoing bigger and more real issues and concerns illuminated by wild and hilarious images. Henry Kissinger brokering a non-agression pact with Dr. Doom of Latveria—and then Ken responding any argument with Kissinger in it was innately self-defeating with this audience.

“When superpowers are criminalized, only criminals will have superpowers,” opined George, as rebuttal formally followed rebuttal. Murky mirror-images of political rhetoric, crisply enunciated. Was Batman a freelance troublemaker or the central prop of Commissioner Gordon’s police force? And if you didn’t want Spiderman or the Silver Surfer getting accredited by the FBI, what’s so all-fired great about getting a Green Lantern ring from an interdimensional police force? Would Thor lose his tax-exempt deity status by becoming a member of the ATF? Would all this hue and cry abridging the rights of these men in tights—and I am not making this up, someone on the audience actually asked this—abridge the rights of transvestites? That one brought the house down. Only in New York.

(Ken: “I think we can quote the Supreme Court here: ‘I can’t define a superhero, but I know one when I see one.” That and the feather boa.)

I wasn’t sure who was winning, or who I agreed with. It’s a valid question—at least I think it is, but I’m the sort of person who has wasted copious brainpower on such equally pointlessly mythical sort of problems. Can you baptize a mermaid? Do centaurs have immortal souls? Such wacky questions shine flashlights into corners of the political or theological spectrum where we may not want to go otherwise. Superpowers, gun control, terrorism, Lex Luthor, kryptonite, Korean nukes, 9-11, supervillains, Dr. Doom, Osama and Saddam, those crossbows again—and private nukes, and the whole question of who we want knowing what about ourselves.

Ken lost me on the final round, when he played the class warfare card, against those would-be aristocratic, cape-wearing superheroes putting on airs (or even walking on them) in our democratic society. These were arguments clearly not intended for the ears of the only Jacobite in the room. Robert, on the other hand, threw in his pièce de résistance : First they came for The Hulk and I said nothing because I wasn’t big, green and filled with anger management issues; then they came for the mutants and I said nothing because I wasn’t a mutant; then they came for the superheroes and I said nothing because I wasn’t a superhero; then they came for me...

Well, you know the rest.

Okay, I thought, this guy has my vote. The motion carried, eighteen to six. There was much laughter in the long green room.

What to make of this all, these mock debates, this pomp, circumstance and circumstantial silliness? I can’t say for sure how it might tie into the current political spectrum—guns, swords, knives and crossbows are one thing, and the capability to destroy a whole city block by blowing your nose the wrong way is another, and terrorists don’t have handy labels on their spandex uniforms these days. But that evening as I stepped out into the purple-gold SoHo night, I remembered an exchange Dawn, Cusack and I had back in the murk of the No Idea Bar.

I’d just apologized to a soft-spoken Episcopalian lawyer currently dealing with his doubts about the direction his faith was taking, about my jocular pitch to swim the Tiber. I’m never good at these things, and usually when I play the preacher, bad things follow. “It’s no laughing matter what you’re all facing these days,” I said.

“Of course it is,” said young Cusack, adding his two pence to the conversation. I was about to make a concerned Danger Will Robinson noise lest we get too imprudently unecumenical when Cusack made an abrupt and brilliant hairpin turn. “If you can’t joke about serious things, what can you joke about? I think God’s the funniest thing in the world. It’s the devil who’s dull.”

I nodded. This guy was good. He continued. “I think the best way to die,” he said, pausing to take a sip of his drink, “would be to hear a joke told by God. It’d be so funny, you’d die of laughter.”

If Superman gains super strength, super speed, super agility just by going from the red sun of Krypton to the yellow sun of Earth, why not super humor? (Thus saith the script of Seinfeld).

Dawn’s face lit up. “It’s just like what Chesterton says at the end of Orthodoxy,” she said. “There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth,” she quoted, “and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Supreme strength is shown not in violence but in levity, and that too, is a super power, the best kind there is.

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