Saturday, April 30, 2011

Yesterday was a great day for young men with more than the usual complement of middle names. No, I am not referring to the royal wedding, although a certain pink satin steroidal pretzel in the second pew pretty much made my morning. No, I am referring to the grand homecoming of the Igster. Yesterday, with a grand flourish of diapers and much toasting with frozen breast milk, Ignatius Schein Richardson Brownstein was discharged from the NICU and went home with his parents and his older sister, Leda of Sleeping Beauty fame.
Not bad for a babe born on the 99th anniversary of the fatal collision of the Titanic and a north Atlantic iceberg.
You probably know that the young affianceds chose yesterday for their wedding day - not knowing it would coincide with the joyous Iggy homecoming - because it is the feast of St Catherine of Siena, and Kate’s christened name is Catherine. I have never thought of the British royal family as having any particular interest in or fondness for the saints, so this made me take a second look at the young couple.
I am wondering if the fact that St Catherine and her twin sister, who died soon after birth, were the youngest of 25 children, will influence their family planning. Will the fact that at the age of six St Catherine had her first mystical experience – a vision of Jesus sitting on an upholstered chair between Saints Peter and Paul - influence their philosophy of early childhood training? I will not even allude to the matter of the stigmata, and the possibilities for trauma.

Press releases from Buckingham Palace neglected to mention that April 29th is also the feast of the Martyrs of Corfu, a group of imprisoned murderers, thieves and perverts. While incarcerated they were converted by Saints Jason and Sosipater, who were also in prison, but for the crime of preaching. Once converted, the aspiring martyrs proclaimed their new faith and were thrown into boiling oil. In case you find yourself looking for a special name for that special infant, you might consider one of theirs: Faustianus, Euphrasius, Saturninus, Marsalius, Mammius, Iniscolus, and Januarius

Also unmentioned in the Buckingham Palace news flash was the delightful St Torpes of Pisa, about whom nothing is known other than his martyrdom in the time of Nero. This unfortunate lapse is remedied by various legends created around St Torpes or Tropez. One endearing version has him decapitated and his head thrown into the Arno. (It would later be recovered in Pisa.) His executioners placed his body in a boat with an ill-tempered rooster and a hungry dog, who were encouraged to feast on the headless corpse. If you have already guessed that the animals did not touch one morsel of the saint, you would be correct and you can promote yourself to Hagiography 102. Of course the boat with the saint’s body, the rooster and the dog floated all the way to what is now St. Tropez, named for him. This beautiful Riviera town is where I first learned to appreciate pink wine, where there is the most exquisite tiled fish market and where Brigitte Bardot maintains her right-wing Save My Favorite Pets Organization. All over St Tropez you can buy postcards of a reconstructed but still voluptuous BB reclining on her king-size bed surrounded by a menagerie.

One day perhaps the Igster and I will visit St Tropez - taking a break from our tour of the Cistercian monasteries of Provence - and we will drink pink wine in red chairs at the old port. I will tell him that he departed the hospital and went home on the feast of the patron saint of Saint Tropez, and then he will surprise me and even himself, and ask for more scurrilous details about this St Tropez and I will tell him, and his astute questions will reveal him to be a nascent hagiographer and that evening I will rewrite my will and bequeath to him my entire and vast collection of hagiographica, which will probably not be quite what he had in mind.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Welcome to Romania

For a long time the only things I knew about Romania were the following:
• In Romanian households there will be a cruet of chicken fat on the table, as a condiment. I know this because my little sister once went to Romania with her high school chorus for the purpose of singing popular prep school hymns to Romanians eager to hear such things. While visiting Romania, she was proposed to on six separate occasions; she received several offers to buy her blue jeans directly off her body; she drank Romanian champagne in a bathtub; and she experienced the culinary delights of chicken fat.
• When Ovid was banished in 8 AD for writing the scandalous Ars Amatoria, he was sent to Tomi, a half-barbaric outpost of the empire on the Black Sea; it would have been known as the Siberia of the Roman Empire, but the Romans were then unaware of the existence of Siberia. Later, Siberia would be referred to as the Tomi of Tsarist Russia. They didn’t even speak Latin in Tomi. The weather was wretched. It doesn’t bear thinking of the plumbing situation. Tomi is now the city of Constança, Romania.
• For a very long Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania, and for most of that time he was so unpopular that one can only wonder how he woke up each morning and looked at himself in the mirror. While it did not take long to execute him by firing squad on Christmas Day of 1989, it took a much longer time, many months, to topple, dismantle and remove all the statues and portraits of Ceaușescu that blighted the Transylvanian landscape like strip malls In Yosemite.
• Somewhere in Romania there must be a national School of Cosmetology & Discipline that produces the legions of sadistic cosmetologists who now ply their trade in America, which apparently is populated by thousands of unsuspecting women seeking facials.

That was the sum total of my Romanian knowledge until the other night, at the PEN World Voices Festival, when I heard the Romanian poet, Mircea Catarescu, read a poem about an obsession with Natalie wood. He read the poem in Romanian, so I only knew that it was about a Natalie Wood obsession because the translation was projected on a nearby screen. He could have been reading aloud a newsy Christmas letter or a report on his elevated cholesterol, and it would not have mattered much to me. That is how much I enjoyed the sound of Romanian. From the very sound of it, would I have known that Romanian is among the very first Romance languages to split off from Latin, that it is descended from Proto-Romanian and that on the Latin language tree it is lateral with Aromanian? Indubitably. About Aromanian, also called Vlach, I know somewhat less. Mostly, it is just like Romanian except that it has more Greek words. Nor would I have been able to distinguish that Romanian has preserved only three of the six Latin cases. Don’t ask which three.
How would I describe the sound of a Romanian poet reading his poem?
Closeted. Edible. Ancient. Secret. Underground Italian. Mushroomy. Like musical fifths.

I have since learned that Romania is a big supplier of edible mushrooms to Western Europe, also of snails.

Fungi perfecti

Theoretically, Leda was helping me pull weeds and clean winter debris from the garden out front. I was on a mission. Leda, on the other hand, was open to anything. Thus, it was she who espied the mushrooms hidden in plain sight among last autumn’s fallen leaves.
Sometimes in Sleeping Beauty they eat mushrooms, she said.
I don’t know that version, I said.
Nana, we can make mushroom pie now, she said.
Great idea, Leda.
I will make the pie and you can help. I am going to let you have all you want. And Chucker can have all he wants, she said generously.
What about your Mom & Dad? I asked.
I don't know if they will like it, She said.
More to the point, do you like mushroom pie? I said.
I probably won’t really eat it, she admitted.
We proudly took our basket of mushrooms inside. I climbed up the step-ladder to fetch the Mushroom Handbook and found, in the section on “Morels, Stinkhorns and Other Club-Shaped Mushrooms”: Yellow Morel, Morchella esculanta; Blond to yellow-brown, honey-combed cap on whitish stalk; Edibility: Choice. I was delighted. Leda and I once again congratulated ourselves on our brilliant find, right in front of our noses. But just to be on the safe side, I emailed a picture (see below) to our friend Tom, an amateur mycologist who graciously continues to identify whatever fungi I bring home from our rambles, and thus far he has not lost patience. He wrote back that to say they were probably the Half-free Morel, Morchella semilibera. (Yellow-brown, skirtlike, honeycombed cap on whitish stalk; Edibility: Good.)Or more likely the wrinkled Thimble-cap, Verpa Bohemica; Yellow-brown, wrinkled, thimblelike cap on whitish stalk; Edibility: Edible with caution.
Caution is not a word I like attached to food I intend to feed to my family.
Early the next morning, I found a package on our front porch. Inside were beautiful Black morels, Morchella elata, the real thing. I will cook them this evening with freshly-laid eggs, and throw caution to the winds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Morning

I tend to wake up slowly. Except when I lurch from the bed as if electrocuted. This morning was no different. Half asleep, or clinging to sleep, with eyes shut, I told CSB about yet another fascinating dream. This one took place in Mongolia, involved my sister-in-law’s braids, a girl on a large hairy horse, the Falkland Islands and a complicated situation that could only be solved by distracting my mother with questions about fenestration.
Then I really woke up, which is to say I opened my eyes. I could see but not very well because I had not yet located my glasses.
I said to CSB: Did I tell you my dream?
He said: No.
I said: It was in Mongolia.
He said: And you pulled Fritz’s braids and the horse’s head was tiny.
I said: How do you know that?
He said: I just do.
I said: Is the paper here yet?
He said: No.
I said: What are you reading?
He said: The paper.
I said: I get it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

He’s born, and he has a name.

The matter of names – THE name – was finally decided, and not a moment too soon. On the evening of April 13th, pregnant daughter and son-in-law agreed on a name; they harmonized on that momentous issue, that bone of contention that had delivered such amusement to we bystanders and caused not a little angst for the vested participants.
Some of us shall prolong the conversation as we examine the importance of names, the importance given names by cultures and religions and pregnant parents. How much does a name matter? Would you be the same person had you been otherwise named? Had you a name more or less easily pronounced, or more or less easily spelled, how would you be different? Because of course you would be different. If a butterfly’s flutter in Mombasa can spark a hurricane in Tegucigalpa, then surely the fact that you have gone through life correcting the universal misspelling of your name has an impact on your personality. How are you shaped by bearing the name of a great leader, a famous ecdysiast, serial killer or sword swallower? The fact that I share a name with a saint who was thrown into the lake with a millstone around her neck, or another saint who crawled into ovens and levitated at her own funeral, surely has impacted my serene and rational self.
So what do we make of Ignatius, for that is to be his name? And of Iggy, his pre-designated nickname? Yes, the night before he was born his parents finally decided that should they have a boy – and they have a boy – they would name him Ignatius and they would call him Iggy.
I never could have predicted this.
Reine and Michael are not hagiographers – but Reine does associate Ignatius with the Jesuits, and to the extent that they represent the intellectual and cerebral (not to mention militant) aspect of Catholicism, she approves.
But he is not named for St Ignatius of Loyola, the 12th child of Spanish nobles. In his early manhood, Ignacio was indeed a valiant soldier. It was not until he was struck by a cannonball on that leg, and spent his convalescence reading two books - The Golden Legend *(Lives of the Saints) & the life of Christ - that he turned his life towards holiness. As soon as he recovered, he took a vow of chastity, hung up his sword, put on a pilgrim’s robes and went to live in a cave for a year. From there on he was a dynamo of saintly energy, converting the Muslims in the Holy Land, having visions, and founding the Society of Jesus.
Nor was he named for St Ignatius, a first century theologian who succeeded Peter as the Bishop of Antioch and was thrown to ravenous wild beasts for his beliefs.
And I very much doubt my grandson was named for Blessed Ignazio Maloyan, an Armenian who was sent to be a parish priest in Alexandria and Cairo, and then a Bishop in Armenian Turkey. He was shot by Turkish soldiers in 1915, and we are told that for three days after his death his body radiated a golden celestial light.
I can tell you that as of now he will be very Google-able.
A Google search and a Facebook search indicate that there is not yet a single Ignatius B…. in the cyber-sphere.
Further research tells us that the popularity of Ignatius as a boy's name peaked in 1900 when it was 600th on the chart. It now is not on the chart at all.
Anecdotally and personally, though, I know that Ignacio is not at all uncommon in Latin America, and I know (of) at least two Ignacios in Nicaragua (called Nacho), one in Bolivia and three in Costa Rica.
I particularly like the idea of Ignacio pronounced with a Castilian lisp, and I have been practicing.

Welcome to the world, Ignatius Schein Richardson Brownstein, born April 14th around 11 a.m., weighing in at 5 pounds 6 ounces.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Are you aware of the difficulty of coming up with a suitably hip but still meaningful name for a soon-to-be-born baby when you live in Brooklyn, where the most ordinary pre-K class includes Max, Liam, Wilfred who prefers to be called Frog, Grayce with a Y, Ella, Sadie, Luther, two Naomis, Quinn, Toby, Ruby, Ahikara, George, Henry and Elias?
Let me assure you of the difficulty, especially when it is compounded by the fact that both parents are inclined to choose family names, but obscure and relatively distant family names.
On one side the obscure and relatively distant family names, such as Schlomo, Moises, Gavril and Adi, hark back to the Polish rabbinate. On the other side we find French names such as Raoul, Constant, Clement, Armand, Arnould, Hippolyte, Jehan, Bardin and Louis. On that same side we also have WASPy names. Basically the same 4 names (Charles, Jeffrey, Richardson and Winthrop) have been used for about ten generations, which results in lots of juniors, thirds and confusion.
And have I mentioned that both parents are opinionated, stubborn and determined?
The first order of business is rejecting names, for all the usual reasons. She knew someone in high school named Constantine. Nix Constant. He played tennis against a Bartholomew who was notorious for foot-faults. Any kid named Hippolyte would be called Hippo, and never survive kindergarten.
She liked the names of German artists, such as Dieter or Gerhard or Kiefer (for Anselm, not Sutherland). His grandmother would be profoundly unhappy with a German name.
What’s wrong with Anselm, I wonder? He was a great 11th century theologian who fought corruption in the church and opposed slavery. He is also a saint, but I won’t mention that to the parents in question.
Aldous (as in Huxley) was mooted for a while, then rejected, but I don’t know if the rejection was based on literary criticism or dissonance.
I have suggested the following for consideration: Aloysius, Sebastian, Benedict, Horace, Buckminster, Linus, Maurice, and Phineas. Around the holidays I put forth: Melchior, Balthazar or Casper. Casper got some traction. But then was tossed on the basis of the Friendly Ghost association. My argument is that every name has some association for somebody, and for that reason all such associations should be discounted. Except when they are not.
CSB fixated on Atom for almost a week.
Last night I had what I considered to be a brainstorm: Rainer. Or Rilke.
She liked it. He does not. And so it goes.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another myster solved, sort of

Yes it is true. Or not true, depending on what you thought. St DIGITassa of PHALANGEville* is no more apocryphal than so many other saints whose stories I have related, and no less so. That is to say, I made her up on the occasion of April First.

I could become very fond of her, and perhaps she will catch on in hagiographic circles.

*As one of my sharper readers pointed out: Phalangeville? A town named after a finger bone??

Friday, April 1, 2011

I have been trying to keep my hagiographic divagations to a minimum, but I cannot resist telling you about a certain saint whose feast we celebrate today. St Digitassa of Phalangeville experienced a very ordinary youth, ordinary for the child of 14th century traveling acrobats. She was uneducated, promiscuous and triple-jointed. She could tumble before she could walk, and by the time she was eleven she was performing multiple contortions balanced atop a phallus-shaped pillar. (Apparently in the 14th century traveling acrobats were expected to be bawdy, and there were no regulations about child pornography.)
Because of her talents, the nubile Digitassa generated a decent income for her parents. She was actively discouraged from seeking any other way of life. But even so, she was drawn to holiness, and the Blessed Virgin Mary in particular. She regularly disappeared from the family caravan and snuck into local churches, where she was entranced by the statues and stained glass windows. In her religious fervor she unconsciously bit her fingernails and even her cuticles, and when there was absolutely nothing left for her to chew on, she bit her toenails. Because she was triple-jointed, this was extremely easy for her, so easy that she was unaware of the spectacle she made in church.
One day in the tiny village of Phalangeville in the Ardennes she was rapturously nibbling her toenails in a dim corner of the Chapel of St Wandrille when the Abbé noticed her unusual behavior. He immediately reviled young Digitassa for desecrating the house of God and threw her out into the muddy square, forbidding her from ever entering the church again. She was bereft. She looked at her hands and feet and realized that all her fingers and toes were bleeding, and she swore at that moment that she would spend the rest of her life atoning for her misspent youth* and blasphemous behavior in the church. She stopped a beggar-woman on the square and traded clothes with her: the beggar-woman was happy to walk away with Digitassa’s brightly colored, form-fitting attire, and Digitassa trudged away in layers of ragged filthy skirts, dragging her bleeding toes in the mud.
And Digitassa did indeed spend her few remaining years going from village to village, in a kind of sanctified mirroring of her earlier wandering days, but this time everywhere she went she displayed her scarred fingers and toes to warn the people of the evils of acrobatics and nail-biting. In 1313 she had wandered back to Phalangeville, the scene of her conversion. After displaying her hideous fingers to the populace, she walked outside the village and fell asleep under a tree. She never woke up. When a young shepherd found her body the next morning, all her fingers and toes had been restored to perfection. He ran to town announcing the miracle, and since that day the shrine of St Digitassa has attracted manicurists from all over Christendom to Phalangeville, where they can view the preserved body of the saint inside the very chapel she was once ejected from.

* and you regular readers of SQD are surely well-aware of my devotion to saints with misspent youths.