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What, More Saints?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

Storm rolls over Venice.

Some things I've learned here in Italy:

1) No one does TV as well as Americans do. It's not even close. We are the living gods of TV.

2) No one does cellphones as poorly as Americans do -- at least until the arrival of the iPhone. We'll see about that when I get home.

3) Yeah, the Renaissance was a . . . um, rebirth . . . of western civilization. But goddamn, do you think we have about enough paintings of Jesus? Renaissance painting worked off a very limited menu: a) Bible, b) Mythology, c) Rich guys. Did no one ever open a fucking window and think, "hey, how about a painting of some sunflowers? How about a starry night?" No. Centuries passed during which every discussion with an artist went like this: "I'd like a suffering Jesus with six cherubs, one Centaur fucking a virgin, and me looking thoughtful in low light and scratchy clothes. What? That'll run me eighteen gold pieces? Whoa. Okay, gimme Jesus with a halo and three cherubs, and maybe the Centaur and the virgin are just cuddling."

4) Here's every day at a Renaissance era framing shop: "Um, you know what? I think I'm gonna go with the gilt."

5) Here's every Renaissance-era interior decorator: "I'm seeing dark, heavy fabrics and a sort of lightless, gloomy, black hole kind of thing. In fact, let's see if by using wallpaper, tapestries, hammered gold and muddy paintings we can trap every last stray photon. I want no light in here, people! No light at all!"

6) The French can bitch about American commercialization. The Italians? Nah. Venice and Florence can throw down with Disney itself in terms of squeezing every last crap souvenir dollar out of the suckers. Disney marketers see Venice and despair. Their only ride is a fucking row boat and yet they've managed to turn the entire city into a souvenir stand.

7) Italians plumbers have signed a secret pact that forbids them ever to install a shower unless it sprays at least 25% of the water onto the floor.

8) Americans have gotten to be very good at hotels. Show me the European hotel thats better than the big three in Chicago. (Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Peninsula.)

9) Thirty years ago when an American didn't like a meal at an Italian restaurant it was because he was an ignorant nitwit who didn't know anything but Velveeta, vanilla wafers and corn on the cob. Now it's because he's getting better food in the average American mall than you'll find in one of the tourist restaurants in an Italian city. Hey, amici: time to elevate your game, we know when you're serving us shit.

10) No one in the entire United States of America -- counting all the Starbucks, Caribous, Peets, and trendy New York restaurants -- can squeeze out an espresso as good as an anonymous, autostrada rest-stop AutoGrill, let alone what they pour at a good restaurant.

11) Dear Italy: I love you guys, I really do, but thirty fucking signs stacked one on top of the other? When we're all doing 140 kph? Really? That makes sense to you?

12) Italians do public toilets so much better than the French. Better than the Americans, too. 90% of Italian toilets have been clean. 90% of American toilets -- and I'm including you, McDonald's -- reek. There's still about a 5% squat-toilet rate but I'm hard at work on a convenient portable conversion kit: toilet seat and porcelain drill that will fit in a backpack.

13) A grown man who wears capri pants has surrendered the legal right to file charges in the event that he's beaten up.

14) At the Duomo they make women wear a sort of blue paper poncho if their shoulders are bare. Evidently God is offended by bare shoulders. He's okay with overly-ambitious boob jobs and thin white slacks over black thong underwear, but He's not fond of the shoulders. The Lord has mysterious tastes in clothing.

15) Only one nation's citizens are so insecure, so pitifully needy they feel they have to announce their identity with prominent displays of their national symbol. No, not Norwegians, although they are indistinguishable from Swedes. Not Belgians, even though their country is so small they're lumped in with Luxembourg. Not even Slovenians who for all anyone knows are actually Slovakians. The answer is of course, Canadians. "We're not Americans, eh." No, you're not Americans. You're whatever a person is who is chiefly defined by what he's not. (Cough-pussies-cough-cough.)

16) White cowboy boots on women with shorts? And you're giving us shit about t-shirts and jeans?

17) You know your two car garage? An Italian could park nine cars, two trucks and twenty-three motorcycles in there.

18) Does no one have the sac to tell the Venetians that the Basilica di San Marco is tacky? It had to have been built by subscription. "For ten grand we stick a statue on the roof, for twenty-five you get a portico. Your choice of marble, any color you like. Okay, any nine colors you like"

19) And yet, goddamn is Venice beautiful. It's one of these places where you already know exactly what to expect, no surprises, nothing but cliches, you've already seen the pictures and yet, it gets you.

20) I've encountered not a scintilla, not a hint, not a suggestion of Anti-Americanism. There's not an Italian alive who doesn't know what I am at first sight. And not an Italian I've encountered who has been anything less than gracious. So if you're thinking of coming, don't pretend to be a Canadian. Be what you are. Just don't wear capri pants.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

Well, there's a portentous post title, eh?

My sister died on Saturday. Here's how I heard about it: I was walking down Via Independenzia in Bologna, Italy with my family. We were just outside the Nutelleria. My shitty Cingular phone rang and of course I couldn't hear the caller. So I caught up to my wife and borrowed her phone and dialed while she and the kids went off to enjoy Nutella crepes, nutella gelato, nutella triangulato, nutella pizza, and no doubt some form of nutella pasta.

There was a Hare Krishna bunch, gaggle, crew, gang, whatever the fuck they call themselves the silly, narcissistic twits, and they were chanting too loudly for me to hear the phone very well. But anyway, my sister T. said, "Michelle, died."

This was not a bolt from the blue. Michelle had cancer. Several different subspecies of cancer, but it was the lung cancer that got her, I guess. She was 48. I think. I can barely keep track of my own age. It's bad enough that a person should be dying at age 48. But Michelle died leaving a 3 year-old daughter. And that . . . let's see if we can come up with the appropriately profound phrase . . . well, it's fucked up.

Her father, our father, is still alive, and that's fucked up as well because no father wants to live to see one of his children die. That may be one of the practical definitions of a father: would rather die than see his kid die. I'd rather carve my own heart out with a trowel than see one of my kids die. You think that's exaggeration for effect? Then you're no one's daddy.

But I haven't really been thinking about my kids coming off this, I've been thinking about my own death. I've given it some thought and done some research and my best guess is that I'm looking at approximately a 100% chance of dying.

I don't think I've ever been afraid of dying. Death is that magic line that once you cross it you have nothing left to be afraid of. Over here, fear. Over there, no fear. Of course no Nutella, either.

I have no hope (or fear) that I will discover an afterlife. I find that comforting. I like that the end of the story is really the end of the story. Please don't tell me that after I die they cut off my balls, lobotomize the evil from my brain, turn me into some hosanna singing zombie-for-Jesus and trap me in an eternity of whatever hideous form of "happiness" is possible under those circumstances.

"Gosh, that's sweet of you to let me in, Saint Peter, and really, no offense to you or the cherubs, but could I just die?"

What bothers me about death is the getting there. The old bullet-in-the-brain isn't too much of a problem: one minute there you are eating onion rings and the next minute you're staring at ten seconds of dead (heh) air and rolling the credits.*

But the odds being what they are, and medical science being what it is, and with society weighed down as it is by an idiot's-eye-view of "the sanctity of life," the likelihood is that my death, like my sister's, will be a long, dragged out, confusing, humiliating, impoverishing, exhausting experience that will leave me, along with everyone else, thinking: die, already.

"What are my chances, doctor?"

"Oh, you're fucked. You couldn't be any more fucked. But we're never going to tell you that because first, before we let you die, we're going to poison the shit out of you, slice you up like a fucking Thanksgiving bird, stick tubes wherever we can find or cut an opening, make sure that the lasting image your wife and children have of you is as a helpless guinea pig, and finally, take all your money. Then, and only then, can you die."

"Can't I just get my stuff organized, say 'good-bye' and take a massive hit of morphine on a morning of my choosing?"

"Of course not: that would show contempt for the sanctity of life. Not to mention contempt for my need for a sumer home."

I guess Michelle "fought bravely." That stupid locution. No doubt I'll "fight bravely." I certainly wouldn't want to die with the whispered accusations of cowardice following me to my grave. "He fought, sure, but not bravely." Or, "You know, he didn't so much 'fight' as he laid there in a morphine haze watching Simpsons reruns on TV until he fell asleep and never woke up."

If we all just "fight bravely" why the enemy, the Big D, will be pushed back and soon, in some rosy, not-too-distant future, the odds of death will go from the current unacceptably high number of 100% to . . . Hmmm.

Wait a minute. So, let me get this straight: if we all of us fight bravely we'll all die. And if we snivel and squirm and beg for a reprieve, we'll all die.

I know, I'm being facetious. I know the point is to lengthen the human lifespan. First thing to do? Stop taking risks. Don't drink, smoke, eat, fornicate, drive, fly, swim or lie out in the sun. Then you can live! Live, I say! Instead of dying a miserable prolonged death at an average age of 75, you may be able to die a miserable, prolonged death at an average age of 78. And won't you feel a lot better about your miserable, prolonged death then?

I'm in Venice, as I write this. We're in Italy deciding if we want to spend a couple of years abroad. We looked at Rome (noisy, cramped and dirty); Bologna, (nice, but only nice); Venice (beautiful, unique, but very limited school options); and of course, Florence.

Tomorrow we head back to Florence. Decision made. We'll move at the end of the upcoming school year.

Life is short. Always has been, and no matter what the hell we do, it always will be. There will always be things you didn't get done that you wanted to do. My sister was never a happy person. She died full of cancer and regrets. Well, the cancer may get me some day, but the regrets won't. If I dropped dead tomorrow I would think I'd had a very good life. Excellent roller coaster. Good story. That was neat, even the bad parts. Cool, man, very cool.

I set out intending to write about Michelle and ended up writing about myself, instead. (Well, no big surprise there, my more cynical and knowing readers will snark.) But the fact is Michelle is dead, and I'm alive, and life as they say, is for the living. Sooner or later that'll be my ashes in a little box. And when it is my kids, hopefully, will still be living. So, advice to the kids upon my own death: don't be afraid of dying. Live your life so that whenever it ends you can look back and say, "All right: that was cool."

*Not an official endorsement of that Sopranos theory.

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