Author Archive for Constantine von Hoffman


Things you wish you said

Image“Who’s the mother?” — Homer Bigart, renowned war correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, on learning that Marguerite Higgins, The Herald Tribune’s other equally renowned war correspondent, was pregnant.

In case you hadn’t guessed, they did not get along. This did not stop them from winning a Pulitzer Prize together for their coverage of the Korean War. Bigart later wrote of Higgins,

“When I came out I thought I was the premier war correspondent and I thought that she, being the Tokyo correspondent, ought to be back in Toyko. But she didn’t see things that way. She was a very brave person, foolishly brave. As a result, I felt as though I had to go out and get shot at occasionally myself. So I resented that.”


Notes on the care and feeding of media frenzies

ImageToday we got to see a frenzy in full force. CNN, citing various official sources, claimed there had been an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing. The Boston Globe, citing CNN, re-iterated the same. The AP, citing G-d knows what because I didn’t read their story, claimed an arrest was imminent. Then the national news outlets got in on the job and it was too late; anything even resembling a fact was going to die a lonely, forgotten death. TV news trucks and serious looking reporters littered the streets of Boston, making it even more impossible than usual to find a parking spot. Or, as our good friend Spike Milligan wrote, “Nothing happened but it happened frequently.”

On the plus side, we did get some humor out of the whole thing:

And even as I write this another frenzy is in the offing, “RT @JesseRodriguez: NBC’s Pete Williams: Arrest made in potential ricin letters case.” The media has the institutional memory of a mayfly on crystal meth. (I should have known better than to doubt Pete Williams. That’s like doubting the sun will rise.)

My lone experience on the inside of one of these things was in 1989, proving you don’t need twitter or even email to start a stampede. I was working as a news copy editor at The Boston Herald. If anyone asked I told them I was responsible for removing polysyllabic words from the paper — which was close to the truth. On October 24, an alleged human named Charles Stuart had shot and killed his pregnant wife while driving in a car in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, he then shot himself in the abdomen and called the police claiming to be the victim of a carjacking.
Whatever else you say about Stuart he knew how to play an audience. The media went from 0 to full bat-shit crazy in the blink of a deadline. The national networks and newspapers parachuted so many people into Boston it felt like we were in France the night before D-Day.
Stuart claimed the perpetrator was a dark-skinned male between 20 and 30 wearing a red jumpsuit. Guess what the predominant skin tone was of the Mission Hill population? The Boston Police snapped into action and rounded up the usual suspects who, based on Stuart’s description, included at least 50 percent of Boston’s male African-Americans. In December the police arrested one Willie Bennett who, to no one’s surprise, fit the description — as did the members of Run-DMC and a significant portion of the New England Patriots’ defense. None of this prevented Stuart from identifying Bennett during a police line up. Mike Barnicle, then of the Boston Globe, wrote that the police had “covered themselves in glory” in their handling of the case. He was not being ironic.
And that sent the bat-shit crazy (BSC) through the sound barrier. There was no rumor so unsubstantiated that it would not make page 1 of any paper or the first story in any broadcast. The editors  were clamoring for anything they could use as an excuse to make it look like they had more information and they got it. My boss at the Herald, the late great Norm Gray, said all the coverage should be nominated for a Pulitzer — in fiction. Sadly, he was not in charge of the paper.
Oddly the case against Bennett fell apart quite quickly. This was mostly because Stuart’s brother Matthew came forward and told the police that he had been in on the whole thing and had tossed the murder weapon from the Pines River Bridge. Charles, perhaps knowing a good idea when he saw it, jumped off the Tobin Bridge the next day. No tears were shed.
Here’s how to tell that a story has entered the BSC zone: The Wall Street Journal starts reporting on a local crime story. The WSJ is a fine paper that covers business very well and that’s what they should stick to. In the Stuart case and now in the Marathon Bombing case they just get stuff wrong. Love ya, guys and gals but there are some sandboxes you really shouldn’t play in.

Celebrating life at death

At most funerals I hear the phrase “celebrate the life of,” yesterday at the funeral for my friend Willie W. was the first time I actually saw it happen.

Like Willie himself this was because of a rare confluence of things.

First, I think it was because of Willie’s spirit and the amazing assortment of people who he cared for and who cared for him. Willie and I were not close friends despite knowing each other for about 20 years. We belonged to the same faith-based assistance group and saw each other in church basements on a regular basis. I liked him a lot and admired him and talked to him but we didn’t hang out together other than that. What I admire about Willie was he accepted people as they were. He didn’t seem to suffer from my own fear of what others might think that sometimes keeps me separate from my fellows. If he did suffer it — and he was human, so it was likely sometimes he did — he didn’t let it stop him from being friendly and welcoming. Willie’s smile always made me feel like I could just tell him whatever was on my mind or in my heart. From what I saw of how other people responded too him, I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Before the start of the Mass, the family invited people to say a few words about Willie and everyone of us mentioned how he made us feel welcome and how he was always going out of his way to help others. One man who spoke said he didn’t know Willie that well but did know his son and that showed him what an amazing person Willie was because of the family he helped raise.

Second was the community of the church where the funeral was held. Willie was a long-time parishioner at St. Mary of the Angels, a Catholic church in Roxbury. As a result, the priest — Fr. Jack — actually knew Willie and could speak from his own experience about him. This was also true for the other clergy and laypeople of the church. So this was not a funeral held in a church, but a church community holding a funeral. Also, the St. Mary’s community is much more ebullient than many I’ve seen. In part this is because they are mostly African-American and have a tradition of  openly expressing their passion for their faith. However I know that is not the only reason. My formative religious experiences were in a mostly caucasian Charismatic/Evangelical/Pentacostal Catholic community, where people also felt free to shout, sing and raise their voices at times other than those merely required for responsorial reasons. Because of that I’ve always found quiet congregations odd or at least uninteresting. Many people I know (myself included) will happily shout with enthusiasm for a sport even on TV but will sit quietly when they attempt to face God.

Third was the celebrants. Fr. Jack, the lead priest, went out of his way to welcome and make people comfortable with the service. Before it began he noted that it was likely there Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists there and explained the different parts of the Mass in terms that emphasized the common ground for all of us. He talked about the liturgy being stories and lessons and wisdom which might have made it easier for people of different backgrounds to listen to them without feeling like they were being — forgive me — preached at. His co-celebrant was Fr. Pat, who was deaf and both spoke and signed his parts of the Mass. He spoke as many of the deaf do in a way that is not as certainly enunciated as the hearing can but this just seemed to add an intensity to his speaking. When he both spoke and signed “the Word of God” it came across as much more immediate than I had ever heard from someone who wasn’t hearing impaired.

While this was a well-planned funeral, the best parts could not have been planned — they just were.


Taking my son to The Holocaust

The Buddha’s parents tried to shield their son from all the evils of the world. I know exactly how they felt.

My son is 12 and he already knows that history is filled with ugly bits. I walked him across the field where Pickett’s Charge took place and tried to get him to imagine what it was like to be under fire the whole way, watching your friends be hit and hoping you weren’t next. He knows about persecutions – of the Indians, of the Blacks, the Irish, the Jews, and everyone else. We have talked about war and poverty and starvation and cancer and homelessness and slavery. He already has a heart that leaps to defend others who are being picked on, even as it is hesitant to defend himself.

Mostly he has known about the ugly bits as a general concept, not a specific incident. Through 6th grade that’s how history gets taught in school. There was a lot of emphasis on heroes and heroines – he wrote a report and acted the part of Louis Braille in 4th grade. Once you hit 7th grade, though, it’s time for the real stuff to be known. The first novel assigned this year was about a black child growing up in the South in the ‘30s. The second one was about a Jewish child growing up in Germany at the same time. Then, thankfully, came Tom Sawyer. But another teacher assigned a research paper. The holocaust – any aspect of it or just a general overview. Because of his friends and his family he chooses to write about the pink triangles – homosexuals in the concentration camps.

History in general and World War II in particular are things I’ve studied a lot (mom is the one to turn to for math or languages). So I pull out a general history of the war that has a brief but solid overview and then we go to the library and get some more books. That’s enough to do for now. I don’t tell him to start reading. We bring them home and they sit there. Then today he starts the reading sitting at the kitchen table. Him concentrating on the big book and me painting little toys but mostly ready to answer any questions.

“The first camp is Dachau. … Yes, Auschwitz is another. … Look a picture showing all the different colored triangles, that might be good for an illustration.” Then a pause and without really looking up from the small figure I’m painting I say, “I hate that you have to study this. Almost as much as I hate that it happened.” Even as I say it I know it isn’t “correct” but it is true. I should have the phrases reversed. I should hate the murder of millions the most but I am a father and that is not how I feel. A little later I tell him we will watch a comedy tonight and we both know this is not an optional activity, not if he is going to get to sleep.

I am not glad he is being taught this piece of history even though I know it is essential he learn it. Anne Frank. The ovens. The showers. Everyone has to know this – even if it’s another version featuring Stalin or Pol Pot or any of the others who did the same things. I watch his face as he reads and looks at the photographs. I see a little bit of it start to sink in because no one can ever take it all in at once. At that moment I don’t want him to know at all. I want to keep him in a world of StarFox and Darth Vader and grandparents who show up unexpectedly to take you out for pancakes.

I cannot shelter my son from the world and I cannot turn him into the Buddha. But, oh, how I want to.


What I believe

I got tagged in game of blog meme by my friend Pam Phillips. It’s a simple enough meme: What are five things you believe? (Pam had tagged me at CollateralDamage but I decided to move the response here to my irony-free zone.)

I believe:

  1. I’ve had enough to drink
  2. in God as I do not understand God
  3. form is emptiness, emptiness is form
  4. art is essential
  5. in everyone’s absolute right not to believe

OK, now I have to pick five folks. First is easy: Jennifer. Then … hmmm … Andrew, Rob, Churbuck and Forbes. Have at it gang.


Going back to church, part 1

About a month ago the church on the corner had a bless-the-animals ceremony. I went, along with my wife and son and Roxxy, the explicit beneficiary of the service. It was held outdoors on a sunny Sunday. Many people brought pictures of their pets — living and deceased. Only one other actual pet was in attendance, a fine old black-haired mutt named Ralph who is roughly five times the size of our Pug and considerably older. He had that fine white around the eyes and muzzle that tells you you are in the company of a dog who has seen quite a bit.

Much to my own surprise I have gone back several times since then and have felt a distinct pang on those Sundays when family scheduling forced me to miss services.

While I have spent a fair amount of time in church basements at various community meetings, I hadn’t been upstairs during a church’s prime hours of operation in many years. My last regular attendance ended 33 or so years ago. I was raised nominally Roman Catholic — which meant going on Easter and Christmas. Until junior high school when my mother and I moved into a charismatic Catholic parishSt. Patrick’s Word of God — in Providence, RI.

We moved there because it was the best school my mother could find for me, not because of any particular fervent faith. My mother — Irish Catholic — had been a regular church goer until sometime in the 50s or maybe even the 1960s. But by the late 1960s I can’t remember anything more than that nominal attendance at services. It was quite confusing to suddenly be part of this community of people so fervent in their beliefs. We started going to Mass every week and the services themselves weren’t like what I slightly remembered. They seemed much longer, with people reading from the bible at times and, after communion, speaking in tongues. That was my favorite part. It was a harmonious discord, very like listening to an orchestra tune up. It went on for a while until the Holy Spirit had given up the ghost in the last person It had inhabited and then quiet returned and the services continued.

I hadn’t really thought much about God in any manifestation prior to this. It was a concept that would get kicked around now and then by me and my friends. We weren’t particularly theologically minded. God was a topic that was discussed with far less passion than say whether you like Marvel or DC comics. (I was a Marvel kid).  When it did come up it mostly seemed to consist of conversations like, “What do you think?” “I dunno but there’s gotta be, right?” “I dunno.” Things would go flat after that. This was never a problem I had when it came to the truly important debate: Who is stronger, Hulk or Superman?

So St. Pat’s was really my first extended exposure to either God or religion (the two were the same in my mind then).

We had to read the Bible a lot at St. Pat’s. I liked to read and wouldn’t have minded so much had it not been so badly written and horribly illustrated. The Bible they equipped us with was The Good News For Modern Man edition which was au currant in the early 1970s. The translation is very prosaic and seems to think that the way to connect with people is through the most stripped down writing imaginable. What truly baffled me about the four gospels was why there were four of them when they all sounded exactly the same. (And yes, this is actually what I thought in 6th grade. Precocious doesn’t begin to describe me.) The illustrations were all these simplified line drawings that were as plain and flat as the prose. I learned to read from comic books and was in awe of artists like Jack Kirby who could make characters that indeed looked like gods if not God. It is hard for a drawing like this to inspire awe in a child who has seen Galactus poised to destroy the earth in four colors.

I am the child of writers and the grand child of painters and architects. I noticed all these things even then. The greatest sin to me as a child was being boring. And the Bible, such as I knew it, was guilty. It didn’t help that we only read the New Testament and the most boring parts of the Old. I loved history and battles and the Bible is certainly filled with that. However I don’t remember even getting to read that. Just more and more about getting nailed to a cross and the like. It was bloody, but not the explosions or sword fight type of bloody that I wanted.

Being a kid like many others in some respects I tried to get into the swing of things. I would concentrate and try to hear the voice inside me. When people read from the Bible I would listen … at least until I got bored. My previous religious education was so spotty that I didn’t know I was supposed to say “Amen” before the priest gave me communion. On several occasions the priest and I would just stare at each other, he with the Host in his hand and me with cluelessness in my mind. After a while he would give in and give me the wafer which did indeed taste like paper.

I remember one time at a small prayer service for all of us in the 6th grade saying I felt a presence. A hand on my shoulder. I do not know now if I actually felt it or if I was just trying to fit in. Now I want to say I felt something but at earlier times in my life I just as much wanted to say that I was just trying to fit in. I do not trust either memory.

That said I never connected with Jesus. I could go along with the idea of God — something created everything was (and is) my thinking — but Christ seemed a little far fetched for me. I honestly asked that question for a brief while until the sneer of adolescence made it impossible to give any answer that wouldn’t discomfit my teachers and the priests.


Me, God and the dog

Friday morning I had a severe case of angst.

  • over my professional life — after being unemployed I seem to be creating my own little business in a freelance mode and it scares me
  • over being on the cusp of 46 — as a friend of mine put it, “your 50s are easier than your 40s not because things improve but because you no longer view your body’s failings as an insult.”
  • over my kid about to start at a new school where his homeroom will have 4 times as many kids as the graduating class at his last school
  • over my kid being on the cusp of teen-hood
  • over all the things I felt inadequate about at that particular moment

I am well aware these are a priveleged person’s issues. I was not concerned about food, water, shelter, health, impending invasions, storms, droughts, plagues of locusts, what to wear to the Oscars or any of the sundry other real issues that many folks have to deal with on a daily basis.

Still I was angsting. Discomfited in my soul. At the time I was walking the dog. We were in the park and she was off the leash so I just took a moment, closed my eyes and asked for help. A bit of a prayer. A request for a little relief from what I suspect was an overly sensitive case of self-obsession. Maybe a hint as to what I should do next to get rid of this feeling like sand-paper was being rubbed upon my psyche.

I closed my eyes for a second or two and that was enough. For when I opened them what did I see but the dog. Taking a dump. I knew then what to do. Clean up after the dog. Then continue to walk the dog home. A simple direction. Certainly not a glorious one nor — for many — a profound one. But it was enough. I had a sense of purpose for the moment and that was enough. I cleaned up after the dog and felt better.


The Ministry of Culture is a blog (duh!) about whatever interests me, a professional journalist. It looks at current events, culture -- rock & roll, literature, roller derby, opera, comedy -- military history and whatever else crosses my path. All opinions are my own.


curseyoukhan (AT) gmail dot ...

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Books I’ve read recently