Thursday, March 28, 2019

My Husband Won't Fit - a review

Only in Japan. 

For many of my years in Japan, that was one of my favorite games to play with other expats, as a way of processing the odd juxtapositions of things we encountered on a daily basis on a scale from surprising and incomprehensible to shocking and bizarre, things that would crop up in the course of a day in Japan that we thought would be out of place elsewhere. In fact, early on, sometime in the first of my 24 years there, when I was having a particularly hard time dealing with all the things I couldn’t make sense of, a friend said to me, “You know what your trouble is? You’ve never cultivated your appreciation of the absurd.” 

It was a magic moment. The next day I went out, saw something that didn’t compute, marked it as “absurd” and moved on. As the years went by, and my outsider perspective morphed into more of an insider perspective, I found less to comment on, of course, but to this day I still find myself saying with some frequency, “Only in Japan.”

I remember a conversation a couple of decades later that I had with the translator of Takeo Doi’s The Anatomy of Dependence, a book which touted itself as the “key analysis of Japanese behavior.” The trouble with Doi, I argued, is that he talks of Japan as if it were unique. But all cultures are unique!”

“Maybe so,” said my conversation partner, “but Japan is uniquely unique!”

I’ve left the academic world behind, and with it a primary interest in Japanese culture, but every once in a while something comes up which pulls me back into the swim. Such an experience hit the other day when I launched into my latest Netflix binge.

It’s a Japanese made-for-television ten-episode drama starring Natsumi Ishibashi and Aoi Nakamura. Subtitles are available in Spanish, Chinese and English. The Spanish title is Tenemos Un Gran Problema (We Have A Big Problem). The English title is My Husband Won’t Fit. The Japanese title is 夫のちんぽが入らない (Otto no chinpo ga hairanai - My Husband’s Cock Doesn’t Go In).

The protagonists are a boy and a girl – she’s a freshman, he’s a sophomore – who meet while she’s moving into a room ready to start college. He lives next door and barges into her life. In no time they’re sleeping together, but without the happy ending.

The problem is evidently some form of dyapareunia, possibly vaginismus, an inability of the vagina to open properly and function without pain. After repeated attempts to storm the ramparts, they give up, realize they very much love each other, and decide to live out a happy married life without penetrative sex.

Not exactly I Love Lucy.

Lest you think I mistranslated the Japanese title, I didn’t. There are several words in Japanese equivalent to “penis,” including “penis.” And “chinpo” isn’t one of them. “Chinpo” definitely means “cock, dick, prick, pecker, peter, willy or shlong” but not “penis.” The use of the word in a movie title is as shocking as it would be in English.

I’m finding myself back in the days when certain things related to Japan used to drive me up a tree. One of them is the character of Kumi, the female of the couple. The other is Kenichi, the male of the couple. He’s sweet, kindly, and uninformed. She’s vapid, clueless, and pathologically passive.

The world divides itself into two kinds of people, those who look upon Japanese passivity as “culturally-determined behavior” and those who find it a form of mental illness. I’m clearly in the latter group. If I have to read another review or commentary describing Kumiko as “cute,” I’m going to check into terrorism as a career.

There’s  a no-doubt-about-it bad guy in the movie: Kumi’s mother. Mama produced three daughters and decided that was one too many. Kumi is Cinderella to her sisters. All her life Kumi has had to listen to put-downs about her ugly looks, her lack of brains or personality, or other imagined failings. It’s a mystery she didn’t throw herself off a bridge by the age of ten. It’s never made explicit, but the audience has no trouble putting two and two together. A couple good sessions with a shrink might well convince Kumi it’s her mother who deserves to be tossed off a bridge, after which she needs to get herself to a good gynecologist and get this problem dealt with.

Instead this bozo of a movie plot goes ten painfully long episodes creating the image of a couple who “learn” that sex is not the same thing as love, and one doesn’t need children to be happy. Well, duh! Maybe they don’t need children, but giving up sex unnecessarily isn’t noble. It’s stupid. Not to say self-destructive to the psyche. Like admitting you love music, but not using a hearing aid when one is available when the hearing goes.

We are told this is a “true story,” whatever that means. There may well be a couple out there that are plagued by incurable dyspareunia. Lord knows lots of people have sexual dysfunctions of one sort or another. But here we keep coming back to the notion that suffering is noble, a Japanese trait right up there with hara-kiri and signing up with a kamikaze squadron, as far as I’m concerned. Why fix a problem when one can spend the rest of one’s life stewing about it?

And while we’re at it, let’s make a movie about it and show how true love wins in the end.

Gag me with a spoon.

The problem with the whole thing, you see, is that they don’t make the situation believable. Kimiko at some point discovers her husband is burning through his savings making weekly trips to Soapland, the Japanese way of doing whorehouses these days. And not telling her about it, but leaving the receipts where she can find them. More passive-aggressive behavior. And how does she respond? She stands in front of the place, bows deeply and begs it to "take good care of my husband." 

It’s not that they’re not having sex. They’re having plenty of it – just not penetrative sex. I won’t get graphic.

And while the massage parlor is taking good care of her husband, she decides the best way to take care of herself is to go online and make dates with strange men whom she meets in love hotels, where she has passionless sex – with full penetration, note, ­­– while ruminating about what beasts men can be.

Kenichi gives it away at one point when they are congratulating each other on having recognized they don’t need sex when he lets it slip out, “But it would be nice….”

A great series to watch if you’re interested in confirming the common view that Japanese culture is all about collectivity (watch how the couple allows the parents to dictate their lives) and self-sacrifice. And if you take pleasure in tossing your shoes at the TV set. There is some humor, and the scene where the parents get together to scold the couple for not producing children and end up screaming at each other sort of compensates for some of the long silences. And there's a whole lot of sweetness, some of it sincere. The couple clearly love each other deeply, and that emotion gets through, despite all the frustration.

If you do decide to watch it, and find you want to scream “GYNECOLOGIST! SEE A GODDAM GYNECOLOGIST” remember – it’s only a movie.

Apparently, Natsumi Ishibashi, who plays Kumi, made another movie this year, as well:
It’s called Zombies Come and I Reflect on my Life.

photo credit 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Dimash Kudaibergen

Dimash Kudaibergen has a voice range that goes two full notes below the normal bass range and over two  octaves above the normal female soprano range. I know of no other human being with the ability to hit notes that high and that low both.  Dimash not only pulls this off; he also has perfect pitch and a professional opera singer's voice control and a voice quality routinely described as "pure" and "just plain lovely." He is a walking musical miracle.

He's widely known in China, where he recently clocked 1.6 billion hits following his success at a Chinese musical competition. He's also known in Russia and his homeland of Kazakhstan, but his reputation is just getting started in Europe and America.

I'm having a bit of future shock in dealing with this boy wonder. I'm his grandfather's generation. I had my 54th birthday ten days before he was born. And for the first young years of my life I had no idea where Kazakhstan was. Russia was the enemy and China a sleeping giant. And here we are in a world where a billion Chinese have heard, and I suspect marveled at, his voice and he's just started what could be called a new genre - reaction videos to his performances, by people in the west who call themselves music critics hearing him for the first time and asking the question, "How is it possible I have not heard of this guy before?'

A brief comment on the side here on how China is no longer taking the back seat to influencing world popular culture. Watch this video of first Celine Dion and then of Dimash joining Chinese singer Song Zuying singing in China in Chinese to the kind of ridiculously overelaborated staging and choreography the Chinese made famous in the Beijing Olympics. They're making videos now of Americans reacting to this performance, all looking a bit sheepish and often amateurish. I predict he will soon overpower the American popular music scene. You heard it here first, boys and girls. And we haven't touched yet on the many ways he's stretching his wings - dancing a Michael Jackson tribute, for example, or writing his own compositions on the folly of war.

Dimash rose to fame after winning two competitions, becoming the grand prix winner in the Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk, Belarus and then hitting the big numbers after entering the Singer 2017 competition in China in 2017. Once again, I can't help remarking on how different the world looks when you stop believing it is centered in the United States.

I can imagine some kind of backlash by people who will want to argue the guy is too good to be true, too given to vocal pyrotechnics to be treated as an ordinary musician. Watch the videos of his performances in China and the camera spends as much time on audience reaction as it does on Dimash himself. And the American and European reaction videos seem to be increasing daily by the dozens. I hope that nonsense won't be held against him.

He's classically trained and blessed by being born into a musical family. His mother is an opera singer, his father a singer and music producer. He has a degree in classical music from his local university and was trained by a teacher with the title of "Honored Artist of Kazakhstan" - which title both his mother and father also hold, by the way. He was invited to join the local opera and nobody doubts he'd make one hell of a splash with that powerful breath control in his thin body. Instead, he has chosen to milk his skill and his talent in the world of popular music. A good choice if the goal is bigger, better, more, and faster.

I have spent the past three or four days listening to his performances, to the background stories and the reaction videos. I'm glad I did. I've learned a whole lot about the voice, the difference between a head voice and a mix voice, about the difference between a falsetto and a soprano singer's voice and how Dimash can apparently do both.  About where the falsetto register ends and the whistle register begins. How some sopranos have to go into their whistle register while others can perform the same task in their modal register. You get the idea.

I've learned about Arabic and gospel melismatic singing (lots of notes on a single syllable), the ostinato (repeated) phrase - all of this stuff comes through in the lengthy commentary on Dimash's remarkable vocal agility, skill, depth and range. A veritable music appreciation course. Only unlike earlier "appreciation" courses I was forced to take as a kid which only turned me off what I was supposed to appreciate, this time I think I have a much richer take on what goes into musical education, especially voice lessons. It has been a glorious ride, and I'm ready now to sit back and enjoy each one of Dimash's new songs as they come out.

You can try to find videos of his performances and escape all the analytical pieces about his unusual six octave range and his superhuman voice control. Good luck with that. But I suggest you just join his adoring fan base in falling all over yourselves at this exciting new musical phenomenon, if you're not already there. Here are a couple suggestions if you haven't heard him before. YouTube has many more to offer:

Best known songs, in which he reveals his range and his skills:

1. SOS d'un terrien en détresse (the China performance which won him the prize):

2. Love of Tired Swans (performed at the Kremlin, no less):

3. Hello  -

4. Adagio - - the Slavianski Bazaar performance in Belarus

5. Autumn Strong -

Now (with apologies to my Chinese friends for my provincialism) when's the last time a song sung in Chinese brought you to tears?

photo credits:

1. voice range -
2. Dimash on stage -

Thursday, March 21, 2019

In the Closet of the Vatican – a Review

His Eminence, Raymond Leo
Cardinal Burke
The Catholic Church is certainly the organisation that talks most about the truth. The word is always on its lips. It is forever brandishing “truth” around. And at the same time it is an organisation more given to lying than any other in the world. The spokesman for John Paul II, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, and the spokesman for Benedict XVI, Federico Lombardi, never tell the truth.
Robert Mickens, American Vaticanologist and editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Resident in Rome since 1986, Mickens studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London. source

The Roman Catholic hierarchy is made up mostly of homosexual men. Estimates are as high as 80%.

That's the premise of Frédéric Martel’s bombshell, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, which came out a few weeks ago to predictably universal condemnation by the Catholic Church. Timed, surely intentionally, to appear just as more than 200 men of the church are meeting in the Vatican to address the child abuse problem.  It’s a full-frontal attack on the church’s hypocrisy, a tell-all that names names and holds little back. 

Predictably, there have been efforts to soften the impact. The National Catholic Register’s Jennifer Roback Morse, for example, takes only three sentences to report that the book has “dropped out of sight.” That’s wishful thinking on Ms. Morse’s part. It’s far more likely there are miles to go yet before the ruckus settles down, and when it does it will not be because the book is roundly rejected by its readers, but because it reaches the kind of conclusions about which they are likely to say, “I could have told you that!” or “Wasn’t that obvious all along?”

And what exactly is the ruckus? After interviewing 41 cardinals, 50 bishops, 45 Vatican ambassadors and 11 Swiss Guards over a four-year period, Martel charges that the Roman Catholic Church is riddled with homosexually-inclined clerics hypocritically committed to the principle, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

More specifically, Martel’s main claims may be found in summary form, in his own words, in his “fourteen rules of the closet”:

  1. For a long time the priesthood was the ideal escape-route for young homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the keys to their vocation. (p. 8)
  2. Homosexuality spreads the closer one gets to the holy of holies; there are more and more homosexuals as one rises through the Catholic hierarchy. In the College of Cardinals and at the Vatican, the preferential selection process is said to be perfected; homosexuality becomes the rule, heterosexuality the exception. (p. 10)
  3. The more vehemently opposed a cleric is to gays, the stronger his homophobic obsession, the more likely it is that he is insincere, and that his vehemence conceals something. (p. 34)
  4. The more pro-gay a cleric is, the less likely he is to be gay; the more homophobic a cleric is, the more likely he is to be homosexual. (p. 41)
  5. Rumours, gossip, settling of scores, revenge and sexual harassment are rife in the holy see. The gay question is one of the mainsprings of these plots. (pp. 59-60)
  6. Behind the majority of cases of sexual abuse there are priests and bishops who have protected the aggressors because of their own homosexuality and out of fear that it might be revealed in the event of a scandal. The culture of secrecy that was needed to maintain silence about the high prevalence of homosexuality in the Church has allowed sexual abuse to be hidden and predators to act. (p. 92)
  7. The most gay-friendly cardinals, bishops and priests, the ones who talk little about the homosexual question, are generally heterosexual. (p. 123)
  8. In prostitution in Rome between priests and Arab escorts, two sexual poverties come together: the profound sexual frustration of Catholic priests is echoed in the constraints of Islam, which make heterosexual acts outside of marriage difficult for a young Muslim. (p. 129)
  9. The homophiles of the Vatican generally move from chastity towards homosexuality; homosexuals never go into reverse gear and become homophilic. (p. 169)
  10. Homosexual priests and theologians are much more inclined to impose priestly celibacy than their heterosexual co-religionists. They are very concerned to have this vow of chastity respected, even though it is intrinsically against nature. (pp. 176-177)
  11. Most nuncios are homosexual, but their diplomacy is essentially homophobic. They are denouncing what they are themselves. As for cardinals, bishops and priests, the more they travel, the more suspect they are! (p. 311)
  12. Rumours peddled about the homosexuality of a cardinal or a prelate are often leaked by homosexuals, themselves closeted, attacking their liberal opponents. They are essential weapons used in the Vatican against gays by gays. (p. 388)
  13. Do not ask who the companions of cardinals and bishops are; ask their secretaries, their assistants or their protégés. (p. 537)
  14. We are often mistaken about the loves of priests, and about the number of people with whom they have liaisons: when we wrongly interpret friendships as liaisons, which is an error by addition; but also when we fail to imagine friendships as liaisons, which is another kind of error, this time by subtraction. (p. 538)
All page numbers refer to: Martel, Frédéric, In the Closet of the Vatican, Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle Edition.
Martel thumbs his nose at those who would take him down for being insufficiently academic or professional. I can’t speak for the French original, but in the English language version of his book, he has a ball flinging wild accusations around. Referring to the current pope and his place among a coterie of homosexual cardinals, bishops and priests, Martel writes “Francis is said to be ‘among the wolves.’  It’s not quite true. He’s among the queens.” (p. xiv)

The thing is, to fault it for being more tabloid than academic research, more gossip-centered than objective, is to miss the point. Martel wrote the book to lay the charge that what’s wrong with the church is that it is built on a foundation of deception, and that deception is nowhere as apparent as in its approach to homosexuality. What’s wrong is not who’s “secretly gay” (although he does out an unusually large number of individuals, justly or unjustly), but the fact, he claims, that the overwhelmingly large percentage of homosexual and homophilic clergy lining up behind Benedict’s charge that homosexuality is an “objective moral disorder,” are at the same time giving free rein to a homophilic (read: effeminate) sensibility and in many cases actually engaging in homosexual activity. I reviewed Catholic theologian David Berger's book, The Holy Illusion, when it came out in 2011. He made essentially the same charges: that the culture of the church was based on deception, and the number of homosexually inclined men was much larger than anybody imagined.  Berger put it at 50%.  See also here.
Now along comes Frederic Martel. He cites a source who puts it at 80%.

After all is said and done, though, after all these clerics are “exposed” as homosexuals, there is still a big question that begs an answer: “What difference does it make?” Once you’ve exposed hypocrites, or - to show a bit of generosity here - once you’ve exposed what the church identifies as a sinner, why should anybody care? Aren’t we all sinners, according to standard Christian theology?

There are at least two good answers to that question, two good reasons why it does matter. One is that it reveals the true colors of what is not just a corrupt organization (i.e., one based on deceit), but a sinister one. The harm done to minds young and old (especially the young, in my view) by propagating the lie that homosexuality is “inherently disordered,” is incalculable. That this evil should be propagated by men who then embrace it in practice should be made public, so it can be more broadly recognized, condemned, and discarded as a bigotry masquerading as a public good. It is time people stopped hiding behind homophobia as “the ‘biblical’ perspective,” and recognize what the modern world has come around to accepting as nothing other than variation in the human condition.

The second reason is, as Martel argues, that the child abuse scandal that shocked the world when it turned up in virtually every Roman Catholic diocese in the world, is an issue almost certain to be directly related.  There is a connection between hidden homosexuality and the child abuse scandal. Not the one the church would like us to believe – that homosexuality leads to child abuse – but because there is something inherently wrong with what James Alison, in the best review of In the Closet of the Vatican I’ve read to date, refers to as “badly lived homosexuality.”  

Most of the focus of now decades of sexual abuse within the church has been on the behavior of an individual adult here and there exercising his power over young people and making them do things sexually which, in some cases, leaves life-long psychological scars. But gradually it has become clear that the arguably more severe crime is the one perpetrated by the institution. By shifting these sexually underdeveloped men around so they remain free to prey on young boys in new locations, the church has served as an enabler of these abuses rather than the cavalry that should have ridden in to save the day.

What of the notion, however, that perhaps we are too quick to condemn the enabler-bishops for failing to care what happens to the abused kids? Should we not also recognize that the bishops are showing care and compassion to their brother-priests?  Are they not also in terrible need of sympathy and understanding? Could we not recognize that they are not monsters and that they are just trying to calm things down?  Is that not a motivation worthy of respect?

Don't forget that the current view from the top is that sex abusers of young boys are homosexuals who lack the will to keep their sexual urges in check. See here for one notable example. Or Cardinal Bertone, longtime Number 2 man in the Vatican, Camerlengo and Secretary of State (p. 465), for another. Never mind that this is a bogus argument, since most gay men do not abuse children and many child abusers abuse little girls, as well. It is the party line argument coming from the top. If that is the case, if you are going to argue that a homosexual nature is the problem, consider what that does to your own psyche if you are struggling with homosexual demons (as you see it) yourself.  When you look at a child abuser you might well consider, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” From there you’re well on your way to the mindset that suggests the best course of action might be to hide the wrong-doing. Compassion comes easily if you can put yourself in another's position.

On top of that, there are, of course, the practical implications of exposure. Look at the likely consequences of turning up the volume and calling more attention to the scandal. People are certain to come in with probing questions. How can one expect them not to want to have a look inside your closet? Give the investigators and inch and they are certain to take a mile.

“Why do the cardinals say nothing?” Martel asks. “Why do they all close their eyes?”

Why was Pope Benedict XVI, who knew about many sexual scandals, never brought to justice? Why did Cardinal Bertone, ruined by the attacks of Angelo Sodano, not bring out the files that he had about his enemy? Talking about others means that they may talk about you. That is the key to the omertà and the general lies of the Church. The Vatican and the Vatican closet are like Fight Club – and the first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.  (pp. 466-467)

National Catholic Register’s Jennifer Morse first criticizes the inadequacies of Martel's claims and then asks what Martel thinks he’s after in exposing hypocrisy, anyway. Which is kind of like saying, “When I returned your teapot it was unbroken” and “besides, it was already broken when you lent it to me.” Clearly disturbed by criticism of the church, she claims that Martel’s book is full of gossip and unsubstantiated charges – but at the same time insists the proper way of dealing with hypocrisy is to follow the church’s teaching and everybody go back to following their vows of chastity. Tell that to the 4% of all priests the widely respected John Jay 2004 study concluded had had sex with minors. 

In brushing aside the charge that the Martel’s book is "just gossip" I can't deny there's a lot of stuff Martel expects us to take his word for. As with any sensitive subject, people frequently don't want to go on the record and not all his claims are documented. Much may be gossip, in fact. But much is not, and is substantiated with names and times and places. Moreover, one needs to recognize that the writing style is actually largely irrelevant. What matters in the end is the cumulative effect of the sheer number of examples Martel puts forth, page after page after page, all illustrating what it means to "live homosexuality badly," to live a life of deceit while attempting to assume a position of moral authority. 

In the 557 pages of In the Closet of the Vatican, there is some pretty good sociology, and a bit of pretty decent history, as well. Most readers even slightly familiar with modern church history know the name, Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ who not only fathered six children, but abused two of them sexually, as well. But what about Alfonso López Trujillo, whom Martel charges with beating up the prostitutes he has sex with and with being the reason so many liberal clerics met their death at the hands of thugs in the 1970s? And the flaunting of wealth by the likes of Cardinals Burke and Sodano, to name just two; the rivalries between cardinals; the drug-filled parties in a Vatican apartment with male prostitutes – is that gossip? Or is it history? If you pursue some of the people Martel names, it turns out they pan out. Check out here for an article on Monsignor Luigi Capozzi, for example.

Dozens of entertaining anecdotes fill Martel’s pages. Some will have you howling, like the one about Ratzinger-friend Tony Anatrella, whom Ratzinger/Benedict brought in to eliminate homosexuality from the seminaries. Anatrella’s solution? Reparatory therapy in which the young seminarians undress and allow Father Tony to masturbate them. 

Bill Lindsey has done a running commentary that is very much worth following on his Bilgrimage blog, capturing many of the twists and turns in the Vatican history which Martel has managed to detail.

So nobody can argue about the quantity. The stories go on and on. The Irish Times speaks of “incredible detail” But what about the quality?   The National Catholic Reporter claims there is “not much substance.”  Not everybody agrees. Addressing the “gossipy” nature of the book, Andrew Sullivan uses what Martel has to say about his interaction with Francesco Lepore, to defend Martel’s integrity as a journalist. Lepore, he says,

soared through the ranks, directly serving Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, until, as a gay man, he found a way to quit his post because he couldn’t abide the double life he was forced to lead, or the rancid hypocrisy of the whole system. He says he saw everything from the inside: “He has had several lovers among archbishops and prelates; he has been propositioned by a number of cardinals, whom we discuss: an endless list. I have scrupulously checked all of those stories, making contact myself with those cardinals, archbishops, monsignori, nuncios, assistants, ordinary priests or confessors at St Peter’s, all basically homosexual.” This is not the peddling of innuendo, or salacious gossip. It’s reporting.

“In my view,” Sullivan concludes, “the last drops of moral authority the Vatican might hope to have evaporate with this book.” I differ with Sullivan. I think it lost it some time ago. Martel is simply providing an updated explanation.

In the end, I doubt In the Closet of the Vatican is destined for weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s far too dense, too long, too repetitive, and I’m pretty sure too esoterically catholic for most people. My hope is that whether it is widely read or not, the response to its publication will be to accept its central thesis – that it’s time to recognize that an organization built on deception and fear of scandal is not the kind of moral leader anybody should take seriously anymore. And not get hung up on whether it’s even possible that 80% of the upper-level hierarchy of the church have a same-sex orientation. Or, for that matter, whether avowedly celibate 80-year-old men in crimson and lace are gay or straight in real life anyway.