Four Feel-Good Features for Your Friday

It being an especially busy Friday for this scrivener, here are four short stories I wanted to highlight for you this Friday:

Sister With Voices(8)

Thanks to the dozens of you who read my review and entered for a chance to win a copy of Eventide by British choral group Voces8. And I extend my congratulations to Sister Anne Flanagan, aka @nunblogger on Twitter! Sister Anne is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, and is normally a resident of Chicago, Illinois,but she is currently working in England.  The CD will be flying over to you soon, Sister, and thanks once again to Decca Classics for the opportunity to share this terrific recording with my readers.  [N.B. If you are too young to understand the pun in the title of this subsection, allow me to instruct you.]

Madrid in Washington

As a reminder, in case you missed my review yesterday of his excellent new book Why Be Catholic?, well-known author, speaker, and broadcaster Patrick Madrid will be here in the Nation’s Capital tomorrow.  He will be signing copies of his latest volume over at the book shop of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located on the campus of Catholic University (Brookland/CUA Metro Station), at 12pm.  Come along and meet the man himself, pick up a copy of his book, and you might even run into me, trying unsuccessfully to be inconspicuous in the back of the room.

Felicidades Felipe

Speaking of Madrid, a hearty congratulations to His Majesty Felipe VI, who took the throne in Madrid yesterday as the new King of Spain.  He was a classmate of mine at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, back in the day.  Well, I say classmate, but truthfully he was in the grad program and I in the undergrad, so we didn’t actually have any classes together.  As you can see in the photo accompanying this post, King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia have two beautiful daughters, the Infanta Leonor, now titled the Princess of Asturias and next in line to the throne, and her younger sister the Infanta Sofia.  It’s nice to see a fellow Hoya doing well.

Bread = Egg and Flower

Although technically Corpus Christi falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, most of my fellow Catholics will be celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ in their parishes this coming Sunday.  It’s one of those Holy Days known as a “Moveable Feast”, which can be shifted about on the calendar – unlike Christmas, which is always on December 25th.  In Catalonia, there are two fun traditions associated with this holiday, which I’ve written about previously.  One is the tradition of the dancing egg, in which an egg is balanced on the spray of a fountain and appears to “dance” on the water, and the other that of the floral carpet in towns like Sitges which, as it sounds, involves creating a complex arrangement of flowers or flower petals for the Eucharistic Procession after Mass.

Felipe Letizia Leonor Sofia

Even Superman Has His Limits

Today even as those of us in the U.S. celebrate Halloween, my revels have already ended, since I threw a Halloween costume party on Saturday evening. The process of preparing for Halloween was a bit more involved for me this year than usual, since I gained about 18 pounds of muscle to do it. However in the end said process allowed me to reflect a bit on how those of us in our 20’s and 30’s look at ourselves, and what the effect of some rather disturbing changes in marketing tales of heroes and adventure may be having on the young.

I suspect that, like many of my readers, Halloween is something one makes serious plans for in some years, and then other years one takes an easy-costume route or just ignores the holiday altogether. Last year I went as King Philip II of Spain, and had to cobble my costume together from various sources to try to get as accurate as possible. I even grew a beard for the occasion, which only took a few days to come in – good to know if I ever decide to become a hermit.

For this year I had gone back and forth about whether to be Batman or Superman, since I had not dressed up as a superhero for at least a decade or more, but ultimately settled on the latter because I would not have to wear some sort of rubber cowl-mask combination, a headcovering which could have proven increasingly irritating as the evening progressed. Having said that, it was so cold this weekend, with an unsual mixture of sleet and snow in Washington on Saturday, that it probably would have been a pleasant thing to be able to pull on one’s cowl when stepping outside for some air. Fortunately, making cremat helped with that issue.

These days, if you want to purchase a superhero outfit for Halloween, Mardi Gras, or just a costume party, you have the option of buying either a standard costume, in various grades of stitching and thicknesses of fabric, or a costume lined with some type of padding or even inflatable air pockets, so that the wearer can appear to be more muscular. This is the case not only on costumes for adults, but for children, as well – something which I found rather disturbing.

About a decade ago, I recall reading in GQ about a major study on the increasing incidence of body dysmorphic disorder in men. At the time, men were primping and preening like they had not done since the 1930’s, though the physical ideal had shifted from being something tall and svelte, like an Art Deco skyscraper, to looking something more like a heavily upholstered armchair. The Harvard study, whose abstract can be read here and includes some helpful graphics, looked specifically at how action figures of characters such as Batman, G.I. Joe, and Luke Skywalker had changed from the early 1970’s to the late 1990’s.

The results showed that action figure heroes had been dramatically altered over a period of about 20 years by toy designers. In the 1970’s, the figures represented an idealized physique that was still a realistically achievable one for boys who stayed fit by exercising and eating well as they grew up. By the 1990’s however, the same characters were made to look so grossly swollen and exaggerated that, in many cases, it would be either physically impossible for someone with such proportions to be able to move at all, or the degree of musculature represented was only achievable by professional bodybuilders, often through the use of chemicals such as steroids and human growth hormone.

This same shift being pushed by marketers continues today in what we see being shown in films, television, and other merchandise involving hero characters for boys. Take a look at Christopher Reeve as Superman back in the late 70’s. Reeve looks fit and healthy, with nothing exaggerated; he is tall and trim, rather than bulky. Meanwhile the latest actor to play Superman, the usually slim Henry Cavill from “The Tudors”, has bulked up so much to film this new role, that one feels sorry for what it must feel like to have to have to maintain what, for him, is completely unnatural.

Not being a professional actor paid to work out with a trainer for hours a day, there was no way I was going to be able to pack on a huge amount of weight over several weeks, just in order to be Superman for Halloween. I made an effort to work out and eat properly, rather than resort to some sort of padded or inflatable costume, which to me seemed like cheating, as well as buying into the attitude that in order to be a superhero, one must be strangely proportioned. The end result was not a tremendous change, but I gained back some of the muscle I had lost over the years, due to multiple accidents/illnesses and bad eating. Though admittedly, the first thing I did the day after the Halloween party was to eat a big plate of cold cuts and cheese, something I love and had denied myself for weeks as I concentrated on healthy but somewhat boring foods like grilled chicken breasts and whey protein.

Yet it is hard not to think about how this evening, there will be boys going around trick-or-treating dressed as Superman, Batman, Captain America, and so on, who are wearing padding or blow-up suits in order to look as though they are juiced up on steroids – for no normal 9-year-old boy has prominent abdominal muscles and biceps the size of grapefruit. One wonders what they think about the way they look as they enter their teen years, when so many of us form a permanent impression in our heads of how we think we appear to the outside world. One also wonders whether their parents are doing them a significant disservice by dressing them up in these types of unrealistic, pumped-up costumes to look like miniature Olympic weightlifters, if their child was designed by God to be of slim or average build.

The point of Halloween of course, naysayers to the holiday aside, is to have fun and play dress up, something that never completely goes away for most of us as we get older. Nor is this tradition some sort of American historical anomaly.  Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, loved attending the kind of elaborate masques and costume balls which were common among the European upper classes throughout the year, with guests dressing up as heroes and villains, figures from history and legends, and so on.

However, that sense of fun has to be tempered with a realization that it is one thing to play dress up once in awhile. It is quite another to foist upon one’s children the idea that dress up is, or ought to be, an everyday reality.  While we often focus on the effect that the popular media, toy marketers, and so on have on our daughters, let us also spare a thought for our sons, and teach them that stories about superheroes, Jedi knights, and Greek warriors are about teaching values to young minds so that they can live rightly, not commercial manipulations to make them feel dissatisfied with who they are.