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Italy: Blocked by socialism, corruption, and a no-can-do attitude

Last year when we came to Italy, we went first to Venice and then to Florence and then to Rome.

We rented an apartment in Rome near the Vatican, and one evening went out for ice cream with our landlords. They had two bambini and we have one. In the course of the conversation, we discussed a large factory complex on an island outside of Venice that lies empty and unused. Marghera, I think it’s called.

“Some entrepreneur should come along and re-purpose the space,” I said. “Turn it into a nightclub or a mall or a skating rink.”

“That is not possible,” exclaimed our landlady, a lawyer, with total certainty.

“Sure it’s possible,” I shrugged. “Some bright person will come along and think of a way to re-use the space and make it productive. It doesn’t have to sit there and be empty. It could be an auction space, a market, or an art gallery. It could be anything.”

She insisted vigorously and with a rigid refusal to consider any other possibility that such a thing was not possible. The only possibility was that the factory would continue to lie fallow–forever.

She was a smart and educated woman, but I ended up looking at her and thinking that she was quite backwards. That’s my cultural bias, of course. In the US, some hotshot entrepreneur would come along and do something clever with the space and turn it into the next hot spot. If the first entrepreneur failed, the second would succeed. If the second didn’t, the fifth would.

The US–despite Obama’s best efforts to destroy the middle class and create a totalitarian state where every citizen’s most picayune communications are watched over by the NSA–is still all about reinvention. We still get second and third chances. Note to literary readers: we have long sense superseded Gatsby’s assumptions.

But in Italy, there is only one option: that the unused factory space, which was expensive to build, will remain empty and useless.

It’s an attitude that Sabin and I have encountered over and over again in our travels through Italy: “No can do.”

It’s not the fault of ordinary Italians. We meet people who work really hard. Over and over again, we hear the same thing: the bureaucracy in Italy is set up to thwart citizens, to deny fledging businesses any hope of success, and to create the conditions for business failure.

This year, our friend Paolo who owns rental apartments shared with us some of his woes. The government is constantly changing regulations, hoping to trip up rental businesses and thus fine them outrageously before shutting them down. This belligerence is in part sponsored by hotels, who don’t want tourists to have the option of renting apartments. But it is also the government trying to squeeze ever more taxes, fees, financial obligations, and huge fines out of a middle-class that is already wrung dry.

Other friends of ours here recounted how the government abruptly raised certain taxes from 20% to 22%, and consequently, over half of the small mom-and-pop shops went out of business. That 2% was everything for them. Businesses here have to pay for production, and they don’t get tax credits for it. Out of 1 euro, our friend said, he gets 40 euro cents, if he’s lucky. Sixty euro cents goes to the government, taxes, fees, tariffs, etc.

Plus, in Italy, the government can simply take funds out of a citizen’s bank account whenever it wants, like when it suddenly changes the rules on permits. A small business owner can go to the bank one morning and find there is substantially less than he or she expected–because of overnight changes.

Speaking of apartments, in Venice, there is a glut of unoccupied, closed up apartments. Families who have owned apartments forever have stopped offering vacation rentals because the government keeps changing the rules, and they don’t want to pay capricious and punitive fines. Owners are afraid to rent to students because they run the risk of the students destroying the property, and they’re even more afraid to rent to regular folks. If the renters stop paying, it’s almost impossible to evict them–especially if they have children.

So the smart thing to do is not to rent out apartments, but to board them up and let them be empty. And that is exactly what many Venetians do.

Our friends who run a small establishment won’t hire anyone to help them, because the laws governing labor are oppressively burdensome. So the husband and wife do everything themselves, and sometimes his mother pitches in.

Socialism destroys opportunities.

Then there is the corruption factor.

People still mention the Mafia. It’s a problem, more in the south than in the north, but people are aware that the Mafia influences the government and the passage of laws, that there is a criminal factor in the running of their country. In fact, in many places in the south, the Mafia is the government. What a shame.

One thing I always ask Italians, after everyone has had a little wine: “Perche Berlusconi?” I am thinking, How the hell could you have elected someone as mind-bogglingly corrupt, stupid, and bad for Italy as Berlusconi, and kept him in office for twenty years? If I am feeling particularly controversial, I mention the Bunga Bunga parties.

Over the last few years, many answers have erupted. Berlusconi owns much of the media is a favorite excuse. Someone from my Italian publisher told me that people voted for Berlusconi because they hoped that they, too, like him, would get away with corrupt behavior. “I am embarrassed about him,” one Italian woman, an educated professional, confessed the other day.

So here is a country with one of the great artistic, cultural, and historical patrimonies on Earth, and it is stuck in the mud and sinking. Italy is mired in failure, backward-thinking, socialism, and corruption. Che peccato.

Peppe Voltarelli rocks out Subculture on Bleecker Street

Peppe Voltarelli rocks out Subculture on Bleecker Street

Last night, with great anticipation, my husband Sabin and I took the subway down to Bleecker Street. We made our way to the basement of number 45, where Subculture NYC was hosting Calabrian musician Peppe Voltarelli. Peppe is a friend of Sabin’s, which is why we weren’t sculpting–we usually work at night, but we took the night off for Peppe.

There was a lively crowd, mostly Italians, all happily keyed up to listen to this unique and wonderful singer. I was excited, too. I love Peppe’s music, which is a combination of rocked up folk songs and original ballads and other sprightly tunes.

@Subculture_NYC tweeted it best, and I happily favorited and retweeted: Tonight! Italian troubadour @peppevoltarelli sings his way through heartache and triumph. Tix: http://bit.ly/R3ByxQ  pic.twitter.com/Y1Cjhug9lC

We shook Peppe’s hand in the Green Room before the show, and Sabin and Peppe chatted in Italian. I couldn’t resist the impulse to show Peppe a picture of my daughter, who is a huge fan of his. Peppe was gracious and agreeable about her, as only an Italian can be about someone else’s children.

Peppe opened the show with Sta Città, and I almost rushed the stage, I was so delighted! At home, we blast that song on our speakers at least once a week. “Tickety ta, sh-boom!”

The consummate entertainer, he played the guitar while singing, then switched to piano for a few songs, telling us that the Steinway on stage would suit his Calabrian dialect “like jazz lives in New Orleans.” Some of the songs were in dialect, one was even in German. All were spirited and the audience joined in, clapping and hollering and sometimes singing along.

One rousing tune concerned anarchists, and how they get knocked down and keep popping back up. That song fired my heart with joy. I consider myself an anarcho-capitalist these days. I can’t abide the culture of dependency and entitlement and big brother NSA spying thuggery that the Democrats promote, nor can I align myself with the “let’s protect our money and prevent women and gay people from having rights” mindset of the Republicans. American politics has sadly degenerated into a sham of democracy, and it’s the end of the American empire and Pax Americana as we drift further and further off course, away from the noble ideals of our founding fathers.

But there’s music to soothe my unease, the warm-hearted, human music of Peppe Voltarelli. I recommend it to everyone.

By the way, if you haven’t seen his song Italiani Superstar on Youtube, check it out! It’s a splendid example of what music can be: human, community-oriented, wry, heartfelt, and engaging at the same time. It’s music for the soul.

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Wednesday it was announced that a federal commission charged with building a national monument honoring President Eisenhower voted unanimously to approve elderly architect Frank Gehry’s latest design for the monument.
I wrote, in part:

Notice, also, that this post is entitled, “The Problem with the Frank Gehry Memorial.” Because to examine the plans for the memorial is to see a monument to a prominent architect’s particular vision, not a memorial to a revered statesman, general, and President. While taste is personal and Americans love hubris, Gehry’s imposition of his personal style does seem to fly in the face of President Eisenhower’s modest origins, personal humility, and appeal to all sectors of society.

Gehry’s is not the only hubris in evidence regarding this “unanimous decision.” In reading the announcement, it is striking that Commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano speaks disparagingly of the Eisenhower family’s objections: “The family deserves to be heard, not obeyed,” he is alleged to have said.

It’s a rhetorical masterpiece to spin the family’s concerns as autocratic. But the rhetoric only thinly veils condescension, which reflects poorly on Siciliano in particular but also on the committee as a whole. For shame: surely this esteemed family deserves better than to be sneered at!

The Eisenhowers deserve better because their objections are thoughtful, persistent, echoed by many others, and valid. In fact, the Eisenhowers have courageously given voice to the concerns and objections of a great many people. But the announcement wasn’t written to express that fact.

It’s an ongoing shame that the Eisenhower family has been contemptuously dismissed by Siciliano and Gehry, those thick-as-thieves buddies from California; Eisenhower himself has been dismissed from this memorial. Not only that, but this ugly monument to folly is outrageously expensive, as well. See the report on the Eisenhower Memorial for the figures, which exceed $40,000,000.
Sabin Howard: What happened with Frank Gehry on the Eisenhower Memorial
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Sabin Howard: What happened with Frank Gehry on the Eisenhower Memorial

The Eisenhower Memorial is a public monument and so is held in public trust, which is being betrayed. This is an important story about how the public good can be sacrificed to individual egos.

My husband master sculptor Sabin Howard is telling it. He was caught up in what was quite probably an attempt to use him for his reputation as a renowned classical sculptor; he was unwittingly used as a ploy to temporarily appease those who are unhappy with Frank Gehry’s ill-conceived, ugly, and outrageously expensive plans for the Eisenhower memorial.

Here are Sabin’s words:

Sabin Howard Sculpture: What happened with Frank Gehry on the Eisenhower …:

I received an email asking me to phone Gehry Partners ASAP. I was…deeply moved. It could not be an accident that I received this call so soon after my experience with the Lincoln memorial. I felt that I was in sync with my purpose in life. The sculptures that I would make would not only represent Eisenhower as a man of tremendous achievement, but would also represent our country at its best. I felt that I had spent almost thirty years, and tens of thousands of hours in my studio, to reach this moment. I had never followed the fads of the art world, but instead worked to create an art that was connected to the rich tradition of classical art, but had the dynamic, expansive energy of America. My art has always been a statement about our highest potential as human beings—about rising to the occasion.

On August 10th, I was flown to L.A. to see the project plans for the Eisenhower Memorial and to meet with Frank Gehry.

When I saw the memorial models, my heart sank. The project was trying to reinvent the wheel with newness, and it was missing the point entirely. Components were stiff and compartmentalized like a natural history museum exhibit. There was no focal point, but a lot of elements that did not work together to deliver a unified visual message.

How could I tell the famed Gehry that the design and sculpture of this project had to lead our world and to direct us towards our potential? The sculpture must serve as a focal point in a sacred space that transforms the viewer, just as Eisenhower transformed the world through his actions as a leader. Perhaps Gehry was unaware of what could be.

My first question to Gehry partners was: Did you bring me in to be your in-house sculptor, or are you asking me for my creative opinion and 30 years experience as a figurative sculptor? They replied that they were basically unhappy with their current design and that they wanted to know what I thought.

I was thrilled. I thought of the Lincoln Memorial and the sacred space with its elevated energy.

After lunch, we began the meeting with Mr. Gehry himself. I shared my thoughts.

I spoke of the need for a sense of hierarchy within the sculptures of Eisenhower surrounded by his troops. The format should be changed to a relief, in which Eisenhower is the dramatic focal point, which is accomplished in several ways. In a relief, the use of perspective creates depth, and ultimately scale, within the composition. Eisenhower would be sculpted in the foreground in high relief, almost in the round. The troops would be situated farther away, smaller, and in lower relief.

I stated in the meeting that the design had to become sacred, because of Eisenhower’s historical importance. Making the blocks vertical would lead visitors to look up, giving them an expansive feeling. They would also be able to read the writing about Eisenhower with a sense of elevation, because of the heightened perspective….

I was instructed to submit a proposal with numbers to procure funds for my work. I was specifically instructed to make the numbers adequate for my needs, that is, to raise them from my initial ballpark figures. I did so and submitted a document. I was told that they wanted me to get started right away, and they would get GSA to release funds the following week. 

Several weeks passed. I waited with growing confusion, as I had been explicitly told that I was Mr. Gehry’s first choice. I submitted two more documents concerning pricing.

On November 16, I received a phone call from the team at Gehry Partners saying that, stylistically, I would not be selected for the project. I am puzzled.

Moreover, I am disappointed. I was inspired and excited to be able to use my talents to create a work to honor one of our greatest presidents. Needless to say, stylistically, my work would have been created in form and finish appropriate for a presidential memorial.

I was never given a chance to show my sculptural skills in an honest competition. Things were decided with the submission of paperwork, and perhaps, with behind-the-scenes political concerns in mind….


Sabin Howard, Eisenhower Memorial


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I love conspiracy theorists. They tell the best stories. Think about it. Here are my rules for writing novels:
1. Story is how your protagonist does NOT get what he or she wants.
2. Every story is an argument for a specific value.
3. Know the stakes.

Actually, I have a few other rules, too, but those are harder to explain.

So, conspiracy theorists. Why are they telling the best stories? Partly because “enlightened liberalism” has made people afraid to have any values at all. “Everything is ok and everyone is ok” is the hogwash they’re selling–and so many people have unabashedly drunk that kool-aid. “Enlightened liberalism,” egged on by the sanctimonious liberal media, has confused discernment with discrimination and the baby has been thrown out with the scummy bath water.

However, conspiracy theorists have values. One of them is: we have the right to know. Another value: we have the right to independent agency, to freely determine our own lives.

These are good values. These are juicy values.

So the stories conspiracy theorists tell are arguments for those values, and arguments against the secret government-within-a-government who high-handedly decide our lives for us.

We the people are the protagonists and we aren’t getting the freedom we want, to which we are entitled, because of the secret government-within-a-government, the hidden ultra-elite puppet-masters.

The stakes are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are high stakes, indeed.

One of the most fascinating and tenacious theories has to do with UFO’s. With ET’s.

I am conflicted about this theory. In my mind, UFO’s and ET’s exist in the astral plane–which is real. It’s just a different layer of reality than ordinary physical reality.

But do UFO’s exist in the concrete physical world? I’m unsure. I was acquainted with the late, rather wonderful Budd Hopkins and I posed this very question to him.

“They’re real. They’re here,” he assured me, grimly.

Some part of me still needs a UFO to land in Central Park so I can kick a tire.

Another part of me knows they’re real and they’re here–in the astral plane, if no where else.

And here we have former Canadian Minister Paul Hellyer openly affirming extraterrestrial beings and their contact with human governments. He’s also openly discussing the government-within-a-government.

Worth thinking about.

My New Post on the HuffPo: The Bleak Necessity of the Dachau Tour
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My New Post on the HuffPo: The Bleak Necessity of the Dachau Tour

Business in Milan with my Italian publisher, Marco Tropea Editore, afforded me a timely opportunity to take a train into Bavaria.

I’m working on a new novel set in Munich and Berlin during the Second World War. For detail and realism, I need to experience a place. Reading books, listening to on-line lectures, and watching videos are no substitute for trudging through a city, absorbing through my pores the buildings and people and language, the smell of wurst and rich taste of Augustiner beer and slant of light through chestnut trees.

Munich is a lovely city in which to practice the writerly art of osmosis. Its buildings rollick through the ages, from the Romanesque Peterskirche to the neo-Baroque Justizpalast to the modern skyscraper Hypo-Haus. In the center of town, the Marienplatz bustles with a heterogeneous mix of people. It’s easy to get around because of the dazzling array of public transportation choices: the bus, the tram, the S-bahn, and the U-bahn–all very efficient.

In this world of dialectic, dichotomy, and duality, where there is beauty, there is found ugliness, and where there is light, comes the darkness. Lovely Munich’s history harbors astonishing cruelty. Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp and the deadly prototype for all others, lies twenty kilometers outside of town.

A story set in Germany during this time necessarily references concentration camps. Germans seem to agree. When I joined a tour to Dachau, which had been a munitions factory during the First World War, Tom the Welsh tour guide commented, “Germans study what happened here, they face it honestly. I regularly see school classes.”

Indeed, I spied a group of young people who looked like high school students. They listened carefully to their teacher, a bespectacled woman who spoke with a fierce thoughtfulness that elicited from them a corresponding intensity of focus.

Read the rest of my post here on the Huffington Post.