Love Life

Beware the Penitent Gadarene

October 09, 2008

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Last week’s column I managed to offend a fair swathe of my audience by using an acronym I didn’t make up in reference to the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate. Lesson learned: From now on, I’ll refer to women like Gov. Palin exclusively as “momshells.” In fact, I’m going to swear off using other people’s acronyms altogether. No more “MILFs,” “DWEMs” or “WASPs” will henceforth appear in my commentary. It smacks something of Sloth—like lifting morbid anecdotes from someone else’s ridiculous life. As if I needed to. Harrumph.


  

From now on, I’m only using acronyms I’ve coined myself. As our overlords print dollars by the wheelbarrow to pay for golden parachutes, we might as well mint our own hard currency. (I think I’ll call mine the Krupnik.) Faithful readers will remember the handy term BUCLs. It stands for “Brilliant Unemployable Catholic Losers,” and it describes certain graduates of Ivy League or Great Books colleges who contact me every six months or so in search of a vacant couch, achingly obvious advice they will ignore, make-work assignments they’ll turn in late, or bail. Before I moved to an undisclosed location, they’d sometimes just show up at my doorstep, with duffel bags full of overdue library books, a tale of woe, and a musty smell which even the beagles couldn’t stand. At last I started turning them away, explaining simply: “My dogs are allergic to you.” For an eerily realistic imitation of a BUCL, check out the poetry readings of my old acquaintance James McCoy. Who really did… graduate from a Great Books school. Ahem.


  

In the service of expanding our vocabulary of public discourse, I plan to roll out a new acronym from time to time—in much the way that the Franklin Mint periodically issues those fake coins that stoners watching late night TV believe will someday be “priceless.”


  

This week it’s the turn of the TOACANACs. No, this isn’t the name of a pre-Columbian tribe of Meso-American cannibals. Or maybe it is. But for my purposes this term denotes “Tramps Of A Certain Age Now Advocating Chastity.”


  

You’ve probably heard the choice barb aimed at the neocons: “It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” This remark has been attributed variously to Stephen Tonsor, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Bl. Pope John XXIII. It’s clearly divinely inspired.


  

But TOACANACs (TWA-ka-NAKS) are a different story. A much more literal one. Viewed ethnographically, they’re a tribe of women (or “ex-gay” fundamentalists) who make a great point of informing hapless passersby exactly how widely they used to “throw it around.” They’ll lay it right out for you, in print or (far worse) in person: the depth, the breadth, the sheer geographical range over which they once put out. Perhaps they’re eager to emphasize the depth of the sins which Jesus forgave them, the more to magnify the saving mercies of… Whatever. Stop right there. If I might play the Prodigal Son’s annoying older brother for a moment, I’d like to share something with all the newly forty, neo-chaste folks out there: The rest of us don’t want to hear it. Don’t whine about how “unfulfilling” and “ultimately empty” you now consider all that really hot sex you were spreading across the lower 48—at least not to people who for reasons of high principle (e.g., fear of hellfire) have spent their dating lives taking cold showers, and hobbling home from dates with huevos agonistes. Go tell it to the pole-dancers and the gents who are stuffing their Spandex with twenties. They might not act on your message, but at least they deserve it.


  

I once knew a particularly ferocious TOACANAC I’ll call “ Clothilde.” She marked her fourth decade by at once putting on Jesus Christ and sixty pounds—conflating in at least my mind the Magdalene with the Gadarene. A failed operatic soprano, by the time I met her she was widely known as “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the Latin Mass.” Just the sight of Clothilde could turn a music director’s face greenish, like rancid veal. I’ve seen grown men spot her coming, drop their sheet music and simply run off down the street, without a word of explanation. As if we needed it.


  

At the parish I used to attend, Clothilde would flounce into practice late, tell the organist “Talk to the hand,” and sing at a volume that left all the other choristers sounding like chirping, glue-trapped mice. Convinced she was still irresistible, she’d deduce that any man who didn’t flirt with her was homosexual. And tell everyone in the parish. Since the only men who appreciated her charms in fact were catty queens themselves, that left them the only male parishioners she insisted weren’t gay. In the end, the choir director decided she had to go—and here he made his mistake. He tried to be tactful. “I’m following pre-Vatican II traditions,” he explained, proud of his cleverness. “So I’m organizing a boys’ choir.” No sooner had he gathered a group of hard-working kids from the neighborhood, and taught them the Missa de Angelis, than Clothilde had informed the entire parish the real reason why the choir director wanted a boys choir….


  

You guessed it: He was a “raging pedophile,” as she told anyone who’d listen—typically on the steps of the church as the choir finished the recessional. This was the middle 1990s, when such a charge was still a glimpse of stocking, and the rumor spread like ring worm in a sauna. Pretty soon, the scandal was serious enough that the pastor himself took notice. Too Roman to take on such a seedy subject in the pulpit, he made a point of attending (for the first time) our coffee hour—mixing imperiously in our midst and quietly murmuring. In the bad old days of clericalism, this would have been more than enough. But we, the laity, had been empowered by Vatican II. Clothilde went right back at him. “So Monsignor wants to protect a pedophile,” she’d say with a smile, sipping Earl Grey and shifting a Pantagruelian haunch. “I wonder why….”


  

Of course, Clothilde got what she wanted in the end. (Okay, that came out wrong; she certainly didn’t.) She drove off the choir director, at any rate. He tried to reason with people, talk down the nervous parents who wanted to pull their boys from the choir. He even attempted a confrontation with Clothilde. He was too shell-shocked to face her himself, but his wife marched up to the church one Sunday morning and grabbed Clothilde by her orchid corsage. And pleaded with her: “This man is my husband. We love each other. We have four children… do you know what this is doing to him?”


  

Clothilde stepped back, and gave the desperate wife a long, appraising look. Then she reared up to full height and said: “Oh please. I can tell from looking at you, this girl hasn’t ‘gotten it’ in years. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, Sweetie.” The woman stood there, stunned, as Clothilde thundered off, singing in a low voice Mozart’s “Exsultate Jubilate.”


  

EPILOGUE: The choir director found another job, in what I hope for his sake was an entirely different time zone. But Clothilde kept right on attending, singing loudly, perfectly in key—and always a half tempo faster or slower than the organist. She varied from week to week. This threw the members of every subsequent choir into confusion, which still prevailed at the parish when last I visited. But Clothilde adds to more than just the music. She also sets the moral tone. One week, a young priest of the most austere branch of the Franciscans attended the Latin Mass, and invited his brother. They were both straight-talking, guileless working class guys from the Bronx—a little rough around the edges. That has to explain why the brother thought it acceptable to bicycle down from Fordham Road and show up for Missa Cantata in a body-length, stretchy Speedo. It’s the kind of faux pas most Catholics overlook—or maybe we take the guy aside for a beer and explain to him there’s a dress code. But Clothilde had higher standards of reverence. She marched right up to the offending bicyclist, and right in front of his Capuchin brother announced: “I really didn’t appreciate having to spend the entire Mass looking at your penis.”


  

Beware, my son, the fierce TOACANAC. And for God’s sake, hide your candy.

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