Dean Martin: “Cooler” than Frank Sinatra?

January 18, 2012

In my quest for sophistication, I’ve started listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra of the Rat Pack a lot recently.

After hearing their music and reading some brief biographies, I’ve come to admire both of these men for their confidence and class.  Cigarette or martini in hand, these virtuosos could sing, act, and crack jokes.  Both flourished out of rocky beginnings:  Martin was an amateur boxer who fought in bare-knuckle bouts because he couldn’t afford wrapping tape, while Sinatra had to carry his own P.A. system to perform at run-down saloons.  And in their Rat Pack heyday, they were comfortable enough to crack innocuous jokes about race, religion, and gender yet ultimately principled enough to refuse to perform at clubs that excluded African-Americans and Jews.

These were cool guys.  Just listening to Martin’s “Who’s Got the Action?” and Sinatra’s “I Won’t Dance” when I wake up every morning makes me feel like a cooler person for the rest of the day, for real.  In a sense, they’ve joined the ever-growing ranks of role models in my life as I seek to become a more complete person.

So, why am I talking about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a Catholic blog?  (It’s not just because both of them were born and raised Catholic.)

It has to do with the idea of role models. Especially when we are growing up, the role models we choose for ourselves are critical to who we become.  A lot of the time, these role models of ours come from popular culture; they are often recognized throughout much of society and demonstrate distinctive behavior or ideals that we want to emulate.

The reason I think that Dean Martin is “cooler” than Frank Sinatra — I use “cooler” facetiously, considering he was nicknamed the “King of Cool” — or, rather, the reason that I like Martin better as a role model, is that he seemed to have his priorities straight.

Though Martin divorced three times (once for his wife’s alcoholism, another time in the midst of a mid-life crisis), he was always if not outwardly recognized as a family man.  A father of 8, he cared immensely for his family even after his divorces, and he often left immediately after performances to spend time with his kids.  It’s said that Sinatra was actually quite irked that Martin preferred quiet time with his family to a rowdy time with the Rat Pack.  Martin was also shattered when his son Dean Paul Martin died in a plane crash and bowed out of a reunion tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Furthermore, Martin, unlike Sinatra, enjoyed solitude.  While he always was able to have fun during a night on the town , he much preferred being at home with his family, or playing golf, or eating alone at his favorite Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.

These two characteristics — a love of family and an ability to be alone with oneself– are important to emulate, particularly for Catholics. Catholics need to keep the family strong because familial love is often a child’s first experience of God’s love.  Catholics also should learn to be alone with themselves sometimes, because in doing so, we can better discern God’s call and contemplate our lives.

As his divorces show, Martin wasn’t perfect.  He also liked to keep up a persona of hard-drinking and irreverence; it got him the admiration and adulation he needed to stay a popular performer.  But Martin didn’t really need the attention.  In his private life, he knew what really mattered.  And that is what makes him, I think, “forever cool.”


Books Catholics Should Read: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire

January 16, 2012

If you’re looking for a provocative read, look no further than H.W. Crocker III’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.  Here, Crocker takes on the sacred cows of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and defends (as an American and a Catholic) the legacy of the British Empire.

Our modern world, and America in particular, seems to be extremely hostile towards the idea of empire.  America’s story begins with revolution against empire.  We love anti-imperial nationalist movies like Braveheart and Gandhi.  Our country gets caught in military quagmires when we “meddle” in international affairs (look at Afghanistan and Vietnam).  Aren’t FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and current presidential candidates like Ron Paul right  for trying to keep America isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist?

Wrong, declares Crocker.  For as he makes clear, the world would not be as humane and just today if not for the British Empire (and her if somewhat unwilling heir, the American Empire).  It was the British Empire that spearheaded the death of slavery across the world.  It was the British who promoted free markets in the New World and Hong Kong.  It was the British Empire that kept Hindus and Muslims from killing each other in India and tribes from warring with each other in Africa.  The British abolished widow-burning and child-abandonment.   The British brought infrastructure, hospitals, and schools to India while comprising less than 1% of the population. The British stood alone (at one point) against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan.  It was the British Empire that introduced ideas of democracy, limited government, and rights to America, Ireland, India, Africa, and Australia.

Sure, the British (almost arrogantly) believed in their own superiority, and they therefore sought to spread their civilization and culture to soften the harsh realities of the rest of the world.  But for an imperialist power, Britain was remarkably open-minded and lenient:  Her colonies could retain their social structures, governments, customs, and language, while gaining all the benefits of British progress and values.  It’s little wonder everyday citizens in Africa and India pined for the British to come back after they left.

The British were an inspired people.  And that, ultimately, is Crocker’s goal: to inspire his readers with the British example.  That is why at its heart, Crocker’s Guide is less of a history than a collection of mini-biographies of some of Britain’s most prominent figures.  These great men were extraordinarily diverse:  Crocker presents conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and atheists, pure-blood Brits and colonial-bred Aussies and Irish.  What ties them all together is their discipline, taste for adventure, brilliance, commitment to empire, and faith in British ideals and values that should be spread to the rest of the world.

H.W. Crocker III is quickly becoming my favorite historian for his swashbuckling, page-turning, and occasionally (and unabashedly) politically incorrect narratives of some of the world’s greatest stories.  (Check out his histories/biography of the Catholic Church, of the American military, of the Civil war, and of Confederate general Robert E Lee; you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out his comic novel The Old Limey while you’re at it).  You won’t be disappointed by his latest installment, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, either.

In short…
Content
: Survey of the history of the British Empire.
Style:  Section for each major region of the Empire (India, Africa, Middle East, Australia, Ireland), each with a short introductory chapter and three illustrious British men representing a region.  Readable yet elevated writing style.
Catholic?:  One might wonder how Crocker, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, could praise the British Empire, which persecuted famously Catholic countries like Ireland, but he meets these concerns head-on.  Moreover, he points out how English ideals are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Overall: 4/5


Books Catholics Should Read: The Pope and the CEO

January 3, 2012

The Pope & The CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, by Andreas Widmer

In a society that increasingly sees business — and in particular, business for profit — as dirty, Andreas Widmer, a Swiss guard turned CEO entrepreneur, delivers an essential message:  For-profit business can be a force for good in the world, especially if its leaders live out a “person-centered ethic.”

Widmer offers a seemingly unlikely model for business leaders today – Blessed John Paul II, namely because of the great pope’s emphasis on the humanity of each individual.  Business, even in a for-profit context, exists to serve man.  It serves employees, who strive to earn a living; it serves customers, who gain a service or product; and it serves investors, who earn returns on financial investment.  The leader who loses sight of the fact that business exists to serve people sets himself and his company up for long-term failure (even if there is material profit in the short-term).

This is not to say that profit is bad, of course; according to Widmer, profit is the incentive that helps us serve employees, customers, and investors even better.  But profit for its own sake, without any concern for man, is dangerous.  That’s why Widmer so strongly advocates for a “person-centered ethic,” so distinctively embodied in John Paul II.

Widmer offers 9 lessons — drawn from John Paul II’s teachings and from anecdotes of personal encounters with the pope — to help the business leader cultivate his ethic, virtue, and humanity.  What makes this book so outstanding, however, is that while it is directed towards business leaders, anyone can apply John Paul II’s teachings to their lives.  Virtue, after all, is to be lived out no matter what your situation in life — whether you are a layman, a CEO, or a pope.

in short…
Content:  9 chapters dedicated to 9 leadership lessons, based on Andreas Widmer’s encounters with the pope while he was a Swiss guard.
Style:  Very colloquial, which makes for an easy and light read.  (Read through it on your next long plane flight!)  Alternates fluidly between (auto)biographical sketches, encyclical quotes, and abstract lessons.
Catholic?:  It’s refreshing to find a businessman and author like Widmer who sincerely tries to live out his Catholic faith in all aspects of his life, instead of compartmentalizing faith, work, and play like so many of us are wont to do.  It is Widmer’s attitude that will leave the reader convinced that business for profit, too, can be a vocation.

Overall:  4/5


Books Catholics Should Read: “Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome”

July 25, 2011

What makes biographies of great men so invaluable is that they are essentially lessons in leadership.  British historian Anthony Everitt’s compelling portrayal of the Roman emperor Hadrian in Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome is no exception.

Hadrian was an intriguing man.  Not only was he a Roman emperor, but he was also an architecture enthusiast, a poet, a hunter, a hard drinker, and a climber of volcanoes to boot.  The most important things we can learn from him, though, are his lessons in leadership: 1) A leader is not over the people, but with them; he is their greatest servant.  And, 2) a leader does not need to pursue groundbreaking change to make a difference; it enough and more to put limits on one’s own power and to consolidate and perfect existing practices and standards.

The notion of servant-leadership is nothing new to Catholics, since we see it so clearly in Christ in the Gospels.  Hadrian, too, demonstrates this type of leadership. Consider this famous anecdote:

When Hadrian was on an imperial tour of the provinces, a woman asked him to consider her appeal.  When Hadrian answered, “I haven’t the time!” the woman responded, “Then stop being emperor!”  This struck home for Hadrian, who dropped all he had to listen to the woman.

Such a compelling reminder of what it means to be a leader!  Hadrian, moreover, made sure to live among the people, whether with senator or soldier.  He also reminds us that to have power doesn’t mean you have to flaunt it:  When he was on the march with soldiers, Hadrian wore the same armor and ate the same food as everyone else; the only luxury he allowed himself was a sword with an ivory hilt.

The second lesson in leadership that Hadrian shows us is the foolishness of imperium sine fine, or “power without end.”  Hadrian, unlike his predecessor Trajan who nearly expanded Rome out of existence (through his Pyrrhic Parthian expedition), sought to consolidate Rome’s power by putting an end to her expansion.  Hadrian saw no need to add glory to his name by expanding Rome; the greatest glory was to be found in stabilizing Rome as she was.  Too often, today, we see amateurish leaders who think they need to do something extreme or innovative to make a difference (whether by creating unnecessary programs for school clubs, or by passing national laws with dire consequences).  They can learn a thing or two from Hadrian, who was comfortable enough in his leadership to perfect things as they were rather than pursuing things that were impractical and impossible.

Hadrian was a man of his times.  But what made him a great one were his principles in leadership.  He had the integrity to limit his own power, as well as the courage to make himself the Roman empire’s greatest servant.

Content: Though sources on Hadrian are woefully spotty, Everitt uses nifty detective (and sometimes, guess) work to paint a credible picture of Hadrian’s life and times.  The focus of the book is, of course, Hadrian’s reign, though close to half of it deals with the political landscape leading up to Hadrian’s accession.
Style
Part biography and part-social history are combined into a nifty narrative that reads like a novel.  However, there are times when Everitt attempts at irony and wit, yet they failed to make an impression on me.
Catholic?: Catholics be warned – Everitt has a decided dislike for Christianity (as well as a grave misunderstanding).  However, it’s Hadrian’s example we are meant to examine; Everitt’s religious opinions are easy to overlook and dismiss.

Overall: 4.5/5