Martin Berdinger is a certified public accountant and a lawyer and a professor of tax law, but he is more of an attorney than an accountant, and more of a professor than the foregoing. The professions of keeping accounts, telling tales, and professing laws are closely related at history’s source, where bookkeepers tallied up goods for kings and pharaohs, went on to give accounts of events, and then professed to know how things should occur, turning to the people’s side when disgruntled.
Accountants are not famous for their sense of humor or people skills; they usually do not have much to say and are focused more on the facts than are the lawyers who put the facts to trial. That is, lawyers are naturally more verbose by trade than accountants, and lawyers who win most often are certainly more persuasive than their opponents; they tell a good story when they present their client’s case, supporting it the best they can with evidence and substantive and procedural law. To that end the lawyer must have a sense of humor, for his practice will eventually dispose him to cynicism, which is no enemy to comic irony; a sense of humor tends to disarm he who tries the facts. The imagination of good professors, even professors of tax law, extends beyond the facts and the law, for they would bring the light to the people, and that light, in the interest of some purportedly higher justice, might outshine the pharaoh and his magistrates, wherefore such public defenders have been called lucifers; i.e. “light-bearers.” Yet no matter how far the imagination might fly into the abstract realm, we are stuck with figures of speech based on concrete experience.
I must admitted that my first impression of Professor Berdinger, who introduced himself to me with a private lecture on the “blessed federalism of percolating states,” was that he was, notwithstanding his reputation as a tax wizard, somewhat of a crackpot, an impression augmented by the bloody bandage on his bald pate – the absentminded professor said he had been thinking of a States’ Rights tax case when he arose from bed that morning and stumbled head first into the glass panels of his wife’s antique china cabinet.
The reader may imagine what I thought of the professor when I became acquainted with his part in the scandal over the Miami Herald’s so-called Death Tower, and when he handed me Madame Huong’s card and told me to call on her, using the code name, General Peace, and said that the unwritten portion of my job description mandated that I help her market “happy hats.” I considered begging askance of the partners at Landoro & Lawk at the time, but Professor Berdinger had been their consultant for many years and was highly esteemed by them, staid as they were, so I did not want to embarrass myself and risk my position by being out of order. And I was glad that I had desisted after I read a number of court opinions the professor had cited, for all of his definite positions seemed backed by judicial legislation, lowering my opinion of the Third Branch while raising my estimate of the professor’s position on it. As for the Death Tower, there might be something to it as far as I knew. And as for Madame Huong, I supposed Professor Berdinger was playing a practical joke on me, so I decided to humor him and to call on her. As coincidence would have it, the famous artist and peace activist happened to be exhibiting a few million dollars of her artwork at South Beach’s famous Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road. I researched her background before calling on her there.
If she only she had been born and raised in the United States, Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong would make a great poster child for the real violence Americans say they do not want children to witness at home although they allow the media to feed their kids a steady diet of violent images that induces many of them to engage not only in violence at home but in massively organized terrorism abroad to advance the American way of life their enemies are allegedly so jealous of. She was raised in Vietnam hence experienced firsthand the horrors of the American-led war on its communistically inclined peasantry. Indeed, her self-portrait is entitled Dead Dove: a crying girl holds dead bird. She graduated from Vanhanh University in 1972 with a degree in journalism, and reported on the daily atrocities of war; for example, she interviewed war widows who were giving their last ounce of flesh, prostituting their bodies to support their children. Her own family sided with the capitalists: She lost several members of her immediate family, including a brother who was killed and a brother who committed suicide, and her father died after being imprisoned by the communists for nine years – eventually, in 1992, the communist government of reunited Vietnam released eleven members of her family, with whom she was reunited in Washington, D.C.
Madame Huong jumped into a refugee boat with her baby son in her arms the day before South Vietnam fell – her son was destined to develop a computer animation business in America, which he sold for several million dollars after he turned 25. The overcrowded boat was refused landing in several Eastern countries, but American sailors rescued the refugees when the boat arrived in the Philippines. She wound up in a refugee camp in California, but soon ventured to Kodiak Island in hopes of securing a job at a canning factory, where English was not required for employment. That job did not work out, but she stayed in Alaska for 10 years, where she replaced her “broken” pen of journalism with a painter’s brush, learning the artistic carving method of intaglio from the Native Americans with whom she traveled about at length - Eskimos and Vietnamese share a common, Mongolian ancestry. She produced lovely, optimistic works of art, representative of her uplifting experience in Alaska, where she also taught in a community college for some time.
And then the enterprising artist with son in tow traveled thousands of miles in a 1976 Buick station wagon in North America over a period of four years. She also plied her art in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. She eventually settled in South Florida, opening her first gallery at Boca Raton’s Wharfside shopping center. In 1992 she met Bank America executive and art collector Glen Ryals when he bought ‘Moon Song’, a portrait of two lovers among roses. He opened Ryals Gallery in 1993: “Opening the gallery was the only way he could keep me in town. Glenn is a very smart man.” (Boca Raton News, April 24, 1998). They married in 1995, the same year the Vietnam and the United States governments re-established a formal relationship. The bride soon proceeded to paint ‘The War Pieces’, depicting her horrifying experiences in Vietnam. Her war art was mainly exhibited at the Art, War & Peace Museum in Jensen Beach. At the turn of the century, the couple took up residence in a Miami mansion they acquired and renovated, naming it the Art Palace.
My rich and famous friend Helene and I viewed a great deal of Madame Huong’s art in the enormous space the peace artist had rented next to McDonald’s on South Beach. Helene is of course an Neo-Impressionist of note who has served the world from time to time as an art curator, is presently an art advocate on various boards and councils, and is a volunteer public relations consultant for charities dealing with spousal and child abuse – she was brutally beaten by her powerful husbands.
Madame Huong’s peace exhibit did not appeal to me at first glance. I used to be a weekend hippie, and of course I am a freethinker, but at heart I am a conservative from the Heart of America. For one thing, I happen to know that war is what made America great, and that is why America’s neoconservatives, whose elders attributed their political prejudice to Germany’s New Conservatism until the death camps were exposed, tend to blame everything that is wrong with America on the [expletive deleted] pacifists. It is war that makes a man a man – without it he has no moral fiber worth speaking about. His woman should stand slightly behind him on his right side, gaze at him with admiring eyes, and pass him ammunition and cannon meat. The romance is in the war. Peace is generally viewed as obsolete except as a preparation to make war for another peaceful break for sexual intercourse to prepare for more peacemaking war in the name of the god of love. Moreover, the vestiges of the Peace Movement of the Sixties are dated and associated with recalcitrant hippies and other diehard weirdoes: The Vietnam War embarrassment was laid to rest under the glorious victory of the First Bush War on Iraq; Americans regained the guts to stay the course when spreading their version of democracy abroad, just as they did in the World Wars, instead of turning tail when the going gets very bloody; wherefore they have given up mere police actions such as those pursued in Korea and Vietnam, and have taken up fighting the World War on Terrorism with a vengeance.
However than might be, the sight of so much crimson cubism clashing in one place at Madame Huong’s South Beach exhibit overwhelmed the peace purportedly intended by her obvious overstatement of violence. My dear Helene, a military brat, neoconservative hawk, and fine friend to established right-wing authority, sympathized with my first impression. Helene has what she calls “pink insides,” which are attracted to the liberals she otherwise deplores. She has an eagle eye for fineries including the finest of fine art, and she is, in the final analysis and much to her credit, a just woman.
“You’re right, it’s overbearing, but only on the whole,” she responded when I voiced my discomfited criticism. “Look at the Picasso designs, for example those pieces over there, one by one. They’re brilliant. I think I might like to buy one for my Waldorf apartment, another for my Virginia home.”
“Your Washington friends might be appalled by pacifist art.”
“Not at all: they appreciate valuables no matter what the context might be.”
“Madame Huong grew up in Vietnam,” I offered. “Her family’s home had a single one piece of art displayed, a copy of Picasso’s The Three Musicians.”
“You don’t say. This one here reminds me of his Guernica. It is absolutely frightening. I would like to have it. I must have a word with her.”
“Helene, it’s all too depressing. See that woman raining tears of blood? How awful. You’re around abused women and children too much in your charities – you need something optimistic. Take that one over there, the big one with the huge doves on it.”
“Doves of peace,” Helene remarked.
“The doves symbolize the white stars of the American flag – the red is also from the flag, and stands for the blood of millions of people spilled. The doves want peace in Iraq.”
“The violent paintings are the best,” Helene observed.
“Violence begets violence. It’s as if victims are attracted to their abusers. Madame Huong said that great art comes from great sorrow. Her whole country was abused.”
“She’s right about great art, but please don’t criticize the war, my father was doing the right thing.”
“She’s obviously cashing in on abuse big time,” I went on, at risk of getting her gal. “War is the worst abuse of all, and now that it’s politically incorrect to chastise women and children at home, men have to rely on war even more to let off steam. Why don’t you ask Madame Huong about her earlier paintings, the optimistic ones she did before she felt compelled to confront her violent past and express her horror with war. ”
“I smell money,” Helene sniffed. “I know these Vietnamese – they look out for themselves, and are keen to make a profit. I will buy something from her”
“I think you should get away from the violence in the name of peace, Helene. Don’t be a masochist.”
“Stop it, Walter, you’re upsetting me. No man is going to tell me what to do, you know that.”
“Excuse me, let’s not fight.”
“I know what I want, Walter. You seem to know a lot about her. She’s up to something.”
“I was referred to her at work, so I looked into her background.”
“Oh, did you, now? May I tell you what people should say when you say you will look into something?”
“They should say, Please don’t.”
“Why is that?”
“You are like a dog on a bone once you take up a subject – you dig up skeletons in the basement. …. Hmm, her work looks carved – she’s good with palette knife, and she cuts her lines with something, probably the other end of her brush. And see how she throws her paint? Ah, the paint looks cracked, she’s heated it, and there’s a grainy texture.”
“Her line is great,” I added. “I was impressed by her line and when I saw black-and-white photocopies of her compositions. But the color is outlandish. There is too much red, too much blood. It’s all too shocking, too garish for me. I’m sick and tired of the violence – I want peace now.”
“I thought liberals liked red,” Helene teased..
“I’m not a communist.”
“Maybe she is. Maybe she’s a spy. She cut up an American flag.”
“She hates communists, Helene.”
“You have said yourself that God loves Satan because God needs a devil in order to be God.”
“I’m going to interview her for my living novel about Tracey Flagler.”
“What about your living novel about me? Why don’t you put her in my novel?”
“Don’t worry, Helene, there will be more about you, something sexy too.”
“Don’t upset me. And stop looking at my breasts. She’s coming our way.”