Friday, January 26, 2018

Screaming at God with Shonda Rhimes

Grey's Anatomy has been on pretty much forever at this point. We're well past the point where the show should be sticking around just because enough of us can't quite quit it, where it's a little embarrassing in its dotage, but still reminiscent enough of its glory days to make us feel good some times, to like it somehow precisely for what it no longer is. 

Instead even now the show keeps trying new and striking things. Last night, I'm pretty sure for the first time the show actively explored issues of race as they relate to its black characters. For over a decade, Shonda Rhimes and the staffs on each of her shows have made a point of presenting the world the way it should be -- casts that are diverse in every way -- without the subsequent conversation within the show being about the characters' diversity. In a way -- stay with me here -- it reminds me of the move Pope Francis made after becoming Pope not to focus on sexual ethics. Those issues have their place, but only within a broader context.

Even as the show last night presented the painful story of a young black teen shot by cops for breaking into what turns out to be his own house, and the impact that has on a number of the doctors and their families (the scene with Warren, Bailey and her son is in its own way both devastating and a public service), that story is by no means the focus of the episode. Instead, that nightmarish reality is placed within the context of a number of devastating losses, and the faith question that they beg. Where are you God? And is it me or are you an absolute monster?

And that question is just left hanging there, which to me is its greatest strength of all. Because when you are the one forced to stare into the abyss that is tragedy, horror, injustice, the only thing that is clear is that every explanation is wrong. Those who give them may be well-intentioned or afraid that the abyss will pull them in, too (and often both), but they just don't know what they're talking about. 

Old shows are like lullabies, just something sweet to put us to sleep and tell us everything's okay. To have one take by the hand and help me to scream is a strange but welcome relief.

Watch: Grey's Anatomy, Episode 1411: "Personal Jesus", written by Zoanne Clack (@zoanneclack)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why Don't You Smile, Angela Merkel?

Sitting in her housecoat, the drapes drawn for privacy from the young neighbors who always seemed to be in their lounge staring, Penelope pored over her favorite read, the local tabloid.

"Why does Angela Merkel look so glum on her holiday? She's in the mountains of Italy, for goodness sake. Her husband looks like Ian McKellen."

Walter shrugged, deep in the rugby section. As if he could last one second on the field these days, she thought to herself, staring at the shelf of belly on which his paper was perched.

"I wonder if they've had a row," she wonders, her tone suggesting she had it on good information this was not an unfamiliar situation for the Merkel-Sauers. "Look at him, he can't even bear to look at her."

From out of the corner of her eye Penelope thought she saw Walter's eyes roll. She stopped, looked at him closer. Nothing. Honestly, it was hard to tell if he was even alive sometime.

She turned the page. Prince Philip was retiring from public life, after seventy years at the Queen's side. She'd always liked the cut of his chin. And even now he had the trim figure of a soldier.

She sighed, staring into his watery blue eyes. Thinking how much he would be missed. But also--really, what was Angela Merkel's problem?

She turned back to her photo, holding hiking poles and staring out as though into some distance. Really it was Ian who seemed cross, as though he'd just found out about another infuriating thing Angela had done. "The way she dumped all those refugees on her country like that? I'd be furious too."

Walter looked up. Really looked at her. She'd never liked his brown eyes. They had no luster; they reminded her of the eyes of a rag doll made in China. And not even a human rag doll, some kind of big dog. Walter -- her big, dull mutt.

"What?" For a moment it looked like he was about to say something. Then he shook his head and returned to his paper.

Did my oaf of a husband just dismiss her, she wondered with shock. I think not.

She said it again, no longer a question but a command. "What?"

He looked back at her, looked a long time, really considering her up and down. And his face -- what was that strange look he had on it? She couldn't quite say, but it was making her furious.

"When it comes right down to it, most of the time we're each just lost and alone."

What an incredible thing to say! And he said it with such warmth. She realized what his look was -- it was pity.

(Actually it was kindness, but for her that was a distinction without difference.)

She stood, as shocked as if he'd slapped her. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" He looked at her one moment more, as though sending a last message of hope out into the darkness before the signal faded. Then he shrugged and returned to his box scores.

Still Penelope just stood there. Stood so long it felt like the sun moved while she was standing. (In fact she was only standing for ninety three seconds.)

Finally she sat back down and returned to her paper.

She stared at the photo and sipped her tea. Angela did look lost. And sad.

She snorted and turned the page.

"Well Theresa May is staying nearby. And apparently she's just fine."

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Covfefe is Twitter for "Help Me"

                                            -- Vanity Fair, 7/31/17: The president feeds on other people's credibility.

I'm not having fun any more, the President tweeted as he raced around the maze, devouring everything in sight.** It's just the same thing over and over again. I swear, it's like I'm in a prison.  

His tweet actually read, "Beleaguered Beauregard has betrayed me and the American people. What is he still doing here? Sad!" It was the three hundredth time he had tweeted something like this. He still didn't feel better. It was him that was sad. He kept eating.  

I wonder if this is what the Israelites felt like in the desert. The manna never looked great to begin with, but after a couple weeks of the stuff? Come on. 

"The Democrats and the Republicans, united in their inability to fix your health care. Drain the swamp!" Would someone please free him from his swamp?

Turning a corner, he found himself face to face with his new communications director. The director immediately headed his way. With a couple quick turns the president knew he could power up and devour him. Until recently, that's what he always did, and took great joy in it. 

But stuck here in a Beltway every bit as daunting as the Minotaur's maze, he considered another course. Let the man come, without repercussions. Let him say or do what he needed to. Stop eating. Stop running. Be. It sounded exquisite. 

But there was something about the man's face. Something handsome. And he was still hungry. And honestly, the past that chased him was too enormous for him to ever stop running. 

"Good riddance to low energy trash. #MAGA" he tweeted as a whole new screen popped up, filled with more of the same. Jesus, help me. 

** Pac-Man was the brainchild of Toru Iwatani, a Japanese video game designer who came up with the idea of a game about eating while eating a pizza. (The only idea I have ever had while eating a pizza was "I should eat more pizza." Then again, maybe that fits.)

Seeing his pizza missing two slices gave Iwatani the idea for the look of the character. (Imagine if the pizza had been ham and pineapple. Or he had been eating haggis.)

The name "Pac-Man" actually comes from the Japanese word to describe the sound our mouths make when open and closed quickly over and over, "paku-paku". Which means today the game would be called Nom Nom Man. And to my mind that insight alone justifies the time I spent looking into this.

Monday, July 31, 2017

My Scaramucci

My freshman year of college I did work study in the kitchen of our dining hall. My job was gathering the dishes from the trays students more or less threw into our area (no conveyor belts back then, dear hearts), putting them into thick mental-institution-blue and green plastic racks which were then inserted for ninety seconds into our super fast industrial antisepticizer. Then I was to pull the steaming rack out and stack the dishes so that they could be whisked back into the line for some other hung over freshman to immediately slather with eggs, "fresh fruit" and genuine artificial butter product.

My first shift was a Saturday morning. I stood in back with full-time employees who actually knew what they were doing, doing my best to gather the plates while avoiding having to touch things that really disgusted me (like ketchup). I stacked, shoved, slammed the iron gate of the antisepticizer down, pushed the satisfyingly-big-red-missile-launch button, and watched as steam immediately shot out in a fantastic echo of carbonite freezing.

Ninety seconds later, the plates were ready, and the nightmare began, as my decidedly-non-calloused hands attempted to manipulate now-super-hot plastic dishes. It was like playing hot potato with real potatoes cooked in volcanoes. Meanwhile more dishes covered in ketchup and mustard and other things that make me sick were piling up, many left by smirking guys from my floor who went that extra mile with their refuse.

Everything that looks incredible when it's brought out to you 
is the stuff of nightmares when you're done with it. 

Pretty quickly, one of the full-time employee very quickly started shouting at me. He was speaking Spanish, a language I should have understood, as I'd studied it for years in high school; but we'd never done a unit on "conversational dishware workplace" (or conversational anything, believe it or not), so I didn't know what he was saying.

But hey, at the same time, let's not kid ourselves, I knew exactly what he was saying, and the louder and more frequently he shouted it, while I began to wonder at what temperature the top layers of your skin melt off and whether I had fallen into a cool episode of "Tales from the Crypt", the more I shared his concerns.

Things went on like that for about 50 minutes. Then I saw a bunch of my friends in the dining hall. One of them looked my way, smiling. His plate was clearly going to be a real treasure chest.

I kept at it a few more minutes. Then I went to my boss, quit, got in line and joined my pals for breakfast.  

Monday, August 8, 2016

The World We Choose to Live In

Sunday afternoon, an overcast, somewhat steamy day on the West Side of Los Angeles.

I'm writing in a Starbucks not far from Loyola Marymount, where I live.

Suddenly I hear the young woman at a table say "Oh my God. Oh my God!" I look up to find she has left her seat and is standing nearby, staring across the store out the far glass doors.

I don't know what I said, but I must have said something, because she told me that there was a fighting going on across the street. "It started here", she said, then said it again. Like she was in shock.

I didn't know what to do, starting with, should I look? I realized everyone in the store was. A few 20 something men were smiling, the whole thing an inside joke they were sharing with one another. The rest of us just stood there, watching, and I think all of us were kind of in shock. In fact a balding man in his late 50s who seems to spend a lot of his time in here reading newspapers and working bumped into me, not even seeing me as he tried to see what was going on.

The situation was not two guys fighting, but a group of four, in the parking lot of a gas station, their sides unclear, I think mostly because my brain had gotten stuck trying to figure out what I should do.

Which probably seems like a dumb question. Like, what could I possibly do? And I'd like to say it's the priest in me that wants to hurry over and try to stop anyone from getting hurt. But honestly, it's probably a lot more the kid who got bullied as a child who still instinctively wants to lash out at his own tormentors. I don't know who's in the right or in the wrong, but I want to jump in.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like such a strange time in our country, and not just because of the Trumpocalypse -- if you're a supporter, forgive me; I get the appeal but I don't get how one overlooks the enormous number of risks him as president poses.

Last week I saw a man and a woman arguing in another Starbucks in a strangely confrontational and public way, and my mind immediately went to the possibility that one of them might have a gun. About an hour later I was leaving the shop and I heard someone behind a high wooden gate yelling, and I immediately picked up my pace, considering the terrain with an eye on what might block bullets.

And maybe that's just me. I hope so. But the fact that in the face of a bunch of guys fighting across the street pretty much everyone in this Los Angeles coffee shop was immediately in a total fog, uncertain even about those around them tells me maybe it's not.

I happend to be in London days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the E.U. And the most striking impression I had from my time there was of how uncomfortable it had suddenly become to not be white. Day after day, newspapers reported stories of dark-skinned people, many of them British citizens for generations, being harassed by whites, in some cases even attacked.

A couple weeks later, on the Australian news program Q&A, a Muslim man described to a woman recently elected on a ban-all-new-Muslims ticket how his life had changed since her One Nation began their fiercely xenophobic rhetoric. He and his family had lived in Australia for eight years, and happily so, without a problem. But with the advent of the election campaign, he suddenly found himself harassed every single day. He told the audience if this continued he feared for his wife's life.

Both through our choices and our inaction, we create the worlds we all have to live in.

In the end, someone has called the cops. Even before they arrived most of us have snapped out of it and gone back to our seats, eager to submerse ourselves back in our Twitter feeds and our newspapers, feeling the hardness of the wood under us, tasting the bitter tannins of our cooling coffee, resting in the ordinariness of our lives. What happened becomes a crazy story to share on social media, or to laugh about over drinks later with our friends.

Until it happens again.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Where I Am and Where I Was

It's been a very long time since I posted anything here. Mea culpa! I got hired about two years ago to write for America Magazine, and since then most of my (publishable) crazy thoughts have gone to them.

At some point I'd like to come back to the original purpose I used this for, which is sort of sketches and thoughts about God and the world. But it could be a while...

For now, if you're at all interested in what I'm up to, you can find me at America's Dispatches blog writing about California, pop culture and spirituality. Or I'm on Twitter @popculturpriest. 

I also just started a weekly newsletter about pop culture and spirituality called "Pop Culture Spirit Wow", which you can sign up for here.

And for those who actually still get updates from this blog or occasionally check to see its/my state of disrepair, a little something for you.

In May I had the good fortune to go to Paris. I'd never been, had no idea what to expect. Was actually kind of scared about the trip, even more than going to China, if you can believe that, just because I don't speak French and I had heard Parisians don't take kindly to that oh so American reality.

As it turns out, the people were fantastic, and I had a great time.

And I noticed something there. Their cafes -- bistros, brasseries -- all have outdoor seating where the seats face not one another but the street in front of them.

Classic French Cafe Culture 

I don't know if that sounds like a big deal but it's actually kind of extraordinary. First of all, imagine walking down the block, coming around a corner, and suddenly finding like a hundred people staring at you.

Yeah, it's kind of weird. More than once I found myself turning right around and going a different way.

But when you're the one sitting in the chair, looking out on the world, it's such an extraordinary experience. Sure, there can be a little voyeurism or maybe even objectification. But really, it's like the set up of the chairs is meant to help you see that the world around is not just something to rush through, a set of obstacles to overcome, but itself a rich source of meaning and contemplation.

I ended up spending hours upon hours each day just sitting in patisseries, watching the world go by. The rain. The cars. The passersby, like the old man who stopped with his younger date at the end of their evening together, and put his hand up to her face and kissed her on the cheek in a tender but lingering way that invited something more, if she wanted.

She politely smiled, and said good night.

And he nodded, maybe a tiny bit bittersweet but only just that. Clearly happy for what he had gotten, even just that lingering kiss.

And he crossed the street into the night.

The world -- it's so much more beautiful and interesting than we usually have time for.

A shot from my favorite place my last night in Paris. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pope Officially Condemns Time Travel

Responding to the recent announcement of Oklahoma Archbishop Lapus Lazuli that he will attempt to travel back in time to “a better past”, Pope Francis today issued a statement denouncing time travel. “All around us are people in desperate need,” the Pope told the gathered press. “Christians in search of work should look to the present.”

Lazuli, one-time archbishop in Oklahoma City currently in residence in Naples, Florida, has become known in recent years for his comments about the virtues of the past.  “We talk of it as though it’s another world, but the era of Fulton Sheen, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and the papal tiara is still within our reach,” he said at Mass on Easter Sunday.

“That’s the resurrection we should be fighting for.”