Monday, June 29, 2009


In getting that image of Rowlf the Muppet Dog the other day, I came upon this piece of trivia: in 1993, BMG released a Rowlf solo album entitled "Ol' Brown Ears is Back" and consisting of 14 songs recorded in 1984 by Jim Henson.  The album contains some classics, including Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and Paul Williams' "Bein' Green"; and what's striking is the real feeling in the singing.  Muppet though he may be, Rowlf's got soul.  

Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Credit Cards Work, Part 3

So, you pay your credit card bill promptly every month.  You have no annual fee.   What use are you to the banks? 

Believe it or not, even if you always pay in full, I was shocked to discover the bank still makes money off of you.  BECAUSE, for every charge that you make, the bank takes 2-3% of the amount charged from the seller.   This is the cost for the stores of the doing credit card business, if you will, the charge the banks demand for the service.   And top of that, banks also charge a transaction fee, a flat rate of 30 cents or more.  If you ever wondered why some stores demand a minimum charge of $10-20 in order for a buyer to use a credit card, this is the reason.  Maybe it's also the reason that candy bars are so darn expensive at gas stations -- if they only charge 60 cents, bank costs gobble more than half their fee.  

A cheap Snickers may satisfy you...but probably not the BP. 

So, that's how credit cards work. As I said at the beginning, there's a lot of talk out there at this point that banks are beginning a variety of strategies to try and milk more money from them, ranging from the restoration of annual fees to the truly outrageous moves of changing the dates the bills are due without due notice or changing the interest rates dramatically, and doing it all right now so as to get in before the new credit card reform law goes into effect. The New York Times noted in an article last week that the banks being given the most in the bailout are, of course, the ones demanding the highest fees.

A last thing -- you know how when you sign in for a credit card, the information sheets they give you are so complicated and convoluted, they make it pretty near impossible to actually know what the fees are? Well, a number of graphic designers have suggested a simple form very similar to a nutrition label. The full article, which is very short and worth reading, is here.

And here's the label they suggest:

I Stand Corrected (Already)

Since writing yesterday, I've heard the following things in passing: As a form of protecting a number of local trees (not rare trees, mind you, just trees of the area) which were going to be cut down, a number of Berkeley residents, including students, lived in those trees for over two years.  

A recent PhD candidate at a nearby school entitled their dissertation, "The Tyranny of the Nuclear Family".

And, a major fault line runs right through the part of Berkeley through which I live. (The whistle on my house key chain, I am told, is to allow me to indicate my position if I am trapped in a building that has collapsed.) As a cherry on top, nuclear material is being handled regularly in the hills directly above us.  (Think "The Simpsons".)

Point being, maybe this isn't quite so like the worlds I've come from after all...

I also discovered yesterday that Berkeley has another nickname: the "Athens of the West", in honor of the cultural and artistic achievements of Cal-Berkeley.   This put me in mind of Omaha, which I've also heard called the Athens of the West by its natives, as well as the more florid "Diamond Stickpin in the Bosom of the Midwest". We Midwesterners, we do have a way with words. 

Not Only In Berkeley

I have just arrived in Berkeley, California. It’s a town with many names, among them Berzerkely, The People’s Republic of Berkeley. When people talk about California as the Left Coast, it’s often Berkeley and nearby San Francisco of which they speak.

And so, walking the streets of Berkeley for the first time this afternoon, I had certain viewing expectations, most of which I’m sure you could rattle off yourself: pungently-scented big-bearded men with dreadlocks, Bob Marley T-Shirts and Rasta hats; skateboards, panhandlers, free love, and earth mothers; organic foods, art house cinemas, smoke shops, independent booksellers; crystals, piercings, graffiti, tattoos and solar powered everything.

But I must say, the reality was quite tame. Shattuck Avenue, a main thoroughfare near the campus of UC Berkeley, certainly has an independent feeling to it, with far more self-owned sorts of businesses than chains, including the wonderful Pegasus Fine Books, the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Rep Theater and Bowzer’s Pizza, which hosts on one wall photos of such famous dogs as Toto, Astro, and Rowlf from the Muppets.

Muppet Cool.

There are also skateboarders, tattoos and people asking for money. But really, what’s notable at first glance is not the community’s outrageousness but its sensory stimulation. The hills of Berkeley are an Edenic land of vibrant hues, spectacular vistas and rich, sweet scents that turn your head. Walking here you begin to appreciate what it must be like to be a bee in springtime, every flowerbed, a new, irresistible seduction.

Flowers in a Berkeley nursery.  

Still, the perception of Berkeley as radical is not simply a visitor’s point of view. One California friend told me that everyone selling marijuana on the streets of Berkeley was a cop, an idea that seemed to take a bit of the grunge-sparkle out of the Berkeley image.

Likewise, walking home today across the Berkeley campus, I came upon a group of college age students, looking as though a part of some sort of orientation. As I passed five or six college-age Asian men from the group, in button-up shirts and dress slacks, ran forward, hollering loud and awkwardly, mentally looking over their shoulder as they raced to a finish line to complete some sort of ice breaking exercise. I turned to find myself approaching a heavy set African American man in baggy clothes, carrying a triple ply garbage bag as big as himself filled with cans. He grinned at me and shook his head. “Only in Berkeley, son.”

And I thought of how often I’ve seen this very scene enacted at orientations on other college campuses. Or of how Cambridge, Massachusetts, too, is also known as the “People’s Republic”, and how before finals week at Harvard, the entire student body descends on the Freshman quad and screams over and over in the darkness, while, if you can believe it, freshmen race in a circle around the quad, naked. Known as the Harvard Howl, the whole thing plays out like a (really creepy) scene from Dante.

I thought all these things, and I grinned back and nodded politely. It all seems pretty tame, but then again, it’s only my first day.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Into (Not So) Great Silence

I'm off to retreat this morning, and will be out of touch for the next week or so.  I've actually got something cooking for the site when I get back -- I've been researching credit card companies and bishops' apparel.  Something to look forward to. 

In the meantime... America just published an article by me about Australia entitled "Gone Walkabout"; much of the raw material came from the writing I had done on this blog.   So, you might want to check it out.  

I also did a podcast with online editor Tim Reidy about my experiences in Australia and all the great people I met. You can find it here. 

Update: as of Sunday night, the America website hasn't yet updated to include the most recent edition's articles (including mine).  Check back early next week.  

A somewhat apropos anecdote: I've been driving a lot through Wisconsin this week, both up to St. Paul/Minneapolis and down to Chicago. And I've passed a lot of dead deer along the roadside. It's not that unusual for here, but coming from Manhattan, it's a bit of a spectacle. You don't see much roadkill in Times Square...  

Actually, the last time I was someplace where there was a lot of roadkill to be seen, it was in Australia.  I can't tell you, in fact, how many dozens of dead kangaroos I saw along the side of the road in different parts of Australia; in the outback I was even warned never to drive at night, because the kangaroos are always out, and they travel in packs, and like deer, they freeze before headlights. (Or they jump, potentially into your windshield, which is even worse.)

And so -- weirdly, I admit -- each time we passed a dead deer, I kept thinking instinctively that I was looking at dead kangaroo.  It wasn't until the 5th or the 6th that I even realized I was thinking it.  

Clearly, I need a retreat.  See you in a week!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One More Question

Questions:  Does anybody really like them?

I don't mean your garden variety "I wonder what time the ball game is on?" thoughts, questions of basic fact that are easily answered.  No I mean the big ones -- the ones that keep you up at night. The ones that make your teeth rattle.  What do I do with my life?  Am I in the right place? Do I love X? etc. etc.  

Does anyone really love these questions?  I don't think so.  At least, not at first.  Because we want answers.  We want clarity.  We want to feel comfortable in our own skin, and these sorts of questions have a way of shaking that.  Trying to answer them is like trying to pin down a snake -- it slips right out of your hands. And then it bites you. 

But I was thinking... what if we thought of the big questions more like the sound of a bell, and instead of having to do something, we could just be the bell itself, letting that sound roll around in us, echo and fade into ourselves.  What if the act of asking does not generate a problem needing immediate solution but is itself a means, a path to the answer. 

I always think of this passage from Rainer Marie Rilke: 
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

A Thought on Petitional Prayer

God, please grant me a bone (and whatever the kid wants). 

Have you ever discovered that you've got so many people you're trying to pray for that you just can't keep it all straight?  And then there's the requisite I-am-a-horrible-Catholic-and-someone-should-punish-me guilt that follows - gotta love that. 

I'm all for praying for people. Sometimes I think it's worth asking whether in the act of asking we change God's heart or our own, our capacity to empathize with others.   But either way, I wonder if we go about it too literally when we worry about whether or not we've actually told God each and every name we've promised to pray for.  Even if we're not conscious of it, I wonder if we're not carrying those we pray for with us every day, maybe even physically, in the way we feel, in the burdens we experience ourselves having.  Maybe the act of saying we will pray for someone opens the door, and once it's open, we are the expression of the prayer.  

Just a little thought that popped into my head last week.  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Into the Black

If  you open a door between a dark room and a room with light, the light spills over into the darkness. But does the darkness spill out as well? 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Homily Gone Bad

From the pews, a homily that bombs is rarely comprehensible.  We ask the priest to do one thing, say a few good words.  What is so hard about that?

Except, it’s not just one thing that a priest is asked to do.  There’s the baptisms and the funerals and the marriage prep and the hospital visits and the school visits and the parish council meetings.  And there are fewer guys and diocesan meetings and parish subcommittees and bishops who’d like you to do one more thing and factions in the parish fighting and people waiting for you to say one wrong thing before they go to the bishop, and it doesn’t matter what thing you say, someone in the parish is pretty much going to be offended if you say much of anything, including “God loves you”, because what about those lousy terrorists, knuckleheaded Republicans or baby killers, you soft-on-abortion embarrassment. 

And then there’s the opposite case – you work on a homily, work hard, really knock yourself out, reading the commentaries, mulling things over, pushing yourself to say something that will be meaningful, that actually expresses something of the mystery that is God and love and our fallen but still kicking humanity.   And it still fails.

Believe it or not, that really does happen.  I know, practice makes perfect and the early bird gets the worm and something about the grasshopper, but it’s true. Sometimes you knock yourself out and the rocket still fails to launch. Or it gets going and then suddenly loses steam and begins falling end over end. Or it just explodes.

And other times, you have no time to prepare, you are literally considering the readings for the first time 6am Sunday with three masses to follow, and nothing much comes but self-recrimination, but when you’re standing up there feeling absolutely naked and foolish yet again it all just falls into place, there’s a lit path and good words and a breath of fresh air and maybe even a moment of beauty and you have no idea where the heck it came from but you’re grateful as hell.

There’s a lot we can do as preachers to improve our odds of speaking something inspired and worthwhile on a Sunday. And frankly, if we’re not doing some sort of preparation, we really can’t be surprised that the final product isn’t much, anymore than we’d be surprised that a band making up its music as it goes along doesn’t produce a quality set.

But just when I think I’ve got it all together, I’ve done all the work and I am going to nail it, halfway through the first section it falls apart like cheesecloth in my hands and I realize it’s not quite as simple as that. 

Congregations should still expect all that they do, if you ask me.  Just as long as they realize, it's still a human venture.   And so it just doesn't always work out.