Friday, December 30, 2011

12 DOC, Day 6: New Year's Eve Song

An old favorite song about New Year's, sung by two young actors. Hope you love it!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

12 DOC, Day 5: 5 Great TV Shows

In the Jesuits we say, "De gustibus, non disputandum". When it comes to matters of taste, there is no point in arguing.  People like what they like.

For me, here are five shows that fill me with joy, awe and wonder.

Community (NBC Thursdays, 8pm EST/PST)
The premise: A community college study group deals with the absurdity of school and life.

This is one of those shows critics are always talking about, because it's smart in a very meta- way.  Lots of inside jokes, film references.  The last episode before Christmas was a 20 minute mockery of all things Glee.  So, it can seem to cater to an oh-so-smart clientele.

But I love it because it's a show with such a sweet heart. The main characters are a bunch of misfits -- a lawyer who's always cut corners (and consequently never got his college diploma); a middle aged black woman whose husband cheated on her; a dumb jock; a high strung overachiever; a racist old man (Chevy Chase); and my favorite of all, Abed, a skinny, autistic Muslim kid who comprehends reality by way of the millions of movies and TV shows he's watched.  

When you've got 20 minutes, check out this episode, about a couple of the main characters dealing with foosball bullies, and you'll see what I mean -- ridiculous, snarky and incredibly sweet all at the same time.

Game of Thrones (HBO in April -- 1st season soon to be released on DVD)
While I fully embrace my nerddom, I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of swords and sorcery stuff.  Probably brings back too many bad memories of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. (Three or four hours spent sitting around a board, rolling dice and saying "Here's what I'm going to do" instead of actually doing anything -- I just never got it.)

Lord of the Rings is about as close as I get, and I think I love that because it combined fantasy with such huge spiritual and human struggles.  But that's it.

Game of Thrones is not a spiritual show.  It's not exactly a fantasy-style show, either, in that it really holds off on getting its magic on.  It's in many ways more like a political statesmanship thriller, sent in medieval Europe.  Which sounds like a snoozefest to me (and its trailers did not reassure, either).  I had   to force myself to watch it, but by the end of that pilot I was hooked.   It's one of the only shows I'm watching that surprises me every week.  It has the sorts of plot twists you wish every show had, stunners that change absolutely everything.  It reminded me of Christmas as a kid, actually, that feeling of total surprise you get when you open the gifts, like anything is possible and whatever it is, it's going to be the most awesome thing ever.  A really really fun show.

Breaking Bad (AMC, Fall -- Season 1-3 on Netflix)
This is another critical darling, which unfortunately very few people have seen. The premise: a weak high school chemistry professor begins to cook meth to make money for his family after he discovers he's going to die very soon of lung cancer.

The First Season poster -- and yes, there's a very good reason why
he's in his underwear.

I know, super super dark.  (And boy howdy, it only gets darker, let me tell you.) But I love it because it's a master class in television screenwriting -- compelling characters, bold but believable choices, great twists, and best of all, lots and lots of pay offs.

Maybe you've heard the comment, if you show a gun in a film, at some point someone has to use it.  The very presence of the gun creates an expectation in the audience which has to be satisfied in some way. It's called "paying it off", and ideally as writers we're trying to do that with every character and detail we present, pay them off in ways that are unexpected and yet once revealed seem totally shocking and satisfying.  Put another way, we want every single thing we put in a script to count for something later.  Nothing is irrelevant and nothing is wasted.  

Breaking Bad does this better than any show on television. And it's an amazing show about corruption and human failing. Honestly, if you're looking for one cable show to check out, this is the one.

Louie (FX -- Season 1 on Netflix)
The Premise: Comedian Louis CK plays a schlubby version of himself, doing shows, raising two kids by himself and trying to find a girlfriend.

This show isn't for everyone. It's raunchy almost too a fault, some would definitely say it crosses lines. But it's also the most original sitcom on television, each week less one story than a bunch of little stories with a common theme.  Each week it's a little bit film school, a little bit Seinfeld and a little bit Charlie Chaplin. And for as crass as it can get, it's a show with an amazingly moral voice.

Case in point: Early this season in the opening, one of Louie's daughters comes home to find the other daughter is eating cut up mango. She wants cut up mango, too, but Louie won't give her any. And she goes on and on about it, but Louie won't budge. He tells her, you should not spend your time looking at what others have and assume you deserve the same.  You should always be looking at others and making sure they have what they need, and helping them get it if they don't.

 I can watch these episodes again and again.  There's so much great stuff to see.

Here's Louis CK on a late night show from last year, doing a great short routine about technology and happiness.

The Good Wife (CBS, Sundays at 10pm EST/PST)
This is the only show I pretty much have to watch the day it airs.  And I'm not entirely sure I understand why. At its heart it's a law show, and how many of those have you seen?  But underneath it's about Alicia Florrick, the wife of the Chicago D.A., who has had to deal with her husband not only having affairs but being arrested for using public funds to support them.  Played by Julianna Margulies (of ER fame), Alicia is this poised, tightly restrained presence, trying to protect her kids and herself in the midst of the insanity that her husband has put upon them, and withholding her own desires for her happiness from all those around her.

This is the show in a nut shell -- swirling controversy, and Alicia in the center, her feelings completely hidden. 

Margulies won the Emmy last year, and it's no wonder, because it is just an incredibly riveting performance to watch.  And she's matched by an amazing supporting cast,  filled with nuance and subtlety. And the legal cases are so much better than what we're used to, too. Week to week, a show I immediately want to talk to people about.

Have a Happy New Year!

12 DOC, Day 4: 4 Great Books

Did you get an Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas? Here's a couple books that I have just loved this year.  

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
Given the success Apple has had, especially in the last 10 years, the excitement surrounding this book has been immense.  Jobs has been painted post-mortem as our technological saint, the next Thomas Edison.   What's interesting in reading the book is how flawed and complicated a man he was.  He was a Zen Buddhist who could be incredibly cruel to people, especially his friends and coworkers; a child abandoned by his birth parents who then did the same to his firstborn; a boss known to distort reality to fit his needs, whose products ended up completely changing our reality.  

Reading this book was also like discovering another perspective on my own life history. The first computer my family had when I was a kid was an Apple IIe. In the 90s it was the iMac that got me making short movies (iMovie was such an easy program to use). Working at America Magazine I had an Apple computer that I absolutely loved, not just for what it could do, but for the design of it (which reading the book you discover is such an important part of Jobs' vision). And on and on.  

Desperate Networks, Bill Carter
This year one of my profs asked us to read this book, which undertakes to tell the story of what happened to the main TV networks in the late 90s and early 2000s, how CBS went from worst to first, ABC got a new lease on life, NBC tanked and FOX rode reality TV to new heights (and depths).  It's written by a New York Times reporter with a fantastic flair for storytelling and a surprising amount of access to hundreds of the main players. You hear the whole story of how a little known writer on Golden Girls, after many years and much struggle, ended up selling Desperate Housewives; of how NBC created its Thursday night juggernaut block of Must See TV; of the rise of reality TV; of CSI, Friends, Lost, American Idol, Survivor, Seinfeld, the Today Show and on and on. In its own way it's very dramatic and a real page turner. Like Steve Jobs, it's the kind of book that takes something so  familiar to us as to be unseen, our TV shows, and lays bare a whole other side to them.  

The Hunger Games (3 vols.), Susan Collins
Imagine that the United States had another civil war tomorrow.  And in the end, one small piece of the country won, and rather than bring everything back to the way it has been, a United States, it decided to rule over the rest of the country.  And every year, as a way of reinforcing its own power and keeping everyone else down, it would hold a lottery that chose two children, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 sections of the new country, to compete in a televised Survivor-like tournament to the death. 

That's the premise of the Hunger Games.  When I first heard about it I thought it sounded way too grim and teen to be of interest to me. But last summer I started the first one, and it was so compelling.  It's not anywhere near as violent as what it could have been, and the lead character, a teenage girl named Katniss who is the sole breadwinner for her family when she is conscripted into the Games, was just so broken and flawed and fierce, it was impossible to turn away.  A story at root of endurance, self-sacrifice and love in a difficult world.  

Awareness, Anthony DeMello, S.J.
Tony DeMello was an Indian Jesuit who specialized in Eastern spirituality. He was known for preached retreats he gave all over the world and for books of wonderful little Zen stories.

I'm not sure how I got put on to Awareness, but I must say, I have profited from it immensely. DeMello's main point is this: You and I and everyone around is at least half-asleep, in denial of the truths of their own lives (like our own sinfulness), of what's really important. And that's fine, in a way; DeMello is pretty insistent that you can't wake someone else up, and that he's not there to judge.  But if you want to wake up, you need to start paying better attention to yourself, and to cut everyone else a break (because you're just as bad as they are).  

I'm probably making the book sound more aggressive and confrontational than it is; DeMello can be quite playful and kind. But as I slowly work my way through it I find its short chapters, I'm finding it a great source of insight into my life, an invitation into much greater freedom and forgiveness.  I highly recommend it.  


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

12 DOC, Day 3: 3 Awesome Ads

The Force:
I'm a sucker for all things Star Wars (original trilogy, please).  And this year Volkswagen unveiled a Star Wars themed car commercial during the Super Bowl that just knocked my socks off.  For every Star Wars fan who has ever pretended they're responsible for the (automatic) doors opening at a supermarket.

Dead Island Announcement:
This is actually an advertisement for a video game about zombies. Also as moving and creative as any 3 minute film you're ever going to see. Really. Check it out.

Dear Sophie:
An ad for Google's new browser, "Chrome", that will make strong people blink away tears.  Really speaks to the ways we love our children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren.

Monday, December 26, 2011

12 Days of Christmas, Day 2: 2 Music Videos

The Christmas season is a time of gifts given and received, a time of family and kings, frankincense and myrrh. In keeping with that idea, these 12 days of Christmas I offer some little trinkets that have been special to me this year.  I hope in different ways they will bring you Christmas joy and wonder.

Maria Aragon
Last spring a l0 year old girl from Canada taped herself singing "Born This Way", a new Lady Gaga song that had only just hit the charts.  It was a huge sensation -- to date it's had more than 48 million views -- and what's more a truly moving performance.  

Glee Sings Adele
Whether or not you love or watch Glee, when the stars align their performances just leap off the screen.  So it was with this recent number, which mashes up pop star Adele's great songs "Rumour Has It" and "Someone Like You".  If you love great choreography, I have two words for you: shoulder rolls.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Flights, Single Moms and The Gift of Perspective

Yesterday the New York Times published a wonderful piece about a single mom flying on Christmas Day, who helps another single mom struggling with two small children and in the process learns to see her own life more clearly, what she calls a gift "of the Magi order". A great little essay for the Christmas season.

Here's the link -- "The Magi at 40, 000 Feet".  Enjoy. 

Merry Christmas!

On this feast of the Incarnation, may you, your friends and family know ever more deeply the presence of our loving God in your lives.

A friend and great poet, Tim McLaughlin, recently sent me a wonderful poem cycle, "Pinecone Trinity", about the Holy Family. I can't think of a better day to share it!

Have a very Merry Christmas.

Pinecone Trinity 
Wild Genesis
In this vast wilderness,
a forest of evergreens,
pine limbs fresh in cone.
Those standing fill with pollen,
those hanging ripen for seed.

Lady Pinecone
The lady pinecone
does not fear immaculate
conception brought in
on the wind. Her blessedness
and awareness never divide.

Winged Seed
The pregnant pinecone
prays silently on the branch.
Winged, her savior son
will fly and fall and burst –
into a thousand gleaming roots.
              Tim McLaughlin 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Countdown: O Antiphons

The O Antiphons.  We don't hear about them at Sunday Mass, they don't figure into the daily Mass readings in Advent. But every year around this time you hear them talked about.  They are 7 honorific titles for Jesus, each one sung during evening prayer on the 7 last days before Christmas.

I used to assume they each began with the letter "O" -- which was weird, because I couldn't really think of any such titles that might fit for Jesus. ("Orator?") But no, they're called "O" antiphons because each one starts with the word "O", as you use when you're addressing a king. "O Wisdom"; "O Lord"; "O Root of Jesse"; "O Key of David"; "O Dayspring" (also translated "O Morning Star", "O rising sun"; "O King of the nations"; "O Emmanuel" (aka God is with us).

As you see from that list, each offers a different lens on what makes Jesus the Messiah -- he's the font of wisdom, the source of light, the king of all nations. They're derived from Jewish titles for the Messiah; each references Isaiah's images of the Messiah who would bring Israel back from its exile. Isaiah 11: "A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse" (Jesse: the father of King David); Isaiah 22: "I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut. He shall shut, and no one shall open." (See how even these titles, which seem more about lineage than power, actually describe gifts that Jesus has.  He brings life from the dead stump; he binds and loosens.)

It's unclear when these antiphons started, but historians say they came from the Benedictines, and by the 8th century they were being used in Rome.

And hidden within them is a cool, DaVinci Code type word game.  Take the first word from the original Latin used in each of these titles:
Sapientia  Adonai  Radix  Clavis  Oriens  Rex   Emmanuel
Now put them in reverse order:
Emmanuel  Rex  Oriens  Clavis  Radix  Adonai  Sapientia 
Drop all but the first letters:
And you have the Latin phrase: "Tomorrow, I will come."  (Isn't that cool?)

If we're really going to appreciate these antiphons, though, we need to hear them, as they weren't read, they were sung.  

With help from, I found cool little videos of the 7 antiphons sung.  They're each really short, just a minute or so, and if you're into chant, you actually see the chant lines moving across the screen as the antiphons are sung.

They might provide a nice little moment of peace in the midst of the busyness of the next few days.

O Wisdom:

O Lord:

O Root of Jesse:

O Key of David:

O Dayspring -- today's antiphon,  which comes from Isaiah 9: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined." That image of Jesus as light, probably one of my favorites.

O King of the Nations:

O Emmanuel:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Countdown: The Christmas Sweater

Last week I was sitting with the Sundays readings, and in particular the angel's visitation to Mary in the Gospel of Luke.

And it put me in mind of that most familiar of Christmas experiences, the Christmas sweater. That is, the gift you get from a well intentioned relative that is so absolutely hideous it is really everything you can do to keep from visibly cringing at the sight of it.  The gift that makes you want to shake the person as you cry out, "How do you not know me?"

Not even Matt Damon can make this look cool.

I had a grandmother who was a long time master of the Christmas sweater.  It didn't matter whether you had a list or not, whether the gifts you put on it were easy to find or hard, cheap or expensive -- what you could be reasonably sure of was that you were getting the opposite.  So for the many, many years of childhood when I was desperate for (and oh so easy to please) with anything and everything Star Wars, she'd show up with a subscription to National Geographic, or Time Magazine.  When I was devouring the works of Stephen King, she'd give me a year pass to the zoo.  No matter that the zoo was over an hour from my house, or that I wasn't much for going.  She liked the zoo, just like she enjoyed National Geographic, so that was my gift. 

And her clothing choices were no better.  She didn't buy me this, but I swear, she could have:

Grandma wasn't all bad. She looked like Lucille Ball (complete with cotton candy orange hair) and her life was filled with crazy, I Love Lucy-type stories like being bitten by someone's pet pig on the streets of Chicago and then spending the day fearing she might get pig rabies. 

She was just terrible at gift-giving for kids. Each Christmas Day my brother and sisters and I would go to her house pretty much resigned to the fact that whatever was in those packages, it was most definitely not going to be awesome. You know it's bad when we counted on my brother's horrible allergy to her cats to save us from having to stay and be disappointed for too long. 

I'm sure Christmas sweaters get creepier. I just don't know how.

It strikes me that God, for all his loving and benevolence, is also pretty big with the apparent Christmas sweaters.    Consider the Israelites: at the time of Jesus, they're stuck living under the occupation of the Romans. They're praying for a liberator to save them.  And what does God give them? A human child, who will eventually be crucified by the Romans. 

Likewise, when Mary and Joseph get engaged, what are they hoping for? A life of love and fidelity, a family. And what does God get them? A pregnancy that will not only immediately complicate their relationship but permanently muck up their standing in society. And a life together that involves raising the son of God.  (No pressure.) 

In this day and age, it's pretty much expected that if you end up with a Christmas sweater, you don't complain about it, you just return it for whatever it is you want. And sometimes that is probably the right decision:

(This photo -- and so many other great options -- courtesy of

But sometimes I try to resist that impulse; no matter what I think of what I've been given, I'll just keep it and see what happens. And wouldn't you know it, sometimes those gifts end up being the things I like most of all. 

Life with my grandmother was much the same way. Once were old enough to appreciate her, we actually grew to look forward to the next bit of random craziness, like the cards she'd send for odd holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day with a dollar in them; the stories of how she used to tell my mother's childhood friends that she was an alien from another world sent to teach us how to love; the random gifts she gave at Christmas. ("Wow, a Precious Moments statue of a deer. Thanks so much, Grandma. No, I didn't know this particular kind of deer is endangered.")

In the Christian story, it turns out Jesus did in fact liberate precisely through his faithfulness even to death.  And Mary and Joseph loved him like crazy.  

All of which is to say, we should be careful when it comes to dismissing the Christmas sweaters of our lives. We might not always be the best judges.  

Except when we are.

(Does this remind anyone else of the original Alien?)

As Charlie Brown Would Say, Argh!

I'm so sorry I haven't been posting!! I've been thinking about you guys and the blog like crazy, but the end of the quarter had really knocked me out. I'm off to my folks' house today, and I'm hoping I'll post every day this week with little items about Christmas. Praying that your Advents have been blessed, Jim PS Here's a thought for you this morning. We Northern Hemisphere people associate Christmas with darkness, the cold, a sort of natural inhospitability, as that's what we are experiencing at this time of year. But in the South it is summer right now, with warm temps, a long vacation and daytimes that go on and on. What elements of the Nativity might that experience bring out for us?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Soon & Very Soon

Sorry I've been offline. I'm in the throes of finals. Should be back next week.

Hope your Advent has been blest. (How about that new liturgy???)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Could Be...

I've posted this before during Advent, but I always think of it these early days. It captures so well that sense of excitement and anticipation.

Could it be? Yes it could...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting (Advent and Otherwise)

I'm excited that we're entering Advent.  Which is funny, because this is such a busy time of year, usually I don't get to enjoy it until pretty close to Christmas. I'm lucky if I manage a single evening sitting under a lit-up Christmas tree, taking it all in.

But I look forward to this season every year, more than any other, I think because the ideas I associate with it speak to me all year round: Hope.  Darkness.  And more than any other, Waiting.

When I was living in Australia, I spent 30 days on a long retreat.  Jesuits do that twice in our lifetimes, generally, when we first enter and before we take final vows.  30 days of silence might sound like a prison sentence for some, but it can be a very privileged time of walking with the Lord.

I came away from my first retreat with a hundred stories of biblical passages that had come alive on my retreat. To be clear, this wasn't unique to me. One of Ignatius' essential retreat ideas is to imagine stories of Scripture unfolding before you, like a movie, and even to place yourself in the story in some role, and let it unfold as it will.

My second time around, I expected something similar, although I was also nervous about the possibility of that. Age had made me more wary of how much meddling I was capable of doing within meditations. (It's remarkable how much Jesus seemed to tell me at times exactly what I wanted to hear!) My fundamental prayer had become a quiet centering, and for the most part that felt like enough.

Still, as I said, I did expect something akin to my first long retreat.  And instead, what I got was many, many days of nothing.  Emptiness, and not of the Zen kind. Desolation, for days upon days, until I was pulling my hair out, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, what I must be holding back.  I would go to my spiritual director and confess things, just to see if that would loosen anything up, assuming it must be.  Still nothing.

My director, an incredibly capable man, was obviously perplexed himself.  But at one point he just threw up his hands and said, we're just going to have to wait.  And rather than urging me to push harder, he asked me to step back and be gentle with himself, give it ten minutes here and there and trust that something good would come of it.

Now, by the end of the retreat I realized that there had been a lot going on all along, just not in the places I was used to looking.  But honestly, that didn't become clear to me until the very last days of the retreat.

Even so, I look back now on the many days of absence in between as a great blessing.  Somehow the waiting for God became a sort of experience of God, a way of being with him even though paradoxically he didn't seem to be there.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's something I return to a lot.  It's nice to have consolation, the wedding banquet, etc. etc. etc.  But I can get by with a lot less. In fact, waiting can be absolutely wonderful.

I can forget all that in my hunger for answers and certainty and all sorts of other things.  It's nice to get to Advent and let it reassure me once again that it's okay not to have all the answers, and that in fact trying to dwell in that place of mystery is often a great blessing.


In one of his great little books of Advent and Christmas reflections, Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, asks the question, "What words are in my Advent dictionary?"

If you're looking for a way to enter into the season, might be worth asking yourself that same question.  What words speak to me as I enter into this season?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Poem for Thanksgiving

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety—

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver

WKRP in Cincinnati Turkey Drop

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How To Be Grateful On Thanksgiving

In the movies, the holidays goes one of two ways.  It's either "I Never Realized How Good I Had It" --slow mo shots that capture each and every family member at their very best. Or it's "ARGH!" -- total chaos, complicated by lots of family conflicts and competing desires, which in the beginning of the film is awful but by the end has come back to "I Never Realized How Good I Had It."

Ok, this isn't what I was imagining, but you get the point.

But in life, there's at least one more option, "NOOOOOOOO"/'WHOOSH." That's where the holiday churns back and forth between going way too slow (my God, can we stop talking about what's in the gravy and what's wrong with the Democratic party) and going way too fast (Can we say grace mmm, that was delicious see you next year).  It's basically God-as-infant messing with the playing speed.

Is there any way to seize back the controls and appreciate the holiday/your family/your life while it's actually happening? A pretty tall order.

But not impossible (says the priest who basically shows up and eats). What if dinner began with a little bit of silence, in which people were asked to just settle in and get in touch with what they're grateful for this year. That might seem a hard thing to sell, but you know what, if you tell people to do something well intentioned, they'll try to do it. Believe me, I've taken that risk, and it works, if it's clear, simple and not nutty.  I was once at a religious seminar where we were asked to stand and imagine we were trees. That constituted a full head o' crazy.  A little silence, not so much.

I googled "People Trees" and got Hermione Granger. Huh?

That might be enough to change the tone of an evening from "Pass the spinach" and "What's up with the White Sox? Robin Ventura, really??" to something a little more personal.

Another thing to do is break up the courses somehow.  Have courses, even if all that means is have a salad separate from the meat and potatoes. If you throw all the food out on the table right from the top, it makes the whole meal move a lot faster. That might sound appealing, but after spending days preparing the food, it shouldn't be gone in 30 minutes. I know, I know, I'm shoulding on you now, but it's true. There's a lot of love in the cooking of a Thanksgiving dinner, and it should be savored.  So break it up into courses, and you might find the evening breathes more easily for everyone.  It's less a road race and more a stroll.

For those who want to venture further, why not ask people to share something that they're grateful for, or that has been big for them this year?

I know, it sounds awful. Forced sharing. It tends to give men hives. (So if you're looking for a way to punish a spouse -- tell me the turkey is dry, will you! -- this is it.) But if you model it by going first, keeping it clear, simple and not too intense, it can work. Really! People have a lot more going on than they reveal, and letting them share even just a very little of that can go a really long way to deepening everyone's appreciation for one another.

The other thing I think about sometimes is doing something fun after dinner. Breaking it up from the meal somehow -- go to a different room, or have a big breather before dessert. And maybe doing something a little more group-oriented. A game (I highly recommend Mafia!), a movie together, maybe little entertainments by different folks, if you're that kind of group.

If you're looking for a Thanksgiving movie, 
You can't do better than Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Or even just the moving into another room.  It's amazing how much can shift and change just by getting up and moving over 20 feet into another room. It's like the things that settled inside get loose.

Ok, that's probably too loose.

Many years I have the luxury of taking some time on Thanksgiving to just sit and ask God, where were you this year? What blessings have you given me? Who are the people who have been good to me? Maybe you have time for that, too, but maybe not.

But that's not to say you can't actually have that sense of gratitude in the living of the day.  It just takes some experimentation.

Well, maybe not test tube experimentation.

Yeah, definitely not that either. 

Do you have special practices you do with your family, or that you've seen elsewhere?  Share them in the comments, please!

And have a very blessed Thanksgiving.  As we say in the McDermott household, Gobble gobble.

It's actually a little underwhelming, isn't it?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Violent Occupations

New York cop attacks an Occupy Wall Street protestor.

Yesterday I was skimming Twitter. There was a report about rubber bullets and tear gas being fired. And at first it didn't really register, I think because there seems to be a lot going on with the Occupy movement.

But then I realized I misread the tweet; this wasn't a report on an U.S. event, but on the protests in Cairo.

Another tweet had the President calling for the police to let protestors peaceably protest.  But again, his comments were not about the United States, but about Cairo.

What is going on in our country where by and large peaceful protestors -- college students, old people, mothers -- are experiencing the same sorts of violence perpetrated by military authorities upon their people in third world countries? Why isn't it being reported more? And why isn't our President demanding an end to the outbursts of violence here?

Maybe I sound like a bleeding lefty here, blindly ignoring the provocations of the protestors. But then again, recently in the New York Times Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, described appalling violence by the police which came out of nowhere, without warning or demands to disperse, and which included his wife being shoved in the chest and pushed to the ground. He also reports another member of his faculty dragged by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

Sometimes on Saturdays I search for #ows on Twitter, and just watch the reports from the marches around the country (which often come with photos or videos). And it's pretty crazy stuff, very very troubling for the accounts of sudden and unexplained violence, mostly by police. I've read tweets from parents terrified because they're at a protest with their kids and the cops have suddenly surrounded them and are pushing everyone in, until they're nearly walking over one another.  There's accounts almost daily of pepper spray and billy club beatings.  

We're talking about people occupying parks and calling for an end to social inequality, for God's sake.  A challenging message, but also being undertaken more or less peacefully.

Martin Luther King, Jr., believed non-violent protests helped reveal the brutality of those who opposed them. Because the civil rights protestors did not fight back, the men with their water cannons and billy clubs could not rationalize their actions as in any way justified. And as a result they were forced to see themselves in the harsh light of truth.

May our police have similar epiphanies today. And soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State

Seems like I've heard more about college football this week than I have in the last decade.  Well, not college football in general; Penn State. What an incredibly horrible and shocking story.  SNL did a sketch on Saturday in which Satan himself was portrayed as so horrified by the situation that he quit his job as prince of darkness and went back to his old life as a customer service agent at Time Warner Cable.  (Apparently if you have Time Warner, you know how true this seems).

And while sordid details are emotionally devastating enough, a major part of the story in the last week has been the revelation that revered long time coach Joe Paterno knew about incidents but took the matter only to the school authorities. To be fair to him, he did do something (and it's not entirely clear how much he knew); but he didn't pursue it beyond school administration. And more children were harmed as a result.

It seems like everyone that's ever worked with Paterno views him as one of the most decent and competent individuals they've ever met, akin to UCLA's longtime coach John Wooden.  But today much of that knowledge of Paterno is getting lost in the rage fog of the situation.  How could he possibly not done more?

I don't have any answer to that question. But I do find the situation instructive. Some people will believe from now on that Paterno was never what we thought he was, that his character was deeply flawed in a subtle way. But what sounds more likely is that he was the man of character we thought him to be, a man deeply concerned with ethics and decency. And he also had clay feet.

It's the mystery of evil.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Down with the Family Bible

Last week just came and went! Sorry for not posting more.  We're getting into the crunch time of the quarter and the assignments, they are a'pilin' up.

As I was preparing for Sunday Mass this week I kept thinking about family bibles.  Do you have one of these? You know the style I'm talking about, that massive tome of a Bible people buy you when you get married.  The kind that creaks when you open it, because it's so enormous it might as well be a door than a cover; and it has gold plating or big frilly letters (which are extraordinarily hard to read).

Seriously, I think this one was carved out of oak.  

Aren't those bibles just ridiculous? I mean, who's ever going to read a Bible like that? You could burst blood vessels just putting it on your lap.  You're likely to fall over when you try to lift it. It's the version you're "supposed to have", but honestly, I'm going to weigh in and say these family bibles actually keep people from reading the Bible.  They're way too big and too heavy for regular use.  And we'd all be a lot better off throwing ours and getting a fit-in-your-backpack handheld version.

And since we're on the subject, you know the other thing we need? We need a version of the Bible that is accessible to people who don't have degrees in Scripture.  And I don't mean a kind translation, although that's a fine place to start. I mean a version that isn't so overwhelming to jump into.  The Bible has literally dozens of books. And if you wander into the wrong one (and yeah, Leviticus, that means you)  it's like walking into a foreign film without the subtitles. Or walking into an accounting lecture when you thought you were going to see a movie. Or walking into the movie J. Edgar when you thought you were going to see something entertaining. Which it is most definitely not.

Point being: you're not going to like the experience. You're going to get up and walk out.  

How do we fix this? Some Bibles put a little "This is what this book is about" introduction on each new book.  That's not bad.  If written well it gives you some useful context.

Maybe we could attach tabs to certain books, ones that are a great place for a non-Scripture scholar to start. Books like Ruth and Jonah and Samuel and Kings and Genesis and Exodus. Short books, with a clear story, or books like the Psalms that are broken into really distinct chunks that can be absorbed individually (or skipped without hurting anything).  

Or maybe in the sections that are just impossible to appreciate, we insert an editorial comment telling us, this is what this section is about, and here's how long it goes, feel free to skip it.  I hate to say that, but the thing is, if you're not an academic, the Bible is first and foremost a place you go to for inspiration and direction. It's a place to meet God.  Hearing about how many freaking cubits the temple was long and wide is just not that.

Maybe in addition to the "complete works" we should sell the books of the Bible separately, the way we do the works of Shakespeare. That alone might go a long way to making it all more manageable for readers.  You could keep the first 5 books together (they are one unit); Luke and Acts; maybe Samuel and Kings.  But otherwise you split it all up, so that people can just pick up one book at a time, and not be overwhelmed by having them all there together -- or get frustrated just trying to find the book they want.  (It can be a real pain, can't it?)

We call the Bible the Good Book. And boy, it is.  Now what do we do to help people to use it?

PS And hey -- how about some visual aids?? Sometimes I think the children's bibles are the only ones that get it right.

Tells the story all by itself, doesn't it? 
(Although if you didn't know better, you might think
the baby Jesus was radioactive.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Listening to Jesus (Hint: Get Over Yourself)

So I was with my spiritual director the other day.  And we were talking about -- well, in some ways direction is lot like therapy.  You keep circling back to the same old issues.  Which maybe sounds depressing, or sitcom depressing if you're looking for a more upbeat spin -- the humor being predicated on the very fact that these people, despite all their effort, never really change (or not until the series finale, anyway).  (As funny as they are, if you ever really stop to think about sitcoms, you discover most might as well have been written by a French existentialist. They've got a pretty grim take on people's capacity to change.)

But another way to think about it is like you're drilling down -- so yes, it's circular, because that's what a drill does.  But you are getting somewhere.

Or so I hope.

Anyway, a frequent suggestion that I get, which is by far the most basic thing, and therefore I rarely do it (of course) is this: have you brought this issue/subject/event/thing-that's-bugging-you-and-you-won't-stop talking-about-it to prayer? That is, have you taken the time to ask the question, Jesus, what do you think of this? Where are you in this?

Like I said, it's really a no brainer.  Of course you should bring your struggles to the Lord. And yet...we forget to do that. In my case, I tend to sit before the Lord fretting/talking to myself about what I should do.  And I never turn my eyes (or ears) up to get his perspective. As though I'm really supposed to have this figured out before I actually bring it to God. Which is like saying I'm supposed to already have worked out my problems before I go see a therapist, or I'm supposed to have pretty much written my dissertation before I start grad school.  (Ever studied with someone who feels confident they already know everything about the topic they're studying? Lecturing teachers, dropping citations -- these are not the people you invite to your Halloween party.)

So anyway, this suggestion to turn to God is not new to me, and it always makes me laugh at myself.  But last week, my director put it in a different way:

What is Jesus' prayer for you?

It's nice, right? It's still all about listening, all about giving God a chance to talk.  But it makes the relationship piece really clear, too. Jesus is your friend, and he's hoping and wishing some things for you, just like our friends do. We ask him what do you hope for me right now to help us get ourselves out of  our selves and yet still connect to the life of the heart and all the important stuff stirring there.

Might be a nice question to take into the week.  Jesus, I've got a lot going on.  What is your prayer for me?  

Cool Native take on Jesus and the beloved disciple. 
Note how John has his head against Jesus' chest. 
He's listening to Jesus' heart.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Morning Vignettes

Day before yesterday, I'm sitting quietly in the morning, praying.  And the thing that comes forward is to notice how unrealistically high my expectations had been of people the previous day.  And the invitation seemed pretty clear -- let it go.  You're not perfect, neither are they.

I was very pleased with myself to have realized this without any serious incident or confrontation to cause it.  Went into yesterday quite happy.

Then this morning I went back to prayer.  And the very first thing I realized is, yesterday, as I basked in my oh so proud of myself glow, I did the same thing damn thing again.  And didn't even notice it.

Isn't that just the way of things?


Tonight in one of my classes we had executives from some of the major television production studios in to hear 15 of us pitch ideas for hour long pilots.  We've been working on our ideas for six or seven weeks now, and today was the first time we did them for professionals. 10 minutes, give me the nugget of your idea and your main characters.  Everyone performed really well; it's a really stellar group, and I can only hope that someday you and I will have the chance to see some of these shows on the air.

But as I was driving home tonight what really struck me was, how incredible it is to be in a setting where I have the opportunity to pitch an idea to executives, accomplished people who have put together many many shows on networks and cable, and to get their honest feedback and suggestions.

Some days I just want to pinch myself.


A little video I found on Youtube this week -- it was made using 288,000 jelly beans.  And it's a pretty song, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lily's Disneyland Surprise!

Wow, the days have just flown by without me posting. And I had something fun all ready to go, too! This old brain, she needs oiling!

This viral video was written up in the New York Times last Thursday.  It's so sweet and believable, you've got to check it out.  You'll love it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The New Translation of the Eucharistic Prayer: For Many

If you've read my column at all over the last year or so you know I have little patience for the change in the eucharistic prayer from "for all" to "for many".

And if you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, it's during the prayer over the cup:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
This is my blood, given up for you and for all
so that sins may be forgiven. 
The reason they're changing it: the New Testament text from which it's taken literally says "for many", not "for all".  So, it's a correction.

The problem is, it sounds like we're suddenly rolling back God's plan of salvation. You know how we used to say God loves everybody, is interested in everybody, regardless of what they believe or ever did or what not?  Well, now we're thinking, not so much. He'd settle with a good 30-50%.

Some are arguing that the point of the prayer is actually not God's love but people's receptivity. God came for many and not all because some choose to reject him. And hey, I love a good dose of Catholic guilt and recrimination as much as the next guy. But that's never what "the many" was all about.

So, Fr. Kvetching, what was the point of "the many", you ask? Well, I happened to be in conversation with my liturgy buddies, and they explained that Jesus used the phrase to make clear how expansive was God's circle of interest. Read his words again: Take this, all of you -- i.e. you all gathered here with me at the Last Supper -- and drink of it. This is my blood, given up for you -- again, you all here -- and for many -- that is, for many others who are not here.

"Many" isn't something that limits who this supper is for, but enlarges. Which is why in the 50s and 60s they came to translate it "for all" in the first place.  One of my buddies said the proper translation is "so many more"; the other said it's "the multitudes" (which by the way is the French translation). Either makes clear the broadening sense of "many".

And herein is a real challenge of the new translation. It intends to be very, very literal -- that is, in most respects it avoids any attempt to shift the language of the Latin prayers into our own English, American terms. There's arguments to be made in favor of that approach, many of which I've presented in the past. But one downside is, at times it lacks the nuances that would actually have been clear to the original audience. And now presiders and liturgists and others are going to have to keep explaining that original sense to people, or paradoxically the literal meaning of the words will be lost.

Maybe this sounds like mountains made from mole hills. It's not. We are formed by the rites we practice. Having a fundamental portion of a rite seeming to suggest that God is not interested in all of us  will impact how we think and act as a people down the line. And not for the better.

So I'm going to try to hold onto what I know to be true. This blood, given up for you, and for so many more.

One of my favorite cartoons ever. Note the little space next to Jesus: "A Place For You". 
That's what we're talking about here. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The New Roman Missal: Here It Comes

So, in about a month the English-speaking Catholic Church will finally take on the new translation of its sacramental prayers. It's hard to get away from talk about it, at least in Jesuit community, and in some ways I'm be glad to just get started with the whole thing, as the waiting only adds fuel to people's anxieties.

I've written about the new rite in some detail in this blog already, and if I'm being honest, I have to admit my comments have been seasoned at times with a light coat of kvetching.  I hope I've been fair to the new translation, I've certainly tried to be, but there are certainly subjects for concern, as well, not least the woefully complicated translations of some of the eucharistic prayers.

But in the last few weeks I've had great conversations on the changes with two of my favorite liturgists.  Each of them had some really cool insights into the new translation that I want to share today and Friday.

Liturgist 1 had been looking into the new final blessings. There's a couple you already know: "Go forth in peace"(which sort of sounds like "Go back to sleep"); and "Go forth, the mass is ended" (which he described as another way of saying, "It's okay for you to leave now".)

And then there are two new options. "Go forth and proclaim what you have heard here", and "Go forth to glorify the Lord with your lives."

Aren't those nice?

Both blessings make it clear, you're being sent. The end of Mass is not like the end of a bowling match or a TV show, where you sort of wipe your hands of what's gone on and move on. At the end of Mass we're meant to see ourselves as propelled out into the world to continue the mission of Jesus.

What makes the latter especially interesting is its sense that our lives are themselves our evangelization, they are the words that we use to express that reckless, extravagant love of God that we have experienced for ourselves.

At the start of the Gospel of John Jesus is called the Word. And that's confusing, because Jesus is not a verb (no matter what we read on a 60s macrame wall hanging).  He's a three-dimensional person. But John's point is that it is only through a human being in all its complexity that God can most fully express his love for us. In all his words and actions, Jesus is what God says to us.

That final final blessing (if you will) draws that idea forward to us.  We follow in Jesus' footsteps. He is our brother. And so we, too, are through our very lives God's loving words.

Which if you think about it, makes our our choices much more important (and intimidating!).

Great stuff, no?

I don't want anyone to panic about the new translation. I really don't. 
I'm just entertained by pictures of people hollering. 

Friday: Liturgist 2, on the "For the many" prayer.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Truly, Madly, Deeply

Heard a great story at Mass today.  A class on confessions for guys studying to be priests. The guy is given a situation -- a woman who has been in an adulterous relationship with a married man.  She's repented and is coming to confession for absolution.

The priest-in-training -- the PIT, if you will -- hears her confession.  And then he says this: "Do you have any idea how madly God is in love with you?"

That question might be something for each of us to sit with this week.  Do you have any idea how madly God is in love with you?  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Changing Lanes

I was driving down the freeway yesterday, trying to get in the lane I needed.  And I was just about to hit the gas when I realized, if I'd just slow down instead it would all go much easier.  

Might be more a tweet than a blog post, but seems like there's some wisdom for life in there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's Just An Illusion

First of all -- did you read my Monday post about the Dragon Mom? If you didn't, scroll down right now and read it.  I didn't write it, and it's truly life changing stuff.

Moving on: I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that I've been slowly working my way through "Awareness", a book by Tony DeMello, SJ. It's slow going, and for the best of reasons -- each page has so much stuff to ponder, anytime I start to move too quickly I feel like I'm missing the best stuff.  I actually find it a nice way to pray some mornings; I center myself listening to the breeze, and then I read a page or two and sit with whatever it stirs in me.

So yesterday I was in a section entitled "Our Illusion About Others".  Here's the jist of it -- You know how sometimes people disappoint you? Well, DeMello says, take a look at yourself.  Are you perfect? Do you have it together? Did you manage to get through the day without any sort of sin? How about half the day? How about the time it takes to drink your cup of coffee?

If you didn't do so well, why would you expect anyone else will be any different?

Sit with that question for a minute and it will change your life.  Really.


DeMello's point isn't self-fingerwagging -- Bad me! Bad me! He's trying to snap us out of a habit of mind that leads to all sorts of unnecessary (in fact silly) unhappiness.  Think of the energy you waste on being disappointed. Seriously, I could power the Christmas lights of Los Angeles year round with it.  Then add the disappointments that aren't day to day, you know, like when you run into someone you haven't seen in 10 years, and there's old history there that you can't even remember, but you know they hurt you, so all of a sudden you're disappointed in/mad at them again.

Or even better -- I love it when I do this -- someone simply mentions the name of someone that you haven't thought about in years, but who disappointed you, and you feel that TWANG of resentment again.  I mean, how many kinds of crazy is that?

I've tried many times to address these situations in what looks like the direct manner -- that is, to ask God to help me forgive them.  Not a bad tack. But DeMello's approach instead turns the camera on me. And oy, does that disrupt the judgments.

And oy, does it allow us all to be a little less uptight, a little less counting the costs, and a lot more free.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Love and the Dragon Mom

Emily and her son Ronan

The Sunday edition of the New York Times yesterday had a remarkable article by Emily Rapp, a writer raising an infant son that she knows will die before he reaches the age of 3. It's an astonishing, understated piece about the value of life and the experience of being a parent to a dying child.  "This is a love story," she writes, "and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss."  

Please, take a look.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Last Shots from Occupy Wall Street

I realize this can look a little aggressive (ya think?), but I like it because it captures well the frustration people feel.  


Thursday, October 13, 2011

More Shots from Occupy Wall Street

One of the most interesting thing at Occupy Wall Street are the hundreds of cardboard box tops that have been taken up by pretty much anyone who wants with their thoughts and quotes. Passersby walk slowly through the area, reading all the signs, and sometimes adding their own.  Some people sit there holding signs, too. One lady's read: "I walk dogs for a living, and they have more health insurance than I do."

I was very struck by that quote in the center, not only because it's from Jefferson and seems so prescient to our struggles in recent years, but because some of the very bankers whose institutions have proven so destructive continue to take huge salaries, rake in huge profits for their business often at the expense of their consumers, and speak out so strongly against banking reform. In what other industry, I wonder, can you rip people off so fundamentally and be rewarded for it? The mob and political spin doctors are the only other professions I could come up with...

One of the other things I love about the stuff at Occupy Wall Street is its willingness to look beyond politics to the bigger human questions, as well. There's so much pressure to conform and to take jobs that are safe, to become cogs in the system. But I always think of the end of Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day": "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Occupy Wall Street -- Visiting the Protest

Last weekend I had a wedding outside of Manhattan. I was lucky enough to get one day before the wedding in the city.  And one of the guys I was staying with kept talking about these protests at Wall Street -- which, I am embarrassed to admit, I knew nothing about. (It never ceases to amaze me just how small I can allow my world to get!)

So, before heading off to this wedding I took a wander down to the site where the core group is staying. It's just a little park pretty much in the shadow of the new World Trade Center building.  You could walk its circumference in maybe 5 minutes -- really, it's that small. Far tinier around than a city block. 

And upon arriving I can't say I knew what to do with the whole thing. It really looked like a bunch of homeless kids who had camped out. There are sleeping bags, food and trash sort of all over the place, and a lot of grungy looking people playing music or sitting around chatting. 

The thing is, the longer I stayed there, reading the signs protestors had written on cardboard and laid on the sidewalk, the more I felt again my own frustrations -- the rampant profiteering of the banks in the midst of a crisis they had caused; the lack of adequate financial oversight even now; wealthy people who don't want to pay taxes; corrupt politicians, lobbyists, etc. And I thought of that line from Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it." 

That's where I think a lot of us are.  It's not really different than the engine behind the Tea Party; it's just that rather than place the blame on big government, these new protestors -- who call themselves "the 99%" -- cast their attention first not upon the government but upon the banking system and rich elite. And as chaotic and sort of commune-like as the whole thing feels, there's something really good and positive going on down there.  If you live in New York, or anywhere that they're doing protests (they're in many places in the US and even abroad now), I highly recommend spending an hour with them. You'll meet nice people from literally very walk of life, and you'll find your own perspective challenged, as well. 

Over the next few days I'm going to post some of my photos from down there.  May they feed your own passion for a better country. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dream Big

The death of Steve Jobs... such a big and unusual loss. Jobs wasn't involved in geopolitics, wasn't a Nobel Prize Winner or rock star, and yet he was a global figure, probably the biggest global figure other than Obama, the Pope and a couple celebrities. As a number of writers have pointed out since he stepped down last month, he never got involved with outside causes, never promised to donate his money to help the world like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. But his business was borne out of his vision for a better world, and had an enormous impact on many different aspects of our world, from the way we buy music to the way we imagine technology in our everyday lives, even the degree to which we do imagine.

That's I think what I want to take away from Jobs -- that we should dream big. Rather than just living in the world like rats in a maze, we should imagine how the world might be if it could be any way we want, imagine how we'd like to see it, and chase after that, make that our lives' work.  No matter whether in the realm of tech or politics or religion or family, we are not just passive recipients of others' genius. We each have the opportunity to be explorers and inventors ourselves.  

"We don't get a chance to do many things, and every one should be really excellent.  Because this is our life." 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011