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???)