Archive for June, 2021


All right. Had a bit of a break the past couple of days, trying to get my writing muscles back. Especially since I have something due in a few days. Let’s start with a quick review.

Hacks is a new show from HBOMax (or HBO? Is there a difference?) starring Jean Smart as a long-time Joan Rivers type comic who employs a Gen Z writer. It’s a great concept, but shakily executed, and aside from the usual issues (caricature, target practice at easy targets), there’s one huge one that really stands in the way of what could have been a great show.

First – Jean Smart, wow. I’ve always liked her, since Designing Women days, and she is spectacular in this role of Deborah Vance, coasting and closing in on 2500 shows at a fictional Vegas casino. She’s riveting, nuanced, hilarious and real. Her line reads are on point and completely natural. Engrave that Emmy statue, now.

And as I said, the concept is great. The problem?

The second lead character – Ava, the Gen Z writer – and the actress, Hannah Einbinder – who plays her.

I’m going to call it the Carrie Bradshaw problem. In Sex in the City (which I hate-watched back in the day), Carrie Bradshaw, played, of course, by Sarah Jessica Parker – is, even as she is obviously problematic in numerous ways, even to those who know her – also the glittering center of the show’s landscape, assumed to be beautiful and talented and endlessly appealing – and we, the viewers, are watching this thing and watching her onscreen, seeing a different reality – yes, reality – and wondering what’s wrong with with these people. Do they not see what – and who – I’m seeing?

Sort of the same thing here. Ava’s supposed to be smart and hilarious and witty – who lost her job and tumbled down the Hollywood ladder because of a ill-considered tweet (unrealistic because she lost it all over a tweet about a closeted gay conservative senator – yeah, right) – but she isn’t funny.

I mean – at all. We’re give no evidence on screen that this woman is talented or capable of putting a coherent sentence together, much less a funny one. She’s a sullen, entitled child – which is part of the point – but the piece would have been much, much better with say, someone with a Sarah Silverman type sensibility and an obvious level of talent.

So you get how this is going to go, right? As the comedic differences and the generational divide is explored, both main characters learn from each other, grow and emerge the better from the experience. And that’s essentially what happens, but Hacks ultimately fails, in my view because the playing field between Ava and Deborah just isn’t level, either in terms of what we see of their talent and definitely the actors playing them.

But here’s a couple of valuable takeaways:

The essential creative conflict between the two that emerges is generational – between “jokes” and an approach that’s rooted in personal experience and putting that out there in a real, but humorous way. I was hoping to see a lot of grappling with this, but it didn’t happen – it was clearly a theme, but ineffectively expressed because it was hidden under some boring subplots and because Ava, who supposedly represented the latter viewpoint, was such a weak character in every respect.

But of course the conflict isn’t just about comedy. Or even about art. It’s about confronting your life, period. Deborah keeps saying she is completely uninterested in living in the past – besides not being funny, it’s unhealthy and limiting, she’s sure.

The point being, though, that compartmentalizing like that is limiting in its own way, as Deborah observes herself in her final show, skipping through various notable events that occurred during her Vegas residency and how…she told the same jokes every time, no matter what was happening in the outside world or in her own life.

There’s value in that, but there’s also a risk of confining and alienation from what’s most real, and ultimately from other people.

There were a couple of good conversations on that score, and worth thinking about on a broader level, both for anyone who creates, but even if you don’t, just…in life?

Are we coasting? Engaging with the world and with others just through easy catch phrases and habitual conversation – or are we at all trying to be real? And what are the limits of that? When does that cross over into self-indulgence and absorption?

Oh, and never have I felt so seen as when Jean Smart as Deborah sends Ava into a gas station convenience store to get her a Diet Coke.

“From the fountain” – she firmly specifies.


I also watched about half of Mare of Easttown, then read the summary of the rest of the show. I’m probably going to watch the last episode later, then write about it. It has its good qualities, but I can’t get on board the Praise Train for this one, and not only because I am deeply weary of crime and suspense dramas being fixated on violence against young women. Although that’s part of it, definitely.

Read Full Post »

Captain Fantastic

Watched this the other night with the 20-year old. It had been on his list and off-and-on mine, so we decided to go for it.

The concept was certainly more appealing than the execution, in the end, although it definitely wasn’t a wasted two hours, for it did prompt reflection and conversation.

From the poster art and concept you get the idea that this might be a wacky fish-out-of-water story, but it’s really not, and it does take a rather bizarre, and some might say dark turn in the last quarter that’s even more unbelievable than the rest of the film and probably off-putting to most. But perhaps that’s the point.

Basics – I’ll be super lazy and crib this summary from an IMDB entry, because it’s decent and, as I said, I’m lazy:

Anti-capitalist Ben Cash lives in the wilderness with his wife, Leslie, and their six children: Bo, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja, and Nai, whom they have educated, teaching them how to survive along with high-level homeschooling that includes politics and philosophy. Bo has been accepted to leading universities. Then Leslie is hospitalized for bipolar disorder. When she commits suicide, Ben decides to travel to the funeral with his children to fulfill her will of being cremated, instead of the traditional burial that her father Jack wants for his daughter. Jack threatens to call the police and have Ben arrested if he attends the funeral. Along the journey of Ben and his children, Bo meets teenager Claire and falls in love with her. They spend one troubled night with Ben’s sister Harper, her husband Dave, and cousins Justin and Jackson. When they arrive at the church, Jack and his wife Abigail are surprised to see them. Ben makes a speech disclosing Leslie’s will to the guests, and is expelled from the ceremony. Now Jack wants custody of his grandchildren. What will Ben do?

Great cast, landscapes and directing choices lush, fluid and evocative. Some of it’s catnip for homeschoolers, especially unschooling, with reservations (ahead).

I particularly liked a scene below. I like it because of the railing on the word “interesting” – and then the way Ben pushes his daughter to articulate her analysis.

But here’s a weird thought and takes me to my own reaction to the film. Is Vespyr’s description of Lolita and the ambiguous impact of Nabokov’s style and choices a meta-analysis of Captain Fantastic?

But it’s also kind of a trick, because it’s so wrong. He’s old and he basically rapes her. So it makes me feel…. I hate him and I feel sorry for him. At the same time.

Not that anything like that happens in Captain Fantastic, but what we do have at the center is a father who preaches freedom and anti-authoritarianism, which makes (some of) us feel supportive and even aspirational, but then it becomes clear that he accomplishes his goal by being….authoritarian, limiting freedom and even a sort of brainwashing.

We hate him and feel sorry for him. At the same time.

Elements of it are over the top and the end, as I said, has weird stuff happening that some have even suggested are so odd that they are actually happening only in the father’s head – which is interesting (oops), but I don’t think plausible. For the end – the very end – is clearly intended to encourage us to see the value of both-and rather than either-or.

And if you can dig deeper, it’s a good springboard for thinking and talking about parenting. A commenter at Althouse’s blog put it best, I think:

I’m libertarian-righty, but in a way that included sending my kids to leftish-hippie-ish Waldorf school. And they loved the movie and mocked me for days with comments about celebrating Chomsky’s birthday or living on a bus or killing deer as a rite of passage. I thought the movie did a great job of showing that ultimately a child has to find freedom in getting free of even the person who’s teaching them to be freethinkers. Because the job of parent is a form of indoctrination, but you hope, if you’re good at it and a good person, that it will fail in the end on some levels.

By the way, the film was written and directed by Matt Ross, a favorite actor of mine who played a Mormon polygamist extremist in HBO’s Big Love and Zuckerburg/Jobs/Gates/Musk-type Crazy tech founder Gavin Belson in Silicon Valleyhere’s an interview with him about the film.

Read Full Post »

What does that even mean

Watching John Wick 3 with the people who live here, I was told during this scene:

“That’s literally you, right there.”


I’m assuming it’s because sitting calmly on the couch with a drink while this is the vibe on the other side of the door is my M.O.

I’ll just choose to believe that.

Read Full Post »

Meanwhile, in Scotland..

….there’s a woman facing possible jail time because she posted an image of a suffragette ribbon on Twitter.

From The Guardian:

An accountant working for a gender-critical feminist group in Scotland has been charged in relation to allegedly homophobic and transphobic tweets in a case that has been seized on as an exemplar of the apparent clash between free speech and transgender rights.

Marion Millar, from Airdrie, was bailed to appear at Glasgow sheriff court next month. Millar works for For Women Scotland, a group that brought a legal challenge against the Scottish government in January over its definition of “woman” in an act to improve gender representation on public boards.

From Lily Maynard:

What was her crime?


Recently, feminists in Scotland have been tweeting under the WomenWontWheesht hashtag. ‘Weesht’ is Scottish slang for ‘shut up’. The hashtag took off a while ago, but yesterday, the day of Marion’s court appearance, it was trending on Twitter with nearly 16k tweets.

What do we know about Marion’s tweets?

Well, we now know that Marion has been charged on two counts of malicious communications under the MCA. The tweets could be seen as ‘aggravated hate crime’ and, under the MCA, theoretically she could face up to 2 years in prison.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hates-633x1024.png

It takes a lot to surprise me, but when I first saw one of them, the tweet that has been making an appearance in the press and on social media, I was so incredulous that I thought there must have been some mistake.

The offending tweet is on the left.

In the words of The Times newspaper, “The messages investigated by officers are understood to include a retweeted photograph of a bow of ribbons in the green, white and purple colours of the Suffragettes, tied around a tree outside the Glasgow studio where a BBC soap opera is shot. It is believed a complaint was made to the police suggesting the ribbons represented a noose.”

A noose.

Evidently, somebody thought that the suffragette ribbon, fluttering lightly in the evening wind, was a noose, and that Marion’s tweeting of it was some sort of veiled threat.

Finally, if you don’t read anything else, if you are at all interested in this issue, take a few minutes to read this excellent piece, inspired by the Millar’s situation, but digging deep and getting to the root of it all in a succinct way: From Susan Dalgety in The Scotsman:

The roots of this modern witch hunt – for that is what it is – where women are pilloried for arguing that sex is not a feeling but a material reality, lie in philosophy.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, asserted that our idea of what it is to be human is a recent invention, tracing it back to only the beginning of the 19th century. Judith Butler, an American thinker, went further, arguing in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, that being biologically male or female is a social construct.

Crudely she posited that a woman is female not because she has a cervix and ovaries, but because people cried “it’s a girl” when she was born.

Butler’s writings became the founding texts for queer theory, which even some of its most ardent proponents say is too complex to easily explain. Put as simply as I can, one of its core principles is that biological sex is irrelevant and that a person’s feelings – their gender identity – are all that matters. So, if a man with a penis who likes wearing pink says he is a lesbian, then she is a gay woman and must be legally and socially recognised as such.

But what started as a controversial position in a few liberal American universities is now mainstream thinking in the Scottish government. And no dissent, it seems, is allowed.

Women who argue that biology is real and that our sex is the basis of inequality are dismissed as bigots. Women who marched alongside their gay brothers and sisters in the campaign for equality are accused, by some of the people they marched with, of causing a moral panic by asserting their sex-based rights.

Women have lost income, been shunned by their professional peers and pilloried for standing up for their sex-based rights. And one woman now awaits trial in Glasgow Sheriff Court on July 20

Read Full Post »

Wrapping it up, schoolwise

Obligatory: This is as much for me as for you. It’s my way of getting my head straight for an actual transcript-type thing.

Also obligatory: Alabama is a fantastic state in which to homeschool, if you are a disorganized sloth like me. The only requirement is affirming that school happened for 180 days. No curriculum submission, no testing. Seriously. That’s it. Some might see that as a bug, to me it’s definitely a feature.

Background: Finishing up “sophomore” year. Grades 2-5 homeschooled, 6 in school, 7 homeschooled, 8 in school, 9, 10 homeschooled. Very smart kid, no issues except terminal boredom and snark. Again, that might not be a bug but a feature. Usually things like that are.

We’ll do the easy stuff first.

Math: Algebra II with a tutor.

Science: Chemistry through local co-op, taught by a Ph.D at a local university.

History: Self-directed, all ancient history. He read things and watched lectures. I trust him.

Religion: Focus on New Testament; Fraternus participation; weekly organist at Mass with all the education that entails.

Music: Piano instruction w/doctoral student at Eastman.

Latin: Weekly (or so) tutoring w/local public school Latin teacher (formerly at the local Catholic HS). Curriculum: Latin for the New Millenium 2.

National Latin Exam 2021, Summa Cum Laude (gold – the highest)

Spanish: Self directed. Plans for bi-annual intensive in a Spanish-speaking country were blown up by Covid restrictions, but we hope to get back in that groove this year, hopefully in August in Guatemala.

Writing: Online fiction-writing course

Literature: Moi. Details to follow.

Before I get to the literature details, here’s what will happen next year, we hope:

Science: Physics, through the co-op

Government/Economics: Through the co-op

Religion: All the previous, plus Apologetics, through the co-op.

Math: Test prep and AP Statistics, w/excellent tutor. Already started.

Latin: translation work w/same tutor as last year, using Learning to Read Latin.

Spanish: As indicated above – self-directed, with a couple of intensive sessions in Spanish-speaking countries. We hope.

Music: Same, w/more recitals this year.

So…you might be able to discern that once the math clicked into place, I was like:

Seinfeld Happy Dance - Reaction GIFs

Because…I’m almost done. ALMOST DONE. Freaking ALMOST DONE. I want to cry. Completely happy, ecstatic tears. I certainly don’t mind homeschooling, and it’s certainly preferable to mediocre brick-n-mortar schooling, but why would I lie and say that, approaching 61-freaking-years-old I’m not ready to be done?

(Because after the next school year, the basics for a diploma will, indeed, be complete, and he can move on, in whatever way he likes, to college-level work. Or just ride his bike all day. I don’t care.)

All that’s on my plate next year besides writing checks and sending Venmo payments is literature, which is a pleasure anyway, but more so because I know our emphasis: hopefully, God willing, in-person performances will be happening again, so the focus will be British literature, starting with Beowulf and Canterbury Tales and then nuthin’ but Shakespeare All Year, guided by the performance selections of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern.

So now, let’s survey what happened in American Literature.

Background: He’s a reader, so no problem there, and he’s always reading other things besides what’s assigned as well. Secondly, we are super informal about this. There are no projects or questions involved, unless I get annoyed. It’s all reading-and-discussing.

Primary texts:

Nation of Letters, Volume 1

American Literature Survey: The American Romantics 1800-1860

The American Tradition in Literature

Norton Anthology of American Literature

Along with various other background readings and videos (invaluable – let someone else do the lectures, I say, especially if his name is John Green).

VerrazzanoVerrazzano’s Voyage

De Vaca – Excerpts from the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca

De Champlain – Excerpt from The Voyages of 1604-1607

John Smith – Excerpt from The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles

William Bradford – Excerpt from Of Plymouth Plantation

Roger Williams – Excerpt from The Bloody Tenet for the Cause of Conscience

Anne Bradstreet – “The Author to Her Book,” “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “Upon the Burning of Our House.”

Edward Taylor: “Upon a Spider Catching a Fly,” “Upon a Wasp Chilled with Cold.”

Mary Rowlandson: Excerpt from A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

Cotton Mather: Excerpt from Magnalia Christi Americana

Jonathan Edwards: Excerpt from Personal Narrative and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter (read during September)

St. Jean de Crevecoeur: Excerpts from Letters from an American Farmer

Phyllis Wheatly: “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “An Hymn to the Evening,” “To His Excellency General Washington.”

Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography

Thomas Paine: Excerpt from Common Sense

Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, First Inaugural Address, excerpts from Notes on the State of Virginia

Excerpts from The Federalist Papers

Washington Irving: Rip van Winkle; Legend of Sleepy Hollow

James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self-Reliance

Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience; Excerpts from Walden.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Philosophy of Composition, and a couple of stories and poems he hadn’t read before but I didn’t write them down so sorry.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown.” (Had read The Scarlet Letter earlier in the year)

Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address; Second Inaugural Address

Frederick Douglass: Excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Doglass, An American Slave

Walt Whitman: Excerpts from Preface to Leaves of Grass: Excerpts from Song of Myself; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Emily Dickinson: Lots.

Mark Twain: Mostly “about.” He’s read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer twice, each, I think.

Bret Harte: “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.”

Ambrose Bierce: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

Henry James: Daisy Miller

Kate Chopin: “Desiree’s Baby,” “The Story of an Hour.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Herman Melville: Bartleby, the Scrivener”

Stephen Crane: “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “One Dash — Horses,” “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel.”

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, “Roman Fever.”

Booker T. Washington: Excerpts from Up From Slavery

Willa Cather: “The Enchanted Bluff,” “The Namesake,” Excerpt from My Antonia

Excerpts (via the Norton Anthology) regarding the Gilded Age from Horatio Alger, Andrew Carnegie, Frederick Jackson Turner, Theodore Roosevlet & Jane Addams

Okay, then May hit. Lots of poetry, less fiction. Hanging on here. I’m not going to list individual poems, so take your best guess, folks:

Amy Lowell

Robert Frost

Carl Sandburg

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

Ezra Pound

Marianne Moore

T.S. Eliot

Claude McKay

E.E. Cummings

And then, fiction-wise:

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, “Babylon Revisited.”

William Faulkner: “A Rose for Emily,” “Two Soldiers,” “Barn Burning.”

Ernest Hemingway: “The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macomber,” “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Kurt Vonnegut: Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse Five (He’s already read “Harrison Bergeron,” and it’s frequent point of reference.)

James Thurber: “The Night the Bed Fell,” “The Day the Dam Broke,” various cartoons.

Flannery O’Connor: “The Displaced Person,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” (He’d already read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)

Discussions of various writers whom we’ve not actually read: Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, etc. Putting them into context. A great deal more context-setting than I’ve indicated, mostly through videos.

And…..here we are. We’re not done. Somehow, between travel and other things, we got a bit behind. I’m normally not a stickler for “finishing” things, but I would like to, well, finish this. Sort of.

Big missing piece? (Besides anything after 1960) – drama. I know. I’d meant to take a couple of days and go over O’Neil, Miller, Hansberry & Williams, but Life interfered. As in – spending all day biking or going to a swimming hole with your posse is, actually more important than listening to your mom drone on about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when you’re 16. It just is.

BUT – before his departure for a certain summer program at the end of the month, he WILL be reading “Idiots First” and “The Mourners” by Malamud; “The Conversion of the Jews” by Roth; “The Swimmer” by Cheever and ending up with “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, which I think is the perfect story with which to end a course – “course” – in American Literature – it’s as a complete a summation of American literature and the power of literature, period, that you’re apt to find, in my opinion. A marvelous story that you might find as emotionally compelling as I did.


Long form works:

The Scarlet Letter

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Last of the Mohicans

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Daisy Miller

Ethan Frome

The Great Gatsby

(Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men – standards of high school American literature – had been read before.)

I think we did okay.



Betty Draper GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Read Full Post »

The body-soul question is one of the oldest ones we humans ponder.

In the present day, it takes on more urgency, as we are able, as no other people could in the past, to examine, study and see our own physical selves through mirrors, photographs and videos. We can contemplate our physical appearance and are encouraged to preserve images of that physical self and even share them with the world.

It also takes on more urgency as the spirit is severed from the transcendent.

And so we anxiously paint and sculpt ourselves – and more of us have the resources to do so than any other group of humans in history – and we present and perform and the anxiety is profound.

It’s good – they say – to spend time matching up your appearance to how you think of yourself.

Spoken, truly, as a only young-to early-middle-aged person (with time and money to spend) could.

Of course (of course) this is playing out in terms of sexuality and gender. It’s a driving force – what do you feel like? Do you not feel the way society tells you a woman or girl should feel? Well, you must be a guy, then! Get a masectomy and start the testosterone, and if you want, you can find a doctor who will flay some skin off your upper arm or thigh and tack it between your legs, too!

I’ve written about this before – here – and about how the experience of aging (61 next month for the curious) has clarified my thinking on the trans issue.

And here’s another nugget. From a New York Magazine on artist Alice Neel, whose is the subject of a new exhibit at the Met.

(Warning – images that might offend some at the link)

I wasn’t as taken with Neel’s art, as a whole, as critic Jerry Saltz is, but her paintings of pregnant women and children (like her Two Girls in Spanish Harlem, above) are marvelous, real and evocative.

As is her portrait of Andy Warhol (left), which Saltz describes as the best portrait of Warhol ever made. I’m not an expert, but it does capture something quite powerful, something far beyond Warhol’s self-presentation, while making absolutely clear that this is Warhol.

So what brought today’s thoughts on is a quote from Neel herself related to a self-portrait of her aging self.

 “I hate the way I looked … I don’t like my type … my spirit looked nothing like my body.”

Full passage:

Neel’s nude self-portrait (-at age 80-) stands with Picasso’s 1905–6 portrait of Gertrude Stein. In each we see a Gibraltar-like woman — monumental, aware, in thought, and with power. Neel said “I hate the way I looked … I don’t like my type … my spirit looked nothing like my body.” She still revealed it all, picturing herself naked and old in her living room, a human animal with a prehensile toe, breasts resting on stomach, “flesh dropping off my bones,” holding a paintbrush (“I live for this little thing in my hand”). Picasso’s Stein may be Mesopotamian mountain; Neel is the allness of a knowing Buddha, a portrait of spirit and body as cosmos. This painting is hung near the end of the Met show: By the time you see it, you know that Neel used that “little thing” in her hand as a stick of dynamite.

My spirit looks nothing like my body…

Well, proclaims the modern age, fix it up! Become the self you know you are inside! Lift, tuck, go to the dermatologist and the surgeon, get a makeup and hair consult, and let me tell you about the best filters!

Or…just accept? Accept not only the reality of who we are and our physical state, but accept the dissonance we live with in these bodies, on this earth, in this life.

Sorry, it’s not going to “match.” Ever. It’s just going to be. That’s the curse, that’s the gift.

From two years ago:

 A few weeks ago, on our way back from Spain, I spent time with my friend Ann Englehart, who also turned 59 this summer. Over great Greek food in Astoria, I looked at her and asked the question that had been weighing on me:

“Do you feel fifty-freaking-nine years old?”

“NO!” she exclaimed, clearly relieved to hear someone else say it.

What does it even mean? we wondered, articulating the same thoughts aloud. What does it mean to be “almost sixty” – but to feel no older than, say forty, and to wonder – was I ever even 45 or 52? I just seem to have leapt from still almost youngish adulthood to AARP discounts without blinking. My appearance is changing, and I look at women two decades older than I and I know – God willing I make it that far – that there will be a day when I, too, will be unrecognizable to my younger self.

It’s very, very weird. It’s challenging. I completely understand why people – especially those in the public eye – get work done to stave off the sagging and the wrinkles. It’s so strange when what you look like on the outside doesn’t match what you feel on the inside. It’s disorienting. You might even say it’s dysphoric. Centered in those feelings, living as though this were the only reality and all that matters, the temptation to use all the technology at one’s disposal to fix it – to make it all match up – might be very strong.

But understanding that disassociation and sense of dislocation in another way, as an invitation. An invitation, a hint to listen to the heart that seeks and yearns for wholeness and unity, to understand that while it’s not perfectly possible on this earth, the yearning for it is a hint that somewhere, it does exist – that wholeness, that perfect unity of self – and it waits – and the hard, puzzling journey we’re on does not, in fact end where the world tells us.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.

Read Full Post »

No greater commandment

From today’s Gospel reading, from Mark:

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Jesus replied, “The first is this:
    Hear, O Israel! 
    The Lord our God is Lord alone!
    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
    with all your soul, with all your mind, 
    and with all your strength.

The second is this:
    You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Got that:

No other commandment than these.

Love the Lord your God…..love your neighbor as yourself

Not even “Thrive!”

Not “Be your best self!”

Not “Flourish!”

Not “Follow your dreams!”

Not “Live your best life!”

I bang on this a lot (sorry), and there are reasons.

First, it’s interesting to me, as a student of popular Christianity from all eras, from medieval mystery plays and relic cults to present-day Instagram influencers.

How is religion interpreted in a culture? How has Christian faith and practice been adapted so that culture effectively amplifies the Gospel and makes it accessible and meaningful? How has it been adapted in ways that suck the life and truth out of it and serve the world instead?

It’s all quite fascinating.

And in this present day, how have privilege, wealth, mobility, literacy, technological capabilities, mass media, an abundance of leisure and an achievement/success-oriented culture impacted how Christianity is preached, received, interpreted and used?

I have a pretty simple test that I use to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ll use today’s Gospel as an excuse to share it with you:

Consider a faith message you’re hearing, whatever it is purporting to help you discover and live out a central spiritual purpose.

Could this message be credibly shared with these people?

Just follow your passions, guys!

(credit: Carl Olson in the comments.)

God’s purpose is for you to flourish and live your best life, right now!

Yes, there’s a kernel that isn’t worthless and false at the core of all of those catchphrases and movements – that kernel that assures us that we are God’s beloved children, that each person is here on earth because God wanted them to be and created them, intentionally – every single one. And that life lived in communion with God is beautiful and rich, no matter where we are.

But most of the rest of it is a manifestation of us privileged Westerners justifying career goals, personal aspirations, vanity and lifestyle, wearing it like the inspirational t-shirt we picked up on Etsy and comfortably leaning on it like our favorite inspirational pillow.

There’s not a thing wrong with seeking to flourish…thrive…follow your dreams….be your best self. But it’s not the Gospel, and it’s the Gospel of sacrificial love that we’re invited to put at the center of our lives every day, even as every day, we’re also tempted to replace it with something else.

As I’ve written before:

Always be on guard and be willing to look and listen closely. Jesus promises fullness of life – but be cautious when figuring out what this means. Sometimes it means that aspects of your temporal life are going to really and truly feel as if they are in line with that spiritual flourishing, and it’s all coming together. And it may be just that. Or it may be a trap – a trap of narcissism and self-centeredness, a temptation to elevate my will and assume, because things seem to be going great, that of course it must be God’s will as well.

Yes, that’s a form of the Prosperity Gospel. A soft Prosperity Gospel, if you will. I’m not called to follow Christ because of what he’ll do for my life – even though he does everything. I’m called to follow Christ because he calls and he’s Lord.


Read Full Post »

“…the dog followed Tobias”

I re-read the book of Tobit last night.

Why, you ask?

Because it’s the text for the first readings at daily Mass this week, and as much as I fail at it, I do try to ground my spiritual life in what God hands me through the Church.

I mean, I could have focused on the Gospels or the feasts, but something nudged me to take another look at Tobit, after lo, so many years.

Here it is. It’s not as short as Jonah or John’s letters, but nonetheless, it won’t take you long.

Tobit is one of the stranger tales in the Bible, a mix of historical setting and allusions, prayer, callbacks to Israel’s history and some folktale vibes. It’s intriguingly, effectively structured, too.

Tobit is in exile – not as part of the 6th century Babylonian Exile, but the 8th century conquest of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria.

Even in exile Tobit tries to be faithful. Hardly anyone else is, even his fellow Israelites. But Tobit forges on, observing his ritual duties and giving himself over to works of charity – helping the poor and burying the dead.

One night, Tobit reclines for a rest near a wall where sparrows are nesting. Their excretions fall in his eyes, and he’s blinded.

Tobit has a wife, Anna, and a son named Tobiah. He sends Tobiah off to the home of a relation to retrieve some money he’d stored there. How will Tobias find his way? Well, here comes an angel – Raphael (“God heals”) – sharing his name with the human beings as Azariah (“YHWH has helped”), whose presence we’re told right when he shows up, will make a huge difference in several people’s lives. He’ll not only guide Tobiah, but his actions will bring healing to Tobit and drive demons from the life of a young woman….

….who will be Tobiah’s wife. Eventually. She’d been married seven times before, but each wedding night, a demon appeared and offed her new husband. She’s naturally hesitant to try this again, but is assured, and sure enough, a White Wedding scenario is avoided.


Fish guts.

A large fish attacks Tobiah – tries to swallow his foot – but it’s caught and gutted. Part of it’s consumed, part salted and saved, and part, through Raphael’s instruction, saved for other purposes:

Then the young man asked the angel this question: “Brother Azariah, what medicine is in the fish’s heart, liver, and gall?”

He answered: “As for the fish’s heart and liver, if you burn them to make smoke in the presence of a man or a woman who is afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, any affliction will flee and never return.

As for the gall, if you apply it to the eyes of one who has white scales, blowing right into them, sight will be restored.

So yes, you can see what happens. Demons are driven off, eyes are opened and prayers of gratitude are prayed.


  • Tobit, living a landscape and environment completely hostile to his faith, remains faithful. He continues to pray and to praise. He continues to fulfill his duties, primarily those of charity and care for others. He doesn’t spend time blaming others or any other force for the situation, but confronts it and accepts his own responsibility for what God has allowed to happen.
  • Life can be ripped apart, but God’s not far away, even then. He shows up, as the preachers like to say. He’s right here, guiding us, responding to us in ways that we only gradually come to understand. He works through the stuff – all the stuff – of this world – like a fish – to engage and heal. You just never know.
  • And then there’s the dog.

The dog is mentioned twice – once as Tobiah and Azariah depart…

When the young man left home, accompanied by the angel, the dog followed Tobiah out and went along with them

…and then when they return…

So both went on ahead together, and Raphael said to him, “Take the gall in your hand!” And the dog ran along behind them.

Which is why there’s almost always a dog in artistic depictions of the story.

It’s a strange detail, but certainly not random:

Tobias must journey far from home, yes, but he’s not alone. At each step, the Lord accompanies him in the form of his angel, and at each step, home and family – in the form of the faithful dog – stay close, as well.

This is life:

Suffering, persecution, the struggle to stay faithful and trust in God’s presence and love, physical pain, spiritual torment, confusion – and then: the Lord, walking beside us on the way, offering healing surprising ways through ordinary things on this journey on which the ties of family and home are impossible to shake – like it or not.

Read Full Post »



Writing: Mostly in this space. My brain is a little paralyzed (is that possible?) as I wait for someone else to make a


decision. Once that decision’s made, the shape of the rest of the summer becomes clear and I can think a little more clearly.

But here, since last Friday:

What Makes Sammy Run?

War on Women, Indeed

Heart of Love

Justin Martyr

Sing in your cell, small anchorite! – On the VIsitation

Trinity Sunday and St. Joan of Arc

A Quiet Place II

I’ll be in Living Faith next week. The 10th, I think.

I was on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning, talking about the Sacred Heart post.

I really, really need to write Other Things.

Reading: As mentioned, What Makes Sammy Run?

Now, also as mentioned, The Disenchanted, also by Budd Schulberg.

Also: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, which is so, so good. I’ll write about it after I’m finished.

Various magazine pieces here and there.

The Book of Tobit, which I’ll be writing about later today. (Why Tobit? Because it’s providing the first readings for daily Mass this week, and I thought I needed a refresher. And, as per usual, it Made Me Think.)

Listening: Not much of great interest. This time of year, my evenings are spent either outside or watching something with the guys. So music doesn’t get played to accompany my evenings.

We did go through a Saint-Saens concerto phase last week, I recall, as Piano Guy might be tackling one, if not this year, then next.


College Guy and I are watching Mad Men, him for the first time, me for probably the third. We just finished season 6 and will start the last season next week, I suppose.


They’ve watched various things without my presence: Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and some anime movie called Akira. Together we watched, well, A Quiet Place II, but then at home Best of Show, Burn After Reading and John Wick 2 and revisted an episode or two of Flight of the Conchords. We’ll get more high class next week, I hope. I’ll try.

Meanwhile, over in South Carolina, Movie Son is working his way through Howard Hawks.

Cooking: I have two people home much of the time, but then…they’re not. Between friends and boxing time and biking, planning meals can sometimes be just pointless. I did manage some oven backed ribs this week – I’m a fan of oven-baked ribs over grilled, most of the time – and this potato salad.

Travel: No plans as yet. There will be family-related things this summer, but the next big trip will not probably be until the last part of August, when I hope we can get to Guatemala for a couple weeks of Spanish intensive. Oh, no, not for me. I’ll stick with my pathetic French, merci.

Read Full Post »

What Makes Sammy Run?

I’m pretty sure my parents had this on their many bookshelves, but it’s not one of the few volumes I preserved from their stash.

I did, however, buy a copy for pennies at an estate sale a few weeks ago. A couple of days ago, I decided it was time to read it.

I am not sure what I expected. After the first few pages, I wasn’t even sure I’d finish it. It’s not that I hated it, it’s just that after those few pages, I thought I got it. Okay, okay. Slimy young guy uses and abuses on his way to the top, wisecracks abound. Do I really need to go any farther?

Well, I did, and it was absolutely worth it. So much so that I immediately searched out another Schulberg novel, The Disenchanted, which he wrote, based in part on his experience working with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s a Hollywood story, yes, but it’s also an American story. Almost an “only in America” story, as a matter of fact.

Written and published eighty years ago, it’s still timely, for if you look around, you can see plenty of Sammy Glicks, even if you don’t know a soul in Hollywood.

You can still see people who are clawing their way to the top of whatever field they’ve chosen as their domain, and have succeeded, not because they’re uniquely gifted, but because they’re uniquely ambitious and, well, talented in exploiting the moment and, more often than not, exploiting other people.

It’s a great book, and not just because of the character of Sammy Glick, but because, first of all, because of the knowing, spot-on observations of Schulberg, who grew up in Hollywood and knows whereof he speaks, intimately.

But the other thing that lifts What Makes Sammy Run to another level is Schulberg’s perfect narrative voice.

It’s tempting to compare this novel to The Great Gatsby: narrator observes the rise and fall of a shyster of sorts. And as much as I adore Gatsby, I have to hand it to Schulberg here in the unique perspective his narrator, Al Manheim, brings to the tale.

It’s one thing to observe an operator in action. That’s entertaining and grimly instructive. But here we enter another level – a more humane level – when the eyes through which we observe this operator have something at stake as well. And we’ve got this in Al Manheim, who is far more of a factor in this novel than Nick Carraway is in Gatsby – but in an amazingly balanced way.

For the question of the title, isn’t just an abstract, objective one. It’s a question that drives our narrator, who’s been bypassed and used by Sammy Glick, and who has his own issues and is driven, incessantly to ask this question, over and over – what makes Sammy run? What enables him to use people, to shatter other people’s dreams with apparently no qualms of conscience, to just go and go and go? What’s his goal?

And what’s holding me back from that same road? Why can’t I run like Sammy? And am I glad about that or sorry?

Much of the backstory of this novel is interesting, too. Schulberg, as was typical at the time, had his sympathies with Communism, and some of the narrative of the novel grapples with the unionization of film writers – apparently, big honchos of the American Communist party tried to get Schulberg to change aspects of the novel they deemed less than sympathetic to the Red Cause (I am guessing, after reading, that’s because Schulberg actually gave a nuanced account of the benefits – and costs – of unionization), he refused, and at that point cut his ties with the party – and an few years later ended up writing the screenplay for On the Waterfront and testifying against the Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee – On the Waterfront being directed by Elia Kazan, who did the same, and was blackballed by Hollywood elites for years afterwards because of it.

Also – What Makes Sammy Run, despite having a crackerjack story and great characters, has never been made into a film. There was a television adaptation, which you can find online, and what seems like a mostly terrible Broadway musical (1964, revived 2006) – but Schulberg himself is reported as saying that the book is so anti-Hollywood, no one wanted to film it.

Why is it anti-Hollywood?

Because the basic takeaway is that most “creators” in the industry are opportunistic hacks who make their fortunes by, at best, recycling, and at worst, stealing ideas, I suppose – but is that really news? Don’t we already know that?

A couple more notes. I was a little surprised by the sexual frankness of the novel, but perhaps I just need to get out more, 1941-style.

Finally, this novel has a fantastic female character, in the person of Kit Sargeant, another screenwriter. Oh my, she’s wonderful – completely three-dimensional, complex, even a little sexually ambiguous. She’s unapologetically committed to her job and her craft and valued by other characters because of it. An absolute joy to read. Schulberg has no scenes in which Kit’s role as a professional woman who loves what she does and has big plans for herself, with complete confidence, is questioned or agonized over. It’s just who she is – a writer with talent and ambition, no apologies.

Mother wanted me to go to law school. She had it all planned. I’d go into my father’s old firm and we’d live together and she’d take care of me. To be very ruthless about it—what she really wanted to do was turn me into my father, so she would have a place again. Well, I decided I had to be ruthless about it. I was already started on my book and I wanted to be away from her—on my own. I couldn’t see why the hell men should have a monopoly on independence any more. I made up my mind to stay out of sidecars. Have you ever thought of the difference between the two words spinster and bachelor? It seems pretty significant that spinster has a thought association of loneliness, frustration and bitterness. Bachelorhood is something glamorous—doesn’t the sound of the word give you a sense of adventure and freedom? So I decided I’d be a bachelor.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: