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It is invariably, unfailingly true, that if I wait long enough, my inchoate thoughts on a topic find expression in someone else’s knowledgeable, rational words. I’ll link to those more knowledgeable words in a second.

First, let me just run this by you. This is the kind of post that back in the day, I used to be able to toss out,  and some would feel strongly one way or the other, sure, but for the most part, the conversation would be genial and people would be able to laugh and see the oddities, inconsistencies and questions, not only in the opposing point of view, but in their own.

But that really doesn’t happen much any more. I have loads of ideas about why that is and who or what to blame, but none of that really matters. What matters is the pronounced lack of chill in the world these days. Geez, people. Relax. It’s a joke. Everything’s a mess. Cry, then laugh.

(But, as Ann Althouse frequently points out, we’re in the Era of That’s Not Funny, so what can you do?)

So. I’ve been following the news, as I do, and particularly following the Catholic news related to the pandemic. Over the past few days, hints have come from various bishops and dioceses that we, the laity, might be permitted to attend public Masses again.

Thanks!

You can search for the various policies that are being proposed and promulgated, but the conditions that seem to be most common involve:

  • Asking the vulnerable to stay home. Which I generally have no problem with because, of course, the vulnerable are never obligated to attend Mass. My only issues are two: First I trust – I trust that all of these vulnerable, sick and elderly people who are being told to stay away from the parish grounds are also being told that pastoral ministry will certainly be coming to them because FieldHospitalAccompanimentLoveYa.  Secondly, these dioceses are…suggesting a cutoff age to define these vulnerable populations.Fort Worth, for example, has put it at…60. SIXTY. SIX-TY.

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Ahem.

  • Also, social distancing.
  • Masks, sometimes.
  • No touching. No hand-holding at the Lord’s Prayer, no Sign of Peace.
  • No singing.
  • People should super cautious about receiving Communion. No Communion from the shared chalice for the congregation. Congregants maybe don’t take for granted that they will receive, or no Communion distributed during Mass, or only in the hand.

So, I’m reading through all of these, and I’m getting the picture: a Mass where’s there’s more silence, where social aspects are minimized, people sort of keep to themselves, where they’re not touching, there’s no Sign of Peace in the congregation, and people aren’t looking at each other and constantly talking or singing and aspirating material all over each other, and it’s not taken for granted that you’ll receive Communion…

Hmmm. I’m thinking..

…thinking..

…something’s coming….

…I think I can conjure that up…

 

 

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Hahahaha. Come on. Laugh. You can do it. 

It sort of reminds me of a few months back, when a parish in these parts started advertising regular sensory-friendly Masses. I read about what that would be like, and I thought, “So, a traditional low Mass, right?”

The point about the Mass pictured above is made even more sharply when you understand that it was quite common for Communion to be distributed outside of Mass, during this time. I wrote about that here, in this post on the sociological study, St. Denis – a small Quebec community in which the laity would go to Confession and receive Communion before Mass, and then attend the Mass itself.

Look. Here’s what this is about. It’s about what I point out over and over and over AND OVER.

There is wisdom in tradition. 

Traditional practices grew out of human experience – human experiences of joy, sorrow, difficulty and challenge. Human experiences of trying to obey Christ, bring his presence into the world as it is –  in peace, war, plenty, famine, health and disease.  I wrote a bit about this earlier this week., Yes, tradition and traditional practices are always subject to reform and development. But it helps if, as we reform, we keep the wisdom of the tradition in mind and are realistic about life in this world as well.

Short version: Maybe they knew what they were doing, after all.

 

As promised, here’s the smarter take from a slightly different angle, from  Joseph Shaw of the UK Latin Mass society on “Epidemic and Liturgical Reform.”

Clearly, a carefully controlled approach to distributing Holy Communion outside Mass will place a limit on the numbers able to receive, and even on the most optimistic view Catholics will have to get used to another aspect of standard past practice: infrequent Communion. Today, not only is Communion outside Mass hard to imagine, but for many Catholics so is attendance at Mass without the reception of Communion. This implies a casual attitude towards the reception of Holy Communion which perfectly accords with the placing of the meal-symbolism ahead of other considerations, but is not a positive development from other points of view.

It certainly would not have been the way I would have chosen to do it — I have previously argued for the restoration of a longer Eucharistic fast — but the enforced infrequency of Holy Communion will do much to restore the fame eucharistica, “eucharistic hunger,” the lack of which Pope John II so lamented. It is to be hoped that priests will encourage the Faithful who are able to receive less frequently to make the most of it when it is possible, by careful preparation, ideally including fasting, an act of perfect contrition (or, if possible, sacramental Confession), and prayer, and to follow it with a serious thanksgiving.

It is dangerous to speculate too early about the long-term consequences of the current epidemic, but it will certainly have some. It seems likely that among them will be a shedding of the naivety about hygiene which characterizes modern liturgical practice. It is to be hoped that this will be accompanied by a restoration of a more acute awareness of spiritual realities, and of the practices which have historically served to nurture that awareness.

Update:  An example – the guidelines issued by the Diocese of Wichita. All of what I spoke of above, including specific directives about not greeting each other before or after Mass in the church, and no congregational singing.

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Greetings, all!

MondayI think I might be on the road to settling in and this new normal. See this post as an explanation for my dazed and confused state. We’ll see. A busy week ahead.

Writing: Many blog posts. Too many. Just scroll back for those.

Writer son continues to grind through Marvel movies. 

Cooking: There’s only two of us, which makes cooking even more important, it seems – to resist the there are only two of us, going out wouldn’t be any more expensive…So I managed to do both beef stew and jambalaya last week, which will both last us through Wednesday – my target date for the end of meal planning, since that’s the night Kid does a church activity that provides a meal. There. That’s done.

Reading: Poor George by Paula Fox, which I wrote about here. 

Currently – The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge. This, along with her An Awfully Big Adventure  has been on my list for a while – harvested from some other list of forgotten novels somewhere. But I don’t think our library has any of her books, and I keep forgetting about them – until last Saturday, when I grabbed a 30-day free trial to Scribd so I could read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. And tooling around there for Something To Read, I stumbled upon these and remembered I wanted to read them. So here we are.

I probably should mention Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of HereticsI enjoy reading Douthat and agree with him on most things, but I didn’t think much of this book. I find that three hundred page sweeping surveys of history tend to be so superficial that even good writers are ill-served by the attempt. This was no exception.

Here’s an example: Douthat is looking at the collapse of traditional Christian orthodoxy in the United States. How did American Christian collapse from the height of its power and credibility in the 50’s, so hard and so fast – and so completely? And what has replaced it?

One of his chapters focuses on the ways in which traditional beliefs in the historicity of the Gospels, and hence the person of Jesus, have been undermined by academic Biblical and historical studies. Unfortunately, he focuses on that 1990’s-2000’s moment of Crossan, Ehrman, Pagels, culminating, in the popular mind with continual discoveries of “lost Gospels” and, of course, The Da Vinci Code. 

This is unbelievably narrow and short sighted. Although Douthat mentions French and German scholars who were questioning the historicity of the Gospels back in the 18th and 19th centuries, he doesn’t give them nearly enough attention – not that they existed, simply, but their impact on generations of seminary students – students who become ministers and priests. He treats the contemporary (at the time) lights as being mainly important in the questions and doubts they brought to the public square via their books and magazine articles, but anyone involved in ministry in mainstream Protestant or Catholic institutions from mid-century on can tell you that the issue was deeper than simply finding and giving credence to gnostic writings and minimizing the traditionally canonical Gospels – it’s about the centuries long conviction in academia – which includes seminaries – that there’s a fundamental disassociation between the received Scriptures and history. We simply don’t know what really happened – if there was an Abraham or a Moses or what Jesus really said – there’s no way to ever know, and the Scriptures are valuable for what they tell us, first about the communities that produced them and secondly, human religious experience in general.

Crossan gets the press for saying that the resurrection didn’t happen and Jesus’ body was probably stolen by dogs, sure, but it’s that general distrust and the assumption that it’s hopeless, useless and frankly, a little spiritually immature to seek any historical realities behind the words that make up the Word that had a more pervasive effect that filters down, even now, to preaching and education.

Which is why I could never write a book like Bad Religion and will probably stick to sorting out my views on What Happened and Why through fiction…which will probably never get published, so you’re safe.

Listening:

For some reason, this has been put on heavy YouTube rotation. He discovered Kissin through a recording of Prokofiev’s Diabolical Suggestion that he’s been listening to for assistance in learning the piece (which will take…a while), and has settled on this as an entertaining side dish. It’s Liszt’s La campanella,based on a theme by Paganini – and if you want to have a sense why it’s considered one of the most difficult piano pieces to play, watch and listen – it’s not just that it’s fast, but that the melody is played by the thumb of the right hand, which is also playing those very high bell-like 16th notes. It’s crazy.

And we’re entertained, not just by the piece, but by the impression that Kissin, sweat dripping and even hair flying off his head, just might be actually disintegrating by the end of it….

Watching: 

He watched all of Fawlty Towers (not much – only two seasons, six episodes each), and therefore I have been subjected to a week of turning around to find someone in my face saying, “Que? Que?” more or less constantly.

Sunday night, we watched The King of Comedy – his interest in it piqued because the new Joker movie has some relationship to it? Somehow?

Anyway, I had seen it years ago – not in theaters, I don’t think, but at some point not too long afterwards on television. It’s very dark, mesmerizing and very, very good. Brilliant casting of Jerry Lewis, whom I like far more in this type of role than in an actual comic role, DeNiro is laser-focused in his obsessive madness and Sandra Bernhard takes the film to an entirely stratospheric level with her supremely confident mania – and lines, it’s said, were mainly improvised. This on-point monologue – spoken to a duct-taped Jerry Lewis, playing a stand-up comic and talk-show host Bernhard’s character idolizes to the point of mania, is a highlight – and actually fits rather well into the theme of the week – which is focusing on images of others as idols and conveyers of meaning we can’t or won’t seek in our own ordinary daily lives and encounters.

(Transcribed dialogue cribbed from here.)

“I feel completely impulsive tonight. Anything, anything could happen,” she tells Langford.

“I have so much to tell you. I don’t know where to start. I just want to tell you everything about myself, everything you don’t know.

“Do you like these glasses (she “pings” one)? Crystal, beautiful. I bought them just for you. I don’t know, there’s something about them that remind me of you, the simplicity of them. But if you don’t like them, even an inkling of doubt in your mind …” — Smash! Tinkle!

“You know, sometimes during the day I’ll just be, I’ll (be doing the) simplest things. I’ll be taking a bath and I’ll say myself, ‘I wonder if Jerry’s taking a bath right now.’ And I just hope you’re not drowning or something. I just get really worried about you, like something terrible’s going to happen.

“Then I have like these daydreams, like I’m out at the golf course just driving your cart, just driving around. ‘Need a putter, Jer, you know? Need an iron?’” she chuckled.

“I don’t even know how to play golf. I played with my parents once, my dad. I love you.

“I’ve never told my parents that I love them. Of course, they never told me that they loved me either, which was fine with me. But I love you.

“Want some wine? No? OK, I’m not in the mood to drink either though, but I’m sure in the mood to be alone with you.”

“Why don’t we just clear off the table? I was thinking why don’t we go upstairs, but that’s so predictable. Let’s just take everything off the table and do it right here.

“That would blow your mind, wouldn’t it? It would blow my mind. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never even had anybody over for dinner, let alone make love on the table.

“But somehow I just want to do that, I just want to, like, dance. I just want to, like, you know, put on some Shirelles. I want be black.

Wouldn’t that be insane? You know what, you know who I wish I was tonight? I just wish I was Tina Turner, just dancing through the room.”

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Welcome new readers. Check out my books (some linked on the right) and pages with permanent links to themed posts (above.)

Well, that was quite the weekend on the Internets, wasn’t it?

When the Covington Catholic photo flashed across one of my feeds, I freely admit that my first reaction was, “Expel him!” accompanied by several tweets/posts that mercifully existed only in my head.

And then…as it does…a fuller picture started emerging. As it does.

I won’t rehash the whole thing. I wasn’t really intending to add to the verbiage, either, but here I am. If you want to know where I stand on the sequence of events, check out Robby Soave’s piece at Reason. He captures most of my sense of it. I’ve watched other videos out there of the moment, which make one thing very clear to me: that initial narrative of “Boys in MAGA hats surround and taunt Native American protester” is false.

And you might want to stop and pause there. For despite all the other “lessons” and penumbras of meaning being spun, that is where this thing took off: from an image of a kid looking at a protester, which, we were told captured a moment in which these students surrounded a protester, mocked him and one boy, in particular, stood and stared him down, smirking.

But is that what happened? I don’t think so – and this is from watching several videos a couple of times.

What seems to have happened is that group was assembled on the steps, waiting for their bus. There had been this Black Hebrew Israelite group nearby for a while, demonstrating, taunting and filming, and then Nathan Phillips approaches with his group, drumming, chanting and filming, and he heads right into this group of boys who were, it seems doing school chants to both pass the time and distract from the first other group. Phillips walks right into the group – for whatever reason. There’s a video out there of the moments right before the encounter captured in the photos, as well as the encounter itself, and it is nothing like those initial headlines indicated. The student at the center of the controversy is just sort of standing around with the dozens of others, laughing and waiting – and then Phillips stands in front of him, drumming. The student clearly doesn’t really know what to do.  In the most widely-disseminated images, his resting face seems to some like a smirk – but when you look at videos from the other side – there’s one in which he turns and tells one of his classmates arguing with an activist to cool it – he just looks sort of uncomfortable.

So the bottom line is: the initial narrative was inaccurate.

No matter what you make of the students wearing MAGA hats at any time, but particularly representing a Catholic school at the March for Life, their whooping, a few of them tomahawk-chopping – some might have been mocking, some might have been mindless, some might have been unrelated to anything specific, the nature of private education, particularly single-sex private education, masculinity, Smirks Through History, Georgetown Prep, whatever  – none of that matters. It could be that the culture at this school is problematic – the culture at most secondary schools is problematic for one reason or another, and wealthy private schools are usually the worst.

But does that matter in this really very specific moment? Sorry, it just doesn’t. Because the reason these students were condemned, threatened and doxxed was because, it was said – they swarmed and victimized Nathan Phillips. At that moment. And that didn’t happen. Watch the videos. You may not like their behavior.  I get it. I personally still get triggered being around more than, say, three high schoolers at any one time.

You know, we live in times in which we’re not supposed to be all binary and stuff, so, sure,  let’s not be binary. It is just not the case that the only two possible scenarios here are: 1) Privileged White Boys Re-Victimized the Marginalized or 2) Precious Angels are Rowdy but, you know, Angelic. 

It could be just a weird situation that happened one day in one small corner of the world.

You start there. You try to get that right. 

Here’s another video that picks up after Philips picked this particular MAGA-hatted teen to drum in front of. I actually think this is one of the more illustrative videos out there (we’ll see if it’s still there by the time you read this – it might well have been memory-holed by YouTube). And it reinforces my position of “weird situation that happened for a few minutes, people drifted away, so why are we all talking about it?” 

Basically, Philips is in the kid’s face for several minutes, drumming and chanting – who knows why – and everyone around them is either watching, slightly confused, or filming, except for one activist with Philips (his grandson, I think) who is loudly and profanely arguing with a student. At some point the bulk of the kids start chanting something, but it’s clearly their school chant, and they’re not even looking at the drummer. And then, most of them drift away, to the bus, I’m assuming.

We could say a lot about this – about the impact of the crazy fast news cycle, ideology and perception and the sewer that is social media, but I’ll let others carry that load.

I want to highlight two reactions.

First, Fr. James Martin. Who, very early on, went to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with his hot take:

I am as disgusted by the contemptuous laughter of the mass of students as I am moved by the quiet dignity of the solitary man who continues to chant. Those students could learn much from this elder, if they had chosen to. Or if they choose to.

 

24 hours later, Fr. Martin published some more thoughts, beginning:

Regarding the controversy over Covington High School: I will be happy to apologize for condemning the actions of the students if it turns out that they were acting as good and moral Christians. The last thing I want is to see Catholic schools and Catholic students held in disrepute.

And I’ve certainly been wrong before.

..and ending with a call to attend to this teachable moment:

 

Another essential lesson, which transcends whatever happened in Washington this weekend: an understanding of the appalling treatment that Native Americans have endured in our country. That lesson needs to be learned regardless of what you think of Covington High School.

This Teachable Moment can offer us, if we are open, lessons about dialogue, encounter and reconciliation during this coming week, which is, believe it or not, Catholic Schools Week.

Of course, Catholic Schools week is not this coming week. But I digress.

There’s no sense in any of this that Fr. Martin has watched the videos of this encounter. One is under no obligation to engage with this issue at all, much less spend time with the videos or the testimonies, unless, of course, one has decided to issue opinions. Then you should probably try to be informed. And when you’re trying to be informed, you don’t have to depend on, as Fr. Martin, does, musing about different “narratives” that have “emerged.” You just sort of go to the tape, watch it, and take a stand. And maybe watching all of that still leads you to think that the kids behaved disrespectfully. Sure. But base it what’s actually out there, rather than sighing about the Mysteries of All Those Darn Narratives.

Gosh!

Image result for gif shrug

 

My point is that Fr. Martin entered the fray right away, characterized the encounter in a way that is now widely disputed and says, well, he’ll apologize if  the boys were acting as “good and moral Christians.”  – not – if my characterization of the incident was incorrect. 

Ah.

And of course, one might wonder if part of the dialoguing Teachable Moment he wants to facilitate might touch on journalistic ethics, social media ethics and critical thinking skills.

Anyway, let’s move to Catholic apologist Mark Shea, who began his Facebook post (now deleted) on the matter with:

The MAGA goons were threatening confrontation with a small clutch of black protestors. (sic) As is done in his tradition, Phillips intervened with a drum and a chant to draw fire to himself. It was an act of peacemaking. The goons then mobbed and mocked him and he did not respond in kind. This was classic non-violence. The attempt to paint this as “elderly man with drum terrorizes 70 innocent athletic douchebags” is a narrative only the Right Wing Lie Machine would have the gall to promote

So, to repeat, Catholic apologist Mark Shea characterized the students from Covington Catholic High School as “MAGA goons” and “athletic douchebags.”

Image result for what gif mad men

 

Sunday evening, Mark has published a piece at Patheos apologizing a bit – although his Facebook and Twitter posts calling these teenagers “MAGA goons” are still up.  He has now embraced the narrative that Phillips was a peacemaker, so there’s that. (I repeat – look at this video and see if it would strike you, if you were there as “Oh, this fellow is trying to bring peace into this situation as he drums in my face and his grandson yells at my classmate.”   He also says,

I disliked the “Crucify Them!” response because I think punishment should be ordered toward redemption, not destruction.

But….MAGA goons…athletic douchebags.

New Evangelization, I guess. *Shrugs.*

Shea also talks alot about the incident without being terribly specific about his takeaway from what he saw on the matter on which he’s opining, using another writer’s sequence of events.

Which, of course, is a defining characteristic of contemporary online rhetoric: to vaguely describe a situation, group people into categories, declare their motivations – but without many specific citations because 1) you don’t have time because you know something else is going to come down the pike for commentary in the next hour or so and 2) you know that your readers are going to be satisfied with the non-specific narrative you offer because they don’t have time to source it either, and are also busy waiting for the next thing.

****

Bottom line takeaways:

  • If you are going to comment on this moment, comment on the moment. Watch the evidence that’s out there closely, then link the words and ideas in your commentary to pieces of evidence.
  • Don’t bother with commenters who can’t be bothered to do that and who prefer to build narratives out of ideology, straw men and caricature.
  • Maybe think about the impact instant communication and social media has on our perception of events and their importance. Consider this:

What happened in your neighborhood over the weekend? Do you even know your neighbors? Your community?

It’s like that joke you see during election year:

Me yesterday: Has no idea who my city council representative is

Me today: Tweets three times on the shifts from red to blue in California’s 33rd electoral district.

Or, in church terms – being an expert on the scandals in the Archdiocese of Whatever, while never engaging with one’s own local church.

Social Media and the internet puts us in touch with the world and tempts us to believe that we can impact the world with just a click – and that if we can know about it and if we can influence it, we must. 

And yes, yes, good comes out of it.

But is it really that much good? Is it worth it? Is it really better?

Remember that the foundation of all sin is pride. Right there. Pride. So, maybe before I post a Hot Take, I should think – why am I doing this? If the reasons come down to nothing more than virtue signalling or a sense that *I* have “followers” who are super interested in my life or my opinion and I owe them a hot take – or I have to keep my profile nice and high by entering into this fray – pride. 

It might be worth it to consider, in moments like this, the “power” of all this as a temptation. A temptation to put our energies into conflicts and issues that are none of our concern and that we really can’t do anything about – so we’ll ignore the people right around us whom we might actually be able to be in deeper communion with and help. 

The time one spends on a screen evaluating the look on the face of a kid I don’t even know, will never meet, doing something I’d never have heard about if not for people following other people with cameras – what could I have been doing with that time that involved people on my street, in my neighborhood, or in my own community? Heck – my family? 

Could it be that there’s a force that is seeking to discourage us from deep communion with others by deluding us with a promise of false power and false connection  – and mostly false power – so that we’ll spend all of our time and energy chasing that with nothing left for real-life encounters – the kind that really change the world?

 

 

 

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amy_welbornI am writing this Tuesday night, with the hopes that I can get something else substantive out on the day that’s called Wednesday. 

Reading: 

Well, an unexpectedly long wait at the orthodontist enabled me to finish yet another Goodis novel – this one called Nightfall – very, very good, intriguingly composed, flitting between past and present, between conscious and subconscious. And the more I think about it, the more I sense a bit of a twist on the usual noir theme of existential angst. In this one, the angst and yearning is for something concrete. What bridges the gap? What helps a man see that he might not be so alone in the universe as he thought?

Family.

And once again, really, people  – no, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

amywelborn

 

 

The plot: we meet Vanning – a man living in New York City working as a commercial artist, but is under the burden of being implicated in a past murder out west in Colorado.  There’s really no doubt that he did kill someone, but why? And was it murder or should we define it as self-defense? And where’s the loot from the bank robbery that he somehow ended up with? And who’s this dame who met his eye across the bar? Is she friend or foe?

In that way, it’s of course completely of the genre: a man caught up in circumstances, now on the run. Because this protagonist is essentially a good person, escape from responsibility for his actions is not really what he’s about. It’s more – having been pulled into criminals’ lives by pure accident, he’s trying to sort out whether there is any way he can stay hidden but also own up to his responsibility while bearing certainly fair, but not unjust consequences for what he tumbled into.

In a way, it’s an existential question: here we are in the midst of circumstances not completely of our making – how much are we responsible for? What price should we pay for the harm we’ve been a part of, whether what we’ve done has been accidental or purposeful? What pound of flesh will and should be demanded of us?

The most striking throughline of this novel has to do with the role of family, not only in Vanning’s life, but in the two other principal male characters: John, the leader of the goons who’s entrapped Vanning in their scheme, and Fraser, the New York City detective who’s been put on the case and sense that while Vanning might certainly have killed someone, his responsibility might well be mitigated by other, unknown circumstances.

I’ll start with Fraser. He’s a major character in this novel, and Goodis does a beautiful job of sketching out a solid, interesting, affectionate marriage between him and his wife who truly is his rock, not only in providing an oasis of sanity in a crazy world, but acting as a sounding board as he works out the puzzles he’s uncovering. It’s real, rare and touching.

She studied his eyes. She said, “You never buy yourself anything.”

“I do all right.”

“You do fine,” she said. She got up and walked toward him. Her fingers moved through his hair. “Someday you’ll be important.”

He smiled up at her. “I’ll never be important,” he said. “But I’ll always be happy.” He took her hand and kissed it and looked up at her again. “Won’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Sit on my lap.”

“I’m gaining weight.”

“You’re a feather.”

She sat on his lap. He drank some more lemonade and gave her some. She fed him a little more salad and took some herself. They looked at each other and laughed quietly.

“Like my hair?”

He nodded. He put his hand against her head, played with her hair. “You women have it tough in summer. All that hair.”

“In winter it comes in handy.”

“I wish it was winter already. I wish this case was over with.”

“You’ll get it over with.”

“It’s a problem.”

She gave him a sideway smile. “And you eat it up.”

“Not this one,” he said. “This one’s different. Something about this one gives me the blues. The way he talked. That tone. I don’t know——”

She stood up. “I want to see if the kids are asleep.”

Fraser lit a cigarette, leaned back a little to watch her as she crossed the living room. When the wall cut her off, he leaned forward and dragged deeply at the cigarette and stared at the empty glass in front of him. A frown moved onto his forehead and became more of a frown. The empty glass looked very empty.

A phone conversation, beginning with the wife:

“Do you have a plan?”

“Vaguely.”

“Anything to work on?”

“Just Vanning. I better hang up now. I’m beginning to worry again. Vanning isn’t enough. I need something else. It’s like waiting for rain in the desert.”

“Maybe you can talk to him again.”

“If I could find a good excuse.”

“But there’s only forty-eight hours——”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Every time I look at my watch I get sick.”

“Does it make you feel better, talking to me?”

“A lot.”

“Stay there and talk to me.”

“All right, dear.”

“Tell me things.”

“Things you don’t know already?”

“Anything you want to tell me.”

“Even if it’s unimportant?”

“Even if it’s silly,” she said.

 

John is a criminal and a terrible person, but guess what? In an Augustinian way, even he is motivated by a desire for the good. He wants the money so he can buy a boat and just sail the seas with his girl:

 

As if Vanning had not interrupted, John went on, “It was going to be the last. After the split and expenses, I figured on a little more than two hundred grand for myself. And then I’d wait awhile until things blew over and I’d go back to Seattle and get in touch with that girl. Look, I’ll show you something.”

Holding the revolver at his side, John used his other hand to extract a wallet from a hip pocket. He opened the wallet, handed it to Vanning. Under celluloid there was a picture of the girl. She was very young. Maybe she wasn’t even twenty. Her hair came down in long, loose waves that played with her shoulders. She was smiling. The way her face was arranged it was easy to see that she was a little girl, and skinny, and probably not too brilliant.

Vanning handed back the wallet. He bit his lower lip in a thoughtful way and he said, “She’s pretty.”

“Good kid.” John replaced the wallet in his pocket.

“Does she know?”

“She knows everything.”

“And where does that leave her?”

“Up a tree, for the time being,” John said. “But she doesn’t care. She’s willing to wait. And then we’re going away together. You know what I always wanted? A boat.”

“Fishing?”

“Just going. In a boat. I know about boats. I worked on freighters tripping back and forth between the West Coast and South America. Once I worked on a rich man’s yacht. I’ve always wanted my own boat. That Pacific is a big hunk of water. All those islands.”

“I’ve seen some of them.”

“You have?” John leaned forward. He was smiling with interest.

“Quite a few of them. But I didn’t have time to concentrate on the scenery. There was too much activity taking place. And smoke got in the way.”

John nodded. “I get it. But just think of working out from the West Coast with all that water to move around in. All those islands out there ahead. A forty-footer with a Diesel engine. And go from one island to another. And look at them all. No real estate agent to bother me with the build-up. Just look them over and let them give me their own build-up. And let me make my own choice.”

…. “When I have that boat,” John said, “I won’t wait. I’ll get on the boat with her and we’ll shove off. Did you ever stop to think how cities crowd you? They move in on you, like stone walls moving in. You get the feeling you’ll be crushed. It happens slow, but you imagine it happens fast. You feel like yelling. You want to run. You don’t know where to run. You think if you start running something will stop you.”

“I don’t mind cities,” Vanning said.

“Cities hurt my eyes. I don’t like the country, either. I like that water. I know once I get on that water, going across it, going away, I’ll be all right. I won’t be nervous any more.”

And then finally, Vanning himself. He has been caught up in this terrible situation, when all he really wants is just a normal, deeply ordinary life:

 

He worked, he ate, he slept. He managed to keep going. But it was very difficult. It was almost unbearable at times, especially nights when he could see the moon from his window. He had a weakness for the moon. It gave him pain, but he wanted to see it up there. And beyond that want, so far beyond it, so futile, was the want for someone to be at his side, looking at the moon as he looked at it, sharing the moon with him. He was so lonely. And sometimes in this loneliness he became exceedingly conscious of his age, and he told himself he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all else, a woman to love, a woman with whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept whenever he thought about it and realized how far away it was. He was crazy about kids. It was worth everything, all the struggle and heartache and worry, if only someday he could marry someone real and good, and have kids. Four kids, five kids, six kids, and grow up with them, show them how to handle a football, romp with them on the beach with their mother watching, smiling, so proudly, happily, and sitting at the table with her face across from him, and the faces of the kids, and waking up in the morning and going to work, knowing there was something to work for, and all that was as far away as the moon, and at times it seemed as though the moon was shaking its big pearly head and telling him it was no go, he might as well forget about it and stop eating his heart out.

Oh, my word.

And even in a chance encounter – Vanning, an artist, takes some time to stroll in some galleries in the city. He has a conversation with a painter, who lets him know where his deepest happiness lies:

“My wife and I, we have three girls and a little boy. Every night I come home to a festival, a beauty pageant, a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. There’s so much yelling. It’s wonderful.”

What a fantastic insight, a marvelous way to look at your life – before you go home tonight, before everyone’s together, consider how you’re imagining the scene: as a bother, a trial, an endurance race? Or how about you’re about to open the door to…a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. …so much yelling…it’s wonderful. 

And know that David Goodis  was only married for a couple of years and never had any children himself.  To know this makes his characters’ yearnings even more poignant.

So yeah, back to the genre – there’s suspense, not only because you want to know what happens, but also – more grippingly – you want to see if justice will be done. It’s why art in a truly nihilistic culture becomes so dull: if there’s nothing at stake, who cares?

Just one more brief note: one of the things I enjoy about Goodis’ writing is his exploration of his characters’ mental processes – how they think, how they arrive at conclusions. He’s really very good at prying into characters’ brains. So here, Vanning’s trying to figure out how to solve his problem:

It kept jabbing away at him, the desire to get out of this city, to travel and keep on traveling. But it wasn’t traveling. It was running. And the desire was curtained by the knowledge that running was a move without sensible foundation. Retreat was only another form of waiting. And he was sick of waiting. There had to be some sort of accomplishment, and the only way he could accomplish anything was to move forward on an offensive basis.

He was part of a crowd on Madison Avenue in the Seventies, and he was swimming through schemes, discarding one after another. The schemes moved off indifferently as he pushed them away. He walked into a drugstore and ordered a dish of orange ice. Sitting there, with the orange ice in front of him, he picked up a spoon, tapped it against his palm, told himself to
take it from the beginning and pick up the blocks one by one and see if he could build something.

There weren’t many blocks. There was John. There was Pete and there was Sam. There was the green sedan. There was the house on the outskirts of Brooklyn. None of those was any good. There was the man who had died in Denver. And that was no good. There was Denver itself. There were the police in Denver. The police.

A voice said, “You want to eat that orange ice or drink it?”

Vanning looked up and saw the expressionless face of a soda clerk.

“It’s melting,” the soda clerk said.

“Melting,” Vanning said.

“Sure. Can’t you see?”

“Tell me something,” Vanning said.

“Anything. I’m a whiz.”

“I’ll bet you are. I’ll bet you know everything there is to know about orange ice.”

“People, too.”

“Let’s stay with the orange ice.”

And staying with the orange ice, he figures it out. He figures out how to begin again.

No, this isn’t Dosteovsky. Got it. But reading this kind of stuff – slightly more substantive mid-century pulp fiction – is a far better use of my time than scrolling through the latest Hot Takes to the latest news. Maybe it will grab you, maybe not. But here it is.

I’m all about sharing more. Not maybe the finest or the most perfect – just…more. I’m pretty convinced that one of the keys to mental, emotional and spiritual health is the proper perspective, and the core to finding and holding onto the proper perspective is the proper perspective: I’m not the center of the universe.  Out there in the present, back there in the past, I find different things, and ironically and paradoxically, in those different things, I find more that’s the same. Venturing out is the place where I find solid ground.

Update:  After I finished writing this, I read one more Goodis novel (yes, read it all last night) – Street of No Return.  It’s got a really intriguing premise and pretty killer framework: A former Sinatra-like figure whose career and voice were destroyed when he got mixed up with some shady characters has ended up on Philadelphia’s Skid Row, a penniless, homeless drunk. Over the course of one night, he gets wrongly blamed for murdering a cop and discovers a bad cop-assisted plot to fuel race riots so one particular criminal gang can take over a section of the city….yeah it’s kind of a crazy mess and nowhere near as compelling as the others, but bottom line is that I found Goodis’ imaginary world  and his characters pretty intriguing, from the washed-up singer to the elderly African-American bootlegger to the preening dirty cop.

And with that – I’ve had my fill. On to something else. Maybe even some history.

Writing: I’m in Living Faith. Here you go for that. 

Still working on my story! This week. Not that I have a clue what I’ll do with it, but it needs to get out of my brain, stat.

 

 

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MondayGood morning, all. What a weekend. What a week on the horizon. And it’s only going to intensify over the next month before midterm elections hit us, and then we’ll have weeks of sorting through that….

My survival technique? Keep with what you want to follow, but prioritize real life in encountering people face-to-face.  Read old books. Look up and around and out the window. Say your prayers.

Anyway:

Reading:

The Burglar is one of the more astonishing books I’ve read in recent years. Not because it was magnificent, but because it the overall impact was so unexpected. What Goodis was trying to do was so unusual. It’s a book that I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for a while, nor do I want to put it out of my head, either. It’s giving me much to think about –  mostly about how existential questions get filtered through pop culture in surprising ways.

I wrote about author David Goodis here. The Burglar is also in the Library of America collection, along with Dark Passage. This time, the protagonist is not innocent or unjustly accused – he’s a professional thief – but the novel is really not about his thieving. It’s about why he’s a thief, the sense of honor that binds him to the people he’s with and shapes his life, and ultimately it’s about the source and potential price of being faithful to one’s code of honor.

And because it’s mid-century, and because it’s noir, it’s a bleak, tight work in which we’re pondering a man who’s pondering the cold reality of being, in the end, alone. And dead.

What I can’t stop thinking about is that The Burglar has some fairly Deep Thoughts coursing through it and some evocative writing, all bound up in this package:

amy-welborn

The last two chapters are quite astonishing, really, and I keep imagining the reaction of the reader who picked up this paperback at the five-and-dime, settled down for a pulpy scorcher of a read, and ends up with our protagonist and the young woman he’s bound by honor to protect out in the inky-dark ocean off Atlantic City in an extended scene that is really a metaphor for life’s forces and our choices combining and pulling us down, down, down.

The plot is: Nat Harbin is a professional thief in his early 30’s. He’d gotten into the business when, as a starving teen orphan, he’d been picked up hitchhiking by a pro who had a young daughter. Eventually the pro is killed during a job and Harbin, the girl and two other men gradually form a family of sorts, a family in which each individual has a burglaring specialty. We meet them in the midst of a huge heist of a stash of emeralds from a Philadelphia mansion. What ends up happening is that a dirty cop decides to take advantage of the situation, enlists a woman named Della to ensnare Harbin, all with the end of getting the emeralds themselves.

Along the way, there are encounters that escalate the way they do only in noir and in the movies, life compressed into meaningful gazes across restaurants, quick cab rides and blunt statements of desire. Every time I read a noir novel, I can’t help but hear the male protagonist speak in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Typical of Goodis, there is also this intense deep-dive into the protagonist’s consciousness, a commitment to show us what it’s like to see, feel and think.

The thing was purely a matter of timing. To know just when to walk out. And he knew as sure as he was sitting here, this was the time to walk out. Right now. To tell the driver to stop the cab. To open the door and slide out, and walk away, and keep walking.

She held him there. He didn’t know how she was doing it, but she held him there as though she had him tied hand and foot. She had him trapped there in the cab, and he looked at her with hate.

“Why?” she said. “Why the look?”

He couldn’t answer.

She said, “You frightened?” Without moving, she seemed to lean toward him. “Do I frighten you, Nat?”

“You antagonize me.”

“Listen, Nat—”

“Shut up,” he said. “Let me think about this.”

She nodded slowly, exaggerating the nod. He saw her profile, the quiet line of her brow and nose and chin, the semi-delicate line of her jaw, the cigarette an inch or two away from her lips, and the smoke of the cigarette. Then he took his eyes and pulled them away from Della, and then without looking at Della, he was seeing her. The ride to the library took up a little more than twenty minutes, and they weren’t saying a word to each other, yet it was as though they talked to each other constantly
through the ride. The cab pulled up in front of the library and neither of them moved. The driver said they were at the library, and neither of them moved. The driver shrugged and let the motor idle and sat there, waiting.

After a while, the driver said, “Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“The way it’s got to be,” she said. As she floated her body toward Harbin, she gave the driver an address.

What’s it gonna be? The way it’s got to be. 

Well.

What are we doing all of this for, this life business? These choices? Ever wonder? Harbin tries to convince Gladden to pursue a plan, even though it might take months:

She stared at the backboard behind Harbin’s head. “Emeralds,” she said. “Chunks of green glass.”

In a desperate situation, Harbin’s dealing with an antagonist who is probably going to kill him if he gets a chance. I was struck by this simple metaphor that succinctly captures an internal dynamic:

There was a sudden hysteria in Hacket’s tone and Harbin grabbed at it as though it were a rope dangling toward him with quicksand the only other thing around.

The dialogue in this moment – actually a dreadful moment – made me laugh out loud. Someone has a clear sense of reality:

As Della walked in, her eyes were pulled to the red on the floor and Baylock’s dead face resting against the shiny red. She turned away quickly from that. She waited until Hacket had closed the door and then she stared at him. Her voice was low and quivered just a little. “What are you, a lunatic?”

Hacket stood looking at the door. “I couldn’t help it.”

“That means you’re a lunatic.” 

And then this, in which our protagonist expresses his essential solitude and the power of the crowd:

“One thing for certain. We didn’t do it. I wanted those three cops to live. I wanted Dohmer to live. I wanted Baylock to live. For Christ’s sake,” he said, and he saw her gesture, telling him to talk lower, “I never wanted anyone to die.” He stared ahead, at the people seated in the pavilion, the people on the boardwalk, and indicating them, he said, “I swear I have nothing against them. Not a thing. Look at them. All of them. I like them. I really like them, even though they hate my guts.” His voice went very low. “Yours too.”

“They don’t know we’re alive.”

“They’ll know it if we’re caught. That’s when it starts. When we get grabbed. When we’re locked up. That’s when they know. It tells them how good they are and how bad we are.”

If you check out other reviews of this book at Goodreads, you’ll find similar reactions.

On the boardwalk, he approached the hotel, he saw the sun hitting the silvery rail that separated the raised boards from the beach. There were a lot of people on the beach and most of them wore bathing suits. The beach was white-yellow under the sun. He looked at the ocean and it was flat and passive, with the heavy heat coming down on it, giving it the look of hot green metal. The waves were small and seemed to lack enthusiasm as they came up against the beach. In the water the bathers moved slowly, without much enjoyment, getting wet but not cool. He knew the water was warm and sticky and probably very dirty from the storm of Saturday night. Even so, he told himself, he would like to be in there in the ocean with the bathers, and maybe he and Gladden would have themselves a swim before leaving Atlantic City. The thought was an extreme sort of optimism but he repeated the thought and kept repeating it as he moved toward the entrance of the hotel.

I was going to take a break from all of this, but then I started Nightfall last night and was reeled in, both by the initial mystery, but also by the very real, affectionate relationship between a police detective and his wife – which warms my heart, but also fills me with dread because I’m thinking this can’t end well, because nothing ends well in this world.

Writing: I worked on the short story all weekend, pulled together some of the travel posts (see the page above) and tried to unravel All the Problems. Strangely, they remain knotted. I’ll be in Living Faith on Wednesday. Go here for that. 

Listening: My son’s jazz teacher gave him “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” to work on, with the Dave Brubeck variations on the same to listen to. It’s a beautiful thing, this Brubeck – he winds through some standard jazz stylings, then works out an invention/fugue type thing and then something that sounds a little like Liszt. So we’ve been listening a lot to that.

 

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All right. Got to finish this Japan-Blogging – this week. So, every day – every day  –  I’ll be here with a little something. Finish it up, then move on.

I’ll begin with a couple of days of randomness.  Just remember, too: when I utter pronouncements like “In Japan…” or “Japan is…” it reflects about ten whole days of life in Tokyo, Kyoto and oh, that one afternoon in Osaka. So, yes – vast experience.

I wanted to go to Japan because we’d never been to Asia, and it seemed that this would be a tourist-friendly place to begin. And it was. I found it very easy to get around and the places to which we traveled were all very clean and felt safe. I’d have no hesitation about traveling to Japan by myself.

So, first: clean and quiet.

Yes, Japan is (here we go…) very clean. I only experienced a couple of even near-shabby areas: tourist-heavy and insanely busy Shibuya and some back areas of Shinjuku – around the famed robot restaurant and, I think in an area where there were a few love hotels. That felt sketchy and was a little grungy.

But other than that: no trash anywhere, no graffiti.

Also, no public trash cans. (Something that’s happening in increasing numbers of cities because of terrorism fears, I know) None. I don’t think they exist except right near food stalls or convenience stores. So how does that work? Wouldn’t the lack of trash cans make it more likely for there to be trash on this street?

Not in Japan. First, the Japanese have a very deep, strong culture of personal responsibility and respect for public spaces. You may have heard that in many, if not most Japanese schools, students share responsibility for cleaning the school (I have read that many workplaces operate with the same expectation). At the end of the school day, students and teachers work together to clean classrooms, shared spaces and restrooms. When this is how you’re raised from preschool, no, you are not going to see a public street or park as something to use any way you please. It is such a common sense practice, isn’t it? I’m sure there are schools – perhaps Montessori – that practice this in the US, but really…why not everywhere?

Secondly, consider – what does a trash can do? It collects trash. It gives trash a home right there in your public space – like it deserves to be there. If you, as a culture, want a super-clean public space, it makes sense to evict trash – in any form – from that space.

Supporting this practice is the fact that walking down the street eating or drinking (or smoking – but I’ll get to that in a minute)  – is just not done in Japan. It’s a serious breach of etiquette to eat while walking down the street. Drinking is not as rare, but still not common.  I saw a bit of water/coffee consumption on trains, but not much at all, and no eating.

Which makes the prevalence of street food in Japan seem…awkward at first. I get my fish-shaped stuffed pancake or my okonomiyaki or my ice cream, for pete’s sake –  from the vendor – what do I do?

You stand right there and eat it, Missy, is what you do. If the vendor isn’t quite sure that you know this, he or she will point to the stool or shelf with condiments nearby and say “Eat there, please – no takeaway.”

And then you throw away any trash, right there.

In my (brief) experience, Japanese shopkeepers of any type are also always prepared to take your trash. I stood in a souvenir shop in Kyoto with a fistful of crumpled up paper for some reason, and the cashier made eye contact with me, smiled, and held out her hand.

The only exception to public trash receptacles that you see – and you see a lot of them – are recycle bins for plastic bottles that are always right next to drink vending machines – of which there are a lot in Japan. Maybe one or two every block? Yep. Selling water, tea, iced coffee, soft drinks and juices. With the little recycle bins right next to it. I suppose you were expected to just chug whatever right there? I’m not sure about that.

Oh, smoking. People do smoke in Japan – perhaps at higher rates than they do in the United States at this point. You can even still find candy cigarettes in Japan. Exotic! But of course – of course – you don’t see folks walking down the street smoking. Every train station (and, I presume office building) has smoking rooms and there are even smoking “rooms” right on the street – enclosed spaces with benches where people stop and grab a smoke.

So there. You can compare the two cultures – the US and Japan – and wonder how much money we can spend, how many more people we can hire and how much more education we can offer to make our public spaces cleaner. You can do that, sure, but it’s useless. The difference isn’t funding or staffing. It’s cultural: Clean public spaces are going to happen , in a culture in which children grow up cleaning their own schoolrooms – and in a culture with a strong sense of personal responsibility and social cohesion and conformity. As is common to observe, those cultural and social norms have a shadow side, to be sure, but well, at least those shadows know where  to put their food wrappers, right?

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— 1 —

I’m still working on a couple of Japan wrap-up posts. I’d thought I would use one of them here, but nah. I’ll just toss up some recent news and links, instead.

First, saints:

Lots of interesting saints coming up this week (well…there are always interesting saints coming up in our calendar, aren’t there?), among them Camillus de Lellis – former gambler, soldier of fortune –  on July 14.

I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids’ Book of SaintsLoyola didn’t choose to excerpt from my book for the entry for their “Saints Stories for Kids” webpage, but you can read most of it at Google Books, here:

camillus de lellis

(Kateri Tekakwitha, whom we also remember on July 14, is also in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, but the available excerpt on Google Books is pretty minimal, so…..)

— 2 —

Summer time for us usually means a lot more movie-watching in the evenings – a time for Mom to say…you get to play your video games and watch your stupid YouTube videos about video games, so now it’s my turn to pick. 

It’s not always easy. They get it. They understand that what we watch might be a little challenging for them to access at first, but that I try my best to share movies that are substantive and still engaging for them. By this point, they mostly trust me. I think what turned it was (speaking of Japan) The Seven Samurai. At first, they were deeply skeptical – a 60+ year-old dubbed, black-and-white movie? Even if it is about samurai?

Well, of course, it was fantastic. We split the viewing over two nights (this was last summer) and they were totally absorbed and engaged.

So, yeah, they trust me. Mostly.

— 3 —

This summer has been different. My older son works, and most of his shifts are in the evening, and much of the time he’s not working, he’s off doing other things. That’s how it goes! And it’s good – because you want them to be shaping their own lives.

So we’ve not watched a lot of movies this summer so far. Two recent viewings, though, one before Japan and one after:

On the Waterfront.  This was a film I used to show my morality classes in Catholic high schools. It is, of course, a great discussion-starter about the cost of doing the right thing, but it also offers a great opening to talk about evangelization and what it means to take the Gospel into the world – embodied, of course, in Karl Malden’s character, Father Barry:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead… Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!

Verdict: They though it was “a little slow” in parts, but liked it, especially as it built towards the end.

— 4 —

Earlier this week, we took on The Great Escape another long one, and another success. It’s based, of course, on a real escape from a German POW camp, and I’d say is about 60.2% faithful to history – with characters and time conflated of course, and well, you know there was no Steve McQueen racing a motorcycle to the Swiss border, right? That didn’t happen. Sorry.

Verdict: Very positive.

This, from the Telegraph, is a great graphic and verbal summary of the history behind the escape.  

On the night of March 24, 1944 a total of 220 British and Commonwealth officers were poised to escape by tunnelfrom North Compound, Stalag Luft III, the main camp for allied aircrew prisoners of war at Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The subsequent events, thanks to numerous books and the 1963 Hollywood epic The Great Escape, have become the stuff of legend. However the real story had nothing to do with Steve McQueen on a motorbike and over the top derring-do by a few men – in reality some 600 were involved.

Despite being meticulously planned by the committee known as the X Organisation, the escape was a far messier affair than we have previously been led to believe. Events unfolded in chaos with numerous hold-ups and tunnel collapses. Some pushed their way in line; others fled their post altogether.

Now, after corresponding with and interviewing survivors, and seven painstaking years of trawling through historical records in archives across Europe, prisoner-of-war historian Charles Rollings throws new light on the night of the ‘Great Escape’.

SPOILER ALERT: (Seriously, don’t read if you haven’t seen it, know nothing about it, and want to see it) – Be warned that if you’re thinking about showing this to younger or sensitive children: one of the things the movie is accurate about is the fact that most of the escapees were caught and killed. The jaunty theme and occasionally comedic aspects might lead you to think this is  a hijinks-and-fun-caper flick, but don’t think that. It’s very fast moving, enjoyable, has quirky characters and a couple of amusing set-pieces and has good lessons about resilience and standing up to injustice, but just know…most of them don’t make it.

— 5 –

Ah, okay, I said “links.” Here’s a link – a wonderful one:

How this classical Catholic school welcomes children with Down Syndrome:

Students with Down syndrome study Latin and logic alongside their classmates at Immaculata Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that integrates students with special needs into each of their pre-K through 12 classrooms.

The school emphasizes “education of the heart,” along with an educational philosophy tailored to the abilities of each student. About 15 percent of students at Immaculata have special needs.

“When you look at these students with Down syndrome in a classical setting, it is truly what a classical education is all about — what it truly means to be human,” the school’s founder, Michael Michalak, told CNA.

— 6 —

Last week under this very take (#6), I shared a link about a former Catholic church in Boston being, er, transformed into a Dollar Tree store. 

Well, here’s some good news – another perspective from Baltimore:

Baltimore City is hurting. It is bleeding. It is in need of hope and healing. It needs Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—the source of all hope.

And yet, because of the danger in the City I have to close the Basilica at 4 PM every day. It can’t be open without a security guard. And we only have enough money to have a guard until 4PM.

THIS MUST CHANGE!

In my prayer, I know God is calling me to open the Basilica. He is calling me to make Him available to the people of Baltimore every single day in Eucharistic Adoration. He is asking me to offer his forgiveness in confession at all hours of the day. He is asking me to walk the streets and invite the people who live in my neighborhood to get to know Him. He is asking me to provide a sanctuary for those who are ill, lost, homeless, and hopeless. He wants young adults in our neighborhood to have a refuge to flee to after work and school.

I must provide that refuge here in the City. I honestly KNOW that God is demanding this of me.

I agree. I’m ready to help!

But in order to provide this refuge, I need your help. I will explain exactly what kind of help I need in a moment. But first I want to lay out what God is asking me to do at the Basilica.

— 7 —

While you’re waiting for those last Japan posts (should be over the weekend), in case you haven’t seen them – here’s what I have so far:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Yes, we have returned. The trip back was completely uneventful, thank goodness. So much easier than the trip over, even discounting the problems, mostly because of the difference in time: the trip west is about 14 hours and the return back east was around 11 (that’s from Dallas to Tokyo and back). Thanks jet stream!

— 2 —

I didn’t watch any movies on the flight over, being determined to get my money’s worth out of that full-reclining business class seat. On the way back, however, I watched two:

Borg/McEnroe

This was not a great movie by any means, but I enjoyed it nonetheless (it’s not long, which makes even an okay movie more endurable.)

Starring Shia LaBoeuf as John McEnroe and Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, the film recreates the circumstances leading up the 1980 Wimbeldon singles final, in which the 24-year old Borg would play for a fifth title against the brash American McEnroe.

My late father was a huge tennis fan, played quite a bit, and taught me to play. We watched a lot of tennis in our house. One summer in Maine, my dad took me to a

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1975, defined.

tournament in North Conway,  New Hampshire where I saw Connor and Ilie Nastase play, and yes, Nastase did play up his nickname of “Nasty Nastase” for the crowd.  Those of you who are younger might not realize how big tennis was back in the 70’s and 80’s – the era of superstars like Borg, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Martina Navarilova and so many others. It was a time (she said, rocking in her chair on the front porch, eying those kids on her lawn) when huge audiences watched the Wimbledon and US Open finals and there were some very dramatic matches played out.

So, I was drawn to this movie, partly from nostalgia, and yes, those first images of late 70’s/early 80’s tennis gear and garb did make me a little verklempt. And I found the movie pretty absorbing, even though I also don’t hesitate to say it doesn’t work.

The point is that Borg was, of course, a superb player and maintained that level through extreme personal control, while McEnroe, in contrast, was out of control on the court and off. The “twist,” as it were, is that we see that Borg had his own struggles with temper as a young man (played by Borg’s real life son Leo at one point) and had to channel that in order to succeed. So, there’s your situational irony, I guess.

— 3 —

The movie goes back and forth in time for both players, highlighting Borg’s growth and giving a glancing view to McEnroe’s domineering father, which is not enough to even come close to fleshing out McEnroe’s story.

In fact, there’s not a lot of depth on either side: it’s an atmospheric collection flashbacks that superficially dramatize one corner of a couple of tennis players’ motivations and psychological makeup.

The most amusing thing to me was the script’s offhanded self-critique. At one point, McEnroe leaves a talk show interview (I think it’s supposed to be the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder) in a rage saying something like, Why is it always about how I act? Why isn’t it about the tennis? Which, as it happens, one could ask about the movie, too. Yes, the personalities were dominant at the time, but there were also changes occurring within the game of tennis at the time, changes that found expression in what was happening between Borg and McEnroe – not just different personalities, but different games. None of which comes through in the movie, of course.

So, yeah. Not a great movie, but I don’t regret the 90 or so minutes I spent watching it, either.

— 4 —

And then, finally, Lady Bird, which definitely did not live up to the hype.

At all!

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical movie is about a high school senior in Sacramento who wants, more than anything else, to not be in or perhaps even from Sacramento. Her family is struggling middle class – her mother (the always fabulous Laurie Metcalf) is a psychiatric nurse, her father unemployed, but they manage nonetheless to send Lady Bird to a Catholic high school (because her brother – it’s mentioned twice – had someone be knifed right in front of him in public school) where, it seems, she’s surrounded by mostly wealthy girls.

The movie’s been highly praised both as a coming-of-age movie and as a “love letter” to Catholic schools – since most of what Lady Bird experiences at school is presented in a positive – albeit realistic – light. It is, I will say, one of the few movies that gets all the Catholic Stuff right, in terms of gesture, lingo and what little ritual we see. The one false note – and not just from a Catholic perspective but filmmaking – is the priest character who’s brought in to replace another priest who was the theater sponsor. This new fellow has been a sports coach and treats the play production that way and it’s just too sit-comish and doesn’t match the more naturalistic tone of the rest of the film.

The basic idea is that Lady Bird is struggling – as we all do – to figure out who she is, which she is pretty sure has little to do with where she happens to be from. She’s rejected her given name – Christine – and she just wants to get the heck out Sacramento. Her parents are loving and supportive, but her mother is somewhat brittle and a pragmatist, and for some reason, she and her daughter area just not clicking right now.

There are loads of quality secondary characters – so much quality, in fact, that you really would like to spend more with them than with the fairly insufferable Lady Bird. I’d rather know more about  Janelle, the friend Lady Bird rejects for a time and also more about the priest who, the kids say, used to be married and had a child who died – and we get a tiny glimpse of this reality in another 30-second scene, but it calls out for more.

Lady Bird follows a familiar arc. As I watched it, I thought…here’s the part where she rejects her old friends….here’s the part where she pretends to be someone she’s not….here’s the part where she gives herself too hastily to a guy and here’s the part where she realizes what she did and regrets it…here’s the part where she realizes who her true friends are…here’s the part where she thinks she has gotten what she wants and then stumbles into a situation in which she realizes the value of what she had…here’s the part where she casts aside her youthful pretension, answers the question of what her name is with her actual name…and GROWS as a result. Or, well…comes of age.

I suppose my problem was that it was slight. A coming-of-age film is admittedly going to be a slice of life, but this slice was way too thin. I would have liked to have a little bit more family dynamic stuff so I could understand more of why the mom was the way she was and why Lady Bird was, and was the dad really such a saint?

— 5 —

I’m almost done blogging about the Japan trip. I think I’ve posted on each day – I just have  couple more thematic posts I want to get up. Here’s a list of posts

. You can take the easy way, and just go through all posts with a “Japan 2018” tag. Click here for that. 

Or:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

— 6 —

Depressing? Symbolic? Obviously, the answer is: both. 

For more than a century, St. Catherine of Siena Church was a cornerstone of the Image result for dollar tree catholic churchCharlestown neighborhood, a close-knit parish that seemed impervious to the change that swirled around it.

When the Catholic church closed a decade ago, it took a piece of the old Charlestown with it, residents said.

 It had stood vacant ever since. But now, the church has taken on new life — if a decidedly secular one — as a haven for bargain shoppers known as Dollar Tree.

— 7 —

Coming in July:

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Signs and symbols…Bible stories…saints, heroes and history. 

More book reminders (for those who only come here on Fridays) – I’ve made How to Get the Most Out of the Eucharist available as a free pdf here. 

Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies is .99 this month in honor of her feast (7/22). 

(One of several free ebooks I have available)

And don’t forget Son #2’s Amazon author page and personal author page.  

He’s released his third set of stories, called Mutiny!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Now that we’re back, I have several blog posts on deck related to specific points of our trip. I’m going to start, as I often do, with the practicalities. I don’t do this beforehand because 1) I never know if things are going to turn out as I think they will and 2) I am not keen on letting people know my whereabouts on a day-by-day basis.

So let’s start:

Why Japan?

I think I wrote about this before, but I’ll just repeat myself. It’s summer, both my still-at-home kids will be in brick and mortar schools over the next school year, and one of them is a rising senior – the era of family vacations with these two is coming to an end. So I wanted to do a big trip, and where have never been? Lots and lots of places, but a big place we’ve never been is Asia. Japan seemed to be an accessible, affordable, tourist-friendly spot to begin. So Japan it was!

I’m not going to be even more boring and repeat the saga of the changes in this itinerary that happened because of a) my changing views and b) the AirBnB/Japanese government issue. But here’s my final verdict on the itinerary, in case you’re thinking about heading img_1917over that way yourself for the first time.

You can skip Tokyo. It’s fine.

Look. I don’t regret our time in Tokyo. At all. But if you are going to Japan because you want to experience Japanese history and culture for the first time, and especially if you are doing so with younger people, Kyoto and Osaka are perfect. Granted, there is a great deal in Tokyo – it’s obviously one of the great cities of the world. But it’s also a challenge in many ways, it’s huge, it’s not intuitive for tourists, it’s very modern since so much was destroyed during World War II, and Kyoto, especially, offers a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture in a way that’s easier to experience than it is in Tokyo.  Now, there might be other reasons for you to go to Tokyo – you want to see a specific site, visit specific museums or historic sites or experience a particular aspect of modern Tokyo: style, youth culture, food. That might be what you’re after. But if you want a manageable, not overwhelming, more focused experience of Japanese life – you can skip Tokyo and not feel badly about it.

For comparison, think about what you would tell, say, someone from Japan or from Europe – or anywhere outside the US – who was going to visit the United States for the first time. If they had two weeks, where would you tell them to go? It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as I travel around the United States and see groups of Japanese, Chinese or German tourists (the most common nationalities you’ll see – unless you’re in Las Vegas, then you should add Brits to the list). Would you tell them to go to New York City and make that their focus? I don’t think I would. The US is so vast and diverse, I think it’s impossible to get even close to experiencing it in two weeks, but I think I would tell someone (who had no financial limitations!) to probably visit Washington D.C. before New York City, maybe Chicago, and then focus on the West.

Anyway – so those are my thoughts on my vast experience (ten! Days!) in Japan. There’s so much more than just the cities, and an unending variety of landscapes and experiences, but that said – to repeat myself – don’t feel badly about skipping Tokyo.

First: flights:

We flew from Birmingham. Birmingham – Dallas – Narita, and then back the same way. I had spent untold hours trying to figure out other ways. I could have done the whole thing a bit cheaper if I’d done separate flights, doing the main flight to Tokyo from LA. You can fly (depending on time of year) LAX-NRT economy class for well under a thousand. Maybe even around $700. But I didn’t want to fly straight economy – I wanted premium economy, which gives just a little more space in the seat, and a little more pitch in the recline. And when I started doing the math, to try to string together flights from BHM to LAX and then LAX to NRT would have not been much more than just plugging in BHM to NRT and letting fate handle the rest. (And now, Atlanta fares were no better – worse, in fact, for some reason).

Of course, fate had her cruel way with us when we missed our Tokyo flight, but that’s all in the past now…right?

(By the way – I don’t know if I mentioned this – but AA did respond to my complaints on that and deposited 15,000 miles in my account for the trouble we went through. I thought about thanking them and then saying that since the boys also went through the same hassle, maybe they could get 15,000 miles each, too? But I didn’t.)

amy-welbornI should add that after I checked in, I got the offer to upgrade to business – and…I took it. Yup. I mean – it wasn’t free. When I say, “got the offer” – you might think I’m saying that. But I’m not. They offer to sell you a business class seat is what it is  (unless, of course you are at some high-mileage awards level…which I’m not)  But it the cost of it, even with a business upgrade one way, was not bad, it was a 14-hour flight, and I was so worried about being rested for the Beginning! Of! The! Japan! Trip! that I said…what the hell, it’s only money, I might die next week, so why not and did it. First every business class experience and yah…nice.  You know those people you file by as you’re boarding into economy, the people lounging with their drinks and snacks and towels? Yeah, that was us, for once. Little cubicles, fully reclining seats, better food…worth it. Especially after the hassle of having the trip delayed by 24 hours. Absolutely worth it. Decadent, but worth it.

For the record, I didn’t upgrade on the way back. Got the offer, but didn’t even consider it. The flight is several hours shorter  – 11 hours, which is a lot less daunting-sounding than 14 – and the timing of it makes it less “necessary” to sleep. The flight over to Japan (from Dallas) began mid-afternoon on Thursday and landed at 4:30 on Friday. This flight back left at 11am on Monday and we’ll be back in Birmingham (hopefully) by 1 pm on Monday.  (Update: we were. Early, in fact.) Amazing! A two-hour flight! Well of course not, but the point is, that it’s not as important to sleep. Yes, everyone will be tired, but if they can just stick it out until eight or so, then collapse and sleep for twelve hours, they should be back on track for the next day.

Now – accommodations:

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Richmond Premiere Hotel near the Oshiage station and Tokyo amy-welbornSkytree, which turned out to be, in my opinion, a great place. There are many vibrant Tokyo neighborhoods and areas, and the Skytree area is a bit far from the more well-known (like Shibayu, Ginza and Shinjuku), but I loved it. The hotel is literally right next to the Tokyo Skytree, which has a substantial mall featuring a lot of Japanese goods anda great variety of restaurants. The hotel is also right next to a grocery store and steps from the train/subway station, something that was such a relief at the end of a long day. (View from right outside the hotel.) 

Japanese hotel rooms will tend to be smaller than American hotels – well, globally, that’s the case – American hotel rooms are roomier than what you’ll find in most places, but this one was fine. I requested a third bed, which was all ready when we arrived. We amy-welborndidn’t have a lot of room to walk around, and oddly enough, there was no dresser – there was a cabinet with a fridge, but no place for clothes – but that’s fine. I didn’t go to Japan to hang out in a hotel room, anyway. Everything was immaculate, and yes, it included the famed Japanese type of toilet. Which are a little complicated, but not as impenetrable as we might think: basically, they include bidet features and warm seat. Some feature sound effects to cover up your own…. sounds, as well, but this one didn’t.

One more note on our two experiences of Japanese hotels (and one AirBnB): they do provide more amenities than American hotels. In American hotels, you’ll find the trio of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as soap bars and coffee packets. The Japanese hotels we stayed at also provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, brushes/combs and slippers (explicitly labeled with an invitation to take with you if you like.)

We were in this hotel from 6/22 to 6/26. I did it through Booking.com, which probably has its disadvantages, but here, made it easy to reschedule, which I had to do twice. No problems or additional charges either time.

In Kyoto, we stayed at this AirBnB house. I will post some of my own photos here, but to get a better (albeit typical wide-angle look that makes it look bigger) – view, go to the website. It was a bit outside the main part of the city, but that was fine.   It was a great little house – very traditional with tatatmi mats, sleeping on the floor and everything. My older son ended up sleeping downstairs because it was cooler – which is easy when your beds are futon mattresses that you can fling about at will. You can see from the photos that the bath/toilet areas were separate. The toilet wasn’t quite as fancy as those we had in hotels, but still had those bidet features. The shower room was an actual shower room  – with a good deep, Japanese style tub, and then a hand-held shower that you could either use in the tub or in the room (see the drain in the floor.)

 

Note: I have some video up about the apartment at Instagram. Go to amy_welborn on the app, or go here to see. 

It was a great location, just two minutes from the train station, and in a real neighborhood.

(A note on lofts and upper bunks and such. Our experience in traveling has invariably been that when we stay in a place that has a loft area or some sort of bunk situation, everyone always thinks it’s initially amazing and so cool – until it’s time to sleep there, and we once again rediscover physics: heat rises. )

The last night, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza airport hotel – which was fine. It was a high-quality space, very clean, with all those amenities and the usual meticulous, painfully polite level of Japanese service – I called to request an extra towel  – there were only two provided – and the fellow on the other end must have said, “So sorry” about ten times. Really. It’s fine.

Transportation:

I probably spent more on transportation but I needed to, but as I always say: everything has a cost, currency is what we use to pay costs, and there are all different sorts of currency: there’s money, there’s time, there’s work, there’s hassle. What currency you use might change at every given moment. For me on this trip, I chose to use the currency that cost the least hassle: the Pasmo card.

Japanese public transportation is pervasive, timely and clean. Buses, trains and subways run on time and are easy to use. I found that in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, almost all signage was in English as well as Japanese. You can certainly purchase individual tickets for train and bus travel, but hardly anyone does. What they do instead is use a card – the Suica or the Pasmo – on which you load money and then just scan at entry and exit gates. I am sorry, but I have no idea how much any of my individual trips cost because all I did was load a thousand yen on the Pasmo when needed, and scan away. (you can also use these cards to pay for purchases and an increasing number of stores and vending machines.)

The only confusion we encountered was in Kyoto, when we ended up on the wrong train one night because we didn’t pay close enough attention to the arrival time. There were several lines – local, express, limited express and so on – that made stops at the station near our apartment. It’s not one of those deals where you can just assume, “This train is stopping at this station around this time, going in this direction, therefore it will make all the stops between here and there.”  We ended up – I don’t know where or how – and had to racewalk to the next station at about ten at night, hoping and praying we’d catch the right one this time – we did! We learned from that – pay attention to the time. If Google Maps says that the train you need is coming at 9:47 – take the 9:47, and believe us, it will indeed come at 9:47. Don’t take the 9:45 or even the 9:46.5! They will not stop and you will end up wandering around Kyoto late at night!

Which brings up the issue of…safety.

There is no issue. I always felt 150% safe in Japan, and would have felt so even if I was by myself. I will write more about this later, but Japan – in my limited, super-short experience – offers a landscape and urban environment that is secure, clean and safe.

img_20180701_0919301We used taxis three times: in Kyoto, from and back to our apartment from the train station, and then in Tokyo that rainy Sunday morning when we were going to Mass. Not surprisingly, the cab drivers were very polite and wore gloves, the seats were covered in white doilies, and the back doors opened and shut automatically. I think Uber operates in Japan, but the taxis seemed trustworthy, so I didn’t even look into it.

Shinkansen:

Yes, we took the famed Japanese bullet train round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not the cheapest way to get around – even flying would be cheaper – but you know, you go to Japan, of course you want to take the bullet train if you can. Well, it was fine – it was fast, super clean and…a train. It got us from there to there. I purchased the round trip ticket at a discount from here.  The process of getting the tickets was a little complicated – we had to find the tour office in the Tokyo Station (which was a bit of a challenge), but once we did, the very nice fellow printed out the tickets with exhaustive directions on how to proceed from that amy-welbornpoint, which included getting a one-day transportation pass for Kyoto, as well.

These trains run very frequently – many times an hour. You can reserve seats, but the package I got was for unreserved seats, which are in the first three cars. I was a little concerned that there might not be seats – since they were unreserved – but there was no problem. Plenty of room. It took about 2.5 hours to get from one city to the next. Oh – the other advantage of purchasing the Shinkansen voucher through JapanIcan.com was that it’s good for the fastest train that makes the fewest stops – the Nozomi – which the JR Rail Pass is not.

(I suppose I should mention that we did not get Japan Rail Passes – there are a lot of options and big discussions all over the place as to whether or not it’s worth it, and in doing the math, I decided it wasn’t for us. If we’d been doing a lot of rail travel out and about between cities, it would have been – but we weren’t, so it wasn’t.)

Money:

I got a few thousand yen from our bank before we left. I usually don’t bother to get foreign currency anymore before a trip, what with ATMS being so pervasive, but I had read some questionable things about the availability of ATMS in Japan – that you can’t assume that an ATM will take your American debit card. Well, I found that there was no problem. The common advice is to head to ATMS that are in 7-11 stores (yes) – that they are always, 100% going to take your card and give you money back. I found that to be true, and also found those 7-11 stores everywhere. And where there wasn’t a 7-11, there was a Family Mart – one of the other big convenience store chains  – and they took my debit cards too.

(FYI – 100 yen is about a dollar. So to convert prices, just drop two decimal places, and there you go.)

Airport:

We flew in and out of Narita Airport, which is the big Tokyo airport (the other, original airport is Haneda, which is smaller).  It’s busy, but very easy to get around, super clean and efficient. Immigration and customs both coming and going took five minutes, tops. Security as we left was fantastic – when you can leave your shoes on, it’s all good, in my book.

Oh, internet:

My cel phone is T-mobile, which has excellent international coverage. You will find some free wi-fi in the usual suspects (Starbucks, train stations), but it’s not everywhere. We rented a mobile wi-fi device from Japan Wireless. I went through all kinds of convoluted rigamarole and rented it before we went and picked it up at the post office at the airport, but as we walked through the airport, I immediately saw that this hadn’t been necessary – there are booth after booth of companies offering the devices for rent at very reasonable prices. It was a great little machine: All three of us could be using it at night and it was super fast, faster than the wireless at the AirBnB.  The cost was about $6/day, I think.

 

I think that’s about it for the practicalities. Still to come, posts on:

  • Food
  • Interesting signs
  • Shopping
  • Style and Apparel
  • Spirituality

But let me get home and do massive loads of laundry, drink Diet Coke and sit on my own bed in my own room with the door closed, first, okay? Thnx.

(Update: done. Finished the post at 5 am Tuesday morning, after rising a couple of hours ago….)

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Last full day, that is. I began writing this in the airport hotel before waking the boys to head over to the airport for our 11 AM Monday flight and I’m finishing it up in Dallas at 9:45 AM Monday. Amazing – it makes up for the whole two days we lost at the beginning, I guess….

Those of you who have followed this trip know that the plans changed over the month before we left. My original original thought was to split the time between Tokyo and Kyoto, and therefore fly into Tokyo and out of either Kyoto or Osaka. I then decided it would be better to stay in one place, so booked the AirBnB for Tokyo for the entire duration. Then AirBnB and Japan had their problems, so the trip was split again. For which I am now, at the end of it, very grateful. I’m so glad we spent time in Kyoto – more thoughts on that score later. When all of that came down, I looked into changing flights to leave out of Osaka or Kyoto, but the cost for changing was ridiculous (which I will never, ever understand – except I do understand – profit – but really.) so I stuck with a departure from Tokyo, knowing that we’d have to spend at least half a day getting back up here. I had hope that it wouldn’t be wasted because the town of Narita – near the airport – apparently had Things to See. Hopefully, we’d see them.

And we did – not as much as I would have liked, but we did see a few things, and, as I always say – it’s all new to me, and whatever we saw – were things that we saw, worth seeing and thinking about and learning from.

In order to see anything at the end of the day, we’d have to start early. Mass was the big challenge of the day. I’d been researching it for two days. First idea was a church less than a mile from the apartment that we could walk/train to – but as I discovered when I walked there on Saturday morning for research, Mass was at 10:30, which was too late. Next idea was a church about halfway up the train route from our place to Kyoto Station. Mass there was at 9. I thought we could just take our stuff, go to Mass, then get back on the train to the station. I got a bit of pushback on the whole “march into Mass with backpacks and suitcases” idea. Then I looked one more time and found a church with Mass at 7 am. Okay, I said, if you don’t want to do the 9 am, we’ll do 7 – but that means, well, getting up at 6 (20 minute train ride, 6 minute walk). They agreed, and my compromise was that when we got back and finished packing and cleaning, we’d grab a taxi to the station – although I felt fully confident by this point in getting us there with luggage on the train, especially since it was Sunday morning – but they, again, were not enthused.

And it worked. We got up, walked to our train station, rode the train with a few other people, found the right neighborhood, which, it seems, must have it share of bars and clubs, considering the number of tired looking groups of young women in micro-minis (never seen in Japan during the day, in my experience) and trendy-looking guys either walking towards the train station or hanging out on the sidewalks. They’d obviously been up all night and were just wrapping it up.

I discovered later that we’d actually attended Mass at the Cathedral. It was a nice modern structure, with a roof sweeping upward and stained glass on one side. The church was maybe a third full – pretty good for 7am! – and was a little more demographically diverse than we’d seen in the Tokyo church – a lot of older women, yes (many wearing veils, as is normal here for older women), but a few families, more westerners and a greater sprinkling of young adults.

Music was minimal – opening and closing song and the Responsorial Psalm sung. Communion in the hand is the norm here, in case you are interested (which it isn’t, for example, in some areas of Europe, particularly Italy, where I’ve attended Mass), and the Sign of Peace is awesome: quick bows all around and we’re done.

Then across the lovely river,  back on the train (which was a bit more crowded by this point) pack up, clean up the apartment, take photos of the apartment (which I always mean to do right when we arrive, but never do, and then we immediately trash the place, so it’s not presentable), then walk up the street to the train station, get a taxi, then a 15-minute ride to the Kyoto Station to catch the bullet train. That journey was uneventful (I think it always is – there’s never been an accident with these trains) and quick and moderately scenic – more rice paddies and batting cages, everywhere.

I’d done some research and discovered what I thought was the best solution to get from the Tokyo station to our hotel near the airport: a shuttle bus that runs directly from the station to the airport hotels. We’d catch it – because I thought it ran more or less constantly – check in, or at least store our luggage – and then head into the town of Narita to get one last taste of Japan.

Well, as per usual, things didn’t turn out as hoped or planned. Everything ran later than I thought. We got to Narita airport and two out of the three of us were hungry enough to merit a meal (and granted – it was two o’clock by this time and no one had eaten anything all day except for some sweet rolls after Mass), and since we’d be at the airport anyway I decided we a) turn in our Pasmo transportation cards to get the refunds due on those and b) complete the check-in process for our flight. I couldn’t finish (b) online because I suppose passport confirmation was needed. So we did all those things, and by the time we got down to the place where the shuttle stopped, we discovered that it did not, indeed, run around the clock, but only once an hour – so we’d have thirty minutes to wait until the next journey.

Fine. Pay a cab to take us five minutes to the hotel. No problem. Because we’d get to the hotel and soon enough be able to hop on the shuttle to town, which, I thought I’d understood, ran around the clock. Well, no. It doesn’t run around the clock or even around the hour. We got into our room a little after 2:30 and discovered that the next shuttle to town wouldn’t be until 4:15. Drat. Especially since what I read online indicated that the big Zen temple I wanted to visit in Narita closed at 4 on Sundays, plus most of the restaurants seemed to close at five.

This was not going as I’d hoped. Because particularly after the debacle that marked the beginning of our trip, I didn’t particularly want to lose one more day of this rather expensive jaunt on a travel day. I admit that I let my irritation spill over – something I usually try very hard not to let happen, especially since I grew up in a household marked by very high flood markings on the wall made by years of irritation spilling over.

So we waited and hung out in the hotel room for an hour or so. We headed down to the lobby for the shuttle where a fluent English-speaking employee (finally!) told me that while the doors of the temple might close at 4, the grounds were certainly open – which made me feel better.

Fast forward: shuttle to town – Narita which is a very busy, suburb-like city, just like your American suburb except for the sign lettering. We were dropped at the train station in the middle of town, and made our way down the tourist-oriented street, lined with shops and restaurants, most of which were, indeed, either closed or in the process of closing.

But all was not lost!

Narita is known for unagi– eel. It’s the local delicacy, and many restaurants feature the …er…processing…of the eel right in the front of the house. As in: one guy grabs a live eel from a buck of water, chops its neck, takes its still wriggling body, skins and de-spines it, and hands it to the next guy, who cuts it up into pieces which are then put on skewers. The spines are fried and sold as bar food, essentially.

Before we went, I was all up for trying it, but once we got there, the only place still open and selling was rather expensive – about twenty-five bucks for four pieces with rice, and I just wasn’t willing to invest the time and money on something I wasn’t even sure I’d like. If it had been one skewer of part of an eel for like five bucks, sure – but this was just too much for the moment and my mood. At least I got to see the process, which is what I was really after.

Then we proceeded down the hill to the Shingon Buddhist temple, which is part of a large park. It was gorgeous. These temples and shrines are naturally not as interesting to me as churches are, but I find them fascinating, nonetheless.

We walked around a bit, saw temples, pagodas, statues and turtles. The time down by the water was deeply peaceful and something I needed at that moment, the last night of a long trip, the night before leaving to return home.

As we rounded our way back out of the park, a small group of girls – most probably between 8-12 appeared, each carrying a pole with rings on the end. They were led by adult women, and it became pretty clear to me that they were rehearsing for something – perhaps a  procession of some sort. They’d walk around, rhythmically banging the poles on the ground, stopping at various points, including right in front of the main temple, at which point, two young men with them would go part way up the steps, stop, and them lead them all in a bow.

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A small group of women was gathered nearby watching, and I’m assuming they were the girls’ mothers. It was like Dance Moms: Buddhist Edition.

A short walk back up the hill, where the few shops that had been open when arrived had closed. There was an activity happening in front of the tourist office, thought: a group with fans, doing some sort of chanting and waving. It seemed to me it was a cultural activity directed at tourists – sort of like if you were in Spain and there was an invitation to try to do flamenco.

Dinner was very good – a fitting last meal for Japan. Granted, the place was not people by locals – it seemed to be mostly tourists or airline employees (the decorations were all airline-related), but it was tasty nonetheless: fried rice for one, a ginger pork dish for another, a great chili-based soup with pork for me, and dumplings for all.

Everything, it seemed, turned out all right in the end.

 

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