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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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— 1 —

It’s the second of September’s Ember Days. Go here for more information on what that means. 

Today’s the feast of St. Matthew.

A few St. Matthew links for you.

From B16,back in 2006:

On the basis of these simple observations that result from the Gospel, we can advance a pair of thoughts.

The first is that Jesus welcomes into the group of his close friends a man who, according to the concepts in vogue in Israel at that time, was regarded as a public sinner.

Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the"amy welborn"People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.

This is why the Gospels several times link “tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9: 10; Lk 15: 1), as well as “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Mt 21: 31).

Furthermore, they see publicans as an example of miserliness (cf. Mt 5: 46: they only like those who like them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “a chief tax collector, and rich” (Lk 19: 2), whereas popular opinion associated them with “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers” (Lk 18: 11).

A first fact strikes one based on these references: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Indeed, precisely while he is at table in the home of Matthew-Levi, in response to those who expressed shock at the fact that he associated with people who had so little to recommend them, he made the important statement: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2: 17).

The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God’s grace to the sinner!

Elsewhere, with the famous words of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus actually indicates an anonymous tax collector as an appreciated example of humble trust in divine mercy: while the Pharisee is boasting of his own moral perfection, the “tax collector… would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”.

And Jesus comments: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18: 13-14).

Thus, in the figure of Matthew, the Gospels present to us a true and proper paradox: those who seem to be the farthest from holiness can even become a model of the acceptance of God’s mercy and offer a glimpse of its marvellous effects in their own lives.

From today’s Office of Readings:

There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift.

What strikes us about the story of Matthew is the immediacy of his response. Invited by Jesus, he simply leaves his sinful life behind. No ambiguity, no parsing of matters of subjectivity and objectivity. This perhaps is not something we are all capable of at every moment, but it is certainly a response we recognize as the ideal one, articulated by Jesus himself (Mark 10:29) and lived out by people like Matthew.

The spiritual life is a never-ending, fascinating and mysterious dynamic, it seems to me, between finding God in all things and if anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother…cannot be my disciple. 

 

 

 — 2 —

This, of course, is from one of his GA talks on the apostles and which were collected in book form by various publishers, including OSV. Back in the day, I wrote a study guide for these collected talks to be used either by individuals or groups in parish discussion settings. Here’s the section on Matthew. Feel free to use!

 

— 3 —

 

Speaking of St. Matthew and speaking of parish adult religious education, maybe consider this Loyola Press Six Weeks with the Bible book on the Passion accounts in Matthew:

 

— 4 —

This came across one of my social media feeds, as things do, and it was very striking and sobering: “27 Photos that prove that depression has no face or mood.”  Photographs  – random, candid photos – of people smiling and having a great time, people who just a day or two after the photo was taken, committed suicide. 

Well worth pondering and prayer, and a reminder to be aware, be kind, be open and never assume. Anything.

 

— 5 –

Something surprising and sad: one of the earlier Catholic bloggers, Zippy Catholic, died this week in a bike accident. 

 

 

— 6 —

Here’s something: a secret Reformation-era chapel in Amsterdam: 

One of the oldest continuously operating churches in the Netherlands is hidden away in an attic not far from Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district.

The story of how the chapel came to be starts with Jan Hartman, a German Catholic living in Amsterdam during the Reformation.

During the 17th century, Hartman, like all Catholics, was prevented from exercising his faith in public following the rebellion of the majority-Protestant Low Countries, encompassing parts of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, against the Catholic king Philip II of Spain. This led to hostility towards Catholics in the Dutch capital. All Catholic churches were turned into Protestant ones, and many Catholics fled the city to pursue their religious freedom.

But instead of fleeing, Hartman came up with an innovative solution to continue practicing his faith. He brought the two properties on each side of his own home and turned the attic in one of them, at Number 40, Oudezijds Voorburgwal, right near the infamous red light district, into a secret Catholic church. Fellow Catholics could access the “schuilkerk” (literally “clandestine church”) through a spiral staircase hidden behind a fake door in the living room. They would often resort to code language to share news about Mass and other services. F or instance saying “I am going to the parrot” was a way to say that Mass was going to be celebrated.

— 7 —

Finally, here’s a story about spiderwebs enveloping a Greek town, notable, not only for the very fact of it, but for this quote, which I would like to frame:

“The spiders will have their party and will soon die.”

I mean….is there a more succinct summary of life on earth?

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

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Writing/Saying: 

I was in Living Faith yesterday – here’s that entry. 

I’ll be on the Spirit Mornings program on KVSS this morning at 8:40 central talking about the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols  – the Mondayinterview will probably already have aired by the time you read this, but I’m guessing it will be archived at their page. 

Two other posts published today  – both on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate. One here and one here. I might have one more coming – not on St. Bernard – so perhaps return for that.

I am speaking in San Antonio on Saturday, so I outlined that talk.

Surfing: Kayak, Google Flights, the Marriott site. Trips west (Kansas) and east (NYC) in the works so far.

Reading: A few things, all over the map.

First, I reread Merton’s little book on St. Bernard, which I mention in one of the posts. You can find the book here, on Scribd. 

This is an excellent New Yorker article on the impact of e-commerce on rural China. Writer Jiayang Fan offers the intriguing observation that in the United States, the Internet had transformed and disrupted commerce, as it has replaced brick-and-mortar stores, but China did not have the same kind of commercial landscape so:

In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”

And it’s fascinating to read her description of drone delivery – which is extensive and more common by the day.

And then then my main course of the weekend – the novel The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Oh my word, I enjoyed this novel so much. It won’t be for everyone – but what is? That’s why I don’t get into the business of “recommending” books, movies or television shows. People have different tastes, what engages me might alienate you, what absorbs you might bore me. I’m just saying what I’m saying – that’s all.

The House of Broken Angels is the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so – the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son – the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.

Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel – Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother – an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses and children embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, both revealing and elusive, just as human language always is. The writing can be gorgeous:

And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific–it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.

Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude. For his friend and spiritual advisor, Fr. Dave, a Jesuit priest, has given him small notebooks in which he’s told him to note down what he’s grateful for.

The notebooks had a title: My Silly Prayers…..
marriage
family 
walking
working
books
eating
Cilantro

That surprised him. He didn’t know where it came from. Cilantro? he thought. Then:

my baby brother

Every day, he found his gratitudes more ridiculous. But they were many, and they reproduced like desert wildflowers after rain.

It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space – which is my experience of consciousness and reality – and hilarious. Loved it.

Watching/Listening: Older son had to work into both Saturday and Sunday evenings, so there was no watching of things, at least by me. Sitting in the living room, reading St. Bernard, I listened to Thelonius Monk. Appropriate, I suppose.

Cooking: A batch of this Mexican Braised Beef, which is fantastic. It’s so simple – I replaced the plain canned tomatoes with Ro-tel or some other tomato/pepper mix. I also don’t have a slow cooker, so it’s all in the oven. Oh, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. With the ritual burning of the second batch as I wander off and get distracted, of course.

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Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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I’m going to start a daily thing here, mostly for the sake of quickly warming up my writing muscles again. It will probably end up being like most of my other well-intentioned plans and collapse after a few days as I get interested in something else, but let’s give it a shot. Just a daily digest of what I’m reading, writing, watching, eating/cooking

Mondayand getting peeved about. And maybe other things.

Reading: It dawned on me that periodicals circulate in our local library, so I did a lot of New Yorker reading last week, in my favorite spot – lounging on the back patio in 90 degree weather. Actually, that’s not my favorite spot – that would be lounging by water – but I cancelled our pool membership, and we’re four hours from the ocean. So. In reading the New Yorker, I ignore politics, focusing on culture and so on. Like Adam Gopnik on a California vintner and Burkhard Bilger on gourmet/heirloom legumes. 

Books? I dug out Excellent Women by Barbara Pym from our basement. A couple of decades ago, I went through a Pym phase, reading a lot of her books. I got halfway through this one and was enjoying it, so during a library stop, I pulled several more, anticipating a week or so of immersion in that world. But by the time I’d finished Excellent Women, I was already tired of that very world. I started another one – I don’t remember which one – got five pages in, and thought, No, I actually don’t want to be in this world for even another hour. That’s enough. 

Then, on Friday, I think, I read Saints at the River by Ron Rash – which begins with an intriguing hook: it’s about the conflict between a family whose daughter drowned in a South Carolina river and environmentalists: the family of course wants to recover her body, but there’s no way of doing so without disturbing the ecology of the area. I thought, great idea for a story! And although Rash is a well-respected writer, especially of short stories, I found the writing flat and while I did finish the book (in a day) – mostly to see what happened – I wasn’t inspired to read more.

Then onto a book I’m reading via the Internet Archive: I Was Dancing by Edwin O’Connor, author of, among other books, The Edge of Sadness, a recent edition of which I edited for the Loyola Classics series. I’m really enjoying it so far, but will hold off writing about it until I finish it – probably tonight.

Writing: This!

Also – I think after I finish this, on the Monday of my first full week in which I no longer have any excuses, I’ll pull out the Guatemala stuff once again and see what I can make of it. I also have a short story that’s half-finished, which I will look at again, after some months.

I also have a series of blog posts on technology/social media mapped out. I’m hoping to start that today. We’ll see. It looks like it’s going to be another sunny day and I have another issue of the New Yorker waiting before it has to go back to the library.

Watching: 

Better Call Saul, of course – new episode tonight, which is always so great to pause during the day and consider. Ahh…Better Call Saul will be on tonight. 

I’ve also started rewatching Breaking Bad   – with the boys. Yup. After last year’s Lost mega-viewing (which was, I repeat, one of the best things I’ve ever done with them – I recommend it), I had been thinking about moving to Breaking Bad.  For the record, the guys are 17 – not too far from 18 – and almost 14. I really wanted to get it in before the older one goes off to college, because it’s such a spectacular, layered piece of storytelling with a lot of moral resonance.

The only issue I have is that the versions that are currently streaming are just a bit rougher than what originally aired on AMC, but honestly – the language is not much worse than you hear on the much-vaunted, Stranger Things – especially season 2. There are some scenes that I’ve fast-forwarded through (if you remember the first episode of the entire series – you’ll know what I’m talking about. They are certainly scenes that illustrate Walt’s character, er, development – but not, as we say in this house “appropriate.”)

It’s great though. We’re up through episode 6 of season 1, and believe me, there is so much to talk about – which is why I do this. Such as the moment in “Gray Matter” when Walt has (again) a profound choice to make, is about to step out of the car to hook up again with Jesse, and grace – in the form of Gretchen – calls up on the phone with another way through the problem, a way that doesn’t involve sin, but does involve setting aside pride – well, yes. Lots to talk about.

Listening: A lot of piano jazz – Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, mostly. Handel’s keyboard suites, trying to help M figure out which one he wants to play. Ginastera’s Danza del Gaucho Matrero as M learns it, trying to get the rhythms right. The Ink Spots’ My Echo, My Shadow and Me because one of the boys was watching the first part of Better Call Saul with me last week – and it was the framing song for the opening, and he was taken with it. And plays it several times a day now.  Nothing Else Matters by Metallica – on keyboard, because M is learning it to play with this flutist jazz teacher.

Eating/Cooking:  I tend not to cook a lot in the summer. The “summer foods” that I like – lots and lots of salads – are not popular in this house, so I don’t bother. We also take the summer to do a lot of eating out – trying out various holes-in-the-wall in and around town, mostly. But a local restaurant – the Miami Fusion Cafe – ran an Instagram photo of a big pan of Ropa Vieja –  so I looked up the recipe and made a pot of it yesterday – and yes, it’s delicious – and not spicy, which is appreciated by some around here.

Surfing: Related to some of the content in this post – a couple of sites to recommend:

Serious Eats is one of my favorite recipe sites and they have a great Instagram, too.

Neglected Books has smart commentary on literature, in general, and is so helpful if you want something to read that you’ve never heard of – which is always what I’m looking for.

Travels: Wearing out that path back and forth to school again, that’s all. But San Antonio is coming, so there’s that!

Not, unfortunately, to Sorano – featured, for some random reason, in this graphic. My ideal place: a gorgeous, half-abandoned Italian hill town, filled with stray cats, where no one really wants to talk to you and you couldn’t understand them even if they did.

 

 

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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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Kyoto: the third largest city in Japan and in many ways, its cultural heart. The city was the capital of the country for centuries – from 794 to 1868 – and much of what we associate with traditional Japanese culture developed in this area. Included in this is religion. Kyoto is the site of over a thousand temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Learn more about Kyoto here. 

We like it. There’s a ton to see, but even so it’s more manageable than Tokyo, and once again, I’m grateful that circumstances changed and brought us here (but remember, my original, original itinerary included Kyoto or Osaka anyway….)

The plan for the day, such as it was, was to attempt to see temples everyone was interested in: that would include some that are famous for their visuals, some for their architectural features and some that people know about because of Pokemon. 

So yeah, we’ll start with the Pokemon one, which was the furthest out, chosen so we’d go out and then work our way back in closer. I used a lot of this itinerary to help us get from one place to the next. Never fear – this particular temple – Kinkaku-ji – is well known and hugely popular for other reasons, too – mostly because, well, it features that stunning gold leaf exterior.

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(How did we get around? On buses and trains – the public transportation here is excellent)

Then on the bus over to the Ginkaku-ji temple, which is nicknamed “silver” although it doesn’t feature any – they think it was so named to contrast it with the Gold pavilion – silver being built by the grandson of Gold’s. Both were originally built as villas for aristocrats, then turned into temples.

 

Then a long walk down what is called the “Philosopher’s Path” – so named because of a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who took walks on the path as a way of clearing his head. The path is paved, it’s on a hillside next to a stream in a residential area and lined in places with shops, but it’s still peaceful. I find that I didn’t take any actual photos of walking on the path, so sorry. Also, you can take side trails off the path to visit more temples or shrines, all more peaceful and focused that the tourist and pilgrim-heavy big temples and shrines that anyone who sneers at the tat surrounding Lourdes really should visit.

 

But…there’s a collection of cats in residence, too:

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We then took a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, which was probably the most interesting – from a cultural perspective. It’s a huge, colorful, gorgeous set of buildings, thronged – thronged with visitors, many in kimonos (I will right about this later, but wearing a kimono out and about in Kyoto is a thing. It’s not an unusual or exotic sight. Many are rented for the day, but not all.) It was unfortunate that the famed huge porch on stilts was essentially covered for renovations, but we still were able to see and absorb some of the impact of the setting.

 

One feature of this temple is a three-springed fountain coming from a mountain. People line up to drink from the spring: choosing one of the streams for longevity, one for success in school, or one for success in love. To drink from all three would be considered greedy. I couldn’t tell if the springs were actually identified as being specifically associated with each wish, but in watching the dozens of school children take their drink, it was clear that they all picked one particular stream..so I’m guessing that was for success in school?

Finally – last major temple of the day, not on that itinerary list, but on the way to somewhere else, so why not – Yasaka. There we watched people offer prayers and ring bells:

 

Two missing pieces from the day, although we’ve got three more days in the area, so plenty of time to get to them: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famed for the long line of brilliant tori gates, and Choin-in Temple, a center (if not the center) of Pure Land Buddhism. At the beginning of the day, I had tried to work Choin-in in – but could not figure out where it was and how to work it into that 1-day itinerary – only to discover that it’s right next to the Yasaka shrine – and closed by the time we arrived. Oh! Well at least now I know – for both of them – both are located pretty close to the main train line that runs near our apartment, so at least now it will be quick to get to them – no standing in shaded doorways with GoogleMaps pointing this way and that, squinting at bus line numbers.

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On leaving Yasaka, we were right in the midst of one of the main “downtown” areas (maybe the? I don’t know) of the city – and it was great. Busy, but not frantic, full of interesting shops and the usual huge Japanese department stores and food halls. It was a good two hours, laying the groundwork for a return – at least a couple of times – again, it’s not close, miles-wise to our apartment, but super easy on the train.

 

 

Oh, and yes – a real live geisha sighting. It took me a second to get what was happening, since all I saw at first were kimonos, and they’re everywhere. It was in the evening, a bit before nine, as we were about to cross the bridge downtown to get to the Gion station. There were several solid black shiny cars stopped along the side of the street, with a bit of a bustle happening, and folks gathered taking photos. When I finally clicked into observation mode, I saw one geisha get into each of the cars, along with one or two older men dressed in business suits and an older woman, not made up and not in full dress kimono, but still in traditional garb. I am wondering if she was some sort of supervisor/chaperone, and who we saw were not full geishas, but geishas-in-training, called maiko. 

You can sort of see that pure white face in the back seat of the car:

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Today…Thursday…Nara.

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