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No cute name. That part’s already bored me.

But here we are – Wednesday:

 

Reading:  I finished I Was Dancing last night – and no, I wouldn’t recommend it. Reminder: The author is Edwin O’Connor, author of two highly acclaimed mid-century novels: The Last Hurrah, about an Irish-American politician (made into a film starring Spencer Tracy) and The Edge of Sadness, which won the Pulitzer in 1962, and which was amy_welbornrepublished by Loyola Press a few years back as part of the Loyola Classics series, which I edited. Ron Hansen wrote the introduction for that edition.

I Was Dancing tells the story of one more older man facing choices and acceptance of change and decline. This one is much shorter than the other two, and when I finished it, I thought, well – that book was essentially four or five conversations. Maybe more, but that’s it. The plot is focused: an elderly former vaudeville dancer/comic, on the road for decades, returns to his now-married son’s home to retire. We meet him on the day his son’s ultimatum comes to bear: after a year, today’s the day you have to move on and out to the local retirement home.

And so the conversations – mostly between Daniel (the father) and three of his friends, whom he gathers during the course of the day for support and, more importantly, as his audience. The four – Daniel, his shyster fake-physician, a man abandoned by his wife for another entertainer, and a priest – engage with each other mostly, it seems, for the purpose of applauding each other’s rationalizations of failure – the exception being the priest who is a barely tolerant cynic.

“Well it takes all kinds,” Father Feeley said. “Humanity in its infinite variety. Most of it highly overrated. And most of it capable of anything. A boundless capacity for lunacy, deceit. It all matters very little. In the long run.”

The final section of the book is, of course, a conversation – a terrifically long one in which Daniel and his son Tom hash out all their mutual resentments and anger. I…skimmed it, hoping for some subtlety or layers, but they were not to be found.

So – maybe ninety minutes of my life? Not a waste – there were some amusing exchanges and I liked the priest character. I also learned a bit about what doesn’t work in storytelling – always good to learn more about that.

Watching: I discovered that through my free YouTube TV trial (we cut the cord and have been experimenting with various free trials of streaming services – accessibility to football games being the primary concern) I could access a free trial of AMC Premiere – through which all ten episodes of Lodge 49 are now available. The YouTube TV free trial runs out today (we’re not going to renew it – we bought an antenna and are going back to SlingTV, which carries NFL Network – not carried on YouTubeTV – and the antenna brings in all our local channels fine) – so I decided to try to watch as much of Lodge 49 as I could squeeze in, just to see if my initial positive feelings would hold up. They sort of do – there’s nothing off-putting in the three or so episodes I watched, but the narrative thread seems to have loosened a bit and I don’t feel driven to binge any more tonight – I’ll just wait for the rest to air weekly.

Some thoughts on the whole cutting-the-cord thing. The only reason we have anything at all is because of sports. My older son watched college and pro football  – an old post on why this is not a problem for me – and then college basketball. The beauty of streaming is not only is it cheaper than satellite (or cable) but also that it’s so easy to turn services off and on. No one has to come out to your house and install anything, there’s no equipment to return. We can have a streaming service until the end of March Madness – and then boom, discontinue it – probably this time, forever, since he’ll be going off to college next year.

I’m actually glad the YouTubeTV turned out not to be our best option (it was recommended by all kinds of people, including the guy in line behind me at FedEx as I returned the satellite receiver  two months ago) – but I hate giving that Google/YouTube corporation $$. I mean – we’re all complicit and wrapped up in all sorts of evil corporations, but if I can avoid handing them money – I certainly will.

Eating/Cooking: Not much on that front. My younger son had an orthodontist appointment yesterday, and will be in a heap of discomfort for a couple of days – so the menu will consist mostly of mashed potatoes and pudding.

Short post today. Time to work on another Tech Week post, get that out and then return to some other kinds of thinking/writing.

Image: The Appian Way, Rome. 

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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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You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires.

Hey, there’s Paul writing to the Ephesians. It’s the second reading for Sunday’s Mass, and, very conveniently, a decent hook for talking about the return of Better Call Saul.

Yes, Saul. 

better-call-saul3Better Call Saul – which begins its fourth season Monday night – is at once a prequel and (we think- I hope) sequel to Breaking Bad. In that (great) series, Saul Goodman emerged in season two as Walter White’s smart, opportunistic criminal defense attorney (“You don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”). Better Call Saul takes us back in the timeline to explore the question of where this guy came from.

Originally conceived almost as a joke, and, before production really got rolling, as a mostly comedic treatment of an already extreme character who lives life at a pace as rapid-fire as his quips, Better Call Saul has evolved into something quite different and surprising: an almost leisurely, affecting deep-dive into the question of identity: Who are we at a given moment – and how did we become that person?

(There are plenty of articles online about the series. This interview with showrunner Vince Gilligan is particularly good. And before I dig into the deeper stuff and get all meta and serious, let me say that the show is just wildly entertaining – masterful cinematography, compelling direction and great setpieces, hilarious and always surprising. It’s the only show I’m currently watching.)

It’s not dissimilar from Breaking Bad, which traced the descent of Walter White from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to cold-blooded meth king. The dramatic arc is a little different though – there was always a level of uncertainty about Walter White: would he ever turn back? Would he respond to opportunities to take a different path? With Saul Goodman, we already know the answer (in part). When we first meet him in Breaking Bad, he’s a slimeball. So there’s no suspense on that score. There is suspense, though – which shows you how skilled everyone involved in this is – because we don’t know how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman – and we actually care.

And why do we care? Because, as singular as this character’s life is – low-life con artist getting through law school (University of American Samoa represent!) and trying to make something of himself, it’s essentially, in the end, about that question of identity and choices, presented in an engaging way that doesn’t shy away from complexity. Jimmy could be – and, if we’re honest, probably is, in some way  – any of us.

For it would have been easy to take this character – Jimmy McGill – and make his trajectory a sure thing because of either all his own choices or all what others and life have done to him. A clear-cut perp or victim, either way. A victim of a background in which he saw his parents, particularly his father, taken advantage of, and then a victim of his brother’s arrogance and contempt, as well as the usual course of bad breaks. A victim of his own flaws – as his brother Chuck (who has his own issues)  growls at him, more or less constantly, You’ll never change. You’ll always be Slippin’ Jimmy.  Of course he turned out the way he did!

better-call-saul 2

But no.

Every step of the way, we see, sometimes in subtle ways, the choices Jimmy McGill makes – and could make. One step forward, two steps back – that’s his life – sometimes because of what happens to him, sometimes because of his own choices. Like every one of us non-fictional characters, he’s a mix of inherent goodness, the lingering effects of original sin and the impact of temptation, pure and simple. It’s a hard sell, and it’s relentless and it’s exactly what Paul is telling the Ephesians.  He’s being sold a bill of goods: that his old self is his true self and his desires aren’t illusory, but real, and they’re not corrupting him – they define him.

There’s really not a thing wrong with anything fundamental to his drive or character: he wants to make something of himself, he knows he’s got charm and creativity, he wants to live well. But how it all gets perverted: perverted by greed, fear, a desire for revenge, pleasure in seeing someone twist in the wind, and most of all, because it is the root of all sin – pride.

And all of this – good and evil, possibility and cynicism, surge, course and fight for the soul of a man  – is he Jimmy, Saul, Gene – or all of the above? Or none?

There’s more than one battlefield. With Gilligan and Gould at the helm, every character is fully-developed, every one distinct and interesting, every one moving in one direction or another, every one of them making choices, too, using what’s at hand, reacting and bouncing off one another. It’s such a fantastic cast all-round with my favorites being Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy McGill’s business and personal partner, Kim Wexler, and Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin, a partner in Jimmy’s brother’s firm. Both roles are played, not against type, but simply not as a type, which is refreshing on television. Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters on television – ever – hard-working, real, but intriguingly reserved. Kim and Jimmy’s relationship is subtle: there’s obviously deep mutual affection and support, but it’s understated – so understated that’s it weird to see them express affection –  and works as a foundation (up to this point), not a plot point. Howard initially strikes you as typical high-powered, aggressive jerk, but he’s much more as he navigates his way between everyone’s best interests. He really is one of the show’s secret weapons, and I suspect he’ll play an even greater role in the coming season, as he has to grapple with Chuck’s death. (No spoiler alert – it’s in the plot synopses).

(You notice that I’m not saying much about the other two major plot lines – the Gus Fring/Nacho/Hector trajectory and the Mike storyline. I enjoy them, but they just don’t interest me as much as the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim/Howard material – although they are certainly on their way to converegence.)

In a series full of heartbreaking storylines, probably the most heartbreaking of season 3, and the one that expresses all of the contradictions and temptations of Jimmy McGill, is this one:

In a previous season, Jimmy had stumbled upon the dishonest ways of an assisted-living facility corporation, and had, on behalf of some senior-citizen residents, sued this company. Using all of his charm, Jimmy worked his way to a settlement that would benefit these residents and, of course, himself. There was fallout from that settlement that led to all kinds of complications, but it reemerged in this season and Jimmy discovered that the settlement had not actually been settled yet – that the law firm he’d left the case with (not of his own choice) was holding out for more from the company. Settling at this point, would solve all of Jimmy’s considerable financial problems, so he went to work.

The work involved essentially isolating the woman who represented the class in the suit from her friends – putting the pressure on her so that she’d go ahead and accept the settlement. Joining himself to the mall-walkers and chair-yoga practitioners, he planted seeds of doubt in her friend’s minds, building hostility to the point where the holdout broke down in tears after Jimmy rigged the community bingo game in her favor, trusting that this would be the straw.

better_call_saul

And of course it worked. She settled, all the elderly got their money, as did Jimmy – but at what price? That’s always the question.

There are, of course, other story lines in the show – story lines that will eventually converge in a way that sets the stage for Breaking Bad. But it’s the character study that has me hooked. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Is the person I’m convinced I am at this moment inevitable?

Near the end of season 3, Kim Wexler, already a driven workaholic, takes on even more work to compensate for the partnership’s losses now that Jimmy McGill has been suspended from practicing law for a year. As a consequence of this and related choices, she dozes off while driving and ends up wrecked on the side of the road, her arm broken and documents scattered to the wind. This conversation between her and the future Saul Goodman encapsulates the moral questions at the heart of the show:

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

better-call-saul

This moral dimension plays out in the aesthetics of the show in a number of ways, but in my mind, most powerfully in an aspect that some critique: the show often proceeds, let’s just say, at a leisurely pace. There’s the “let’s take a third of an episode to watch Mike figure out a tracking device” or “let’s watch Nacho create fake heart pills for ten minutes” or “let’s watch Jimmy doctor documents for a while now” and  “let’s watch Chuck tear apart his house forever.”

What does this say? I’d imagine the directors and writers have their own rationales, but the way it strikes me is as a powerful visual expression of the conviction that everything matters. There’s no such thing as wasted movement in this universe, no such thing as a meaningless gesture. No, we don’t want to tumble into scrupulosity, but you remember what the Man said, right?  Even the very hairs on your head are numbered. That tight, sustained gaze of Better Call Saul  won’t allow us to forget: We’re adults.  Every choice we make takes us in one direction or another, towards greater clarity or even darker illusions about ourselves. Every single one.

better-call-saul10

 

 

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Monday morning catching up

First of all, I’m in Living Faith today – go here to check it out.

If you’ve landed here because you read that entry and want to know more about the trip – click here. It will take you to the pertinent blog entries.

IMG_0170

The boat on the day mentioned in the story in Living Faith. 

All of this just might prompt you to think…wait. Didn’t she say she was going to publish an e-book about that Guatemala trip?

Why yes, yes she did. And it’s still sitting there, three chapters in. The thing is, things keep popping up. So, for example, over the next two weeks I have three fairly large pieces of a bigger project due – the due dates are spread out over six different days, but I have to keep a steady pace of five chunks of it a day in order to keep up.

(Started this post  Sunday morning. Guess what happened….everyone ended up gone all afternoon…I finished every bit of this week’s material. Freedom!)

Plus this other ongoing project, not due until next January, but again, one I need to do in chunks right now or else I’ll be sitting there in December, regretting my life.

So, let’s catch up via my favorite – bullet points.

  • Still here, still overseeing the end of someone’s junior year in the brick and mortar Catholic high school, and homeschooling the 7th grader. Come back tomorrow for a post on Homeschooling the Last Few Weeks of Seventh Grade When the Kid is Going Back to School For Eighth Grade and No One Really Cares Any More.

 

  • There have been no – as in zero – out of town adventures lately, and there won’t be any for a few more weeks. There is just too much stuff every weekend, and we are reaching Peak Piano – and have tossed in jazz piano lessons and pipe organ. And when there’s not a piano thing, there’s an altar serving thing or something else.

 

  • But there are travels on the horizon. I’ve not yet committed to tickets, but we are indeed going to Japan this summer – probably in June. So I guess I’d better get on that, eh? (The thing is – ticket prices tend to stay steady for that route and don’t fluctuate at this point – so I’m in no hurry.)

 

  • Recent viewings:

Aside from the video game Fortnite, the majority of screen time around here over the past few weeks has been devoted to the four seasons of Jeeves and Wooster starring, of course, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I had my 13 year old read a couple of the stories a while back, and thought he might enjoy a look at the series. Ra-ther!

It does get a bit repetitious: Bertie is attempting to flee the clutches of some female and one of his aunts, something must be stolen, and Jeeves fixes it all. But oh, my, at almost every step of the way it’s so beautifully done, with plenty of silly yet sharp satire of the useless English ruling class, and Laurie and Fry fully inhabit their roles and are just a joy to watch.

My older son said, “Mom, you’re kind of like Jeeves. When you talk, it’s like you’re agreeing with us, but underneath, you can tell you think we’re kind of dumb. And you solve everyone’s problems.”

Very good, sir.

One of our favorite elements of the show is how they used Laurie’s musical talents and have Bertie regularly tooling around at the piano (which he didn’t in the Wodehouse stories), usually singing popular novelty songs of the period, with Jeeves passing through the background rolling his eyes.  So now I have a 13-year old who’s got “Nagasaki” memorized (speaking of Japan) and thanks to Bertie Wooster, was introduced to “Minnie the Moocher” and has become fascinated with Cab Calloway.

This might be one of my favorites – it’s enjoyable as it is, but even more so if you’ve watched the entire episode, of which it’s the end – it’s sort of like one of the Lost endings that just gets you with music playing over an ensemble scene. Except this wraps up an episode centering on an African totem, mismatched couples and (of course) attempts to steal said African totem – but it’s still a nice moment.

The main theme to the show is also wonderful – quick, jazzy and interesting. I found a duet version that we’ve been playing around with.

Once I get the current batch of work done, I have some shows I want to try out. I did watch The Letdown it’s a 7-episode Australian show about new motherhood starring the quite wonderful Allison Bell, who also co-created it. I watched it because it features Celeste Barber  in a supporting role– the comedian who is famous right now for her #ChallengeAccepted Instagram account in which she, er, recreates the poses of models from the perspective of a real, non-model person. She’s hilarious – and currently on her first US tour. Anyway, she’s in it, so I tried it out – and enjoyed it quite a bit. (language alert, etc)  It’s darkish comedy – along the lines of Catastrophe, but it’s that edge that makes it real and relatable, and with enough unexpected turns to keep it interesting – the instigator of the lactation sit-in, it turns out (for example), wasn’t kicked out of the cafe because she was breastfeeding, but because she never bought anything and gorged on their free wi-fi. The next-to-the last episode which takes Audrey (the main character) on a weekend journey with her aging hippie mother to visit her horsewoman mother was a succinct, moving and true exploration of the complexities of motherhood: mothers making their choices so often in reaction to the way they were mothered end up simply on the very same road, despite themselves.

There’s even the slightest bit of a Catholic angle and as seems to be so often the case with these shows, even though the characters usually fancy themselves above and beyond religion and even though religious practice is just there and not presented as anything particularly true, what always ends up happening is that as the non-religious bump up against the religious, it’s the former that end up looking foolish and in a sort of denial, protesting far too much. Interesting.

Anyway, if you wouldn’t be offended by language and some frankness – check out The Letdown on Netflix.

Reads:

I’ve read several books over the past couple of weeks, but none have really stuck with me. I’m going to try to make this quick:

  • Anatomy of a Miracle started out promisingly and indeed offered a compelling narrative at first, and one that was – in terms of the Catholic stuff and regional quirks – accurate to the level of painstaking. But then the novel took a rather predictable turn that left me saying well of course that’s his issue  – bored and skimming the last few chapters.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Tom Rachman, who wrote a novel about expat journalists in Rome that I sort of liked. But I should have remembered that I didn’t like it that much and maybe thought twice about spending the hours I did reading this. It had a structure that was either intriguing or irritating – I can’t decide. Centered on a young woman coming to grips with a quite unusual childhood, I suppose I would conclude two things: first, the reason for the upbringing was not as compelling as we’re led to believe early on and secondly, the nature of certain relationships are withheld from us in a way that ultimately comes off as coy and manipulative. If this main character didn’t know who these people were and only gradually discovered it, that would be one thing – but she knows all along, and we’re only told halfway through the book – maybe further. Bah. That happens? You feel manipulated when the narrative eye is hers.
  • I liked Memento Park the most, and I’d recommend it. It’s also about an adult trying to understand his past, this time a C-list actor with Hungarian roots. He’s challenged in his self-understanding by news of a painting that, it’s said, his family has a claim to, a claim that is possibly traceable to the Nazi era. The novel is short, but complex, with a definite, if subtle spiritual subtext.

I’m back on non-fiction now, reading a book that would probably bore the heck out of you, but is right up my alley. It’s called An Empire Divided – 

Between 1880 and 1914, tens of thousands of men and women left France for distant religious missions, driven by the desire to spread the word of Jesus Christ, combat Satan, and convert the world’s pagans to Catholicism. But they were not the only ones with eyes fixed on foreign shores. Just as the Catholic missionary movement reached its apex, the young, staunchly secular Third Republic launched the most aggressive campaign of colonial expansion in French history. Missionaries and republicans abroad knew they had much to gain from working together, but their starkly different motivations regularly led them to view one another with resentment, distrust, and even fear. 

In An Empire Divided, J.P. Daughton tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic perspectives, and domestic French politics in the tumultuous decades before the First World War. With case studies on Indochina, Polynesia, and Madagascar, An Empire Divided–the first book to examine the role of religious missionaries in shaping French colonialism–challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were shaped by a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of Catholic missionaries, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, Daughton argues that colonial policies were regularly wrought in the fires of religious discord–discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule. 

After decades of conflict, Catholics and republicans in the empire ultimately buried many of their disagreements by embracing a notion of French civilization that awkwardly melded both Catholic and republican ideals. But their entente came at a price, with both sides compromising long-held and much-cherished traditions for the benefit of establishing and maintaining authority. Focusing on the much-neglected intersection of politics, religion, and imperialism, Daughton offers a new understanding of both the nature of French culture and politics at the fin de siecle, as well as the power of the colonial experience to reshape European’s most profound beliefs.

 

Why is that fascinating to me, and a book I pick up more eagerly than I do most novels? Well, because it’s history – and a chunk of history that’s new to me, and I’m always up for that. It’s also in the broader genre of Ah, you thought you had the general gist of things – like colonialism and Catholic mission? Well, let me tell you something….

More when I finish it.

Now to finish this and get ready to answer the phone to do a bit of radio – I’m about to be on the Sonrise Morning Show to talk about St. Catherine of Siena – this piece in particular. 

 

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— 1 —

Recent….reads:

“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.

 

 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.

 

–4–

Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.

 

— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?

Meh.

Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:

 

— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.

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It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….

 

 

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— 1 —

Well, this is…unusual.

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It’s not the mere fact of snow. We’re not Texas, which got hit Thursday night. We do get snow here in Alabama and throughout the Southeast, just…not usually in early December. Our snow (and more treacherously, ice) comes in January and February.

But here it is:

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When my son brought home Rumors of Snow on Friday earlier in the week, we both scoffed. Even the forecast called for no more than 10% chance of precipitation today. Well, I guess we hit that 10%.

Early yesterday evening, the schools announced a two-hour delay, and across the land, prayers were sent up that this was only a warning shot, a placeholder for something bigger and greater to come.

And they got it.

Now, here’s my ritual warning to hardy Midwesterners and New Englanders: Don’t mock us. It may seem silly to cancel school for, um, an inch (maybe) of snow, but listen: we don’t have masses of snow-clearing equipment around here ready to send out and blanket the county. It’s hilly – mountainous even. An inch of snow in the early morning falling on Alabama hills and mountains, with only minimal salt or ploughs at the ready is not the same as an inch falling in on the flat, fully prepared land of northeastern Indiana.

Although I will say, there’s no ice with this – the roads are just wet. They could easily be driven. But it is supposed to snow much of the day so eh, why bother? It’s Friday….

Update:

 — 2 —

And it’s the Immaculate Conception! Time for this annual gift from me – and the Monkees – to you.

I toss the same general post up every year. I don’t care. No need to search my brain for heartfelt spiritual metaphors from Daily Life™. When we have the Monkees!

Riu riu chiu, la guarda ribera;
Dios guardo el lobo de nuestra cordera,
Dios guardo el lobo de neustra cordera.

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder,
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender;
Quisola hazer que no pudiese pecar,
Ni aun original esta Virgen no tuviera.

Riu, riu chiu…

Este qu’es nacido es el gran monarca,
Christo patriarca de carne vestido;
Hemos redemido con se hazer chiquito,
Aunqu’era infinito, finito se hiziera.

Translation:

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.

Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,
But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.
Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,
That first sin of man never touched the Virgin sainted.

River, roaring river…

He who’s now begotten is our mighty Monarch,
Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.
He has brough atonement by being born so humble,
Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

River, roaring river…

And the Kingston Trio:

More from Fr. Steve Grunow on the song and the feast.

— 3 —

It’s a good day to buy a .99 book on the Blessed Virgin, don’t you think?

— 4

You might recall that my 7th grade homeschooler and I are reading The Yearling. He’s got a couple of chapters to go, but I finished it last night and was just about as wrecked as I was when I read it in 7th grade and solemnly declared:

I repeat what I said a few weeks ago: if you’ve never read The Yearling – do. In a way it’s a young people’s book, but it did win the Pulitzer Prize. The writing is lush and some of the most powerful, evocative descriptive language you’ll find – and I’m a reader who normally – I admit – skips through landscape descriptions. I didn’t want to do that with Rawlings’. It’s a powerful, painful and true coming-of-age story.

As he reads his “school novel” – along with his leisure reading he’s always got going, I toss in some short stories and poetry a couple of times a week. This week he read “The Reticence of Lady Anne” by Saki and “The Death of a Government Clerk” by Chekov. He declared that he saw the twist of the first one coming well before the end, but was quite surprised by the second. The Chekov indeed gave us more to talk about. It’s short, amusing and ironic. The theme we dug into is: Okay, you’re worried and stressed out. But in your anxiety about that thing, are you missing the real thing that you should be worried about?

–5 —

Earlier this week, we took an afternoon at the Birmingham Museum of Art. You might have heard me rave about our local treasure before, but bear with me. It’s a very fine museum, with a solid collection that changes it up just often enough to stay fresh. There’s no admission charge, so if you’re a local you have no excuse not to visit regularly.

My son has been reading a lot about Japanese history, so we took time to revisit the very good Asian collection.

Take a look at this. Read the placard and enjoy the little rats fashioning the mallet. It’s a charming piece.

I’d seen this painting of St. Bernardino of Siena before, but never really stopped to study it. This time I did, and discovered that this was not simplistic hagiography. It’s something else – I’m not sure what – a commentary on the varied attitudes we bring to these moments? An observation of a scene? I don’t know if you can see it, but see what you can of the individuals gathered – they’re not all listening, in fact…most of them aren’t. I’m particularly taken with the boy hanging on the platform, and the friar slouched behind the preacher….taking a nap.

— 6 —

Watching: Tonight we finish Lost, and I am of two minds about it. I’m sorry that we’ll be done – this has really been one of the best things the three of us have done together, apart from traveling. I’ll be sorry to leave this Lost crew behind, once again. But…it will be just a bit of a relief to free up some brain space and not have 75% of the conversations around here start with…”So what is that other reality all about???”

Maybe I’ll read a book?

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I did watch all of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last week and I wouldn’t recommend it. I had watched the pilot in the spring, found it annoying and disappointing and predictable, but decided to give the series another chance.  Well, that was aggravating. Not quite at a hate-watch level, but more at the: I really want this to be better, so I’ll keep watching hoping that happens. It didn’t. Very pretty to look at with rich period detail, but generally superficial both in human terms and in relation to the culture it purported to present. I’ve never watched Image result for amazing mrs. maisela nanosecond of The Gilmore Girls, so I didn’t come to it as a fan of that show, but I was very open to the concept – upper-class 50’s Jewish housewife discovers a flair for stand-up comedy – but what emerges is not recognizably authentic in any way. I wasn’t watching people, I was watching a script being recited and cultural caricatures being embodied. Mad Men had its weaknesses, but the one thing it did right was the character of Peggy Olson, who began the series as a mousy, naive secretary, and ended it as a confident copy-writer, a transformation that was earned and authentic every step of the way. I wasn’t expecting that level of work here, but I was hoping for something a little closer than I got.

— 7 —

Bambinelli Sunday!

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I just noticed that The Loyola Kids Book of Saints is priced at $7.25 on Amazon at the moment. I don’t know how long that will be the case – but there it is, if you’re interested.

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