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Archives for April 2005

On the Bleakness of My Lot

On the bleakness of my lot
Bloom I strove to raise.
Late, my acre of a rock
Yielded grape and maize.

Soil of flint if steadfast tilled
Will reward the hand;
Seed of palm by Lybian sun
Fructified in sand.

— Emily Dickinson

Reading

Success can make for lousy storytelling – usually, once they start living happily ever after, the story’s over. So it’s probably best that my reading at the Mission Valley Borders Books & Music didn’t have them standing in the stacks, straining after every word. If it had, how would I write about it?

Once, twice, maybe three times, the voice went out across the store. “Borders welcomes Matthew Lickona, who will read from his book, Swimming with Scapulars.” To no avail. I wanted to tell them to give it a rest already. That was the only really embarrassing moment – withouth the announcement, this was just a guy and some friends at a table, reading a book. But the announcement filled the store, letting everybody know that this was a public event, one they might care to attend. My boss-editor came with two of his daughters, bless him. And my wife, and my friends Canisius, Shawn, Kate, Mary, and Gary and his wife Maria. I read, recounting my struggles for these ten people I knew, trying not to notice as a couple of people sat down for a minute, then departed. We had a good chat, a few of them bought copies, and the manager was very kind. “You’ve sold twelve copies here so far. That’s good. One person bought five copies. I’ve had nonfiction titles sell two in a whole year.”

Something for the folks over at BookAngst101, the ones who wonder whether ads sell books. My boss gave me four full-page ads in the Reader, circulation 160,000, all of which mentioned the Borders signing prominently. Now maybe people just weren’t that interested in my book – that’s eminently possible. And maybe they were interested in the book but not in the reading – also possible. But still, something to consider. My boss also ran a reprint of the NYTBR rave that Judith Moore’s Fat Girl got for several weeks, and that doesn’t seem to have helped much, either. “It’s selling better in Kansas City,” he remarked, and Kansas City is a much smaller metropolis than San Diego. (This should not be read as ingratitude to my boss. Four full-page ads was a tremendous gift, and I know it.)

My second reading was better. The owners of Cosmos Coffee, situated on my town’s main drag, kindly kept their shop open late for me on a Sunday evening. More people came, including a few I didn’t recognize. I read more; there were questions afterwards. Afterwards, we moseyed across the street to Maxwell’s House of Books, an excellent used bookstore, and I signed a few books, answered a few more questions, and got buzzy on bubbly and Yellow Tail Shiraz. By the end, it was just me and Canisius (who is convinced that carpenters like himself are the best-read people in the world), the proprietor (a former carpenter) and his wife, and a Presbyterian pastor who was filling it at a local Methodist church. The talk eventually veered south, and I left with a copy of The Burden of Southern History, which I am enjoying very much. Easy to love a book that opens with a consideration of what Southern experience has to offer the rest of America – poverty instead of abundance, failure instead of near-constant success, a real struggle with genuine moral evil. (The essay was written mid-century, when the South was perhaps more curious about its distinctiveness.)

When Walker Percy was asked why the South had produced so many fine novelists, he answered, “Because we lost the war” – a very similar notion.

Ivorybill!

I heard this story on NPR this morning — Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Rediscovered in Arkansas — and thought of the references to the “ivorybill” in Walker Percy’s 1971 novel, Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (cf. the Korrektiv masthead).

———————————-
Fran sits around catercornered, leg tucked under her, to see me. “You catch us on the crest of the wave,” she tells me. “We are ten feet high. Our minds are blown.”

“How’s that?”

“Tell him, Colley.”

“We found him, Tom,” says Colley portentously. “By George,we found him.”

“Who?”

“He’s alive! He’s come back! After all these years!”

“Who?” This morning, hauling up a great unclassified beast of a fish, I thought of Christ coming again at the end of the world and how it is that in every age there is the temptation to see signs of the end and that, even knowing this, there is nevertheless some reason, what with the spirit of the new age being the spirit of watching and waiting, to believe that—

Colley’s right hand strays over the tape deck. The smooth shark skin at the back of his neck is pocked with pits that are as perfectly circular as if they had been punched out with a tiny biscuit cutter.

“Last Sunday at 6: 55 a.m.,” says Colley calmly, “exactly four miles west of Honey Island I—saw—an—ivory-billed—woodpecker.”

“Is that so?”

“No question about it”

“That is remarkable.”

“Do you realize what this means?” Fran asks me.

“No. Yes.”

“There has not been a verified sighting of an ivorybill since nineteen-three. Think of it.”

“All right.”

“Wouldn’t that be something now,” muses Fran, breathing on her binoculars, “to turn in a regular Christmas list, you know, six chickadees, twenty pine warblers, two thousand myrtle warblers, and at the end, with photo attached: one ivory-billed woodpecker? Can’t you see the Audubon brass as they read it?”

“Yes.”

“Of course we have to find him again. Wish us luck.”

“Yes. I do.”
———————————(p. 387-8)

Number of Days

Every day on my way home from work I pass a sign. The sign has an electronic display that keeps a tally of the number of days “since the last serious accident” along this particular stretch of road — a stretch of road that apparently tends to be prone to serious accidents. The first time I noticed the sign, it displayed a single digit number — I think it was 9. Then I began to take note of it each day as it passed into double digits, into the teens and twenties. I kept thinking back to when it was at 9 and it seemed like just yesterday. Have two weeks already passed since then? And now three weeks, a month? And then I stopped noticing it for awhile. And then one day it hit me with 154 days since the last serious accident. Aside from wondering what qualifies as a serious accident and whether there had been any unserious accidents that verged on serious and who would be responsible for making the call to reset the sign to zero — aside from those nagging thoughts — I harkened back to that day I first noticed it at 9, and once again it seemed like just yesterday. For a few days it hit me like that and I marveled at the smooth and terrible expanse of days from 9 to 154, 155, 157-8-9, where time seemed to stretch out like a forest clearcut. Then I stopped noticing the sign again for awhile. Well, I’ve looked at it for the past couple of days again. It is up to 183, and it no longer seems to point back to that day I first noticed it, Day 9. Now it seems horribly slow moving — quite the opposite of how I previously experienced it. I keep expecting it to be in the two- or three-hundreds, maybe into the thousands. But it just sits there on 183, barely budging.

Home

I can’t decide which is realer – California, where I’ve started a career, bought a house, started a family, found friends, planted a garden (well, the wife did), seen children baptized and shriven and joined to Christ in communion, etc.

Or New York, where I’m from, and where my parents live, and where my brother wants to get back to. It’s not apron strings; it’s terroir (to use a gag-inducing bit of winespeak). It’s the place. A couple of years ago, my boss took me hiking through Yosemite. It was, naturally, amazing, and I’m grateful to have seen it. But last summer, I took my kids walking through the dripping shale gorges and waterfalls of Treman State Park in Ithaca, and I could have wept for the beauty of it if I hadn’t been so mad at my kids and their utter lack of interest in walking slowly and contemplating the wonder of the place. (More particularly, I was mad because their constant agitation made it difficult for me to do the contemplating. If there’s one thing I lack, it’s serenity amid the chaos.)

And it’s the quality of interaction with family – even when it’s cacophonous (headed for airport, can’t check spelling) – and there were times on this visit when it was – it carries such weight, has such substance.

Rome Diary

Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, kept a blog of sorts — Rome Diary — while covering the funeral of John Paul II, the conclave and election of Benedict XVI.

Here is an excerpt:

“… [Benedict XVI] will be carrying forward the work of John Paul the Great in bringing together again the great themes of the Second Vatican Council: ressourcement and aggiornamento. The reappropriation of the tradition and the conversation with the contemporary world are not two agendas, one dubbed conservative and the other liberal, but the two essential dimensions of the renewal of the Church.”

Here is another:

“There is an astonishing progressive love affair with condoms and allowing their use at least in certain rare circumstances related to AIDS. Here, it is thought, some wiggle room might be countenanced by the next pope. The progressive agenda has come down to condoms.”

Yesterday’s News

Peter Steinfels, top-dog religion reporter for the New York Times (I know, I know, don’t I read anything else?), has weighed in on the “But what will the kids think of Papa Benedict?” question. (Yes, everyone else reported on this days ago. In my world, time runs a little more slowly.)

The parts that caught my attention:

“Catholic teenagers were far less apt to affirm belief in a personal God, to report having ever undergone a very moving, powerful worship experience, or to say their faith was extremely important in shaping their daily lives or major life decisions.”

Belief in a personal God – that’s disturbing, and I would suggest it points to lousy catechesis. A very moving, powerful worship experience? Seems to me a body could go through most of life without having one of those, and yet remain a deeply committed, even holy, Catholic. As for faith shaping daily lives – um, they’re teenagers. Their faith is fledgling – at least mine was at that age, even if I was serious about it.

“There has been a lot of impressionistic talk, often verging on boosterism, about a new “John Paul II generation” of deeply committed, conservative young Catholics. So what should be said about this quite different-looking crop of John Paul II teenagers? How did this happen on the watch of the very pope who undeniably exhibited such magnetism among youth?”

I’d like to stand as a particular, concrete counterpoint to the “impressionistic talk.” True, I don’t know how many other people out there share my beliefs, and as ever, I like to use “willing to adhere to Church teaching” instead of “conservative.” But I’ll answer to “deeply committed.” But again, I’m a young Catholic, but hardly a teenager.

“The obvious answer is that one individual, no matter how charismatic a communicator of his convictions, cannot do it alone. Even the millions touched by World Youth Days are only a small – and often unrepresentative – fraction of young Catholics, who as a whole can be reached only at the grass roots, through parish worship, religious education, youth ministry and, of course, their parents’ example.”

Right on, Steinfels. So if there’s a problem, I’d say it’s there – parish worship and religious education. I won’t presume to judge about their parents’ example.

“If this whole infrastructure of religious socialization is creaky, undermanned, short on skills and resources, fearful of ideas and innovation or unresponsive to important demographic, socioeconomic and cultural forces, then even the most dynamic pontiff can enliven only a minority of young Catholics.”

That’s a cleverly lumped-together list. Creaky infrastructure? Amen. Fearful of ideas and innovation? Is this really the problem? Unresponsive to cultural forces? Is this another way of saying “refusing to yield to the times and blow with the prevailing wind”? And is that really the problem? Is there a lot of that kind of refusal going on in the American Catholic infrastructure of religious socialization? (I’m sincere in my question, not rhetorical.)

But it’s probably true that even the most dynamic pontiff will enliven only a minority. That’s the “creative minority” he’s referring to, no?

Judicial Murder

Lest you think the Terri Schiavo case fell exclusively along party lines, consider this opinion piece from the pages of The Village Voice:

Terri Schiavo: Judicial Murder: Her crime was being disabled, voiceless, and at the disposal of our media. By Nat Hentoff.

The Universe Is Basically Crooked

The following is an excerpt from a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks:

Mostly, I’m happy on an existential level. I like to be reminded that the universe is basically crooked. This is what the zero-tolerance brigades and all the better living gurus never quite get. They’re busy trying to mold everybody into lifelong valedictorians, who spend their adulthood as carb counters and responsible flossers – the sort of organized folk who actually read legal documents before they sign them.

In reality, life is perverse and human beings don’t get what they deserve. The people with the worst grades start the most successful businesses. The shallowest people end up blissfully happy and they are so vapid they don’t even realize how vapid they are because vapidity is the only trait that comes with its own impermeable obliviousness system. The people regarded as lightweights, like F.D.R., J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan, make the best presidents, while you – so much more thoughtful and better read – would be a complete disaster.

Life isn’t fair, logic is of limited value and, as Woody Allen observed years ago, everything your parents once thought was good for you turns out to be bad for you: sun, milk, red meat and college.

Comedy of Porn

San Diego has a pirate radio station, 96.9. They don’t like the paper I write for one bit, but, magnanimous soul that I am, I sometimes listen to them anyway. A few nights ago, I tuned in at the tail end of a comedy routine. (That’s one of the nice things about pirate radio, I suppose – no format requirements. Unlike this blog thing, with its strict parameters. Lit blog? Catholic blog? Pop blog? Oh, will I never be free?) The comic, a young fellow, was marveling that airports sold, along with travel accessories, fancy chocolate, and other generally family friendly fare, porn. The poor youngster clearly hadn’t considered the plight of the people who made the airline industry great – lonely businessmen.

I thought of that routine as I browsed the Hudson News kiosks in O’Hare on my way back to San Diego yesterday: “Hm. Jeff Sharlet in Harper’s, writing about a megachurch as part of a series on The Religious Right’s War on America. Sharlet says he doesn’t have anything against Christianity, but dang… Ooh – Dwell has a piece on prefab construction. Shelter porn; that’s for me. And of course, there’s the regular porn. That black plastic shield isn’t doing the gal on the cover of Playboy’s Book of Lingerie any favors – all you can see is her face, and even airbrushed, it’s an unfortunate mug for a model.”

It occurred to me that Tom Green could have made something fine out of the comic’s observation – porn in this most public of places. (Tom Green. That’s great, Matthew – thinking two years behind… When Monsignor Albicete invokes Sanford and Son on Charlie Rose, it’s charming. When you reference Tom Green, it’s just lame.) Imagine it – Tom goes into Hudson News and buys a copy of everything they’ve got – Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, the works – then brings it on a plane, rips off the plastic covers and starts perusing with enthusiasm. A guy next to him gets offended and says something. “What are you talking about,” he fires back. “C’mon, she’s hot! Look at that! Can you tell me she isn’t hot?” A woman complains. “Hey, nobody’s making you look. I’m just doing my thing over here. I’m not looking at you, am I?” Someone calls the stewardess.

“Sir, you’ll have to put that away.”

“Forget it! I bought these magazines at the airport! You guys sold ‘em to me! You’re telling me I can’t look at ‘em? You’re looking at a lawsuit here, lady!”

(Which reminds me of another great moment in Sideways – when Miles, stuck on his own for a day, ends up at the liquor store, ordering a copy of Barely Legal. The poor clerk goes to fetch it, and Miles stops him. “No, the new issue, please.” The old one is old news for him; he’s used it up. Quietly driving the pathetic spike in deeper.)

And then the capper, the gross-out, over-the-top, signature Tom Green moment. (Gentle readers may wish to skip this part.) He takes a copy into the plane’s bathroom, and emerges, smiling, five minutes later. “All better,” he says to everyone. You’ve got your society in microcosm there in the plane’s cabin, and Tom making everyone uncomfortable… might have been right up his alley.