Showing posts from July, 2007

Watch This! Wednesday: Geometry of the Sacred

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Gratitude Could Save Your Soul

Handing my daughter thank-you notes and stamps the other day, I found myself reflecting on this habit of saying thanks in writing. When I was a kid, my father's mother used to make gifts to me of stationery and stamps. Invariably, she received the first sheet out of the box in a thank-you note and the latest on school, the family, the dog, whatever else seemed vitally important to me to share.

So it went to with my mother's mother. After these women died, I received back envelopes full of my correspondence to them. Since I kept all their letters, I have our complete conversations to return to from time to time and to share with my daughter.

These conversations--indeed, these relationships--were founded on gratitude, the notion that you notice, reflect on, and express appreciation for the kindnesses that come your way. To the persons who make gestures that are expressions of love, you give back a few minutes of your time to say "I love you back" in the form of "th…

Newsweek: Humor Finds its own Level

Newsweek is becoming my favorite source of portable entertainment. I enjoy the "Perspectives" page bubbling over with quotes that say it all, say it well, and say it short.

Here you get gems like, "It's the only novel we've ever bet on," attributed to Rupert Adams of the British bookmaker William Hill, on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows mania.

There's this on the effect of terror in the free world from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talking about a steam-pipe explosion: "There is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure." Go away and think about that one for a while.

When you come back, get a load of the full-page ad for Abilify bipolar medication:"Treating Bipolar Disorder Takes Understanding," the headline blares. You need help stabilizing those ups and downs. You want a meaningful life. Cool. So take Abilify and you'll be as peaceful as the lady in the picture h…

The Solutions to the World's Problems Aren't so far Away

The mobius strip--that twisted loop the outside of which is also the inside and vice versa--is a metaphor for our time. As globalization brings us into contact with persons, knowledge, and experiences in far flung regions, we come to realize how important it is to pay attention to what's going on around us; to be present when we are home. Likewise, what is far away is relevant to how we live at home. We can download an exotic recipe and hunt for the ingredients to make it at the local farmer's market. We can generate electricity in our own backyard so we can power the computer. We can find green ways to invest our money with our neighbors for the benefit of our community.

We can read all kinds of online literature about feeding the hungry all over the world through corporate international relief agencies such as World Vision or OxFam. On a personal level, we can read blog stories about simple grass-roots efforts to feed hungry neighbors. The other day Bungi posted a wonderful s…

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Heaven on Earth

We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words--to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

These words from C.S. Lewis describe the perfect summer day filled with genuine laziness, good companionship, sunshine, heat, big flowers, warm water to swim in, family, and a sunset that tells you you're already in heaven. It's good to be here and there at the same time and at home and with my daughter. It's good to take the time to visit the folks and go for a swim.

Thanks, mom and dad.

Movie Review: Cinderella Man: All for the Milk

He fights for the milk, and he is not alone. He has his wife, his children, the congregation of his neighborhood church, the guys on the docks, the down-and-outs in the Hooverville of Central Park, the manager who sells his furniture so he could work out, and the American public behind him.

He is the Bulldog of Bergen, celebrated prizefighter James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) who has fallen on hard times with most of the rest of America during the Great Depression. He has lost the money he invested in stocks. He has been fighting with a broken hand and losing so badly that his license to box is taken away.

Nevertheless, he will fight his way back to the top despite the odds. He will do it with Mae (Renee Zellweger) and the kids--Jay, Rosemarie, and Howard--alongside him.

Having faced despair, defeat, and the near demise of his family, Braddock is determined to fight for the well-being of his family. Along the way, he will become an icon of the spirit of ordinary people who need to belie…

Illegal Immigrants Get Carded in New Haven

Just a thought on those new ID cards....

New Haven, Connecticut, is a great place to eat. You'll find Russian bakeries; Polish delis; Irish pubs; Indian and Thai restaurants, Mexican holes in the wall; Northern, New and Other Italian bistros; Chinese take-outs; hamburger joints galore, diners that make grease your middle name. It's all there because New Haven has been absorbing waves of immigrants for generations.

These restaurants surround that bastion of higher learning almost as old as the oldest immigrants to Connecticut, Yale University, the founders of which have the bluest of American blood. To state the obvious, they were immigrants, too.

Go back, back, back in New England history and your likely to come across a little bit of Pilgrim propaganda called Mourt's Relation. Mourt, whoever he was, was the PR guy for that famous gang of refugees on the Mayflower. In his account of expeditions around Cape Cod, he tells of God's providence presenting itself in the shape …

Why do Sick People do Sick Things? Because They're Sick, of Course

There are sick people in this world. They lack the mental capacity to reason, to empathize, to connect with others. Some we medicate. Others slip through the cracks until they commit a heinous crime. Some we medicate but they cause serious harm anyway. Think Virginia Tech. Think Columbine. Think Cheshire, Connecticut, where career criminals stalked, beat, raped, and murdered the family of Dr. William Petit July 23 before setting their house on fire and attempting to drive off.

After we mop up the blood we ask why it happened and we blame ourselves as a society. Contrite lawmakers create more bureaucracy for would-be killers who wish to buy guns. We seem to be doing something, the anxiety subsides, and we hardly notice we're letting the sickies rule the day.

We kid ourselves that even the sickest among us is reformable, that they will act in a healthy way with the right combination of pills and jail time and maybe some therapy. We paper over their cracked minds and then are surprised…

Wordless Wednesday: Troubled Waters and a Bridge


My Hands in his Garden

As I look on my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch but toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God's love. (Henri J. M. Nouwen)

A Fair Deal Might get you a Square Meal

The Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment currently before Congress would promote conservation and healthy food choices and assist young people who want to start farming. It would restore fairness in the marketplace so family farmers can compete with giant food companies and factory farms. Further, it would put put better food in our schools and rewards farmers who move to sustainable methods. So says Mother Earth.

Current farm policies are misplaced. Taxpayers spend as much as $20 billion annually to subsidize only a few farmers. Crop subsidies damage the environment by placing pressure on sensitive lands such as wetlands and native grasslands, according to the website Environmental Defense.

The Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment being offered by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) would better reward farmers for conservation practices, increase assistance to hungry Americans, provide consumers with more food and energy choices, and stop sprawl.

Click here to se…

Memoir: When the Story's too Good to Make up

What is the purpose of memoir? To lead us down the dimly lit corridors of your past and let us peek through the keyholes of the greasy rooms in which your story was made, undone, and remade? When does the family album become a work of art?

I stood on shaky ground with memoir until I fell into Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen's memoir of her early childhood in Dublin, Seven Winters and After-thoughts. The after-thoughts are Bowen's thoughts on the art of writing.

Bowen recreates her past and explores it as a source of insight and wisdom and art. She doesn't fictionalize it--it is truly her perception of her past--but lays it before us as the glorious raw material of art.

Recalling the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War when she was a very little girl, Bowen describes war as it's understood with the intellectual and experiential resources of a small child. Describing war in this way is as poignant as it is surreal: It had been made known to me that war had, that year, e…

Do Intermediaries Open or Close the gap Between People?

I left town in a hurry this summer. Just pulled up my tent stakes, packed my bags, and vamoosed. Didn't even leave a forwarding address or a phone number for the boss to call. Upped and left. That's me.

That assumption was the work of a secretary who sent me a letter that came back to her because she used the wrong Zip Code. When she attempted to phone me about it, she dialed a number that hasn't been in effect for almost two years. She called my cell and and expressed utter relief to finally get through after two failed monumental attempts to reach me. I was relieved, too; she almost undid my budget for the final quarter of 2007.

In the end it was a small problem--though she insisted blame lay with the federal government's failure to deliver her letter, not with her--but it got me to thinking how much power interface people such as secretaries wield in our lives. If she hadn't double-checked her false assumption based on her own mistakes, I'd be out of work in …

The Gift of Summer Color


Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Neighbors and Other Strangers

Out for a walk late yesterday morning, I come up on a woman in a pick-up truck calling to two little barefoot boys to go home. She means well; they are outside without an adult. But they freeze. She tries it in Spanish because you never know. But these kids are Polish, and they don't know what she means or why on earth she is yelling at them.

"They're too small; they shouldn't be alone!" she shouts to me when I get to where this transaction is--or really isn't--taking place. They stop crying when they see me. Like so many of my neighbors, they know me because they see me out walking all the time. I'm the stranger who is like a lamppost in their lives, familiar and expected to always be there but that's about it. It's enough.

We're idling over what to do next about these boys when down the road careens a college kid in an old white Pontiac. "Oh my God! They're grandmother just sent everyone out in the woods looking for them! She's o…

Going Broke at the Gas Station and Grocery Store? Try a new Kind of Victory Garden

My dad has always had a vegetable garden. When I was a kid, I helped plant it and weed it. I had the joyful task of turning compost for the thing and even of planting fish around the tomatoes. We ate out of it all summer every summer.

Dad would trade the rhubarb we didn't like for the peppers his Italian barber grew like nobody else in this world. Other times, dad traded cherry stone clams for whatever Rocco had. Cucumbers went to work with dad to for his coworkers' salads.

The best part of August was when the tomatoes came in, softened, warm, and red from the sun so that it seemed no knife was sharp enough to slice them; they had to be eaten like apples--over the sink.

Every garden seems big when you're pulling weeds in the summer heat, but our garden was not huge. Yet it provided plenty for our table in its own right and as currency for other things.

This was back in the day when environmentalism was a thing John Denver did all by himself somewhere in Colorado. Now it'…

Take Your Pills Today? Thank a Guinea Pig

Take your lithium today? Thank a guinea pig. Taking something for asthma? Thank a guinea pig. Free from tuberculosis? Benefited from those new heart valves, a blood transfusion, kidney dialysis? You owe your gratitude to the guinea pig. These loving, gentle rodents have contributed to 23 Nobel prizes for medicine or physiology.

Yesterday as the vet jabbed my daughter's terrified, squealing and squirming guinea pigs with ivermectin to help them heal from mites, I wondered about the number of humans who have benefited from medical research performed on this species of friend over the years. The answer: too many to count.

Turn around is fair play, I thought after my dad dropped me, Adella, and our half-brother guineas Tapper and Delmo at home after the appointment. (He had come with us as much-needed moral support.) They deserve some medical benefit from all the knowledge we have pulled out of their little bodies, I thought. And they go it, though not without their loud and active prot…

Gossip Makes Mincemeat of Nero, Nero Makes Mincemeat of Christians

Yesterday in 64 AD is the birthday of one of the biggest urban legends in Western History--one that points to the marginalized role of the arts and homosexuals in all of history and the fickle and devious nature of The Nameless during the same period.

On July 18 just 1943 years ago, Rome burned while Nero is alleged to have been playing his fiddle. Alleged. But ask anybody on the street what Nero was doing while Rome burned and they'll say fiddling. They never say allegedly.

It's so easy to destroy a guy--to stab him in the back--if you put the right rumors in the right mouths.

"The rumors about his playing his fiddle probably came from people in the Roman military who did not approve of Nero's artistic leanings....He was more interested in music and poetry than in battling the barbarians. And he didn't play the fiddle; he did play the lyre. But his real passion was singing. He was also known to be a transvestite, which did not endear him to the soldiers," T…

Wordless Wednesday: Woodland Wonders


Do not Toil

Time for Everyone to Just be Quiet

There's a lot to be said for saying nothing. Silence is a marvelous form of defense in the face of the in-your-facers, of protection from the casually cruel, and of release from the tedium of banal conversation. Silence is the get-out-of-the-jail- of-social-politics card. Silence saves your time and diminishes others' noise.

My friend says she is "committed to silence" because "it allows you to be charitable." She's a smart woman; she won't engage trouble-makers under any circumstances; she is at peace with herself, and there are never words out there begging in shame for her to take them back. Nor does she find herself embroiled in office politics. This might make her an outsider, but the bottom line is the last word always--she works hard and well. What she does counts. If she is perceived by the office cats to be difficult because she refuses to play with them, oh well. She doesn't allow their noise to be important.

Silence as peace and as the …

Something Doesn't Feel Right about 'It Doesn't Feel Right'

More than 300,000 children a year are sexually abused in the US, according to the Massachusetts-based organization Stop It Now! The organization's website says one in three girls and one in seven boys under the age of 17 fall victim to this horror every year, and very likely in the hands of someone they and their families know and respect.

For the past 10 years, Stop It Now! has been working to redress what it calls a "public health epidemic" by making information available and inviting all adults to take responsibility for solving this problem through education and prevention.

However, this organization is taking the idea of responsibility to an unhealthy new level in Virginia, where it is running an awareness campaign with the slogan: "It Doesn't Feel Right When I see Them Together." That is, when you see an adult and a child together, if you're instincts tell you something "is not right," then you should call 1-888-PREVENT and speak to a sex…

Whatever you Love, you are

If you want money more than anything,
you will be bought and sold.
If you have a greed for food,
you will become a loaf of bread.
This is a subtle truth.
Whatever you love, you are. (Rumi)

I came across these lines by Rumi the other day and wondered what it would be like to be indistinguishable from a summer day full of color, light, and heat. I love all of these things. I was up early yesterday, and the air was still cool and light. Down at the swamp, I watched a red-winged blackbird alight on a bare thin tree and sing until another and then another came along. Then off they flew. How long had I waited for that moment with my camera? It came when my hands were empty. Later, rain fell to beat the bands and I thought, that's a summer day, too.

About those storm reports

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Aimless Summer Days

I have finally come round to the wisdom of the answer "nothing" I get from my daughter in response to the question, "What do you want to do today?" It's summer; she has no school, church, or sports schedule. There's a point to not doing things and that's to not do them.

When you're not doing things, you can be home where you can spend time with grandma when she stops up to see you and your guinea pigs. You can show her how you care for them and hold them. You can eat cookies in the middle of the morning. You can gaze into the grass and hunt for mica when she's leaving, and you can wander back into your house and hope the guinea pigs are still sitting on the hearth where you left them when you put on your flip-flops to walk Grandma out.

Then you can go into town and buy a coloring book and a candy bar, go for a swim, play basketball, read a book, and watch a cartoon or two. You can eat hot dogs in the park and play Wiffle ball with your cousins

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Like the Real World

Why do Harry Potter movies give me, but not the children, nightmares? I've been wondering this for the past few years. Today, watching Movie No. 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros., 2007), I got my answer. Simply: Harry's world is the real world. As Harry and his friends mature, the line between the world of wizardry, magic, and Hogwarts and the world of self-centered, manipulative, cruel adults thins to the point of almost magical invisibility.

Fantasy literature has since the beginning of time been about mediating and making sense of the real world; Harry Potter is part of this tradition.

Indeed, one of the movie's first big special effects embodies this idea. As the movie opens, Harry is the subject of a smear campaign that Voldemort has cooked up because darkness works tirelessly to triumph over the light; when his friends come to rescue him from the suburban horror show known as his adoptive family, they take him to the headquarters of the Order o…

'The Queen': When Illusion Becomes Reality (PR-101)

As Britain's new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself playing teacher to the monarch following Lady Diana's death.In The Queen starring Hellen Mirren, Blair values his Britishness as much as the queen does hers. If he hasn't inherit her privileges, he nonetheless has inherited the same sense of pride, and he brings it to his role as head of government. Unlike the Queen, however, he is in touch with the thinking of the British people and their love for Diana--or at least their idea of her.

Blair takes office in 1997 just before Princess (or not) Diana dies in a car crash in France with her lover. According to this movie, Blair is a PR pro, whose skills in this area save Queen Elizabeth's royal can following the death of the People's Princess--a moniker of his making.

Like any astute PR professional, Blair understands both his audience and the people to whom he answers. He never mistakes his propaganda for the reality--though he understands the righ…

Add R&R to the three Rs as Building Blocks of a Balanced Life

Add R&R to the Three Rs as the building blocks of a balanced life. Rest and relaxation--call it recess, if you want--are essential times of stepping aside from everday responsibilities and work. Off-road, you can contemplate and appreciate life, see God in all creation, and breath in the Spirit, which is to say find inspiration live a creative life. So say two leading websites offering spiritual insights in their weekly newsletters.

"The purpose of holy leisure is to bring this balance of being, not a balance of time, back into lives gone askew, and to give people time to live a thoughtful, a contemplative as well as a productive life.…Holy leisure, in other words, is the foundation of contemplation. And contemplation is the ability to see the world as God sees the world," Joan Chittister says in's newsletter this week.

"Real leisure, holy leisure, Sabbath leisure, contemplative leisure, has more to do with the quality of life and the depth of ou…

Cell Phones Breed Mental Illness--Just ask Sprint

Imagine getting a Dear John letter from your cell phone company telling you you're too high-maintenance to keep around. Sprint sent such a letter to about 1,000 subscribers on June 29 saying the relationship is over and there are no hard feelings and no outstanding balances; just go away.

These customers called Sprint's customer service 40 times a month on average. Often they asked the same questions over and over or asked for information about other account holders, according to Sprint, which has 53 million customers.

The seeking-information-about-other-account-holders piece of this puzzle intrigues me. Anything to do with the role of cell phone data as a source of evidence in divorce cases and the like?

We can all learn from this. Note to ourselves: if we ever feel driven to call customer service about someone else's cell phone information, we are a part of a deeply troubled relationship. Customer service can't provide the kind of professional help we need. (I know of …

Wordless Wednesday: The Wonders of our World


Just ask Nicely, and You'll Save the World

Live Earth broke ground for global environmental awareness last weekend as musicians around the world lent their voices to a cry for people everywhere to be good stewards of our natural resources. As I read about the concert, I thought about the AdCouncil commercial of the 1970s--Iron Eyes Cody, the iconic Native American weeping over a landscape desecrated by garbage. One Indian, one tear, one point: "People Start Pollution. People can stop it." It was a heart-breaker, and it kept me from tossing my gum wrappers out the window. It worked for me and for a lot of people.

He was to my childhood what the the flower fairies, a young marine biologist and, my dad have been to my daughter over the past week.

The fairies teach my daughter the name and magic of flowers. They invite her into the world of make believe and wonder about the world around her through the real world of natural beauty. They have made her sensitive to the natural world.

Similarly, a marine biologist from Cedar C…

When the 'Monthly Visitor' is Nothing but a Pain

The Women's section of the Republican-American today features a story a new pill called Lybrel that can reduce or eliminate menstrual cycles. That's a women's story, to be sure, but it's also medical news that belongs in the front section of the paper. It seems to me that menstruation, an ordinary and obvious fact of life, never quite makes it out of the girls' bathroom. As a result, the miserable side of menstruation--pain, heavy bleeding for days--has been an open secret for a long time.

It's no wonder, then, that only now are doctors learning that more than 56 percent of women in the US suffer from heavy periods that cause them to adjust their lifestyles.

"Increasingly, physicians find that heavy bleeding is a common medical condition that patients often ignore," the NovaSure website says, adding, "This can have a major impact on their lives. Consequences of a very heavy period can include severe pain, fatigue, embarrassment, and iron-deficienc…

Dying Well for Your Loved Ones

I like funerals. These days they seem to be the last good excuse for a family get-together. The solemnity of the occasion asks everyone to leave their baggage at the door and to enter the world of everything good about whoever just passed. To focus on anything else, to turn to old disputes and tired feuds at such a time, would be obscene. The solemnity of the moment provides ample cover from the troublemakers of the family, if only for a short while.

Funerals are like family picnics without any aggravation. At the reception that followed my great-uncle's graveside service last year, I felt like I was at just such a new-and-improved event. In the dark of the restaurant, my aunt asked me if Uncle So-and-So were there. She has always hated him for no reason anyone can name. "Yup; right there," I said. The uncle asked me if my Aunt What's-Her-Name had come. He has always been aware of her inexplicable dark feelings. "Yup; right there," I said. Age had dug in wr…

Picasso's Working Girls ask, 'Who's a Prostitute?'

Where I see strong, challenging women in Pablo Picasso's 1906 ground-breaking cubist painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," some others see sexual exploitation and victimhood. Perhaps it's an indication of just how subjective the experience of art can be. It could also be an indication of the politics of the critic. Exploring the differences of perception makes for interesting dialogue so long as we don't confuse our perceptions with the artist's intention, which may in most ways be irrelevant to our experience of the work.

Writing in the July 9 issue of Newsweek, artist and art critic Peter Plagens calls "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" the most influential work of art of the last 100 years for being the catalyst of the cubism that involved breaking apart objects, twisting them into new shapes, and reassembling them in surprising new ways.

Plagen says, "Without cubism, there would have been no 1920 dada photomontages or 1930 surrealist fantasi…