Thursday, March 23, 2017



I didn't have to look far for this week's arts and culture piece

Here's how it begins:

Nohtal Partansky, 26, is my downstairs neighbor.

He’s also a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. He grew up in South Pasadena. So did he used to look at the stars as a kid?

“No, but I used to build stuff, K’Nex and Legos. [Remote control] cars, airplanes and rockets. One of my first inventions was a magnetic shoe holder,” he said. “I liked being outdoors. But it was never, ‘Look at the trees cause they’re pretty.’ It was, ‘Look at those trees cause they’re like a fractal!’

“When you like to build things, you like to know how things work,” he continued. “Science is just the description of how nature works. I’d watch Bill Nye and ‘The Magic School Bus’ [and it] made sense. I’d look at a tree and see how it made sense.”

At first, he wanted to be a doctor, like his mother. “But at some point I realized I didn’t want to help some guy who’s been smoking for 20 years with his lung cancer. Building was more interesting.”

Partansky’s last three years of high school were spent at Ribet Academy. “You know, that place off the 2 that looks like a prison. I’m half Mexican and half white so I didn’t really fit in with either of those groups.”

At UC Davis, he saw his friends doing machine shop. One of them made a gyro.

“That was cool. So I decided to major in mechanical engineering,” he said.


Friday, March 17, 2017


This week's arts and culture piece is a little report on a 3-day retreat from the world I took recently.

Here's how the piece begins:

The Center for Spiritual Renewal, located on the grounds of the nonprofit retreat center La Casa de Maria in Montecito near Santa Barbara, is a house designated for personal retreats.

A ministry of the Immaculate Heart Community, the center is located on El Bosque Road — “el bosque” means “woodlands” — and the 26-acre grounds are studded with towering live oaks and other gorgeous old-growth trees. Footpaths meander through citrus orchards, an organic garden and onto a hiking trail that goes miles into the Los Padres National Forest.

Everywhere is a tucked-away bench, overhung with hydrangeas or bougainvillea or toyon, on which to ponder. My first night, I sat overlooking San Ysidro Creek and watched the sycamore trunks turn molten gold in the setting sun.

The house, the former novitiate for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is baronial: nine “distinctive fireplace mantels” imported from Italy, huge bathrooms with majestic sinks, teak-paneled ceilings, wrought-iron staircases, a library. Outside one spacious terrace faces south, another east.



Monday, March 13, 2017


untitled self-portrait

Recently I came across the book Cellblock Visions by Phyllis Kornfeld.

"Cellblock Visions  is a lively collection of inmate artwork, created behind bars, from county jail to death row – the alternative artworld flourishing today in American prisons. Men and women inmates, having no previous training, turn to art for a sense of self-respect, respect for and from others, a way to find peace. They transcend the cramped space, limited light, and narrow vistas. They triumph over security bans with ingenious resourcefulness - extracting color from shampoo, making paint out of M &  Ms and sculpture out of toilet paper."

One inmate is described as follows:

"Dewayne Williams is incarcerated for life in a mental health unit at a medium-security prison. His sentence was originally life, but was later reduced to first-degree manslaughter. He can barely speak except in a low rumble of one-syllable words, responding only to direct questions or asking for something he wants. For many years he was seen walking across the yard with a strip of duct tape across his forehead, his home remedy for headaches.

He was put on medication for epileptic seizures at thirteen (and has been on it all his life), but otherwise Williams had a normal childhood, functioning well in the family. There was no reported abuse and no show of violence on Williams's part until six months before the crime, when he began to rebel viciously against his mother's authority. he didn't fight with his father until one day when he was told to do yardwork. Williams' refusal was vehement, and later that day, he shot his father in the back of the neck.

In prison, Williams was a recluse, too antisocial to double-cell, but he did participate minimally in some programs. For a few years, an art class was held on the unit, and he showed up regularly, without being called. He was mild-mannered and dove into his painting without hesitation, worked with complete absorption, and when he was finished, signaled by shoving the paper across the table and holding out his hand for another sheet.

Self-portraiture is infrequent in prison art. When it does happen, the style is usually realistic, the pose, heroic. Tyrone O'Neil's [another inmate] portrayal of himself, seen later, goes much deeper to reveal layers of inner selves. Here, Williams's portrait is a single aggressive blast of identification.

If he could get red crayon or paint, Williams would use it to paint a broad stripe across his own forehead, taking off the duct tape first. He studied his reflection in a small mirror with great concentration to produce this untitled self-portrait [above]. He saw the red stripe across his head head, his pointed tongue, a vivid bush of facial hair (he was actually clean-shaven). He applied the medium with force. The face is blind with a fury that Williams himself does not speak of or act upon."

Friday, March 10, 2017


This week's arts and culture piece is on a wonderful, heretofore-unknown-to-me artist: Donald Evans.

Here's how it begins:

Donald Evans (1945-1977) “put his whole life and everything that interested him into the stamps of his fantasy world.” So says Willy Eisenhart, author of the wonderful “The World of Donald Evans.”

Evans was born in Morristown, New Jersey, to Dorothy and Charles Evans.

An only child, he grew up in a stable, prosperous and loving middle-class family. He liked to play alone. An older neighbor introduced him to stamp collecting when he was 6. He spent hours poring over the stamps, memorizing the names of the countries and capitals of the world, learning about the flags, currency, local customs and flora and fauna of fiefdoms, dictatorships and obscure islands.

His best friend for a time was Charles Fisk, who came from old money and whose well-traveled family, Evans recalled, “had a fascinating house full of collections of things and lots of encyclopedias.” The two boys built elaborate sand castles and palaces, made maps and calendars and invented characters. Charles’ was named Uncle Rich Harvest. Donald called his character The Queen.

When Donald was 10, he found he could render the places in his imagination “more real by making stamps from them and little letters.” He outlined the stamps in pencil, filled them in with pen and brush and made the perforations by pummeling out rows of periods on an old typewriter.


Monday, March 6, 2017



From a New York Review of Books article by Thomas Pakenham dated December 8, 2016:

Poets, [Fiona] Stafford* continues, are quicker than suburban gardeners to appreciate the virtues of the sycamore. She cites John Clare’s lyrical account of the “splendid sycamore” with its mountain of sunny green foliage. Its sticky leaves, he wrote, were a great gift to the world. We should listen to the “merry bees, that feed with eager wing,/On the broad leaves, glaz’d over with honey-dew.” Stafford also reminds us that Shelley’s bittersweet poem “Ode to the West Wind” was based on his experiences in the autumn of 1819, wandering in the sycamore woods around Florence. Shelley was in a wretched state; two of his young children had just died. That autumn it was the fall of the sycamore leaves that caught his imagination. The dead leaves were driven by the west wind—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/Pestilence-stricken multitudes.” But the trees, he hoped, would “quicken a new birth.” For the west wind was propelling the “winged seeds” as well as the dead leaves. The dead leaves promised new life. “If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”


*Stafford is professor of English at Oxford University and the author of The Long Long Life of Trees.

Friday, March 3, 2017



This week's arts and culture column is on one of the best books I've read in recent times, or really ever: "God's Hotel," by Victoria Sweet, M..D.

Here's how the piece begins:

“God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine” is a 2012 memoir by San Francisco-based physician Victoria Sweet. The subject is Laguna Honda, a long-term Bay Area hospital that for years was known as “the last almshouse in the country.”

When Dr. Sweet began working in the early 1990s at Laguna Honda — “an elegant, though somber, riff on a 12th-century Romanesque monastery” — patients, nearly always poor, could stay as long as they needed to. There was a turret for a resident priest. There were open wards with a solarium at the end. There were nooks and crannies where the patients smoked, drank, played cards, gambled and occasionally had illicit sex. There was a greenhouse, a barnyard and — I kid you not — an aviary.

Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Laguna Honda more colorfully, in fact, than that for a time the AIDS hospice ward had its own much-beloved hen.

Unhygienic? Maybe. “Although, as a matter of fact,” Sweet writes, “in the months when the AIDS hen roamed the open AIDS ward, she did keep her diseases to herself, as the AIDS patients did for her.”

Inefficient? Certainly. “But there was therapy in her inefficiency. I can’t document the numbers, but it was worth my while to walk into the AIDS ward just to see the spark of interest in those cachectic faces when lunch was served and the AIDS hen began her strut down the ward. It was a spark of life, an extra spark and sparkle that must have extended a life or two by a day or two, which, when you only have a few days left, is worth something.”



Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Fr. Paul Sauerbier, one of the many "random" folks from whom I receive emails, is a Vincentian priest who has established the Prodigal Father Foundation. 

His ministry is to reach out to priests imprisoned for the sexual abuse of minors—whom he calls “the modern-day lepers in our society.”

Read an interview with Fr. Sauerbier in the National Catholic Reporter HERE.

Not long ago he sent me a hard-to-find copy of a book by Caryll Houselander, one of my favorite spiritual writers.

And the other day I rec'd a photocopy of these stories which, being a walker myself, I felt moved, with his permission, to share.



I have lived in my humble half of this duplex for 15 years.
Without any knowledge or intellectual acumen, I happen to have chosen a spot that is one mile west of Home Depot and the Lockwood Branch of the Dallas Public Library and one mile east of the local Post Office, the local grocery store, my Compass Bank, and the Dollar Store.

That is my normal attire but without the cigar, and in wintertime long pants. I've come to realize that the hat and beard are almost like a uniform which is ironic since I have hardly ever worn clericals in the last 15 years.


1. So, recently when my intestines were bleeding a bit, scaring me whenever I
went to the john, I called my local gastroenterologist for an appointment
and walked the mile to get to his office. But I did not climb the stairs to his office on the 5th floor. I took the elevator.

In the elevator, some ole man got on behind me. After he punches the button for his floor,
he slowly turns to me and in his gravelly ole man's voice, while pointing at me, says "You
walk faster than I drive!".

I looked at him in amazement then laughed,
then something clicks in my head and
I said to him "Were you the guy in the red
car?" And he says "yea!" At that point we
both got off the elevator at the fifth floor.

2. A couple of years ago I was walking the mile east to the library to pick up some of the books on CD which I had requested so that I could listen to them in the car for my weekend drives, Friday AM to Sunday PM, for my visits.

I'm half way there when some ole man with a cane comes out of his house accompanied by two of his daughters and a few of his grandchildren. I wasn't paying any attention to them and was almost past them when I hear this rickety voice belt out "I want that hat."  I turned and laughingly said "you'll have to chase me for it." Then he replied with "You're a legend around here!"

We all laughed and I continued my way to the library. And "NO"! They didn't offer me a ride!
3.    Last year when it was raining, I drove to
the Post Office, a mile west of my
house, to buy some money orders.
While I was standing in the Post Office, some
middle aged man comes up, stands in front of
me and pointing at me with incredulity and amazement in his voice, says "You have a car!"       Stunned, I looked at him and with mystification responded "Well ..... yeaaa".
He says in explanation
"I didn't think you had a car.
I always see you walking every place."
4.      When I'm in Dallas on a Sunday, I walk
the mile and half to St
. Bernard's
Church for the 11AM Mass, only
because it forces me to walk rather than drive the 3.3 miles to St
. Patrick's
where there is a celebration of the
Liturgy, verses "attending" Mass at St
Bernard's which is run by a somewhat
pre-Vatican II Argentinian religious
order wh
ich have the initials IVE.

Just enough people know me that, if at the end of Mass it is raining or there is some extreme of hot or cold, some church lady will ask me if I need a lift home.

With our triple digit heat in the 
summertime, when I arrive at Church, I go to 
the bathroom, take off my hat and dry my hair
with paper towels and re-comb it
. My body
does cool down and by the middle of Mass,
I'm freezing. I keep warm by singing to myself
in prayer for the
Instituto del Verbo Encarnado
"Don't cry for me Argentina, The truth is I never left you, All through my wild days, My mad existence, I kept my promise, Don't keep your distance. I don't sound as good as Madonna who played Evita in the Movie but it warms me up by keeping my mind off how cold the AC is in Church!

Thursday, February 23, 2017


This week's arts and culture piece is on the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area, a little-known gem a mere half-hour (at midnight, maybe) drive from downtown LA.

Here's how it starts:

My friend Dave, an artist and a walker, has an unerring nose for out-of-the-way spots to explore at leisure.

A few months ago he started talking about a place with quarries and riverbeds and hiking trails by the confluence of the 210 and the 605 freeways. It was in Duarte, he said. He took the Gold Line from downtown Pasadena to get there.

My appetite was whetted. We made plans to go together one day, but Dave had to work and we had to take a rain check. So last week I drove out to the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area — which is technically in the city of Irwindale — by myself.

Owned and run by the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, the park is open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Nov. 1 to April 30. From May 1 to Oct. 31, the hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

On a Wednesday, the sentry kiosk was empty — winter weekdays are free. Otherwise, the fee is $10 per vehicle.

“Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area,” reports the park’s website, “is nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and is considered one of the many hidden jewels of Southern California. This 836-acre facility boasts a serene 70-acre lake with year-round fishing and nonmotorized watercraft usage. During the summer months, the recreational area highlights a five-acre chlorinated swim beach and the unique Water Play Area. The facility is home to many protected native plants and animals. The Nature Center is operated and staffed by volunteers of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy offering educational, interpretive and walking tours throughout the year.”


Monday, February 20, 2017


Last night I stumbled across this Salon interview, from December 15, 2013, with San Francisco-based writer Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez, as you may know, is a gay Catholic intellectual. His 1990 essay, "Late Victorians," is the finest piece of writing I know on the AIDS tragedy.

The book referred to in the opening question of the excerpted portion of the interview refers to Darling: A Spiritual Biography, which "looks at the state of religion after 9/11."

His remarks, in light of our recent election and current administration, were eerily prescient.

Let me read a line to you from late in the book, and if you could explain it a little bit. You say, “After September 11, critical division in America feels and sounds like religious division.” Where are you going with that?

Well, it seems to me that there are two aspects of that. One of them is that I think that increasingly the left has conceded organized religion to the political right. This has been a catastrophe on the left.

I’m old enough to remember the black Civil Rights movement, which was as I understood it a movement of the left and insofar as it was challenging the orthodoxy of conservatives in the American South. White conservatism. And here was a group of protestant ministers leading processions, which were really religious processions through the small towns and the suburbs of the South. We shall overcome. Well, we have forgotten just how disruptive religion can be to the status quo. How challenging it is to the status quo. I also talk about Cesar Chavez, who is, who was embraced by the political left in his time but he was obviously a challenge to organized labor, the teamsters and to large farmers in the central valley.

So somehow we had decided on the left that religion belongs to Fox Television, or it belongs to some kind of right-wing fanaticism in the Middle East and we have given it up, and it has made us a really empty — that is, it has made the left really empty. I’ll point to one easy instance. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And what America heard was really a sermon. It was as though slavery and Jim Crow could not be described as a simple political narrative; racism was a moral offense, not simply an illegality. And with his vision of a time “when all of God’s children” in America would be free, he described the nation within a religious parable of redemption.

Fifty years later, our technocratic, secular president gave a speech at the Lincoln memorial, honoring the memory of the speech Dr. King had given. And nothing President Obama said can we remember these few weeks later; his words were dwarfed by our memory of the soaring religious oratory of fifty years ago. And what’s happened to us — and I would include myself in the cultural left — what has happened to us is we have almost no language to talk about the dream life of America, to talk about the soul of America, to talk about the mystery of being alive at this point in our lives, this point in our national history. That’s what we’ve lost in giving it to Fox Television.


In the past you’ve been described as a conservative, and you’ve expressed frustration with some liberal positions, with the left press, and so on. In the age of Obama, Google, the Tea Party and so on, do you see yourself as a conservative, or having a relationship to the tradition of Edmund Burke?

I see myself increasingly as, if you’re agnostic, then I’m politically agnostic...I guess what I would like to say is that on some issues — and I go issue by issue — I’m very conservative, and on other issues I’m very liberal.

Where do you find yourself very conservative these days?

I would say even on an issue like affirmative action, for example, I haven’t changed. I think that the hijacking of the integrationists’ dream as it announced itself in the North, where racism was not legalized but it was de facto, the hijacking of that movement to integrate Northern institutions by the middle class and to make middle class ascendancy somehow an advance for the entire population — I think was grotesque. And so you ended up with a black and brown bourgeoisie and you did nothing with those at the bottom, and you also managed to ignore white poverty. What the left has forgotten or ignored is that it is possible to be white and poor in America. The solution to de facto segregation in the late 1960s, as the black Civil Rights movement turned north, was an affirmative action that ignored white poverty altogether. And to make matters worse, Hispanics were named with blacks as the other principal excluded society in America. Conveniently ignored by the liberal agenda was the fact that Hispanics are not a racial group and therefore cannot suffer “racism” as Hispanics. And to turn misunderstanding into a kind of cartoon revolution, it became possible for, say, a white Cuban to be accepted to Yale as a “minority,” but a white kid from Appalachia would never be a minority because, after all, whites were numerically represented in societies of power.

Even if that Cuban came from a very wealthy family that owned half the town and the Appalachian was very poor.

That’s right. Is that a question?

No, I was just trying to elaborate. That’s part of the paradox here. Overlooking class.

And totally ignores the reality or the fantastic contradictions of the word or concept of Hispanic/Latino. We are posing ourselves as a racial group when in fact we are an ethnic group. The left has no idea. The left says nothing about the obliviousness of our political process to poor whites. The fact that the Civil Rights movement managed to ignore white poverty was the beginning of the end of the Democratic party in the old South. The white poor began to turn to the Republican party, which is where it is now.

Well, that turn has certainly shaped American politics in profound ways.



Tuesday, February 14, 2017



This week's arts and culture column brings us deep into the world of an early 1900's Southern California tile-maker.

Here's how it starts:

The Pasadena Museum of History is featuring an exhibit, extended by popular demand through March 12, called “Batchelder: Tilemaker.”

Ernest A. Batchelder (1875-1957) was an Arts and Crafts tilemaker who lived in Pasadena’s Lower Arroyo Seco and made fountains, fireplaces and fixtures that can still be spotted in craftsman-style bungalows and at various sites throughout the Southern California area and beyond.

The exhibit celebrates the recent donation to the museum by Robert Winter, Ph.D., of a collection of

Batchelder tile and archives. Since 1972, Winter has owned and lived in the house on what is now South Arroyo Boulevard where Batchelder built his first kiln, and where he lived during the years his design and tile business thrived.

Winter, a premier Batchelder expert, curated the exhibit, authored the accompanying book and figures prominently in the 15-minute documentary film that orients museum visitors to Batchelder’s life, importance and work.



I just went to noon Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows, walked around the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden., and now I'm at Starbucks with the gift card my friend Joan gave me for V-Day. Next I head to the Center for Spiritual Renewal (can you renew something you've never much had to begin with?), which apparently has no wifi or cell reception, for three nights.

I have brought I swear twenty books.