Wednesday, December 30, 2015


not drawn by friend's kid but it fits

A friend reports that his four-year-old son recently drew a picture of T. Rex who is saying, "Hey, ixyouws me!" (Hey excuse me).

You parents out there experience this stuff all the time, but this tickles me pink.

Another reader sent a link to a stellar story by Tim Gautreaux in The Atlantic: "Attitude Adjustment."

It also has kids in it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


As 2015 draws to a close, here's the beginning of this week's arts and culture column:

"Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time" is a 2001 documentary about an artist who makes “sculptures” out of, among other things, leaves, rocks, sand, sticks, roots and skeins of sheep’s wool, many of which fall in upon themselves, or melt, or are borne away on the incoming tide.

In the opening scene it’s 4 a.m., somewhere on the coast of Nova Scotia, and Goldsworthy is hard at work. He bites off pieces of icicle; shapes them with the heat from his lips and tongue and hands; and connects them, barely breathing, until he’s formed a spiral — a spiral of ice! — to glorify the rays of the rising sun that will melt it.

And in turn the sun glorifies the sculpture, brings it to life, and completes the process of creation. “I didn’t realize it would shine through on both sides!” exclaims Goldsworthy, who is willing to let the vagaries of wind, rain and air both bring his works to fruition and destroy them.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015


These are shots of Loose Park in Kansas City.

I couldn't get over the trees there--and my new apartment in Pasadena likewise overlooks a crazy expanse of tall old-growth black walnuts, olive trees, possibly ash, a lemon tree, and a persimmon which is festooned at the moment with orange fruit. I went out and picked all the ripe ones yesterday and plan to make a persimmon pudding for Christmas dinner.

To which ten are expected, and maybe a few strays. Prime rib, ham, Opaline's celery root soup, red cabbage with hazelnuts, brussels sprouts with bacon-herb bread crumbs, cranberry orange cake et cetera.

One of the guests has been tasked with bringing a table and chairs as I have none. In fact, I don't even have a bed yet and have been sleeping on a friend's futon.

What I do have is a fully tricked-out kitchen, bathroom, desk, big green chair and Christmas decorations galore. Also a balcony of beautiful succulents and agaves. My friend Gerry has pledged to help me start a garden out back! But all in good time.

I got to go to Twin Towers jail last night with my friend Joan and share our experience, strength and hope with some of the alcoholic/addict inmates.

One guy came up afterward, took my hand, and said, "Thank you so much. I've been doing meth since I was 14. I'm 30 now and I'm getting out January 4th and I want to be a counselor. But I'm afraid I'll go right back to my friends who drink and do drugs."

Our drive for friendship and connection and love is so strong that we'll even go to people who aren't really, can't really, be our friends. I know what that's like. I still struggle with it in certain ways. Maybe in fact that's our central struggle as humans--wanting more from people than they can give us. Wanting other people to fulfill a longing that is really for something greater than ourselves. Thus relationships falter, we turn to shopping, food, drink, drugs, sex, guns. Wars start. The scientists try to engineer imperfection out of the human person.

To be human is to BE imperfect. That's our glory, that we stumble forward anyway, making art, telling stories, composing music, gazing up at the night stars. Trying to connect.

Possibly the very best thing about my recent move is that I have discovered St. Elizabeth's of Hungary up on North Lake Ave. I went to 8:30 am Mass one day and found it is held in a little whitewashed side chapel. Dark beams, big heavy wooden cushioned chairs with scallop shell backs, old Colonial light fixtures, clay tile floor--just primo. I told a neighbor/friend about it and he reported back that the chapel is OPEN (he visited after dropping his two-year-old son off at day care) from 9 am to 9 pm. I've crept up there in the dark a few times now, around 6, and had the whole place to myself and said Evening Prayer, and then just sat, the red light burning by the tabernacle.

I thought of Therese of Lisieux sitting in the chapel at the abbey school she attended, the one where the other girls for whatever reason didn't like her, and thinking, at the age of ten: Wasn't Jesus my only Friend? And how when someone once asked, "What do you say to Jesus when you pray?" she thought for a minute, then replied: "I don't say much of anything. I just love him."

So after this busy year with a lot of travel and a lot of unsettledness of various kinds, I want to give myself a couple of days before the rush, work and buzz of Christmas day to be quiet. To love him. To reflect upon the fact that the whole world still acknowledges, still grinds to a kind of halt, still strings garlands of lights, still in its way celebrates the coming of a baby.

And may the world light a candle for that guy who started doing meth at 14, and all like him. That he feels the hand of a Friend. That he finds his way.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


This week's arts and culture piece is a reflection on The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.

Here's the opening:

On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, Dorothy Day visited the National Shrine and prayed that “some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.”

When she returned from the National Shrine to her apartment in New York, the French peasant-intellectual Peter Maurin was waiting on her doorstep, and on May 1, 1933, the lay Catholic Worker movement was born: first a newspaper, then a soup kitchen, then the first “house of hospitality” from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom.

Dorothy’s checkered past — the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the 1927 conversion, the common-law marriage — were behind her. She’d given up Forster Batterham, the resolutely atheistic love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the child they’d conceived together, Tamar. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing that she would ever do, she later said.


Thursday, December 17, 2015


Years ago, an old friend was dying of cirrhosis back in New England.  In "real life," he'd been restless, flighty, evasive, tormented (as is so often true of alcoholics, he was also handsome, charismatic, talented, funny, and smart).

He was lying in a hospital bed and I could hardly believe he was alone and the snow was falling gently and that I could sit quietly by his side. People who are dying lie still and are approachable in a way that live, healthy people almost never are.

Christ allowed himself to be that poor--Flannery O'Connor entitled one of her stories "You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead."

And in the dying he allows us to sit with him, to talk to him, to pray with him, to touch him, to eat him.

astro burger/Christmas star

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


What with my recent move to a new apt., travel last week to KC, social and work obligations ET CETERA, I'm about two weeks behind...Thus I will not be crafting my hand-made rubber stamp and construction paper Christmas cards this year and sending them out with a dear Madonna-and-child stamp!

I did, last weekend, however, manage to unpack my Christmas decorations. In the course of this splendid task I unearthed, nestled beside a stack of old cards (which I keep, year to year), a tangle of lights, and a several small boxes of vintage bulbs the second page of what had clearly been a two-page essay. I recognized it instantly--a piece by my friend  James Stephen Behrens, a former diocesan priest in NJ and for many years now a Cistercian monk at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia.

James Stephen is a photographer, a writer, and a close observer: of deer, cobwebs, shadows, stars, people.

I emailed him right away and asked if I could run his essay. It's entitled "Christmas 2014" but it could just as well be called "Christmas is Forever."

Like Mary, he said yes.

Here it is, with my thanks and my joy.

There is a strip mall not far from the monastery.  I was there a week or so before Christmas.  Most of the stores are vacant and have been that way for a long time. The “For Lease” signs in the windows are faded.  I parked the car and walked around a bit.  I looked in a few windows and the views were all pretty much the same – gatherings of dust, empty coffee cups on the floor, dismantled shelves, scraps of paper.  When I walked back to my car I noticed something strange.  All the tall lampposts were decorated for Christmas.  Each one had a variation of a Christmas theme.  Some had big foam Santa Clauses.  Others had silver bells and red and green ribbons, all covered with glitter that sparkled in the sunlight.The big parking lot was almost empty of cars.  I wondered about the decorations.  I suppose that each year they are put up on the lampposts, even if there are no shoppers, no stores, no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers.

I suppose that one very important dimension of Christmas thrives on fullness.  I know that there are malls, restaurants, churches, banks and credit card companies that thrive during the Christmas Season.  They promise the best that this Season can bring, with bows and ribbons, discounts galore, deferred payments and Christmas bonuses. But there is another dimension to Christmas that draws near to places that are empty, deserted and in need of the hope that only the meaning of Christmas can bring.  Emptiness gnaws at us, like a hunger that we are incapable of satisfying, of filling, with our own resources.  And yet this expectation rises in the human heart at this time of the year. Maybe a good place to ponder this dimension is an abandoned strip mall, a place off the busy and thriving places of the Christmas map, a place where the only music that can be made is a Christmas carol as it plays on the car radio or goes through one’s mind as the emptiness waits for a fullness that may be a long time in coming.

I am listening to the radio as I am stringing these words along.  Over one-hundred and forty children were killed in an attack on a school by the Taliban.  It happened in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.  It is one of many tragic stories that ride the airwaves along side the carols of good cheer and wondrous gifts to come.  It is hard for me to separate the bad news from the good.  Seen from a place far above us, the earth must look like a beautiful place, a place where city lights twinkle back at the light of the stars and the vast oceans glisten as the tides rise and fall.  The wounds born by its people cannot be seen.  And nothing at all seems to be crippled by the ache of emptiness.  But upon a closer look, the earth and its inhabitants struggle to fill the emptiness that hollows the heart and deadens the mind.

There are lights at this time of the year.  Lights on trees, lights on homes, lights in churches, synagogues, and in gatherings of the faithful all over the earth.  These, too, can be seen from afar.  And Scripture tells us that a Child was found by three Wise Men who followed the moving light of a star across a vast desert, and when it settled above a little town, they knew the Child awaited them. And they worshipped him, and brought him gifts.

It is the Light of that Child that makes everything different, makes of all things not what they seem to be. For this Light that is Life, when brought to bear upon the darkest corners of human life, promises that there will be redemption, that the light of goodness, of God, will overcome whatever darkness we see about us. The Light will fill our emptiness and we will someday learn not to assuage our emptiness with excess, with violence, with the murder of the innocent.

I like to think that the lights and decorations of that little strip mall are okay, even though no one comes to the place. For I like to think that our lives are kind of like that mall. We wander in the midst of a poorly decorated world, a world like a half-baked Christmas awaiting a crowd. But if you pull off the road and into the mall, and think just a bit, and maybe pray, you will better know why God came to us as one of us. He can be most clearly seen in the empty and abandoned places of life, places that we normally avoid when sales are non-existent and the frenzied crowds at the mega-malls. And in the silence of that little empty mall, his message is barely a whisper, but it is clear: Christmas is for all, the rich and the poor, the empty and half-hearted, as free gift, and it is eternal, and no darkness will overcome it. But you have to pull off the highway just a bit, and stay for a while in a place that life seems to have passed by. God is waiting there, as he waits everywhere, amidst the lonely decorations and the row of closed stores – a place that looks to be waiting for something real good to happen, when in fact, it already has, a Big Time arrival, from afar.

--James Stephen Behrens, OCSO

Friday, December 11, 2015



This week's arts and culture column is about what may be the tallest piece of folk art in the world: L.A.'s own Watts Towers.

The piece begins:

Mystery surrounds L.A.’s Watts Towers, starting with the name of the passionate visionary who built them — Simon Rodilla, Sabato “Sam” Rodia, Don Simon? — and continuing to his exact whereabouts from 1910-1918, the number of years he worked on the towers (33 or 34?), and the forces that drove him.

A self-taught laborer, Rodia was born in Italy in 1875 (1879?) and came to the United States at the age of 15.

He worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania until a mining accident claimed his brother, then made his way to Seattle where he married and had three children. The marriage collapsed in 1912, possibly due to Rodia’s then-active alcoholism. After working as an itinerant day laborer for several years, he migrated to Los Angeles and bought a wedge-shaped piece of land in the working-class neighborhood of Watts, near the railroad tracks.


Thursday, December 10, 2015



Monday afternoon I was at my new apt. in Pasadena minding my own business, doing four or five things at once, and trying to prepare for my trip to Kansas City the next day.

Whilst arguing with my car insurance lady Isabel over the increase in my premium, I thought to saute up a boneless pork cutlet from Trader Joe's, douse it with mango chutney, and proceed to wolf it down for some much-needed sustenance.

Suddenly, in the midst of, "You're trying to tell me I'm going to pay forty dollars more A MONTH!?" I realized something extremely untoward was happening: namely that a giant hunk of unchewed meat had wedged in my throat and that I could neither swallow nor kind of breathe.

"I'M CHOKING," I announced mid-sentence to Isabel. "I'M CHOKING!!!"

Isabel said, "Oh my God, I'll call 911" and I lurched out to my balcony where I tried to get down a swallow of tea, choked some more and started keening as best I could (my airway was blocked) in the loudest voice I have perhaps ever employed in my all my 63 years, HELP ME!!! HELP ME!!!

My new downstairs neighbor Laura, who was setting out on some errands, jumped out of her car and came to my rescue as did a next-door neighbor, Jesse, and boy am I going to bake them both some cookies when I return to L.A.

I retched and choked and made the most ungodly huffing/spitting/grunting noises while Laura called 911 and the paramedics came--a first in my tenure on earth--and insisted upon ferrying me to the hospital.

"Can't you just--HARRRCCHHH--do the Heimlich?" I rasped, mindful of the fact that if I wasn't going to die, I had a long list of tasks to complete before bedtime.

But they wouldn't, or couldn't, or doing the Heimlich isn't protocol, so this team of competent, consoling, handsome young men transported me to Huntington Memorial where the ER doctor's assistant administered a couple of teeny sprays of nitroglycerine, which fyi dilates the esophagus and after my 45 minutes or so of extreme discomfort the offending wad of food dropped down, liberating my trachea, and let me tell you, the ability to swallow freely is a wondrous delightful thing for which we should all give daily if not hourly thanks.

I hightailed it out of there ASAP and had a beautiful couple-of-mile walk home. Isabel called on the way to make sure I was okay and how nice is that from your insurance agent?

Back at my apartment, it was weird seeing the spilled tea all over the balcony and half a cold pork cutlet still sitting on the counter and everything quiet and how quickly things can take a turn in this vale of tears and how differently the afternoon could have turned out. [Here's a youtube on how to save yourself if choking alone at home].

And of course it was a wake-up call; to slow down, to quit trying to do too many things at once and too fast, to chew my food.

A little over 24 hours later, I was sitting at Jack Stack's in Kansas City partaking of a gigantic feast of stellar barbecue, courtesy of the fine fine folks of St. Peter's Parish. I ate slowly and carefully and tried not to talk with my mouth full which is not my forte. Cheesy corn, baked beans, fried onion rings, fried mushrooms, cole slaw, broiled shrimp, salmon salad, brisket, ribs, turkey, ham, pickles, broccoli, frosted carrot cake, molten lava cake and coffee.

I refrained (also not my forte) from regaling the guests with my "event" from the day before and the only awkward moment came when, among these 15 or so civic-proud Kansas Cityans who I couldn't help noticing seemed bizarrely focused on one particular subject, I thought to ask--"So who are the Royals?"

I might as well have asked, "What is the name of that big round yellow thing that comes up every morning?" but they forgave me and we went on to the fascinating subject of the long-standing enmity (also news to me) between the states of Missouri and Kansas.

KC has a prosperous, welcoming feel and the spacious, beautifully proportioned mid-West homes, many built by the lumber barons of yore, are decked out to the max with Christmas lights. I'm staying near the Plaza and could happily walk around for hours.

Everyone has been incredibly gracious and kind.

And I am grateful.


Sunday, December 6, 2015



Harder to breathe
near the summit, and harder

to remember
where you came from,

why you came

harder, and harder to say
the word “I”
with a straight face,
and sleep–

who can sleep. Who has time

to prepare for the big day
when he will be required
to say goodbye to everyone, including
the aforementioned pronoun, relinquish
all earthly attachment
completely, and witness
the end of the world–

harder in other words
not to love it

not to love it so much

--Franz Wright

Friday, December 4, 2015


The field trips continue!

This time I traveled to a land far, far away for those of us who live on the East side of L.A.: San Pedro, hard by the Pacific and a 25-mile drive, where I visited with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Here's how the piece starts:

In 1839, Jeanne Jugan opened her home to an elderly blind woman in France. The order known as the Little Sisters of the Poor was born.

In 1905, the Little Sisters opened a home in L.A.: St. Ann’s in Boyle Heights. When St. Ann’s was threatened with closure due to expanded fire safety requirements, the sisters began praying to St. Joseph for a new place.

Soon after the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under Cardinal Manning, gave the sisters a chunk of land in San Pedro, high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

And in 1979, the Jeanne Jugan Residence opened. Currently, the home boasts nine sisters,110 residents and three levels of care: independent living, assisted care and skilled nursing. The requirements are simple: you have to be 65 or older, and with few financial resources.

Following a recent 11 a.m. weekday Mass in their chapel, three of the sisters shared what the work means to them.


I find the older I get,
 the more I'm drawn to make friends with people
who care for the sick and the dying...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


When a worm is looking for a sexual partner, its primary criterion is length. A pair of worms slithering alongside one another, belly to belly, head to tail. Because worms are hermaphrodites--they have both sets of sexual organs--they must arrange their bodies in such a way that the male organs of one line up with the female organs of the other. These sexual organs--really just tiny pores--tend to be located around the twelfth segment, between the worm's head and its clitellum. Once the worms are in position, the male organs release sperm, which is taken in by the female organs. For some worms, including the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris, the pores aren't designed to line up precisely, and seminal fluid has to travel along a groove that is formed when the worm contracts the longitudinal muscles in its body, forcing drops of fluid towards their final destination one segment at a time. Many species have several pairs of female apertures, and copulating worms will adjust their position a few times so that sperm is deposited in each one.

--Amy Stewart, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, p. 69.

I knew you'd want to know!