Friday, June 30, 2017


Chris Saunders (b. 1984, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Real Actions Pantsula - Orange Farm, South
© Chris Saunders

Chris Saunders (b. 1984, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Teboho Diphehlo (Tebza2000) - Intellectuals Pantsula - Soweto
© Chris Saunders

This week's arts and culture column gives a shout-out to UCLA's wonderful Fowler Museum in general and in particular to an exhibit on a dance  that originated in the townships of Johannesberg called PANTSULA.

Here's how the piece begins:

UCLA’s Fowler Museum is a gem. You’re always sure to see an exhibit that’s unusual, revivifying and interesting.

The museum focuses on art and cultural artifacts from Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Americas, both historical and contemporary. If you’re mad, as I am, for masks, totems, puppets, jewelry, carved tusks, retablos, ex-votos and Japanese emas (votive offerings), this is your place. In fact, the chance to see Ghanian artist El Anatsui’s “Versatility,” a huge rippling tapestry of dull gold made entirely from the strung-together metal necks of liquor bottles, is in itself worth a trip across town.

Exhibits called “How to Make the Universe Right: The Art of Priests and Shamans in Vietnam and Southern China” and “Lineage Through Landscape: Tracing Egun in Brazil by Fran Siegel” will soon begin.

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization and Style,” a current exhibit that explores fashion as a powerful means of expressing individual and collective identity, runs through July 30.

And through Sept. 3, you can catch “Pantsula 4 LYF: Popular Dance and Fashion in Johannesburg.” (LYF is an initialism for “Live Your Freedom.”) Pantsula began in Johannesburg townships during the apartheid.

Photographer Chris Saunders, whose work graces the exhibit, began taking pictures of pantsula dancers for the 2010 dance edition of Colors magazine. What started out as a two-month assignment transformed into a six-year pilgrimage.


Chris Saunders (b. 1984, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Lenela Leballo (Lee) - Intellectuals Pantsula - Soweto
© Chris Saunders

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I am back from the Notre Dame literary conference that took place over the weekend. "Trying to Say God" it was called.

Here's the talk I gave. 

Met with many wonderful people, among them Jessica Mesman Griffith (at last, in the flesh!) and Jonathan Ryan of Sick Pilgrim (the sponsoring organization: check out the stellar opening remarks by Bishop Flores on their June 23 post), Ken Garcia, international development person/extraordinary writer Laura Bramon, and my old friends Greg Camacho, Leticia Adams and Muireann Kelliher (Muireann is also an internat'l mover and shaker).

The two on-campus lakes--St. Joseph's and St. Mary's--were my sanctuary.

Many, many thanks to all who put this incredible event together and special thanks for having and welcoming me. I am humbled.

And I came home to tons more work.


Sunday, June 25, 2017



This week's arts and culture column concerns my little trip to Sioux Falls a few weeks ago.

Here's how it begins:

Recently I flew to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to attend the ordination, my first ever, of Timothy J. Smith.

I met Father Tim, now 36, several years ago when he emailed me about a radio piece I’d done about my little brother’s punk band. Tim was a fan. We began a correspondence that flowered when we met in person in St. Paul when I was on tour with my first book.

In 2009, he converted.

And at 11 a.m. on June 2, 2017, he — along with five other men — was ordained a Catholic priest at St. Joseph Cathedral.

One Sioux Falls resident described the annual ordination as the hottest ticket in town. I proudly presented my gold stub and squeezed into the pew reserved for Tim’s friends.

Back in L.A., our own candidates were preparing to be ordained the next day. As anyone who attended knows, the Church pulls out all the stops. We had the bishop with miter and crozier, every priest in the diocese, nuns in full habit, deacons, seminarians, the Knights of Columbus with swords and purple plumed hats, candles and incense galore, and a choir section with horns.

The antiphon set the tone: “I call you friends, says the Lord, for I have made known to you all that the Father has told me” (John 15:15)



Wednesday, June 21, 2017



I'm a bit overloaded on traveling this month.

First Sioux Falls, SD, then a lovely trip to Livermore, CA, to attend my nephew Allen's high school graduation. On the way home, I stopped in Monterey to visit with the one and only Fr. Pat Dooling. Fr. Pat said 9 am Sunday Mass at the Carmelite Monastery after which we repaired to breakfast with Miss Anne Breiling, she of the soon-to-open Shrine Coffee in Santa Cruz.

I stayed for two nights at an airbnb in the Monterey-adjacent town of Seaside which not to put too fine of a point on it, is kind of a dump. The good news is that my room was in by far the most charming dwelling--most charming building, or really sight, of any kind--in the entire town. Very tasteful with sisal rugs, antiques, and delightful gardens.


Tomorrow I'm headed to South Bend, Indiana, and a Catholic literary conference at Notre Dame entitled "Trying to Say God." I get to give the keynote address Friday night at 8, which is kind of past my bedtime but maybe with the time change and lots of coffee I'll be okay.

Yesterday I had a visitor, Mr. Anthony Santella of NYC. Anthony helped me plant my two five-gallon Joseph's Coat climbing roses on either side of the sea-green paint-peeling vintage wrought iron trellis. We are enjoying a freakish heat wave in Pasadena and when we took the roses, which I'd been frantically watering lest they wilt, out of their black plastic pots, the soil literally steamed.

Anthony was a joy. Prior to planting, we sat at my dining room table and nibbled and yakked for several hours on a variety of subjects. He has a PhD in computer science and works at Sloan Kettering mapping the nervous system of worms.

Here's a little bio I just picked up online: "I am a post doctoral fellow at Sloan Kettering Institute working on image analysis and visualization of large in vivo microscopy data sets.  The first goal here is to reduce terabytes of images of embryonic development to the manageable form of segmented nuclei and cellular lineages. Then comes the harder problem of analyzing and understanding the result.  I am also interested in visualization methods that aid interpretation of these data sets by highlighting important developmental events."

"I graduated from the Computer Science Department in May 2005 with a certificate in Cognitive Science.  Broadly, my  areas of interest include: graphics, computer-human interaction, and computer and human vision.  My larger interests include the visual arts and the influence of technology on society, especially the underprivileged and marginalized." 

So you can imagine the conversation was lively.

One thing I learned is that you can store your urine in jars and after a while it makes good fertilizer for your garden.

I return home Sunday and am home till Saturday, when I leave for 10 days at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, CA.

Here I hope to see and talk to no-one--while I process June.



Friday, June 16, 2017


Here's how this week's. arts and culture column begins:

Servant of God Jacques Fesch (1930-1957), a murderer who spent three years and eight months in solitary confinement, experienced a profound conversion before his execution by guillotine in a French prison.

“Light Upon the Scaffold: The Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch,” edited by Augustin-Michel Lemonnier and translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, is the title of his collected prison letters.

Jacques’ father, a bank director, was dominating, cynical and virulently atheistic. His mother was weak. Worse, the two neither loved nor respected one another. Thus Jacques had little moral and no religious guidance.

As an adult, Jacques was lazy, a sensualist and a dreamer. He married his wife, Pierrette, already pregnant, in a civil ceremony and soon left her. The murder took place during a botched robbery attempt, part of a plan to buy a boat and sail to Polynesia.

Jacques was arrested and held in solitary confinement at La Santé Prison in Paris. Though he originally spurned the prison chaplain, the two gradually became close. An old, loyal friend was ordained a priest during Jacques’ incarceration and visited frequently. Jacques’ lawyer, Baudet, was an ardent Catholic.


Friday, June 9, 2017


For this week's arts and culture piece, I went and picked my own damn cherries!

Here's how the piece begins:

Ever since my first spring in Los Angeles 27 years ago, my heart sings at the opening of cherry season. And every year for about the last 20, I have told myself I’m going to take a field trip and pick my own.

This year I finally did. One good place to start is the town of Leona Valley, outside Palmdale, which is a kind of cherry mecca.

Even before embarking, I could see it was a whole other world up there. The farm stands sell local farm-fresh honey and eggs. The names of the cherry varieties conjured visions of Tuscany: Tartarian, Tieton, Chelan, Lapins.

There were many orchards to choose from. One website proclaimed in bold letters: “Remember, we have a $5 per person minimum purchase and we do not allow eating the cherries while picking in the orchard. Pick, pay then eat!”

I was almost tempted to visit that one just to see how the rule was enforced. Did a guy with a cattle prod wander around zapping anyone caught sneaking a stray Rainier? Did a gal in a Smokey’s hat patrol the orchard with a bullhorn, braying, “You, clad weirdly in black and clutching a rosary, I saw you scarf that Bing!”


Monday, June 5, 2017


I slept badly all last week, mainly because I felt called to wake around 2 or 3 am PST in order to "help" Garbiñe Muguruza, my most beloved female tennis player, win the French Open. I don't even have a TV, never mind the Tennis Channel, so I did this by watching the scores of Rounds 1, 2, and 3 on my phone.

Garbiñe (who last year beat Serena Williams to win the tournament) went out Saturday in the 4th Round. The victor was shown in the pumped-fist, teeth-bared, king-of-the-jungle pose that has become de rigueur for sports "heroes" in our culture of aggression and violence.

Somehow the whole event depressed me way more than is rational.

Then yesterday, on the elliptical at the gym, I burst into tears: the terror in London, our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the fact that North Korea may lob a nuclear weapon over to San Francisco or LA any minute, a recent gushing NYT piece about a guy whose last act on earth was to commit suicide--this is now called "choreographed death" and is of course thoroughly endorsed and praised by mainstream culture.

It feels as if the whole world were sickening and dying. Still, nothing is solved or helped, I need to remind myself, by name-calling, snarkiness, or making the other into "the enemy."

Real activism and real resistance take place in the innermost chambers of the heart.  That is where the resolve forms as to how to order our daily lives, actions, thoughts. That is where I, for one, ask for mercy for my own failings, sorrow with the suffering at the core of the world, hunger for righteousness, truth, and beauty: natural, artistic, moral.

That is where I know that if I were told I would die next week I would go on doing exactly what I do already. Pray, write, work in the garden, practice the piano, sit down face to face, one human being to another, with family, friends, fellow recovering alcoholics, strangers passing through. Listen. Participate. Give of my substance. Respond.

This morning's NYT carried an article about a ballet dancer, Gray Davis, 31, who jumped down onto the subway tracks over the weekend to rescue a homeless man who'd been pushed off the platform. He was leaving the theater with his mother and his wife, also a dancer, after seeing her perform. “At first I waited for somebody else to jump down there. People were screaming to get help. But nobody jumped down. So I jumped down.”

31 years old. Works for American Ballet Theater. Probably a bit more concerned about his body than most.

"The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." That made me weep, too.