Tuesday, July 30, 2019


Watched a wonderful Finnish film the other night, directed by Klaus Härö, and recommended by a reader (thank you!): Letters to Father Jacob.

Synopsis: "Set in the early 1970s and based on a story by Jaana Makkonen, the film tells the story of Leila, a pardoned convict, who becomes an assistant to a blind priest, Jacob. The film depicts her transformation from a sceptic who grudgingly reads letters aloud to her benefactor into a caring savior of the pastor from his despair after the letters stop coming."

The tone and pace reminded me a bit of the work of Robert Bresson. The interior of a pivotal scene was shot in Holy Cross Church, Hattula, Finland.

I have never had the slightest desire to go to Finland, and am not even sure where it is. But this would be worth a trans-Atlantic trip for sure.

Thursday, July 25, 2019



When we think about the people who have given us hope and have increased the strength of our soul, we might discover that they were not advice givers, warners, or moralists, but the few who were able to articulate in words and actions the human condition in which we participate and who encouraged us to face the realities of life. . . . Those who do not run away from our pains but touch them with compassion bring healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain. In our solution-oriented society it is more important than ever to realize that wanting to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity takes its shape.

--Henri J. Nouwen

Monday, July 22, 2019


LATE 1800s

You know how it is--you keep your head down, work, do errands, work, tend to daily life, work. Then 30 years go by and you realize, if you're me--Oh wow, I'm making the same amount of money now as I did in 1993 and the cost of living seems to have risen  a tad...

I need to "improve my earnings," as they say. And I actually enjoy helping shape, revise, and edit other people's stuff (anything rather than edit my own).

To that end, I am rolling out my new improved...That's right:


So if you or anyone you know is wrestling with a manuscript--do let me know!


Friday, July 19, 2019



This week's arts and culture column is on my recent trip to DC and begins like this:

Because I travel so often for work, I rarely if ever take a “vacation.” But recently I spent a week in Washington, D.C. — first-time visit — and loved it.

It helped that I had enough United Airline miles for a free ticket, and a cheapish place to stay: St. Dominic’s Priory (not to be confused with the Dominican House of Studies, which is across from the National Shrine).

Generally, in order to score a room there you have to be a priest, or the mother of a priest, or to occupy some similarly exalted position. My in was that I write for Magnificat magazine, thereby proving that even the lowly job of Catholic writer does have its perks. Not only that, the good fathers gave me the bishop’s suite!

I don’t care about any of the government stuff, I’d told myself in advance. Probably be a bunch of stuffed-shirt functionaries in black SUVS.

Similarly, I’d heard the phrase “Washington Mall,” and without even bothering to, say, look at a photo, figured a mall of any kind was a place to avoid.

My first night I strolled in that direction and, looking down Independence Avenue, caught a glimpse of the Smithsonian Castle. After going over to investigate, I was struck dumb not only by the building but by the gorgeous surrounding gardens where I spent every spare moment for the remainder of my stay.


Friday, July 12, 2019



There are a lot of things I don't know and prefer not to know: one of them being the particulars of the buying, selling, and trading in human sperm and eggs for the purpose of engineering the conception of a human being.  

One day not long ago I had tea with the mother of a two-year-old daughter who, I'm still not sure I got this straight, had carried the child to term but was not biologically related to her. (Nor was the mother's boyfriend, the child's live-in acting father). Then, in case the kid ever felt the urge for a sibling, the mother (who btw I totally liked) had frozen a bunch of her eggs so as to dole one or more out to a surrogate in the future.

I know this stuff, and worse, goes on all the time. But how could anyone of reasonable good will and intelligence possibly believe that being born under such circumstances could fail to affect the innocent, unwitting child in unimaginably profound, cruel and far-reaching ways? How could anyone not instantly foresee a trauma to the child on a level and of a kind and degree never before experienced in human history? What much such a child feel upon reaching adulthood? 

Well now we know. In a beautifully-written and curated NYT photo essay, Eli Baden-Lasar, who was conceived by an anonymous sperm donor, was raised by "two mothers" and as it now turns out, has 32 (at last count) half-siblings, tells us: "I had this suspicious feeling that scientists were conducting an experiment, had taken a lunch break and then forgotten to check back."

"I felt both curious and anxious about these people and what they exactly meant to me. The sheer quantity of them gave me a feeling of having been mass-produced."

"If it was an experiment, the variables had not yielded some thrilling result. There had been no instant connection or unbreakable bond, and we easily lost touch when the program [to connect with other siblings] ended."

Reading Baden-Lasar's aching prose (and he's only 20); gazing into the haunted, uncertain faces of his half-siblings, all I could think was: These are the metaphorical counterparts of the immigrant children, living in deplorable conditions, who have been shamefully, reprehensibly, abandoned at our nation's border. 

Don't miss Joan Desmond's terrific National Catholic Register reflection on the subject: "A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers." 

As Flannery O'Connor observed half a century ago: “[T]he moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”

Sydney Hall, 18, in her bedroom in Chichester, CT.
"I got in touch with the group about a year ago. I learned that
there are so many of them it's hard to feel included. I'm an only child
and was expecting a sibling relationship,
not just like, "Hey, cool, we have the same blood, whatever."
I told myself that it wasn't a big deal that I had siblings,
just to numb the pain."

Wednesday, July 10, 2019



"...I wish I liked Catholics more.'

"They seem just like other people."

"My dear Charles, that's exactly what they're not--particularly in this country, where they're so few. It's not just that they're a clique--as a matter of fact, they're at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time--but they've got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time."

--Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited


Sunday, July 7, 2019


I always forget to say when I'm going to be on the radio. So tune in tonight to "Amplify,"  KDKA Pittsburgh, 9-11 EST. Fr. Ron Lengwin and I will be discussing my new book, RAVISHED.

Meanwhile, here's how last week's arts and culture piece begins:

Tove Jansson (1914-2001), a Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and artist, is perhaps best known as the creator of the Moomins. These impish creatures and their adventures, featured in the numerous books that Jansson wrote and illustrated, have delighted children worldwide.

Born in Helsinki, Jansson was raised and formed by bohemian parents. Her father sculpted. Her mother, a painter, did illustrations for Garm, one of the few bravely anti-Fascist magazines in Finland in the years leading up to World War II.

She studied art in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris. Her love life was, let’s say, eventful.

In the summer of 1953, Jansson was commissioned to paint the altarpiece of Finland’s Teuva Church. The result was the “Ten Virgins” altarpiece, the only altar of her career. “I feel very competent when I glue gold,” she remarked of the project.

At the time, she was working on the book “Moominsummer Madness.” But the Moomins didn’t bring me to Jansson. What did was a strange and singular work called “The Summer Book,” written in 1972.

The story takes place on a small island over the space of a summer. There are other characters — a mostly absent father, an obnoxious child named Berenice. But the main action is between 6-year-old Sophia and her grandmother.

Here’s how the book, delectably, begins:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”


Saturday, July 6, 2019



Here's how this week's arts and culture piece begins:

Echo Park, the LA neighborhood hard by downtown, boasts the largest lotus stand in the western United States.

The lake where the lotuses live began as a man-made reservoir back in 1868. A surrounding park and boathouse were completed by 1895. By 1907, more green space had been added by extending the park south to Temple and north to Bellevue.

The lotuses bloom each summer, usually peaking in early July.

And they’re surrounded by mystery, intrigue, and crime.

For starters, nobody really knows where the original flowers came from. One legend, never proven, holds that Angelus Temple missionaries, followers of Aimee Semple McPherson, brought the seeds back from China.

An 1889 LA Times article mentions that a J.C. Harvey planned to donate some Egyptian lotuses from the Nile to area parks, but the Echo Park flowers are not Egyptian lotuses, nor are they water lilies.

Instead, says landscape architect and certified arborist Michael O’Brien, “Nelumbo nucifera is native to South Asia to Australia and is grown in tropical climates around the world. As to where these plants came from, the source is lost in the mists of time.”

Though the exact date is unknown, the lotuses by all accounts first appeared in the lake during the 1920s. At the time, water gardens had become au courant citywide. So had Egyptology, exotic locales, and a vague Eastern-philosophy aesthetic.

A 1929 LA Times photo caption reads, “Right now the beds of lotus lilies in Echo Park, Los Angeles, are coming into perfection. These are the sacred lilies of India, symbols of immortality, and to the Hindu mind the most perfect of all flowers.”



Wednesday, July 3, 2019


One of the great things about my Pasadena neighborhood is that every other block or so you come upon one of those Little Free Libraries. I am constantly  returning books I've found in one Free Library to another Free Library (and adding new ones), trolling, and pouncing.

The one up on Atchison near El Molino has a wonderful smell of sun-warmed wood so that just opening the little latched door and sticking my head in for a deep draught is a thrill.

Clearly an editor or agent lives nearby as in this one I've found the galleys to Maria Sharapova's memoir Unstoppable,  the galleys of a very juicy biography of one of my literary heroines, Betty MacDonald, and the galleys to a whole bunch of other books that didn't grab me.

Every once in a while I'll happen upon the very, somewhat obscure title that's next on my list: The Road to Oxiana, for example, by Robert Byron. Then there are the books I've read but just kind of want to have a copy of around the apartment. Over the course of the last year or so I've scurried home with Lewis Hyde's The GiftNaked AND Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and several Charles Dickens novels.

Even the books I don't take home become friends. Seabiscuit has been in the box on the north side of Eldora for months, the one down on Oakland has a dozen Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and Ann Rule's If You Really Loved Me (VERY creepy father) clearly either gets perpetually passed around from library to library or is a super-popular book.

That one I did read--in fact, I went through an Ann Rule phase many years ago. I'm sorry to say I'm a sucker for true crime: one of my recent finds was Savage Grace, the story of the inventor-of-Bakelite family--ouch.

These things have a way of turning on you, though. The other night for example I grabbed Filthy Rich: The Billionaire's Sex Scandal, about a pedophile whose name I won't even bother to mention. Interestingly the thing has three authors, all of whom should be ashamed of themselves--not because of the subject but because it is so incredibly shabbily and shallowly written.

Well, serves me right. In the opening pages I learned that the perp wore or wears Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers, which of course I had to google and now every single article I read online or on my phone has about 80 ads for these stupid slippers, which come with martini glasses for example embroidered on the instep.

I believe this is God's way of telling me to cut down on the trashy "entertainment." In fact I was going to a matinee of Midsommar today, which is apparently a super-gory, Scandinavian pagan-fest horror movie starring Florence Pugh (who I so loved in Fighting With My Family!)

But I've been feeling pretty bleak lately so perhaps not.

In fact Sunday at Mass I just sat there weeping, thinking Oh if only I could just crawl toward the tabernacle, rest my head there, and die. 

We have a new pastor at St. Andrew's and another new priest, Fr. Roberto, who said Mass this morning in the red robe of the martyrs as it is the feast day of St. (Doubting) Thomas. He, Father, was enthusiastic and tall and pointed out that we all have many times in our lives when we're like "Show me the wounds and then maybe I'll believe but in the meantime where the hell are you!!" and
I liked him a lot.

After Mass I was going to go straight to my car and have my morning barley-in-a Tupperware container before heading to the library as I am basically homeless during the day, but instead I actually did sit before the tabernacle, and prayed the Glorious Mysteries.

The church was dimly-lit and I looked down the pews and saw a few other scattered old people, heads bowed, and Christ on the cross and the candle burning in the red glass and that was when I thought Okay Lord, I guess I'll skip Midsommar.

Sometimes you just want your brain to shut off. But tonight I'll practice the piano, and read another couple of chapters of Brideshead Revisited and maybe watch something relatively tame, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or Jezebel.

I don't doubt for a second that Jesus, like me, is a huge Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis fan.


Monday, July 1, 2019


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

The desert in Joshua Tree is like a vast sea upon whose shore wash endless tidal waves of flotsam and jetsam.

Strolling about, you’re eventually seized by an uncontrollable urge to collect. After hours of silence and solitude, the thought suddenly arises: Why not spend a whole day — no, a week! — collecting nothing but, say, black lava-like rocks the size of a walnut? There are pieces of desert driftwood that resemble devil’s claws, chips of colored glass, worn smooth by wind and sand, and desiccated cactus skeletons.

As for the man-made detritus, what’s strange is the randomness. Why, in the middle of nowhere, a miniature beaded lamp shade, a corroded doll’s head, a derelict pair of Wahl hair clippers? Why, far from any dwelling, a brush dried stiff as concrete with orange paint, nestled at the base of a cholla?

The desert draws people from two very different ends of the spectrum. At one end are the despoilers: those who dump their garbage, tear up the earth with dirt bikes, or build meth labs.

Then there are people like Noah Purifoy (1917-2004), who over the course of many years in the desert collected piles of the kind of discarded junk described above, made art from it, and created the Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture that is now visited by people from all over the world.