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Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

14 Jan

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.”
~ Walker Percy

I’m what you’d call a “fair-weather runner” – which means I’m not running these days. Come spring, however, and the thaw (God willing), you’ll find me out there on the street almost daily: Putting in my miles, getting ready for my 5Ks, running my 5Ks, chasing my younger kids on their bikes when they let me. It’s my annual endorphin spree, and just enough aerobic workout (averaging out the year) to stay in decent shape (again, God willing).

Otherwise, my athleticism is entirely derivative and vicarious.

And since we live in South Bend, that means football – Notre Dame football to be precise. Rooting for the Irish has always been an integral part of our family culture every fall, and that only intensified when my two oldest kids matriculated there. We watch the games on TV, we faithfully read the South Bend Tribune’s game day pull-out in anticipation, and we listen to post-game analysis on the radio. Frankly, that’s my favorite part. In fact, I generally skip watching altogether and rely instead on the radio broadcast. It allows me to work on other things (like dishes or the garage), and it reduces my stress when it’s a close game. Plus, the television broadcast is about 15 seconds behind the radio, so I get to hear the touchdowns and interceptions before everybody planted in front of the screen – much to their dismay. “Dad,” I’m regularly reminded, “don’t shout out when you see stuff! It ruins it!” (Sorry, guys.)

Anyway, the other part I like about the radio broadcast is that there’s nothing to distract me from the commentators and their analysis. Beforehand they’ll give me their Keys to the Game – stuff like “establish the running game, protect the football, and watch for the big play on special teams” – and I’ll nod my head vigorously in agreement. Following kickoff, I happily depend on the voices of IMG’s Don Criqui and Allen Pinkett to verbally sketch out the action for me. They’re my Notre Dame football gurus, and I accept their every aside and throwaway without question. “If you turn it over three times, you oughta’ lose,” Pinkett has repeatedly emphasized over the years. “If you turn it over four times, you gonna’ lose.” As a dedicated Pinkett disciple, I’ve come to consider that maxim a self-evident dogma.

Once football season is over, my radio listening habits largely revert to the dulcet tranquility of NPR, but I’ll still fire up CBS sports from time to time just to hear them rant and rave.

And, boy, do they ever rant and rave. Baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey – even tennis. Even golf, believe me! Most of the time, I have no absolutely no idea what they’re talking about – minutiae related to coaching techniques or on the field strategies or contract negotiations, whatever – but that’s part of the fun. As a near-total outsider, I can enjoy listening to the hosts, guests, and callers exchange shots regarding issues of great import to them, secure in the knowledge that it has no bearing on my life whatsoever. They’re strident; they’re uncompromising; they’re combative. “There’s no way this team is coming out on top” followed by “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!” I love it.

Why? I tell you, it’s the vehemence that’s so appealing. It’s the fight; it’s the undeniable evidence that these people are passionate about something and willing to make a stand. My family and I watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre last night, and there’s that scene near the beginning when Humphrey Bogart and his partner are brawling with the crooked boss who bilked them. As the fight ensues, you see other denizens of the bar casually nursing their drinks while observing the fracas. That’s me when I listen to sports radio. I listen to the sports guys duke it out and revel in their passions. Something has them riled up, and it’s good to see folks riled up – riled up enough to go at it with their opponents.

In other words, the fight itself is what I find satisfying, the disagreement and its manifestation in the form of conflict. Since it’s just radio talk, there’s no physical violence, praise God, but the verbal assaults can be vociferous and brutal. All the better.

There’s evidence that fighting about stuff is not only entertaining to others (me, at least), but healthy in itself. I heard mathematician Hannah Fry’s TED talk on NPR recently about the application of statistical analysis to the vitality of love relationships and marriage. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that the most successful marriages – the ones least likely to end in divorce, in other words – were those that include more conflict and confrontation rather than less. Here’s Fry from her talk:

I would’ve thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones…where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones…that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain.

It seems that bringing hurts and perceived slights, no matter how insignificant, to the fore is much healthier than simply overlooking them to keep the peace. Better to get the tensions and differences out in the open, that is, hash them out, bicker and fret, than to “go placidly” – Desiderata notwithstanding.

I think that’s the reason I found Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday so appealing when I first read it as a young Catholic-wannabe. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it (and I urge you to do so if you haven’t), there’s a delicious disorientation at the novel’s core that involves would-be Victorian bomb-throwers who are surprisingly sympathetic figures. Aside from their enchanting personalities as individuals, their very radicalism appeals, and by the end of the novel you’re rooting for them and derivatively swept away by the allure of Sunday, their ostensible, yet elusive, anarchist leader.

It’s clear that Chesterton, in Thursday, isn’t advocating actual physical violence as a remedy to society’s ills, but he is making a compelling case for violence nonetheless – a violence of conversion, that is, a no-holds-barred upheaval – in persons, in societies – that can lead to redemption and sanctity. “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.” As in marriage, goodness and holiness cannot be approached by merely being amiable. Indeed, amiability that glosses over conflict serves only to obstruct the very revolutions that usher in true change of heart.

“Would that you were cold or hot!” St. John records the Lord telling the Laodiceans. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Nothing doing. I’ll take my cue from the heat of sports radio and stay clear of lukewarm. So please forgive me if I’m cranky. I’m just working out my salvation.
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Of Time Travel, Christmas, and Liturgical Displacement

6 Jan

“Being obedient, she became the cause of salvation
for herself and the whole human race.”
~ St. Irenaeus

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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots and Resets

31 Dec

What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile.
 ~ The Doobie Brothers

Oh my gosh, it’s been a harrowing year – you, too? How about a little levity to round it out.

So, René Descartes is sitting in a café. A waiter approaches and asks, “More coffee, Mr. Descartes?”

After a moment, the philosopher replies, “I think not.”

*Poof!* (Insert rimshot and cymbal splash here.)

Yeah, it’s a groaner, but it’s a good one – one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s clever, and it pokes fun at philosophy – who wouldn’t love a joke like that? My kids have heard it a million times. In fact, around my house, you can simply say, “I think not – poof” and you’ll probably get at least a snort if not an actual pity-laugh.

Regardless, shared laughter is almost always a good thing. It elevates the spirit, distracts us from our travails, and lightens our mutual loads. It buoys courage and restores hope – and it’s contagious, thank God. Someone giving way to a serious fit of giggles will inevitably create ripples of mirth among those nearby, even if they have no idea what got it started. Like that Descartes joke. My littler kids, who know nothing of philosophy, grew up laughing at it along with the older kids just because they were laughing (the first dozen times at least).

Sure, there are times when laughs are inappropriate, but humorous resets are frequently desired and desirable. St. Francis de Sales alludes to this idea in his Introduction to the Devout Life. He writes of eutrapelia, the Greek virtue of jesting and taking “friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.” While warning us off anything that approaches scorn or contempt, De Sales makes it clear that goofiness is not only a good thing, but often preferred to its alternative.

To illustrate, he tells a brief anecdote about King St. Louis of France: “When a religious wanted to speak to St. Louis after dinner about certain lofty subjects, the king told those present: ‘This is not the time to quote texts, but to regale ourselves with jokes and puns.’” Even kings need a break now and then – tell him the one about René Descartes (ba-bum, splash!).

And what’s true for kings is true for the rest of us, a perspective brought to life on the screen by director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It’s a movie about moviemaking, but much more than that. It’s also a movie about why people generally go to movies in the first place: To forget their troubles, to escape and retreat, and, more often than not, to laugh.

I discovered Travels by accident. It’s mentioned in another film, Grand Canyon (1991), which I’ve actually never seen all the way through. But some glorious serendipity brought me in touch with a particular Canyon clip in which Steve Martin’s character, a movie producer, lectures Mack (Kevin Kline) about filmmaking:

Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels? That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way – he’s a filmmaker like me – and he forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do. Fortunately, he finds his way back. It can happen, Mack. Check it out.

All life’s riddles being answered in the movies was a huge stretch, I admit, but I was intrigued by the “finding his way back” theme of Travels. I tracked it down.

What a find.

John L. Sullivan is a successful director of screwball comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about serious stuff (over the objections of his studio bosses). Accordingly, he chooses a serious book, O Brother Where Art Thou (yes, there’s a Coen brothers connection here) about social justice and the “common man,” and he hits the road as a hobo to get some firsthand experience of the common man’s lot.

The director discovers more than he bargains for, and when his plans to alleviate the misery of the poor by personalist wealth redistribution goes awry, he finds himself among their number – not as an observer, but as a fully vested participant. Injured, jailed, and isolated, Sullivan is indignant, but his dire circumstances lead to a revelation: Yes, suffering demands alleviation and injustice demands redress, but in the meantime, a bit of humor goes a long way. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says in the end, as he puts aside his plans for a serious movie. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The killer is that our cockeyed caravan is chock full of laugh-bait these days, but so much of it is dead center in the scorn and contempt arena that De Sales cautioned us about. The stuff we gravitate to – in the movies, on the internet and TV – tends to galvanize ill will rather than dissipating it. It accentuates division instead of drawing us together.

No thanks.

For me, I prefer the tried and true when it comes to lighthearted fare – stuff I can count on to make me laugh out loud, over and over again, and without a lot of political or ideological overhead. When I’m overwhelmed or down, I turn to Dave Barry’s writings, like his annual “Year in Review” in the Miami Herald, and archived NPR “Car Talk” gold from Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Plus, there are plenty vintage screwball comedies out there to be enjoyed – the kind that John L. Sullivan would’ve made. Classics like Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and It Happened One Night, for example, plus anything from the Marx Brothers and the entire Thin Man collection starring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – wise-cracking sleuths who mix mayhem with their murder mysteries.

But, let’s face it, the undisputed master when it comes to evoking hilarity is P.G. Wodehouse, and it seems like I end up back on his doorstep round about this time every year. Winter has settled in for a couple months, a new semester of teaching looms, and I’m getting regular email reminders from TurboTax about my annual financial slog. Bleah. That’s the cue to go hunting for a Jeeves and Wooster volume or two to carry  me through to the other side.

Now here’s the beauty of being acclimated to Wodehouse’s whimsical genius is that it simply doesn’t matter where you dip in. You’re practically guaranteed to hit a jackpot of jollity every single time. Here, let’s try an experiment. I just went into our home library and plucked down the first Wodehouse volume I laid eyes on: A tattered paperback of Thank You, Jeeves (1933). Open it up in the middle (p. 81), and here we go:

“Will you keep quiet!”

“Of course, of course.”

“You keep shoving your oar in….”

“Sorry, sorry. Shan’t occur again.”

And so on – already hooks me in, I tell you. Clearly, some kind of ruckus is underway and Bertie Wooster is in the thick of it. It’s like I’m already present in the scene and I can hear the voices and I start to relax. It’s a tonic, almost magic.

It was also a magical tonic to those who read it the first time back in 1933 – right when the Great Depression was in full swing. The world needed lots of laughs back then, and Wodehouse supplied them. It’s noteworthy that the Great Depression was also the incubator for many of those Sullivanesque comedies we keep mentioning. The more challenging the times, it appears, the greater market there is for sweet release in gales of glee.

So happy new yearhopefully a better one than the last. May your troubles be few, but when they come (and they will), brace yourself, have courage, and arm yourself with Wodehouse and companions. No need to go it alone.
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Of Good Fences, Closed Communion, and Reunification

21 Dec

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
~ Robert Frost

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Caring for Strangers: ‘His Wide Mouth Home’ Remembered

17 Dec

This is an essay about an essay. Rather, it’s an essay about a particular reading of an essay. Plus, it’s about the author of the essay who also did the reading. And it’s about me, too, I guess.

The essay is called “His Wide Mouth Home,” and I heard it on NPR over 18 years ago – July 5, 1999, to be precise. I know the date because I have the cassette recording from NPR’s All Things Considered for that day, hour one. Hour one had a number of stories about the hot summer and how to stay hydrated – apparently it was a scorcher that year – and then there was this essay.

The essay itself is pretty straightforward, and it fit the hour’s theme well. Jason Wetta retells an episode from his summer on the Galveston Sheriff Department Beach Patrol, when he was the first responder to a drowning. There’s plenty of detail and color and Jason skillfully evokes the scene – you can smell the coconut oil even before he mentions it. You can feel the heat and sense the presence of the murmuring crowd around the lifeless body – you can see them make way for the lifeguard’s approach.

The victim was a boy – Juan de la Cruz – only six years old. He didn’t make it, and you know he’s not going to make it long before Wetta spells it out. It’s a powerful story, a powerful essay – powerful enough that I went through the trouble of finding out how to order a copy so that I could listen to it again – and again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. Not regularly – I keep it in a drawer full of random tapes – and to listen to it I either have to take it along in one of our beaters that still has a working cassette deck, or borrow one of the CD/tape players in the house that the kids use.

I have only one other NPR story on cassette: “Ghetto Life 101.” It, too, impacted me in a profound way, but Ghetto Life doesn’t make me cry. “Wide Mouth Home” makes me choke up every time.

To begin with, Wetta’s words are powerful in themselves, but his narration brings them to life. He adds sound effects – like the oxygen tank’s intermittent pffft and the ambulance’s beep-beep-beep as it reverses into position – and inflection that draw you into the picture. In Jason’s retelling, you can hear the workaday detachment in the voice of the dispatcher, while Jason himself is thoroughly engaged, emotionally, even spiritually, in what happens.

There’s also the prefacing information that NPR’s Noah Adams relates – about the Dylan Thomas poem from which Wetta borrowed the title – and the postscript datum that the author had since become a Benedictine monk at St. Mary and St. Louis Abbey in Missouri. Adams’s comments before and after provide a frame for this tragically beautiful anecdote that help transform it into something sublime, something true and awful – something I needed to hear when I heard it.

The summer of 1999, when I first heard Wetta’s essay, I was in the middle of nursing school, juggling clinicals and exams while doing my best to keep up with my duties as a husband and father. I was also working as a nursing home aide by then, trying to boost up our rapidly diminishing bank account and maybe gain some real world healthcare experience.

But it turns out healthcare work – the job of healthcare, the “punch in and get your work done” side of healthcare – is a lot tougher than I’d ever imagined when I was applying to nursing school. There’s no way around it: Caring for strangers as an employee is not the same as caring for strangers as a volunteer, let alone caring for loved ones. If you’re paid, you’re beholden to the clock and to the requirements of the one paying you, no matter how sincere your intentions, no matter how passionate your commitment to seeing Christ in the sick and suffering.

There was something in Wetta’s story and how he retold it that gave me hope – gave me insight and perspective on the unnerving task of caring for strangers as a profession. There’s never enough time to do all that you’d want to do; never enough energy to respond the way you’d like to every call light; never enough attention to spread around; never enough you to give away.

I wonder if that experience on the Galveston beach deterred Wetta from pursuing a healthcare career and propelled him into the monastery. And I wonder if Wetta is still a monk in St. Louis – I hope he is. I hope he adds special prayers at the end of his Rosaries and Lectio Divina for those who still do what he did as a lifeguard. I hope he still prays for me.

And this old cassette tape. I’m going to figure out how to get it transferred to a CD so it’ll last longer. I’ll be listening to it for a long time.
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You can listen to Wetta read his essay by following this link. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Reformation Reconsidered: Becoming a Bible Christian

10 Dec

“Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

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Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

29 Nov

casablanca-french-movie-poster-herve-morvan

“But now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring, persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable – the animated picture.”
~ Myles Connolly

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