Monday, April 28, 2008

My Advantaged Childhood

"Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut." I received those words of wisdom from a co-worker many years ago. It was one of his father's favorite sayings and they were words I especially needed to hear early in my career.

This quote is especially appropriate this election season, which has gone on far too long (including for Jon Stewart, apparently).

Still, at a recent luncheon, I couldn't help but say something when President Bush was referred to as "our idiot president." Come on, now. This slander is getting really old and adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. So I pointed out that it was Vice-President Al Gore who cast the tie-breaking vote encouraging ethanol subsidies.

The next words out of the original commenter's mouth were, "Are you a Republican?"

I admitted I was.

She was shocked, especially, she said, "considering my background."

She was shocked precisely because she doesn't know my background.

I tried to explain why I did not like the Democrats ideal of Big Government. I prefer to give a homeless man on the street a dollar--and he gets the entire dollar. If I give it to Washington, he's lucky if he gets 35 cents.

"But not everyone has had your advantages," she persisted (after telling me that she won't think less of me because of my views).

And that's when I shut up.

The luncheon was all women and I was the only one who did not support Hillary Clinton. I was also the only one who has a successful, long-term marriage and children, which colors my views.

Upon reflection, the original commenter was correct: not everyone has had my advantages. I grew up in a two-parent family. My mother and father loved each other. They were practicing Catholics, active in the parish, the parish school, and the community. They both loved to read. Education was important--in the classroom and out. They never stopped learning.

We were blue-collar, working class, but my parents wanted us to appreciate culture and so found ways to expose us to the arts, to theater, to music. They raised six of us on a single income for most of my life, so we learned to economize and prioritize our spending. Our job was school. We were expected to do our best at all times.

And because there were six of us and two of them, we were given responsibilities and duties. It was part of belonging to a family.

Consequently, I'm a hard worker. I'm curious. I seek new challenges. I know that I will do what is necessary to survive, even if it means flipping burgers. I know that God never closes a door without opening a window--although sometimes it takes a while to find it.

Hubs didn't have that kind of support growing up, so some of this is new to him, especially when it comes to higher education. But we're trying to instill the same values in our children: love of and loyalty to family, love of God, love of learning, the ability to work hard (and all that entails) towards a goal, taking personal responsibility.

These traits can't be taught by the Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C. They have to be taught one-to-one, adult, preferably the parent, to child. The fanciest school, the best books, the most up-to-date technology won't make a difference.

Nor will whoever happens to be in the White House.

Prayer Request: Terry Pratchett

I came late to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, although I certainly was familiar with Mr. Pratchett's name and some of his other works. So I was shocked to read in the online version of the Guardian Book Review that Mr. Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's. He has since donated $1 million to Alzheimer's research in the U.K. and has also spoken out about the fact he must pay for his own medication because, according to the National Health Service, he is "too young" to qualify.

Mr. Pratchett is also outraged at the lack of funding for Alzheimer's research--hence his donation.

He's still writing books, although he's noticed that his ability to touch type has disappeared.

There's little we as fans can do except pray. And continue to enjoy Mr. Pratchett's prolific writings. He plans to keep writing as long as he is able. God willing, that will be for several more years!

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Question of Communion

This weekend our parish celebrated Confirmation and First Communion. As usual, I cried watching the First Communicants process in. There's something about watching seven-year-olds, the girls in white dresses and most with veils, the boys in Sunday best shirt-and-tie, walk in solemnly, hands held together as in prayer. They look a little nervous, a little wide-eyed, trying to remember all the instructions they've been given and feeling the eyes of the congregation on them.

Father N. was the presider. Besides being one of the administrators of the local Catholic high school, he's also over six feet tall. So he got down on his knees to give the children their First Communion so he would be at their eye level. Father N. is also an excellent homilist, with a talent for talking to teens, rather than above or below them.

He didn't fail tonight, discussing how the Eucharist brings Jesus into our lives so we can bring Him to our families and friends and the rest of the world. He stressed how Jesus's presence is real and that's what makes Communion so important.

Where was Father when I was trying to explain why Catholics don't let just anyone receive Communion?

The conversation was at a party. Most of us knew each other from the Boy Scout troop and we were enjoying a rare warm evening outdoors. A good friend of mine made the statement that she thought the Catholic religion was "snobby" and "elitist." Yes, she knows I'm Catholic as was another adult sitting in our area. And she felt that way because the Catholic Church won't allow non-Catholics to receive Communion at Mass. She especially seemed to think that it was terrible that Hubs can't receive, especially since we've been married for almost 30 years.

I tried to explain that it's because Catholics believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, not just a representation. The Eucharist is sacred. And the Church wants to make sure that those who receive understand that.

"Well, who was the first priest anyway?" she said.

"Jesus Christ, of course!" I answered. I was a little shocked at her question and some of that came across in my tone. "And He passed His Authority to the Apostles who passed them down to modern times."

"Well, I still think your religion is snobby, " she replied.

"If it's any consolation, I can't receive communion in your church," I said.

"But that's because your church won't let you, not mine." (She's Presbyterian.)

The other Catholic tried to help me explain, but she really wasn't interested in a theological discussion. But watching the children receive First Communion today made me wonder if other Christian religions have a rite of First Communion. I suspect the Episcopalians and the Lutherans might (I know they have a rite of Confirmation). If communion is merely a symbolic sharing of a meal, then what's the purpose in making it a special event in a child's spiritual life? I also never understood why Communion was available only during certain services and not at every one--or available every day. Was it only to distinguish themselves from Catholicism? Isn't that kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Fortunately for the party, our conversation didn't move on to Mary.

Our pastor, Father P., writes an "editorial" in the weekly bulletin. Last week he congratulated the Confirmandi and the First Communicants. He also pointed out that while there are over 100 children receiving First Communion, there are only 60 Confirmandi--reminding parents that religious education doesn't stop with First Communion. (He also noted that for many children their Second Communion happens years after their First--also not good.) In an ideal world, the number of Confirmandi would be the same as the number of First Communicants.

I have to admit my children don't continue their religious education after Confirmation, mostly because they don't want to. One thing the Presbyterians and some of the other Protestant religions do much better than most Catholic parishes is their youth groups for older teens and young adults. Hubs and I do have a rule that the kids continue to attend Mass with me until they graduate from high school. Once in college, the decision is theirs, although if they're home, they're expected to go Christmas, Easter, and all family occasions (and there are several of those a year!).

My friend may never understand why the Catholic Church is exclusive about Communion. But we, as Church, must do better educating our members, of all ages.

Book Review: Seven Archangels: Annihilation

The story begins with Remiel, one of the Seven Archangels that stand before God, dancing in a studio. She's checking out one of the latest musical trends to see if it is, in fact, music. Saraquael, another of the Seven, comes to find out what she is doing. Instead, Remiel starts a game of Tag that eventually encompasses several angels and the entire Universe. She even coaxes Gabriel out of his library and into the game.

Unfortunately, that leads Gabriel into a trap set by Satan and his minions: Mephistopheles, Beezelbub, Asmodeus, and Belior. And one more fallen angel: Camael, Remiel's twin brother. Memphistopheles, a Cherubim like Gabriel, has discovered how to kill an angel and Gabriel is their first victim. By destroying Gabriel, they hope to cripple Raphael, a Seraphim who is joined to Gabriel, and to exploit what they see as a weakness in God's design, thereby proving Satan as God's equal.

Camael is captured by Michael and Remiel assumes her brother's aspects in hopes of thwarting Satan's plans. This, however, causes problems for Remiel, who must continually deny who she is in order to remain undetected as Camael.

And, in fact, Hell's plans don't succeed, at least not completely. Gabriel is not killed but he is mortally wounded. And God, because of His gift of Free Will, will not interfere. The angels must discover how to repair Gabriel's soul and repair Remiel's psyche.

Initially, I was caught off-guard by the modern aspects of Heaven. Mary in blue jeans and a pony tail? Baking cookies? Angels in hiking boots and turtlenecks? Rock-climbing? Playing tag? I've always thought of angels as near-perfect beings, so it was odd to read about personality quirks and clashes.

But, as the author, Jane Lebak, explains, each angel is a "facet" of God. So it makes sense that each angel would be unique and individual. And if they didn't have personalities, the story would be very dull indeed! And that brings out some interesting discussions about Free Will and choice, repentance and redemption, how hate perverts God's order and design, and finding the inner strength to do what God's will. Not bad for a book under 300 pages!

Once I got into the milieu, I was truly absorbed into the story. (Okay, when Jesus says to Mary "Thanks, Mom," for a cookie, I laughed.) Towards the end, I was even feeling sorry for Mephistopheles. And, since there are seven archangels, I'm hoping there are six more books.

One critique: I wished Jane had included an organizational chart at the beginning of the book. Several of the angels have similar names and I would forget which choir they belonged to. And a brief description of each choirs quirks would also have been helpful, especially at the beginning. (Cherubim are the "absent-minded professors", Seraphim are healers (and quick-tempered), Thrones stand in front of God, singing His praises--that sort of thing.)

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Bookmarks

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Movie Review: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

If you're looking for a little magic in your life, stop by Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. It's a charming little shop, cozily sandwiched between two skyscrapers in what appears to be New York City. Mr. Magorium may no longer be there, but Mahoney is, along with Bellini, the Mutant, and Eric.

There is always something to do: read, build, experiment, play dodge ball with the world's largest ball. Children run riot and parents seem especially relaxed.

Eric (Zach Mills), who is nine-years-old and whose only friend is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), narrates the story. Molly--who is always referred to as "Mahoney"--is the manager of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and a former child prodigy at the piano. She is trying to write her own piano concerto, but is stuck. Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is 243 years old and an avid wearer of shoes. He hires an accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), to figure out how much the store is worth because it's time for Mr. Magorium to leave. He fell in love with a pair of shoes in Tuscany, bought enough to last him his whole life, and now he's worn out his last pair. So, it's time to go.

It makes perfect sense, you see.

Mr. Magorium takes Henry, who is called "Mutant" by a convoluted chain of reasoning, into the office where there is a hodgepodge of boxes and ledgers dating back hundreds of years. Henry's not sure what to make of it all, especially since Mr. Magorium hasn't filed a tax return or for a business license ever. But Henry knows how to work (whether he knows how to play is in question) and he gets right too it.

Henry can't figure out how Mahoney seems to just go with the flow of it.

Mr. Magorium eventually tells Mahoney he's leaving and that the store will be hers. She protests: he's healthy, he's magic, she's not, the world won't be the same without him. In reply Mr. Magorium gives her a block of wood. Mahoney isn't sure what to do with it, but Mr. Magorium tells her she'll know.

Will Mahoney ever finish her piano concerto? Will she find her sparkle? Will Eric ever make a friend? Will Henry learn to play? Will Bellini finish Mr. Magorium's story and start a new one?

Did Mr. Magorium really give Thomas Edison the idea for the light bulb?

In addition to having storylines about believing in yourself, reaching out to others, and learning to play, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium pays homage to several classic movies. Dustin Hoffman seems to be channeling Ed Wynn's "Uncle Albert" from Mary Poppins. Mahoney has to look in the "Big Book" in order to find a fire truck with "hoses that really squirt water" (the original Miracle on 34th Street). An early scene reminds me of the bookstore in You've Got Mail. There is a bit of the original Willie Wonka in this movie, too.

There's also lots of puns, visual and verbal, as in Eric making sure that Mr. Magorium has "plenty of space to sleep in."

Having said all that, both DS#2 and I felt that the ending was flat, almost as though the director felt the show had gone on long enough and he had to wrap it up NOW. The relationship between Henry and Mahoney is never really resolved, although it's kind of nice that the male and female leads don't have to be in a romantic relationship. Still, something's missing...

This movie is available on DVD and On Demand. Hubs chose it (it was his birthday) and DS#2 watched it with us. Younger kids would miss the film references and some of the puns, but likely would be captivated by the toys and the idea that a store can have a temper tantrum. Death is treated gently and matter-of-factly ("one story ends so another can begin").

On the March Hare Scale: 4.5 out 5 Golden Tickets

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Book Review: Mr. Blue

I read Mr. Blue way back in high school at the recommendation of my freshman religion teacher. (My copy cost 65 cents and still bears the return address stickers I used back then.) Some months ago there was a discussion floating around some of the Catholic blogs about Mr. Blue, so I retrieved my copy and re-read it.

Much of what I remember about Mr. Blue remained true. Some of it I rediscovered. And some of it I now read with the eyes of a 50-something adult, who bears responsibilities for a husband, children, mortgage, and job.

This made for some very slow reading, even though the book itself is rather short.

The author, Myles Connolly, was a Catholic who lived in Boston. He attended Boston College, was a reporter, and eventually went to work in the movies as a story writer/editor. Mr. Blue was written in 1928 and I doubt very much that such a character could exist in modern times.

The narrator, who remains unnamed, first hears of Mr. Blue in a bar in New York. The superintendent of a high-rise office building tells of a man who lives on the roof, a man "who's so happy he's almost crazy." The superintendent takes the narrator to meet this young man, who has only a gaily painted packing crate for shelter. The narrator listens while Blue expounds on his philosophy: how if the poor lived on the roofs of the buildings, lifted from their squalor, how their souls would be uplifted as well. How you could see the world from the tops of the buildings. How they were both lucky to be Christians.

"I think," he whispered half to himself, "my heart would break with all this immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I."

In high school, we went up to the fourth floor and released balloons in honor of Mr. Blue. (That was back in the day before we understood the ecological damage we were doing. We had the rather romantic idea that someone would find the messages we had tied to the strings, kind of like messages in a bottle, and be uplifted or inspired by them.) Reading the passage about Mr. Blue flying his kite or releasing his balloons brings back some of the innocence and excitement I felt 40 years ago. Because I was excited about my faith, my relationship with God. Despite Vietnam, despite the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, despite the Civil Rights riots in the South, it was an optimistic time. Vatican II was encouraging the laity to become involved in the Church. The Mass was in English and we were trying to find new ways to make the Church a real community. Rev. King was giving stirring speeches; Bobby Kennedy was the Senator from New York.

By the following fall, the national mood went from optimistic to cynical. The Summer of Love degenerated into merely sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Until I read the review of Mr. Blue by Fr. John Breslin, S.J., I didn't think of the contrasts between J. Blue and Jay Gatsby. Both are young men. Both have a dream. Both ultimately die because of it. But one believes in God; one believes in nothing except his "ideal woman," who is all too human and shallow.

When I was 14, I wanted to be Mr. Blue. 40 years later, I find I'm the Narrator. I'm much more practical, even about my faith. I tend to take sunsets and stars for granted. My scope of thought has narrowed from infinity to the next 24 hours. That Myles Connolly was able, as a middle-aged man, to find that part of his soul and create Mr. Blue so I can rediscover it, is something of a miracle. Thank you, Mr. Connolly. Thank you, Mr. Blue

On the March Hare scale: 5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

cross-posted on Catholic Media Review

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I Won the Po-Bowl!

During the monthly meeting of the Ina Coolbrith Circle, my name was drawn. The poem I read, Taming the Tangle Monster, is posted at the website: There's even a mp3 file so you can hear me read it!

The poem was inspired by my daily battles with DD#2's hair when she was younger. She has since cut her hair, although it's still blond, still straight, and still comes loose from hair elastics and barrettes. But now she deals with it, not me!

Rites and Rituals

I don't mind some chaos in my life (including that in the Fly Lady sense: Can't Have Anyone Over). I'm a procrastinator by nature, disinclined in the Domestic Arts, have learned to appreciate clutter.

But I also crave routine. If I skip a step in my morning routine--or am interrupted by a phone call--I lose my stride. I falter. I become annoyed with the world in general and it can take awhile before my equilibrium returns.

Long ago I discovered that I actually enjoyed the rites and rituals of the Catholic Church. I can't imagine belonging to a religion without them. I know the seasons by the color of the priest's vestments. I know it's Sunday because I've gone to Mass. I enjoy the flow of the Mass, being carried along with the community in celebrating God's love for us. The Church has a rite for every major occasion of my life: birth, adulthood, marriage, death. I am fascinated by the way the priest washes his hands during the Offertory, praying, "Lord, wash away my inequities, cleanse me of my sins." The way the presider blesses the priest or deacon before they read the Gospel. The precise summary of the Catholic faith in the Nicene Creed.

I need these in my life.

Familial and cultural rituals are important to me, too. It's not Christmas without an Advent Calendar. It's not Easter without baskets. The Fall Holiday Season literally kicks off with the Cal-Stanford Big Game. Eagle Courts of Honor must be held at Camp Herms. First-Day-of-School means a picture at the front door. Last weekend was the Ligue Henri IV banquet. My great-grandfather belonged to the Ligue, as did my father, my brothers, and now DS#1 (DS#2 is eligible for membership when he turns 18 in a few months). My brothers and my sons do not speak French. No matter; it's a family thing and explains why we eat lamb with lots of garlic and eat our salad last.

Rites and rituals are my anchors. I don't have to think about what to wear to a funeral or a banquet--family ritual tells me. I don't have to worry about what to say at a funeral or a wedding (although weddings are easier)--the rites tell me. Rites and rituals provide structure to my chaos.

And I'm passing them on to my children. DD#2 knows what to wear to funeral. DD#1 knows what to wear to a banquet. Junior Prom is around the corner and DS#2 and I are discussing the details, including finding out the color of his date's dress so he can coordinate his tuxedo vest and tie and the corsage. ("Oh, that's a good idea," he said today.)

I'm not adverse to change. As long as I have my rites and rituals to fall back on!

Book Review: The Rossetti Letter

My latest book review is up at Catholic Media Review.

Monday, April 07, 2008

R.I.P., Kim

"Have you heard about Kim?" a fellow mom asked me.

"No, what about her?"

"She died last Sunday." And then she told me some of the details.

I met Kim through the Sunday pre-school program at our parish. The program was a co-op venture where the families buddied up to teach--okay, it was the mothers who usually taught. The dads generally took the older siblings to Mass or supervised on the playground. Kim's two boys were about the same ages as my two youngest. When our parish school recommended that Kim's oldest wait a year before starting Kindergarten, I was able to give her my perspective, having been through the same situation the year before.

Kim served on the PTG Hospitality Committee, so she was usually in the kitchen. She seemed unflappable, keeping the tea, coffee, hot chocolate, croissants, and fruit coming during the Welcome Back Coffee on the first day of school. If there was a class party, Kim was there. She also worked as a nurse at night so she could be with her boys during the day.

Eleven years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She remained cheerful and upbeat, admitting only to being tired and frustrated that she didn't have the energy to do everything she wanted to do. She wore colorful scarves and hats to hide her bald head. But she had faith that God would not let her down.

She beat that round of cancer.

Three years ago, the cancer returned. Again Kim fought. The entire class of 2007 prayed for her every day. She made it through graduation and danced with her youngest son. But the cancer was relentless and in February she decided to stop fighting. She had Open Houses, wrote her own eulogy. Unfortunately, I was out of the loop and didn't get a chance to see her to say good-bye.

That Kim passed on Divine Mercy Sunday seems quite appropriate.

I wasn't able to go to the funeral, but DD#2 and I did go to the Rosary. (DS#2, who knew Kim's oldest son, was visiting a friend who just came home from the hospital after being treated for lymphoma.) A lot of the kids from their class were there, along with staff from the school. We shared our memories and our prayers. We made the usual comments about how nice it was to see everyone; how sad it had to be an occasion like this, we really need to get these kids together for a happier reunion.

We probably won't.

I can't imagine the school kitchen without Kim behind the door.