Month: May 2015




Nothing delights me more than a good field trip.

This week’s arts and culture piece is about a jaunt to L.A’.s Mt. Wilson where, as you may know, discoveries were made that led to the realization that the universe is expanding and the formulation of the Big Bang theory.

Fear contracts, love expands. Draw your own conclusion.

The piece starts:

“A couple of weeks ago, on a Thursday, I took a field trip to Mount Wilson, the 5,710-foot peak northeast of L.A.

You need a five-buck adventure pass to park at the observatory, so I picked one up at the Shell station just off the 210, then drove 20 miles from La Cañada on the picturesque Angeles Crest Highway.

On the way I listened to Bach trios and admired the clumps of butter-yellow Scotch broom. Then I turned off on Mount Wilson Road and drove another five winding, increasingly beautiful miles. A vista of violet mountains and deep green gorges opened round one bend. I pulled off and, having brought my breviary, said a Morning Prayer with the sage and the squirrels.”




“Autumn in New York, a brown sludge of leaves underfoot, a light rain barely falling. Halos of mist around trees, a clock waiting to strike twelve. Almost your birthday, Monk.

The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work still going on, the city repairing itself.

At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation. Whether the plates have been stacked neatly away or the sink is cluttered with unwashed dishes makes no difference because all these details–the clothes hanging in the closet, the sheets on the bed–tell the same story–a story in which they walk to the window and look out at the rain-lit streets, wondering how many other people are looking out like this, people who look forward to Monday because the weekdays have a purpose which vanishes at the weekend when there is only the laundry and the papers. And knowing also that these thoughts do not represent any kind of revelation because by now they have themselves become part of the same routine of bearable despair, a summing up that is all the time dissolving into the everyday. A time of the day when it is possible to regret everything and nothing in the same breath, when the only wish of all bachelors is that there was someone who loved them, who was thinking of them even if she was on the other side of the world. When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, hearing the same tune on the radio, writing these words.”

–Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz



LA has been coolish and gloomy for the past several weeks. It’s even rained, which the Lord knows we need–but May? Our rainy season is usually over by March. Plus we had weather in the 80’s earlier in the year. So the whole setup is a bit unsettling. Then again, “June gloom” is a yearly phenomenon here in the Southland, so maybe it’s just come early.

Whatever the case, Friday, I’m headed out to Palm Springs for several weeks where coolness and gloom will not be the issues.

I’ve been mulling over the objection of a reader to a piece of mine where I wrote about giving a couple of bucks to Barry, the homeless schizophrenic and hopeless alcoholic who trolls Sunset Boulevard a little farther down, towards Silver Lake.

What are we supposed to wait till Barry regains his mind, gets a job, finds a place to stay, and starts going to church before we bestow our “charity” upon him? People who think like that have never known such a physical, emotional, and spiritual bottom that a single cigarette or a bottle of cheap beer is the only thing staving off a complete nervous breakdown. I have.

I’m not neglecting my own duties to go sit in a bar and stand a round for the drunks. I’m not helping out a whiner or a victim. I’m not doing for Barry what he could do for himself. Barry’s not a whiner. He’s out on the freaking street, where he lives, begging. He’s sick. He needs his medicine. And I, for one, am happy–proud–to help him buy it if that’s what he wants to spend the money on.

You can bet that Lazarus, the sore-covered wretch who lay at the gate in the Gospel parable [Luke 16:19-31], was a drunk or a drug addict. And we know what happened to the rich man who, from his splendor and comfort and place of prestige, refused the poor man a drop of water.

I’ve been staying in Angelino (also spelled Angeleno, often on signs within feet of each other) Heights, an older neighborhood just west of downtown, and I’ve been feeling a bit depleted myself as of late. I can walk to the Cathedral, as I may have mentioned. So a few afternoons I have tottered down there to sit before the Blessed Sacrament for a bit.

On these walks I noticed a guy in a wheelchair who hangs out in front of the CVS on Beaudry. I was going to give him a few bucks one rainy day but as I approached I saw he was lighting paper cups on fire and hurling them into the street. So I thought I’d hold on till he was in a better mood.

Next time he was sitting there quietly so I stopped and offered him a five. He looked up and said, “Thanks, I’m okay.” (How classy is that? For a guy in a wheelchair who’s clearly been wearing the same clothes for weeks, if not months). Then he said, “Well wait, is there a 6 on it?” So together we minutely examined this five-dollar bill to see if the numeral 6 appeared. You may never have examined a paper bill that closely–I certainly hadn’t–but there are all kinds of tiny groups of numbers. Sure enough we found a 6. Then we looked at another five I happened to have and there was a 6 on that, too. So he wouldn’t take the money but he did ask if I’d buy him a pack of cigarettes, which I promised to do–and did–on the way back (Marlboro Lights: $6.53), along with a bottle of anti-itch scalp medicine he requested when I asked if he wanted some candy or food to go with his butts (he was surrounded by wrappers from the adjacent Jack in the Box).

On the way home I thought of another guy I’d run into once on a sidewalk in Venice (CA). “Could you just stand still for a minute so I can walk around you a few times?” he’d asked. “Oh absolutely,” I’d said. And this guy who was clearly not well, who smelled, who my heart so went out to, made four or five rotations around me, politely thanked me, and went on his way.

I understood completely the thought that your entire sanity, your existence, hangs on the happening or not happening of what to others seems a random, arbitrary event.

My whole purpose on earth may have been to stand still that day so that OCD-guy could walk around me and hang on for another twenty-four hours.

The Gospels aren’t social work. They’re not about shaping ourselves and the people around us up into people who “deserve.” They’re not about an “effective” use of our money, energy, and hearts. They’re about one human being having compassion for another. They’re about love.




For this week’s arts and culture piece, I interviewed Los Angeleno Annie O’Neil, who has walked the Camino.

It begins:

“For those who have been living under a rock, the Camino de Santiago — also known as the Way of St. James — is a 500-mile ancient pilgrimage route that begins in southern France, crosses the Pyrenées, and snakes through Spain, ending at the spectacular cathedral in Santiago.

Annie O’Neil, a native of Los Angeles, had read of the Camino, was fascinated by the Camino, dreamed of the Camino. Then, one day in the fall of 2008, an old friend named Lydia Smith called out of the blue and said, “Have you ever heard of the Camino de Santiago?”

Smith was planning a documentary about folks who walk the Camino. Her plan was simply to go and let the Camino “provide.” But she needed someone to kick things off.”


photos: Todd Pinckney, courtesy of “Phil’s Camino.”




Continuing my little reflections on time:

“Ballet’s relationship to time–the fact that the repertory, unanchored by text, is always vanishing, just as the dance image on the stage is always vanishing–forms a large part of the vividness and poignance of the art. We are always losing it, like life, and therefore we re-create it, mythologize it, in our minds.”
–Joan Acocella, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, pp. 184-85[highly recommended].

“It’s important to dance not just to the music, but to dance the music.”

Do not miss the dying swan, minutes 35:40 to 39:15 or so.

Plisetskaya recently died at the age of 89.




In a recent piece on Anthony Trollope in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observed: “Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours.”

And I thought it was only me!

In the library a couple of days later, I came across Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Edited and with text by Martin Currey, the book is a compilation of short profiles of visual artists, composers, sculptors, and authors.

Here’s Mozart:

“My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine. From nine to one I give lessons. Then I lunch, unless I am invited to some house where thy lunch at two or even three o’clock, as, for example, today and tomorrow at Countess Zichy’s and Countess Thun’s. I can never work before five or six o’clock in the evening, and even then I am often prevented by a concert. If I am not prevented, I compose until nine. I then go to my dear Constanze, though the joy of seeing one another is nearly always spoilt by her mother’s bitter remarks…”

“Altogether I have so much to do that often I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels,” he observed elsewhere to his father.

With the exception of my hair being done at six (or ever), I can relate.

Some people have set times; some wing it. Some can write only in the morning; others only at night. Certain common threads run through. A daily walk.  Strange or OCD eating habits. For some alcohol and tobacco, for others, coffee. A sharply curtailed social life. The hideous, never-ending burden of correspondence.

Constant tension.

“Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time in getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care–he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked unto 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity.”

Edward Abbey (American environmentalist and essayist, Desert Solitaire): “A writer must be hard to live with: when not working he is miserable and when he is working he is obsessed.”

I was surprised to discover that many artists played cards at night. This made me feel a little better about my own Brain Jam habit (I’ll only play the games rated “Hardest”: screen name: “Scrapper”). By night-time my overheated brain needs a rest and winning at cards, even an elevated form of solitaire, serves to soothe my ravaged, always-behind-the-eight-ball psyche.

Some of the artists enjoyed getting together with fellow artists, often nightly, to discuss their work. But personally I’m with Catalan painter and sculptor Joan Miro (who, for you non-artistic types, was male):

“Merde! I absolutely detest all openings and parties! They’re commercial, political, and everybody talks too much. They get on my tits!”




The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called the 1941 early black film The Blood of Jesus “a masterpiece of modern cinema that has scarcely lost its power to astonish.”

Written and directed by Spencer Williams, perhaps better known as the actor who played Andy in Amos ‘n’ Andy, the film recently screened in downtown L.A’.s REDCAT Theater.

Here’s my report.

You can watch it yourself on youtube.




You folks bowl me over, just in case you don’t know.

I’ve been jammed with work these past several months: a new book, galleys for another book coming out in the fall, a new roster of “Credible Witnesses” for next year’s monthly Magnificat column, an unexpected request of ten profiles for a Magnificat Year of Mercy collection for 2016, a couple of manuscripts I’ve been editing for others, a weekly arts and culture column which often requires a field trip; or driving across town, interviewing someone, transcribing the tape, and then shaping it down to an 800-word piece…

I’m generally very careful not to be “busy” in the sense of hardly a free moment (as opposed to intensely focused, in the sense of a conscious, intentional use of time that nonetheless allows for many hours that are not strictly scheduled or “owed” to others).

Given my druthers, I would probably spend many hours a day writing blog posts as the spirit moved. I’ve had many thoughts lately that have to do with time: time as in how I schedule the hours of my day, time as in life as hidden sacrifice, time as in mortality and eternity.

For now, they will have to wait, as I need to write a piece on Blessed Franz Jägerstätter.

But I can at least share this amazing painting by Matthew Kirby of Brooklyn, who sent it on after reading a recent post on St. Damien and the lepers. He writes: “It was supposed to be for these dinners for people with AIDS, but a priest said if I gave it to them they’d just stick it in a closet and forget about it. So he took it with the intention of brokering a sale. I’m sure it’s now in a closet somewhere, which is perfect.”

Talk about a life of hidden sacrifice! (Matthew, I mean (who is also a husband and father), not St. Damien, though of course him, too). Such beauty, such depth, such heart. [Check out more of Matthew’s work here and here].

I can’t always respond to the emails I receive as fully as I’d like. But I’ve never been more aware that as St. Ignatius of Loyola observed: “Love is an exchange of gifts.”

Thank you for all you give me. I would perish without it.



“When you finally discover that you are just one of the little people, don’t conclude that this makes you special.”

Madeleine Delbrel

I’m staying in an LA neighborhood called Angeleno Heights for a few weeks.
Saturday I set out on foot to an urban park I’d been meaning to visit for a couple of years: Vista Hermosa.

It’s a gem–overlooking the 101 freeway, no less and I mean to write a piece about it soon.




Happy Mother’s Day.

Here’s the beginning of this week’s arts and culture piece.

“May 10 is the feast day of St. Damien (1840-1889). As a young priest, Father Damien made his life among the lepers at the colony of the Hawaiian island of Molokai — then contracted, and died of, leprosy himself.

He was canonized in 2009, and is also the unofficial patron of those suffering from HIV and AIDS.

“Not without fear and loathing,” Pope Benedict observed, “Father Damien made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all. So he exposed himself to the disease of which they suffered. With them he felt at home. The servant of the Word became a suffering servant, leper with the lepers, during the last four years of his life.”

Then and now, disfiguring diseases makes us uncomfortable. They bring us face to face with our mutilated hearts. They reveal to us how very little we are willing to suffer ourselves.

Books and films about those with Hansen’s Disease, as leprosy is now known, abound”…