Month: January 2016



PABLO PICASSO, 1955Add caption

This week’s arts and culture piece begins:

For the lover of literature, there are moments one never forgets. Even now, I can’t quite believe “they” killed certain protagonists: the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Anne Frank, Christ.

There’s another moment, unique unto itself: the deathbed revelation of “Don Quixote.”

Everyone knows how Cervantes’ story begins: a restless middle-aged hidalgo, steeped in tales of chivalry, leaves the security of home, sets out with his bumbling (yet surprisingly witty) squire Sancho Panza and a broken-down nag named Rocinante, and in an extended fit of madness (or is he mad?) tries to set the injustices of the world straight.

Published in two volumes (1605 and 1615), “Don Quixote” is widely agreed to be a Western classic and regularly appears on lists of the best works of fiction ever written.


“The pen is the tongue of the brain.”



“Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea.”
–Jane Austen, Persuasion

As you may or may not know, I moved to a different part of greater Los Angeles in December, from the Silver Lake/Echo Park area where I’d been for the past five years to north Pasadena.

I must say it has thrown me for a bit of a loop. I know they say that moving is one of the seven biggest traumas (or something like that), but I sort of thought, Oh come now, a mere eight or ten miles?

But as Jane Austen knew 200 years ago, a very short distance can make a very big difference. First, there are the things that come up with any move: Where is the Post Office? Where can I get fresh fava beans? Where is the nearest 99-Cents-Only Store, Trader Joe’s, Vons, Ralphs, mom-and-pop Armenian grocery store, nursery, bookstore, farmer’s market, Staples? Where can I get picture hangers, a new kitchen wastebasket, potting soil, Drano? How to get the best deal on wifi (I am still using the personal hotspot on my iphone, talk about slow). I can only do so much, take in so much, process so much, move so fast in any given day.

I find my weekly arts and culture column is A LOT. I had two books out last year and will have two books out this year. I’m also helping someone else write a book, which is a major project.

One thing that is a huge change is that I sort of can’t get to any of my old haunts and the people I love without getting on a freeway, and the older I get, the less I like freeways. They are just too damn fast. Not that I can’t be utterly impatient and on surface streets am prone to go faster than I probably should. But to go from 30 mph to 70 is something I want to take slow. Fifteen minutes seems about right, but of course as soon as you shoot off that on ramp, the race is on. I’m sure people don’t go any faster or drive more aggressively than they ever have: it just seems that way. (And this has nothing to do with Los Angeles where, if anything (in my admittedly limited experience with other cities, but still)  drivers are less insane than, say, Boston or Atlanta).

Not to mention the freeways at night–super scary!!

So that means I’m either going to have to do more driving and be scared more than I want to be, or I’m going to have to change up my activities and schedule. And that’s what I find really scary.

In fact, I think the real reason moving is “traumatic” is because a move requires a kind of change of identity. Of course we know we’re not the four walls within which we live or the streets we drive or the store where we get out toothpaste and milk. But it may be that in a sense we are what we love. And when we have come to love a certain block where the jacarandas are especially lovely in spring, or the way we can get from the ATM to the library to the PO in five minutes, or the checkout lady at the Mexican market where we buy our toilet paper, we have to re-calibrate. There’s a gap in the space between where we say goodbye to the old and before we learn to love the new.

And in the gap is a very unsettling sense of Who am I? Where am I? AM I?

Another thing that’s surprised me is the difference in vegetation, in the sense of space and light from “down there” to “up here.” Pasadena lies in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains so winters are cooler and summers are hotter than even seven or eight miles south.  There’s way more space and quiet, way longer views, way more deciduous trees. In my back yard alone are a persimmon tree, a lemon tree, a kumquat, an olive tree, black walnut trees and several old-growth camellias that are just coming into bloom.

The walking is primo–good sidewalks, endless residential streets shaded by overhanging trees. I’ve only begun to explore the many neighborhoods. I may have said I found a chapel attached to St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a half-hour walk from my apartment, that’s open till 9 pm. So that’s been a treat, to walk up there and just sit. Feel my fear. Feel my loneliness. Feel my gratitude, cautious excitement, joy. Fatigue.

I’m living in a big old Craftsman that’s been divided into eight apartments so I have many neighbors. Jessie found my phone sitting by a plant on my balcony the other day where I’d left it in my haste to leave. He wrapped it in a piece of white computer paper and left it with a note by my door.

That made me feel really good. Conversations, opinions and ideas may change,
Kindness–and our response to it–remains eternal.



This week’s arts and culture is on the fascinating NY artist, Joseph Cornell.

The piece begins like this:

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was eccentric and reclusive and went about NYC and environs collecting little bits and pieces of things: shells, old diaries, album covers. He felt there were certain objects that belonged together that had been separated, possibly by decades, and made otherworldly, magical assemblage boxes that purported to reunite them.

This idea of making connections, of reuniting things that have been lost or separated from each other is dear to the heart of a follower of the Gospels.

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus says, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the 99 in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep’” (Luke 15: 4-6).




What with the clearly unbalanced head of North Korea’s recent bombast, this week’s arts and culture column is especially timely: a reflection on documentarian Soon-Mi Yoo’s “Songs from the North.”

The piece begins:

North Korea is perhaps the most secretive, least-known country on earth. A totalitarian dictatorship, its cult of personality has elevated three generations of the Kim family, starting with Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), to the status of gods.

Soon-Mi Yoo, a professor of film and video at the Massachusetts College of Arts, grew up in South Korea. At REDCAT recently, she introduced the documentary she directed and edited, “Songs from the North.”

“As a child, North Korea was always in our consciousness. Threats, propaganda. We were so close yet North Korea was a world away.”

The film took four years to make. She visited North Korea three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2014.

Even so, the country remained “a mysterious place.” Like all visitors, she was closely monitored, accompanied at all times by minders, and taken to the same few sites to which foreigners are allowed access.




I may have said I got started late on Christmas this year and I have had a hard time letting go of the magic.

Right up the street from where I live in Pasadena is an historic landmark/local institution: Santa Rosa Avenue colloquially known as Christmas Tree Lane. Some rich guy in the early part of last century saw some giant deodars on his travels and decided to try to re-create the effect near his Altadena (the town just north of Pasadena) compound. Or something like that. You can read the history and more here.

Anyway, every year the city lights up this .7 mile swath. The last night this year was Jan. 4 which I missed being en route from Boston at the time–I had walked by but not up the lane earlier in the season. But then for some reason they lit the trees one last night, on January 7, and at dusk I walked up Los Robles (The Oaks) to Woodbury and made my way up the whole stretch.

Afterwards, I did manage to take down my own lights, and the two Advent calendars, the vintage bulbs, the scads of cards, candles, scavenged bits of ribbon and tinsel, the clay cherub with a green grosgrain bow, rescued from some long-ago present, around his waist.

I decided to leave up the glass birds all year.
Just to remind myself of that place, deep in every human heart, where it is Christmas all the time.

fare thee well till december 2016, God willing!



I was in my homeland of New Hampshire over New Year’s and for whatever reason, “transitioning” back has been difficult!

I hadn’t been home in a year and half so maybe that made everything and everybody seem extra precious: the ocean, the Christmas lights, the snow.

Sunday afternoon, January 3, I walked around Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth. I always seem to find myself at least once when I’m home creeping past the old Portsmouth Hospital (now I think police HQ) where I was born. The wreaths and garlands and lights on the graceful old Colonial homes, and the bay as a backdrop, were lovely.

On a quiet side road, I became entranced with the way the afternoon light showcased the above branch of dried flowers (or maybe it was “just” a weed).

Then there were these dear animal prints and stray solitary grasses erupting through the ice-glossed snow.

A hush fell–and then a Squirrel came through.



Part of the fun of writing an arts and culture column is the opportunity to celebrate people I love.

This week’s story, about a couple from LA who adopted a kid from deep Appalachia, is a case in point.

It begins:

Johnny Goraj is a singer-songwriter. His wife Felicia is a pediatric nurse.

They met at Children’s Hospital in L.A., where John was working as a trauma tech.

“We somehow saw each other as human beings rather than through a veil of lust or obsession,” Johnny says. Felicia continues, “I saw his spirit and he saw mine. Even though we had a 10-year age gap, I thought, ‘This person is full of love and someone I want to be around.’ “

Felicia had been raised Protestant. Johnny’s a cradle Catholic. Almost from the time they met until they got married, they went to Mass together every Sunday.

“I was always drawn to working with kids, but marriage and children had never been on my radar,” says Felicia. “Not until I met Johnny did I trust anyone enough to make that commitment, to enter into the sacrament, to raise a child together. That was miraculous to me. That was a conversion.”


one incarnation of



Just before the New Year, I had a day where I woke, was about to go full steam ahead into a day of hard work, and thought: I need to go to the Huntington.

Courtesy of my friend Judy, I had a guest pass, and since I now LIVE IN PASADENA where these world-class gardens, library and galleries are located, I motored on down.

Every once in a while in this vale of tears, we are graced with a few blessed hours of utter peace.

Such were my hours there.

Here, in no particular order, are some shots of the cactus garden, the Japanese tea house gardens, the rose gardens, the camellia path, a lemon tree before which I could have knelt, and more.



scenes from room 301 of america’s best inn
 portsmouth, nh

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.


Outliving them,
Outliving them all,
Ah, the cold!

–both by Kobayashi Issa

The carols have ended.
Toss out the tree
Let it grieve in the gutter
for lost splendor.
Dismantle the withering wreaths—
Glitter cones and shiny balls
too gaudy in January light.
We stack boxes
For another year,
Forgetting who gave what.
Take down the unused mistletoe
And throw out the cards
While fruitcakes grow stale
And poinsettia leaves curl yellow.
Even the stable is in disarray.
Balthazar has toppled
Shepherds ignore their sheep
And an angel has fallen
behind the radiator.
The Holy Infant is nowhere
to be found.
–Kathleen Du Haime, from the January 2012 St. Anthony Messenger


Well that is all kind of depressing. I myself am in splendid humor despite near constant suffering, and though I identify with all three of the above poems, deep in my heart I believe the Holy Infant is always to be found somewhere or other:

A cigarette butt tn the dirty snow, friendly sign of a fellow human being. The clearly hungover guy who barked “Mawnin” at me as we passed, huddled in our respective outerwear, on a frigid side street New Year’s Day.

I flew from LA into Boston Dec. 31, “smooth fly on time” as my cousin Richard once described a flight of his own. Richard lives in a house on Rye Beach with a stunning view of the ocean formerly owned by our grandparents (a spot immortalized in my first book Parched which feel free to buy so I can make at least one sale in 2016, thereby topping 2015).

Richard has been suffering from cancer of the cartilage so I thought this would be as good a time as any to make an appearance. The weather is and promises through Monday, when I’m flying back, to be clear (always a concern this time of year esp as I am terrified of driving in snow, sleet or any kind of ice). My brother Joe has turned out to be a no-show (sad emoticon) but I have other siblings in the immediate vicinity! Namely Tim, Meredith and Geordie plus nephew Rick. Plus my dear old friend Ellen, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and is coming through Portsmouth today and we will have lunch.Then on to the vigil Mass at Immaculate Conception and a family dinner at Petey’s.

I don’t want to brag but it seems my parents chose the most beautiful spot in creation to bear and raise their eight children. Ocean Boulevard has remained basically unchanged for 60 years and if you were lucky enough to be raised in a small town you’re familiar with the feeling of knowing every bend, dip, curve and rise of the landscape. It is absolutely pitch black on the back roads, Ocean Boulevard (colloquially “the beach road”) being one of them, and I never tire of making the long drive from Portsmouth past Prescott Park, the old Navy Yard, through New Castle, past Wentoworth by the Sea, the marshes, then the ocean proper: Odiorne’s Point, Wallis Sands, the old Pirate’s Cove, and on to Richard’s.

By night, by day (different delights for each), with the graceful old Colonial homes, the smell of salt air, and as you near the Atlantic, the gentle roar of the waves, it is inch for inch my favorite drive on earth.

I listen to Bach and Mozart and Couperin and watch the light.

wentworth by the sea
deluxe grand old hotel
new castle, nh