Vignettes of the Weird

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Sometimes I think that the odder parts of fiction—the bizarre elements in stories by writers ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Charles Dickens—are probably true. Everyone has weird stories, and if you pay attention to what is going on around you, you start noticing the weird and wonderfully human strangeness that is happening every day.

Here are a few of mine. Maybe someday they can be fit into the framework of a short story or novel, but for now they remain fragmented memories that drift to the surface now and then.

Around fourteen years ago my friends decided to go camping in Big Sur. We drove down along the coast, wheeling along the sickening drop to the ocean. I’m no good with heights, a fact that I let slip at one point, so the driver took delight in faking a jolt here and there. After our camping weekend, we headed back. As we neared the highway we came across a makeshift flea market on the side of an embankment, so we stopped to take a look. I wandered over to look in a series of boxes, all of which held identical novelty license plate holders reading “THE HELL WITH THE HOUSEWORK, I’M GOING TO BINGO”.

“Sir?” A middle-aged woman tapped me on the arm. “Sir? Want to buy some of these? My dog is sick. Come see.” She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me down the slope to a rusted truck. Inside an ancient dog grunted and pulled itself upright. A huge tumor was on its backside.

“Want to touch it?” She pointed into the window and jabbed at the tumor. “It’s real. I gotta get it cut off.”

“Uh, that’s okay.” I backed away a bit. “I’ll get some plate holders.”

I bought five or six holders. The woman told me that if I threw in an extra five dollars she would read my palm—she said she had gypsy blood and could see the lines others could not. I declined and ended up giving the plate holders away as gag gifts to several friends and acquaintances.

In 1999 I went on an almost completely unprepared trip to Rome along with another young man, intending to photograph churches for a catechetical project that ended up never coming to fruition. I didn’t sleep on the flight over; I’ve always hated flying and my height means sitting in coach seats can be intensely uncomfortable after a period of time. Groggy from lack of sleep, we arrived in Rome at the Termini station with no hotel reservations prepared. We tried calling a few hotels from a pay phone, and then were approached by a man with slicked back hair.

“You need a place to stay? I can help.” He introduced himself as “King Cobra”, the first sign that we should have just said no thank you, and led us down a side street to an ancient building with worn stairs. He led us up to a small room with beds whose sheets bore visible mildew stains. “Very nice, very classic.”

We rejected the offer, and he huffily led us next door. “This is a private residence, very nice, very clean.” The room he ushered us into was just that: a room. Nothing in it, no beds, no furniture.

“Where would we sleep?”

“With the girls. There will be girls here.”

“Um, no thanks.”

“Oh! You are….”

“We’re here to photograph churches. Kind of a pilgrimage.”

“Religious?” King Cobra seemed flabbergasted. “Rome is a PARTY CITY. Why come here for religion?”

Though he seemed rather angry about us backing out of his offers, we retraced our path to the train station and managed to track down the phone number for a pilgrim center in the home of Saint Frances of Rome. And after 38 hours without sleep, it was a blessing to crash into a tiny pilgrim bed on jangly springs.

When I used to ride the Richmond line instead of the Pittsburgh / Bay Point line on BART, I would often see an elderly man who would get on board during the ride back from San Francisco. Carrying an enormous display Bible, he would walk up and down the aisle, calling out “Gospel of John! Gospel of John! Word become flesh, and the flesh shall not fornicate. Are you a fornicator, ma’am? Are you a fornicator, sir?”

One day a somewhat inebriated man decided to engage the preacher. “I fornicate every chance I get.”

The Bible man sat down next to him and they engaged in a spirited debate for several stops. Eventually agreeing to disagree, they departed with a fist-bump.

Late one night on the MUNI bus line in San Francisco, I got on board and found a small old man wearing a bus driver’s uniform from the 1980s sitting up near the front.

“Guten tag! You look German,” he said to me. “I know how to say hello in all the languages spoken in this city, and I can usually tell what ethnicity you are. Are you German?”

“No, mostly Norwegian and Scots.”

“CLOSE ENOUGH.” He turned to an elderly Asian woman who had just boarded. “Ni hao, my dear!” She glared at him and took a seat in the back.

“I know Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, French, and Tagalog,” the man declared. “I used to drive this line. Retired now. Just riding it these days.”

“Do you know how to say hello in dog?” I asked.

He responded by barking furiously until he was red in the face.

He was an old Chinese-American man with gnarled fingers named Joe, and he owned a video rental shop near my apartment. I would go there occasionally and he would rant to me about this and that. He wore a pigtailed wig which looked strangely like a Revolutionary-era hairpiece. And he would yell at people who stared at him too long. One of my friends was shouted at for this reason.

Standing behind the counter under a sign reading “I Know I’m Special Because God Don’t Make No Junk” and photographs of himself standing with various celebrities, he would tell stories from his life. If you listened for a few minutes, you’d start to realize that he was actually retelling the plots from various movies he had seen. Like the time he was on the police force and two of the officers on the force crashed a car off of the skyway into an apartment (Freebie and the Bean) or the time he witnessed a serial killer being chased through the Hyatt at the Embarcadero (Time After Time). He seemed perfectly lucid other than this tic. He would also attempt to sell me a stun gun every time I visited, telling me that the city was full of thugs.

I miss going there.

There’s a lot more where these vignettes came from. But they’re good reminders to keep looking and listening to the things going on around you. There might be a good story there.

Laudato Si': Video and notes

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I was honored to be included in a group discussion of the new encyclical by Pope Francis. I ended up writing four pages of notes including connections between Laudeto Si’ and various writers including Wendell Berry, Fr. Thomas Dubay, G.K. Chesterton, and more. My rough notes are below. You can read the encyclical in its entirety here.

Laudato Si’:

John’s thoughts for discussion:

Pope Francis uses the word “integral” many times in the encyclical, reminding us that Catholic teaching is consistent across all areas. In doing so, he shows the inconsistency of how environmental action is usually thought of. He points out several times the impossibility of advocating for ecological causes while ignoring the plight of the poor, the destruction of the unborn, or the necessity of the family. Our Catholic teaching gives wholeness, integrity, to ecological thought. In LS 50 he says blaming population growth for ecological devastation is a way of avoiding our responsibilities. This is something Malcolm Muggeridge also condemned:

“Now, we who are sated, who have to adopt the most extravagant and ridiculous devices to consume what we produce, while watching whole, vast populations getting hungrier and hungrier, overcome our feelings of guilt by persuading ourselves that these others are too numerous, have too many children. They ask for bread and we give them contraceptives! In future history books it will be said, and it will be a very ignoble entry, that just at the moment in our history when we, through our scientific and technical ingenuity, could produce virtually as much food as we wanted to, just when we were opening up and exploring the universe, we set up a great whimpering and wailing, and said there were too many people in the world. It’s pitiful.”

The Pope’s description of a necessity to be humble in our approach to nature reminds me of Wendell Berry’s essay “Two Economies”, where he describes the “Great Economy”, saying:

We can name it whatever we wish, but we cannot define it except by way of a religious tradition.

Berry goes on to say that our human economy cannot create value: it can only take and transform raw material from the Great Economy:

We may transform trees into boards, and transform boards into chairs, adding value at each transformation… But a good human economy would recognize at the same time that it was dealing all along with materials and powers that it did not make….

When humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract, then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.

Berry insists that we must retain a humility about creation which impels us to stewardship rather than an arrogance which leads us to view the natural world as malleable. Compare this with LS 67.

The theme of integral teaching concerning creation is also to be found in Seek That Which Is Above by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), in which he describes the lesson Saint Francis of Assisi teaches us (after citing the same story of Francis and the garden that Pope Francis relates in LS 12):

When man himself is out of joint and can no longer affirm himself, nature cannot flourish. On the contrary: man must first be in harmony with himself; only then can he enter into harmony with creation and it with him. And this is only possible if he is in harmony with the Creator who designed both nature and us. Respect for man and respect for nature go together, but ultimately both can flourish and find their true measure only if, in man and nature we respect the Creator and his creation.

Compare this also to LS 75.

Pope Francis also sees the created world as existing in relationship with God and with man, though this relationship is wounded by sin. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “To be truly human means to be related in love, to be ‘from’ and ‘for’. Sin, on the other hand, means the deranging or destruction of that relationship. When I destroy the relationship, then this event—sin—affects the other members of the relationship as well, the whole relationship. That is why sin is always an offense that involves other persons, that changes and damages the world.”

A lot of what Pope Francis says about how we should be ordering our lives reminds me of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s words in his book Happy Are You Poor:

A word of caution. In all our enthusiasm for the alleviation of the plight of the poor we are well advised to avoid the basically atheistic thesis that material destitution is the greatest of all evils…. Social injustice is evil, no doubt. But there is a far greater evil, namely, that of not seeking God. Liberation theology so focused on remedying this world’s oppressions that it neglected the immeasurably greater oppression of failing to pursue our destiny of beatific vision in risen body. They who try to solve only the problem of material destitution offer the poor thin gruel. What does it profit a man, rich or poor, to gain the whole world if he suffers the loss of his soul?

No one, I trust, will understand our word of caution as negating what the rest of this volume contains. Small minds pit truth against truth; large minds do not. They of the largest minds, the saints, have lived heroically the sparing-sharing life of the Gospels while at the same time they first of all sought eternal life both for themselves and for others.

And later:

..We need prophetic witnesses. We need people who in their way of life challenge the prevailing false ideologies bearing upon the production, distribution, and use of material goods. We need lived prophecy.

Let me be concrete. The best paid fifth of American white workers earn five or six times more than the worst paid fifth. Those who offer pat solutions to complex problems would probably call on Congress (or Parliament) to make laws to force greater equity in the distribution of the fruits of production. If a legislative body were to try to establish equity by law, it would have a revolution on its hands. The basic presuppositions of the population must change first. Ideological structures undergird and support laws and other structures.

We therefore need pilgrim witnesses. We need joyous, loving men and women to show in their lives that one can live a sparing-sharing lifestyle and still be happy and fulfilled. We need to induce conversion into the masses first by example, then by word—really, by both simultaneously.

Now compare this with LS 206 and 211. It also brings to mind G.K. Chesterton on thrift:

Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance. Heaven knows I for one speak disinterestedly in the matter; for I cannot clearly remember saving a half-penny ever since I was born. But the thing is true; economy, properly understood, is the more poetic. Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. It is prosaic to throw money away, because it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference, that is, it is a confession of failure. The most prosaic thing about the house is the dustbin, and the one great objection to the new fastidious and aesthetic homestead is simply that in such a moral menage the dustbin must be bigger than the house. If a man could undertake to make use of all things in his dustbin he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare. When science began to use by-products; when science found that colors could be made out of coaltar, she made her greatest and perhaps her only claim on the real respect of the human soul. Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.

Again, compare Francis in LS 223 with Dubay:

People who by choice embrace a frugal lifestyle assess themselves far more realistically than those who do not. They are free from a subjection to the minds of others. They know of their intrinsic worth before God and do not feel a need for the shoddy props afforded by mere things. Being innerly uncluttered, they are ready for the divine invasion. It easily happens.

Again and again Pope Francis cautions that the materialistic definition of progress has led to a spiritual devaluation. This echoes Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation to the world:

“Since the shiny bauble of unlimited material progress has led all of humanity into a depressing spiritual cul-de-sac, represented with only slight nuances of difference in the East as in the West, I can discover only one healthy course for everyone now living, for nations, societies, human organizations, and above all else for churches. We must confess our sins and errors (our own, not those of others), repent, and use self-restraint in our future development.”

The late Stratford Caldecott’s final book, “Not as the World Gives”, is also a good complement to Laudeto Si’. In it, he warns (much like Pope Francis with his warnings of “activism”) that not seeing the Church’s social teaching as integral can lead to an ideological interpretation:

Catholics sometimes talk of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). There is a danger of treating this as a kind of ideology—a system of ideas—as though we were gleaning from the Church a body of advice to be applied to secular society. The Church’s teaching becomes functionalized, and the secular world is treated as primary. We can prevent this not only by avoiding the acronym, but by refusing to separate the subject itself from ethics, spirituality, and the creation of culture.

All these—“ethics, spirituality, and the creation of culture”—are called for in Laudeto Si’.

The Pope also says something interesting in LS 213, pointing out that ecological education most importantly comes through families. In my own personal experience, I can see that growing up in a large family taught me the value of reuse, of buying second-hand, of making the most of limited resources. My wife also grew up in a family like this. Despite the accusations of families using too many resources, it’s been my experience that those who grew up in these large families intuitively embrace a life that does more with less.

Owen E Dell, an expert in sustainable landscaping, has made the point that replacing still functioning equipment such as cars, washing machines, ovens, etc. in order to get new “greener” appliances defeats the purpose of sustainability, and that keeping older equipment in use until it actually must be replaced is far more environmentally friendly than buying new. The Pope makes similar warnings that a “green” rhetoric can often mask another form of consumerism.

My own conclusions about this encyclical are that it will be helpful in two ways: showing Catholics and other Christians that ecological responsibility is inseparable from the rest of Christian ethics, and (hopefully) in getting those outside the Church to realize that Christian ethics are inseparable from ecological responsibility.

 

 

 

One Weird Trick to Appreciate Art

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“Oh, is that an allusion to the Fall?”

“The what?”

“The Fall of Adam and Eve.”

“Uh, no.”

“Is it Persephone in the underworld?”

“Who?”

It was around ten years ago. I was at an open studio event held in a huge old warehouse in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. Several painters and sculptors were exhibiting their work, ranging from intentionally incomprehensible prints of layered graphics to a city made from candy to a number of rather good paintings. I was looking at one depicting a darkened landscape with a figure of a woman accepting a red fruit from a shadowy man in a robe. The artist was standing nearby, so I asked him about it. After a number of back and forth comments he shrugged and told me he had seen something similar in a painting somewhere and decided to riff on it. It wasn’t intended to be Eve’s encounter with Satan or Persephone being tricked by Hades, it was just an image that resonated with him… CONTINUE READING