Month: August 2011

The Close of Summer

God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

Summer usually is, or ought to be, something of a break from the hectic schedule of the rest of the year. It should be a period for reflecting upon God’s goodness and mercy and taking the time to notice His beauty even in little things.
For me, this summer has been filled with many blessings, both big and little; and not the least of them has been the opportunity to work at some serious writing here at my blog, at Catholic Young Woman, and at Catholic Exchange. It’s been a very good “learning experience,” as the saying goes; I’ve faced a few very important lessons, like how to address current events and how to take criticism when someone disagrees with me. It also brought me the blessing of becoming not just a guest author but a regular contributor to the beautiful community at the Catholic Young Woman.
But now the summer is drawing to a close. Although the thermometer is still wavering in the high nineties, the local school busses have already begun to make their rounds in my neighborhood and little kids are sporting new books and backpacks. Soon I too must pack away my summer gear and return the rigors of academic life.

As much as I truly love to write, while I am at school I find that my schedule is usually quite full and doesn’t allow me much time for writing anything besides papers, essays, and notes. I know that, if I let God lead me, this necessary respite from my own personal writing can be a time of spiritual growth and learning that can help me grow to deeper insight into the mercy and love of God, and ultimately help me better to write of Him. I find a comforting lesson in the wise words of Fr. Adrian van Kaam, who said:
Writers are writers for all hours of the day. 
They never take leave from writing. 
Every experience, every observation, 
all their reading, conversation,
 study, and listening
 nourish in some way their authorship.”
My heartfelt thanks go out to all of you who regularly have read my blog over the summer, for your kind comments and for sharing your own insights. I will, of course, try to write here as often as I can, so feel free to check back now and then. Please pray for me as I start the journey of a new and challenging academic year.
In Christ,

The World Is In Flames

“The world is in flames: the fire can spread even to our house, but above all the flames the cross stands on high, and it cannot be burnt.” –Edith Stein (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross).

England and the outbreak of rioting there have been very much in the public eye during the past week. The reports are all disturbing—and somewhat disorienting. I cannot pretend to understand precisely what these brutal, Twitter-organized mob risings are really about. I’m not a politician, nor a social analyst—though even those supposed experts cannot seem to agree on what is going on.
But the very notion of a riot mystifies me, and the more I learn about rioting, the more horrible it appears to me.  Riots often seem to occur for no other clear reason than a sort of mob bloodlust which brings out the most diabolical side of humanity. My brother was caught in Dublin at the time of the riots there a few years ago; he ducked into a shop and hid while Dubliners smashed Dublin’s windows, lit fire to its cars, and otherwise damaged their own city. During the Civil War, women in Richmond went on a riot, supposedly enraged over the shortage of necessities which the war had caused; they stole and wreaked havoc that even Yankee troops had not yet been able to do in that city. Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself came out and begged them to stop, taking what money he had in his own pockets and throwing it to them in a desperate attempt to appease them. They eventually straggled away to their homes . . . and social conditions in the South were not improved one whit for their mad ravages of the city which was their own home and last stronghold against the North.
In a 1934 British film about the French Revolution, an Englishman hears of the terrors Frenchmen were enacting on other Frenchmen, and remarks sadly: “Damnable, useless cruelty.” That, I think, summarizes the reaction of all sane men to the bestial violence now taking place in England. It is not only cruelty; it is useless cruelty—cruelty without an aim, cruelty without a point; evil for evil’s sake. When the riot is done and the streets are filled with the dark and empty silence of death, the rioters may sit atop their charred pile of destruction and look about at the harm they’ve done, confident that they’ve achieved . . . nothing. Do they expect to improve their social condition? To win jobs, homes, benefits from the government by treating jobs, homes, and the government with extreme contempt? Do they demand to receive the dignity due to men, when they have behaved liked animals—or devils?
All such weird riots are a stark and startling reminder of how very low man can fall; they leave us asking why men would willingly do such damage to their own home towns and countries. The riots do worse than no good; they do deliberate evil. They seem a mark of the uncivilized; but as a saner Briton, G. K. Chesterton, pointed out in The Everlasting Man, sins that are evil for evil’s sake are actually the mark of a civilization that has grown decadent: 
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of ‘pretending’; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired of playing at mythology . . . The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense   . . . They try to stab their nerves to life . . . They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.
Chesterton’s analogy is uncannily accurate, as any mother will testify. It is positively true that when a child wearies of his ordinary occupations, he turns most easily to mischief; that it is in a sort of wild idleness and boredom that an impish look will come into his eye and he will happily tear to pieces the book he has been told not to touch, or carefully and deliberately smear his dinner across the wall.
Perhaps the Englishmen tearing England apart are suffering from a similar “staleness” and are indeed seeking “stranger sins” as “stimulants to their jaded sense.” Perhaps they are acting precisely like over-tired toddlers in a tantrum. It may be that they are weary of their virtual online communities and social networks, and even of their virtual video-game worlds of destruction, and have decided, in a sort of desperation, to forge for themselves a brotherhood of real destruction in the real world. One thing can be certain, and must be said; no social conditions, no poverty, no failures of government can excuse such bestiality, theft and ruin and bloodshed.  I have heard commentators try to work up sympathy for the rioters by saying that it is because of this government policy or that social inequality that the rioters are rioting. If they were really starving, there might be some excuse for them to steal food, but not to set fire to homes. They are guilty of foul, brutal inhumanity—no less guilty because they may have had some reason to be unhappy.
In the end, the word used by the Englishman to describe the French Reign of Terror is the only word to describe the English riots: “Damnable.” They are doing it, quite literally, for the hell of it. If they are not stopped, if sanity and common sense do not rein them in, then it may happen that they will remake Britain in their own image, and it will become—like France in the Revolution—a living hell.  


If I had to name one of the most unique characteristics of my childhood, it would probably be the fact that, because of my father’s job, my family relocated every three or four years. We pulled up roots and moved so many times that the smell of cardboard boxes and packing tape makes me grow nostalgic. By the time I was fifteen, I had lived in more States than my mother had so much as visited by the time she was twenty-five. 
When I tell people this, they often ask: “What’s it like to just leave and start all over again every few years?” I usually smile and say it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.  True, there was a little heartache of parting and the headache of reassembling an entire household every once in awhile. (Why is it that you always find the box full of Christmas decorations when you desperately need to unpack the dishes and silverware?) But looking back, through all the growing pains amid the packing boxes, I wouldn’t change a year of it, because it taught me some crucial lessons.
There is something a little shaking and soul-searching about having to leave behind what feels so incredibly permanent, like a house. But leaving my houses and finding new ones so often caused me to reflect and re-evaluate what really was lasting in my life. It took quite some time, but it eventually dawned on me that I was perpetually leaving my house—but I never left my home. My home was something entirely different from where I lived.  Even when my older siblings grew up and moved out, there were certain things about my home that remained permanent through the years when everything else changed: my Catholic faith and the love of my family, and the two were inextricably intertwined.
My mother is fond of saying, “Everything in life changes. Families grow up. Friends change and move on. The only thing in life that doesn’t change is God, and as long as He is in your heart, everything else will turn out okay.” Even for those who live in the same towns their whole lives, the passing of time will bring challenges they cannot predict and probably would not have imagined. But the love of God never changes, and as long as we are firmly rooted in that then all the rising and falling tides of life cannot break us. Without it, we will buckle under and grope hopelessly to make some sort of sense out of the strange trials and sufferings that we meet on the journey of life. Servant of God John Randal Bradburne—a wanderer himself, and a possible saint—once wrote a poem call “Strange Vagabond” that summarized it perfectly:
God’s love within you is your native land
So search none other, never more depart.
For you are homeless,
            Save God keeps your heart.

            After years of learning to cope with changes in my life, I began to gradually soak up this little lesson: that without the love of God in us, we are truly homeless. If we have it, we are at home no matter where we are or what battles we must face. After all, until we reach Heaven, we are still pilgrims on a journey. St. Augustine grasped this truth in a moment of inspiration when he wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
There was a very beautiful family I know of that faced many changes and was forced to relocate several times. But they kept their trust in the Providence of God, though sometimes they were uncertain about whether they would even find lodging in a new town. The mother of this household was a true homemaker; her heart was always focused on the Lord. The Blessed Virgin Mary knew better than anyone that it is “God’s love within us” that makes a real home. No matter what frightening changes or unexpected experiences she faced, she trusted God, and so “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”  She was, in a sense, always at home, and made wherever she was home for her family. She is a perfect model for those of us in this “valley of tears” still facing years of changes ahead, as we learn to pack up at the end of each stage in our life and move on, knowing that whatever lies around the bend, God is our home.

The MOM Who Knew Too Much

        Robert Osborne, the long-time TV host for Turner Classic Movies, recently took a sabbatical, and a whole slew of aged actors and actresses have rallied round to fill in for their friend in introducing the movies and delivering tidbits of trivia to the audiences. As long as Osborne is taking a break and TCM is scrambling for replacements, I know exactly who they ought to hire: my mother. 
             This might sound a little silly, but I’m convinced it would be a very smart move for TCM. My mom is not famous and never deliberately made film her hobby. However, she has an uncanny capacity for remembering all sorts of interesting facts.  She doesn’t try to; she may hear something in passing just once, and remember it simply by chance.  As she’s a fan of old movies, she happens to know a prodigious amount of in-depth trivia about the entertainment industry of yesteryear. The following, for instance, is a typical scenario:
            “Mom,” I will ask as I turn on the old movie channel, “Who’s that actor? He looks awfully familiar.”
            My mother will lower her book, glance up over the edge of her glasses and, after peering intently at the fellow in question, confidently announce: “Oh! That’s so-and-so. You remember him from that Western. Later he went on to star in that mediocre ‘60’s show, which was very popular, and ran for years . . . and actually his costar in that—before she dyed her hair red—won an Emmy for her performance in that other show. . . that was before she married that fellow who was involved in the environmentalist movement.”
            When I was younger I would stare at her a minute with my mouth open. Now, I typically turn back to my movie, and reply simply, “Oh. That’s who it is.”
This little game—like having my own personal Robert Osborne sitting next to me—can make even mediocre old movies lots of fun for an incorrigible movie buff like me—sometimes. But often, I beg my mother not to tell me anything, because of one persistent problem: too much of the trivia is tragic. For example:
“Oh, look!” said my mother the other day, “That’s Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds. You know, she was mauled by a lion . . .”
I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It’s not that I’m without sympathy for poor Tippi—quite the contrary, in fact—but this sort of thing seems to happen too often. When we spot a famous actor or actress, my mother will call to mind some particularly sorrowful point about their lives, spouses, childhoods, or deaths.
Now, I like trivia as much as the next person. But the problem is that, with me—as with my mother—it sticks, like gum on the bottom of a shoe. And so, for instance, when I sit down to watch funnyman Lou Costello play the fool, I suddenly remember that Lou was completely heartbroken when his infant son drowned.  Or instead of soaking up Pat Boone’s smooth, rich singing voice, I think of the tragedy surrounding his grandson. I watch the lovely Shelley Winters and recall she wound up a fat alcoholic. Ann Margaret’s dancing makes me think of her falling off the stage at Las Vegas and suffering severe injuries.
In fact, there almost isn’t a single famous face in classic film that doesn’t hide some personal tragedy. Every stunning silver-screen beauty or dapper Hollywood dan, no matter how famous, talented, or successful, had some suffering to bear: childhoods robbed by stardom, battles with addictions, painful illnesses, sudden tragic accidents, the bitter wages of infidelity or the heartaches caused by the deaths of loved ones.
Perhaps, then, my mother doesn’t really know too much about these Hollywood celebrities, but exactly what we ought to know about them. How can you really understand a human soul unless you have some sense of how he’s suffered? Since the start of cinema, American audiences tend to idolize the faces shining with the meteoric glory of stardom. Teens fall in love with them. Adults imitate their styles and fashions. Everyone wants to be them. A little trivia, however—a little truth—can sober us up from this detrimental idolatry, and remind us that they may be superstars, but they’re not supermen. No one, certainly no one in the celebrity spotlight, has a perfect life, free of tragedy and error. They all make mistakes and have their own crosses to carry. They suffer as much as any man on the street; sometimes, as they reap the fruit of their sins, they suffer more.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain when my mother mentions that Vivien Leigh battled mental illness, or that Clark Gable never really recovered from the death of his wife, or, as you all now know, that Tippi Hedren was mauled by a lion. Maybe it’s a needed counterbalance to keep my love of film from extending to idolizing film actors. They need neither our adulation nor our voyeuristic obsession with their romantic escapades and latest haircut. Living or dead, they need our prayers. And that is something else I hope to pick up from my mother along with the movie trivia: the habit of praying for suffering souls. Maybe TCM won’t hire her after all; but I know she’s praying for Robert Osborne and everyone filling in for him when she recalls the little facts she knows about their lives. 

(Silent) Summer Movies

I’ve covered a fairly broad selection famous films so far this summer, but it’s high time I turned some attention to the other half of classic movies–the silent era! So, here’s a list of some of the best and brightest silent movies had to offer: the comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

In all of the following silent movies, you’ll get a sense of how, although the technology was somewhat primitive, it was still a fertile ground for artistic talent. Gifted pioneers emerged and began to produce unique works of art in this brand new field, constantly discovering new techniques and ways of doing things. To us, some of the special effects or shots may not be remarkable at all–but that’s only because we tend to forget how original they were in their own day.   The mind-blowing special effects and stunt-man brilliance of today’s films only got where it is because of people like Keaton and Lloyd who were geniuses in their own right and were willing to experiment and risk their necks for the sake of getting a laugh and making a fun movie. These actors, directors, artists, were stepping out into a completely unknown field, becoming masters of a totally new craft. They invented things like close-ups, panoramic shots, zoom in, zoom out, perspective tricks; they were discovering what worked and what didn’t, and consequently laid the groundwork for every other person involved in the film industry that followed.  . . . AND, moreover, the results of their labors are lots of fun. 🙂 

Of course, you realize it’s hard to find a good quote from a silent movie; so, to make up for that, I’ve put up little clips from the films themselves instead of just pictures! 

Safety Last! (1923)  
Harold Lloyd was one of the three greatest silent comedians of all time, a trio which included Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.  Steven D. Greydanus (from Decent Films) has observed that Lloyd had a special charm unlike either Keaton or Chaplin, because while those two invented quirky “characters”–Keaton’s extremely deadpan fellow with a funny straw hat, Chaplin’s famous Hitler-moustached “little tramp”–Lloyd came across as simply a “common man” character who got out of–and into–scrapes by his own ingenuity, an “average Joe” persona like that of James Stewart or Tom Hanks. I agree; and perhaps I’m a little biased, but I do love Lloyd best. Here, he plays a small-town boy who goes into the big city to make good and make his hometown sweetheart proud. Then, as my brother would say, “Wacky adventures ensue.”  

After you watch him dangling from that clock-face, listen to this bit of trivia: in a photo shoot a few years earlier, just at the start of his rising stardom, Lloyd picked up what he thought was a prop bomb and pretended to light his cigarette from it. However, it was a real explosive, and detonated as he held it, destroying the two first fingers and part of the thumb on his right  hand.  Some thought this horrible accident would end his career, but Lloyd didn’t let this stop him. He wore a kid glove with prosthetic fingers in all his films after that, which means–that’s right–he’s holding on to that clock with only two real fingers on his right hand. (Also: see the real cars and people moving down below? Yes, he’s that high up!) 
Another piece of trivia: his sweetheart in this–the golden-haired, child-like Mildred Davis–was his real-life wife; and he stayed married to her. 

The Kid Brother (1927) 
I would almost suggest you watch this one first, I love it so much. The story is  simple and sweet: in a family of big, brawny “manly men,” out in the Old West, the runt of the family–Lloyd–has to prove himself, win the heart of the girl he loves, and incidentally save the town from disaster. Besides offering some of the very best of  Lloyd’s ingenious pranks, pratfalls, and sight gags, this film also is seamlessly written with lots of fun characters (including carnival con men, neighborly country rivals, and a monkey in a sailor suit), thrilling action sequences, and a delightful little romance.  

Unfortunately, I can’t find a good clip from the Kid Brother on YouTube, so enjoy this brilliant little montage of Harold Lloyd clips set (anachronistically) to the Beatles’ “Help Me.” 

The General (1926)
This is one of Buster Keaton’s greatest and most memorable: the humorous and heroic adventures of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Get ready for some Yankee-bashing slapstick and more than a mild dose of chivalrous romanticism about the South. 

Like this little clip, the whole film is genuinely sweet and simultaneously funny, and a good introduction to Keaton’s perpetually-poker-faced persona–a very different character doing the same sort of comedy as Lloyd, and pulling it off brilliantly. 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)                                                    
Thinking of Keaton reminded me of this one, which is historically important for more than one reason. First: it’s a hallmark of the era; big changes going on in small communities, expansion and industrialization pushing smaller businesses off the map; this takes a look at how that would play out in a small Southern town along the Mississippi. Keaton plays the fresh-faced college kid, an old steamboat captain’s son, who, upon returning to town, promptly falls in love with his father’s rival’s daughter and then must find a way to save the family business from literally sinking. (There’s a lot of subtlety in old silent films like this; keep on your toes to catch it all.) But besides all that, this one is famous for some of its unbelievable gags and brilliant comedic tricks. For instance, a hurricane whips through the town and wreaks alot of damage, but somehow Keaton turns this situation into a hilarious one by doing such things as the following: 

 No, folks, there was no CGI, special effects, or stunt doubles used there. That is Keaton himself really standing on the road as the house falls on him. His audacity and ingenuity is simply unequaled by Hollywood’s performers today.  (And here’s a little tidbit of trivia: Mickey Mouse made his first appearance to the world in a little black and white cartoon called “Steamboat Willy,” which was a deliberate spin-off of this!)

Well, there’s a fun little sampling of some of the comic genius of the silent era. Maybe, if the summer doesn’t end too soon, I’ll get a chance to do some of the adventures/thrillers of the pre-talkie days, like The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.).