Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

I read the original short story last week. I love the old fashioned language, especially in the beginning, as well as the harkening back to the days of Dutch New York. I also listened to an audio recording of the tale on Youtube--the rhythm is very flowing and jazz like. But some of that may have been due to the actor who read it.

The written story has a tongue-in-cheek tone and is understated humor. The headless horseman is actually a humorous hoax, with the joke being on Ichabod Crane.

By contrast, in so many of the cultural adaptations, the story is usually presented as actual acts of horror. The 1999 movie starring Johnny Depp has numerous camera shots of decapitations. I much prefer the kind of fear that is suggestive and the product of the imagination. In the original story, no one literally loses their head.

This is the kind of fiction I would like to be able to write.

The Written Text:

The Audio of Reading:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Why I Don't Subscribe to N+1

N+1 is a silo by and for graduates of MFA and English Lit programs. It serves to
reinforce the clan's smug snobbery and assuages their unconscious insecurity that they may not be members of the intellectually elite.

I'll take my chances in the street.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


At my parish, I recently attended a Christian mission which was a three night, interactive theater performance called Lukelive. It was created and is performed by Fr James Diluzio, CSP, who has a background in singing, acting, and the theater. He has memorized the gospel of Luke.  In the Lukelive performance at my parish, he acted the first six chapters of the gospel of Luke (because of Advent I presume). He acts out each character in the story. The performance is intermingled with prayer, song, teaching, and even some breathing and movement exercises. In between each biblical story, he stops and teaches about the story and accepts questions. People gave personal witnesses without even being asked. It was very explicitly Holy Spirit oriented and filled. We in the audience were completely disarmed. His teaching/interpretation/spiritual coaching/insights are high quality and astonishing. 

In particular, he teaches about how to evangelize people who do not share our beliefs. That was particularly empowering for me. It was generalizable into how to deal with encounters with people in general, including ourselves, relating to empathy, listening, and interpersonal relationships. I have had everything backwards, but I sort of knew that already! But he framed the interpersonal skills issues in such a way that I was able to take them as an "action item" for myself--for personal growth.

He spoke of our own experiences. His characterization of Zechariah was particularly vivid to me. His explanation of the meaning of the Incarnation was acutely insightful. He even quoted "the Glory of God is man fully alive." This had my rapt attention throughout. It was an amazing evangelization towards myself. I would go anywhere in the metropolitan area to see it again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What is Conscience?

Conscience is the mind's structure, process, and outcomes that relate to moral reasoning. It is a person's capability to engage in moral reasoning. It is an innate structure of the human person. As such, it is part of what philosophers call Natural Law. And as per Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of cognitive psychology, the brain is hardwired for morality. 

Counter examples of people without conscience do not disprove the general claim. There are exceptions (psychopaths, sociopaths),  but these are examples of people with deficiencies and not the normal case, just as people with physical diseases do not disprove propositions about what a healthy human is like.

One corollary of the above is that one does not need to be religious or a philosopher to be moral.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Reason To Be Religious

“The only condition for being truly and faithfully religious is always to live reality intensely. The formula for the journey to the meaning of reality, without preclusion, means without negating or forgetting anything. Indeed, it would not be human, that is to say, reasonable, to take our experience at face value, to limit it merely to the crest of the wave, without discerning the core of its motion” 

- Luigi Giussani (The Religious Sense, p. 150).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Summary, Communion and Liberation 2014 Fraternity Exercises, Saturday Morning Session, Part 1, "The Essential Thing: The First Leap of the Heart."

With the examples of Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, and the disciples that were on the road to Emmaus...
To encounter the gaze of Christ with clear eyes is to be seized--arrested. It is this relationship--this awareness of the presence of Christ--that allows us to overcome the solitude of experience, that does not extinguish longing,that allows us to become ourselves, that transforms our humanity. It is what evangelizes the self and ultimately others. But fancy words, sentimentalism, slogans, sound bites, and summaries such as these will not suffice.
Not as part of the above summary, but for my own personal response to this section of the retreat, in order to close the gap between intention and experience, I need to contemplate what it means to be aware of the presence--and to follow and live the presence, with all its consequences. It means seeing Christ in the eyes and faces of every person I encounter and acting accordingly.

Summary, 2014 Communion and Liberation Fraternity Exercises, Friday Evening

In light of the example of the women at the tomb of the resurrected Christ...
Of our faith, we struggle with the gap between intention and experience. We desire to be seized anew. In order to make the gap smaller, we must go back to the essential, which is to focus solidly on Jesus Christ, starting with the Presence. Fr. Giussani has given us the method for doing this which is to observe ourselves in action (self-knowledge). This requires a commitment of our whole life. But we are warned not to automatically nod our heads and say yes--"A mechanical answer will not suffice." We are further warned to not reduce the issue to a focus on our errors, sins, or inconsistencies, but rather to focus primarily on self-awareness (the necessary precursor for self-knowledge) and what we actually love and pursue. The journey towards God is not an uninterrupted gentle ascent to God but a struggle, a lifelong journey of ups and downs--"The journey to truth is an experience." Hence, we must deal with our daily circumstances realistically and directly, and this will result in our religious maturity. The turmoil of life will shake us deeply at times, but it cannot be avoided. "The world will laugh, and you will cry." All of this, the method of Giussani, makes us aware of our needs and helps us to become ourselves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Answer

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.”

- Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I have realized that when I cannot sleep at night, it is almost always because I am obsessing over a relationship that is difficult and of which I have no resolution.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

These People, Donatus, are the Christians

"This is a cheerful world as I see it from my garden under the shadows of my vines. But if I were to ascend some high mountain and look out over the wide lands, you know very well what I should see: brigands on the highways, pirates on the sea, armies fighting, cities burning; in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds; selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians—and I am one of them."

~St. Cyprian

Monday, September 8, 2014

Towards an Examination of Conscience

"Life is a talent entrusted to us so that we can transform it and increase it, making it a gift to others. No man is an iceberg drifting on the ocean of history. Each one of us belongs to a great family, in which he has his own place and his own role to play. Selfishness makes people deaf and dumb; love opens eyes and hearts, enabling people to make that original and irreplaceable contribution which, together with the thousands of deeds of so many brothers and sisters, often distant and unknown, converges to form, the mosaic, of charity which can change the tide of history."

- Blessed Pope John Paul II

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Phenomenon of Sock Affinity

Each of my two sons has about fifty pairs of socks, mostly white sweat socks, with all different logos, sizes, shapes, and styles--that's because my wife wife buys whatever socks are on sale, and apparently she doesn't believe in running low on kids socks. You throw dirty laundry, including socks, into a basket. You bring the dirty laundry to the basement where it gets thrown in a pile with other dirty laundry also containing socks. Eventually you put the dirty laundry in the washer machine. You throw the wet laundry into the dryer. You sort the dry stuff out into various piles. After several iterations of this, you end up with piles of white socks of all different logos, sizes, shapes, and styles that have to be matched. You do the matching because no one else will. You would think that with all the tossing, the tumbling in the washer and dryer, and the sorting, that the socks would be randomly distributed in the piles. Yet time and again, when you pick out a sock, the matching sock is very close to it in the pile.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Desert

"Our desert is any place where we confront God. It is not a change of scene, nor a place to run from out failures, nor a heroic adventure that does something for our ego. Our desert experiences may be tedium. weariness, disappointment, loneliness, personal emptiness, emotional confusion, the feeling that we have nothing to give, the conviction that we constantly fail God in prayer. You just have to keep on keeping on in prayer, and you are not aware of "progress," because there seems to be nothing by which it could be measured. There are no paths in the desert except the ones you make by walking on them.

"It is the place of truth, but also of tenderness; the place of loneliness but also of God's closeness and care. The journey is precarious, but he is faithful, even though our own fidelity is shaky. In the place of hunger and poverty of spirit we are fed by the word of God, as Jesus himself was in the desert. Part of our poverty may be that we are not even aware of longing for God, only aware of the suffocating burden of our own sinfulness, of the slum within. But the desert is the place of confrontation not just with our sins, but with the power of God's redemption. You come to see it as a place where there can be springing water, manna to keep you going, the strength you never knew you had, the surprise of the quail that plops down at your feet, a tenderness that cares for you and a knowing of the Lord. These things are not the promised land, but they are tokens of love and may be sacraments of glory. Your life, your prayer, can be the wilderness to which you must look steadfastly if you would see the glory of God."

- from the book, The Coming of God, by Sr. Maria Boulding (1929-2009), a Benedictine nun of Stanbrook Abbey, England.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Philosophy vs Physics

There was a debate recently between some philosophers and some physicists about whether or not philosophy was necessary anymore, give modern science. As you might expect, the physicists on the panel were anti-philosophy and their arguments were narrow, crude, and arrogant. And the philosophers, for their part, did an inadequate job of defending themselves. My answer to the question is this. People, including philosophers themselves, know what academic philosophers do, but they have forgotten what philosophers really do. They ask meaningful, intelligent questions. Physics is entirely dependent on philosophy--it is derived from philosophy and cannot exist without it. Without philosophy, science does not know what questions to ask. Every scientist who asks a fundamental question about any unknown aspect of nature is engaging in philosophy. As everyone knows, the word philosophy means the love of wisdom. That includes the love and pursuit of knowledge. Anyone who contemplates a phenomena of nature--the beauty of a flower, the stars in the sky, the course of a disease, or the behavior of an animal or person, and asks how or why it can be explained, becomes a philosopher.

Fyodor Mikhailovish Dostoevsky

Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and notorious enemy of all religious belief was also a crack literary critic. Despite Dostoevsky's Christian themes, Hitchens found Dostoevsky's novels to be mindblowing, absolutely extraordinary. Pope Francis, in the interview where, among many other statements, he said, "Who am I to judge," was also asked if he had any other advice to give. He said, "Read all the Dostoevsky you can." Perhaps we should start reading.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Jesus as Lord

I have always pondered what it meant to say, "Jesus is Lord." We modern people do not relate to or even like terms like Lord or King. I think of such terms as old-fashioned and authoritarian, and clearly, for a Christian, our relationship to Jesus is not one of master-slave. I can accept and understand terms like Lord and King, in the sense of loyalty and devotion. But today, people tend to stress Jesus as friend, which seems to imply an entirely different kind of relationship.

Think of the spiritual oppositeness of Christianity as compared to the world (blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God). Crucifixion was intended as the utmost shame that the Roman government could impose on a person. And yet we have people in the 1st century claiming that this humble person from a remote corner of one of the backwaters of the world, who happened to have been crucified, is King, Lord, and Messiah. It is this inside-outness of worldly wisdom and prudence, this ironical, paradoxical sense of the meaning of terms like Lord and King that I ponder.

David Williams:

"The fact that Jesus, the Messiah, took the form of a servant, proclaimed forgiveness and welcome to sinners and outcasts, and, ultimately, was crucified all serve to transform our understanding of what his Lordship means. God will set the world to rights not through violence and political power-plays but through the meek, the humble, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit. The death and resurrection of Jesus places a large question mark over most of our geo-political projects."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to Change the World

From two members of the Augustinian Recollects:

Fray Daniel Ayala said, "The communities, the province, and the order are revitalized in proportion to the renewal of persons."

Fray Eddie gave a simple and profound homily in which he recalled the need for, "Prayer, discernment, and trust in Divine Providence."

If you want to change the world, you must first change yourself.

Turn the Other Cheek

Turning the other cheek is not passive acquiescence. It is standing one's ground. It is provocative but non-violent, signaling to the aggressor that I refuse to share the assumptions that are motivating you. I refuse to live in the same moral and spiritual world that you are living in. At the same time, you mirror back to the violent person, that they may see and be brought to change.

- author unknown

Monday, August 11, 2014

Saint Augustine on Self-Knowledge and Dealing with the Circumstances of Life

"Every trial we undergo is designed to prove us, and all such probation is fruitful. We are for the most part an unknown quantity to ourselves; we do not know what we can bear and what we cannot. Sometimes we think we can carry something, though it is really beyond our strength, and at other times we feel hopeless about carrying something that is within our powers. So the trial comes, and it puts us to the question, and we discover ourselves."

--St. Augustine (Expositions of the Psalms)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

World Peace

Take a look at what our military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to.

With more than 1,000,000 deaths in the region, in the long run, they have only led to more terrorism, with no sign of any peace anywhere or any time in the near future. With every innocent civilian we kill, each of their many relatives hates the U.S., with some portion becoming active terrorists. Do the math to imagine how many Muslems now want to kill Westerners, with Islamic Jihad to supply the supporting ideology.

As a result of the unintended consequences of our interventions, IS is orders of magnitude bigger, more organized, and more murderous than Al Qaeda ever was. IS recalls the original Islamic horde that conquered the known world from Southern to Norther India.

And what do many critics and journalists say? They criticize Obama because he hasn't bombed Syria, Iran, IS, or the Eastern Ukraine, etc. They want more of the same solution that has expanded the problem in the first place.

Recent American history shows that limited war and police actions never work in the long run. And look at Israel's situation. There are more than one billion Muslems in the world. No matter how much military force is used, I fear that there will always be an expanding, critical mass of terrorists who want to either kill us or force us to convert to Islam.

If this middle east thing expands any more, we may not have any choice but to engage in a World War III which will surely result in the deaths of a large portion of the people living in the middle east. But a military annihilation of all terrorists is an statistical impossibility.

We need to find a way to wage peace. We need vigorous, creative leadership and conflict resolution. We need a Savior.


Perhaps informed criticism of one side or the other has its place. However, I am sure both sides have done wrong, have made mistakes, have targeted civilians, have committed numerous human rights abuses.  But to take sides or demonize one side or the other is counter-productive. People have been doing that for the entire recorded history of the middle east and it has gotten humankind nowhere. I prefer to put the emphasis on reconciliation, peace, and justice, even if it seems impossible to do.  We need leadership and vigorous, creative efforts at conflict resolution.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Was It Freud Who Decided We Should Be in Touch with Our Feelings?

I am not very good with feelings.  I tend to be a stoic and without high emotional intelligence. When I was in psychotherapy, I always found it very frustrating to be told that I should be aware of what I am feeling in every moment. It can take me a day to figure out what I feel about a situation. And then of course it is too late for it to be of any value because the encounter is over.

My knee-jerk reaction about most people's expression of feelings is that they are being superficial. And I know it is not always fair to say that. It is an inescapable fact that people have feelings.  According to Fr. Luigi Giussani, the purpose of feelings is to draw our attention to what is important.  I like that and find it helpful. Feelings have a purpose, and I now know what that purpose is.

One of the priests who is in our NJ Communion and Liberation group once made a statement that we don't get to decide what our feelings are. They are something that happen to us. That is also insightful.

In the English language unfortunately, the word heart is synonymous with feelings. That is not the case in the romance languages or in the Bible's usage of the word. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place "to which I withdraw." The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

If I were to attempt my own definition of heart--it be about all of our faculties coming or acting together as a whole.

In America, people are always expressing and acting on their feelings. For many their feelings are a sacred cow--an idol--and authoritative. For many, the old hippie slogan--question authority, especially your own--needs to be applied to to their feelings. I should differentiate between the experience of feelings and the expression of feelings. Due to Original Sin--the brokenness of humans beings--the expression of feelings frequently manifests itself in dysfunctional, destructive, and even violent ways (James 3 and the power of the tongue!).

Freud wrote in German, not a romance language. Was anything lost in translation?  Note that Freud was also a Jew--of the people of the Bible. Did he understand the Biblical meaning of heart?  And it seems that every time I read a little bit of Freud, I come away sensing that he was highly influenced by St. Augustine, the saint of the interior life and of the heart.

 What do you say?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hannah Arendt, the Film (2012)

Have you ever heard the phrase, "the banality of evil?"  The phrase was coined by a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann.  I watched the film, Hannah Arendt (2012) this past weekend, on Netflix. I had to watch it three times to catch all the nuances. You will not like it. It has no action, sex, violence, horror, intrigue, comedy, or special effects.

Hannah Arendt studied philosophy under the most prominent continental philosopher of the time, Martin Heidegger, at the University of Marburg. The film shows a young Martin Heidegger giving a dramatic lecture on the importance of thinking.  It also shows a young and adoring Hannah Arendt going to his office and asking him to teach her to think.

As teacher and student, Martin and Hannah had a long and stormy romantic relationship.  Hannah had to leave him to earn her Phd under another major German thinker, Karl Jaspers.  (Curiously, the topic of Hannah's Phd thesis was the concept of Love in Saint Augustine. I wonder what Hannah's conscience told her about her relationship with Heidegger and her other many affairs. Saint Augustine would not be pleased!)  After Hannah received her Phd in 1929, she was denied a professorship because she was Jewish. It was in 1933 that the Nazis decreed by law that Jews could not teach in universities. Subsequently, Hannah did research into anti-Semitism, which resulted in her being arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. She was only released from jail because of a sympathetic jailer (1933).

Within weeks of Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany (1933), Martin Heidegger was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg and became an unwavering supporter of Nazism. Heidegger had nothing personal against Jews. He supported Nazism merely for careerist reasons--he felt it was necessary in order to support the university and philosophy.

After her release from jail in 1933, Hannah fled to Paris, where she worked to help other Jewish refugees.  But with the German occupation of northern France, she was sent to an internment camp at Gurs, in Southern France, in 1940. Initially the camp was run by French who were friendly to the Allies, but once the Germans took full control, it became a transitional concentration camp, where the inhabitants were shipped to Auschwitz. With outside help, Hannah and her husband escaped and arrived in New York in 1941.

In New York, Hannah lived the  life of a public intellectual. She was active in the German-Jewish community and was part of the circle of intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. She joined the faculty of The New School for Social Research (joining numerous other ex-patriot refugees from Hitler). She had a large network of friends and colleagues, both Jewish and not, American and European.

Besides The New School, she taught at many other American universities, including Bard, the University of Chicago, Berkeley, and Princeton, where she was the first woman to become a full professor.

In 1951, her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was published.  It was the first book to examine the rise of Nazism and Stalinism and their meaning, implications, and consequences, including for antisemitism. The book made her an intellectual celebrity.

In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was arrested in Argentina by agents from the Israeli Mossad and flown to Israel to be put on trail. With the arrest, Hannah Ardent sought and received an assignment from The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial as a journalist. This is where the real drama begins.

The world thought of Eichmann as a monster--the personification of evil, as close to being the devil himself as humanly possible. But after observing him at the trial, the Jewish Hannah thought differently. She saw that he was not a monster but a completely ordinary and mediocre human being.  He was not a fanatic or a sociopath, but just a stupid man who relied on cliches and conventional thinking rather than think for himself. Hannah stated that personally, Eichmann was not even antisemitic. Her conclusion that the nature of evil is banal does not rest on the fact that he was ordinary or that we are all potential Eichmann's, which we are, but that his stupidity and lack of conscience--his unwillingness to think--was unexceptional.

Eichmann of course claimed that he was only following orders. He claimed that he did not directly harm or intend for harm to come to anyone. He only made sure that the Jews were put on the trains. He even said that he did not harbor any personal malice against any Jews.

In the film, Hannah (her character) says that in Western Civilization, we think of evil as originating from selfishness.  But she concludes no, that mass evil is not monstrous or exceptional but results from people who simply refuse to think.  She meant the ability to decide right from wrong. 

This claim by Hannah about Eichmann became hugely controversial and is the central conflict in the film. But she made one other claim that was even more controversial, that Jewish leaders in Europe had cooperated with the Nazis, including with Eichmann's office itself.

Hannah lost many friends because of her stand.  She was called vile names by countless people. The editors at the New Yorker magazine became very frightened about the consequences of publishing her reportage. One person accused her of turning the trial of Eichmann into a philosophical seminar.  Another accused her of acting like a superior German intellectual looking down on us Jews. The Israeli government sent four agents to America to try and persuade her from publishing. When reason failed, they threatened her. To her face, one former colleague sneeringly called her, "Heidegger's favorite student."  Hannah never backed down or yielded even an inch.

In the film, whenever Hannah is shown in public or having an intellectual argument, she is portrayed as ice cold intellectual without human feelings and is frequently accused of being such.  Many times, when her colleagues disagree with her and fail to persuade her to their point of view, they call her arrogant to her face, to which she never flinches. Yet in private, she is portrayed as human and affectionate, whether with men or women.

Through it all, Hannah Arendt refused to yield. She insisted on thinking. Indeed, the dramatic high point of the film is a scene where Hannah gives a fiery lecture to a class at, The New School of Social Research, on the importance and ability of a person to think.

Ultimately, her report of the Eichmann trial was published in five installments in the New Yorker. And afterwards, they were published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  (But you can find a pdf of the book on the Internet.)

As for Martin Heidegger, essentially, he was another Eichmann. With the Nazis in power, the towering genius of continental philosophy who had inspired Hannah Arendt to learn to think chose not to think.  But his student Hannah Arendt had learned her lessons well.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

This was Ernest Hemingway's first novel. It is clear that he is a master of style.  His sentences are balanced in every way.  The pace is just right, and I appreciate the absence modern structural gimmicks designed to propel the reader.

For the post-World War I generation, The Sun Also Rises was what Jack Kerouac's On the Road was for the post-World War II generation.  The characters appear to be without any direction in life.  But despite all the drinking, fighting, passion, and lust, it is a spiritual journey.  Their busyness, endless, distractions and agitation are signs of restless hearts.  Near the beginning, Robert Cohn expresses a desire to know his purpose in life.  All of them are certainly engaged and in love with life.  Although it may appear this way, Hemingway's character Jake did not take his friends to Pamplona merely to be entertained by the running of the bulls. Jake himself points out that the running of the bulls is only part of a Catholic religious festival called the Feast of Saint Fermina.  Hemingway's character, Jake, goes to church several times and describes himself as very unsure of his Catholicism. Brett tries to pray in churches but resigns to believing that she has no relationship with God.  The title, The Sun Also Rises, is taken from the Bible, from Ecclesiastes. It means that life goes on. Near the end, Brett says somewhat pithily to Jake that she loves the feeling of not being a bitch and that is what we have instead of God.  But Jake reminds her as he has said to her before that there are people who believe. He is talking about himself.  Even if they do not realize it, Cohn, Jake, Brett, and the others  are all looking for purpose, meaning and transcendence in life. That they appear to have failed or not being doing a good job of it does not make it any less a spiritual quest. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Fourth of July

Last night, I watched a documentary about the Revolutionary War, on the American History channel. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought in NY and NJ, in or very near places where I live(d). I shudder at the in-human conditions that the Continental Army, state militias, and other Patriot groups trained, camped, marched, and lived under. I also shudder at the thought of standing shoulder to shoulder at close range facing British soldiers who are also shoulder to shoulder and firing their rifles at you. And that was often followed by a bayonet charge--the Brits had bayonets, and we didn't. Even worse--the overwhelming majority of soldiers who died, died of starvation and disease as POWs in British prison ships. I can't think of too many more miserable ways to die.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Quote of the Day

From an Internet meme:
In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Quote from Marcus Aurelius

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was a Roman Emperor (161-180) and a stoic philosopher.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Edith Stein--a Woman in the Full

I wish to organize and preserve my thoughts about someone who moved me.

Edith Stein (1881-1942) was declared a saint by the Catholic church in 1998.  She grew up in a loving, religiously observant Jewish family in Breslau, Germany. In her teenage years, she became an atheist. She didn't really reject Judaism itself just the Judaism of her childhood. In college, Edith took an interest in psychology and then philosophy, and she went on to study for a doctorate in philosophy under Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of the branch of philosophy called phenomenology. Incidentally, he was also a German Jew but had converted to Lutheranism in his early twenties.

In these latter decades of the Kaisereich (before 1918), German Jews were no longer confined to being merchants but were able to enter the professions. Career opportunities for women were expanding as well. However, for a female to get hired as a professors of philosophy--that was another story. To get a professorship in a German university one had to do two doctoral theses, under two different advisers.  Both of Edith Stein's theses were originally rejected because her advisers could not accept the idea of a woman as a faculty peer. But Husserl's wife intervened and influenced her husband to approve Stein's thesis (1916).

After Edith Stein had left her teaching assistant position under Husserl, she was succeeded by Martin Heidigger (1889-1976), who quickly became the most influential German philosopher of the 20th century. In 1933, Martin Heidigger joined the Nazi party and remained a member until the end. In his own personal attitudes and intellectual beliefs, Heidigger was not antisemitic, but from his position as a university rector and the most renowned philosopher in Germany, he expressed significant, extensive hatred towards Jews.

Edith Stein had had some knowledge of Catholic thought. While on a summer break from university, she read the autobiography of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a Carmelite nun, and it moved her to become a Catholic right away. Not one to take half measures, Theresa also became a Carmelite nun (1933).  A sister followed her into Catholicism and the Carmelites as well.

In 1938, as Jewish persecution escalated in Germany, Edith Stein's religious superior transferred Edith and her sister to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands. But in 1940, the Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands and began to deport the Dutch Jews to the concentration camps. Originally, they did deport Jews who had converted to Christianity prior to the Nazi occupation. However, in July of 1942, the Bishops of Holland wrote a letter condemning the deportation of the Jews and had it read from the pulpit at every Mass in every church in the Netherlands. The Nazis retaliated by deporting all of the Jews that had previously converted.  I believe that, like Etty Hillesum, Edith and her sister could have escaped if they wanted. Edith and her sister were gassed about a week after their arrival at Auswitch.

After the war, Heidigger explained his antisemitism by saying that he was trying to preserve the university and philosophy. The married Heidigger had had affairs with two women that were Jewish. He helped one to escape to another country to avoid the Nazi persecution, and after the war Heidigger, sought out and resumed contact with both women. Heidigger never publicly apologized for his antisemitism. There is one record of a private conversation where he expressed regret.

Heidigger's life and philosophy never intersected.  His life was never a witness to truth. And I am ashamed to say that he was a Catholic.  In stark contrast, Edith Stein's life and beliefs were one and the same, even in the face of the Holocaust.

Phenomenology concerns itself with human experience. The thing that moves me the most about Edit Stein is that a women of her education and intellect, out of compassion for those suffering from the war (World War I), took a break from graduate school to seek training as a nurse and work for the Red Cross in a hospital for wounded soldiers. She served in the ward that took care of soldiers immediately after surgery.  If you know anything about the trench warfare of World War I--the suffering that she witnessed is unimaginable to us today. This experience could have only have verified what she believed about life, experience, and empathy. The title of Edith's doctoral thesis was, On the Problem of Empathy. It is because of her unwavering unity of belief and action, in the face of the worst suffering of which humans are capable, that I call her a woman in the full.

Saint Edit Stein, pray for us.

Most of the above information is from a book called, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue. 1913-1922, by Alasdair Macintyre.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Update on My Fascination with Foreign Languages

In parallel with Pimsleur German, I had been doing Rosetta Stone German through a work program. I completed the 16 Pimsleur lessons and lost my motivation due to the fact that there are no German communities around but also because my pipe dream was to read Steppenwolf in German, and I thought it would be a really long, tiresome haul to get there. The other thing is, after doing the 16 lessons of German, I realized that my 40+ years old high school Spanish was still way better than my German. My overall sense of the Spanish language is still there, and I suspect that the specifics of what I learned in high school are buried in the archives of my brain somewhere. So at work, I got them to switch my German license to a Spanish license. And when they made the switch, I felt like a child opening up a new present on Christmas morning. I'm breezing through the Spanish--it's still just a refresh of high school Spanish so far. My high school teachers were expatriate Cubans, with wildly entertaining, stereotypical Latin tempers by the way. I'll have to settle for eventually reading Lorca, Neruda, and Marquez. Pimsleur emphasizes speaking/listening--which is the correct way to begin learning a new language-- and Rosetta stone seems slow in getting into reading sentences and paragraphs--but to be fair, I haven't gotten far enough into Rosetta Stone. But at a garage sale yesterday, I found a college textbook called Elementary German that looks to be just perfect for me. And they gave me the book for free--actually begged me to take it! So I may be studying German and Spanish. And by the way--I noticed a great deal of similarity between some of the Spanish and German verbs.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Internal Dialogue

You look back upon long email threads of long emails you sent to friends. You read stark, blunt, provocative things. Who wrote that? You look at the top. You wrote it. Who do you think wrote it, stupid? Does anyone else besides you write things like that? Do I really know this guy?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

To Help Uganda

A priest from Uganda spoke at Mass this past Sunday--Fr. Vincent. We know him originally because our parish had paid for him to go to the seminary in Uganda years ago. This was his 2nd trip to our parish here in the U.S.A. The conditions are Uganda are such that he is astonished at how we have running water and electricity. He was with two women from a non-profit organization in Toms River that support his community in Uganda. After Mass, I had coffee and bagels with Fr. Vincent and the women from the non-profit. The casual talk and Q&A over coffee and bagels was a virtual seminar on how to help the poorest of the poor. You can help to save the world, but you have to plan it and do it the right way. In Uganda, most people live in villages. Most children do not go to school. Most children are underweight due to insufficient food. Sanitary water is uncommon. Health care is abysmal, with the biggest problem being the lack of medicine. Malaria is rampant. The single best thing you can do is to educate the girls--it has an immediate positive impact that cascades through her family and village. Besides the education itself, educated girls become resources to their families and villages, plus the education of the girls has the effect of postponing the age at which they have children, and when they do have children, they have the benefit of a mother who is educated.

Coincidentally, today Catholics commemorate the Ugandan martyrs.

The Ugandan Martyrs, by James Martin SJ, America Magazine 6/3/2014

The Blood of the Martyrs, by Robert Barron. Word on Fire. 6/3/2014
The Feast of Charles Lwanga

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Incarnation

 It is precisely that God took on human form which sanctifies human life in the flesh.  More so, who are we to degrade women then--precisely their bodies--when God took the form of an embryo in a woman's body and passed through all the phases of fetal development, birth, and breast feeding?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Back When Life Was Nasty, Brutish and Short--the Old Testament

On the whole, I used to find the Old Testament dull, more difficult to understand than the New Testament, and of lesser importance, since Jesus established a new covenant between God and humankind. But in my Communion and Liberation group, one of our leaders, who happens to be a film maker, made an off-hand comment once which was that he loves reading the O.T. because, "Where else can you find such dramatic material?" That piqued my interest.

A year or two later, a woman in our group loaned me a recording of the Bible on CD, read by Hollywood actors. I listened to in my car, through the first 5 books, by which time, I had had enough. What stood out in my mind quite vividly, was the story of a women who had crept up on a man who was sleeping and hammered a tent peg through his head.  I guess that was Women's Liberation, circa 5,000 BC!

A friend is currently reading the famous volumes of, The Story of Civilization, by Will Durant, and I am trying to read along. We are currently reading the section titled, "Judea," about the ancient Hebrews. It is in the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, published in 1935. I appreciate it because, to me, the experience of reading the O.T. has always been a long series of dense, convoluted details that are hard to follow. And I never understood the historical context. Durant gives a compact history of the Israelites in the same way that a secular historian would of any other ancient group, and the perspective is helpful. Moreover, the quality and old fashioned style Durant's writing is a breath of fresh air.

Will Durant was an atheist. He was raised Catholic, had a Jesuit education, and had studied to become a priest. With his departure from the seminary, he went on to become a philosopher and advocate of radical social change. With his writings, he became an important disseminater of culture to the masses during a time in America when it was greatly needed. I respect his independence of mind.

When people criticize the O.T., they often fail to appreciate that the oldest books were written as early as 1,000 BC events and cite events that took place as far back as five thousand BC--very primitive times indeed.

Coincidentally, I just discovered a series of twenty-four 50 minute videos on Youtube, from Open Yale Courses, called, Introduction to the Old Testament. The lectures show the ancient nature of the Hebrews and the influence of the surrounding peoples. The videos are very consistent with and a good complement to Will Durant's text.

The professor stressed that in its time, the Bible was a very progressive, counter-cultural document. In my listening to the Bible on CD, I was impressed that under the law, women were allowed to inherit property for example. In our own lifetimes, many societies, including in the very same Middle East have not allowed women to inherit property.

In light of Will Durant and the above Yale lectures, the Ten Commandments were a major advance for civilization. In its time, it was every bit as bleeding-edge, fantastic and wildly radical as the Sermon on the Mount today.

I have always appreciated that the seeds of social justice were contained in the Old Testament. The idea that each person has the same human dignity as anyone else and each is of infinite worth comes from Genesis 1:27--from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. And later on, prophets castigated the people for, among other things, failing to take care of the orphans, the widows, and the foreigners among them. Come to think of it, even in America today, we still don't fully heed this admonition as well as we could. Perhaps humanity has not progressed as much as we like to think.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Something The Germans Would Have A Word For

The realization that you forgot what you were looking for, but you keep looking with the assumption that when you find it, you will remember what it was.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday--the day we commemorate the death of Jesus. Would that his suffering and death propel all of us to work to alleviate the sufferings of others in the world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Reading Bedtime Stories To Children

I liked reading to my two sons at bedtime when they were little, but I had little imagination about what to read them. I had once bought Beowulf for myself to read on the train, and not being able to think of anything better, I read chunks of it to them over the course of a week. Surprisingly, they liked it, and I realized, what boy doesn't like stories about fighting a monster, and under water no less?

I did find one children's story that I liked--Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George.  It's about a thirteen year-old Eskimo girl who lives on the North Slope of Alaska who runs away from a marriage that she was pushed into. Lost on the tundra, she is accepted by a pack of wolves with whom she learns to communicate and from whom she receives food, water, and a sense of family.  At one point out on the tundra, the girl sings a song which she had composed. As soon as I read the first stanza of the song, my older son cut me off and recited the rest of the song. Apparently, in school someone had read the book to them, and he was able to recite it from memory.  

Around this time, I had been in a Bible study that was reading the Book of Daniel. Something possessed me to read some of it to them. I learned right way that whatever the content was, if I read it melodramatically, my sons found it entertaining. In that book, there are characters called satrapies, which were viceroys--public administrators--appointed by the Persian king. Whenever I read a sentence about the satrapies, I read it in a tone as if they were awesome, powerful, fearsome creatures, like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. My younger son loved it, as if it was a cartoon, and he playfully acted-out trembling in fear at every mention of the satrapies.

Once I did try reading The Hobbit to them, but it was too boring for me to tolerate, and I just couldn't do it a second time. They happened to be children when the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, and many good Disney movies were coming out. But I think reading books does far more for creativity, the imaginations, and literacy than watching movies. On their own, my sons have read all of the Harry Potter Books. They've read some of the Chronicles of Narnia and at least some of Lord of the Rings. I have never read any of the aforementioned, and at my age, I can;t seem to get into them. When I was a child, I had no knowledge of C.S Lewis or J.R. Tolkien.  I had read Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville.  I don't know why I didn't think of reading any of their books to them.

Scroll ahead about ten years.  My older son Andrew came home from high school one day and said that they had been reading Beowulf in English class. He said that he still remembered the story from when I had read it to them as children. He said that because of that, he was able to engage more deeply with the story in class and provide a more in-depth analysis than the other students.

Today, my older son, a college junior, is a regular reader and a pretty good writer. But to my great disappointment, my younger son, a college freshman, does not like to read or write. He is capable of reading and writing well, but he never does so voluntarily.

I wish I had read better material to them more often. Only this year, did I learn about Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example. Besides being good for the imagination and helping children get ready to sleep, I think it helps to build a positive kind of relationship with them that you can build on, as they get older.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire."

-Gustav Mahler

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Of Paul Simon's Song, "The Boxer"

This song resonates with me. To me it is about a young man, thoughtful and sensitive, feeling warmth and affection for his father, a boxer, a brutal man, who makes his living by violence, who breaks other men's bones, cuts them, and tries to knock them unconscious--but who receives the same also, without regret or lament--if only for just enough money for ham & eggs or to help pay the rent. The boy loves the boxer, and the boxer loves the boy, with neither one being able to express it in a way the other can appreciate or receive. Yet the boxer has given the boy resilience and the ability to carry on and survive. This is the relationship between my father and I.

Monday, February 24, 2014


It is well known that our memory deteriorates as we get older, with short term memory deteriorating faring much worse than long term memory. Based on my own experience, I suspect the problem is that by the time people get to be my age and older, we have so much information stuffed in our heads that, rather than losing information, it simply becomes harder for our brains to find specific pieces of information. Long term memory does not deteriorate as much, and I suspect that is because when we were younger, our brains had much more available capacity. As we get older and our brain gets fuller, it also has a harder time finding places to store new information. I was at a wake Friday night for a working colleague. Someone mentioned a woman that we used to work with, but no one could remember her last name. on Sunday at 03:00 A.M., I remembered her last name.

A Fall on the Ice

On my walk this morning, I was transported back 30 years to Aikido class. My feet arced into the air. My hand and wrist failed to stop the fall, and I took the full impact along my forearm. I was never a good uke; I always tensed when I fell. Rolling on to my stomach while sensing if I had suffered any serious pain or injury, I felt sorry for myself. With my nose to the concrete, I had a ground level view of a transparent patch of ice so elegantly smooth it should been hanging on a wall at MOMA. Hello sidewalk. You were not my friend today.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Why Be Compassionate?

"The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another."
-Thomas Merton

Friday, January 24, 2014

Judgment and Respect (A quote from Teddy Roosevelt)

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- Teddy Roosevelt
The only people worthy of criticizing you are the people in the trenches with you.

Monday, January 20, 2014


"It does not matter what level of perfection you reach.  What others think or don't think of how much you do does not matter, nor does your judgment of yourself.  All that matters is that mercy has taken you for ever, from the origin of your existence.  Mercy called you to love, because mercy loved you.

Holiness means always affirming -- before everything else, in everything else -- the embrace of the Father, the merciful, pitying movement of Christ, his gesture, that is he himself, independent of everything that stirs and has the appearance of life in us….

We must become more and more aware of God's covenant with us, of life as God's involvement with us, and therefore of the irrational influences of our outbursts, of our projects.

Nothingness, destruction, exile is the life proper to the world, especially our life, without this covenant, which remains in me even in the destruction and in the desolation caused by my wicked heart.  Grace holds fast because God leads me to discover what he is and to understand that from my destruction he makes something new bud forth--an identification with him and the Father."

-- Servant of God Luigi Giussani (+ A.D. 2005)

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Point to Ponder from Joseph Campbell

"What's made up in the head is the fiction. What comes out of the heart is a myth."

- Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Rumination on Death

We all want to live a long and healthy life. At 58, I know too many people who died far too young and far younger than I--from heart attacks, 9/11, cancer, an accident, AIDs, a murder, a suicide, a brain infection, alcohol. Each death makes me wonder--Why am I still here, and they are not?

It makes me grateful for my own life. I sense some truth in that line from Billy Joel, "Only the good die young." God takes us when we are ready to be taken. And none of us know the mind of God. It behooves us to find and pursue our purpose in life while we still can. It behooves us to make every day count. For reasons unknown to us, we the living are not ready to be taken yet. We the living still have work to do.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thomas Torregrossa, RIP

Friend and working colleague Thomas Torregrossa died of a heart attack on New Year's Eve. He was younger than I. Tom was a memorably and notoriously talented comic and mimic--Citibank's answer to Robin Williams. I met Tom when we were both working the night shift. Tom had married a woman from Mexico, and I appreciated his telling me about her family and the differences from American customs, like mariachi music and the togetherness of family. Tom was well known for having taught himself to speak Spanish like a native Mexican. At work, when dealing with colleagues from Mexico or other Central American countries, in order to avoid inter-regional misunderstandings, Spanish speakers from other areas always asked Tom to be the intermediary. He was that good. At the time we met, I had recently married a woman from Hong Kong. From age 10, Tom had a stepmother from Hong Kong. Tom and I knew the same (few) Cantonese words and expressions. We shared many common, humorous experiences about encountering certain Chinese foods for the first time, like chicken feet and thousand-year-old eggs. We had an acquired, shared love of juk/jo (congee) and other specific Chinese foods. We also had the same experiences of being required to drink extremely foul smelling/looking homemade herbal concoctions whenever we got sick! We were both lost and confused by hot/cold body systems and hot/cold foods. Also memorable were the times we went out for lunch together to Wo Hops's in Chinatown at 03:00 A.M.  Tom informed me that the reason Wo Hop was opened 24x7 was because if they ever closed it for a few hours the place would be invaded by rats, and they 'd never be able to get rid of them.  Tom was a plus for humanity and for anyone who knew him. I am greatly saddened by his death but even more saddened for his wife and children.