Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I love this Catholic theology tip

The other fun part of 10,000 Gun Questions Night is keeping it strictly Catholic. I often hear a double complaint about the Church:
  1. How can we possibly have a firm teaching on anything?
  2. And if so, why don’t we have a firm teaching on everything?
As if it were somehow more logical to worship a god who gave out brains and then refused to let you use them. [Catholic moral theology tip: If God gives you something, He's got a plan for how it's supposed to be used. Thy body is not a knick knack.]
From Jennifer Fitz, Riparians at the Gate

L. A. Diary: Meeting an Old Friend, for the First Time

Part 6: Land of Dreams


There's always a unique tension in meeting people in person who you've only corresponded with ... or whose blogs you've read for a long time. The impressions you gain those ways can be very different sometimes with the person you meet face to face.

It isn't that you don't eventually work your way to that common ground that you both know each other from, but it can take a while and be awkward.

Then there are the people who have the happy knack of diving right into conversation as if you had lunch with them every day.

So you can imagine my pleasure at finding Will Duquette from The View From the Foothills is the second sort. As is his sweet wife, Jane.

Will and Jane were very kind to Tom and Rose on their initial trip to L.A. and both were looking forward to seeing the Duquettes again. We met up at a Mexican restaurant in their neck of the woods, or should I say foothills? We definitely were in beautiful, hilly terrain.

And we dove right into talk as if we were long-lost family members picking up where we left off. Books, California, the faith (of course) were all grist for the mill and we talked nonstop for at least a couple of hours. It was a real treat and hard to tear ourselves away.

I'm already looking forward to our next trip to L.A. in no little part because we'll get more talking time in with Will and Jane (and I can see their remodeled kitchen).

If you haven't dropped by Will's place lately, do make a point to stop by. He's been writing much more lately (you are all welcome very much), mostly about philosophy and sometimes about coffee. I've been enjoying it all a great deal, even if we did have a friendly debate about the Joe Ledger books and Evil.

Don't miss it ... The View From the Foothills.

Tomorrow, we'll fall in love.

HHS Mandate - some mulling over

In reference to my realization that HHS edict is personal since we are an employer, Class Factotum asked:
Do you exclude contraception now? Back in the late 80s, when I worked for a group health insurance company, the only contract where they didn't cover contraception or abortion was the Catholic hospital.
It's funny that she asks that because right before I read her comment, I realized that it never occurred to me to even check what our healthcare covered along those lines.

That's because we are a really tiny company and our employees haven’t been in the demographic where contraception or abortion ever came up.

Also, we are still mulling all this over, but in talking with Tom about it this morning, I was saying that it wasn’t up to me to mandate contraceptive prohibition to those whose beliefs don’t match mine. Obviously, I don't feel as if it is up to us to pay for those sorts of things either. And I'd feel that way whether I were Catholic or not.

Unlike the politicians trying to push this HHS thing through, I actually feel as if those choices are private and personal ... and I'm willing to let them stay that way.

As to where our insurance gets involved and what that means, we’re still mulling and looking into what is in place.

Other Thoughts
Frank says the petition is picking up steam but we're going to need to hit Mach 1 to achieve the 25,000 needed signatures. Sign up here.

The Anchoress has also been mulling things over and feels that we have been given the gift of clarity. Read it here at First Things.

Here Be Dragons. Literally. : Reviewing "The Dragon Factory" by Jonathan Maberrry

"Detective Ledger?" he said, and held out an ID case. "NSA."

"How do you spell that?"
Joe Ledger's back.

In Patient Zero, (SFFaudio review here) he saved the world from a zombie apocalypse and Muslim terrorists. Almost single handed.

How will he do on the island of Dr. Moreau?

In The Dragon Factory Joe is evading government agents trying to shut down the DMS, is the only man alive to have defeated genetically engineered super warriors, and is romancing his beautiful fellow agent Grace Courtland.

And that's just in the first few chapters.

Once again, Jonathan Maberry weaves a threat we know with a threat from fiction. A mad scientist (Cyrus) is using genetic experiments to mold the world in a way that will have horrific results for the population at large. Did I mention he's German? And enjoys cloning as a light pastime?

Meanwhile, a pair of amoral, super intelligent, albino twins are mixing and matching genetics to create creatures of myth and monsters from your worst nightmares.

Joe's got to find and stop all of them before the "Extinction Wave" doomsday program counts down to zero and releases havoc on the world. With a little help from Top, Bunny, Grace, and the enigmatic Mr. Church, of course.

I enjoy the way that Maberry mashes up several genres, with tongue in cheek, and produces a pulp fiction style, action-packed, roller coaster ride that keeps me on the edge of my seat.

This book tells a good portion of the story from the crazed villains' point of view, to good effect. I really love the dysfunctional family of super-villains where the children have disappointed the father by not having enough "vision" and the kids have giant "daddy" issues.

Maberry also dug just a bit deeper than I expected by contrasting the villainous family with Eighty-Two  the clone who Cyrus loves most but who fails every psych test in being "acceptable" (as his henchman, Otto, puts it). I didn't initially realize what that meant when filtered through the horrific mindsets of Otto and Cyrus, but the result was a surprise that led to some interesting musing about free will versus evil and nature versus nurture.  It isn't terribly deep but I still found its inclusion refreshing in a book of this sort.

As in Patient Zero, Ray Porter’s narration was spot on, voicing Joe Ledger as if he were the man himself, with slight variations applied to other characters to make them come alive equally well. I'd rather hear these books narrated than read them myself just for the sheer enjoyment of Porter's style and emphasis.

Make no mistake, The Dragon Factory is a straight-up thriller without a lot of twists and turns in plot. You read it for the hunt, for the action, for the adventure. You also read it for the twists of humor, the pulp fiction style, and the monsters. Especially for the monsters.

It's a good time at high speed. What more can you ask?

(This review originally ran at SFFaudio, whence came the review copy of the book.)

Note to Readers: the book contains violence and sex ... not as much as it could, to be sure, but not the least amount possible either.

Monday, January 30, 2012

L. A. Diary: It Is the Land of Dreams

Part 1: We Begin
Part 2: On the Road


A quick observation.

You can buy liquor in the grocery store in California!

This is not new to anyone from, say, Missouri. Where I also was surprised every time I'd visit my parents and find a fully stocked liquor section.

But it never fails to surprise me.

We took advantage of the novelty by making sure that Rose had what she needed to offer us proper cocktails in the evening.

Ah, it can be very good to be Catholic!

Next, we meet an old friend, for the first time!

The HHS Mandate: Now it's personal.

As I was reading our Bishop's letter contained in our church bulletin, strongly urging people to protest the HHS edict which demands that sterilization, abortifacients and contraception be included in virtually all health plans. No religious exceptions allowed.

It suddenly occurred to me.

We're Catholic employers. Tom and I. In our little company.


Here I was taking on the fight for the Church and then I realized that ... duh ... we are the Church. So I've got to go to my insurance agent and talk about this problem. We're a tiny business and although we don't have to provide insurance for our employees we do anyway. It's the whole "treat them like you'd want to be treated" way to live the faith.

Except now maybe we can't without violating our consciences.

Think of the irony. One of our employees is a steadfast Democrat and, I think, an atheist. And he's our best guy and has worked for us for quite a while. If I have to do a work around on his insurance ... it will be the first time that the government has forced us to raise religion in our workplace. Nice going, Mr. O.

Frank, at Why I Am Catholic, with impeccable timing, has begun a petition at We the People. You have to register but you can leave the zip code part blank if you like. You can view and sign the petition here.

I also will be writing to President Obama, Kathleen Sebelaius, and my political representatives telling them that I don't appreciate them getting their government all over my religion. The Catholic bishops have info further explaining the HHS mandate, with links for writing.

It's Not Just for Catholics
Remember, this isn't just a Catholic fight. There are other faiths and personal philosophies that don't approve of abortion and certainly don't approve of the government stepping on religious freedom this way.

Speak up. It's the only way they'll get the message.

Conversation and Observations
In the course of a couple of email conversations with pals about this mandate, I mentioned that President Obama's group didn't think this through very well if it was going to suck in little companies like ours. A friend responded:
Julie, don't kid yourself. it's VERY well thought out. They could have glommed onto an exemption idea such as works in Hawaii, where employers have to notify employees by mail that they won't offer coverage for contraception and the worker can purchase a rider to the insurance on their own. They said they didn't have the AUTHORITY to work that exemption in. But they have the authority to overstep the constitution.

This was deliberately done, and meant to provoke a war.
I mentioned that I didn't think they meant for individual employers (Catholics, Mormons, whatever) to begin opting out. I thought they just went after the big guys ...

Because we will opt out. Although it may be a bloodless martyrdom. My pal's response.
Yes, it's going to force Catholics who offer insurance, like you and Tom, and who do it out of the goodness of your hearts and because you're interested in justice, to stop offering insurance. Which will force people to go on the government rolls, which is what Obama has wanted from the start. It puts believers of all stripes between the rock and the hard place and forces their hands -- he benefits.
Food for thought. And definitely when the rubber meets the road.

Other Responses
The Curt Jester has a round-up of "muscular episcopate statements" and his own thoughts. Some I'd seen, some I hadn't. My favorite is Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh:
The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, “To Hell with you!” There is no other way to put it.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

L. A. Diary: The Best Deal in L. A. ... Maybe the Best TWO Deals in L. A.

Part 1: We Begin
Part 2: On the Road


Once we didn't have to worry about accommodating a dog, hotel selection became somewhat easier.

Or did it?

Once Tom began scouting hotels near Los Feliz it became clear that there weren't many national chains nearby. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced us to go local.

Normally, we'd have jumped at the "local" option, but we'd experienced enough inconveniences on this trip to make predictable comfort a very desirable thing.

However, we chose wisely.

BrandWood Hotel, a boutique hotel "in the historic and upscale downtown district in city of Glendale" had more good reviews than bad. We figured it couldn't be worse than many of the European hotels we'd stayed at and booked the room. We could always relocate after one night.

For one thing, could any hotel room really be great if it was only $105 per night?



We can't praise it highly enough.

Charming decor, comfortable rooms, adequate bathrooms (not luxurious but the hot water never ran out), solicitous and friendly staff ... it was fantastic.

For breakfast it was a hop, skip, and a jump to Portos Bakery down the street, where we quickly became addicted to their rich coffee which was also surprisingly inexpensive ... a large was $1.79. Unheard of!

Likewise, the many fine bakery offerings, which had locals lined up every day, were also quite inexpensive. And delicious. Quite delicious.

Altogether, Glendale turned out to be a felicitous choice!

We were always ready for days of setting up Rose's new digs and dealing with the challenges of setting up Rose's new digs.

Luckily Zoe only needed one night of sleeping in the new place with Rose to decide this was home ... and pick a spot in the nearby park for her very own "safe place." That was the biggest problem off of our minds ... finally!

We were free for other encounters ... of the personal kind. As well as some delightful discoveries. Which we will talk about next week!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

L. A. Diary: Happy Catholic and the Strange Encounter

Part 1: We Begin
Part 2: On the Road
Part 3: We Arrive


So, there we were, beat up from 5 hours of driving, 3 hours of steady box moving, several days of jittery Boxer toilet patrol, and showing it, I am sorry to say.

Looking for the nearest hotel that would take a dog, we wound up at the Hollywood Holiday Inn. Which didn't take dogs, as it turns out, but did afford us a glimpse of the hubbub surrounding big doings at Grauman's Chinese Theater with media lights and a huge crowd as we negotiated the insane traffic.

Finally, after making the wise decision to do a broader computer search for dog-friendly hotels from the Holiday Inn parking lot, we headed for the Marriott near Bob Hope Airport, thinking it would provide a little peace and quiet.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ride by Warner Brothers Studios again, through Burbank which looked quaintly nostalgic for the 1950s (my grandparents went to a pharmacy that looked just like one we passed), and then just a bit further to the Marriott.

The Marriott, however, instead of being that island of peace we imagined, seemed to have a lot going on. As Rose and I waited for Tom to come out, we wondered what event was going on that required so many black ties, limos, and bustling bellboys. Tom emerged, with a bellboy in tow, and dispatched us with Zoe to go to the room while he parked.  We took said bellboy in tow, now pushing a cart laden with our many bags. And Zoe's giant water bowl. (Chic. That's us.)

We got to the lobby well ahead of our escort and paused, nonplussed. There was a huge cocktail party. Everyone was talking just as fast and loud as they could. The noise level was incredible. They were dressed up, some in rather garish clothing. Entering that riot of noise, especially after the day we'd had, was disorienting. We looked down at Zoe who was pressed against Rose's leg, obviously wondering what fresh hell we'd brought her to now. We looked again at that crowd and then the bellboy said, "Straight ahead, ma'am, and then through the bar to the elevators."


We looked again at Zoe, each other, and the gauntlet ahead. I told Rose, "I feel as if we ought to have a greyhound on a fancy leash to take through this crowd." She laughed and we forged ahead.

Everyone turned to look and delightedly gestured, smiled, or cried out, "Look! A Boxer! I love Boxers!"

Zoe pressed harder against Rose's leg, kept her head down, and we all kept going, with everything a blur around us.

(Who builds their elevators behind the bar? Seriously!)

Finally, the gauntlet passed, we were safe in our rooms. I began taking inventory and pulling out the bottles for cocktails. (Yes, we were supplied and never had we been gladder than that evening when every nerve was frayed.)

Tom arrived and we all felt the room service salads crying out to us after all that fast food on the road. Rose left with Zoe to look for the patch of grass the front desk had mentioned. Tom left also (I can't remember why now). I called room service.

"Yes, ma'am, how may we serve you?"

"I'd like to order two Chicken Caesar salads and one Cobb Salad."

"Yes, ma'am. And how many people will be dining?"

Pause. I didn't know what that question meant. Wasn't this fairly straight forward?

Wait. Just how big were those salads?

"I'm sorry. How many people?"

"Yes, ma'am. So we know how many plates and how much cutlery to send up."

"Okaaay. Well, we'd like two Chicken Caesar salads and one Cobb Salad. So that's three salads. One for each of us. So that's three people?"

"Yes, ma'am. Sometimes we might get one person who would order three salads."


Had we somehow actually had taken a short jog to Las Vegas? For some reason, I felt a casino vibe in the air now.

Tom came back and I told him about the conversation. His eyes twinkled and he laughed.

"Welcome to Hollywood!"

Rose returned, her eyes twinkling and a grin on her face.

"I found out who all those people are downstairs. It's a convention for the sex industry!"

We gaped at her. And then we all burst out laughing out loud.

"The patch of grass is right next to the convention hall and it has all glass walls. I was just staring into space and then I realized that the exhibit booth I was looking at was for Fleshlight - the number one sex toy for men."

Euwwww. Incredulous laughter from us.

"And then I started looking at the other booths. Trojan. Hustler. That's when I realized what was going on."

Tom got on the computer and we discovered that we'd landed right smack dab in the center of the annual convention for "adult industry" marketers (XBIZ Retail).

Vegas. Definitely a Vegas vibe was what I felt.

Rose got a big Vegas-style dose when waiting for the elevator to return to the room. Her eyes were past twinkling by now. They were gleaming with humor.

"It isn't just marketers here. There must be some of the 'stars' too. The elevator opened and I was eye to eye with a couple of implants that made Pamela Anderson look flat! How can she stand up straight? And who would think that is attractive?"

Zoe continued to be shy about wetting around strangers. We took turns hourly walking her and all had a chance to marvel over the idea of having a marketing convention for the sex industry.

As we would brace ourselves for the elevators to open to the noise of the bar and lobby party, two things became clear.

One: the Boxer just may be America's favorite dog. Every trip had cries wafting after us of, "Look! A Boxer. I love Boxers!" As the evening went on, the numbers did not decrease but they did grow increasingly drunk. My last trip at 11:00 was to shrill whistles and treats being tossed to Zoe as she slid by, ears back.

Tom finally set the alarm and got up at 2:00 a.m. The lobby party was still going strong, but there was finally a lack of outdoor traffic and Zoe gratefully used her toilet privileges in private.

Two: the second thing was that every time I looked at these very normal seeming people, I was filled with pity for them. They had managed to fool themselves into thinking that their marketing jobs were just like any others. Of course, in the sheer mechanics, they are. But in the sheer misery of soul that their industry generates to people ... well, that is hard to measure but it is no less real for being invisible. I began praying for them. And I still do so whenever I think of that evening, which has been fairly often as we have told this story.

The Marriott was a luxurious treat, beyond our budget, but for one evening it was just what we needed. And I'd have never seen "Vegas in Hollywood" without it.

We knew we'd have to find cheaper digs the next day. And, out of the blue we found what just may be the best deal in Los Angeles.

Which I will tell you about ... tomorrow!

Julie marvels at the end of the series, and Scott can't believe he didn't mention Luna Lovegood.

It's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (plus the whole series) under discussion as Scott Danielson and I begin Season 2 at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ObamaCare and Religious Freedom - Timothy Dolan at the WSJ

You know, opening my paper in the morning just gets more interesting all the time.

A few days ago, I was bemused to see Bad Catholic quoted, whose blog I enjoy, in the regular Friday op-ed section where there was a thoughtful piece about the viral video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. I haven't commented on that video because many others have done so quite effectively ... suffice it to say that it is a shallow bit of thinking representative of the age we live in.

Then this morning I was surprised to see an editorial ObamaCare and Religious Freedom. By none other than Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, whose writing I much enjoy. He roundly takes the Obama administration for insisting on pushing the government into religion.
Scarcely two weeks ago, in its Hosanna-Tabor decision upholding the right of churches to make ministerial hiring decisions, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically reaffirmed these longstanding and foundational principles of religious freedom. The court made clear that they include the right of religious institutions to control their internal affairs.

Yet the Obama administration has veered in the opposite direction. It has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.


The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone. The Amish do not carry health insurance. The government respects their principles. Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that. Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors. By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.
Do go read it all.

I remember rolling my eyes when the Obama administration announced a few days ago, with an air of paternal well meaning, that they would give religious groups an extra year to come into line with their mandate. How kind of them ... to push it away from the president's reelection campaign timing and pretend they are doing religious institutions a favor.

This inevitably brought to mind President Obama's statement on the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, where he fell back on affirming it at the most basic level because, and I quote:
... but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.
Of course, he was being disingenuous. Killing someone is the most basic sort of intrusion of government into rights and abortion is killing. But above that, he shows that intruding into personal privacy is the sort of thing that is only honored when he cares to do so.

Again, I am reminded. I must pray for President Obama and his staff. We are not only under grave attack for our religious rights, but their souls are at grave risk.

L. A. Diary: We Arrive and I Discover that I Love L.A.

Part 1: We Begin
Part 2: On the Road


Once we got to the other side of those mountains, which actually look like foothills to anyone who grew up visiting Colorado on a regular basis, we hit Los Angeles.

What a surprise it was.

The movies made me think of it as flat.

This was enhanced when Tom told me many years ago that L.A. was like a huge version of Houston. Hmmm. Houston is flat as a pancake, full of clogged highways, and, frankly, not my cup of tea.

This city though was not like the descriptions or movies. It was clumps of hills with houses clinging to the sides and grouped around the base, highways weaving around them. The houses were brightly colored or Spanish-style architecture or just exotic looking.

I feasted my eyes.

This was anything but flat and boring!

As we laboriously made our way through town to Rose's new neighborhood of Los Feliz, my enchantment grew. For some reason Brazil came to mind. Yes, that is just how exotic it felt. I loved it! And that enchantment lasted the entire time we were there.

Rose's apartments, which back up to a huge hill and face a city park, continued my pleasure. Much larger than we expected, with hardwood floors and open courtyards, it was a lovely place to think of Rose and Zoe spending their time.

We crammed the car and U-Haul into Rose's parking place and hurriedly began hauling boxes to and fro. We wanted to unload that darned trailer and only had a couple of hours before the U-Haul office closed. We made the deadline and felt as light as a feather continuing without it behind us in the L.A. traffic. Why, we could even back up! No more determining destinations based on pull-through parking. Woohoo!

Rose and Zoe would spend one more night with us in a hotel. There was no way we were going to abandon them with the bed not even put together and the entire place full of boxes.

But where would take a dog?

Not many places, as it turned out.

However, both the Marriott and the Holiday Inn near the Bob Hope Airport would do so. And they weren't too far away. Based on the photos, Tom thought the Marriott looked quieter and more relaxing.

Thus did we learn that you really cannot judge a hotel by its picture.

Little did we know that we were embarking upon the strangest encounter we would have the entire time. And, now that I think of it, I'm not sure our family has ever had an evening like the one we had at the Marriott.

Once again, that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

L. A. Diary: On the Road

Part 1: We Begin


Adventure or inconvenience ... this one is easy.

Driving is worth it. The scenery is simply fantastic.

As Tom said, it is like that first scene from Silverado. Scott Glenn has been inside a tiny, dark cabin evading shotgun blasts from an unknown assassin on the outside. He prevails and swings open the door and ...

... there taking up the entire screen is a glorious panorama that you can hardly believe is real.

Those filmmakers must have driven through the west.

Not that there weren't inconveniences. We had plenty to make sure we appreciated the boons we were granted (such as that scenery).

The half hour of waiting in traffic just outside of Fort Worth after we'd been driving only about 20 minutes from home. Some genius in the local Transportation department had detoured four lanes through an access road.

Zoe's continual nervousness at the traffic. Every time a big truck roared by she jumped to her feet and whirled to look out the window. This was just for the first day, but she was so nervous that we all had to sit in the car with her so that she'd take a drink of water. And after she did ... she vomited. Luckily, your eagle-eyed Happy Catholic was in the back seat, noticed the gulping (and seconds later, the heaving sides) and grabbed the giant water bowl to hold under her mouth. And my instinct to cover the back seat and environs with old towels gave us a nice mouth-wipe for after.

The food. Dear Lord, the endless outlets for fast food of every sort. This wasn't helped by the fact that the U-Haul dictated our choice of restaurants. If we couldn't pull through, then we didn't dine there. (I use the word "dine" loosely, but you get the idea.)

But without those inconveniences we wouldn't have been able to revel in this glorious Western scenery. Not for the first few hours. West Texas is no treat for the eyes, except possibly in high summer. But as soon as we hit New Mexico the mesas made me remember not only Silverado, but every Western movie I'd ever seen.

It was sunset and the rich golden glow from the west put everything in sharp silhouette. The mesas stood black against the light. It was almost too much for the eyes but we couldn't quit staring.

The next two days saw more mesas, mountains, glorious rolling desert ... and then for a couple of hours before hitting the California mountains, we were back in nondescript landscape. And then we rolled through those hills and saw L.A.

But that's a story for another day. Tomorrow,  in fact.

An Individual Retreat for Seeking Humility: Reviewing "Simplifying the Soul" by Paula Houston

True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit--it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us.
Tryon Edwards
Humility means knowing the good about yourself and the bad about yourself. It is about having proper perspective. It is only when we are truly humble that we can be Christ-like, obedient to God the the right spirit, and learn to love God selflessly.

I'm terrible at it.

I try. Sometimes I succeed (always through God's grace ... do I need to even say that part?). But mostly, I try. And forget. And fail.

So it was with a sense of relief that I saw the Patheos book club was going to be discussing Paula Huston's new book, Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit.

Though, to be honest, it was with a sense of "what? already!" that I realized Lent must be coming up if this book was considered timely.

I really loved Huston's book, By Way of Grace (excerpts and my comments are here), which took readers on a tour of the virtues via selected saints and Huston's own life. I knew I'd probably like this book. What I didn't expect is that Simplifying the Soul is an actual retreat-in-a-book. When she says "Lenten practices to renew your spirit," she isn't kidding.

Huston talks about the desirability of humility and then points out that Lent is like the Church's annual retreat for all of us to stop, take a fresh look at ourselves (with God's help), identify what is impeding our ability to follow Christ, and then to apply the antidote.

To this end, she sets forth the way of simplicity, following in the footsteps of the desert fathers and mothers ... those who dwelled in the desert, seeking God ... with daily quotes and practices to help us notice and shed our sins. Huston adds her own wise observations and examples from her life to help the reader have proper perspective.

Each week is unified under its own theme and practices follow suit. Thus "simplifying space" may call for cleaning out a junk drawer one day and setting up a special prayer place on another. "Simplifying relationships" may ask you to sit in silence with a friend and, later in the week, to forgive someone in person.

None of the practices are difficult although, naturally, some may need adaptation to live up to the spirit of the thing if something doesn't particularly apply to you. For example, I tend to dread social engagements of any kind (no matter that  I enjoy them a lot when I'm actually there), so asking me to cancel a social engagement is going to do nothing but make me happy, instead of inspiring the inward examination Huston hopes for. However, I bet my husband will be able to come up with an appropriate substitute.

There are some practices, however easy, that may make us quail. That's part of the point. It is one thing to think about carrying out good works and quite another to commit to actually doing them, even if for only one day. Work in a soup kitchen for a day? Scary to step out like that ... at least it is for me ... but I am willing to try.

I considered following this individual retreat myself during Lent. It is solid and has a great combination of "adding on" and "giving up" to help us know ourselves better while seeking God. However, I realized that the different daily practices actually would be playing into one of my main faults: jumping around from thing to thing. Although they are all contained within the larger framework of simplification, to jump from thing to thing is something that brings out the worst in me. My own nature requires being forced to stick with one thing.

I don't think this applies to everyone and I believe that Huston's retreat will be a great blessing for most readers. I will be reading along daily because even considering her "help at a soup kitchen" practice made me realize that there are members of my own family who I am not giving enough time to ... such as not visiting my mother-in-law enough. On that larger level, this retreat will work really well for me as a self examination of ingrained habits. Hopefully, I will learn enough from it that I can take on some good practices as a long-term habit.

Here's a sample to give you an idea of how a day looks. There is quite a bit missing from Huston's comments, because I'd have been typing for a long time, but as I say ... this gives you a flavor. Bon appetit!

third week of lent:

The desert dwellers believed that our souls need proper nourishment--spiritual food--in order to achieve clear spiritual vision. Jesus often withdrew into the desert or the mountaintops at night in order to rejuvenate his soul through prayer.

Monday: Spend a Day Without TV
A brother, possessed by sadness and melancholy went to an Elders and asked of him: "What am I to do? My thoughts present me with the idea that perhaps in vain I denied the world and that I cannot be saved."

Thoughtfully, the Elder answered as follows: "My child, even if we do not succeed in reaching the promised land, it is  better that we should give our carcasses to the desert than return to the Egypt of fearful enslavement" (Numbers 14:29-33).

I live in a busy place. With a garden, orchard, kitchen, and grandkids to care for, my mornings are filled with physical labor. By the time I sit down for lunch, I'm tired. But then I go to my studio, where I spend the next four or five hours researching and writing. When I get back to the house at six or so, it's time to cook the evening meal, eat dinner, and clean up the kitchen. As the working day draws to a close, I find myself fighting to stay awake. But 8:00 p.m. is just too early to go to bed. Instead, I look around for something that will not only keep me up but also distract me!

... After all what could be wrong with a little entertainment after a long day's work?

What's wrong is that a steady diet of over-stimulating or fantasy-inducing distraction eventually reshapes our perception of the world and prevents us from dealing with reality. ...

Jesus, however, links genuine freedom to our ability to recognize truth. "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32). Free from what? Misperception, melodrama, falsehood, artificiality, superficiality, and self-indulgent egoism--everything the entertainment industry depends upon to hold our attention. ...

Today fast from TV. If you are not a TV watcher, then choose another form of entertainment that you rely upon to keep you stimulated and distracted. notice what happens when this habitual method of reinvigorating yourself is removed. Do you feel restless? Bored? How deeply ingrained is the entertainment addiction? While you fast, pray for new insight in this area and for the strength to try new ways of dealing with mental exhaustion.
I am the light of the world Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (Jn. 8:12)

Monday, January 23, 2012

March for Life - UPDATED

We were at the March on Saturday. It was a sunny but cold day and there were thousands of people marching, which is always heartwarming. Part of the point is to show through physical presence that we are standing up for life, but part of the point is to feel that solidarity. To know that we aren't alone. It is something you can know intellectually, but there is a difference in seeing, hearing, and (occasionally) bumping into all the others who feel the same.

The media has gotten good at ignoring this event, although I notice that we can have ten protesters outside our office building (we are next to Jeb Hensarling's office) and several news cameras will descend upon them.

This year, the media continued ignoring us ... except for WFAA, Channel 8, who we were pleased to see did a very nice piece.


I didn't see until now that President Obama spoke about Roe v. Wade.
As we mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we must remember that this Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman’s health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right. While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue- no matter what our views, we must stay united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant woman and mothers, reduce the need for abortion, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption. And as we remember this historic anniversary, we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.
I have to pray for that man more than I do.

I can't ever think of President Obama and abortion without remembering that he, tellingly, in speaking of his daughters, said, “I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

Nice, right?

I have other thoughts that sprang to mind but I see that The Anchoress has comprehensively communicated them already. (Sometimes it is scary how much we think alike.)

L. A. Diary: We Begin

An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.
G.K. Chesterton, On Running After Ones Hat, All Things Considered, 1908
I came across this quote at exactly the right time.

We were beginning to plunge into executing the seemingly endless details necessary to drive Rose to Los Angeles. She finished college in three years after majoring in film editing. After a few months off to enjoy the holidays at home, was ready to begin job hunting. Tom thought that the film industry is such a tough field to break into that we would support her using the money we planned for that unneeded fourth college year. That way she could afford to take a low paying, beginner's job somewhere that she could get a toe-hold for better things later.

Complicating things somewhat was the fact that Rose wanted to take Zoe, one of our Boxers. We applauded this impulse, not least because Zoe was the most annoying member of the household. A rescue dog of show-quality beauty, Zoe combined a high-strung, fashion model's temperament with several ingrained habits learned at her first home. We spent a lot of time judging whether Zoe's restlessness called for rawhide bones, which she consumed at an alarming rate, but which also acted like a drug on her system. She would begin gnawing and she would "put on her soft face" as we called it, with her eyes turning red with relaxation.

Traveling across the country with Zoe would be interesting, to say the least. For one thing, we thought she was leash-trained for going out, but weren't sure how this would work out on the road. For another thing, finding hotels that would take dogs was problematic. Luckily most Holiday Inn Expresses did, for an extra fee.

Zoe also made internet apartment hunting an interesting challenge. However, Rose was determined. She saw Zoe as protection for a girl alone in the big city. We agreed and also liked the idea that Rose would have some "family" with her while learning the L.A. ropes before making new friends.

Then there was the fact that we'd be gone from work for ten days. We'd never been gone so long from our business. While Rose was packing everything she owned into boxes, Tom was measuring furniture and consulting with the local U-Haul, I was arranging for a house-sitter who would care for Wash the Boxer, and Hannah was moving out to a duplex with her two dogs.

Amid the whirlwind of activity, changing plans, uncertainty, and fears, I saw that G. K. Chesterton had the proper perspective. It didn't change my harried state of mind but it became the mantra I repeated whenever I felt overwhelmed. I was mired in inconveniences but somehow, I knew, these could be the doorway to adventure.

And G. K.'s wise words followed us on the road to L.A. as we drove with the complications of U-Haul and Zoe, spending money like water on the way.

There were inconveniences to be sure. But the adventures were great and varied.

More to come tomorrow on all that, from the small observations to the absurdities that introduced us to Los Angeles.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reviewing "The Father's Tale" by Michael O'Brien

He was losing all affection for Russia. It was a crazy country, full of crazy people. At any moment, crazy things came out of nowhere and ran over the unsuspecting traveler, shot him with an arrow or shook him like a pea in a tin can. Moreover, he realized that he had left behind at Obsk the bag in which he had carried his clothing, and he was doubly disturbed that he had not noticed until now. He possessed only the clothes on his back and the shoulder bag containing his documents, money, and a few books. Once again, everything was going wrong.
Alexander Graham, is the father of two sons, both old enough to be living their own lives. A widower living in the small Canadian town of Halcyon, Alex runs the bookstore on a shoestring, barely making ends meet. When he attempts to call his son Andrew in Oxford for Christmas, Alex finds Andrew is unexpectedly missing. Further investigation reveals that Andrew may be in the clutches of a New Age religious cult so Alex borrows money against his store and sets off to England. He winds up following them to Europe and then across Russia as the pursuit takes on a life of its own.

Clearly Michael O'Brien has a passion for Russian literature and for the Russian people who are so affectionately and realistically portrayed in this novel (as far as I know ... since I don't know any Russians). Just as clearly, he has passion for music, poetry, fathers, and sons as evidenced by continuing threads throughout the book.

Whether it was necessary for him to write a 1,072 page book to tell his story is not as clear.

You'd think the story of a father trying to find and rescue his missing college-aged son from a religious cult would be sensational, quick paced, and shocking. Well, no. However, as O'Brien told it, the story kept pulling me along. I could feel for the father's uncertainty about what action to take, his constant worry about lack of funds for continuing Russian travels, and his worry over whether his son was being held against his will or whether this was the son's choice ... and what to do in either case.

This was definitely an interesting tale in that it contrasted the usual thriller type fare of cults and being lost in a strange country while steadily losing every possession against Graham's traveling with a slow, meditative pace. The face that  we understand very little of what occurs makes us equal with the protagonist. The one thing that is clear is that O'Brien provides food for thought sprinkled throughout the journey. I have never read Tolstoy so I can't say if this book is similar (as one endorser did), but it is definitely worth reading.

I have to say that this book began dragging for me after the doctor left her two sons in Alex's charge while she went on her trip. I am not sure if I simply was impatient with reading the book after so much time (which is a fault I have, admittedly) or if enough cogitation along the same lines as Alex's had been done already and so was a rerun in some ways. Also his time after coming down the mountain had a completely unrealistic, forced feel to me although I did value its nightmarish quality and the way Alex was used by God after surrendering himself completely. It felt tacked on, especially once he was moved further east. This is a problem I ran up against in the one previous O'Brien book I read. It was as if having satisfactorily reached the last fourth of the book, he felt some compulsion to ratchet up the pace in a way that was completely out of synch with the rest of the book. In this book, I found many of the plot points at the end completely ridiculous. I'd have preferred it if some points were left hanging rather than reading the explanation that the author provided.

Oddly enough, despite my complaints about things going on too long, I felt as if Andrew's story, once finally revealed, was incomplete. Too short, too few details ... more of "a shot rang out and everyone dropped dead" quality.


So, it is a good book and worth reading, but definitely not perfect. I am not sure where I'd do it if I were the editor, but I don't think it needed to be so long to tell the story. Long, yes. 1,077 pages long, no.

"That was my papa's hat," Kiril informed him with a smile that said, I'm glad it's on your head; it's a fine thing to see it in use; that's what hats are for. And so Alex felt the pain of his new role, a transient father filling in the gap left by the real father. A token hat. Could a child survive on symbols alone?

Alex felt at such moment the strangeness of his situation, as if his life's meaning was taking a form that had been chosen for him by someone else, leaving him only small freedoms. Within that limited zone he could choose to love or not love, to speak truth or not speak it. But it was undeniable that he was locked within a prison of circumstances.

He reminded himself that he was not in solitary confinement. This was some comfort, but it did not answer the fundamental question: Why was he here? If life was neither purely accident nor purely determined, what was going on? Was it a mixture of accidental and determined? And why was the world perceived so differently by two souls standing side by side? For Alex, the world threatened at every moment to become a neo-Pavlovian maze. For Kiril, it was always a vast playing field. Which of the two was the correct view of existence? Neither? Both?
You may read a longer excerpt of a section I particularly liked here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Martians Are Attacking and Only Gil Chesterton Can Stop Them! Reviewing "The Tripods Attack!"

The Tripods Attack!The Tripods Attack! by John McNichol

I read the second book of this series first (my review here) just because the initial book, The Tripods Attack!, was being reprinted at the time. However, I recently received Tripods where we are introduced to a steampunk world in which young Gilbert Chesterton, recently orphaned, went from his home in Minnesota and found himself working in a computer factor in London (they call it something else, but punchcards and machines work everything so these are early computers). Downtrodden, barely making a living, and with no discernibly bright future, Gil is unexpectedly called into the Chairman's office one day and upgraded to journalist. He is sent to Wokking to investigate mysterious happenings, which any science fiction fan worth their salt will recognize as the Martian invasion written of in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Along the way, Gil meets Herb Wells, a level-headed cleric named Father Brown, and a mysterious Doctor who seems to know more about the Martians than he lets on. There is also a beautiful red-headed woman who seems to always whisk around corners when Gil is just about to be able to speak to her.

The Tripods Attack! is an enjoyable mash-up of real and fictional characters in a vividly portrayed world where anything can happen. I would have preferred less time spent in the tunnels where the story seemed to drag on at times. Also, when occasionally told the Martians' thoughts I was jerked out of the story. Their actions spoke for themselves and knowing what they felt didn't further the story any.

As with the second book, The Emperor of North America, here are strains of Catholic worldview that are shown as part of various characters' moral fiber and others are shown espousing different views that are set in opposition. We see how Gil became Catholic and how Herb's "foxhole conversion" affects his life. These weren't preachy or moralistic, and weren't not the main focus of the action, although again they definitely motivated actions. As with all things of this nature, your milage may vary.

This is definitely a fun book and I recommend it.