On two occasions, once in 1993 and then again in 1997, I had the honor (and the luck) to meet with Pope John Paul II. I was in high school at the time of our first encounter. I was on a class trip to Vatican City and Rome (my high school was run by the Christian Brothers of De La Salle Hall, an order founded by St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, in France), and wanted to go to confession. It was during Lent, and I was still a practicing Catholic. I walked to St. Peter's Basilica in the cool of Rome's early morning air. I felt like a small child again, amidst the massive columns of the Church, and made my way toward one of the many confessionals on the left-hand side of the altar. It was with great surprise, as I waited in the long line, that I watched as the Pope left the confessional. That was his point, and, more importantly, his practice: even the living symbol of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged his humanity, and, in doing so, his capacity to do wrong.
In 1997, I was a singer with a classical group from Boston College. While we were but a college chorus, we had already recorded two albums, and had performed with a number of decently famous performers - John Williams, the Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart, Seiji Ozawa, James Galway, Derek Bell, etc. - and had been invited to sing Gregorian chant, the traditional long form Latin sung masses that predated the modern Vernacular masses, at the Vatican. We performed a number of shows in Italy - two in Venice, one in Rome, at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius de Loyola, a Saint I find incredibly inspirational despite my currently wandering state - before appearing at the Holy See.
Transfixed is an accurate description of how song moved me that day. The Basilica of St. Peter is enormous, and to hear one's voice transformed by the many channels of air created by the dome and many naves is to hear sound made sublime. Further, to be able to sing music that crosses a millenia before rolling from my throat is to be given a gift. I only had it temporarily, as I could not continue singing after college, but it was a wonderful, wonderful gift.
After mass, we were allowed to retreat to a private reception hall with Pope John Paul II, where we performed Vivaldi's Gloria and a short piece by Camille Saint-Saens that had become our theme song of sorts, Tollite Hostias. It's a short, exceptionally joyous piece that Saint-Saens used to end his Christmas Oratorio. It is as vibrant as the ripest berry. After singing that for the Pope, I could not hide the pleasure of just simply being. I was just happy to be there. And thus, when the Pope came to greet me as he had the other singers, I couldn't resist using my pidgen ancestral Polish to greet him. "Dzien dobry, Papa."
He chuckled, as I had used the Polish equivalent of the all-too-informal "Howdy, Padre!" in a formal greeting. A school newspaper later displayed the photo of the Pope jokingly smacking my cheek. He leaned in and whispered, "thank you, boy." His voice was gruff - a product of his accent - but definitely amused.
I guess maybe my lapse was welcome; he was spoken to as a person not a figurehead. The thing I admired most about Pope John Paul II was that he was far more a person than a figurehead. An open and aggressive fighter against what the Soviets had done to his people. An avid and graceful skiier, until his health denied him this pleasure. I read somewhere, once, that he admired the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke, which is earthy, human stuff.
This was the man that invited college kids and Bob Dylan to the heart of the Church.
This was the man that picked a fight with President Clinton.
This was one of the men that won the fight with Soviet Socialism.
A great and long legacy, Pope John Paul II followed the meaning of Tollite Hostias: he brought costly offerings and praise for the Lord. He offered himself.
Pops was kind enough to offer up a prayer of good intentions for Flounder, the prodigal fish of the family, and therefore I think it's only fair that I return the favor by doing perhaps the only internet quiz meme I've done in years. I don't do the internet quizzes because I think they're banal. I don't do them because I know I'm banal.
So here we go. Five questions. Let's get this right, or God's gonna kill a kitten.
1.You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
Pops is right. No one in their right mind would pick anything Russian or Moby Dick; there' s only so much brain space up there. I suppose I could cheat and pick The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Observations, as it's short and, well, Prufrock is relatively easy to memorize, or I could pick the Federal Rules of Evidence, which I was forced to memorize in Law School. No, no, not me. I wouldn't want to do that. Who wants to hear, Fahrenheit 451-land, that you have the hearsay exceptions on your mind? And who could recount that and be considered probative?
Perhaps, I could memorize Fahrenheit 451 itself. Wouldn't that make me a living example of meta-narrative? People would eventually be forced to memorize neo-Foucaultian texts analyzing my subjectivity in recollection of Guy Montag's subjectivity in recalling the (Biblical) Book of Ecclesiastes (wasn't it A Tale of Two Cities in Trouffaut's film?).
Ahem. Okay, we're not going to do that, either. No one sane sticks mirrors in front of mirrors.
I would love to pick Camus' The Fall. I first read that book in Eighth Grade. It was that first book in my life where a little pop could be heard coming from my brain as I exclaimed "My lord! The word is power!"
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.
Albert Camus, The Fall, at 7 (1956).
And, of course, what does this troublesome narrator do for a living? What did I grasp at when, at 13, I was so moved by Camus' condemnation of immorality, told from the point of view of one of the more critical figures of human mythology (I won't reveal whom, but if you haven't read this -- shame on you!)?
Here is our gin at last. To your prosperity. Yes, the ape [the bartender, described as a buffoon, really, in the original French] opened his mouth to call me doctor. In these countries everyone is a doctor, or a professor. They like showing respect, out of kindness and out of modesty. Among them, at least, spitefulness is not a national institution. Besides, I am not a doctor. If you want to know, I was a lawyer before coming here. Now, I am a judge-penitent.
Ibid., at 8.
It rang in my head like a bell, and never was a chilling evil more well-spoken, more honey-like in his delivery. For all the talk of existentialists being amoral, Camus wrote, essentially, morality plays.
2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Probably every good female protagonist since Bathsheeba, but more particularly, I was quite taken with Chabon's Hannah Green, from Wonder Boys. Of course, it didn't hurt that, in the film, she was played by Katie Holmes.
Sorry. I'm going to need a minute.
3. The last book you bought is:
Pops recommends A.J. Leibling, who has been on my Amazon wish list for a while. My Amazon wish list, by the way, is now a sixteen-page-long monstrosity that, if given to the proper psychiatrist or FBI profiler would probably indicate that I may one day be given to muderous rampages in the Balkans after a career in architecture (i.e., I read too much about the Balkan and Middle Eastern conflicts and I love books on modern architecture and urban planning).
Um... anyway... not sure where I was going with that one. Oh yes, my most recent book purchases.
On Friday, I attended - and was nearly kicked out of (and I maintain, if you're going to allow me to buy a bottle of water, I should be allowed to drink it while I listen to the reading; I should have roughed up that usher...) - a reading by David Sedaris. He was pleasant and incredibly funny, albeit a touch "superior" to his fans. After the performance, I purchased for a friend an autographed copy of Sedaris' latest anthology, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, and Me Talk Pretty One Day for Myself.
And yes, I did confront Mr. Sedaris regarding the water bottle incident. I left him troubled and somewhat bemused.
That's two famous people that now know I can't act appropriately in public.
4. What are you currently reading?
I just finished The Best American Travel Writing of 2004 (which ends on a decidedly Anti-American tone, with three somewhat unfair pieces on Afghanistan), and am in the midst of The Best American Short Stories of 2004. So far, I've not found the stand-out story in this collection (unlike last year, when The Shell Collector was like
a magnesium flare amidst so many "soft white" light bulbs, no, that's not fair, there were other great works in there - Louise Erdrich's Shamengwa and Kevin Brockmeier's Space, which I just googled and discovered that I've written about before just 10 months ago.
How sad is that. I completely forgot that I wrote that piece. Oh well. I've written over 500 blog entries. I can forget a few here and there.
On the topic of short stories - before I move along - you must read Junot Diaz' Drown. He's like the Scorsese/Schrader of short fiction. And, well, he's definitely got a lot about New Jersey life down.
5. Five books you would take to a deserted island:
First, let's reflect on Pop's response to this.
The whole desert island thing I have long thought is one of the stupidest things anybody could ask. If you were on a desert island you'd be far better off thinking "Damn I gotta find some potable water!" not "Gee, where did I put those books?"
The five things you'd take to a desert island traces its history back to a BBC radio program, er, programme where legend has it Otto Preminger, having failed to be briefed on the premise, called his interviewer an idiot and stormed out.
Good for you Otto!
For this question I shall yield to one of my role models in this life, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. A few weeks ago the mayor told a group of impressionable young school children that if he were going to a desert island he'd take a bottle of gin. Later he refused to apologize for the remark.
Ah, Winston Churchill would be proud. I'll have to raise a glass (of this, of course) to Mayor Goodman.
Nonetheless, here's my five:
- I read a passage from one book every single day. I have it inscribed on the first page of every Moleskine I use, and will print it below. The passage is from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (my version is Tuttle 1998, but the Amazon link goes to a Shambhala Press edition), and is edited by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. I am not a religious man, but this book is as close as I get to religious practice.
- Since I'm allegedly stuck on a desert island, and since I learned more about wilderness survival, first aid, camping, and even just getting along with people, from my time in the Boy Scouts than from any other source (even more than the SOLO First Aid Program and NOLS Programs I took to become a Park Ranger), I would want the Official Boy Scout Handbook (the link goes to a scouting supply site, but not directly to the Handbook, so you'll have to search for the Official Boy Scout Handbook, 11th Edition). I might as well last more than two days on the island.
- While J.M. Coetzee's Foe would be an amusing choice, I don't think I would want something quite that immediate with me. Instead, I'd want something with a touch more hope in it. I think Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent is a good choice. There's nothing more hopeful than redemption.
- I couldn't bear to be without short fiction. I love short stories. They keep me going. So, I would need Where I'm Calling From, by Raymond Carver. No one ever wrote dialogue better.
- Finally, I would need something to keep me laughing. Richard Russo's Straight Man would be my choice for that. Russo's main character, a suffering smart ass of a professor and father, is so humane in his mirth that one forgives his threat to murder a fowl. A duck, to be exact.
Okay, this is a long one. Still, we've got Picture Envy coming up. As I stated above, Pope John Paul II loved the outdoors and did a lot to support environmentalism. He tied it to theology, in truth. In the Book of Genesis, it was said that order was created of chaos when God moved over the face of the waters. It's a beautiful, lyrical notion. Here's some examples of the beauty of the world created from that chaos.
No Traces, B Side (Dec. 14, 2004).
God moves over the face of the water, indeed. Here's another excellent long exposure from No Traces. The tone of light changes so beautifully when night shots are exposed for great periods. I will shortly be moving closer to the river, and I look forward to taking a few night shots as well.
Orbit 1, Untitled (circa Summer 2004).
More than the sea, fields - the cultivated bounty of nature - has always seemed tied to the divine. I suppose, to those that believe, it's the greatest symbol of divine love: that nature itself can be cultivated to support us.
Houser Design Photos, Duck in Repose (Dec. 15, 2004).
I think it's fitting to close with this non-landscape; if we talk about the land and the sea with respect to religion, it's worth also talking about the fauna with which many religious texts charged us with stewarding. I love the simplicity - the lack of visual clutter - that marks this well-detailed photo of a duck.
So, that's all there is for this week's Picture Envy. A lot, and little related to pictures, but it's been a week where the world has turned more than I could predict.