Saturday, August 31, 2019

Joy Does Not Come on Demand: Reflections on "Blinded by the Light"

It’s not an unfair to ask if a movie is worth seeing in the theater. My once-typical response, alluding to my desire for the “communal experience” of viewing a film on a big screen feels like a near plea-bargain today. In recent times, I've found myself in a theater with two other people, maybe a dog. No loud laughter from this party of three…er, 3.5. Furthermore, so many of us have screens that are big enough.and couches just as comfortable that paying $14 for a quasi-matinee seems wrong. So when my friend Patty, with whom I saw Springsteen at Madison Square Garden in June 2000 asked me if “Blinded by the Light” was worth seeing in person (she’s on board with the Boss), I was ready to give an honest response.
For those that love music, and in particular rock ’n’ roll, the answer is unequivocally, “yes”—but for the sheer joy of hearing the Boss’ music in surround/ in stereo, the way created it to be played and understood. The delight of hearing the drums from the back of the theater in response to the introductory notes of the piano as played on “Darkness of the Edge of Town,” or that unclean yet vibrant energy that overtakes my entire being when I hear “Hungry Heart”… watch that in my living room or my laptop would work, but I would be depriving myself of something so much more.  

I think I want joy on demand…but that’s not how it works. Joy comes in the showing up, in the listening, in the paying attention to details, in knowing something so well—you can’t help but say it….Keep pushing till it’s understood, till these Badlands start treating us good.
There are enough movie reviews and good movie reviewers out there, that I'll leave that task to the experts (I prefer to read those with a Catholic lens; America magazine's Kerry Weber writes a thoughtful piece here). However, I would like to offer one insight that I would be in my hypothetical review.
Whenever I tell someone about my love for Springsteen, I get asked the same question, "Are you from New Jersey?" Although I understand the presumption, I have always felt this question is short-sighted. Coming from the Garden State doesn't automatically make one a Boss fan and if you take a look at any single one of his album tours, one can't help but take note of his global appeal. "Blinded by the Light" rests on this truth. Springsteen's music and his message are larger than yes, what exit you take off the turnpike and sometimes, life itself. But how is that true? Why should I believe that a Pakistani teenage boy living in Luton, England would identify with a musician and singer who has written all of his own music about a particular time and place. New York Times columnist David Brooks has offers an answer that resonates with me, and emerges in the film.

In "The Second Mountain," Brooks writes, 
I watched him perform to sixty-five thousand screaming young fans in Madrid. Their T-shirts celebrated all the local central Jersey places that pop up in Springsteen songs and lore—Highway 9, the Stone Pony, Greasy Lake. It turns out he didn't really have to go out and find his fans. If he built a landscape about his own particular home, they would come to him. It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of the particular. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific imaginative landscape, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up on the far-flung networks of eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft commitments or none at all.
Sounds little bit like the premise of "Field of Dreams" a movie about Fathers and Sons, the visible and the invisible, and the broken, timeless, sometimes boring but often beautiful national past time of a country that connects different people from different places.

Perhaps what a young man growing up in Freehold, NJ experiences really isn't that different than one from Luton....or dare I say Walnut Creek. Maybe we just like the music itself. One thing I know for sure, it's brought more joy than a person has a right to have and hold. I've said it once, I'll say it till the end, thank you Bruce....and thank you Lord for the gift of music.
My second favorite show of all time...The River Sessions Tour: 3/13/16

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Grind is Real: Why I Love the US Open

I love The United States Open Tennis Championship for many reasons—its rock 'n' roll style—loud colors and louder fans, I think it's crazy cool to watch a match at 10:00 p.m. my time, knowing it's 1:00 a.m. in New York. I swear I've been able to see the heat and humidity the athletes battle. It's a grind.
The Grind is real. And, I don't use that word lightly. In no way do I want to romanticize the feeling, the implications and the reality of the day to day task of getting up, going to work, work ing hard only to do it again the next day. As a teacher I would be dishonest if I told you my job was always a grind.....but at the beginning of the year it certainly is...and right now I'm in the middle of it. Believe it or not—watching the US Open helps. 

The US Open affords me a few hours each night, to see great athletes grinding it out in matches that take three, four even five hours to complete. I can't get enough of their athleticism. I envy their sweat. I love their mojo. At the end of a long day of teaching and coaching, I relish the opportunity to just sit on my couch and watch two other people working exponentially harder than I ever will. 

Tennis players will tell you, "In tennis, there is no team. The team is you." But, if you watch enough tennis at the Open, you'l start to see that might not be entirely true. In between points, the camera will focus on a group sitting together in support of one of the players. Sometimes it's just one or two people—parents, a coach, or a significant other. Other times it's a near box of seats (Serena) filled by family, friends, hitting partner, coach, physio, etc. 
S. Williams defeated Sharapova 6-1, 6-1. Did the match last but one hour?
Teaching isn't much different. Though we are solo in the classroom and are charged with the task to lead the way/meet the objective, behind the scenes, the support we get makes is vital. During my planning period or at lunch the conversations I have with my colleagues remind me that I am not alone. We share the grind....and they still find ways and moments to extend real kindness. So many have been generous with their desire to help. They sincerely want to know how I'm doing. Today, the President of the school where I teach, St Francis High School, asked me about my commute. Talk about a grind. He followed up our conversation with the question  "Do you need anything?" What a shot in the arm our brief exchange was for me. I didn't really have an answer, but I do know to be seen and heard makes a huge difference, most especially during grinding season.

The need to be seen and heard is why Noah Rubin, a professional tennis player decided to create "Behind the Racket." The USTA's website describes it well.
Rubin created the “Behind the Racquet” account on Instagram to give players an outlet to discuss their thoughts, insecurities and struggles, while simultaneously affording fans an opportunity to learn more about the person, not just the player.
The premise seems straightforward at its core: Have the players pose in exactly the same way, holding their racquets out in front of them, left hand on top of the right, so that their faces are centered behind the racquets. Then have the players discuss something meaningful to them and their journeys as tennis players.
I learned about his creation through the CBS Sunday Morning News Story entitled "The grind of a tennis player's life on tour." I strongly encourage you to watch it. Rubin speaks honestly about his struggle to make it on the tour; it is the profile of a professional athlete we don't always hear or see. But it concludes with emphasis on his project—one that aims to  build community through sharing oneself with others. Though it's not the only way to live, it might be the best way to do so.

Lastly I invite you to watch the 139th US Open. You'll see great athletes and outstanding competition—grinding it out—over Labor Day weekend where I hope you have earned a much deserved break.

Photo Credits

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Persevere: "Every Day"

Though many presiders at Mass "mail in" the final blessing, one priest at my parish always sends us away with a charge to do more than "go forth and announce the Gospel." He takes a line from one of the readings and reminds us of our call, a task or opportunity, and an invitation to live more like Christ. 

Last week he urged us to "persevere in running the race." He raised his arms as a sign of encouragement.  His smile reminded me of the ones I once saw from spectators along the marathon course. However, one need not be a runner to understand the the message from the second reading, St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews. American life today is a race. We long to step off of the treadmill, and occasionally we do. For many, summer offers that welcome respite, but the race continues, the miles are many. The reminder to persevere is not in vain. Nor is the rest of the message: to keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. 

The life of legacy of Joy Johnson captured in the "30 for 30" Short entitled "Every Day" is a story of a woman who persevered and kept her eyes on Christ. Among the many races she ran, she completed her 25th New York City marathon the day before she died, at the young age of 86.  New York Times' "The Life they Lived" honored Johnson with a profile piece entitled "A Marathoner Till the End." Is says
Running is a sport that rewards constancy, in both pace and attitude, which may explain why Joy Johnson was so good at it. As a senior citizen, she ran an average of three marathons a year, buttressed by dozens of shorter races, always with a bow in her hair.   
Though she had made a career teaching high-school physical education in Northern California, she herself didn't have an exercise regimen. Until one day in 1985, when she and her husband were newly retired and their four children all grown, Johnson, who was 59, took a three-mile walk and found it energizing. Soon she tried jogging and enjoyed that even more. Within a few years, she was going for regular 12-mile runs and became a fixture at local road races. 
From there on out, she awoke at 4 a.m. and fixed herself some coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, taking time to read the Bible before heading out to the nearby track at Willow Glen High School, the same place where she once taught. 
Born on Christmas Day, Johnson was often asked not why she took up running but why she stayed. Why run everyday? Her answers were simple every time: Running made her happy. It helped her sleep well at night. In "Every Day" she states "Each run I took, every single day was guaranteed to be different. All those days began with the most beautiful thing in the world: POSSIBILITY. It sounds simple, I know. But trust me—it's the very best part of being alive....never knowing what the next step will bring."
Her outlook gives me hope. I want to persevere. I am willing to run the race, replete with the possibility is affords. Let us keep our eyes on Christ, and pray to run with others, who have hearts and mind's like Joy's. 

In memory of this inspiring life, I invite you to pray the words that Joy Johnson did—every Day from Isaiah 40: 31
They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings;They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.
Photo Credits
Dynamic Catholic
Lives they Lived

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Life Lessons from Loopers

I love golf for a variety of reasons.It gets me out of doors, to some of the most beautiful
places on the planet. It allows me to compete on an equal playing field against men and women, boys and girls of all ages. Because of golf, I now speak another language. Ask any golfer the meaning of terms like birdie, bogey and eagle, par, and putt and we will translate. History, aesthetics and the attributes of golf account for a lot to love but one component I value, is the simple fact that golf is the only sport in the world where an assistant, a coach, an ally, a therapist and maybe even a family member—definitely a friend—is allowed on the field of play with the athlete: that person is the caddie.

It might seem strange to love golf because of the caddie. After all, fans aren't watching a person carry a bag, they want to see how far and how accurately their favorite player can hit the ball. However, as shared in the documentary Loopers: The Caddie's Long Walk a professional caddie noted, "we live in a world that’s all about “what’s someone doing for me.” It’s humbling to be in a profession that is the complete opposite of that. It’s what can I do for YOU." I can't help but see that when I watch golf. I love the perspective this game offers—it's one I need to remember—and I think it spawns questions to consider.

How easy is it for us to recognize, value and appreciate those people who stand in the service of others? in service to me? Who are the men and women who do their job with humility, day in and day out.... Who are the people that find success in another person's success and "take satisfaction in seeing someone do something very very hard." A caddie does this—the nature of the job won't allow otherwise. When a player wins, a caddie wins. A caddie has the silent hand at play in every players' success.

Loopers, the documentary demonstrates this truth through the up close and personal profiles of several golfing "teams." 
Centuries old and enjoyed by tens of millions of people worldwide, golf is seen by many as more than a sport. Yet what do we know about the other person on the course? The man or woman behind the player carrying the bag. In a narrative never before covered in any feature length documentary, Loopers: The Caddie's Long Walk explores the incredible personal bond that a golfer and a caddie develop through hours of time together. 
It is often said that a good caddie does three things: show up, keep up and shut up. But a great caddie wears many hats. They’re the player’s psychologist, mother/father figure, technical advisor and confidante. The film unveils the working dynamic between famous partnerships like the heartfelt story of Tom Watson’s and caddie Bruce Edwards. Conversely, it delves into the making of a caddie’s career with stories like Greg Puga — a young Bel Air Caddie from East Los Angeles who fought his way to Augusta to play in the Masters as a Mid-Amateur Champ. Whether familiar or new, these are stories that will make you re-think the way you look at Golf, and especially the job of the Caddie. 
Loopers: The Caddie's Long Walk is a visual tour de force shot on the iconic courses of Pebble Beach, Augusta National, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Ballybunion, and Lahinch. Crafted in the spirit of documentaries like “20 feet from Stardom”, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Step into Liquid”, the film is a must-watch documentary of the game of golf as you’ve never seen it before.
I had a chance to watch this movie on United airlines. I would like to thank the friendly skies for this video treat. Films, like this made the 12 hour direct flight home from Munich less taxing. I hope more folks than just frequent flyers will check this out—the beauty of golf, its history and its characters is included.

And so is the theme. The role of the caddie, used at the highest level of golf, is a reminder the team is never just you. Even in an individual sport, a golfer never takes a long walk alone. Our lives are no different.

Photo Credits
Nick and Fanny

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Legging Problem Part II: From Ignatius of Loyola to the University of Notre Dame

Standing in his childhood home in the heart of Basque country is a profound way to learn about the magnanimous life and conversion of Ignatius of Loyola. Born the thirteenth child into family of wealth and great privilege, Inigo was once a gambler and philanderer. With dreams of personal honor and fame, he was competitive, driven and to put it mildly, he was vain. In fact, his vanity was so great that he once had his leg reset and re-broken because a stump of bone stuck out (his right leg had been fractured by a cannon ball). This presented itself to be an issue because of the fashion of the day for men included leggings. Yes, leggings....those form fitting, controversial articles of athleisure that became the target of a letter to the editor of The Observer, the student newspaper at the University of Notre Dame. Thinking about who Ignatius was and who he became and the current tenor of this topic today, I begin to wonder: What Would Iggy Do? What would Ignatius say? I think I know. I believe the Founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola would echo the words from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Oh Vanity of Vanities!
In the Summer issue of Notre Dame Magazine, I learned that "impassioned students organized a leggings day to protest the notion that women bear responsibility for men's behavior—although in practice it could be difficult to know whether a person was wearing leggings in defiant response to the latter, or simply as everyday attire." Stories about the discontent of Mary Ann White, the Catholic mother of four sons who penned the poison, appeared in the The New York Times and The Washington Post, on the Today Show, BBC Radio 4 and more. The post I included in this blog "The Legging Problem: The Struggle is Real" is one of the most popular for 2019. Amidst the fury, I had to wonder Was this  letter and response newsworthy? Is such discontent justifiable? 

A reflection on the meaning of Oh Vanity of Vanities by Brian Overland gave me some insight. He writes
The meaning of “vanity” has changed in English over the centuries. In the time of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, “vanity” did not necessarily mean narcissism and excessive pride; rather, “vain” more often meant “meaningless” or “pointless.” And “vanity” was “meaninglessness.” 
Modern literal interpretations of the opening phrase from the Book of Ecclesiastes, therefore, do not say “You’re so full of pride!” Instead the literal interpretation reads more like this: Meaningless, meaningless, the Preacher said, everything is meaningless! But that’s not as poetic as the Elizabethan language, is it? 
Why, then does the King James Bible say “vanity of vanities”?? The answer is, because this reflects how the original Hebrew doesn’t just say “All in meaningless,” but gives it extra emphasis… something closer to “Meaningless! EVERYTHING is UTTERLY without meaning!” 
And here’s the context of the Book of Ecclesiastes: more than any book of the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes is a book of grave doubts; it appears to be the rumination of a poet or philosopher who has tried everything and has come to put his trust in nothing. One generation rises, another passes, and the sun also rises — and yet “there is nothing new under the sun”… meaning, “I’ve seen it all.” The battle is not to the strong, because luck and chance seem to decide things as much as anything. And if everything in the end is the result of random chance, then what meaning can anything have? Every generation passes away in turn, and what lasts forever? 
It is notable that the Book of Ecclesiastes ends by urging the reader to place his trust in God as the only Eternal Being. But how much this ending was grafted on to make it religiously acceptable has been debated. 
The use of “vanity” here is similar to the way it is employed in the Ten Commandments in the King James Bible. “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain” does not mean “Don’t say the Lord’s name proudly.” Rather, it means do not say the Lord’s name frivolously — that is, without proper respect or seriousness of purpose. Or perhaps: “Don’t use the Lord’s name jokingly.” 
But the Old Testament priests felt it was so risky to say the name of God without sufficient seriousness of purpose, it was safer just not to say it at all.
Clearly, the question that White raised is not meaningless to the young women urged to reconsider their attire. What we wear, and where we wear it are indeed worth consideration. Time and place, occasion and environment bear reflection. One worthy question today is—do we?
For Ignatius of Loyola wearing leggings put him in the spotlight and in the right social circle. In this way, his vanity WAS a reflection of his pride. He wanted to be seen, noticed and attended to. To what degree is that true among the women who sport leggings today is an interesting one. For MaryAnn White, it's not a question—she believes men cannot not look at "barely naked rear ends" in the Basilica and so forth. However, to many students today, such a claim is an which I say, again, Oh Vanity of Vanities!

Regardless of where you stand, or should I say--what you wear, in light of this (potentially meaningless debate) what has fascinated me most is a newsworthy point raised in ND Mag. No one has been able to find Mary Ann White. "She never surfaced to defend her position in any of the news stories that reported the widespread student eye-rolling and nobody on campus admitted to knowing her. Theories about White's identity have made the rounds. Theories abound and some are pretty good. Maybe it was an Ignatius of Loyola in the 21st Century doing what he can to get us to think critically and constructively about what is meaningful and what is not.....Not always easy in our day and age, though it feels like it should be.

Photo Credits
ND News Report (see link above)