Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ours on St. Ignatius' Day.

Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Though many Jesuit institutions mark this day with grand public liturgies, for me there's something special about celebrating today's Mass within the intimate confines of a Jesuit community chapel. When Jesuits gather for Mass in our own communities, with none but Ours in attendance, we enjoy a privileged opportunity to celebrate the bonds of companionship and communion that unite us as Brothers in the Lord. Distracted by the demands of work or study and the various tensions generated by personal and ideological conflicts, we often forget that we are most truly united when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist in specifically Jesuit settings. Gathering for community Mass on St. Ignatius' Day gives us Jesuits a chance to remember the common commitments that bring us together and animate all that we do as a group and as individuals.

I received a personal reminder of all this when I joined a group of around ten Jesuits for a quiet, prayerful liturgy this morning at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. Looking around the community chapel at a group of men of various ages, origins and opinions, I felt strongly that despite our differences we shared a deeper unity as members of a particular Jesuit community, as part of the global Society, and as inheritors of a great tradition. As we celebrate the memory of the pilgrim saint who continues to urge us forward under the standard of the Cross, I pray in gratitude for the gift of being called to companionship - both with Christ himself, and with all those who have been gathered together in the Society that bears the name of Jesus. AMDG.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007.

A few minutes ago, I learned that Ingmar Bergman died earlier today at the age of 89. On my old blog, I once published a post on Bergman noting the minor role that the great Swedish director played in my vocation story. Though I had seen a few of his films on television while I was growing up, I didn't really start to get into Bergman's work until I was in law school. On frigid winter nights in South Bend, Bergman's films provided a welcome distraction from dry legal texts. The New York Times' obituary of Bergman refers to him as "a poet with a camera," but I think it would be more accurate to call him a marvelously gifted dramatist who also happened to make movies. "The theater is like a faithful wife," Bergman once said, "[and] the film is the great adventure - the costly, exacting mistress."

Despite winning nearly universal acclaim as a great filmmaker, Bergman apparently always felt most at home in the world of the theater. Bergman made films that are 'theatrical' in the best possible sense of the word, enabling a sort of intimacy between actors and audience that is perhaps more typical of the stage than the screen. Many of Bergman's films touched upon the human struggle to believe in the reality of God and to find a sense of ultimate purpose in life. The sensitivity with which Bergman addressed such topics stemmed from his own religious struggles: the son of a Lutheran pastor and the product of a devout upbringing, Bergman moved in adulthood to an anguished if thoughtful agnosticism. Bergman's personal favorite among his films (and mine too, incidentally) 1962's Winter Light, deals explicitly with the theme of the loss (and potential recovery) of faith in studying one afternoon in the life of a rural pastor. If you only see one Bergman film, see Winter Light. I'm quite sure that this recommendation would be disputed by partisans of some of Bergman's more popular works - Autumn Sonata, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, and so on. Others can recommend each of those movies. I'll recommend Winter Light.

There's a lot more I could write about Ingmar Bergman, but I think I'll stop there. I pray that God will look kindly upon him, and that in death he has found answers to the questions that he wrestled with so earnestly throughout his life, questions that informed some of his best work. Tonight I intend to honor Bergman's memory by watching one of his films, though I haven't yet decided which. Requiescat in Pace. AMDG.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Record rain in San Jose.

As the San Jose Mercury-News reported yesterday, the city that bills itself as "the Capital of Silicon Valley" set a new record for rainfall this week. On Wednesday, July 18th, San Jose received a hundredth of an inch of rain - a record-setting amount, inasmuch as this was the first time in recorded history that the city received any rain on July 18th. Admittedly, the "recorded history" of San Jose's weather only goes back about about a century and a half, but the relative lack of rain here is nonetheless fairly remarkable. In a similar vein, I heard a radio weather report last week forecasting "unseasonably cool weather," which in this case meant temperatures in the 70's. That sounds pretty warm to a New Englander, but San Joseans are apparently very sensitive to variations in temperature. They seem to prefer daytime temperatures in the range of eighty to eighty-five degreess Fahrenheit, with anything outside this range being considered extraordinary or at least undesirable. When I arrived in San Jose in early June to ninety-degree heat, friends who live here told me they were sorry that I had to endure such unpleasant weather. At the time, I responded that the heat felt pretty good to someone who had spent a chilly spring in New York.

Though the lack of rain and consistently warm temperatures in Silicon Valley can be very pleasant, living here has reminded me how much I like seasons. Locals could point out that a place like San Jose does have subtle seasonal variations in weather, but they're nothing like the four-act drama repeated each year in the Northeast and the Midwest. I enjoy regular sunshine, but it doesn't stir my soul as much as seasonal spectacles of frost, changing leaves, melting ice. That might be why I'm starting to appreciate San Francisco more than I used to; fog can become pretty enchanting once you've gotten used to cloudless days. Even so, I'm sure I'll miss the mild San Jose weather when I'm back in New York. It's easy to reminisce fondly about rain, snow and ice when you don't have to deal with them on a regular basis, and I doubt I'll be so sanguine when I find myself in the midst of winter in the Northeast. Such is life - wherever you are, the weather is probably better somewhere else. AMDG.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Quebec-Vermont border battle makes the NYT.

Last month, I commented on a Boston Globe story on how residents of the neighboring communities of Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont are reacting to a plan to increase security at their stretch of the border between Canada and the United States. Now the New York Times has gotten wind of the story:

The border between Canada and the United States does not get much more udefended than where Lee Street, a sleepy residential lane, meets Caswell Avenue. Other than a simple green and white sign, nothing indicates that motorists navigating the intersection have entered the United States.

Once a symbol of cross-border friendship, Lee Street has become a source of anxiety for security officials in both the United States and Canada who have stepped up border security since Sept. 11, 2001. But a proposal by a joint border task force to block Lee and two other unguarded streets that cross between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt., has, if anything, united the towns.

"If you come home and your neighbors have put up a fence, what are the first thoughts that come to your mind?" said Raymond Yates, an appliance repairman and dealer who is Stanstead's mayor. "It gives you the wrong opinion when you see some kind of obstacle."

Roland Roy, a Derby Line trustee and pharmacist, agreed. "We don't want to build barriers to our neighbors," he said. "You're just plugging a hole in the dike, and another one will pop up."

The movement to keep the roads open is an almost philosophical crusade in a part of the world where national boundaries can be confused and few families are without members on both sides of the border.
Read the rest here. The NYT's Ian Austen goes on to note that some area residents cross the border every time they back out of their driveways (their homes are in one country, and the street is in another) and also reports that many older residents of Stanstead are dual citizens simply because it used to be easier for expectant mothers to get to a hospital in Vermont than to make their way to a more distant one in Quebec.

Though concerns about illegal immigration are the stated reason behind plans for greater security, an RCMP representative quoted in the article seems to imply that the number of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border between Derby Line and Stanstead isn't particularly large ("We're not talking about thousands going through," the Mountie says). Local residents are skeptical, to say the least, and I'm with them. Though I'm not optimistic, I hope the publicity they're getting from the NYT helps their cause. AMDG.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mom's birthday and more.

Beginning this post, I am pleased to report that today is my mother's birthday. Happy birthday, Mom! I'm sorry to be away from home on important days like this. As always, please know of my love and my best wishes on this happy day.

Today is also the Memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patronal feast of the Carmelite Order. I spent the day working at Catholic Charities, but I'm sure today's memorial was celebrated with an appropriate mix of festivity and solemnity by the Carmel of the Infant Jesus in Santa Clara and other Carmelite communities. This is also a special day for Ciszek Hall's neighborhood parish, which is also under the patronage of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Though I didn't do anything in particular to mark the day - other than praying with the appropriate propers in the Liturgy of the Hours - I did take the opportunity to reflect on how I celebrated this memorial last year at a French Carmelite restaurant in Lima. If you want to know more, consult my post from this date in 2006.

Like any other major metropolitan area, greater San Jose has its fair share of summer festivals. For example, last weekend the Portuguese community of Santa Clara (the city, not the university) celebrated the annual festa in honor of Santo António de Lisboa. You may know this saint under a slightly different name, but like the organizers of last weekend's festa I prefer to associate António with the city of his birth rather than the place where he died. On another note, readers who are familiar with the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar may wonder why a saint honored by the Church on June 13th is celebrated in Santa Clara on a weekend in July. I don't have an answer, but I enjoyed attending the Mass in honor of Santo António at St. Clare Church as well as the parade that followed. Featuring several Portuguese bands and various parishioners in traditional attire, the parade in Santa Clara reminded me of a similar parade that takes place during the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament held in New Bedford every August. Though the festivities I witnessed here last weekend can't match the epic scale of the Portuguese Feast in New Bedford, I was nonetheless impressed by evident vitality of the local Portuguese community.

Another highlight of summer in Silicon Valley is the Obon Festival, held this past weekend in San Jose's historic Japantown. Obon is a Buddhist holy day honoring the dead that doubles as a celebration of Japanese-American identity. Though Japanese-American communities throughout Northern California host Obon celebrations, San Jose's Obon Festival is reportedly the largest in the Bay Area. I stopped by the Obon Festival yesterday afternoon to meet up with a Japanese-American coworker and her family and to witness the Bon Odori, a traditional folk dance that plays a central role in the festival. Accompanied by Japanese folk music, the Bon Odori is performed not by professional dancers but by regular people who either know the traditional dances or who simply follow others who know what they're doing. Approximately six hundred people took part in the Bon Odori in San Jose on Sunday, and I'm told there were even more on Saturday. Only about half of the dancers were kimono-clad, with the rest in modern Western attire.

The diversity of dress among the Bon Odori dancers testifies to the extent to which Japanese-Americans have assimilated into the cultural mainstream in the Bay Area. Outside of the song lyrics coming from loudspeakers, I heard very little Japanese spoken at the Obon Festival. From the announcements made by festival organizers to the invocation given by a Buddhist cleric, virtually everything was in English. My impression is that most of the Japanese-Americans at the festival come from families who have been in the United States for several generations. Even so, the attendees at the festival seemed to possess a strong (and, to my mind, laudable) desire to preserve their Japanese cultural identity. In this regard, the large number of children and young families at the festival is probably a good sign. AMDG.

Monday, July 09, 2007

"And now, on a sour note..."

At the end of my junior year in high school, I attended and actively participated in Massachusetts Boys State. As you may know, Boys State is a venerable civics program held every summer in every state of the Union. Boys State offers a select group of handpicked high school boys the opportunity to hone their leadership skills by organizing a mock state government and waging campaigns for statewide and federal office. In essence, Boys State is a summer camp for political junkies. Though participation in Boys State is limited to young men, young women with an interest in public service take part in an identical program - Girls State. Boys State and Girls State are sponsored by the American Legion, which leads me to a somewhat lengthy explanation of this post's title.

Conducted under the auspices of a veterans' organization, Boys State was a fairly regimented affair. To encourage a sense of esprit de corps, attendees were assigned to fictional "towns" that functioned like military brigades and were expected to wear the official Boys State t-shirt to all of the week's events. We all had to get up early in the morning to stand in formation at a flag-raising ceremony, and each night ended fairly early with lights-out. (I no longer remember the time of lights-out, but it was earlier than I usually went to bed at home.) We also had daily assemblies that included talks from state officials (the Lieutenant Governor, for example) and from representatives of the American Legion. One of the people we heard from most often at these assemblies was the American Legion official who served as the effective commander-in-chief of Boys State, an older gentleman with the improbable name of Eugene McCarthy. (His moniker was improbable inasmuch as he bore no resemblance, personally or politically, to the dovish former senator and sometime poet.) In his daily remarks, C-in-C McCarthy would offer updates on the schedule as well as relevant news items. Boys who were derelict in their duties - those who showed up late for reveille, for instance, or who didn't clean up after themselves - could expect to receive public admonishment (albeit not by name) from Eugene McCarthy. After a couple days, we all knew that harsh words were coming whenever McCarthy said, "And now, on a sour note..."

And now, on a sour note, it seems some electoral chicanery has been going on in balloting on the Campaign For Your Cause website. The other day, I saw a note there cautioning people not to try to get around the one-vote-per-day rule by deleting cookies. Now Campaign For Your Cause is no longer posting voting results online because of "the process of verifying votes," a process that will evidently also delay the announcement of the winners until August 1. For the first time, I also see a fine print notice saying that only Louisiana residents are eligible to vote. On a certain level, this makes a lot of sense - even though it prevents me and many others from voting - but it will make "verifying votes" a bit more of a hassle. If you're a Louisiana resident - or if you at least have a Louisiana IP address - keep logging on each day to cast your vote for the Harry Tompson Center. I suppose that non-residents can keep on voting, but your votes are apparently going to be weeded out and not counted. Of course, if you really want to help out the Harry Tompson Center, I still say you should visit their website and learn about how you can be of direct service to this important ministry. Anyhow, thanks for your interest and support for a very good cause. AMDG.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Harry Tompson Center (still) needs your help.

If you've been casting your vote each day at Campaign For Your Cause, you may have noticed that there's quite a race going on between the Harry Tompson Center, two New Orleans high schools, and a charity called Friends of City Park. After surging from fourth to first place - thanks in part to your votes - the Harry Tompson Center has again fallen to fourth place. Voting continues through this coming Friday, so remember to keep voting every day for the Harry Tompson Center. While you're at it, take a look at the Tompson Center's website to see what else you can do to help. AMDG.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Notes on the Fourth of July.

In my experience, the Fourth of July isn't what it used to be. In writing these words, I don't mean to suggest that Independence Day has been diminished in a broad, sweeping sense. I simply mean that my own experience of the holiday isn't what it once was. Somehow, the Fourth seemed more magical when I was a kid - growing up in Rochester, I would typically mark the holiday by going with my family to Silvershell Beach in the neighboring town of Marion, sitting on blankets and listening to a brass band play patriotic standards as the sun went down and the beach grew more and more crowded. When it got dark, the band finished its program and the town's annual fireworks display began. Afterward, the few thousand people who had assembled for the fireworks would wander en masse down Front Street in search of the vehicles they had left a few hours earlier on now-darkened side streets. The resulting traffic jam meant that we usually didn't get home until close to midnight, but no matter - the night of the Fourth often occasioned a kind of patriotic réveillon, especially if Mom and Dad were off from work the next day.

Thanks to the strange workings of memory and nostalgia, my youthful experiences celebrating the Fourth of July in small-town New England set a template by which I measure each year's experience of Independence Day. Twice, I've found myself outside the United States on July 4th - first in London and then in Lima - and on neither occasion did I feel a great desire to celebrate the holiday, though in both cases I attended Fourth of July barbecues with other U.S. nationals. For me, the Fourth of July is as much about a sense of place as it is about one's sense of national identity. Celebrating the holiday on foreign soil just doesn't feel right to me, though I'm sure that for many American expatriates such celebrations provide a needed sense of connection to the homeland. Since entering the Society of Jesus, I've celebrated the Fourth in two American cities - Denver and San Jose. Both times, I've done the usual barbecue-and-fireworks thing and enjoyed myself, but something has still been missing. That something, again, is the sense of place - not just a beach, not just a small town, but a particular beach in a particular small town.

Though Independence Day is an inescapably communal event - as all holidays are - I believe that for each individual it's a unique and personal one. We all have our own particular experience of Easter and Christmas, and so too the Fourth of July. My Fourth of July unfolds on Silvershell Beach in Marion, Massachusetts. How about yours? AMDG.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What's my age again?

So far, I've said almost nothing on this blog about my summer ministry at Catholic Charities. Working with refugees can be both rewarding and tiring, and at the end of a full day at the office I typically look forward to doing things that will take my mind off work - like reading a good book or taking an evening walk along The Alameda - instead of having to think more about work so I can write about it. Nonetheless, over the course of the coming month I'm going to try to share some of my summer ministry experiences for readers who may be interested in how I spend my days.

This morning I went to a county-run health clinic in San Jose for a work-mandated TB test. My guess is that, like me, most readers have taken this test multiple times - you go to the doctor's office and get a quick needle prick on the arm, then you return three days later so the doctor can look at the area around the needle prick to see whether you may have some form of tuberculosis. Since my previous test results are out of date, my supervisor told me I should get the TB test done as soon as possible after I started work at Catholic Charities in early June. Despite my best intentions, various circumstances kept me from making it to the clinic until this very morning.

Quick and relatively painless, my visit to the clinic passed mostly without incident. The key word in the preceding sentence is 'mostly,' because if the visit had passed entirely without incident I'd have little reason for this post. The one mishap I encountered in getting my TB test concerns my age - or, to be more precise, my year of birth. The nurse who administered the test apparently had a hard time reading my handwriting, which led to the following exchange:

NURSE: (Copying information from a handwritten form onto a computer) Your date of birth is... May 27th, 1966.

ME: No, 1980.

NURSE: I'm sorry, 1986.

ME: No - 1980. Eight, zero.


I'll confess that my penmanship isn't the best, but I didn't think it was bad enough that someone would mistake my '80' for '66.' Complicating matters, the nurse apparently thought I meant '198-' when I said '1980.' Though I sometimes encounter people who think I'm older or younger than I actually am, I think this is the first time I've been mistaken for 41 and then 21 in rapid succession. I suppose the nurse in question was either particularly credulous, highly unobservant, or simply too busy or tired to think much of what I'd written on the form. I'll probably never know what was going through her mind, though I may see her again on Friday when I report back for the test results.

On an unrelated note, a reader named Shawn has posted a comment asking me to "post a not-so-subtle reminder" that the Harry Tompson Center still needs your daily votes at Campaign For Your Cause. Shawn is absolutely right - the race is heating up, and it's still important that you cast your vote each and every day between now and July 13th. I'm sure that the people who run the Harry Tompson Center and the clients they serve appreciate your help, and once again I urge you to join me in giving them your support. AMDG.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Age-old dispute.

From today's Boston Globe, a typical New England story:
Diners at Union Oyster House have probably seen cocktail napkins and placemats advertising the restaurant as America's oldest, "est. 1826." Visitors to Harvard Yard have likely seen a tour guide point to the ivy-covered buildings of America's oldest university. They are icons; their names conjure up images of men in tricornered hats.

But in New England, where families trace their roots to the Mayflower, no place is too minor to stake a claim on history. Basketville in Putney, Vt., proudly proclaims itself America's oldest basket company; Stoddard's in Newton, the oldest cutlery shop; and the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, the oldest plant conservation organization.

Such claims, for all their romantic appeal, can be as shaky as beams in a colonial meetinghouse. Just over two weeks ago, residents saved the Brick School in Franklin from closing, decrying the loss of America's oldest continuously operated one-room brick schoolhouse. They later discovered that the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H., is also brick, also one room, and has been open since 1780. 12 years before the Brick School.

Because of the glory and cachet that come with a claim of being first, and because of the difficulty of documenting dates, flare-ups and rivalries are everywhere.
To read about some of these flare-ups and rivalries, click here. Having grown up in a Bay State town that was first settled in the 1630's and officially incorporated in 1686, I can appreciate the reverence for history that underlies many of the "oldest" claims and animates disputes about their veracity.

This sort of mentality may be particularly widespread in New England, but it's certainly not unique to the region. I encountered similar attitudes at Georgetown, which once claimed 1634 as its year of birth, a patently false claim that was premised on the notion that Georgetown was the lineal descendant of an early Jesuit school established in southern Maryland. Georgetown now proclaims its founding date as 1789, which is much more reasonable but still only approximate (at least according to Emmett Curran's official history of the university).

When I was an undergrad, I remember reading that Georgetown's Philodemic Society, founded in 1830, is "the oldest debating society in the New World," which couldn't possibly be true. The Philodemic has apparently wised up, since I couldn't find the "oldest" claim anywhere on their website or in an article in The Hoya on the debating club's 175th anniversary, which more modestly describes the Philodemic as "one of the oldest student organizations on campus." Thus, you don't have to be from New England to claim you have the "oldest" something in the United States. Still, it probably helps. AMDG.