Editor's Blog

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Shouldering the Mantle

January 16, 2014

When I was growing up in a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Philadelphia, my best friend and I practiced saying Mass in his basement. We not only imagined ourselves as priests, we talked about someday becoming saints.

My calling to ordained life dissipated before high school, but I remain fascinated, and wistful, about friends who enter the priesthood or become nuns. When Brendan Busse ’99, M.A. ’11 told me a few years ago that he was about to enter the Society of Jesus, I felt envy.

Brendan now teaches at Seattle University, but he was an LMU campus minister when I met him about seven years ago. One day he told me about an unusual retreat: He took a group of students to a Skid Row shelter in downtown Los Angeles for a weekend-long encounter with homeless people and poverty in America. I asked him to write an article about it, and, secretly, I desired his job.

That first piece of writing led to several more: a reflection on his Jesuit pilgrimage, a meditation on the meaning of Advent and, most recently, his commentary on World Youth Day. I don’t see Brendan often these days. I’m not his closest friend, but I do feel an important bond with him, rooted in the common experience of trying to write about religious experiences.

Fortunately, I can keep track of Brendan’s adventures, and his writing, through a blog he maintains. He and other Jesuits started a website called The Jesuit Post, which, says Paddy Gilger, S.J., editor-in-chief, is about “Jesus, politics and pop culture.” Brendan is one of several contributing writers. His best stuff is thoughtful, wise, descriptive, self-deprecating and inviting. The world needs writers like Brendan.

My friend is several years along his path toward ordination. I sometimes wonder how the mantle that is the choice he took upon his shoulders now feels. (If it’s causing mild discomfort, Ignatius would probably say that’s a good sign.) Brendan’s choice could present him with decades of dedicated service to others, grace-filled entry into lives of hundreds, in catastrophes and epiphanies, and countless opportunities to find God in anyone. Such a life — if well-lived, I think — would give you a smile on your deathbed.

That’s the kind of life I imagined when my friend and I pretended to be priests, when receiving and accepting a call wasn’t a rare event, at least not in my Saint Anne’s neighborhood. But conditions have changed since the mid-1960s. The number of priests and nuns has plummeted, as we know. The workload of the Society of Jesus, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary is no lighter than before. Yet, there are fewer to shoulder it. Living out the religious vocation today seems to carry an added responsibility: to transmit the vocation — including the work — to those with no call to ordination.

It is often said that the heart of Ignatian spirituality can be found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Randy Roche, S.J., director of LMU’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, will tell you that the exercises were never intended for the sole use of the ordained; they’re intended to be useful to anyone. I think religious orders rooted in Ignatius’ view of the world have an advantage in transmitting the vocation, because they do not call a few to enjoy a rare honor or exclusive status in the world. I imagine them saying, “Take what we, somehow, have been given, and receive it yourself.”

Brendan’s writing at The Jesuit Post will intrigue me because the site is another place where he will live out his choice, comfortably or not. If Brendan had come to me 40 years ago to ask what I thought about his joining the Jesuits, I would’ve replied, “Can you meet the standard?” Today I’d answer, “Can you make Ignatians of the rest of us?”

(Photo by Joe August ’13)

Seamus Heaney, Rest in Peace with Your Father and His Fathers

August 30, 2013

One of the great Irish singers died today. Seamus Heaney passed away today in Dublin at the age of 74.

Heaney was one of the world’s great poets, of course, and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995. He often has been considered as important an Irish poet as Yeats. “Death of a Naturalist” is his first volume, and later collections include “Station Island,” “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and “Human Chain.” But I call Heaney a singer because of my memory of the only occasion when I heard him read.

In the mid-1990s, Heaney was invited by poet Robert Mezey to read his work at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Mezey, now retired, taught poetry at Pomona. The reading took place in a lovely, long, warmly lit drawing room, filled with books and high-back chairs. Heaney read at a fragile podium, with one small lamp clamped to its top. The light lit his book and left his face in shadow.

I can’t recall Heaney reading any of his own poems that evening. That embarrasses me. I feel as if I’ve allowed a few treasures to be misplaced forever. Despite that, his reading was unforgettable. It changed my experience of poetry. Before reading his own work, Heaney said he wanted to read W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I don’t remember what he said about it. (There’s another gem that rolled into a mouse hole somewhere in my mind.) I’d taken in that poem from the page a few times over the years, but never before had I heard it. That night, I heard the music in poetry for the first time in my life. Heaney’s reading of the poem was, very much, like a beautiful song, an exquisite melody that could make one cry.

Today I came across Heaney’s poem “Digging.” It’s a tribute to Heaney’s father and the laboring work he did. If Heaney’s death is the loss of a great Irish singer, then this poem shows us we’ve lost one of Ireland’s great workers as well.

A few hours after learning the news of Heaney’s death, I emailed John Menaghan, a poet and professor of English at LMU as well as director of the Irish Studies Program. I wanted to ask him what he thought of Heaney and his work. Menaghan sent me this:

“Heaney Alone”

“One summer 10 years or so ago I found myself in Mulligan’s, a pub near the Trinity College campus that has a reputation for attracting writers and journalists. It was a quiet night, and I sat alone at one end of the bar, waiting for my pint of Guinness to settle before taking a sip. While waiting, I cast my eyes around the room, only to discover, sitting at the opposite end of the bar, the great Seamus Heaney. To my further surprise, he was also alone. Two opposite impulses arose in me. One was the obvious one, that I should seize this chance to slide down the bar and have a chat with him. The other was to leave him alone, because it occurred to me that there must be very few times in recent years when he’d been able to have a quiet pint in a pub, without being besieged by people wanting to be able to say they’d had a personal encounter with Seamus Heaney. And no one else in the pub was bothering him, so why should I? In the end, I left him alone, and a part of me always regretted it. Because although over the years I saw him read numerous times and even at one reading went up to introduce myself and thank him for a great reading, I felt I had missed my chance to get to know him in the more relaxed setting of the pub, and perhaps even become friends. Yet another part of me still thinks I might have done the right thing to leave him alone that night and let him enjoy his own company. And today, when I heard he was gone, it was seeing him alone at the end of the bar in Mulligan’s, rather than giving a reading in any number of venues large and small, that came back to me most powerfully, and made me feel a wordless connection with this great master of language who was, in that time and place, just another Irishman sitting in a pub, enjoying his quiet pint.”

The D.C.-Lincoln Heights Connection

May 16, 2013

Our next issue of LMU Magazine, arriving in a few weeks, will feature a piece we’ve dreamed about for almost three years: a photo essay and feature story on the murals of Los Angeles. L.A.’s murals are inspiring and beautiful, and they’re just about everywhere. They are why the city has been called the “Mural Capital of the World.” But to get the shots we’d need, we feared Jon Rou, the university photographer, would be faced with multiple, time-consuming photo shoots all over Los Angeles.

As we began planning the upcoming issue, we could resist no longer. Fortunately, we discovered the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), organizations that document murals and fight for their preservation. The Mural Conservancy, in particular, posts an extensive database with images of L.A. murals that is searchable by location, title, artist and topic. That allowed us to plan the murals we’d shoot, rather than wander L.A.’s streets for weeks. Members of the conservancy can also take custom tours of murals, led by Executive Director Isabel Rojas-Williams, and I joined one that featured some 10 murals within walking distance of Olvera St. in downtown Los Angeles.

The second step was to identify members of the LMU community who work on or study murals. I knew Karen Mary Davalos, professor and chair of the Department of Chicano/a Studies, would be an invaluable resource, because she teaches courses on Chicano art and culture in the region. She wrote an essay we’ve posted on the magazine’s website. She also directed me to Christopher Torres ’09, her former student who studied murals in New York, Paris and Los Angeles. He now works as a designer at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, architecture firm in Los Angeles. Then I rummaged through the roster of the Department of Art and Art History and discovered that Professor Damon Willick specializes in the history of L.A. art. Plus, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he visited the “Great Wall of Los Angeles” as a child. Finally, Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, professor in the Department of Theological Studies, explores art and religion in her research, and she has loved murals for years. They’re all part of the feature story you’ll soon see.

But my most exciting “find” came very late in our editorial process when I discovered Man One (Alejandro Poli ’93), an L.A.-based painter and artist — an alumnus who is a muralist. I say discovered facetiously. Man One’s work can be seen in Los Angeles, Mexico and elsewhere. He’s been featured in a KCET documentary and honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his dedication to the HeArt Project, an art workshop for L.A. youth. His work has been commissioned by MTV, ESPN and Adidas and others. Man One has a been an important L.A. artist for much longer than when I first began dreaming about murals.

Our staff was thrilled to have experts — professors and designers — featured in our story, but finding an alumnus who is a muralist felt almost like finding gold nuggets in a nearby stream. We had to get his work into the magazine. So I spent an afternoon in Man One’s Lincoln Heights studio hearing about his work and the inspiration he took from murals as a child when he began to experiment with graffiti art.

In the course of our conversation, I mentioned a legendary Washington, D.C., street artist who went by the name Cool “Disco” Dan. Man One knew his work. A few days later, I emailed poet Joseph Ross ’80, who lives in D.C., and who once wrote a piece about imagination for LMU Magazine. Joe, who has a Cool “Disco” Dan poster, and I have become friends, and I told him about my meeting with an LMU alumnus in Los Angeles, a muralist, who knew the work of Cool “Disco” Dan. Within a few weeks, I saw a post on Man One’s blog about a poem Joe had written about a Man One mural in Los Angeles.

That story borders on being convoluted, I know. But what thrilled me was that a creative idea that lay dormant for three years began to pull in members of the LMU community in Los Angeles as it came to fruition in LMU Magazine and then somehow managed to create a bridge between two very different artists, a poet and a muralist both LMU alumni, on opposite coasts of the country. I like to imagine that LMU Magazine draws us together, but I never imagined that it could happen quite like this. Like a spark that jumps a freeway, a creative idea can become explosive.

Above, a detail of “They Claim I’m a Criminal,” a mural by Man One (Alejandro Poli ’93) located at 6120 S. Vermont Ave., in Los Angeles, photographed by Jon Rou).

Revisiting the Chickenpox

February 19, 2013

This past Friday, Feb. 15, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about “Middle Men,” a new collection of short stories by Jim Gavin ’88. The piece was written by David L. Ulin, the paper’s book critic.

Gavin attended the well-regarded master’s-level creative writing program at Stanford University not long ago. I learned about him in 2007, when I was trying to put together a feature story of LMU Magazine’s predecessor, Vistas. The feature was composed of essays by six writers on the subject “The Persistent Power of the Written Word,” and it included three well-known L.A. writers: Lynell George ’84, one of L.A.’s best essayists, Brian Helgeland ’87, one of the film industry’s best screenwriters, and Denise Hamilton ’81, one of the city’s best novelists. We also published Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, ’01, professor of theological studies and a fine columnist on topics religious, and Patrick Furlong ’06, who was keeping a fascinating blog about his experiences doing service work in Ecuador. The only fetter I roped the writers with was the theme itself. I encouraged them to write what they wanted.

Gavin was the only one of the six about whom I held no preconceptions. That meant I was taking a bit of a gamble. But he had been awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship while at Stanford, and I certainly knew who Stegner was, along with his work. Stegner is one of the U.S. novelists whose work I most admire. If Gavin was deemed worthy of an award named for one of the great writers rooted in the West, then he probably belonged in the Vistas feature. (You could say that hunch was a pretty good one: A short story he wrote called “Costello,” which is in his new collection, was published in the New Yorker magazine Dec. 6, 2010.)

My biggest fear in the project was that one essay would be weaker than all the others. Fortunately, none were weak, and Gavin’s was quite strong. A line I particularly liked was “I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write.” That one sentence conveys ideas, explicitly and implicitly, that could easily take three, maybe four, sentences to make obvious. I remember that when the issue was completed, I looked forward to what Gavin would produce, and I hoped the burden of receiving a fellowship with Stegner’s name on it wouldn’t be a heavy one. I haven’t picked up “Middle Men” yet, but I always look forward to reading a writer who wants to actually write.

Here’s Gavin’s 2007 piece in Vistas:

The Chickenpox

“In Joyce Cary’s ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ Gulley Jimson, painter and felon, counsels a young man who claims he wants to be an artist: “Of course you do. Everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox.”

“I guess you could say I caught the chickenpox at LMU. I had entered my freshman year as a communication studies major, but after a few classes I realized the strange and hermetic concepts of that discipline — situational dyads, belief congruency, adaptive structuration — were beyond the limits of my understanding. I spent most of my freshman year playing basketball and Ping-Pong in the pungent hollows of the old Alumni Gymnasium.

“I also met some great friends, members of that bright, lazy and morbidly curious apprentice class who graze in the shadows at every university. We traded books, records, movies; the more obscure the better. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself when I got to LMU, but whatever it was, I was drifting happily away from it. This type of ‘awakening,’ I suspect, is all too common and probably represents a threat to the prosperity of our nation.

“In any case, I eventually stumbled on a copy of ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon. I knew nothing of the author or the book, but it seemed to jump off the shelf, like it had been waiting for me. Pynchon’s grand and looping narrative was also beyond my understanding, but beautifully so, instilling the ordinary world with a vivid and enduring sense of mystery. In pursuit of this mystery, I finally retreated, like so many vain and romantic young men, to the English department.

“Inspired by many excellent professors, my symptoms got worse. I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write. At this giddy stage, being a writer somehow means drinking rum in sultry foreign capitals and showing up for the occasional honorary banquet. The blank page, the empty room, the freighted hours — such horrors never cross the mind.

“Thankfully, in the coming years, as my illusions faded, I still found myself carving out time to sit down and put together sentences. Whether or not I ever become a writer, I am going to write. The condition is terminal.”

A Good Story Wins the Day

January 31, 2013

Here in Los Angeles, we’re passing our days in the season of awards: The Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards have already exchanged hands, and the new Grammy awards and Academy Awards will soon be in living rooms, safes or pawn shops.

I like to watch the award shows because they are spectacular occasions to spin thin theories about the state of U.S. culture. They’re the equivalent of a cursory Saturday workshop in culture criticism, a brief and superficial look at a subject — how popular culture reflects periods in American history — that would require much more time and effort to thoroughly and responsibly understand.

But award shows also are interesting because smart people produce good music and movies, and when smart, creative writers talk about their work, I consider it a particular treat. I always hope a witty screenwriter, musician or actor will say something wise in the 30 seconds on air that he or she is allotted. To a good writer, that challenge is not an injustice, it’s a dare.

This week, we learned that LMU Magazine won a very nice award. A higher education association, the Council for the Support and Advancement of Education — usually known simply as CASE — is a national organization with regional districts. LMU Magazine won a CASE District VII bronze award for Best Article of the Year. Editors in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam and the Mariana Islands were eligible to submit articles from their university magazines.

In our fall 2011 issue, we published a First Person story by Logan Metz ’10 called “Rockin’ the Bard.” It’s a funny, creative and well-written account of a student who combined his love for music (Metz was a singer/songwriter a touring alt-country band at the time called The Reflectacles) with a Shakespeare assignment.

Metz got some spotlight in the magazine because Theresia De Vroom, a professor English and director of the Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts, told me of a screenwriting student whose band played L.A. clubs, toured regions of the U.S. and was among her best Shakespeare students. I looked up the band on YouTube and found their cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” an American classic. Theirs is an excellent version of a well-covered song. I loved the harmonica, rhythm guitar, harmonies and tempo. Metz, by the way, is the guy sporting vest, brown hat and banjo.

As I watched the video, a thought linked two synapses: Here’s a guy who loves America’s great country music tradition and Shakespeare — a genre rooted in stories and perhaps the greatest storyteller the English language has ever produced. “I have to get him to write something that connects music and Shakespeare,” I thought. Well, read for yourself how Metz accomplished that in “Rockin’ the Bard.”

What does this award mean? At one level, I’m happy my peers who judged the competition recognized an excellent piece of writing in LMU Magazine. That an alumnus won a writing award is especially satisfying, because Metz’s work competed against the work of people who earn their living as magazine writers. It’s the kind of accomplishment that folks in the LMU community can be proud of.

But regardless of the kudos, I still get excited when I read Metz’s piece because, first, it tells a story of how he creatively completed an assignment and, second, does the telling in a creative, clever way. The story’s appeal doesn’t diminish, no matter how often I read it. Give it a read yourself. Don’t be surprised if you feel an urge to clap the end.

Logan Metz remains involved in creative ventures that mix genres, particularly with his collaborator, Lincoln Mendell ’10.

(Photo by Jon Rou)

The Ace Adams Award

January 15, 2013

This past December, the LMU men’s lacrosse team received an award that recognizes sportsmanship and respect for the game. For the second year in a row, LMU received the District 10 Ace Adams Award, the first time that consecutive Adams award wins has ever been accomplished.

James “Ace” Adams was a coach noted for his teams’ character when he led Army and the University of Virginia, and he is a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in Baltimore. District 10, which encompasses California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii), is one of 11 administrative districts of the Men’s College Lacrosse Association.

Brad Chestnut, a junior who is president of the LMU men’s lacrosse team, said two factors that probably influenced the decision are the team’s cooperative demeanor on the field and its commitment to promoting the game in the Westchester community. They’ve been instrumental in establishing the West LA Lacarosse League for elementary school-age kids in the Westchester neighborhood. “We’re trying to make the sport something better and put lacrosse in a positive light rather than just trying to win games,” he said.

We did two pieces on the team last year, a video titled “Lacrosse Brings On the Next Generation” that focused on the team’s work in the community and an interview with the 2012 Team President Johnny Gilbreath in the spring 2012 issue of LMU Magazine.

The team’s efforts are inspirational: college athletes working with parents in the neighborhood and teaching the game to kids. Chestnut said that since LMU Magazine covered LMU lacrosse last year, the kids have advanced to the point where teams are divided into two groups according to skill level. “The LMU players usually coach the less-skilled kids, while the parents work with the more advanced team,” he said.

A scene in our video that I can’t forget comes at the 3:19 point: a shot of little kids wearing authentic jerseys — with “LIONS” spread across the chest — and helmets that have their own names taped to the front. If I were a kid in love with the game, having a helmet with my name taped to the front would make me feel just about perfect, like the big time, the real thing. Learning from college players has to be a huge thrill for those kids, and what a gift the players are giving them.

LMU lacrosse, a non-NCAA club sport, competes in the MCLA’s Southwestern Lacrosse Conference. Game results and news can be found at the team website. Last year, the Lions finished 7-7 and advanced to the SLC playoffs, where they lost to Arizona, 14–12. During the season, they competed against teams representing the University of Texas, Southern Methodist, Washington State, Colorado, Santa Clara, UCLA and UCSB.

(Photo by Jon Rou)

Sam Fischer’s Triple Crown Path

April 10, 2012

It was a baseball fan’s dream: a 30-minute conversation with a player who will likely go down in the history books as the greatest hitter in LMU softball history — Sam Fischer.

In the upcoming issue of LMU Magazine, due out in May, you’ll find a story about Fischer, who just weeks into the 2012 season had established herself as the all-timeLMU home run leader and the all-time LMU RBI leader. Fischer also hits for average. Throughout the season, she’s been in the top 5 hitters in the nation for batting average, and is No. 2 at the moment. And she’s well on track to finish as LMU’s all-time leader in career batting average.

And while we’re talking about amazing things seen at Smith Field, let the record show that Fischer has been pushed to the max by teammate Kelly Sarginson, a senior, who last year set an LMU record and a Pacific Coast Softball Conference record for homers in a single season, with 18. Fischer and Sarginson bat third and fourth in the line-up, and I’ll confess that when our No. 3 and 4 hitters are due up, I often imagine what it must’ve been like to see Mickey Mantle in the batter’s box and Roger Maris on deck. Fischer herself says they make one another better.

Any player who leads a team in home runs, RBIs or batting average for a season is worth taking note of. To lead in all three categories completes the legendary Triple Crown, last accomplished in major league baseball in 1967 by Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox. Others who’ve done it? Frank Robinson, Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, to name a few of the few.

Fischer, as I write this in mid-April, leads the PCSC in all three Triple Crown categories for the current season. But more amazing is that she will almost certainly end the season as the all-time LMU career leader in all three categories. Fischer will be LMU’s Career Triple Crown winner. It’s difficult to imagine that any future LMU softball player will match this accomplishment.

I became a baseball fan by watching the Baltimore Orioles lose a World Series in 1979, then win one in 1983. How I wish I could’ve sat down to talk with Cal Ripken about positioning in the field, with Eddie Murray about whether power hitters really have holes in their swing. Later, after moving west, I did get to ask Eddie Williams — a wonderful, and unheralded, Dodger pinch hitter whose career was slowed by injuries — about the mentality of the occasional batter. When I interviewed Fischer for our magazine story, I decided to ask her about hitting, and hitting only: Who would you most like to get a hit off? When you’re at the plate, do you analyze all the possibilities like Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham”? When you have a chance to sit down with a great hitter, there’s no reason to discuss anything else.

For LMU sports fans, especially those who love the game played on the diamond, the Lions softball team, with shortstop Sam Fischer, is a team one should consider changing one’s schedule to see. Although the season will end this month, the team plays two doubleheaders at home this coming weekend, on April 14 and 15 (the final games will take place later in April at the University of San Diego and Saint Mary’s College). First game starts at 10 a.m. each day. If LMU takes the PCSC Coastal Division title, then the team will play at home May 11 and 12 for the conference title. Follow all team news and check the schedule here.

(Photo of Sam Fischer ’12 by Jon Rou)

Braiding Poetry and Jazz

February 9, 2012

Last week, two events on campus brought together poets and jazz musicians, and the joining of the two was partly the result of two people, Paul Harris, chair of the Department of English, and David Ornette Cherry, whose collaboration goes back a generation to their fathers.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the English Department hosted a poetry reading featuring jazz musician Cherry, who accompanied Professor John Menaghan and several students as they read their work. Menaghan read from his jazz poems, which draw on jazz musicians, music and rhythms. He’s read them elsewhere, too, and you can hear him online in a podcast from City of the Angels Music, website about the jazz music community in Los Angeles. Students Nareen Melkonian, Zahra Lipson, Hillary Scheppers and Bianca Darby-Matteoda read pieces in a variety of forms. They were introduced by Sarah Maclay, poet and profess of English.

Cherry, son of the great jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, often accompanies spoken word artists by playing an electric keyboard or pulling selected instrumentals, DJ-style, from a vast music archive on his laptop. Cherry reads over the poems beforehand, then moves to the music that suits. It’s an exercise in spontaneity, of course, and it makes for a wondrous, improvised experiment in sounds. Watching the duet taking place between each student and Cherry was especially fun. Their interactions, made up of nonverbal glances and nods of the head, reminded me of the unspoken conversation between a drummer and bass player.

The next night, at the Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts, Cherry brought his band The Ensemble for Improvisors and poet Kamau Daaood. Daaood’s poetry — an example is here — rumbled out from somewhere deep in the heart, and the band, overflowing with world music influences, brought the funk, as well as jazz.

A highlight was Harris’ “Don’s Horn,” also delivered to Cherry’s music. Harris practices constrained writing, a literary form in which an author imposes a condition on his or her work. (Harris’ “Alpha Rap” is on the Internet.) “Solo-O’s Solo: To Honor Joys Born of Don’s Horn,” which pays tribute to Don Cherry, is a long poem whose words may use only the vowel “o.” That struck me as a contrivance for only a few seconds. Harris’ work soon became an eruption of thought and comment, full and complete despite its banishing of a, e, i and u. The combination of words and music blew the roof off and reached up to the heavens.

The gig was raucous at times, and to experience world jazz, poetry and shouts and hollers in the Marymount Institute struck me as an appropriate tribute to faith, culture and arts. You could say it was an evening made possible several decades ago. Their fathers were close friends who met in New Hampshire, where Harris’, Joseph Harris, was a physics professor at Dartmouth College. Cherry, who now lives in Portland, Ore., was an L.A. resident for many years, and he and Harris have collaborated often.

During both evenings, I often closed my eyes for stretches at a time. I wanted to prevent my ears from being distracted by my eyes. In church, I often listen to the reading of the Gospel in the same way, to hear and only hear, to imagine the scenes the words describe. That seemed appropriate last week. For me, jazz and poetry are the imagination at prayer.

Red Cabbage and Cool Water

January 13, 2012

I have a friend at work who, as any good friend would, has steadily been offering advice to improve my life. I’ll call him Good Ben/Bad Ben.

Lately, Good Ben has been urging me to go with him to volunteer at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen. The Catholic Worker was started in New York City in 1933 by Dorothy Day, and today about 250 Worker hospitality houses/soup kitchens operate across the United States. Here in L.A., they’ve been cooking meals for the city’s poor and homeless since Easter Sunday 1970. The kitchen is at Sixth St. and Gladys Ave. in the Skid Row neighborhood.

Two Saturdays ago, I took Good Ben up on his offer. I showed up at 7:30 a.m., joined in the morning’s prayer, and spent a half-day buttering bread, chopping red cabbage, filling plastic bags with bagels, and walking from picnic table to picnic table offering cups of cool water to the guests. I’m not asking for God’s gold star for cutting vegetables and pouring water. After all, God’s grace is given freely, we can’t earn it. The best part of the day was who I met.

An African American woman in a wheelchair came from the food line and asked me for water, then for my name. Hers, she said, was Mary. When I said Mary was my mother’s, as well as my sister’s — my sister, the nun — a five-minute conversation began. Mary told me about the poems she writes, reciting three, each about the faithfulness and providence of God. But the special moment came 10 minutes later, when she called out “Joe” from across the courtyard. I walked over to her table, where she introduced me to her friends. I arrived at the kitchen feeling anonymous, and in an instant I felt known.

The other special encounter was with an LMU alumnus, Rob Palmer ’85, and his daughter, Grace. I have a daughter named Grace, and, as sentimental as it may seem, I feel bonded to anyone who has named a daughter Grace. Rob’s been to Sixth and Gladys many times, and I was struck by how much fun he was having. I’m not sure he knew everyone, but he looked like a man surrounded by friends. At the end of the day, Grace, a high school freshman, was beaming, too. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself among the LMU community. Jeff Dietrich, a leader at the Worker, writes in his new book — titled “Broken and Shared” and published by the Marymount Institute Press — that he considers Greg Boyle, S.J., M.A. ’85, founder of Homeboy Industries, his pastor and first volunteer. And at least a handful of Jesuits across the country have helped shape Dietrich over the years.

I suppose I have Good Ben to thank for all of this. But what about Bad Ben? Well, 50 percent of Ben’s advice is excellent, dead on target — Good Ben’s. The other 50 percent — this I’ve said straight to Bad Ben’s face — is dreadful. For every invitation from Good Ben to head down to Skid Row, Bad Ben suggests a weekend in Las Vegas. Well, you know what they say. So I said to Bad Ben, “Let’s not go there.”

(Photo by Mike Wisniewski, Los Angeles Catholic Worker)

If Families Were Sports Clubs

September 15, 2011

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon watching the season’s first home game of the LMU women’s soccer team. Sitting beside me in the Sullivan Field bleachers was the biggest fan of LMU soccer that I know: my 7-year-old friend, along with his mother and sister. He rarely misses a men’s home game and also shows up for a majority of the women’s games. Though he may be the most devoted fan — he knows the roster by first name, wears the gear and criticizes the refs — I’ve begun to see that he connects to his teams as much as an owner as a fan. He’s not thinking that the outcome of a game is a toss-up, in which case a win gives him the sweet taste of victory’s surprise. Instead, he’s thinking that his team has all the pieces it needs to win, plus some. When the Lions win, he enjoys the rich, peaceful satisfaction of his expectations being met.

Just how much of an owner’s mind-set the boy has became clear to me about six minutes into the women’s game against Long Island University. A few days before, I learned that two undergraduate players from last year’s squad had transferred. I asked my friend’s mother, “Did you know that two of our starters transferred?” Before she could answer, the kid turned to me and asked — with no regret, only looking forward — “Who did we get for them?”

That started a conversation about trading players — an endlessly fascinating conversation to a real fan — but with a twist: Which of our favorite players would we like to have in our families? Rafael Baca, LMU alumnus now playing with the MLS San Jose Earthquakes, and my friend’s favorite player? Tawni Martino, LMU forward and first team All-WCC last season in her freshman year? “Who would you trade to get Rafa?” “What about Tawni?” “How about Abby Wambach? If you had Rafa and Tawni, would you trade them for Abby?”

I could see his mind going through his personal scouting report, assessing each player’s skills. I asked him if he’d trade one of his other favorite players, Steve Nash of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, to get one of his soccer heroes. Then I asked the question that proved that if he was thinking like an owner, I was thinking like a child: “What about your family? Would you trade your sister to get Rafa in your family?” Luckily, his mother laughed. Even more fortunate for me: his 11-year-old sister is my friend, too. “No!” she said. A moment later, “Yes, he would.”

Then the conversation took a new turn. I asked a boy’s toughest question: “Would you trade Mom for anyone?” He went silent.

I was told the next day that it took several hours for him to answer the question. That’s when I learned that not every family has a franchise player.

This coming Saturday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m., the LMU women’s soccer team plays UCLA, ranked No. 2 in the nation, on LMU’s Sullivan Field. The team is off to a raging start, with a record of 6-1-1. It will be a game not to be missed. For more information about LMU athletics, go here.

(Photo of Tawni Martino by Scott Cunningham/Courtesy of LMU Athletics)