Thursday, January 31, 2008

LOST is the best show in the history of shows.

Granted, after divesting of nearly all other vices in order to devour three seasons of television storytelling genius, I am biased. But c'mon. It doesn't get any better than this.

One of the truly delightful things about LOST is that you never know what will happen next, and neither does the cast. So many TV shows either give their premise away because it's all they are, or are content with existing inside of a comfortable and crushingly predictable formula so that people only have to tune in and tune out without ever being invested in character, nuance, plot or other hallmarks of intelligent entertainment. LOST's willingness not to try to be all things to all viewers helps what are already solid performances by one of the most diverse and talented ensemble casts in recent memory to be even better - their investment in the story is as genuine as our own.

I hope the writers' strike is resolved soon (in the writers' favor, of course), so that we get more than eight episodes this season.

"Did you see a guy run through here wearing a bathrobe and carrying a coconut?"
"No. Saw a polar bear on rollerskates with a mango..."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This one is for John.

One of the men on pilgrimage with me in Italy was a fellow named John McAuley. John was an economist, professor, father, sailor, author and senior writer for Dow Jones, among other things. Shortly after his return from Italy, he had a heart attack and died on the New York City subway just after being interviewed on live television. His wife, Kathy, who was also on pilgrimage with us, emailed us all to share the news of his passing. My heart broke for her loss, as they worked literally across the country from one another but seemed to be the best of friends, comfortable with one another in the way that we should all hope to be when we get on in years.

John and I had shared a few late-night "grande birra" in Italy and discussed literature, among other things. He asked what some of my favorite books were, and I remember mentioning Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," a monumentally depressing and utterly beautiful book that revealed to me a new way of thinking about the ways people choose to deal with their sorrows. Though I had learned of the passing of my wife's grandmother that afternoon and was in heavy spirits, John saw in me that night a need to feel some camaraderie, lest I be alone with my thoughts. I would venture that we writers have a knack for that sort of thing. I appreciated his drawing me out.

John was a bright man, and happy. I marveled at how little pretension there was surrounding someone so accomplished. I recall sending an email to friends shortly after his death and imploring them to recognize the significance of perfect strangers who enter and exit our lives at particularly crucial moments. John’s death affected me in a way I didn’t expect. Since being in Italy and sharing such a profound experience with people I hardly knew, or didn't know at all, my awareness of how tiny our lives are has been heightened.

Tomorrow, our group of pilgrims is having a memorial Mass for John. Probably because of the beers and conversation we shared, I've been asked to share some memories of him during the service, and I'm left with a keen sense of how ridiculous it is to be sharing anything about someone whose life only intersected my own for the briefest moment. But yet I'm grateful for the chance; glad to let others know that guys like John are out there in the world waiting to crack jokes with random Milwaukeeans in cockeyed black hats while sitting on the sidewalk in front of a cafe in Rome under the incredible bloom of a full moon over St. Peter's cathedral.

We're only on this rock for a moment. May we all be as memorable and kind as John was. If you're into prayers, say one for Kathy and Matt McAuley.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A thundering herd of truth:

Despite Barack Obama winning a landslide victory in the South Carolina primary, we cannot assume that he will be the Democratic party nominee for president. There are few laurels to rest upon and far too much at stake. There's a long road ahead, and the Clinton campaign will roll out each and every well-paid, well-connected operative it has to shill for Hillary and smear Obama.

What his victory does tell us, however, is that we're one step closer to getting past the all-too-familiar storyline of wondering whether our nation is ready for a black president, or for that matter, a female president. What Bush's leadership, or lack thereof, has shown us over the past seven years is that change is not the campaign catchphrase du jour, it's an imperative.

Let's rock the vote, people. Don't look at the president seven years from now and wish you would have paid attention during primary season in 2008 so you wouldn't STILL be so incredibly disappointed, disillusioned and disgusted. Put down your US Weekly, remove your earbuds, pull the donut out of your cakehole and pay attention.

In case you haven't noticed, we have a lot to lose.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I went to Italy once.

Though it may border on cliche to say that there are unexpected moments that define one's life, or at least put it into perspective, this maxim holds true. I have monumental proof.

On October 6, 2007, I kissed my wife goodbye, hugged a kindly older woman and got on a shuttle bus that would transport myself, eight co-workers and two spouses to Rome via Chicago and Zurich. The kindly older woman? My university's president, a Sister whose vision, deeply felt conviction and sheer budgetary moxie sent us overseas to walk in the footsteps of Saints Francis and Clare, who hail from a town called Assisi in the Umbria region of central Italy.

See, my university is a Franciscan Catholic institution and our president has sent a handful of staff, faculty and students to Italy each year since 1999 to deepen our commitment to and understanding of our Franciscan heritage. And to learn a thing or two about leadership. Now, I'm not a particularly religious fellow, but I have always been intrigued in and vexed by matters of the spirit. Keep in mind that this was not a vacation for any of us, but rather a kind of historical walking tour with lots of Mass, food, wine and introspection.

Throughout our six days in Assisi, I was given many opportunities to lay my thoughts bare to myself and others. I took advantage of almost all of them, keeping a few things to myself. There will surely be future posts that reflect on these moments, but the one that's sticking in my head today is a small but powerful one:

Sister Annie, a compact, passionate and energetic woman who served as one of our three pilgrimage leaders, was recounting the story of how she went from being the CEO of a large health care system in Pennsylvania to being a pilgrimage leader who literally walks dozens of groups like ours through the lives of these saints and the lessons and legacies they leave behind. In talking about her transition and her need to do something that was truly calling her, she posed a question to our group, 40 strong from all corners of the U.S. (and one from Africa), all walks of life and all ranks within our respective institutions and organizations:

"What is really important?"

I'm quite likely paraphrasing the question, but it struck me in a way that being asked the same question in Milwaukee never would have - what was really important? Here we were, four thousand or so miles from home and loved ones, effectively severed from our cell phones, computers, televisions, offices, lifelines, distractions and the general cacophony of everyday life. You admit to yourself pretty quickly that your perspective has changed... a rock is no longer a rock, but a glittering, porous, hefty chunk of history to be meditated upon. A bench isn't a bench, but a conveyance - an ancient repository of songs, stories and sorrows, an organism unto itself.

So the question loomed in my mind for days - what was really important?

I'm not sure that I've yet answered it, but I have a pretty good idea. I made the decision while hiking up a mountain called La Verna (more on that later) to streamline my life as much as I could, to focus on the things that I felt passionately about and to cut out the rest.

It isn't easy to do, but it's necessary. I'm working on it, and I feel better already.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"It's better to burn out than to fade away..."

A fellow named Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994 at the pinnacle of his fame and artistry. I remember thinking, from the living room of my parents' rented condo in central Florida on the date of my future wife's birthday, "holy shit. Why?"

This was before I had even become a Nirvana fan. But I distinctly remember thinking that if he had only summoned the courage to fight his demons, to persevere despite his disillusionment, maybe we would have been fortunate enough to hear just one more astounding record, one more anthem, one more vicious shot at the status quo.

I'm reminded of Kurt Cobain, James Dean and others when I think of the death of Heath Ledger. He's another talent gone long before his time. For those of us who weren't scared off by homophobic stereotyping and filmmaking that begs consciousness of a higher order, "Brokeback Mountain" was one of the best films of the past decade. Ledger's performance was nothing short of brilliant, and it serves as a cornerstone to his memory. It saddens me to think about how much more Ledger could have achieved in a career that had really only just begun.

While Cobain left us with a rambling, apologetic and ultimately crushing suicide note, we may never know what events led to Ledger's death. All we are left with is an unnerving sense of what could have been.

Another daughter will grow up without a father.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Well, let's do this thing. Again.

This isn't the first time I've promised myself this blogging thing would work out.

"I'll update it, like, daily," I told myself. "It'll be a great way for me to keep writing and keep my lobes in shape."

And that one quickly died on the vine. Such is the nature of things. Do I think blogging will be a different experience for me now than it was then? In a word, yes. My life is changing and so is my attitude. I'm not even sure what that means, but here goes.