Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Physic of Tears

Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.
~ Judith Orloff, M.D.

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Three Quick Media Takes: Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

Other than the alliteration, these brief glances at three video departures from earlier works – one a movie sequel, the other two literary TV adaptations – may not seem to have much in common: sci-fi pscyhothriller, drawing-room character study, and Agatha Christie in a Roman collar. Perhaps – let’s see.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

This worthy sequel is now out on DVD, and it prompts me to record some thoughts I had when I saw it in the theater last summer.

The original Blade Runner (1982), starring a very young Harrison Ford, was one of those films that you see as a kid and keep coming back to (either in your mind or on the screen or both) for the rest of your life. At least that was true for meand is now, despite the fact that, once I became a Catholic, I shunned it as a film that the USCCB movie rating service deemed “morally objectionable.” I couldn’t help talking about it with my older children, and I urged them to see it someday – on their own, if they chose, and away from our home.

Anyway, the new BR, starring Ryan Gosling this time, is rated a relatively tame L (limited adult audience), so I gladly went to check it out. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but, like Star Wars fans who go see every new installment regardless of quality, I felt compelled to go out of a sense of loyalty to the original.

And you know what? I liked it more than I thought I would – maybe a 3.5 stars out of 5. The marketing hype would lead to believe that you don’t need to see its predecessor in order to enjoy it, but you really should. Just keep in mind that USCCB “O” rating if you do so – caveat emptor.

Even if you don’t, however, BR2049 is definitely worth a viewing. There’s a lot of violence and more than a few racy bits, but there’s plenty of visual and auditory spectacle that will keep you enthralled. Plus, Ford shows up reprising his role as blade runner Rick Deckard thirty years later – which was alone worth the price of the ticket.

But there’s also some substantial musing in this film, and much of it revolves around what it means to be human – just like in the first BR. To begin with, there’s an implicit critique of the reproductive technologies that have shifted our assumptions about what it means to beget. We used to associate baby-making with love-making, but now it’s often framed in manufacturing terms: product of conception, desired traits, sex selection. It makes you squirm a bit, much like Gattaca did back in 1997. Only now the squirming is considerably more pronounced because the Gattaca future of babies made-to-order has become a reality.

The film also raises questions about human identity beyond mere biological heritage. Is it wonder that separates us from beasts? Compassion? As I sat in the theater, I couldn’t help thinking about Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) and its powerful images of angels trying to become men. Why would an angel want to become one of us? The same question could be asked of a replicant – the BR equivalent of an android – and it’s worth asking of ourselves. If we had a choice, would we choose to be human? Would we accept the inevitable suffering and pain and death? Would we embrace lives of chaos and paradox that can’t ultimately be filtered and managed, despite modernity’s technological illusions that tell us otherwise?

Of course, because it’s real, and we all have an innate hunger for reality. It’s put there by God, and it can only be satisfied by God – like St. Augustine’s “our heart is restless until it rests in you” (CCC 30). This is in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s summing-up of the Zeitgeist in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) – to wit: we can all make up our own reality to order, just like we do with babies. Nonsense.

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC, 1982- )

Part of that reality that we have to embrace – and that modernity finds so distasteful – is that we’re all sinners in need of grace, and it’s a theme that’s explored in a profoundly subtle way in Anthony Trollope’s delectable Barchester novels. I only started reading Trollope recently, although a friend had long ago recommended him to me. What a shame that it took me so long to listen to her! Like a male counterpart to Jane Austen, Trollope closely examines – almost dissects – the intricate, intimate foibles and strivings, vices and virtues, of human experience in a tightly circumscribed frame of reference: nineteenth-century English society and the peculiar web of relations between established Church clergy (read: Anglican) and their families and social circles. Lots of politics and melodrama with a delicate overlay of religion – wonderful!

Rev. Septimus Harding, an aging, widowed, cello-playing cleric, is the hero and a fantastic, very human character – one who lives out on the page the tension at Christianity’s core: That it is simultaneously a set of religious assertions affirmed (creedal truths and dogma) and a way of life aspired to (always imperfectly, alas), Mr. Harding memorably embodies the undeniable fact, witnessed in history and borne out in personal experience, that divine grace and constant effort are required to align the two in our lives. At the end of the exquisite BBC Barchester mini-series, the otherwise abrasive Dr. Grantly, the husband of Harding’s elder daughter, has the good sense to toast his father-in-law’s example:

He is not a hero, not a man that is widely talked about, not a man who should be toasted at public dinners, not a man who should be spoken of with conventional absurdity as ‘the perfect divine.’ He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.

The exquisite BBC production covers the first two Barchester novels, The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857), and it captures well the wide moral range of Trollope’s characters on a scale of mostly bad to good. Harding is definitely at the latter end, and the oily Obadiah Slope anchors the other. Played by Alan Rickman – Harry Potter’s Snape – Slope is underhanded, selfish, and altogether repulsive – breathtakingly so. Barchester’s bishop, Dr. Proudie, on the other hand, is a moral cipher, and his wife (remember, these are Anglicans) rules the ecclesiastical and domestic roost – two more odious characters.

But for my money, the most conniving and hateful character in the Barchester universe that I’ve encountered so far (I haven’t read through the whole series yet) is the unforgettable Senora Neroni, daughter of a worldly clergyman and the estranged wife of an Italian dandy. She is crippled due to past domestic abuse, and yet manages to implement her nefarious schemes from her permanently supine position. She flirts and seduces for sport, exposing hypocrisy and causing mayhem in Barchester’s circles for no other purpose than her own amusement – to see what lengths fools will go to, especially men.

Still, she redeems herself by trying to bring together a pair of star-crossed lovers – Mr. Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, a widowed mother, and the Rev. Arabin, a bachelor Oxford don. Neroni simultaneously crushes Mr. Slope, who sought Eleanor’s hand only for her fortune, and brings about the pairing of Eleanor and Arabin through her artful interventions. It’s a singularly meritorious and selfless act of goodness – enough perhaps to save her soul. As staged in the BBC production, it’s a brilliant snapshot of an onion being extended from heaven, in the imagery of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and a recalcitrant sinner laying hold of it. It brought tears to my eyes, and thinking of it now gives me resurgent hope for my own salvation.

Father Brown (BBC, 2013- )

Another recent BBC discovery for us is their excellent adaptation of Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery stories. I’d purchased Season One long ago at a library sale, but we never really got around to watching them. A week or so ago, I happened upon Season Five on the library’s “New” shelf, and brought it home on a lark.

Superb! We dived into it, and (with some reservations) we found it to be engaging entertainment for the whole family, as well as eminently thoughtful and even challenging.

If you’re familiar with GKC’s Fr. Brown, you know that he based the character on an actual Yorkshire priest that shepherded him into the Church in 1922. The literary version of that wise cleric is the soul of pastoral patience and priestly wisdom, which he extends to the frequent opportunities providence sends his way to solve criminal conundrums.

A friend recently posted something about Fr. Mulcahy (William Christopher), a regular character in the long-running series, M*A*S*H, and another edifying television depiction of the priesthood. I’d say the BBC’s updated (in character and time period) Fr. Brown goes Fr. Mulcahy one better. He’s not a saint yet, and his demonstrable pre-conciliar aggiornamento is a bit anachronistic, but he nonetheless captures so much of what we all so greatly treasure in our favorite priests. Like Mulcahy, the BBC Brown (played by Mark Williams, another Harry Potter standout) exhibits a healthy ecumenism, and even some interfaith amiability. Yet, while he studiously avoids bombast and rigid moralism, constantly hedging his many assertions and opinions, he is crystal clear with regards to dogma and faith. That’s where he seems to surpass the M*A*S*H chaplain, for the BBC’s Fr. Brown routinely references his first priority of saving souls – yes, he uses the words “souls” and “saving souls” right there on British TV! – and yet he never carries it out in a highhanded way. He invites; sometimes he cajoles, but never pressures; he waits; he prays.

Following an episode in which Brown has dealings with an atheist, my daughter Cecilia commented on Brown’s generosity of spirit. “Come talk to me,” Father Brown had told the man. “I won’t try to convert you.” This reminded Cece of something she really appreciates about our Faith. “Catholics don’t pressure people,” she said. “They just live it as best they can.”

Just so. As they used to say during World War II, carry on. Yes, indeed, with God’s grace and best you can, carry on.
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Death Prep (Part 2): What We Must Do, What We Ought to Do

I will then prepare myself for that hour,
and I will take all possible care to end this journey happily.
~ St. Frances de Sales

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Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

We can’t hope to know others as we should like to, but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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What Was Mr. Bennet Reading?

A physical book, like an open newspaper, declares itself to both the owner and the stranger. Its words face the reader, but its title is exposed to the world.
~ Boris Kachka

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Been There Before: My NPR Début

Based on my extensive research (which amounts to 20 minutes or so on Google), it was Vince Lombardi who said, “When you get into the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

Or it might’ve been Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. Or Darrell K. Royal, head coach at the University of Texas in the 1960s and 70s.

Or, as one online commenter noted, “Probably some high school coach who will never be known.”

Anyway, you get the drift: If and when you accomplish something big, really big, something extraordinary, don’t behave like it’s a fluke or a miracle. Don’t, in other words, flop around in ecstasy for the cameras or whirl like a dervish. Instead, take it in stride – as in, “of course I made a touchdown in an NFL game in front of millions of viewers. Was there really any doubt?!”

I got to thinking about this following a recent segment on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Scott Simon, the paragon of public radio mellifluence, gravitas, and geniality, had interviewed an expert on the history of special counsels with respect to the Trump-Russia morass. Here’s the final exchange between Simon and his guest, Stephen Carter:

CARTER: We don’t know if it’s true or not, but we should behave as though we know whether it’s true. But if it does turn out to be true, that’s very, very serious.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale Law School and the esteemed novelist. Thanks so much for being back with us, Stephen.

CARTER: It is always a pleasure. Thanks, Scott.

“Always a pleasure”– almost Chick-fil-A-esque, don’t you think? So calming, so routine. As if talking with Scott Simon to millions of listeners is the most natural thing in the world and “always a pleasure.” And Mr. Carter had also used the phrase earlier in the segment after he was first introduced.

Clearly it’s a pleasure Stephen had enjoyed previously – hence the “always” and the “being back with us.” Consequently, the Lombari/Bryant/high-school-coach recommendation about how to act didn’t apply to him: Carter had been there before, and he was acting accordingly.

But at some point in his radio career, Stephen Carter must’ve made an initial NPR appearance. There was some moment – years ago, decades ago, who knows? – that Stephen Carter was at a microphone and Scott Simon was introducing him for the very first time. And perhaps, back then, Mr. Carter wasn’t famous enough to be assured of a return visit. For all Stephen knew, it might’ve been his lone NPR shot!

So, I wonder: Was his response to Scott Simon’s inaugural introduction a sedate, “It’s my pleasure?”

I bet it was. In fact, I bet all the guests on NPR are prepped along those lines. I bet all the guests – especially the rookies and one-hit-wonders (those whose first NPR cameo really will be their only shot) are advised to act like they’ve been there before. “Be cool,” they’re told. “Pretend like you’re just having a chat with a census taker or a bank clerk. Disregard the monumental impact your words could have on countless people; how your comments might be misconstrued and lampooned in the digital ether forever. It’s all cool. Be cool.”

That’s why they all sound like they’ve been on the radio a million times even if they haven’t. That’s why they all, without exception, come across as erudite and smooth.

Take Jane Kirtley who showed up on “All Things Considered” the other day. Jane is an academic with specialized knowledge pertaining to pink slime, the segment’s focus. Given that pink slime isn’t exactly a hot news item any more, Dr. Kirtley could easily wind up on the NPR one-hit-wonder guest roster. Even so, consider her initial exchange with host Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: Joining us to talk about this case is Jane Kirtley. She’s the director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

JANE KIRTLEY: Thank you.

I’m sorry, what? Just…“thank you” – that’s it? And that’s how she took her exit as well: a polite “thank you.” This well might be the only chance in her life – her whole life ­– that she’ll get to speak on NPR, and she goes out with a “thank you?” Probably she was as giddy as I would be to make it to ATC, but the pre-show handlers prepped it out of her.

No, I’m sorry, no. Look, Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and all you NPR guest wranglers, when you get around to needing a pro-life/anti-war former drummer with seven kids who works as a nursing instructor and refuses to carry a cell phone, I’ll be ready. However, know that I will eschew your advice about acting like I’ve been there before – I’ll sneer and scoff; I’ll give with a breathy chortle: “Herh, herh, herh.”  No, I will make good use of my 15 minutes of NPR fame, and it’ll go something like this:

SIMON: For more insight into Van Morrison’s unheralded contributions to healthcare reform and world peace, here’s Rick Becker, husband, father, blogger, and Assistant Professor of Nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Thanks for being here, Rick.

BECKER: Heck, are you kidding me, Scott – are you kidding me?! Shoot, yeah! Here we are, on NPR – N-P-freaking-R! – and you’re thanking me? I should be thanking you – in fact, I am going to thank you, right now: Thank you, Scott Simon! Thanks, NPR and Weekend Edition! Thanks, all you NPR contributors and underwriters! Thanks, thanks, thanks – this is awesome! Hey, kids! Hey, honey! I’m on NPR, can you believe it? Whooo-hooo! I hope somebody’s recording this!

Anyway, what’s your question, Scott?

SIMON: ….

Since there’s no question I’d be an NPR one-hit-wonder, why not go out in a blaze of glory? Feigning “been-there-before” cool – on NPR or in any part of life – strikes me as both fatuous and futile. Boorishness is underrated. Be awkward and loutish! Be free!

I’ll look forward to hearing from you, Scott.
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My Finest Hour in New York

Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
~ Walt Whitman

It’s complicated, but decades ago I lived in Manhattan with a bunch of Mennonites. I had a room in their Gramercy Park townhouse for a few months, and the rent was cheap-cheap-cheap. The room was no bigger than a closet – actually, it originally had been a closet – but I only slept there, so it didn’t matter.

The rest of the time I wandered around the city, taking the subway here and there, bebopping and cavorting, looking, listening, checking things out. Up to the Cloisters, down to the Battery, Columbia and the Village, St. Pat’s and St. John the Divine, riding, walking, drinking it all in. Sometimes I’d pick a random neighborhood I hadn’t been to, find it on my map – a physical map, a paper map with lots of creases and impossible to refold – then head out on bus and train to find it. Other times (my favorite times) I’d dip into Dorothy Day’s autobiography and locate the sites she mentions like they were hallowed shrines – which they were because she’d been there, because she’d taken note of them. Dorothy was my lodestar in New York, a mentor as I stumbled my way into the practice of the Faith and adult freedoms.

So that’s how I spend most of my time in Manhattan, but I still had to pay my cheap-cheap rent, so I worked at a bookstore. Logos Bookstore of Midtown, on Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th (I think). It subsequently moved further north, but at the time it was definitely in the thick of urban things, at least from my suburban perspective. Grand Central Station was my subway stop; Times Square right down the street.

What happened was this. I was working the counter, ringing up books and magazines, answering questions, and Dan, the manager, took over. “Time for lunch,” he said – gladly. I hit the street, did a brief wander in the general vicinity, and settled on some eatery around the corner from the store and across the street. When it was time to head back to work, I maneuvered through the traffic, crossed back over 43rd and I noticed something in the gutter. It was a wallet – an oblong, brown wallet. I picked it up and looked around: nobody close by, nobody looking for it.

“It’s already been rifled,” I thought to myself. “Probably empty.”

It wasn’t.

I could feel through the leather that there was something inside. I undid the snap, and there were credit cards and pictures, a woman’s driver’s license and…cash! Maybe thirty, maybe forty bucks. I looked up again, sharply, glancing left and right – nobody around, no one near. Glory! A fortuitous moment – a serendipity; grace! I was in the right place at the right time, and I rescued this woman’s wallet from oblivion!

When I got back to the store, I showed off the wallet to my coworkers. “Can you believe it still has everything in it?” They couldn’t believe it either.

“Should I mail it to her?”

“Call information and get the phone number,” said Dan, “and call her.” Obviously. I gave the operator the address listed on the card and she gave me the number.

I dialed; a woman answered: “Hello?” I asked if I had the correct person. Pause – “Yes.” Pause – “Who is this?”

“I work at a bookstore in Midtown and I found your wallet today – on the street, on 43rd near Madison.” There was silence, another pause. “It was in the gutter – everything’s still in it.”

Again, another pause as she took in my outlandish claim. “You have my wallet?”

I assured her I did. “I’ll hold it here behind the counter for you.” I gave her the address and my name. “You can pick it up next time you’re in town.” We hung up.

She appeared the next day, accompanied by her brother, I think, or maybe a boyfriend. He hung back, but she inched up to the counter and identified herself, brow furrowed. I’m not sure what she expected – it was just a bookstore, after all, and a religious bookstore at that. Of course, these was the wild days of Mayor Koch’s New York, and I suppose it made sense that she took precautions. Perhaps she imagined a set-up for some kind of elaborate con, a rip-off in the spirit of The Sting, with Scot Joplin melodies tinkling in the background.

Nope. Just ordinary small-town decency. “Here it is,” I said, handing over the wallet. She immediately unsnapped the cover and looked inside: Cards, cash, license, all there. She glanced up at me through the furrows. Without a word she removed a bill – a ten spot maybe? – and held it out.

“That’s not necessary,” I said with a wave. She put away her money – it was an awkward moment. “Thanks,” she uttered as she turned to go. Her man-friend lingered, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, but eventually he exited as well.

That’s it. So simple, so straightforward, it wouldn’t even rate a second thought in the Midwest – in Dubuque, for instance, or Wichita.

But in Manhattan? I know I would’ve been shocked if a stranger had contacted me about a missing wallet, and even more shocked when he restored it to me intact. The whole episode would’ve entered my lexicon of family lore, a story told over and over whenever New York came up in conversation.

Which is why I call my own part in a surprise wallet recovery my finest hour: not because my actions were particularly meritorious, not because I did the bare minimum that most folks would do, especially those that aspire to be Christians. Frankly, if I’d been a real Christian, I would’ve hopped in a cab and delivered the wallet in person, on the spot.

No, I call it my finest hour because the unusual circumstances allowed me to become, just that one time, a bit player, an active player, in someone else’s New York sojourn. That lucky, that providential wallet find made me a character in a stranger’s memorable Manhattan moment that’ll stand out into her dotage, a story that her kids and grandkids will hear over and over, a command performance at Thanksgivings and other family gatherings. “Tell the one about losing your wallet in New York, grandma!”

And she’ll tell it with pleasure. “It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say. “I knew it was gone, and I was making plans to get a new license when I got this odd phone call….” And that’s me, in her New York story! What a gift, what a gift to add to her story, the city’s story, after having received so much.

She might’ve even told our story today, who knows? Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

The Night I Read ‘Catcher in the Rye’

Glinting, the Flatirons caught the sunrise as I
Headed home to recline and recover….

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Of Friendship, Faith, and Death: A Film Series for the Ages

Perhaps we’re most happy when we’re not aware of it, and enjoying a relaxed meal with some friends, just being with friends.
~ Neil Hughes

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