Yawns Be Damned: Of Hitchcock, Heaven, and the Thrill of the Chase

huck-and-jim

All the way to heaven is heaven.
~ Catherine of Siena

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Of Facebook Friends and Gratitude

We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.
~ William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley once caught a ride in my truck. He came to buckley140-8853b6e341c1c6184a1a909049cff0dad366c07f-s3-c85Boulder to speak at the University of Colorado when I was a graduate student there, and I not only got a ticket to see him, but also landed an invite to the Young Republicans reception afterwards.

It was 1990, and Buckley’s book Gratitude had just come out. It was a modestly controversial book because it pressed an argument for national service – perilously close to advocating yet another government program according to Buckley’s right-wing critics. But the book’s real theme, aside from policy recommendations, is that we all need to practice gratitude with greater intentionality and conscientiousness.

That evening in Boulder, Buckley demonstrated what he wrote about in a way I’ll never forget. He gave his talk and was ushered over to a nearby facility for the reception. Mr. Buckley must’ve caught a cold, for he was having trouble clearing his throat, and as the reception got underway, he abruptly requested a ride to his hotel so that he could retrieve a cigar and some brandy – evidently a home remedy for colds at the Buckley house. I happened to be nearby when he made the request, and I immediately put myself and my truck at his disposal.

You have to understand that I didn’t exactly look the part at that reception. Shaggy hair and beard, tweed coat and jeans, hiking boots and John Lennon glasses, I stood out conspicuously in that sea of blue blazers and power ties. Nevertheless, without ceremony, Mr. Buckley thanked me for my offer and headed out the door. The Young Republicans all stared at me as I shrugged my shoulders and headed out after him.

fl_s0818_motherteresaSo, there I was, in my battered Toyota pickup, with Bill Buckley of Firing Line and National Review fame seated next to me. I drove him downtown to the Hotel Bolderado, he ran in and out, and I drove him back to campus again. Most of the ride to and fro, I kept up a constant one-sided conversation, ranging from my conversion to Catholicism and embrace of the Catholic Worker milieu, to my enthusiasm for the common interests of the Worker and the National Review, especially in terms of subsidiarity.

Buckley was gracious, listening in silence aside from an occasional murmur of assent or inquiry. When I got him back to the University, he turned, looked me in the eyes, and thanked me most sincerely for the ride. He encouraged me in my intellectual pursuits, and gave my hand a vigorous shake. Later, I approached him at the reception with a book of his. He signed it, “Gratefully, Bill Buckley.”

Authentic gratitude like that was on my mind as I celebrated my birthday last week.  It fell on Gaudete Sunday this year – Pink Sunday.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s “rose,” not pink. Whatever you call it, that lightened purple combined with the lightened liturgical mood is always welcome mid-winter, especially when lake-effect snow and bitter cold are dragging us down. Isaiah sets the tone and gets us thinking beyond our current circumstances to new life just over the horizon:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

That Gaudete Sunday Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01coincided with my birthday this year was serendipitous, for it was an especially joy-filled one. Contemplating the many blessings in my life, I couldn’t help marveling that I’d been blessed so abundantly. For example: A loving wife and seven wonderful children – me! A terrific lout blessed with a wife and seven kids! Thank you, God!

Then there’s the fact that the day began in a warm house (thank you, God!) and we had plenty of food to eat (thank you, God!). I drove to the church to get coffee started for CCD (thank you, God, for cars! for our parish! for work!), and later I got to see my son play basketball (thank you, God, for Catholic schools! for healthy kids!).

Mass in the evening (thank you, God, for the Sacraments! for the Church! for faith!), followed by dinner and birthday cake at home, with all nine of us in attendance – thank you, God! Truly, the best birthday ever!

And, later, I got online – behold! A long list of “Happy Birthday!” messages on Facebook – thank you, God!

Now, wait.

Do I mean that? Am I really lumping together Facebook ‘friends’ with my wife, my children, and my faith?

Indeed I am. And why not?

Now, I know that many of those friends are folks I barely know. The whole Facebook/social networking thing is still a bizarre phenomenon to me, but I have no illusions about an environment in which my sister, a buddy from high school, and a student I had in class a half dozen years ago all fall under the same ‘friend’ rubric.

But remember that last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life? George has been saved from despair and suicide by angelic visions and timely human interventions. He’s surrounded by wife and children, close associates and family, acquaintances, neighbors, customers, and a host of Hollywood extras. In the end, his brother Harry lifts a glass and toasts, “To George Bailey! The richest man in town!”

Whence those riches? Obviously Harry doesn’t mean literal riches – George has just narrowly escaped jail time and disgrace as a result of his pecuniary difficulties. No, George’s riches comprise relationships – what the Catechism calls “spiritual communion”: Not only his wife and his family, but his friends as well. All kinds of friends. Clarence, George’s novice guardian angel, inscribes this interpretation in a copy of Mark Twain as a thank you to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

Consider that throng crowding around George in that final scene. Is it likely that all of them could’ve been his friends in the same way? I mean, even in the context of a fictional tale, is it even remotely possible that all those folks were really his chums?

Not a chance. The story portrays George’s real friends as his wife, his brother, Ernie the cabbie, and Bert the cop. Then there was another circle of friends just a bit beyond the inner circle: George’s mom, his uncle, and Sam Wainwright perhaps. Next, a circle of business associates, Mr. Gower, and Mr. Martini, and after that a smattering of neighbors, customers, and so on.

900_its_a_wonderful_life_bw_blu-ray3xAs I scrolled through all my birthday greetings on Facebook, I thought of  Bedford Falls turning out to cheer for George, and I smiled. George discovered in the end that he was indeed valued by a rather large community of friends, both close and not-so-close.

That seems to me a decent metaphor for Facebook, especially on birthdays. A torrent of “Happy Birthday!” posts from our online community of friends – whether lifelong companions, passing acquaintances we wouldn’t recognize on the street, or somewhere in between – can be just as encouraging and welcome as a rousing in-person chorus of Auld Lang Syne. At least it was in my case.

And, yes, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Growing Up for Grownups

Coming of age movies areduncan about adolescents, right? And we still watch them after we’ve left coming of age in the dust because, what, we’re nostalgic? Or we hope to get some insight regarding our own adolescence and the crud we went through growing up ourselves?

These were the thoughts rumbling through my head the last few days as I’ve read the reviews of The Way, Way Back, the coming-of-age movie de jour. It’s about Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old with a distracted divorced mom whose boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), is an unmitigated jerk. The Way, Way Back is up to 87% on the Tomatometer, receiving lots of raves from reviewers and ordinary moviegoers alike. It sounds terrific, and I’m thinking I’ll even pay full price to see it as soon as I can scrape together the cash.

No doubt it’s a wistful hearkening for days of yore, but I’ll still fork over to see these kinds of movies—like Mud earlier this summer and Super 8 a couple years back. They do tend to be associated with summer, which is itself evocative, and my guess is that most of these films probably premiere in the summer months as well. Coming of age, warm weather, vacation—they all seem to go together.huckleberry

It’s a genre with a noble pedigree, including standouts like Breaking Away (1979) and Stand By Me (1986), but, really, they’re all just rehashed Mark Twain, at least the ones about boys. Alienation and separation from parents (especially dad) is a mainstay, and the assumption of a task or mission, usually involving danger, provides narrative scaffolding. Usually there’s a replacement father, and often a love interest, but the heart of every coming of age story is the protagonist charting his own course—Huck Finn setting off down the Mississippi with a runaway slave in other words. It’s a familiar theme, and The Way, Way Back, from all reports, does it justice.

So, with all that in mind, I watched the trailer, and…I got all choked up.

“Really?” my wife asked me when I showed it to her. “That made you cry?” My teens were incredulous as well. “He sure is going soft in his old age,” is what I imagine they were thinking as they shook their heads. No matter; I admit it: The trailer made me cry—yes, just the trailer. If you’re a parent, especially a dad, maybe it’ll make you cry, too

Here’s why, I think.

The introspection that films like this often inspire in the middle-aged and their elders is backward looking, and often fruitful and needed—we think back, we reflect, we process, we sigh. The producers and marketers know this, I’m sure, and they tailor these movies as much for people like me looking back as for actual coming-of-age adolescents looking forward. After all, it’s about ticket sales, isn’t it? Hit as many demographic groups as possible!

Yet there’s something about The Way, Way Back that makes it forward oriented for both audience demographics, despite the title—at least based on the reviews and the trailer. I saw lots of screwed up adults in the clips, but even that short two and a half minutes radiated joy and vitality and an overarching hope that somehow Duncan would be OK, that he was going to do just fine despite the parents and grownups in his life.

For me, an insecure parent haunted by regrets and doubt, who knows he’s made lots of mistakes he can’t undo, and who is clumsily trying to make up lost time by grasping at family living like a desperate rock climber grasping at belays and fissures—for me? Even that short trailer was a blissful reminder that it’s not all up to me in any case. My wife and I are players in the lives of our children, and critically important players at that, but we’re still only players—there are others.

And the other players aren’t always the ones we’d expect or choose, another note this film apparently (I’m guessing here) gets right. Sam Rockwell plays Owen, a unselfconscious wounded healer free of ambition who becomes Duncan’s surrogate father. “You gotta’ go your own way,” Owen tells Duncan, “and you, my friend, are going your own way.” He builds up where Carell’s Trent tears down, and Owen pointedly reminds Duncan’s mom, “You’ve got a helluva’ kid here.”

A bonus big plus is that The Way, Wway-way-back-rockwellay Back avoids peddling a feel-good story in a neat two-hour package with an unrealistic horizon. “You don’t see too many movies about the importance of fathers, and they’re rarely done this well,” writes Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Rockwell is the good father figure, and Carell the awful one, but Carell is too sensitive to play a total monster.” In other words, even when we screw up? It’s redeemable.

Pope Francis gets at this in his new encyclical—the idea of marriage and having kids appearing like a huge gamble that’s still doable to the degree that it is infused with love, particularly Love from the source.

Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person (Lumen Dei, 52).

“Possible,” “sustains,” “enables,” “helps”—these are words of hope, not surety. Marriage and raising kids is not math,  it’s not a lab assignment. It’s a messy adventure filled with risk and reward, for which we’re all ill equipped, and we’ll muck it up time and time again. No question.

It sounds like this movie, though, offers a heaping serving of perspective on all that, and can provide us paranoid parents with just the right dose of insight into how God can fill in the gaps we can’t prevent in our children’s lives. Not much of a revelation when you think about it. He gave us the kids and put us in charge for a while, but they’re His. God loves them more than we do, and He’s more than capable of caring for them when we fall short.

So, all this from a handful of reviews and a single trailer? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe it was just an exceptionally good trailer. Perhaps. Let’s say that’s the case, and I never get a chance to see the movie itself, and this whole post is an embarrassing exercise in presumption and hauteur.

Look, my kids are getting older and college is on the horizon for them, and the time is slipping through my fingers like water—not sand, mind you, water. If a 2-1/2 minute trailer can jostle my sullen spirit and restore my confidence in Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” then so be it. I’ll take it. And maybe I’ll save the $7 for a different movie another day.

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