Life

November 17, 2012

The Fall from Autumn's Climb

For a friend.

He left no note nor clues of time,
so none can say just what he saw
before the fall from autumn's climb.

I picture rich pre-dusk sublime,
through leaves of earthy hued tree braw.
He left no note nor clues of time.

His friends pursued life's paradigm.
Was his response then to withdraw,
before the fall from autumn's climb?

If warned, none would've begrudged a stime
for deeper talks or games of taw.
He left no note nor clues of time.

He'd seemed so balanced in his prime,
and one to know spring follows thaw,
before the fall from autumn's climb.

If crumpled leaves complete the rhyme,
was baleful hemp a prose whipsaw?
He left no note nor clues of time
before the fall from autumn's climb.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:35 AM

December 17, 2011

Can I Just Say....

Boxes of inherited content lead me to think that medium matters.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:37 PM

September 11, 2011

Emotional Ground Zero

For some of us, 9/11 taught the lesson that The World is never far from our daily lives. We'll see whether enough of us learned.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:41 PM

March 18, 2011

A Frivolous Post About Getting Older and Bone Structure

So I was carded for alcohol, this afternoon. Is that a common experience among people my age?

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:05 PM

February 12, 2011

Words Fail

From time to time, over the years, I’ve filled this space with sentimental posts about the loss of my dog, the death of a rock star, or the passing of some Internet acquaintance whom I’ve hardly known. Not infrequently, when my writing took such a turn, my mother would email to note something profound in the words or to carry on the deeper conversation with me. Now that it is she who has died, literary virtuosity is not so comfortably within my grasp.

Oh, I’ve been writing. Some two dozen single-spaced sheets of digital office paper are now filled in my attempt to come to terms with her passing — even to convince myself that it's real. But there's less profundity than loss, or rather, that which is profound is so huge as to have no detail to the horizon and is opaque beneath the undulating waves of plans that will remain forever imaginary. No neat summary of my emotions is conceivable. "What now" is not a statement, but an honest and heart-rending question.

Moreover, those pages are unpublishable, not just because they lack conclusion, but because Mom was not one to have her ordeals displayed in public, and the intricate feelings of her son upon her death seem to me as much her ordeal as mine. Maybe someday, I'll cloak them in verse or fiction and mark her influence indirectly through the homage of a dedication.

My mother has always been a critical part of the audience for which I've written, even when I intended my writing to have no audience. Now I can only pray that she is, in literal fact, an audience not only of that which is henceforth unpublished, but also that which has heretofore been unsaid.

And I can only be grateful that, whatever difficulties I caused her, I never failed to say that which I will not fail to say, now: I love you, Mom.


Sally Anne Potter Katz
1948-2011

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:38 PM

November 6, 2010

August 23, 2010

The Living and the Dead

The visible marks that we leave in life are mere reminders of the eternal marks that we leave even in death.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:41 AM

August 2, 2010

A Change of View

The question of life, I propose, is whose story we care to tell.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:55 AM

June 1, 2010

The Guardian's Conspicuous Armor

Optimism, pessimism, realism, tempting fate — it all comes down to a matter of perspective, and interest.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

March 27, 2010

Welcoming the Young Artist to the Frustrations of Adulthood

What wonders can an artist make
when despot days drag him around?
Just live each day for its own sake.

You ask, as if to undertake
a change of fate with asking's sound,
what wonders can an artist make?

Though doubtful it's advice you'll take:
Make petty agonies profound;
just live each day for its own sake.

In artists' hands the rattlesnake
and wolf are metaphors spellbound.
What wonders can an artist make!

Long labor's stretch from first daybreak
is trial on which to expound.
Just live each day for its own sake.

Breathe in until, with fullness, ache
exhales itself as peace unwound.
What wonders can an artist make?
Just live each day for its own sake.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:30 PM

August 10, 2008

A Life in One Sitting

My precise age at the time, I do not recall. It must have been seventh or eighth grade, because I remember middle school conversations attempting to express my thoughts, and middle school covered seventh to ninth grades, in my district. I know that I had recently reached the age at which, although still a child myself, I was beginning to have responsibility for younger kids on Boy Scout campouts, because part of what turned those periodic adventures sour was the discomfort that my leniency toward them caused me.

What I remember very distinctly is sitting in my room as the Friday sun set over the apartment building outside my window, ushering the night-time slide into Saturday, on which day I would drag myself out into the chilly woods again. The minimal comfort that I could concoct for myself was the knowledge that within a couple of days, I would be right back in my warm room. Indeed, if I expended enough imagination, I could just about feel myself to be in that moment, replete with memories of a weekend already past.

And that's when it hit me. ("Occurred to me" wouldn't be a sufficiently violent phrase.) Just as I could almost obtain through focus that future after an unpleasant period, I could extend my visualization all the way to the day of my death. Just as I would soon be sitting in my bedroom chair looking back on a few days, so too would I eventually be lying somewhere looking back on my life.

As I recall, it took me better than a year to work my way through that dark epiphany — to a sense of normalcy. I learned well, during that period, how abnormalcy, to turn a phrase, can feed on itself. In moments of tranquility, reflexive revelry that The Feeling had gone would inevitably bring it crashing back.

Why it finally subsided, I don't think I've ever understood, but the experience laid the groundwork for a subsequent revelation: We must go through the present to get to the future, and if we're to keep our frustration with current circumstances from infecting vulnerable yet-to-comes, while forbidding the inexorable elision of time (toward a day when now will be then) from making now seem an illusion, we must simultaneously find those treasures that every moment must hold, even as we pick our way among life's brambles toward circumstances that are more conducive to our well-being.

In short, it is possible, even necessary, to find pleasure in life as it stands while keeping an eye on such aspects as we'd like to discard over time. This objective only begins to seem a conundrum from within a materialist view of reality. If we've an unknowably limited amount of time in which to accomplish goals, then the stresses and setbacks involved in reaching them can consume the contentment of progress, and a lack of progress takes on the mien of a life wasted. Conversely, if our solution is to let life wash over us in the present, then the notion of long-term objectives becomes moot; sustained pleasure and rapid gratification rule the day.

With the allowance of God into one's philosophy — defining Him, most essentially, as the being who lends intentionality to reality — comes a model for understanding the long view of life. In God, we see a perspective wherein all time is concurrent. It is as if, in my pubescent imaginings of the day after a weekend of discomfort, both the moment of mild dread and the moment of relieved return were simultaneous. So too would be the experience of raw-handed dish-washing in the forest, and as just another experience during a life in motion toward eternity with God, it would hardly be worthy of dread.

What remains, for us creatures trapped in time, is to master our animal impulsiveness. Any given instant may have only the pleasure of lessons being learned, or of victory over instinct. The more tangible good-feeling comes in retrospect, when one day an experience allows us to connect with fellow human beings or when dogged labor produces its rewards or when we fall into dreadful circumstances that would have proven unbearable but for well rehearsed and internalized perseverance.

In my theological understanding of the universe, any moment that could conceivably be will be, the question being whether the courses of our lives lead us there. It is enough, taking that to be the case, that we can imagine the good use of hard-earned experience or the fruits of any given seeds that we might sow, because in the vista of omnipresence, those fruits appeared the moment they were sown, even if we never have the good fortune to enjoy them.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:29 PM | Comments (1)

January 25, 2008

Which Way Sings the Willow?

As with much else, I first really turned my eye to the willow thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Those who knew me young may remember that it's always been a favorite — the vine-like tentacles and gnarled trunks. There's something of the fantasy in willows, the magical. But reading his "Buds and Bird-Voices" when recently I'd finished college, back when the spring and summer betokened change, newness, and the every cycling tides of hope, I began to look to willows as a sign of spring, for if the willows were its early voice, then they must hum with the distant sound of hope approaching:

No trees, I think, are perfectly agreeable as companions unless they have glossy leaves, dry bark, and a firm and hard texture of trunk and branches. But the willow is almost the earliest to gladden us with the promise and reality of beauty in its graceful and delicate foliage, and the last to scatter its yellow, yet scarcely withered, leaves upon the ground. All through the winter, too, its yellow twigs give it a sunny aspect which is not without a cheering influence even in the grayest and gloomiest day. Beneath a clouded sky it faithfully remembers the sunshine.

Having watched the trees, 'round here, though, I wonder if Mr. Hawthorne didn't overstate with his "all through the winter." Rather, it has seemed to me that, a month or two before spring's full approach, it hints its intentions through those yellow twigs, somehow emphasizing them, as if renewed life were preparing to burst forth and waits just below the surface.

I've noticed the willows yellowing over the past few days, and although I've been taking it as a moral imperative to look for hope in all things, still I must reflect that change (much less hope) is not such a surety, come warmer weather, as I'd been trained to believe. The cycle of life, so firmly established through years of schooling, has slid into a long, long winter of variable temperature.

Awaiting the overdue spring, Nathaniel's admonition serves as a reminder, if not a lesson to which one can adhere:

In the spring and summer time all somber thoughts should follow the winter northward with the somber and thoughtful crows. The old paradisiacal economy of life is again in force: we live, not to think nor to labor, but for the simple end of being happy; nothing for the present hour is worthy of man's infinite capacity save to imbibe the warm smile of heaven and sympathize with the reviving earth.
Posted by Justin Katz at 10:03 PM

September 30, 2007

Eye Level with the Clouds

A country fair is a harvest of life, and although I can still summon the ghosts of feelings from my youth (the mystery of young courtship, the adventure of the carnival), I experience them, now, as if my senses are dulled. The simple euphoria of interest in animals, crafts, and raffles and the plain pleasures of neighborliness elude me.

From within the porous cage that I've built of philosophy and faith, the noxious thoughts of the modernist in me seep out, hissing that the hollowness is not a function of the polystyrene partitions through which I insist on experiencing the world, but of the fakery of those who pretend to be feeling as I believe I ought. Such is the bitterness of modernity that its own inadequacies are transformed into others' delusions, and all delusions must be trampled so that we all may trade the illusion of richness for an honest paucity spiced with the quick and easily manipulable passions of the materialist.

Still I realize that there's more to an egg toss than the antiseptic thrill of sticky fingers. There's more to a greased pole than an obstacle to reward. And yet, I've a feeling of displacement in this world. Mere hints of the life in which I ought to be reveling come during a moment's breath by the shore before I begin work on somebody else's house or the rouged skyline from which I must tear my eyes in order to negotiate traffic.

Tonight I stood at the top of a hill — at eye level with far off clouds — during a lonely walk and thought that I must wait until I've mastered life enough to get by before I become indulgent master to another dog. I've decided to give up beer until circumstances are such that I drink to enhance relaxation, not to force it to be possible. Too much waiting for a natural order to assert itself has come to require that the now must be buried as a seed of the future.

Unfortunately, I've developed the habit of expecting that good times herald an ending, while suffering is the crank that winds the clock. If I get to where I want to be, another of my imprisoned internal voices shouts, then I can be sure that my life will be taken away.

Ease or struggle, time staggers on, from season to season and year to year, and it's a comfort to pause for the harvest from time to time. The rumble in the distance may not be the coming earthquake that will swallow all, but rather the thunder — bringer of the lightning that I so desperately need to strike.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:50 PM | Comments (2)

August 18, 2007

Up to the Highest Height

As far as I can recall, I'd only ever managed to fly a kite once in my life. It was during a summer romance into which I fell after graduating from high school, but that went terribly, terribly wrong when I embarked for college in the fall. Try as I might, I can't remember what put the notion into our heads to try the wind, but I doubt that I'll forget the sensation of ease — of simple existence and destiny — that I had as we discovered that we could sit down in the field and just hold the string. It was so natural. So easy. The kite just flew as if sliding into its natural state.

Fourteen years later, almost to the day (I'd estimate), another kite responded to my sprint across a field. This one had hung on my home office wall for about a year, a gift from my grandparents, a Chinese design, inspired as a gift, no doubt, by the ethnicity of my uncle's wife. My daughters took turns restraining the paper and wood bird, and I watched lest some seagull or crow would take offense.

At the tips of the trees, today, I've noticed the first hints of the colors of autumn. Anticipation of the season comes to me from my tongue, as well, as the pumpkin beers have found their way upon the cooler shelves once again. Mowing the lawn in the cool, warm air, I felt the fall and therefore felt the familiar longing for tradition and for fate.

School starts soon, although as a working man, I can scarcely believe that the summer used to feel so long. The trade-off for time's rapid elision, I suppose, is that the autumns of my life have never brought kindred humanity so close.

If you want the sense of autumn properly felt, work your way through some collection or other of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories. Halloween has it right that spirits walk in the fall, but the holiday errs in its celebration of terror. Kite in hand and progeny nearby, we might discover that we've the closest of friends one-hundred and forty-three years dead. Perchance the clouds were just so for them, as well.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:09 PM

August 11, 2007

The Sense of Life

It was the smell of Lewis's The Screwtape Letters that sparked the melange of associations between memory and present day. That, and the scent of grass and sunshine as my daughters climbed the hammock around me, pretending it to be the rigging of a pirate ship. I worried that they climbed too far toward the hammock's hooks, where the ropes all come to a point, and yet, I recalled that my favorite challenge, when my parents would bring me to the Renaissance Festival in New York State, was to climb the rope ladder in an attempt to ring a bell and win the prize. My daughters contented themselves with banging the chain against the metal supports. On what grounds could I fear for them?

My other favorite game at the Festival was swooping down a steeply hung rope riding a plastic horse, jousting lance in hand and aimed at a ring that hung above the bottom of the arc. I don't recall what safety precautions were taken (it was, after all, before the day of the consumer-lawyer dependency pact), but my mother must have held her breath with each pass.

This week marks our very first event related to our eldest daughter's schooling. Off she'll go, her life now proceeding through settings over which we, her parents, have only indirect control. I've none of the predicted sadness, but more than my share of the apprehension.

The specific odors of Screwtape that jarred my memory working were of the adhesive and the paper. which are similar to those of the programs through which I thumbed when my sleep-away piano camp in Bennington, Vermont, would bring us to ballet performances at Saratoga or classical concerts at Tanglewood. I was eleven when my parents first dropped me at the camp's door, and I wonder now, a father myself, whether I'll have the courage (and, yes, the trust) to let my little ones stroll so freely through the world.

As the girls climbed over me in their pirate games, I saw myself so prominently in them that I realized that they are not made precious by those reflections of their parents, but by their autonomous existence. They are their own selves, in God's narrative, and perhaps the best parents can hope to control is whether they grow up with the comfort that life indeed involves magic or they are prematurely burdened with the sense that there is no meaning to it at all.

For all my fantasies about how my own adult life will turn out, the conclusion is unavoidable that they will find more magic climbing about the world's rigging on their own than weaving imaginary baskets under the watchful eye of their father.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:36 PM

July 29, 2007

Rocking Slightly

So I've set up the hammock.

I don't expect that anybody who happens upon this space these days will have followed it closely enough to understand the significance of that, but suffice to say that the thing has hung in two different sheds for a total of four years (or so) and never been used. Indeed, it had become a symbol of the life that I wasn't living. When an acquaintance bemoaned his having failed to take his boat out yet this summer, the hammock came to mind — a vessel of a different short that I had failed to take out yet this century.

The decisive realization was that, for all my labor, I've gained mere inches in financial advancement at the cost of miles of living. All of those activities that I'd held so dear — from walking the dog to practicing piano — have drifted away, and I've very little to show for the sacrifice. What's the point? So I've spent some time softly swinging.

I had one of those experiences, recently, wherein one's contemplations are interrupted by an internal voice that seems almost otherly. The question on which I brooded was what I should do with my life, or about my life, and the voice asked, "Well, what do you want to do?"

"I want to write."

"So then write."

Experience suggests that nothing rejuvenescent will come of either the writing or of the hammock, but sacrificing repose and passion has gained me little, so there's little to lose by throwing myself into the wind.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:47 PM | Comments (1)

June 17, 2007

I Don't Know What to Do

Was a time when I found it cathartic to lay out all of my concerns and feelings in print, but lately the idea seems wasteful. I've exponentially more responsibilities, now, and my problems seem to jumble all over each other, knotted, as well, with my blessings. If I've time to spend in thought, it may certainly be better spent than wallowing.

Yet tonight I cut the sad figure of a thirty-something man strolling through the suburbs alone. Smells and images permeated the muggy early-summer evening, raising vague memories that I might once have been able to bring more vividly to mind. The particular laundry detergent, redolent flowers, the mist of night-time lawn sprinklers. Perhaps the memories have compounded too dramatically to permit ease in sifting them. Perhaps I haven't the mental energy to do the sifting.

I don't know when the last time was that I saw a field full of lightning bugs, but just as I began my descent down the last hill to the water, with the million-dollar view, it seemed as if all of the lightning bugs that leave my yard dark in their absence had gathered there. Even so, they flashed a somewhat melancholy metaphor — their beacons dispersed as lone voices calling out. How similar might the suburbs look if one were a step removed into abstraction and able to see the prayers and cries of people in their homes as visual things. One imagines the light drifting out into space, not lost, but traveling to one with infinite sight and freedom from time.

I haven't such sight, nor such liberty, but not quite beyond the boundary of hearing, I sometimes sense a voice offering comfort, and guidance, too, although never as concretely as I would like.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:01 PM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2007

Lemons

I'd just been thinking that the long series of unwelcome news that my life has thrown at me over the past nine months or so was beginning to abate, leaving only the long slog to easier times. Nope. Out of corporate necessity, the 20+ hour per week editing position that paid more than a third of my income and provided spectacular health coverage has "been eliminated" amid rumors of outsourcing, and I, being the person filling it, have been laid off.

So I find myself in one of those situations that, especially for those whose larger goals are non-corporate, can bring either catastrophe or opportunity, and I'm not entirely sure how to increase the likelihood of the latter — how much risk to take, how much time to invest. Last time I faced these questions, I had one fewer child and a dog to walk me through the process of sorting things through. I found carpentry but lost ground as a writer. Music disappeared altogether.

But this time, things aren't as desperate as the last, so maybe I've got room to operate, rather than just to react.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:12 AM | Comments (1)

Lemons

I'd just been thinking that the long series of unwelcome news that my life has thrown at me over the past nine months or so was beginning to abate, leaving only the long slog to easier times. Nope. Out of corporate necessity, the 20+ hour per week editing position that paid more than a third of my income and provided spectacular health coverage has "been eliminated" amid rumors of outsourcing, and I, being the person filling it, have been laid off.

So I find myself in one of those situations that, especially for those whose larger goals are non-corporate, can bring either catastrophe or opportunity, and I'm not entirely sure how to increase the likelihood of the latter — how much risk to take, how much time to invest. Last time I faced these questions, I had one fewer child and a dog to walk me through the process of sorting things through. I found carpentry but lost ground as a writer. Music disappeared altogether.

But this time, things aren't as desperate as the last, so maybe I've got room to operate, rather than just to react.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:12 AM | Comments (1)

April 12, 2007

Summer Starts in Spring

Well, it's happened. After years of habitually scanning the hair that collected on the barber's cloth, last week's batch contained some strands of gray. They're still not visible when interwoven with the rest of my hair, and they weren't enough, even on the cloth, that I couldn't deny it if I wanted to, but those last gasping chances to feign eternal youth will pass, as well.

The observation brought to mind a period of my adolescence when, being the oldest of my cousins, I led my elders to ponder the descent into adult practices. "You're starting to do things that you'll do for the rest of your life," my aunt put it, referring to deodorant and shaving, as I recall. The barber's comment last week was "just barely," but something in the way he knew instantly what I meant by my "uh-oh" made his consolation resonate like "you just barely were forced to retire from baseball" — like a line crossed, not a field entered.

My poet's mind wonders how all these lines accumulate into a seasonesque trend. If my first whiskers were akin to those early spring tastes of summer, then I suppose gray hairs mark the onset of the dog days. It seems I've long been ready for summer, and if it's come, I've many years yet before I'll need to look for signs of autumn.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:45 PM | Comments (1)

March 17, 2007

Waiting on Another Season

Although I would have preferred for the past few, difficult days to be less dreary, I'm sure Cody — my dog — would not have chosen any other weather than we've had. He loved the winter and the edible water that coats the ground in white. Now that I must write of him in the past tense, I wish the clouds would drift away, although I've been glad for the visible reminder of the tracks that he left in this life.

He was such an integral part of my life for so long that it's hard to believe he's gone. The yard seems empty. There's an undertone of loneliness to the ruckus of my household. I caught myself putting aside corned beef for a dog who would never come to his dish. And I know that a thousand moments have yet to resonate with his absence — not wrapping a scarf around my neck for our walk tonight, not bringing him in before going to bed, not rushing to feed him before work on Monday, not brushing out the pillow's worth of downy fur shed when the weather warms, not watching him sprint up and down the fence as the kids walk by in the spring or seeing him revel in next winter's first snow or seeking out the place in which he'd go to hide from the summer's heat after his favorite bush makes way for an addition to the house in a year or so.

So here I've another of those instances in which all of the rational understanding and lists of pros, cons, and alternatives avail one hardly at all. On a day to day basis, Cody claimed comparatively little of my time and thought. But he had always been here, and I miss him. Our moments were always precious, even when they felt a bit too much like a burden; even on those short, short walks when I could barely keep my eyes open, I had to admit that I was glad for the moment away from things.

As I said a week ago, he was very often precisely the dog that I needed, and it's difficult to imagine another dog's managing the same. So what do you do when the absence of the companion to whom you turned when you needed to work through problems becomes, itself, the problem? I guess you forge on and accept that you will heal.

But I like to think that Cody is still out there waiting for me to come home — to one home or another.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:47 PM | Comments (4)

March 10, 2007

How Should We Live?

For reasons more significant than the health of my dog, it is with an almost desperate longing that I look toward spring and summer... provided those seasons bring with them freedom from the concerns that have characterized this winter. Those concerns are too personal, and not entirely mine to address publicly, but take it as an indication of their nature that the question of how we should live our lives has become more prominent in the crowded piazza of my head.

In this day, it wouldn't be excessive to suppose that everybody has received for consideration the advice to live every day as if it could be their last. I see two fundamental problems with this approach:

  • It's not feasible. On a true last day, one would splurge and shirk those long-term responsibilities that eat up so much of our time. In the course of life, moderation and responsibility are precisely the things that allow us to make the next day better. One must make plans for the future and sacrifice in the present to bring them to fruition.
  • In its self-centeredness, the dictum sublimates our relationships with others, and in the long term, those relationships bring the greatest rewards and the most tearing repercussions.

The conclusion to which recent lessons have led me is that the wiser person lives life as if each relationship could end soon, and without much warning. Thus, our personal goals, being secondary, are less apt to be a source of panic and regret, and when relationships end, we can be comfortable that we put as much into them as we were able.

One must have goals, of course, and a certain confidence is necessary in order to assert one's own desires in the face of others' demands, but we too often forget that there must be a balance between these two organizational principles of our lives. Moreover, even Christians, in our society, seem apt to forget that no day is actually our last, and it seems intuitively probable that our handling of relationships, as they come and go, will have a decisive effect on our disposition at our time of dying.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:44 AM | Comments (1)

Chasing Deer Beyond the Horizon

Although the practice has long lapsed, I try to keep a list of small miracles — what some might prefer to call "significant coincidences." Some note checks that arrived in the mail at crucial moments. A few involve personally appropriate readings at Mass (as when the only passage in the Bible featuring my daughter's name happened to be read on the Sunday immediately following her birth). One that's been on my mind for the past few weeks comes from August 2000 and concerns the arrival of my dog.

I recall that I had been playing with some in-laws' dogs, and I stated aloud that I needed one of my own. Within days, a couple whom I never met discovered that their impulsively acquired puppy was more responsibility than they'd thought (more specifically, eroding their responsibility to each other, of one not to dote on and the other not to become jealous of an animal).

It was a husky — a breed that I'd always favored when I dreamed of having a dog — and although I was disappointed to learn early on that huskies tend to be of medium size, ours — Cody — just kept growing until he'd become one of the larger dogs I've known. His personality has always suited me, and it's easy to be proud of a sweetly tempered dog who has (no joke) caused drivers to stop in the street to call out compliments. In short, without my having to go in search of him, the dog that I'd always wanted came to me, and as I look back on the life that he's led, I, myself, am surprised at how frequently he has been the dog that I needed.

He's not, for lack of a better term, a lovable dog. He only rarely initiates exchanges of affection. He's very stubborn, sometimes demanding. When they've been outside, he's hounded the children, and his play has never been the easy repetition of fetch, or anything that might exercise him without exhausting me. There have been nights when he's ruined my plans for quick, but relaxing, walks by forcing me to play the fool chasing him around the yard, and other nights when he's aided the children in prevented my wife and I from sleeping. And it has largely been because of him that I have failed to accomplish my plans, during this Lenten season, to post frequently on matters conducive to spiritual growth.

Near death two Saturdays ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and more time than might be manly to admit has been spent coming to terms with our lack of resources — of time, of money, of attentiveness — to extend his precarious life beyond his first bottle of insulin, which we purchased that Monday morning. We'll be setting him free, as it were, on March 17, and if it weren't for the frozen earth and questions to which my children don't yet require concrete answers, I'd be burying his remains in the front yard, between two holly bushes that need all the help they can get fighting off the weeds that creep from the overgrown property across the fence.

There'd be something of an analogue, in that burial, to the unwitting help that Cody has offered me as I've struggled against the doubts that creep across the fence from faithlessness. Truth be told, my devotion to prayer and spiritual contemplation would have been minimal, in the years since my conversion, were it not for our walks. More often than not, when I've thought to be in awe of nature, he's been tugging me along by the leash. And I don't know how many Dust in the Light posts make reference to our walks (and how many might as well have).

Just as Cody prepared me to be responsible for a life in my care, he taught me the value of giving time to my own thoughts, my own breaths. When a lost job left me fearing my family's collapse, he walked with me for healing hours. With my change of careers, he allayed my anxiety with the promise that each night would find me by his side.

I'm not one of those who believes that dogs ought to be treated as if they are on our side of the line between humans and nature; rather, I see pets as more explicit agents of God, allowing us to personalize nature, to have affection for — relationships with — the world that He created, and teaching us, through empathy and contrast, to live within it. I do not believe, for example, that humans ought to be euthanized to avoid suffering; we are creatures of thought as well as feeling, and we must find lessons in all of life's experiences. But I've been bringing Cody back to health so that we can spend three weeks at a high point, after a winter of blameless neglect. For him and me, both, our final time together will be ripe with companionship, a chance for him once again to fulfill his purpose of teaching me to live, this time by dealing with that central fact of life and nature: death.

During religion class, when I taught Catholic school seventh grade for a semester, one of the students asked me whether it's true that dogs go to Heaven. My first concern was to avoid trampling parental comforts, but I also must admit that I had no answer. It wasn't a matter that I'd gotten around to considering since I began believing in such things as Heaven. Now, having devoted a bit of walking thought to the question over the past couple of weeks, I've come to believe that dogs do not have souls as people do and therefore do not "go to Heaven" in the way that we do. But if there's something metaphysically real in my sense that animals are expressions of nature with which we are privileged to form relationships, and if Heaven is the eternal experience of a relationship with God, then surely our beloved pets would be manifest in that experience. They are a face, a personality, given to nature, and that nature is divine.

Perhaps the most intriguing reminder that I've had of my dog's latent wildness — his natural aspect — has been his reaction when he's seen or smelled deer. Something in him strains at the leash of domestication, urging him to give chase. Almost as a representation of my being overwhelmed by the demands of civilization, and the shortened or skipped walks to which my schedule led, we hadn't crossed paths with any deer for the better part of a year. I'd begun to think that a few too many houses had claimed the limited wilderness in our neighborhood. But for our first walks — slow, sickly crawls — after Cody's diagnosis, they reappeared, and my wolf-like dog merely watched them, as if cognizant of some natural symbolism that I could only vaguely sense.

He improved greatly for the past two weeks, but last night his behavior stood as a reminder that he has a very serious disease. We've got another week to say goodbye; I hope it's a good one. I hope nature has something better waiting for him. Somehow it seems as if the deer are always just around the corner.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:50 AM | Comments (1)

February 3, 2007

The Callousness of Faith (?)

Habitually, my prayers include the line "help me to grow in faith," but faith is such a thing that I'm continually surprised at the ways in which I discover that this prayer has been answered. My surprise bears close relation to my belief that all of the stark and dramatic differences between believers and nonbelievers come down to the simple "yes" or "no" of faith; one cannot blame, that is to say, the unreligious person for sometimes thinking the believer to be callous or self-absorbed or fanatical. Following a "yes" just a few steps of logic yields a state of mind that the "no" can only translate in viciously negative terms.

For reasons involving my children (on which I won't expound, except to say that everybody's now known to be fine), I'm thinking, specifically, of our reactions to illness. At those times when others have recently given me well-wishes and expressions of concern, I can't help but feel that they expect a different reaction from me — more dramatic. Perhaps less aloof. But, although I would disclaim the charge of aloofness, I wonder: how is one supposed to react? If an illness is to be overcome, it will be, often with an unbidden benefit (a silver lining) to everybody involved. If it is not to be overcome, well, my religious beliefs lead me to trust that it all ends in grace, anyway.

Such proclamations are all well and good, of course, when things have turned out OK, but what I'm expressing, here, is my suspicion that these thoughts, on to which I held right until the moment that diagnoses made them superfluous, would already be foreign to nonbelievers — or even "otherwise believers."

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:53 PM | Comments (1)

September 23, 2006

The Impossibility of Modest Goals

I can't say I was disappointed at autumn's apparent early arrival. Exhaustion has become the rule for my life, and summer's weight only exacerbated the sensation. Autumn resonates more strongly of history and tradition, and these venerable intonations foster feelings of connection and therefore life and therefore vivacity.

When my goals were fame and fortune — for whatever reason — it was a simple matter to imagine success as imminent. I was able to keep up the work, so all that was wanting was a break, and miraculous things such as breaks, swift and unpredictable, require only wisps of luck to transform from imagination to reality.

Now that my dreams are more mundane — to pay my bills, to keep my family safe and healthy, to write from time to time, to read, to more fully discover the miracle that this world, this life, represents — they seem nigh upon unreachable. Simply to have the liberty, amidst life's constraints, to spend an autumn afternoon swinging on a hammock with a book hovering above my searching eyes seems a blessing to dear to seek.

The incrementalism of achievable goals is the thing. Plot out, with mathematical precision, the rate of improvement against the height of the obstacles, and years of unsustainable effort loom in the wearing of those obstacles down. More likely to wear out myself! More likely to stumble and make no progress at all. Then mounted on the doubt like damnation's last temptation is the insuppressible knowledge that achievable goals would not be enough once reached. But perhaps they oughtn't be.

Perhaps we are made — or I should say, I fervently believe we are made — to be ever-questers, relentless in our drive because that toward which we strive is infinite. Life is not precise, and it is not entirely predictable. Wisps of good fortune are always possible, and gradual improvement so often seems impossible that one can only conclude that it is wisest merely to strive without expectations.

Still, it's easy to regret not having — whatever it is that one doesn't have. They are a contradictory set, lacks. While once we lack time, next we lack resources. While once we lack peace, next we lack drama. It's easy to regret. It's easy to rue the effortless good fortune of others. Difficult not to snarl at the lifelong vacations that others appear to experience. Difficult to remind oneself of the advantage of being humbled in preparation for the equality of Heaven — reached most handily by those, if I may dare to presume, who have achieved an immodest humbleness, an understanding of the achievability of that which is truly impossible.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:21 AM

August 4, 2006

A Brief Note on Artsy Alcoholism

I've been studiously avoiding the Mel Gibson discussion, mainly because those who take the episode as an "Ah ha!" tend to disregard all points made about anything. Arguments made about The Passion, the obvious case in point, are still valid, and drunken comments of the movie's creator don't amount to a blanket nullifier. As for the other side, what is there to say? Yes, stupid, offensive comments; no, won't throw out my DVD.

However, for no specific reason, a post by Jonah Goldberg made me feel obligated to make a point from experience. Regarding alcohol as a truth serum: hogwash — alcohol is an emphasis serum. Perhaps we did indeed get a glimpse of Gibson's true feelings; I certainly wouldn't declare otherwise. But perhaps we instead got a glimpse of some erroneous drunken notions about creating a stir. Perhaps it was nothing deeper than the impulse of the contentious drunk to snap back at wrongly perceived aggressors, e.g.: "This Jewish cop must agree with all those people who trashed me for being an anti-Semite. Well, how 'bout I give 'im what he expects!"

(I'm not, here, blaming the victims, as it were. I'm merely stating that I would find such thoughts completely plausible for a drunken artist to have had.)

Frankly, I haven't read the transcripts, and I haven't thought more than a smidge about the arrest's implications. However, I do suspect that a majority portion of those who take the incident as open and shut evidence haven't much personal experience with the twisted euphoria of drunkenness to the artistically inclined, out of which you may get the truth, or embellished insecurities, or belligerent contrarieties.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:37 PM

March 22, 2005

Have to Be Human to Have a Bad Week

Apologies for the lack of posts; my week is off to a rough start, and I haven't been able to get to the computer much. And when I have managed to get to the computer, y'all have ensured that there are plenty of comments for me to read through!

Which leads me to a question that I have for those who support the killing of Terri Schiavo. Many of those who argue for Terri's "right to die" assert that she's been in a supposed "persistent vegatative state" — some folks emphasizing the length of time that she's supposedly been in that state. The implication is that such a life is not worth living. But from the perspective of the person actually living it, it would seem that PVS isn't a hard or undignified life at all. A vegetable doesn't care how long it exists in its a vegetative state.

So: If Terri Schiavo is in a PVS, why is it so horrible for her to remain that way in order to be the recipient of her family's love? And if she is not in a PVS, by what rationale is the government killing her?

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:02 AM | Comments (117)

March 19, 2005

Just a Little Bit

Back in 2003, just after Victor Lams wrote his excellent song "Not a Great Man" (available here) from Michael Schiavo's perspective, I took some time to write one from Terri's. I never got around to recording it, and now, having moved, I've misplaced the little piece of paper on which I'd written the chord changes. (It was in e-minor, with some jarring chords mixed in to give it a chilling feel.) But I've still got the lyrics:

Just a Little Bit

Maybe if I try real hard
I can move my finger just a little bit
Maybe if I make some noise
I can make them understand

That I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
Bring me that pillow
And I'll lift my head again
You can run your race
For the millionth time
And you won't know half the effort
I make trying

Just to squeeze your fingers when you check my pulse
If my heart keeps beating is it just impulse
That makes me try to scream when you're on the phone
And it's so frustrating when it comes out just a groan

Instead of saying I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
You can bring me that balloon
And I'll follow it again
You can run your race
A hundred billion times
And won't convince them
That I'm not dying

But

Maybe if I try real hard
I can move my eyelids just a little bit
And maybe if the light's just right
The camera will catch the gleam

That proves I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
He can bring those funeral flowers
To his girlfriend
He can go to court
Until the end of time
But the world knows
That I'm not dying

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:02 AM | Comments (15)

February 25, 2005

On Being Human

Well, it's turned out to be another seventy-hour workweek, and that's not including blogging. It's helped, though, to get up early, rather than attempt vainly to stay up late, to do my from-home editing. It hasn't helped that the carpentry wipes me out.

It is nonetheless perhaps the best job that I've ever had, snow and icy mud notwithstanding. There's something about such work that just makes one feel, well, human. Manly, too, but mostly human. It is clearly and unambiguously doing. Building. Shaping the materials that God has given us.

Yes, of course an argument could be made that all work does this — whether in the office or in the lab. But particularly in the office, it takes some pondering among abstracts to see the materials and feel the doing; a sense of fleeting constructs tends to assert itself. I find myself wondering, while shin-high in snow and sawdust — and happy about it! — what our society's degree of leisure has cost us.

In this context, I think Jonah Goldberg cuts his topic short when he wonders what ideological changes technology might bring:

We have a tendency to assume that existing ideological categories are permanent. History is the study of the repeated debunking of such assumptions. The saddle, the stirrup, the moat, the locomotive, the telephone, the atomic bomb, the car, the computer, the birth-control pill: All of these caused tectonic changes in ideological arrangements, and all of them, save the last, were primarily innovations in transportation, communication, or war. The new earthquakes to come from biotechnology — "cures" for homosexuality, unimaginable longevity, real "happy pills" — could level all of the landmarks of our ideological landscape, even redefining the first ideology, conservatism.

The redefinition that we risk goes much deeper than ideology. Marching along like lemmings to the Sea of Uncontrollable Knowledge, with science rather than instinct leading us to a redefinition of humanity itself.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:53 PM | Comments (2)

February 14, 2005

Work!

Wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne on June 29, 1851, in the final months of Moby-Dick's production:

Since you have been here, I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been plowing and sowing and raising and painting and printing and praying, -- and now begin to come out upon a less bustling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farm house here.

Much has changed, these past one hundred and fifty years, and few moderns who share Melville's vocation will have any experience with such things as plowing and building shanties. (Far too many have little experience with praying.) Those among us who are conservative of temperament inevitably wonder what has been lost. What disconnection from raw reality does the man suffer who is multiple steps removed from tangible life, whose every good is constructed by others? What human sympathy drains from a person who has transcended the hardships that the past century has unevenly worn away?

We who make a craft of thinking can string together ideas, and if we write, we fashion them with words. But this painstaking labor raises mere ephemera, and often in desperate throes we cry for the recognition that makes our efforts real. Strange, then, that so many who build only shanties of thought consider themselves above those who construct such things as only a fool would deny.

Today I begin work as a full-time carpenter, and I expect the benefits to my soul to be worth well beyond their weight in the lumber that I will cut and hammer. Being somewhat green, I'll be the least in every way that matters throughout the workday. With that perspective, perhaps my evening labor will be worth more than the vanity of its author. And when I slip into bed, my children's house heated and the next day's meals awaiting in cupboards and on refrigerator shelves, with the sense of prayers answered because heard, the prospect of things will be calm in the only ways that truly matter, now or one hundred and fifty years from now.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:06 AM | Comments (4)

February 10, 2005

The Focal Point of the Twenty-First Century

Yes, yes, I know it all comes down to the individual's faith; it always has, and it always will. But as I've poked around the Internet today, my mind began to organize, and before I've reached any conclusions, I thought I'd throw a question out there into cyberspace:

What are the priorities among the issues that we face in these insane modern times?

The liberal grip on the mainstream media is proving difficult to maintain when that hand is needed to swat at an upstart New Media. The universities are finding their practices under increasing scrutiny and professors' credibility up for questioning. Mel Gibson's independent film has (we can hope) begun a similar reckoning in Hollywood, but much of the art world remains unperturbed.

As the Democrats diminish in power, the radical fringe continues to assert its influence. Republicans are dealing with their own internal struggles, between such factions as social conservatives and libertarians. Meanwhile, the judiciary continues to expand the power created by its quick 'n' easy method of Constitutional amendment. And on top of it all, forces continue to push for a world government.

We've got the same-sex marriage debate, yes, and the larger sexual revolution trending to redefine the essence of the human family and human relationships. But then, we've got scientists running full-tilt toward technologies that will redefine humanity itself. Then there are scientists seeking immortality in a test tube. Abortion is on the defensive, but new ways of and reasons for destroying nascent human life are cropping up, and the "right to die" movement continues its work, albeit largely under the radar.

Psychiatrists are beginning to turn toward notions of evil, even while they make noises about defining religion as a pathology. Rational religious folks are starting to reassert that religion can be rational, and to apply that understanding to social constructs. Secularists continue their mutual indoctrination. Meanwhile, Islamofascists are working to undermine and destroy Western civilization in multiple ways, and the response in many Western nations still resembles a person the morning after a late, indulgent night alternately struggling to wake up and to ignore the faint alarm and continue sleeping.

Yet, behind the snoring attempts at self-deception, the elite subconscious plots to reinstate the Old World's influence in various forms, from creeping international bureaucratic oligarchy to behavior in Russia raising uncomfortable impressions that something is being hidden, while Red China continues to stand as a perennially emerging pernicious colossus. And there are still all those weapons that could wipe out millions with the stroke of a finger.

These riffs could go on and on.

Despite it all, the Christian can and must seek the peace to be found in our Lord, Jesus Christ — largely filtered through our love for each other — and through that peace to achieve a benevolent disinterest. We are called to work for a better world even while we understand that the world must turn sour before our work is done.

So, again, beyond personal faith, what are the priorities? It's ultimately pointless to bloody each other over marriage if Sharia is in our future. On the other hand, we must be wary of making the world free for the social corrosion that we find within our borders. Where lies the Beast? Where the Whore? Where the Rider?

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:12 PM | Comments (1)

January 28, 2005

Following Up with Good News

Michelle Malkin reports that baby Jordan Trimarchi received a heart. As she notes, we should remember in our prayers the baby who, by loss of life, had a heart to give. But we should also accompany that remembrance with hope that Jordan will live his life in awareness of that to which he owes it.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:42 PM

January 25, 2005

Lost and... Saved

Will Kenyon, born on October 26, 2004, in Iowa, sadly lost the struggle for life.

But in New York, Jordan Trimarchi, born January 18, 2005, still has a shot — if a child within a four to seven hour radius donates a heart.

Prayers for all. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:45 AM

January 14, 2005

The Presence of Men

Lisa Griffis tells of a man — two, actually:

Immediately I realized he was some belligerent jerk who enjoys pushing people around - y'know, a Big Important Guy. I wasn't about to get in a tangle with him, so I said, "Okay, okay" and turned away to finish paying for my groceries. I just wanted to finish up and get away from him. He responded, "Yeah, 'okay' is right! Yeah, that's right!", and moved closer breathing down my neck. ...

At this point Paul spoke up, quite calmly saying, "You could have waited." I said, "No, obviously he can't". But the guy looked surprised to see Paul, and managed a chuckle before shutting the heck up. So, he's a tough guy when he thinks he's dealing with a woman by herself, but when he notices her husband is there suddenly he puts his tail between his legs.

Such men (the other guy, not Paul the husband) bother me more than they should, and I think it may have something to do with their forcing me to consider whether, when I take up the cause of men generally, the points I make don't hold for some significant portion of us. I wonder if most women have had such encounters. Heck, I've got a similar story.

Back in college, my future wife was dropping me off in a parking lot where I'd left my own car in the back corner. We drove straight across the lot, and coming from the perpendicular aisle on the far side, a huge black Dodge pickup truck turned into a space directly in front of us. As my wife steered her tiny car to the left behind it, the Dodge began to back up very quickly and barely missed us. Apparently, its driver had pulled into that spot only to back into another in the aisle that we'd driven down.

With some nervous laughter at the close call, we pulled up near my car, and it took until I'd walked around it and taken out my keys for me to notice a man with gray hair and a beard stomping toward my wife's open window. "Why don't you watch where you're going?"

I heard my wife's reply, "I thought you were parked."

"You want me to ram that Dodge up your ass!?"

From where I now stood by my trunk, I spoke in measured tones, "Hey, there's no need for that."

"Yeah right!" he said, visibly surprised at my presence, and stormed away.

One could speculate on the psychology involved — big truck and all — but for my part, I think it's more interesting to compare a character type on the other side. Michele Catalano spots an example in a piece by Neil Cavuto:

She went onto explain the [opening the] door thing was part and parcel of a bigger thing: An attempt by men, she said, to make women feel like they're lesser.

Me, I hold doors for women. (I hold them for men, too, but they have to be closer, benefiting from the mechanics of the swing.) I'd bet Lisa's Paul holds doors for women, too. I'd also bet that Big Important Guy and Proctological Dodge Guy don't. I wonder which of the following unfortunate social developments applies, or whether it's both:

  • The feministas (as Michele calls them) mistakenly attribute both the obnoxious and the gentlemanly behavior to the same group of men (probably to men as a group).
  • We're dealing with one of those insidious post-modern distortions whereby the concerned helper is shown to be the true oppressor by his implicit subjugation of the Other.

If the second contributor is a significant one, perhaps women should make an attempt to play matchmaker between the feministas and the BIGs:

"Why don't you watch where you're going, lady?"

"Hey, are you single? You don't hold doors, do you?"

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:15 AM | Comments (3)

January 7, 2005

A Pattern of Instincts

Cats don't rile my dog. He's sociable with other dogs — the last to cease play — but he's no more than politely curious about canines not of his acquaintance. Animals of unknown species are investigated if it is convenient, ignored if not. But something about deer makes him test the leash, and my grip on it. It is as if deer — the scent of them, the flitting motion of their prance — cut through all domestication to the heart of instinct and churn there a deep desire to give chase. And then?

Tonight the deer were everywhere: near the main road, by the water, halfway up the hill, slipping through gaps in fences like neighborhood kids who've crawled out windows and fear being dragged back through doors. When the swoosh of my jacket and the jingle of dog tags sounded too closely for comfort, they paused to sniff the air, leaped, and floated away, tapping down their hooves lightly, as if only for the mark that it would make in the snow. And their tracks were everywhere, too, patterned across the yards and walks of suburban homes, often spaced with speed. Perhaps they hurried in their decorative task because recent experience has taught them how fleeting their cold, damp medium can be.

We had the night to ourselves — me, the deer, and the dog. And I pondered for most of the walk whether to go the long way 'round so as not to disturb them, or to let him loose.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:08 AM

January 1, 2005

What Will Be Is

Was it really only this past January that Tech Central Station published my piece about resigning weapons inspector David Kay? Both the writing and the events seem years ago. Was it really only in '04 that I redesigned Dust in the Light? What a year has slipped between then and now! Frankly, I don't think I've ever been more relieved to see a new year begin.

You know all that happened in the world in 2004, and you can go to just about any mainstream news source to find highlights. For my part, I'm mainly concerned with how correct the closing months of the year proved me to be when I wrote, exactly one year ago:

Windfall, calamity, and stagnation are all up in the air. It would take so little in any direction. Blessings and disappointments, breakthroughs and failures come all mushed together, and it is our task to sort through them and figure out which to address. Which direction to head.

In its extreme personal eventfulness, 2004 was much like 1999 — the year in which I graduated from college, found a job, married my wife, and moved into a new apartment. This year, we had our second child and bought a house; I became a seventh grade teacher, proud to be able to be the sole source of income for my household, and then returned abruptly and painfully to partial employment. Within the same time frame as that stumble, National Review Online published my pieces on the ABA and the bishops' political questions. I designed and unveiled Anchor Rising and continued with the ups and downs (mostly downs) of a job search. In the final month of the year, I just barely crossed the financial finish line by working two long weeks delivering Christmas packages.

The new year begins with breakthroughs and failures all mushed together. I've no idea where I'll find the money that's necessary to survive January's bills, and yet, there are two print magazines currently on the stands in which my work appears — National Review and Newport Life. As was true a year ago and when I described the feeling of being at the edge of 2000 in the preface of A Whispering Through the Branches, the year to come is an expanse of the unknown. This year, though, more than ever before, success and failure will have to tease themselves apart. The status quo is unsustainable, and either a day job or the writing will have to pay much better in order for me to manage both.

Of course, it all seems petty by comparison with the calamity that ended the year along the Indian Ocean. There, thousands of people are beginning 2005 facing a blank page, with only the overwhelming heartbreak of the recent past to spill onto it. And the rest of us, amid the stress of our own, more incremental, steps and slips, are left with only charity and prayer to increase the chances that the hope buried within utter ruin will emerge for them.

So, into the fog of a new year we go, hoping that we do not stroll right past life's treasures because, by our own fault or the fog's, we are unable to see them. Those of you who've shared 2004 with me, I thank you. Dim obscurity is much less terrifying with company.

But then, we've always Company. I've come to see the notion that the palpable pain of this world has any relevance to the yes-or-no question of God as silly. Either we conclude from His existence that an explanation for evil must exist, or we approach the question already believing that the reality of pain, which is undeniable, answers it. I, for one, believe that the reality of hope and joy, which are also undeniable, answers it.

Therefore, may He guide you along the secure paths hidden in the year to come. I'll be there with you, but few require guidance more than me.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:27 PM

December 29, 2004

The Nightmare Is a Relentless Killer

When I was a boy, my parents bought me several history books disguised as large-format children's books — with such titles as The Invaders and How They Lived in Cities Long Ago. To confess, they generally went untouched.

However, there was one such book (which I can't find in any of my still-packed boxes) that made an impression. One part of it was about an ancient city by the water whose inhabitants had been eradicated by a tidal wave. As I recall, there was a photograph of the site, now at the top of a cliff with water markings all down its face, and an artist's rendering of the disaster in process.

Tidal waves and tsunamis always held a place in my imagination. I pictured a wall of water hundreds of feet high that didn't actually break until it hit the shoreline and then came crashing down. And I was — it is now irksome to admit — disappointed years later when I saw video footage in one of those spectacularized documentaries about natural disasters. Looking back, the first word of the term "tidal wave" should have made it clear that at issue was a very rapid and high change in the tide — not a breaking, crashing, tubing wave.

Watching videos of the tsunami in Southeastern Asia, however, makes the category of disaster quite a bit more terrifying than even my false conception. The water is relentless. It just keeps coming, and rising — like the water in a sinking ship, only as if the land itself is sinking. There is no stark line against the skyline, sickly thrilling in its way, to watch approach and then pass. Instead there's just the water and the terror of wondering whether it will stop rising before people run out of secure things on which to climb. The step, the desk, the windowsill.

Being near the shoreline becomes no different than being in a raft capsizing in a fast-moving river. Passing objects, rocks, hands come so close that it seems implausible that they cannot be reached. But like the nightmare of a panicked run in place, progress cannot be made.

I've been too long in making the time to write this, but my prayers have already been going out to everybody who lived that nightmare and the thousands of others who survived only to find countless nightmares of differing terror.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:17 PM | Comments (2)

November 29, 2004

The Hero as Dad

Jeremy Glick's wife, Lyz, has published a book meant to preserve her memories of him for their daughter. As Michelle Malkin notes, Mrs. Glick has taken a much classier approach than have others whom 9/11 gave platforms, and I'll surely buy the book when I've found work.

As I discovered this summer, Jeremy and I took judo classes at the same dojo in Westwood, New Jersey (as did one of this year's female Olympians). Perhaps the season makes me more apt to recall such things, but right around the corner from the dojo, there's a little park with a gazebo; it's the sort of suburban public space that makes one think of holidays and traditions. Picture the images that our culture overlays on such places — summer concerts, winter strolls in the snow — and the odds are that you'll be sharing a thought with Jeremy.

Would that we could all be of such character as the Glicks. Pray that few of us will face such decisions.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:03 PM

Turning Back into the Swing

As you can see, I pretty much took an unintended break from blogging during the extended weekend. I didn't lack for material; I'm actually carrying around several fairly ponderous topics that I haven't yet managed to address.

And it isn't as if I've been idle. Of course, we had a Thanksgiving gathering to attend. I dealt with technical problems on the Web site. We put up Christmas lights for the first time on our new house, including on a thirty-foot (or so) evergreen in the front yard (amid the boughs of which I risked life and limb to bring cheer — and light — to the neighborhood). I spent a great deal of time writing something for somebody. The basement needed cleaning so that it would be available if a Sunday gathering attracted enough children that they'd best be banned from the living room. And we baptized our second child into the Church.

As Thanksgiving shifted into Black Friday, somewhere between midnight and 1:00 a.m., I realized that I was too exhausted to give the dog his belated walk. Looking for some excuse to shirk, I went outside, hoping to hear rain. The rain had passed, though, so I unfolded a patio chair and sat next to a canine who, I was relieved to observe, seemed to have settled under the rattling fiberglass roof.

Sitting out in the fresh air — dozing, I'll admit — I attempted to layer all that I could hear. On top went the occasional car radios from nearby streets. Then the sound of wheels on wet pavement. Then the banging of a defunct Chinese food restaurant's loose sign. Then the wind in the trees. Drifting in and out of sleep, I wondered what sounds there might be at a layer with which I lack the experience to separate it.

Too many stadium concerts, nights at bars, headphones, and boomin' systems have left me with a lifelong ring in my ears. Although it is always there, I'm not usually aware of it. If I tune my hearing to do so, I can bring it to the fore, but it's really just part of the reality perceived through my senses and not reported to my conscious mind. What other parts of reality aren't we aware that we're perceiving?

Sometimes it is only when the noise of late-night traffic dies down that we can hear the wind. But the wind persists, nonetheless. The currents that flow through our lives carry on whether we feel them or not. Too easily, we forget that we have to stop and listen in order to know where they've taken us.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:50 AM

November 25, 2004

Thanks Giving

Thankful that my religion encourages prayer even when — especially when — it feels utterly useless.

Thankful for all of those — from close family to distant members of our nation's armed forces — who keep my hardships well above the range in which true despair and true terror are justified.

This is advice to myself as much as to everybody else: take time today to acknowledge the obvious blessings in your life and to find the silver linings, no matter how thin they might be.

ADDENDUM:
See also my statement on Anchor Rising.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:28 AM

November 18, 2004

A Lover at Rest

An oasis of prayer and beauty in cyberspace celebrating the romance of orthodoxy

Those are words that Gerard Bugge, known around St. Blogs as Gerard Serafim, typed into his computer as the description of his Web site, A Catholic Page for Lovers, probably about eight or nine years ago when he started it. I first came across Gerard's page in the early days of my conversion while looking for Web sites to visit when I needed to refresh my spirit, to inhale a sort of mystic breath. And a quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar by which Gerard concisely explained his Web site's curious title announced that I'd found just that:

The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about a Christian's faith is that it is all too daring. It is too beautiful to be true: The mystery of being, unveiled as absolute love, coming down to wash the feet and the souls of its creatures; a love that assumes the whole burden of our guilt and hate, that accepts the accusations that shower down.. all the scorn and contempt that nails down his incomprehensible movement of self-abasement -- all this absolute love accepts in order to excuse his creature before himself...

What an open field of souls, this Internet! We drift here to there, meeting people we wish we could know, in a sense knowing them, then slipping away in the formless crowd, not forgetting, but not quite remembering.

A book on the shelf or a letter in the drawer is a tangible representative of its writer. We put it away for a time, free to forget, because it will find us in our rummaging. Not so, the patterned bytes of the online universe. Those are there, but not really there. They aren't in the home, in the drawer, in the hands. But they are in the heart, even though how long they will remain... out there... none can say.

Well, Gerard will remain ever there. Stopping at the computer to type a note, before heading out to Pennsylvania, mentioning lost items and his health.

I will be seeing my main doctor this Thursday, God willing. Let's hope for the best.

And that's where I, for one, will keep you, Gerard — hoping for the best before you turn off the computer, exit the house, head off, and find God willing to spare you from waking to that anxiety-laden day of meeting your main doctor. Hoping for the best, Mr. Seraphim, that our Lord holds you in His arms even now.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:34 PM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2004

Slow on the Trigger, but Resolved in the Mind

Apologies for being so tardy to express my thanks to America's veterans. It goes without saying, doesn't it?

Well, no, unfortunately it does not in these times. It was right, therefore, for the President to have called, as Lane Core quotes, for a full week of recognition.

Some gave their lives — others their innocence. Citizens give their gratitude, and we scribblers of notions give our pledge not to let die in the mind what was preserved through muscle and heart and backbone.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:39 PM | Comments (1)

October 26, 2004

So Anyway

I think I'm ready for winter. Something about the chill in the air as I walked the dog bit pleasantly. Maybe I'm just in the mood for it to be a few months from now. When I used to spend my Sundays on a mountain in the Catskills powerwashing wood and styrofoam boxes out of which I'd spent part of the week selling fish to suburbanites, I imagined a drug that would leave me functional but completely unconscious until the spring thaw.

One year, just after the insane holiday season of a Tristate Area fish huckster, I left for Sunday's work so sick that it took me about twenty-five miles just to decide on a place to turn around and head back toward my bed. The boxes waited patiently.

That same year — whether the same week or not, I don't recall — I found myself alone on the mountain, everybody else having gone to a wedding or something. My equipment kept freezing together. The zipper on my raincoat became a gnarled rope of ice. Sweat. Sting. Snot. At last, all was clean, and it was time to load everything on my boss's truck. As I used a long, cold hook to drag my dozenth wooden box (of fifty-something) to the truck, the box caught in the heavy snow, and the hook's handle broke off. I fell forward to my knees.

I remember, at that moment, thinking that it would be bliss to snap — smash a few boxes and storm down the dirt road to my car and fly from the place. Maybe keep going until I cooled off... or thawed. But in that split second, another option came to mind: laugh. Laugh at the image of this pitiful man, on the cusp of his twenties, stomping around in the snow, all alone on a mountain, taking out his frustration on some rickety crates that he'd spent the day cleaning and repairing.

Breathe, laugh, have a smoke while looking out at the fantastic view, and then finish the job. The boxes mightn't fit right, because the lids were all frozen at angles and snow had caked on their corners. It would probably be dark and absolutely silent by the time I finished. But the job would be done. Life would go on, and I wouldn't leave the day having a mess to clean up at some future date — either with the boxes or with my boss.

So maybe wishing away the months is part of my problem. One can rage off the mountain, or one can get done what must get done and walk down.

ADDENDUM:
The little things aren't worth the rage. Wouldn't you say, Michele?

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:44 AM | Comments (1)

October 15, 2004

Sometimes I Feel Like I Missed a Few Decades

Yes, I've noticed the increased interest in flu shots over the past few years. Yes, I know we're all supposed to be all a-panic over the vaccine shortage. But reading Michelle Malkin's personal experiences trying to secure a shot for her 11-month-old son made me wonder whether I've missed some significant turn of events.

Throughout this millennium, when somebody's asked me a question about flu shots, my unwavering reply has been: "Huh?" Flu shots? Shots for the flu? Don't we combat the flu with axioms — as in "feed a cold, starve the flu"? Michelle writes that the "shortage of the flu vaccine may lead to more deaths than the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Really?

That's an honest question. Back when I was a kid, was the nation suffering one flu 9/11 per year? I beg of you not to read anything more than a statement of fact in the following: I can name three people with whom my life has intersected who died on September 11, 2001. About a dozen who were close. I couldn't name a single person whom I've known who has died of the flu, or who has had a loved one die of it. That doesn't mean that nobody has, but the flu has never in my lifetime been an illness that carried with it the stench of death.

So, the question: am I being negligent as a father for not dropping everything to head to the pediatrician's office? Or do I get another year or two before not fighting over the rationed supplies marks me as an irresponsible parent stuck in an ignorantly blissful past when the flu was just an illness that made you glad that you had indoor plumbing and cable TV?

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:09 PM | Comments (7)

October 11, 2004

Death Returns from Holiday

Christopher Reeve, pictured at right recently and in high school, has died. For many of my generation, Reeve's was the true face of Superman. In my case, that meant that Superman looked a bit like my father (particularly when the former was disguised as Clark Kent).

I recall an evening in the early '80s when my parents were without outfits for a costume party. As a solution, my father cut the Superman symbol out of one of my comic books and held it in his palm. Whenever anybody asked what his costume was, he showed them the symbol and put his finger to his lips: "Shhh!" Such anecdotes accumulated over the years to make my family feel a connection to the actor, although none of us ever met him.

So, I was easily able to comply when Reeve asked a 2002 audience at the University of Rhode Island to "think of loved ones and what might even happen to you in the future and go with your conscience." At that venue, he was promoting the cause that characterized the last years of his life: research and funding to help people in his predicament, including through the use of embryonic stem cells. Even with the complicating emotions, one must conclude that it's an immoral cause. Still, the impulse for Reeve and others to pursue it is entirely understandable — completely human.

More than in the Superman movies, Reeve most succeeded in reaching me with his performance as the title character in a small, Williamstown, Massachusetts, production of Death Takes a Holiday. In that movie/play, Death becomes a man to find out why human beings hate and fear him so. To him, death is just a part of life; moreover, it is a necessary one — a job that somebody must do.

That Christopher Reeve managed to find meaning and purpose after his crippling accident is to be applauded. Even when life is limited to those of its aspects that require a body only minimally, it is precious. It was not his ability to pretend he could fly that brought Reeve into the national spotlight in recent years, after all. Yet, that the meaning that Reeve ultimately found played a role in the process of our society convincing itself that human life — simply by its essential nature — needn't be held as sacred is to be lamented.

Rest in peace, Mr. Reeve. My prayers go with you, in the hopes that you can walk again — with God.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:05 AM | Comments (4)

October 9, 2004

The Randomness of Life

To be honest, I hadn't expected much more from today's professional development gathering for Catholic-school teachers in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, than a welcome break from actually dealing with the kids. As a lover of fog, I enjoyed the drive up to Bishop Feehan high school, during which — don't tell my wife — I managed to make some rough notes for a piece suggesting that our culture has sunk so far into philosophical mire that dark subversives are having to rediscover Good so that there can be such a thing as Evil.

With such thoughts in mind, I sat in the auditorium with the ladies from my school and let my thoughts wander. We all participated in a relatively long prayer, the teacher of the year received his recognition, and the scheduled speaker, when he started, immediately elicited a sigh of relief: he would be humorous and interesting. One could tell, throughout the day, that the audience was truly engaged; I highly recommend considering him for any presentations on technology and education.

Alan November explained to that large group of underpaid teachers — most of whom must make do with what technology they can manage to find and connect in classrooms that, if they're like mine, have a single electrical outlet each — that they simply had to adjust to the new methods of learning that students will force them to address, and that many of the basics require little advanced knowledge. The first step, for example, is to teach the kids how to research on the Internet, simply extending notions of credibility and source validation from print to virtual.

When Mr. November mentioned blogs, I thought it might be worthwhile to chat with him. I've long thought that blogging is only one of many technological innovations that will tend to teach children the very skills that they'll need when they're older — the communication, the confidence, the networking, and the daring to pursue each. And when a name came up that I certainly didn't expect to hear positively uttered in a Catholic school auditorium, a name that I recalled typing in an early entry of Dust in the Light, it struck me how revolutionary and pervasive the concepts and beneifts of blogging are.

November told the story of Kate Stafford, who at the age of sixteen developed a Web site to explore the topic of a particular professor's book. In the process, she convinced two students from Russia to help her with the page, which became a 2000 finalist for an Oracle ThinkQuest award. After she'd admitted that she hadn't submitted her project to any teachers (so as not to lose "social capital"), Ms. Stafford apparently told Alan November that her goal was to get into Harvard, which she has since managed to do.

She certainly picked the right subject matter — and the right side of the debate — to achieve the Ivy League nod. The Web site deals with the work of, and has attracted a compliment from, Oxford's Richard Dawkins. The name rang a bell, as that of the man who wrote this:

Sexual abuse is disgusting, but it's not as harmful as the grievous mental harm of bringing children up Catholic in the first place.

The teachable moment, here, I suppose, is that the underlying skills and necessity for critical thinking haven't changed much at all. Despite bells and whistles, sources must be considered, and the Internet offers a chance to consider such sources as Dawkins in greater detail, and from more angles, than has ever before been possible. Catholic children, in particular, could stand to develop such skills.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:03 AM | Comments (1)

October 7, 2004

A Loss for the Nation and the Neighborhood

One day in the future, when they tell their children about the father/grandfather whom they'd lost so long ago, the sons of Sgt. Christopher Potts should have reason to point to the world in which they live and say, "He helped to make these good outcomes possible." Sgt. Potts was killed, on Monday, in Iraq.

Although nothing but like loss can compare with the days through which the Potts family is now living, the war touches us all. Their house is in my neighborhood — on one of my dog-walking routes. As a citizen I can only offer them my condolences and gratitude. As a passer-by in the night, I will not fail to offer them my prayers.

God bring you into his embrace, Sgt. Potts. Although you leave an ugly world behind, it is a world that you undoubtedly helped to improve.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:53 AM

September 25, 2004

Common Languages Across Years

If nothing else, teaching will provide me with new input for writing. The context it creates for understanding the difficulty of communication from one soul to another, for one thing, is of immeasurable value.

I'm not old, by any measure, except perhaps by my students', all of whom were born a couple years after I'd moved along from being their current age. To them, I'm in that vague, distant category beyond mandatory (and effectively mandatory) education. Moreover, I existed in that mysterious world of Before Them, and I've already experienced and incorporated the titillating lessons of adolescence and young adulthood.

And yet, they seem older than I remember feeling at their age. It may be that the school system in which I grew up placed us at the bottom of another stack — junior high — in seventh grade, whereas these kids are one step away from the top. Maybe times have changed. Maybe I see them in comparison with my children and nieces and nephews, most of whom are younger. Whatever the case, to what slice of my memory ought I to make reference when attempting to understand what they're thinking and going through?

The question is made more difficult by the fact that I remember being — and remember those around me being — more mature than they are. Again, perhaps the differing school system explains some of the disparity, but activities that I remember doing at younger ages, they have difficulty with. For some activities, they just haven't developed the skills; for others, they lack the concentration. To what slice of my memory ought I to make reference when attempting to teach them?

One thing's for sure: cultural markers are out. I attempted to illustrate a point by citing the geographic focus of grunge music — grunge music! — and they had no clue what I was talking about. Of course, grunge to them is like Led Zeppelin to me, meaning that they won't discover it, if at all, until their "retro" phase in high school or college. Perhaps the intimate knowledge of tangible examples is one of the values of peer tutors.

I wondered, as I watched my students leave the classroom, today, what they would do over the weekend. What would I have done, at their age? I barely recall. Not that my memories would necessarily be applicable; there are so many factors involved in the way in which we see the world and act that a sea of ifs lies between us. I guess it's enough to teach what I can and to help them to develop the common language of maturity. (And hope that the effort doesn't make me prematurely old.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:30 AM

September 11, 2004

The Third Time Around Still Stings

I suspect that, if I live to be 150, this 9/11 Flash presentation will still cause tears to well up. It's probably more poignant than anything that words could express — certainly more poignant than anything I've managed to put into words.

For some of those words, see my central post from the anniversary last year. And here's a more-recent piece that I wrote upon discovering another personal connection. Such discoveries will surely persist throughout most of our lives — as should our prayers for the lost and their loved ones, and as must our resolve.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:07 PM | Comments (2)

August 12, 2004

Thrown to the Mat

The past few days have found me struggling for motivation, even for sense, wading through the detritus of my schedule, which has crumpled under the weight of too many obligations and desires. If life is a series of decisions, the only conclusion to which I can come is that I must be making more than my share of the wrong ones. As I've endured the strain on my knees to walk the dog down a steep nearby street with what is surely one of the prime views in Rhode Island (a secret of a street, quiet and unknown, large houses with broad balconies), thanking God for the gift of its proximity but begging for some direction in my aimlessness, I've realized that the closest that I've come to a sense of calling is with activities that I never manage to pursue.

Such are the strains of life; I've resolved to be content to keep my passions in sight, tinkering with them from time to time, until I've got the necessities under control. Still, I can't shake the feeling that what I'm meant to conclude is that there is no path but toward my sensed vocation. I don't know. The barriers are many, and many are those who pursue it with the passion of the damned, not the patience of the called. But long paths can still lead home, I suppose, and my secret is that our home is uphill from that street of million-dollar houses, and if we ever manage to rise above the tree line, at least some of their view will be ours.

Tonight, after I'd let the dog loose in the backyard, I went into the living room, where my wife was decompressing from her long day of watching over our too-active children by watching one of those makeover shows, TLC's What Not to Wear. The episode starred a woman from the Olympic judo team, whom the fashion consultants surprised at her dojo. "Wow," I remarked to my wife. "All judo dojos must look alike."

I took judo classes for a few years when I was a boy (early double-digits, I'd guess), and the dojo on TV matched the one in my memory. The big bright room and small windows leading to night. The big window into the office in the far corner. The hallway to the bathrooms on the other side of the same wall. The large Japanese flag on the opposite end of the room-length beige mat. But the woman, whom I assumed to be an instructor, did not look like the Olympian daughter of my sensei, and in fact, her father wasn't even oriental.

My sensei had two daughters. My most vivid recollection of the younger involves at least one time when we were paired with each other and she wanted to try some new moves — which seemed consistently to wind up with me lying on top of her and between her legs. My memories of the older sister, the Olympian, involve the embarrassing sympathy with a rag doll that lingered as I switched, much relieved, to partner with somebody else. Now, as a twentysomething writer, it occurs to me to wonder whether the circumstances of the latter memories mightn't have somehow been a result of the former. At any rate, the experience is ripe to be woven into tales. The warrior's two daughters and a somewhat bumbling boy poet.

As tonight progressed, I passed through the living room again at the end of the show, when the madeover subject stuns her friends with her metamorphosis, and I myself was stunned at the setting for the event. The Iron Horse restaurant in Westwood, New Jersey, right around the corner from my childhood dojo.

I determined to find a timely lesson in the coincidence, and an allegory for my current situation came quickly to mind. A while after I'd stopped taking judo classes, I was rushing somewhere on my bicycle at night. (Probably doing something I oughtn't have been, although I don't remember much except that I was hurrying for a reason.) It was autumn, and as I flew into a turn at the bottom of a steep hill around the corner from my apartment, I skidded in a pile of leaves and flew from my seat. I hit the pavement in a roll, tucking in my head as I'd practiced at the dojo, hopped to my feet, waved to a witness, and rode away. The skill returned to me, you see, after long disuse, and very possibly saved my life — at least my limbs; perhaps some other semidormant ability will help me through my current skid.

I turned to Google to see if I could confirm that Celita Schultz's televised dojo had been mine and to see whether she'd bought it from my sensei or something. Ms. Schultz's featured spot on the front page of the Kokushi Dojo's Web site quickly confirmed that my memory had been accurate, and I took a moment to smile at the discovery that the sensei's younger daughter, Liliko, has also been to the Olympics (in 1996). But then stories of being flipped by girls and flying from bicycles lost their profundity.

In the upper left-hand corner of the Web page is a picture of a boy with an afro and a trophy. The caption: "Kokushi Student Hero: September 11th Hijacked Jet." Jeremy Glick. You may recall the name as that of one of the passengers who defeated whatever plan the hijackers of Flight 93 had. In the series of headshots of the men to whom Todd Beamer said "let's roll," Glick is the one kissing a baby. His daughter.

I'd thought it neat randomly to spot on TV a room in which I'd spent many memorable hours. Small world. Small indeed, and not so much neat as awe-inspiring when one realizes the subsequent heroism of somebody with whom I very likely shared that room at one point or another.

Callings will come when they come; we may not know the hour or the form. In the meantime, we can only attend to life and do our best to choose wisely, to love well, and to remember those who've shown us what it means to fulfill a purpose for which we didn't even know we were preparing.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:53 AM | Comments (1)

August 7, 2004

A Different World Behind the Same Eyes... and Others'

I was blessed, yesterday, to slip into a much-needed reminder of the human reality in which disagreements must be resolved. The experience through which it came is probably one that many people will find familiar, but for all I know, it'll represent one more reason for readers to think me odd. (Truth often merits a bit of both reactions, anyway.)

As part of the process of liquidating my CD collection, I was listening to Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man," and I recalled that it had been my favorite song during my fifteenth summer (when I was fourteen years old). Those were tumultuous times for me, and I had come to see a piano camp in Bennington, Vermont, at which I was currently spending my fourth summer, as a place of refuge from the increasingly confusing and, well, disappointing months passing in New Jersey. That year, 1989, I spent eight weeks at the camp — the entirety of its season — and when my parents came to pick me up, the owners' eldest daughter informed us that I was forbidden to return.

Mostly because the rejection fell as the first major crack in an avalanche that would sweep me through the rest of my teens and beyond, the sting lingered for several years, and the reasons given, I continue to believe, were unjustly construed. Still, I have to confess that there were multiple reasons of which the counselors were not aware that would have amply justified the same decision. Perhaps my secret behavior lingered in an aura around me that my judges sensed and on which basis they ruled.

Rather than doling out details, many of which remain solely in my possession, it will suffice for me to suggest that, while perhaps not ironic, it is telling that "An Innocent Man" resonated with me in a personal way. Although that autumn found me still "innocent" (in the innuendoed sense), I had pursued my original birthright of sin that summer as if chasing an early inheritance.

The charm of that Old Bennington mansion had partly been that, within its walls, I had managed to define myself as I wanted to be — as I thought I really was, truly — and at fourteen years old, I stained that vision by behaving in the addled fashion of a young man who believes his better days to be a dream at constant risk of being whisked away. Prophecy self fulfilled. The boy I could be found himself tripped and beaten and rolled into the bushes by the boy I actually really was, truly.

So, fifteen years later, perhaps to the day of my last day, listening to my favorite song from that time, I suddenly could remember the feel of that life. By that, I don't mean some analytical synopsis of my frame of mind, but rather the underlying hue of my emotions, the aggregate effect of the unstated assumptions behind various reactions, thoughts, and beliefs. Have you had this experience? It's not unlike managing to bring to mind a smell that isn't actually there and finding that with it has come the hint of flavor that leaks through to the taste buds and the associations that the odor once had, as if you could close your eyes and reopen them to find not only that the source was there before you, but that you were again the person that you had once been.

Not surprisingly, the feel of being that well-tanned and grasping kid, the shapes of things as he saw them, is quite starkly different from my experience of now. This, I submit, approaches the empathy with which we ought to attempt to engage those with whom we disagree. The world feels differently to them. That grasping and fleetingly cocksure kid watching the familiar silo near Albany (with giant, winking, female eyes painted on it) slide by the car window during the Eighties' final June would not have listened to me had I advised him. Had I told him that treating others as more than passing characters in life's drama would enable him to be who he wanted to be, my words would have been nearly unintelligible to him — scarcely sounds with substance.

Maybe, though, if we can find a way to feel the worlds of those with whom we disagree, we can find our way back to the world as we believe it to be — with company.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:58 AM

July 20, 2004

The Credibility That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I remember one afternoon, during my late-mid teens, when about a half-dozen of us gathered in B's finished basement to watch a porn video, as rough-edged boys with easy access to a major city are particularly apt to do. Like most such films, the plot was superfluous — smut about filming fictional smut — and followed a predictable pattern of scenes.

When the obligatory "two women in the Jacuzzi" scene rolled around, L expressed disgust and requested that we fast forward to the next scene. It shouldn't surprise anybody who's kept abreast of the culture for the past couple of decades that none of the other adolescents in the room were willing to second L's motion.

About five years later, R's slut of a girlfriend — known among a separate group of my acquaintances from a different town for impromptu Jacuzzi scenes, so to speak — promised him a special surprise for his birthday. When R proved too drunk to follow the two young ladies up the stairs to his bedroom, if memory serves, L was among those encouraging him to sober up quickly.

There are, of course, multiple explanations that one could offer for L's apparent change of attitude. One could even quibble about whether it actually represented a change at all. But I place the two scenes side by side to illustrate how a person's reaction to the same sexual activity can change from disgust to arousal, at least in the expression of that person's opinion and suggestions for action.

In arguing about same-sex marriage over the past few years, I've found one foundation of individuals' positions to vary wildly in substance, but very little in the confidence with which they state their opinions: the immutability of the sexual orientation. I've seen folks on both sides, with the correspondingly antipodal lessons, argue everything from complete choice to genetic destiny. That assessments vary so widely in conclusion as well as perceived implications suggests to me that there is something mixed up with this issue that most everybody is content to leave out of the realm of public consideration.

I've made no secret about the fact that I went through a number of emotionally torturous years. During that time, I was usually lonely, confused, and lacking in a sense of self. Although I would have chosen different experiences, and although I intend to do my utmost to prevent my children from repeating mine, those years did grant me something that I've come to consider invaluable as a thinker, writer, and person: glimpses of directions in which my life could have gone had a single variable been changed.

As the case in point, I can begin with a specific man who was a rare friend to me when my world was crumbling and imagine him having inclinations and intentions that he did not have. From that relatively minor shift in circumstances, I can trace the accumulation of a lifestyle, as the identity that he'd helped me to form expanded to include more people — perhaps an entire "scene." As I'd thrown that identity against whatever visions my parents had of me and my future, forcing them to come to terms with their own feelings about my revelation, whether the clash preceded wrenching turmoil or some form of approval. Actions and declarations and bonds and associations might pile up to the extent that any other life would seem on the other side of and inaccessible except through repetition of those torturous years.

Now, some straights will note that, even in equivalent turmoil, the path that I've described was never a possibility for them. And some gays will insist that I'm describing a transition to something only superficially associated with their orientations. I've no reason to doubt either the sincerity or accuracy of any such statements. But I wonder how many people have some degree of a similar sense. How much might this be an unstated factor in the decisions that people make with respect to same-sex marriage?

To be sure, in some fronts of the battle, the causes and permanence of homosexuality are irrelevant. Even so, the discussion might find new routes toward resolution were people to break through their apparent confidence about the nature of homosexuality and openly discuss the bases for their opinions — both research and personal anecdotes.

Of course, mirroring the multiplying barriers to recantation of sexual identity, possible conclusions of such a line of thought will likely preclude its actually being followed. If sexuality is somewhat fluid, for example, then it becomes even more legitimate for society to single out a particular lifestyle and family type for special approval. More generally, there are as many motivations to deny or assert any given theory as there are personalities.

Despite natural reluctance, some light needs to shine into this corner of the debate. With key activists in the same-sex marriage movement citing (in certain venues) the increased sexual fluidity of children of homosexual parents as a positive development, it behooves we on the other side to raise the standard of personal honesty. The law must not be allowed to lead dramatic changes in our culture under circumstances in which an underlying something remains unspoken.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:45 PM | Comments (7)

June 11, 2004

Reagan in His Own Words and His Own Image

As so often seems to be the case, Lane Core is covering an area that I feel guilty for letting slide.

Today, he's compiled a tribute consisting of texts, pictures, and links to more. From a 1976 radio address:

Sometimes it's very easy to get very glib about how the decisions we are making will shape the world for a hundred years to come. A few weeks ago I found myself faced with having to really think about what we are doing today & what people like ourselves will say about us.

On Wednesday, as well, he posted a bouquet of poetry in memoriam.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:02 PM | Comments (1)

June 6, 2004

Mr. President for All Time

PROEM:
Click "Turn Light On" at the top of the left-hand column for a simpler page design that may be easier to read.


People in the thin slice of the American population that was born within a year or two of 1975 may have a unique view of Ronald Reagan, if my experience is common (as appears to be the case).

When he was president, I didn't have a strong reaction to Mr. Reagan. My father liked him; Phil Collins apparently did not. His presidency arrived at that point in my development when the divergent pulls and pressures of family and youth society hadn't yet come into conflict. The feeling was that this was how life should be, with adults admiring the president and the adolescent crowd (slightly older than me) and those who appealed to it rebelling.

I had a book, during Reagan's tenure, that was about American presidents generally, called Mr. President. On the cover was a picture of the current president working at his desk in the Oval Office. Mr. President — Ronald Reagan. The book has since been updated, but to those of my age, the Gipper was integral to the formation of our sense of the meaning of "president."

I remember how President George H.W. Bush felt sort of like a substitute. As if Reagan had founded the presidency and was now retiring, handing it over to a man who, as good as he might be, wasn't really the president. Like a new author taking over a long-running series of books, or a new actor being thrust into an established role. The role had been redefined, now inauthentic, so that Mr. President did not mean Mr. Reagan.

I imagine there's a sliver of the population for whom this sense is true of each president, larger for those who serve two terms. What a great blessing to have formed one's idea of President with the image of Ronald Reagan. For us, he hasn't really died. He's timeless, definitive.

God keep you in peace, Mr. President.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:32 AM | Comments (2)

June 1, 2004

The Weed Puts Down Thick Roots

Somebody, somewhere, must have written a knock-off of the "Ugly Duckling" story, one involving a plant that everybody took to be a weed, but that turned out to be an alluring blossom. If not, perhaps I'll write one — a sort of metaphorical autobiography (albeit, perhaps unduly optimistic).

In the most (knowingly) risky financial move of my life, my growing family is extending its roots more deeply in Rhode Island. Rather than continue to write checks for rent that is, essentially, the mortgage payment for the house in which we live, we thought it best to grab the low interest rates and pay our own mortgage instead. Thanks to a 0% down loan and a little up-front help from family, and barring unforeseen problems, June 2004 will be the last month in which my wife and I are not home owners.

Although the decision has an undertaste of recklessness, against the significant financial risk must be weighed the risk of living in an old house about which I've many health concerns — soon with two girls, a fiddling two-year-old and a newborn — that somebody else must be pushed to maintain. Another counterbalance is the monthly drain of almost as much money through rent to no accumulating purpose. How hopeful it will be to view our largest monthly expenditure as an investment rather than an expense. How refreshing it already is to know that any work done to improve our living space will have the added benefit of improving the investment!

This morning, I went to the house for its inspection, and no big-ticket problems came to light. Everything is in great condition, considering our price range, and the inspector, while checking the roof, confirmed what I had suspected: a second floor will one day have a water view.

This afternoon, I came across Edward Achorn's column in the Providence Journal suggesting that the state in which I'll soon own property is, itself, a fixer-upper:

THE JUNE 2004 issue of Bloomberg Wealth Manager warns well-to-do people, once again, to avoid what the publication calls "tax-hell Rhode Island."

Indeed, Rhode Island is the worst place in the country -- ranked 51 among 50 states and the District of Columbia -- for people who wish to keep some of their wealth. ...

Rhode Island does a good job of splitting apart loved ones. Because its tax and regulatory structure chokes off new jobs, children often must move out of state for work. And because it is one of the worst places for retirees, elders often move far away, taking their spending power with them.

But this evening, Ramesh Ponnuru granted me a much needed draft of hope by rattling a cup on my behalf. Therein lies the tenor or my metaphor (although I smile to express something so dopey yet so pretentious): the seed from a way of thinking that thrives elsewhere blown by life's circumstances to foreign, often hostile, land.

Well, Rhode Island, I'm here to stay. Best get used to me — us. We may be weeds to your eyes, but we'll bring health to the state, even if you've defined illness as proper.

ADDENDUM:
Regarding the literary merits of this post: Hey, whaddaya want? It's been an unusually busy day, and after a long weekend...

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:17 PM | Comments (2)

May 18, 2004

Last Call for Twentysomething

Well, today I have exactly one more year to be in my twenties. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I've always been the youngest among my friends, but from the perspective of twenty-nine, thirty doesn't seem quite the big deal that young'ns make it out to be.

Of course, my attitude about what's to come probably has more to do with the fact that, whereas many people peak around their college years, I bottomed out at that time, instead. Everything since has been upswing. Ten years ago, I dislodged reasonable hope from my life by dropping out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Oh sure, I had a dreamer's hope — even a plan to go with it. I would return to New Jersey, find a job, get an apartment, buy a car, save up some money, head west, and then... lightning. Stardom.

As things turned out, I had the good fortune to stall after buying a car. At the time, I didn't think it good fortune, of course; even the prospect that my 1970 Oldsmobile 98 (like this, only brown) probably wouldn't make it all the way across the country just added to the adventure. The truth of the matter is that I'm not sure that I'd be alive today if I hadn't found the initial steps of my scheme to be unexpectedly difficult. The road to the radio is paved with would-be rock stars, whose strange mix of ego and tenacity keeps them drudging on a road to nowhere rather than take what looks to be a compromise.

I've always particularly liked the lone song that I wrote in May 1994, "Not Your Clown Anymore." (I've put a streaming MP3 of a very rough demo I made of the song at the time online.) Whatever it indicates about the level of my talent, the piano part was a little more involved than my usual improvised simplicity. Moreover, the utter depression that was quickly becoming the pounding theme of many of my songs was tempered by a sort of defiant hope.

I don't recall my thinking when I inserted the embellishing "Lord" exclamation toward the end. It probably just seemed lyrically appropriate — an indication of pop/rock tradition, rather than of faith. If it had a more profound intent, I must confess, it was probably a cynical and ironic subtext. (Funny how the same artistic flourish resonates differently from the perches of faith and no faith.)

But here I am, ten years out, after nine years of climbing from the bottom to which my life settled in the spring and summer of 1994. Happily married, just about to be a father of two. A man of faith. And still making progress. I may not be strolling in the light, but I can see it ahead, and I know it isn't an illusion.

Thank you for the role that you've played, over the past two years, in helping me to put some space between the boy of then and the man of now.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:31 PM | Comments (3)

May 15, 2004

Pop Culture Events Closer Toward Infinity

Charles Hill highlights some instances in which moments in pop culture act as perspective markers in time:

The late musicologist and audiophile Edward Tatnall Canby used to say that the length of your perceived memories is a constant, that as you get older the years get closer and closer together, like the calibrations on a VU meter as the volume — as your volume — diminishes into inaudibility.

To add cross-generational example to those that Charles provides, the time between the Beatles' breakup and John Lennon's murder was roughly equivalent to the time between Kurt Cobain's suicide and now.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:55 PM

May 9, 2004

Extemporaneity, Through Tragedy, and into Faith

My playwright professor at Carnegie Mellon advised us, when facing writer's block, to extemporize. When no thoughts come to mind, the next step is to begin writing the word "block."

Bilhah turned from Jacob, a wisp of hair across her face, and held her arm against the bare skin of her chest. She imagined it burned, the flesh, in a way that she did not burn, saturated as she was in the knowledge that... cats fighting in the night became a ball of rolling audible fur, in the dead of night, when the night rumbled with passing Coast Guard helicopters, rattling the window which the couple had only dared leave open to the air for the first time since the long, long winter had... blockblockblockblock... let its fingers slip.

Those cold fingers, which had slithered back from the coverlet and the house and across the yard and down the street, and which clattered across the stones of the New England shoreline, out into the bay and the river, where the cold still had the power over life and death — beat the rotors as they may.

Late last night, a helicopter flew low over the house. Midday, I directed my daughter's eyes away from the sandbox to watch another one (or perhaps the same one) through the trees. "See the helicopter?" "Hedipopter?"

About five hours later, the Coast Guard called off the search:

Shivering with cold, his feet cut and bleeding, 14-year-old Christopher Duarte stood at the Roses' front door about 1 a.m. today, saying his family had been involved in a boating accident, and he needed help.

The teenager, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and shorts, told Dave and Karen Rose that he'd been fighting the current, as he swam to shore for what seemed like nearly two hours. The last time he saw his mother, the boy said, she was clinging to a fender on the boat, without a life jacket.

"He kept saying, 'There's been an accident. I swam to shore. I'm sure the boat sank by now,"' Karen Rose told The Associated Press.

Duarte's mother was among three people who died when a small pleasure boat carrying six people capsized in Mount Hope Bay during the night. A fourth person, Duarte's aunt, remains missing. Duarte's father, 35-year-old Allen Duarte, was rescued and was in critical condition in a hospital.

Well. That's not a direction in which I had expected this post to turn. Rather, my intention had more to do with perspective on the various annoyances and difficulties of life. How insignificant that intention was by comparison. Perhaps we should learn our perspective before our foundations sink from view.

God, bring the lost home to you and return Allen safely to his son, Christopher. And reach out your hand to those who have lost those parents, sons and daughters, and friends.

"Why did you doubt?"

Blockblockblock

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:17 AM

March 13, 2004

Ms. Pearson Goes to Washington

Rhode Island's most renowned daughter, Ashley Pearson of State of the Union fame, is off to Washington for the weekend. Perhaps partly in contrast with the web of connections mentioned two posts ago, I love this story:

But just as she wrote her now-famous letter to President Bush for idealistic reasons, Ashley thinks she might like to join the military when she's old enough: "to help the troops and to save the country," she says. When she gets out of the service, she'd like to be a veterinarian. ...

The family is flying coach, but the Ritz-Carlton is putting them up, free of charge. The hotel management wouldn't dream of letting anyone pay for the room, once they heard Ashley Pearson was going to stay there. ...

Tomorrow afternoon, it's back home. The entire trip will last just about 48 hours.

The family would have stayed longer, but Tom Pearson is changing jobs and couldn't get time off from work. No matter, though -- "We'll go back," says Natalie Pearson.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:23 AM | Comments (2)

February 26, 2004

I Knew This Day Would Come

Sorry to get such a late start with the blogging today. We had to drive out to New Bedford for an extensive sonogram (reason for concern, but not much to worry about). On the way back, we stopped at BJs so that we won't have to do so this weekend, and I picked up some much-needed coffee. And, well, a day that I knew was coming has arrived.

Here's the can that I just emptied:

And here's the can that I just opened:

I've known that this little part of life would change just as irrevocably as that terrible rip in all of our lives two-plus years ago. A sort of subtle reminder and distant ripple. I'd held out some miniscule hope that the company would maintain its anachronistic packaging, but that hope had been little more than wishful thinking. The packaging of the twin pack wrapper has long borne the scar of reality:

I imagine the company was just using up its old cans.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:00 PM

February 7, 2004

Make 'em Drag Ya

Much as he would yell at athletes on the television, my father liked to offer advice to the characters in the movies that we would watch. One of the most frequent mistakes that fictional characters make occurs during abductions — whether being kidnapped, taken as a hostage, or just forced to accompany the villain in his escape from the hero.

"Make him drag you!" my dad would yell. And so I grew up wondering how it could be that a firm grip on one's wrist is sufficient to coax an entire, sentient body to assist in its own capture.

It shouldn't be, as Donald Sensing agrees in a list of tips that he has given to his daughter, and that I will one day give to mine. The bottom line: do not go willingly.

Of course, as Amy Welborn points out so eloquently, our culture is out to make our daughters accomplices in their own abduction of a different sort.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:44 PM

February 4, 2004

The Humanity of the Sinner

And the corruption of the sin.

Of course, reading several of an author's books in succession begets sympathy in the reader, particularly if there had been a human empathy to begin with, and particularly if the author is as eloquent as Andrew Sullivan. I just came across a parallel that is profound in many ways — several conflicting, all tragically ironic — and it's really too bad that Sullivan apparently didn't spot it.

Here's a passage from Virtually Normal (7–8). Sullivan is writing about the initial indications of his homosexuality:

Not that this was a truly sexual condition. In some sense, physical contact had, in a somewhat comic way, implanted itself in my mind. But it was still intensely abstract. I remember when I was around seven or eight seeing a bare-chested man on television one night and feeling such an intense longing for him that I determined to become a doctor. That way, I figured, I could render the man unconscious and lie on top of him when no one else was in the room. ... already I had divined that the expression of any kind of longing would have to take devious and subterranean forms. I would have to be an outlaw in order to be complete.

And here are a few lines from Love Undetectable (22). Sullivan has volunteered to assist a man with AIDS through the last few months of his life:

I remember one day lying down on top of him to restrain him as his brittle, burning body shook uncontrollably with the convulsions of fever. I had never done such a thing to a grown man before — and as I did, the defenses I had put up between us, the categories that until then had helped me make sense of my life and his, these defenses began to crumble into something more like solidarity.
Posted by Justin Katz at 11:45 AM