Monday, October 14, 2019

Signs of the Times

I saw the work of one sign painter everywhere in the little town of Milford, Ohio, when I was growing up in the 1960s. It was as if the whole town was his client. I don't know what happened to him. And yet, when I visit about once every other year now -- none of the family lives there anymore, and the home was sold several years ago -- I see the remnant of the unknown sign painter, amidst the growing number of antique stores, gourmet restaurants, and ... of all things, microbreweries!

I was finishing high school in 1973, when Dad took me to "Commercial Square," a side street in downtown Cincinnati with a row of old factory warehouse buildings (since razed for what is now the Procter and Gamble headquarters) to visit what he called "a dying art." There, a couple of men ran a sign-painting business. Dad knew I aspired to go to college, but he didn't believe in accumulating massive debts and living on credit. (In fact, he never owned a credit card in his entire life.) If I could find a profession that didn't require a college education, so much the better. I viewed their work with some interest, but little enthusiasm.

I went on to complete my graphic design studies at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1978. Looking through old magazines and art manuals, I had a brief flirtation with calligraphy and hand-painted lettering. In the early 1980s, I did calligraphy for special occasions; family, parish, that sort of thing. I left it behind completely once the computer came to our office, and "desktop publishing" was the next big thing.

I came across a 2017 article in Monocle just recently ...

From traditional calligraphy to rare gold-leaf techniques, hand-worked lettering is back in demand. Monocle Films meets three sign painters whose eye-catching signs lend character to cities - and help businesses stand out.

... and I remembered that brief page of my history. Part of the trend may be a reaction to our slavery to technology, as if to lend credence to Newton's Law. Whatever is ancient is new again.

The total cost of my college education, culminating in 1978, has been estimated at around ten thousand dollars. I managed to recover that cost in short order.

And so it goes.
 

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Transfiguration

He said, write down the vision that you had,
and I wrote what I saw.

I saw the world kissing its own darkness.

It happened thus: I rose to meet the sunrise
and suddenly over the hill a horde appeared
dragging a huge tarpaulin.
They covered unwary land and hapless city
and all sweet water and fields.
And there was no sunrise.

I strained my eyes for a path and there was no path.
I bumped into trees and the bushes hissed at me,
and the long-armed brambles cried in a strident voice:
never through here!
But I struggled on, fumbling my beads of no.

I came to a dark city where nobody knew
that there was darkness.
And strange! though there was no light I still could see
what I did not want to see:
people who moved to the loveless embrace of folly.
They ate her gourmet foods; they drank her wine,
danced to her music that was crazed with rhythm,
were themselves discord though they knew it not,
or if they knew, cared less.

Outside the city wall, I stood in thought,
parried a moment with a frightening urge
to court the darkness;
but I held back, fearing the face of love.

Crossing a field I wandered through a desert
when suddenly behind a rock I found
a little sagebrush where a fire was burning,
shining and dancing. After my first amazed
worship of silence I was loud with praise.

I watched with fear the darkness circling it.
lunging against it, swirling a black cloak
to suffocate the light,
until the shades broke loose and one by one
in terror fled.

The flame burned on, innocent, unimperiled.
There was no darkness that could put it out.

-- Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD

Image above by James B Janknegt, used here without permission or shame.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Ten Years After

The Kopechne family has never commented publicly on the incident.

After the Eagle Landed

PHOTO: Neil Armstrong: Eagle Scout, Astronaut, Famous Guy. I met him. Twice.

Fifty years ago today, a man set foot on a celestial body other than this one for the first time, ever. The choice for this honor was made for a reason, and this writer gained some insight into the man on two occasions.

That's right, I met Neil Armstrong, twice.

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It was a Saturday afternoon in January of 1972, at the Emery Theater in downtown Cincinnati, when the Dan Beard Council Eagle Scout Class of 1971 gathered to be recognized en masse. Mom and I were sitting right behind a brother Eagle, the boy who grew up to be local TV news broadcaster Rob Braun. No, he wasn't famous back then, but his dad, Bob Braun, had already cleared a path in the local entertainment industry, as a show host and pop recording artist.

But, I digress.

VIDEO: Rob Braun: Eagle Scout, Local Newscaster, Semi-Famous Guy. I sat behind him. Once.

The keynote speaker was another brother Eagle, in the person of Neil Armstrong, of Troop 14, Wapakoneta, Ohio (one of the last towns in the Midwest where you could make a phone call for a nickel and not yet a dime. But again, I digress). Before it was over, we all got to go up there, get a certificate, and shake his hand, when I said something stupid like "Gee, I'm all shook up." He appeared to be amused.

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We would meet again.

By that time, Armstrong had recently accepted a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He accepted this offer over that of his own alma mater, Purdue, because UC had a small aerospace department. He was immediately given full professorship, in spite of having only a masters degree from the University of Southern California. The College of Engineering was next door to the very different College of Design, Architecture, and Art, where in 1973, I had begun my first year as a graphic design major. In the spring quarter of 1974, the Design Fundamentals class broke up into small groups for a kite design project, but not before our instructor, Ms Gwen Wagner, invited Professor Armstrong to traverse into yet another world, to give us a crash course in aerodynamics as related to kite flying.

PHOTO: The UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. It didn't look this weird back then.

If that sounds hard to believe, Armstrong would have been the first to agree with you. He was undoubtedly chosen as the first to set foot on the moon because, among other reasons, he was as understated a man as you could ever meet. Being world-famous had little effect on his demeanor, but explaining the principles of flight to a group of hippie artist types did manage to overwhelm him a bit. But he kept his head, and took it seriously, as seriously as such an unrealistic scenario could allow while drawing diagrams on a chalkboard.

That was the spring of the big tornado preceded by hailstones as big as baseballs. That was the kite design group where everybody in the group said later that I was completely useless, and in the years that followed, all but the most vehemently dismissive among them had dropped out of the program.

In the years that followed, and much closer to the present, I met two other famous Eagle Scouts, both of whom were nominated for cabinet positions in Washington at the start of 2017, and I was detailed to the Presidential Transition as a photographer. (That's another story for another day.) But the first of them was a man who preferred obscurity, and was chosen for greatness, in spite of it, perhaps because of it.

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VIDEO: Jonathan King appears on the UK's "Top Of The Pops" show in 1965 to sing "Everyone's Gone To The Moon." The show's host needed a haircut more than this guy.

Admit it, you thought I was going to talk about watching the moon walk on television, right? Well, of course I did, like everybody else. A local radio station, WSAI-AM, then at 1360kHz, spent the evening of the landing playing pop songs that mentioned the moon. It felt as if the whole world would never be the same again after one of us stepped beyond it.

And so it goes.
 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Lady in Brown

It was the spring of 1965, when the third- and fourth-graders at St Andrew's School were assembled in the parish church, having received the Sacrament of Confirmation several months before. Each of us was ceremoniously given two small pieces of brown wool with little images on them, connected by two lengths of brown rope, to be hung around the our necks.

It was what Catholics would refer to as an "Enrollment in the Brown Scapular."

Our Lady of Carmel by Pietro Novelli, 1641Today, the western Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is one of the most popular feasts in honor of the Blessed Mother, if only for its association with the Brown Scapular.

In its original form, a "scapular" is a tunic-like garment worn over the habit of male or female members of religious orders. In its more popular form, it is two small pieces of cloth connected by two cords, worn over the neck.

The so-called “Brown Scapular” identified with the Carmelite Order and their traditional brown apparel, originated in the appearance of the Blessed Mother to Saint Simon Stock in 1251. She is said to have told him, upon granting him the Scapular:

“Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.”

Of course, this does not make the Brown Scapular some sort of magic talisman, which would amount to superstition, and thus objectively sinful in practice. The "Sabbatine Privilege" associated with wearing the Brown Scapular requires that the person: 1) Wear the Brown Scapular continuously, 2) Observe chastity according to one’s state in life (married/single/whatever), 3) Recite daily the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, OR observe the fasts of the Church together with abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, OR with permission of a priest, say five decades of Our Lady’s Most Holy Rosary OR With permission of a priest, substitute some other good work.

Pope Benedict XV also said you could knock 500 days off Purgatory if you kissed it, devoutly (if you're into that sort of thing).

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Also popular (and arguably more common) is the wearing of the "scapular medal." This is a small medal worn in lieu of the Brown Scapular, although not really a replacement. The minimum requirements, laid down by Pope Saint Pius X in 1910, is that the medal must "show the image of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Jesus Christ, showing His Sacred Heart, and the obverse that of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary." Most of them have a rather common appearance, but yours truly found a remarkably uncommon choice on eBay, and wears it faithfully.

The devotion remains popular today, as a new generation of Catholics discover tradition. One can spot a Catholic "kickin' it old skool" from across a crowded room, bearing the telltale sign around their neck that peers out from underneath the neckline of their clothing. More information about the Brown Scapular, the devotion attached to it, and the ceremony for its reception (which is how yours truly got his as a fourth grader in the spring of 1965) can be found here.

Of course, once you are enrolled, you don't have to enroll again, nor does your Scapular have to be blessed. This writer started wearing his again only recently, and didn't have to do anything once it was worn. (See above.)

Devotion to this title of Our Lady takes other forms in Italian communities throughout North America. Most notable is the annual patronal celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a 125-year-old parish located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Every year at this time, a giant tower topped by an image of Saint Paulinus of Nola is carried aloft in procession on a giant platform, accompanied by a brass band. For the boys of the parish who participate in carrying the statue, this event symbolizes a manly rite of passage.

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Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Catholic world, we remember Saint Marie-Madeleine (baptismal name Julie) Postel, born in France in 1756. Entering into religious life under Franciscan rule, she went on to found the Sisters of Christian Schools. During the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror, not only did she hide fugative priests at the risk of her own life, but was charged with carrying the Holy Eucharist to others in hiding at the direction of her bishop. Such measures have long been common during times of persecution, and was the original intention of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, as opposed to ... well, you know.
 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

My Red Hat Moment

So the President goes to France, and he sees all those French tanks and various and sundry implements of destruction. Now, our President loves a good parade as much as the next man, and he thinks to himself: "Hey, I'm the Commander-in-Chief. Why can't we put on a dog-and-pony-show like this one back in the good old U S of A???" He's finding out the reason the hard way, as both sides of the controversy -- you know, the one about duplicating Bastille Day on the National Mall tonight -- might be making a mountain out of a molehill.

Yes, there is a possibility in theory of "politicizing" a non-political event. Those who command the military are rightly concerned about what is called "The Hatch Act." That is a statutory law that imposes limits on partisan political activity of those who work for the government. That includes the military. That also includes Presidential appointees while they're in office. And yes, that also includes the President. And it is an unusual expense, even for this occasion.

And given relatively short notice, not to mention a logistical nightmare in the last 48 hours.

But as much as the lamestream media would have you think otherwise, this isn't the first time a sitting President put on a big show on the National Mall on Independence Day. Nor is it the first time a sitting President put on the aforementioned big show while running for re-election. But to listen to them, you'd think it was another routine campaign stop on the taxpayer's dime.

In other words, they think you'll believe anything. Meanwhile, I came across this.

Thomas G West, senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, has noted that the theological significance of The Great Seal has been largely lost because of the common misconception that its symbols are rooted in Freemasonry.

Misonception? Hmmm, put THAT in your red hat and spin it around!
 

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Sometimes you feel like a nut ...

Today, the Christian world celebrates the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The Church of Rome reserves this day for ecumenical celebrations with the Eastern Orthodox, as a sign of hope for unity between East and West. In the reformed Roman calendar, it is recognized as a solemnity, and is a holyday of obligation in many countries (if not the United States). The traditional Roman calendar notes it as a double octave of the first class. In both cases, its celebration displaces that of the Sunday of the year.

In other words, it's definitely up there on the food chain. And speaking of food ...

The world of Catholic new media has plenty of meditations on this day. This writer prefers different approach:

At the train station in Naugatuck, Connecticut, candy and ice-cream shop owner Peter Paul Halajian used to meet the commuter trains carrying baskets full of fresh hand-made chocolates. The most popular of his candies was a blend of coconut, fruits, nuts, and chocolate that he called Konabar ...

Eventually Peter Paul merged with Cadbury, which later merged with Hershey. Not only is there a recipe for the Mounds and Almond Joy confections on the internet, but you can also bake a cake out of them, with recipes to be found here and here.

Personally, I can't think of a better way to celebrate this feast than to bake a cake out of something that says "Peter Paul," don't you think?

Or don't you?
 

Friday, June 28, 2019

In Corde Jesu

Today, Catholics of the Western tradition celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

Outside of devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is none more popular or more identified with the traditional piety of Catholic life than this feast, occurring on Friday of the week following the Feast of Corpus Christi. It was on that earlier feast when a Novena to the Sacred Heart would begin, culminating in the Mass and Office of today.

“Christ’s open side and the mystery of blood and water were meditated upon, and the Church was beheld issuing from the side of Jesus, as Eve came forth from the side of Adam. It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first unmistakable indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side, the wounded Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love.” (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia)

There were various monastic communities who took up the devotion since the eleventh century, but the real tip of the biretta has always gone to St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), a Visitation nun who had a vision. While praying before the Blessed Sacrament, she saw Our Lord with his heart beating openly, and the sight of it all sent her into a spell of ecstasy. “He disclosed to me the marvels of his Love and the inexplicable secrets of his Sacred Heart.” And so it was, with local approval, that the Feast itself was first officially celebrated in Rennes, France. This was followed by papal approval, with official texts for the Mass and Office, in Poland and Portugal. Its popularity spread across Europe. Then in 1856, Pope Pius IX established the Feast of the Sacred Heart as obligatory for the whole Church, to be celebrated on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi. The octave was suppressed during the 1955 calendar reforms of Pope Pius XII, along with most existing octaves*, and yet the novena that precedes this feast is rising in popularity among traditional Catholics in the West.

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But perhaps the finest explanation of this vision can be found in an episode of The X-Files, a detective series that ran on The Fox Network for nine years, and to this day has a formidable cult following. It is from the series' sixth season and is entitled "Milagro" (6X18), originally airing on April 18, 1999. In the story, there are people murdered with their hearts mysteriously removed by hand. FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) visits a Catholic church, and coming across the image of the Sacred Heart, she runs into this unsavory fellow who explains the story behind the image to her. A piece of the dialogue, from the mysterious writer named Philip Padgett (John Hawkes), describes a vision:

I often come here to look at this painting. It’s called “My Divine Heart” after the miracle of Saint Margaret Mary. Do you know the story ... The revelation of the Sacred Heart? Christ came to Margaret Mary, his heart so inflamed with love that it was no longer able to contain its burning flames of charity. Margaret Mary ... so filled with divine love herself, asked the Lord to take her heart ... and so he did, placing it alongside his until it burned with the flames of his passion. Then he restored it to Margaret Mary, sealing her wound with the touch of his blessed hand.

His account portrays an almost sensuous quality to the Saint's reaction to this vision, in a way that one might rarely hear or read anywhere else. It is a sign that perhaps the influence of Christendom has not entirely faded from the popular culture, not to mention the realm of folk religion, with images created in tattoo parlors.

A common practice in many Catholic homes until the mid-20th century (including mine), was the "Enthronement of the Sacred Heart," in which the family placed the appropriate image of Christ on the wall, and together recited the necessary prayers, pledging the consecration of the family and the home to Him, in return for special graces. Fisheaters has a good explanation of the whole kit and caboodle, just in case it makes a comeback.

It could happen.

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* The suppression of most octaves in the liturgical calendar by Pius XII has recently become a matter of much debate, attributing it to an overzealous agenda within the Liturgical Movement. However, it may have also been the result of conflicts between at least some of those octaves, and commemorations of equal or greater rank occurring at the same time -- but, that's another story.