Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Somehow I neglected to publish this a few weeks back. Here you go!

This week's arts and culture piece begins like this:

In the early 1920s, Edna Brush Perkins, a Cleveland socialite, and her pal Charlotte decided to come to California.

“Charlotte and I knew the outdoors a little. Though we were middle-aged, mothers of families and deeply involved in the historic struggle for the vote, we sometimes looked at the sky.”

Gazing at a map, Edna saw “a great empty space just east of the Sierra Nevada Range and the San Bernardino Mountains vaguely designated as the Mojave Desert.”

“Was the desert just a white space like that?” she wondered. “The word had a mixed connotation; it suggested monotony, sterility, death — and also big open spaces, gold and blue sunsets, and fascination. We recollected that some author had written about the ‘terrible fascination’ of the desert. The white blank on the map looked very wild and lonely. We went to Los Angeles on the Santa Fe [Railroad] in order to see what it might contain.”

In those days, there was no paved road into the Mojave. And when they arrived in Los Angeles and aired their plan to explore it, they were met with discouragement on every side.

“Our friends drew a dismal picture of us sitting out in the sagebrush beside a disabled car and slowly starving to death. ‘You could not fix it,’ they said, ‘and what would you do?’ We suggested that we might wait until somebody came along. They assured us that nobody ever came along.”


Friday, May 19, 2017


Corita (center right) at Immaculate Heart College Mary’s Day celebration, 1964. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.

This week's arts and culture column is on renowned Catholic artist, Corita (formerly Sister Corita) Kent.

The piece begins like this:

The Center for Spiritual Renewal in Montecito was founded by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a community with an interesting history. Visiting there recently, I spotted a coffee-table book entitled “Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent.”

Anyone who grew up in the New Hampshire Seacoast-Boston area, as I did, knew Sister Corita from the huge Rainbow Swash design on the gas storage tank that was visible as you whizzed by on the Southeast Expressway.

I remembered her from my youth as a zany nun. She seemed old to me then, a somewhat quaint figure who’d managed to escape what I then viewed as the straitjacket of organized religion.

In fact, the Rainbow Swash was designed on the back end of a decades-long career that included innovative teaching and social activism, as well as art.

As independent curator Michael Duncan put it in his “Someday is Now” essay, “A unique contributor to Pop Art and the generator or an effective style of socially engaged art-making, [Corita] has been rediscovered by a new generation bred on Photoshop, grassroots activism, font-tweaking and DIY publishing.”


Monday, May 15, 2017



This week's arts and culture piece is on a wonderful gallery. It begins:

Smack in the midst of Venice’s über swank-hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard is a welcome oasis featuring nature and wildlife photography: The G2 Gallery.

Founded in 2008, the award-winning G2 “facilitates change by bringing attention to environmental issues through the persuasive power of photographic art.” All proceeds from its art sales are donated to environmental charities.

The gallery was founded and is run by Dan and Susan Gottlieb. Dan was trained as a lawyer, Susan as a nurse. Widely traveled, the couple has long been interested in environmental causes. In the 1980s, Susan began removing the garden from their home in Beverly Hills and installing a California native plant garden. (I learned of G2 while taking a class at Sun Valley’s Theodore Payne Foundation, a Southern California native plant mecca.)

Susan’s garden is now designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified Wildlife Habitat, and by the Xerces Society as a certified Pollinator Habitat. She has just published a book entitled “The Gottlieb Native Garden: A California Love Story.” You can take a virtual tour and learn how to visit at

So those are the folks behind this worthy cause.






Wednesday, May 10, 2017


LA's winter rains have brought an insane bounty of spring flowers. Pasadena is known for its roses to begin with, but they are outdoing themselves this year. You'll be driving along and see them cascading off walls, around fountains, over fences.

This "nothing special" stand, trellised along an ordinary office building, capture some of the there-for-the-taking magic.


More news: I've been doing scads of radio interviews and podcasts for my new book which I know you've bought, Holy Desperation.

Last weekend I gave a talk to the Orange County chapter of a Catholic women's organization called Magnificat. I didn't quite understand before meeting them that they are "charismatic" and speak in tongues! So that was a bit of a surprise. The audience was incredibly warm and welcoming I sold lots of books (a turn of events always dear to a writer's heart). And they very generously gave me a hotel room the night before in the hotel where the talk took place. Which was Anaheim, CA.

Anaheim in case you've been asleep all your life ALL ABOUT Disneyland. Harbor Boulevard, the main drag, consists of blocks and blocks and traffic-clogged blocks of high-rise hotels, gas stations and chain restaurants. The Embassy Suites lobby was filled with shrieking, cell-phone clutching teenagers, the girls, to a person, in Mickey Mouse ears.

As soon as I settled in, I nabbed a coffee at the nearest Starbucks (you are never more than 200 yards from one in Anaheim) and set out for a brisk constitutional. Surely there is more to Anaheim than Harbor Boulevard was my thought. Indeed there is. Blocks and blocks and blocks of lower middLe-glass ranch houses, bungalows, pawn shops, liquor stores and gritty strip malls, where I gathered the vast horde of people who provide the labor needed to keep the Disney franchise and its offshoots rolling, live, weep and raise kids.

I saw some lovely old-school courtyards with hibiscus, blooming succulents, and more roses.

Back in my 14th-floor, unimpeded-view hotel room, I threw open the drapes, reclined on the gigantic bed, and basked in the sunset,


Today, safe home, I'm writing a piece about Servant of God Demetrius Gallitzen, "Apostle of the Alleghenies." Then I'll head to Rite-Aid for more Flonase, followed by the noon Mass at St. Philip.


Saturday, May 6, 2017


© 2017 Eames Office, LLC (

This week's arts and culture column is about the Charles and Ray Eames Foundation.

Here's how it begins:

Charles and Ray Eames, husband and wife, were one of the foremost design teams of the 20th century.

Charles’ background was in architecture. One of his first commissions was St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas (1934). Architectural Forum published a review, after which well-known Finnish architect Elliel Saarinen offered Eames a fellowship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he would eventually head the industrial design department.

That’s where Charles met Ray, whose background was in painting and color. They married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. The documentary “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” tells the story.

For years, 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice was the design team’s nerve center. Walking into the Eames Office, one former employee observed, was like walking into a circus: animation stands, photographs spread out on tables, models, a screening room, a woodshop, salt water tanks, all with the je ne sais quoi Eames patina.

The Eames didn’t hold with rigid rules. A design degree wasn’t necessary in order to work for them, but rather imagination, flexibility, intuition, the ability “to think and to see” — and a capacity for incredibly hard work.

“For them, these names like painter and architect, they weren’t job descriptions; they were ways of looking at the world.”

“Life was fun, was work, was fun, was life.”



Tuesday, May 2, 2017



Ha folks I am officially old now.

I turn 65 in July--I know it's hard to believe, I'm so mature--and I have applied for and been accepted to Medicare!

Adela from Kaiser is coming over TO MY APT. this afternoon, such is the individual attention, to pick up my app for Parts C and D or however it goes. I'm gonna get me a "Silver and Fit" card and will thus get "free" gym (for 20 bucks a month).

My only real ailment (besides tingly hands at night, intermittent skin conditions, and a chronically sore back) is hay fever, which right now in Southern Cal is rather a 24/7 problem. (Side note: I got a prescription for allergy eye drops with two refills and sometime between the time I picked up the first prescription and the time I called for a refill which was less than two weeks, my insurance (not Medicare yet) had decided they didn't cover it anymore. Weird, right?).

It's happening! I'm old and all I want to talk about is my "health problems."

I promise I won't bring them up again unless I come down with something really gross or otherwise interesting. But I do want to emphasize I am ALL, at this point, about being old. Bring on the "senior" discounts! Hold the door. Carry my packages. And give me some money.

Meanwhile I continue to dig up Bermuda grass in my "garden" and finally got a chance to go back to my beloved Lower Arroyo last week around the magic hour.

Here I became entranced by the mysterious beauty of sage, which is in its full glory right now. The heady fragrance is really required for full effect.  

But here are some pix.


Monday, April 24, 2017


Recently I stayed at the Joshua Tree cabin of my friend Lisa Marr for a three-day, self-designed residency.

This was my “Mission Statement”:

I chose my dates to coincide with the Triduum, in the Catholic church the three days preceding Easter: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter vigil that takes place Saturday night when Christ, in the tomb for three days, is resurrected.

To that end, I plan to spend my time in Joshua Tree reveling in nature, taking hikes, playing the piano, taking photographs and notes, working on an essay about my desert experience, and contemplating my death.

Paolo Davanzo, founder of the community storefront and resource known as the Echo Park Film Center, is Lisa’s life and creative partner. She walked in one day during the Center’s infancy and neither of them have ever looked back. They give free documentary film-making classes to the elderly and kids (I met them several years ago when I took their Intro to Documentary Film-making class myself).

They travel around the world showing people how to make movies about their neighborhoods and families and friends. They’re always learning something new: how to teach people how to film with Super 8; how to process film using native materials like, say, cranberry juice from Alaskan bogs; how to convert an old bus into a Filmmobile they drive to spots in and around LA for screenings and impromptu parties.

As Paolo says, “We never know who will walk into the Center: a kid on a skateboard, an older guy wanting to convert home movies to digital, a CalArts film theorist, a homeless woman wanting to use the bathroom.”

The day of my arrival, I drive out to Joshua Tree and meet the two of them at the downtown Two Sisters Café. Like all people of integrity, they dislike talking about or drawing attention to themselves. When I offer Lisa a donation to the Center for my time at the cabin, she demurs, “No, NO! That’s part of the deal. We don’t want to take money for the residencies. We just want people to feel free to create.”

After breakfast, I follow them out to the 5-acre property, which Lisa bought 17 years ago with a friend. The cabin, set high on a hill overlooking a bowl-shaped valley, has neither running water nor electricity and the idea of opening the place up for artist’s residencies is new. Together, Lisa and Paolo help me haul up my stuff and give me the grand tour. You put your food in a Coleman cooler, heat water on a two-burner propane stove “do your biz,” as Lisa charmingly puts it, in a spackling compound bucket set beneath a toilet seat in the outhouse—then dump it in the compost bin.

As soon as they drive off in their beat-up Honda, I unpack and set out for a walk, to explore. Dirt paths lead in every direction and treasures abound. Rocks in a variety of shapes and colors, from boulders down to pebbles. Pieces of desert driftwood that resemble human hands, devil’s claws, the squished head of a Jack Russell terrier. Chips of old colored glass, worn smooth by wind and sand. Desiccated cactus skeletons, shot through like Swiss cheese with holes. Fallen-in-on-themselves Joshua trees, their foliage like the corpses of gray fright wigs.

Within an hour I’m reflecting that the desert is full of contradictions.

A place of death where 30 or 40 kinds of wildflowers are in bloom.

A place of silence punctuated by noise: helicopters from the nearby military base, drunken revelers in gigantic pickup trucks, gunshots.

A place that draws people from two very different ends of the spectrum. At one end are those who view the desert as a place to despoil. People who tear up the earth and disturb the animals with dirt bikes, or dump their garbage, or put fences and barbed wire and guard dogs around their property in order to fortify what is “theirs.”

Then there are the Lisa and Paolos. People who don’t lock their doors even though the cabin was burgled several years ago and the thieves made off with, among other things, the indoor-mounted solar power controller. Instead of purchasing another solar controller and a dead bolt, they stocked the cabin with candles. As Lisa says cheerfully, “Seventeen years and one break-in: that’s pretty good.”

Instead of bringing extraneous stuff in to make the desert their own, Lisa and Paolo have built on what is already there. Out of painstakingly collected rocks, they have fashioned a labyrinth, a bocce court, and the stone floor of what they hope to eventually make into an open-air “Dream House,” for looking at the sky and dreaming.

A few years ago they invited some friends to help construct a pottery shed. Here they make bocce balls, wind chimes, little bowls to hold candles, cups in which to put wildflowers. On his hikes, Paolo leaves small bits of these colorful creations tucked among the rocks.

Now that I’ve started to get my bearings, I return to the cabin and explore inside, too. A green over-the-shoulder bag bearing an old-school paper tag with a Russian doll printed on one side and on the other the hand-printed message: “Good for collecting rocks.” Oil, vinegar, salt, honey, tea. Extra cans of soup and sardines. Sunscreen, Band-Aids. Extra sleeping bags, bedding and quilts.

A game of Yahtzee, decks of cards, a tambourine. The out-of-tune piano Lisa had promised.

A woodstove, kindling, and a bookshelf that include Sibley’s Bird Guide, Home Repair, Marvels of Insect Life by Edward Step, and a volume that especially catches my eye: Growing Up at the Desert Queen Ranch by Willis Keys and Art Kidwell.

The chapter “Johnny Lang’s Ranch Visit” features a photo, circa 1923, of a man who looks exactly like Jack Sprat in the Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature I’ve carried around since I was a kid.

“On a cold day in January,” the story runs, “the old miner in need of supplies tacked a sign to his cabin door that he was heading out and was expected to return ‘soon.’ Two months later his mummified remains were discovered amongst the desert brush by Bill Keys, Frank Kiler, and Jeff Peeden as they were constructing the Keys View Road in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. The body of Johnny Lang was still covered with a piece of canvas, while nearby the remains of a small piece of bacon wrapped in paper, and the ashes of a last campfire were silent witnesses to what happened that night. Lang’s advanced age [he was 72], his state of malnutrition, and a cold winter’s night combined to make this camping spot his final one.”


That night the wind howls. Pieces of stray plywood rattle. Doors thump.

After my second day of eating sardines, canned soup and mandarin oranges, I begin to feel for Johnny. The thought of that “small piece of bacon” makes my mouth water.


There are three elements in the desert. Fire. Water. Cell reception.

The rising of the sun, the tiny fire flaring from a candle wick, the blue flame of the two-burner propane stove, all elicit indescribable joy.

Every drop of water needs to be trucked in, hauled up the hill and rationed. How grateful I am for enough of this precious, life-giving substance to fill the kettle and make a cup of instant coffee with sweetened condensed milk!

“No Service” reads my phone but I quickly discover that by following the base of the low-lying hills to the northeast, within five minutes I emerge into the clear and suddenly have three bars of reception.

Here, I also discover a stone “chair,” a little sheltered ledge set into a stand of people-height rocks.



The morning of Holy Thursday I go out to the stone chair and have a phone interview with a radio show out of Texas.

That night I drive the dirt road back to the paved roads, Route 62 and, in the adjacent town of Yucca Valley, the 7 o’clock service at St. Mary of the Valley. Holy Thursday is the night before Christ died, the night of the Last Supper when he dips his morsel and points it at Judas. The night that Christ, knowing he’s be betrayed, girds his loins, kneels, and washes the feet of his disciples.

To the outsider, why bother? A suburban church, unprepossessing in every way. A harried priest. Ten parishioners who take the altar, sit in folding chairs, and have their pre-scrubbed feet “washed.” But to those who love Christ, this is the re-enactment of a gripping drama. A God who consented to become man reviled and scorned, as all people of integrity eventually are on this earth. A God of love who failed in every worldly sense, as all people of love do.

Driving the unlit desert roads back to the cabin around 10, I reflect that it would have been “easier” to stay home and observe Holy Week from the comfort of my apartment, near to my local parish. In two months, I’ll be 65. I’m in good shape, and take no medications, but my body aches. Scrabbling among the boulders, I’m not quite as sure of my footing as I used to be. At night, out here all alone, I’m a little afraid.

But in Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross, Caryll Houselander, lover of traumatized children and one of my most treasured spiritual companions, observes:

“It is the favorite accusation of those who, for reasons of their own, are made uneasy at the sight of someone else’s honest attempt to practice the Faith, that to save one’s own soul is a selfish, egocentric preoccupation which makes one introverted, censorious, and withdrawn from other people.

In reality the opposite is true. As Christ grows in the soul, suffering and the capacity for suffering increase in the life, and with it the desire to suffer grows. This is not because of any morbidity, such as masochism, but because where Christ increases, love increases”…

So more and more I see the value of consenting to some tiny bit of discomfort, of stretching physically and spiritually. You can’t plan for what might or might not happen. You have to let go and offer yourself up, knowing that while you’re stretching you don’t “feel” anything is happening except that you’re suffering, possibly needlessly and not all that graciously or patiently.

I need to participate with people like Lisa and Paolo, simply because of who they are: smart, kind, funny, generous of spirit, excited about life. There’s another reason. The single, celibate life, though not one I would have freely chosen, suits me perfectly. It’s been given to me as a gift and a mystery and a cross.

But two people together can create something that neither one could have created alone. That is the glory of marriage or any in-for-the-long-haul committed partnership. That glory spills over to all who come in contact with it. I find I like to spend a certain amount of time around people who are happily, fruitfully paired. I need that strength to sustain me.

My own life bears some of the same fruit a marriage would, and some different fruit. I hear through my writing from a variety of people. Because I’m available in a way a person with a partner and/or children perhaps couldn’t be, I’m able to respond, and make a conscious effort to respond, in a way that requires time, strength and heart.

I hear from many such people out here in the desert. A nurse from Montana who can’t stop drinking. A religious education teacher whose husband is addicted to porn. A woman from Wales who’s contemplating becoming a contemplative hermit. A retired priest whose ministry is visiting priests who have been convicted of sexual abuse in prison Another woman who’s been diagnosed with cancer and wonders if I could share some experience, strength and hope with respect to my own bout with cancer—and could I pray for her?

I can’t use my laptop but out on the stone chair with my phone, I answer my emails. This tiny discipline is part of what I call my policy of love. You get some exercise every day. You learn something useful. You do something kind that you won’t be recognized for. You notice and give thanks for what is beautiful. You practice a bit of piano.


Good Friday is a day of fasting.

I come out to the stone chair again that morning to pray the Stations of the Cross: the chart of Jesus’s long, tortured walk to Mt. Calvary. Christ Is Condemned to Death. Christ Meets his Mother. Veronica Wipes Christ’s Face With Her Veil. Christ Speaks to the Women. Christ Falls a Third Time.

On one level, really the only important level, I’m beyond thrilled and grateful simply to be alive. Deep down, I reside in a kind of perpetually stunned happiness

But on an incarnate level, I’m hungry and dirty.

I feel hollowed out, empty, devoid of ideas.

I do know this: to bring my body and blood to a place where the bodies of other people I admire and respect and love have been. If there’s one thing I believe in it’s the mystical order. That our little acts of kindness help. That our meager attempts at peace-making help. That our going the extra mile for and with each other register. That our songs and stories and films and pottery cups and dream houses literally hold the world together.

Tradition has it that Christ Was Nailed to the Cross around 9 in the morning. He didn't breathe his last till 3.

I raise my face to the sun. And with Lisa and Paolo’s tattered prayer flags flying in the wind on the surrounding hills, I contemplate my death.


A clip from Haydn's Piano Sonata No. 40.
I am not kidding, Take 75.

Monday, April 17, 2017



I was out in the desert at Joshua Tree last week without wifi, but here's how my arts and culture Holy Week piece begins:

Mary Ann O’Connor, 69, is a cradle Catholic and the oldest of seven children.

She was born in Santa Monica, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and trained on-site as a nurse at L.A. County-General — an experience that had “a huge impact.”

She worked bedside for 12 years, served two years in the military during the Vietnam War and then moved into management and hospital leadership. And for the last four years she has traveled to the L.A. Catholic Worker soup kitchen on Skid Row to wash and tend to the feet of the poor.

“You really can’t do something like this without a place like the Catholic Worker,” Mary Ann said. “If you tried to do it anywhere else, you would have formalities related to licensing and liability.

“But you walk into the soup kitchen at Gladys and 6th, the heart of Skid Row, and you are free to do the work, not as an expert, but responsibly, thoughtfully,” she added.

Karan Founds-Benton, the lead person and organizer of the foot care ministry at the Catholic Worker, has been Mary Ann’s teacher and mentor. “Through her, I came to love the work. I owe her so much,” she said.

By and large, people make a commitment to show up by signing up when they come to the kitchen for their Thursday noon meal. The foot washers usually start with a list of about 12 people, and they take walk-ins when they can. They work from 8 a.m. to noon every Friday.