Friday, November 18, 2005

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Slate (yeah, I know, I reference it waay too much) takes on the question of "Why have Catholics stopped lining up at the confessional?" Being the lame, "only-here-for-the-good-schools" Catholic that I am, I think it's a very interesting question.

After a promising setup, the author almost flubs the answer entirely. He describes our modern confessional culture by noting such examples as the Jerry Springer Show, and also those anonymous confession websites. Huh? As if these niches have ANY relationship with the decline in the Catholic sacrament, especially since that decline was well established long before.

I have strong memories of the confessional experience from my childhood. I'd wait in line along with my classmates, watching each child disappear behind the heavy curtain then re-emerge a few minutes later. (Then of course, we'd crack jokes about how long it took them). I remember the little light bulbs above the confession booth which were activated by kneeling on the bench inside. They were designed so you could determine whether the booth was occupied, but they might as well have displayed lighted messages that showed the status of your soul: a red light saying "Sinner (Damned to Hell)" which would turn into a green light saying "Absolved (Ready for Heaven)". When it was your turn, you'd go in and kneel down, then wait for the priest to slide open that small wooden door near your face. But even then you couldn't see each other -- the opening was covered by a metal screen and a small white square of cloth. You'd whisper your list of sins through the screen, he'd whisper back your penance assignment and recite something to indicate that your sins were forgiven -- maybe the Latin equivalent of "Please pull forward to the next window"? Then the wooden door would slide shut again, completing the truly surreal and creepy experience.

That generation of Catholics, both kids and adults, still thought of the priest -- with his black robes, Latin incantations and solemn demeanor -- as the equivalent of a mystical shaman, able to repair your pitiful soul with just a few ancient words and a slight wave of the hand. But post-Vatican II, priests made the effort to become more approachable. The Latin went by the wayside. The black robes were replaced by black slacks. The rectory (i.e. priests' residence building) changed from a solemn, hushed place into a typical home office. Sermons became much friendlier: a lot less fire and brimstone and a lot more of how to follow Jesus's example in your daily life. Most churches started providing an alternative to the creepy confessional booths: face-to-face discussions, where the friendly, smiling priest sort of gives you the impression that your sins are really no big deal. Even the sacrament itself was renamed from "Confession" to "Reconciliation". Finally of course, the recent scandals provided substantial evidence that priests are just as flawed (sometimes seriously flawed) as anyone else.

The net result of all this is that many Catholics now think of their priest as less "shaman" and more "faith community leader". In this era, whispering to your local priest seems like an antiquated and ineffective way to free yourself from the stain of sin. A well-qualified therapist can do the same thing. And like the movie character referenced in the title of this entry, once you start thinking that he's pretty much just a regular guy aided by a few special effects, the value of his assistance becomes a lot less important.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Kansas City dreamin' on such a winter's day

NYTimes profiles several families who moved to the Kansas City area from California to escape the ridiculous housing prices. But the article neglects to mention the tremendous psychological damage caused by moving from a blue state to a red state. It's a tradeoff that's not for everyone.

Don't take my word for it

So, now that I've blogged about a comic strip, here's a comic strip about blogging. Know my cleverness!

Let's go exploring

I've been enjoying a daily dose of old Calvin and Hobbes strips via email from for a long time now. And my copy of the Tenth Anniversary Book is beginning to look pretty shabby from years of re-reading.

Now, in conjunction with the release of the hefty "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" book set, Slate provides an excellent overview titled "The last great newspaper comic strip" that does a good job of explaining what made C&H so special. (Be sure to click the slideshow link).

One of the things I love about the "Tenth Anniversary" book is the accompanying text from creator Bill Watterson. Not only does he discuss the stories behind some of the strips, but he provides fascinating explanations of his reasons for ending the strip and for not permitting any licensed products (other than book collections). He's also very candid about his frequent battles with his publisher Universal Press Syndicate -- it's surprising to read about these in a book that they themselves have published.

When the strip ended 10 years ago, Watterson disappeared from public view, making virtually no appearances and granting no interviews since then. (He did recently answer a few questions from fans as part of the promotion for the current book). Even his current city of residence is pretty much unknown. But it so happens that his publisher, now called Andrews McMeel, is headquartered in the same building as my employer. I know a couple of people who work there, and I often see them in the lunchroom, conducting meetings and treating visitors. So I've considered that perhaps one day I'll spot Mr. Watterson there. Sure it's an extremely slim possibility, but hey, it's a magical world.

Yahoo, TiVo team for Net recording

This is pretty freaking brilliant, and I'm probably saying that because I've had this very idea myself. It's perfect for when you're away from the house and learn about an upcoming "must see" show. Unfortunately it's available only for TiVo and not for the Time Warner DVR that I use, but with luck that'll change soon.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Superballs in San Francisco

The latest cool TV commercial, featuring 250,000 superballs. It's for a European line of Sony LCD televisions, so it may never be shown in the U.S. (Note that the hi-bandwidth version requires QuickTime version 7 to view -- the commercial site contains a link to download it if you don't already have it).