There was no 29 February 1998. Not only do I get a day of from writing my travelog, but I get to ponder the fascinating fact that there was no ten years ago today. Nor was there a year ago today. The mind boggles.
Happy Leap Day!
This is basically another post in my series of how I’m feeling old. 25 years ago today, CBS broadcast the last episode of M*A*S*H: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” I remember watching this with my family in my mother’s room. We were not alone as this is still one of the highest-ranked television programs of all time. It’s even spawned a great urban legend about how everyone waited until the end of the show to use the toilet thus wreaking havoc with municipal sewage systems across the nation. Granted the show had not been up to par it’s last few seasons, but the finale was a classic sendoff.
M*A*S*H was one of my favorite tv shows growing up, mainly in syndication when it was shown in a two-episode block from 7-8 pm every weeknight. I probably saw every episode at some point. I’ve been watching the show on DVD lately (all of the first, third, and fourth seasons) and I’m amazed how well it holds up over time. It’s a good mix of satire and slapstick and I really like that the DVD lets me shut off the laugh track. I’m also impressed by things like camera angles and story structure that I didn’t really notice as a kid. The cast changes were also a benefit to the show. In fact, I think the show “jumped the shark” so to speak after Radar’s departure partly because it was the only time they didn’t replace a departing member of the cast with a new character.
A lot of jokes are made about how M*A*S*H lasted far longer than the Korean War. But if you consider one episode for each day of the war, 251 episodes is a lot less than three years. In fact if you watch all the episodes back to back, it would take just about five days. Of course, most episodes take place over several days, but even then each episode represents less than a week of the actual war.
The Korean War actually still hasn’t ended, which is kind of sad. I’d rather have a long tv series and a short war.
After exhausting myself the previous day, I started of 28 February 1998 rather slowly. I did some laundry even though I would be returning home in a couple of days because I wanted to have something nice to wear to the theatre. After checking my email at an internet cafe and taking care of some other housekeeping, I went to Leicester Square and purchased tickets for two shows: a 5 pm matinée of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap followed immediately by J.B. Priestely’s An Inspector Calls.
I had time in the afternoon for one museum and I narrowed it down to The Tate Gallery (which was just one museum at the time) or The British Museum. The Tate won a coin-flip, but I allowed history and prestige to reverse my decision (it was also closer to the theatre district). On the downside The British Museum was undergoing heavy renovation, a rude clerk in the shop falsely accused me of stealing, and after a while I got really tired of looking at lots of broken statues. But the British Museum has a lot going for it. I saw pieces of the Parthenon, items from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and the well-preserved corpse of the Lindow Man. I also had to hold myself back when I saw people touching the Rosetta Stone!!!! I mean its the most awesome relic in the world and stupid people were just rubbing their grubby fingers on it.
Back in Leceister Square, I took in some busker performances. One juggler was looking for volunteers from the audience and since I’d read that public humiliation was a good way to meet people, I stepped up. Basically, his act was to tie one leg behind his back clamber up on top of a suitcase balanced on a stool and juggle. My job was to hold the suitcase and act as the ladder for his one-legged climb up, something he told the audience would be very painful for me. The act went off without a hitch, and afterwards two gals from North Carolina congratulated me on my busking debut. That was about it though. I told them I was going to see The Mousetrap, they told me they were going to see Shopping and Fucking, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation.
The Mousetrap is kind of a silly play, but since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York (The Fantasticks), I figured I had to see the world’s longest-running play period. I was at performance number 18838. An Inspector Calls was more of a social commentary than a thriller, and one of the leading women looked strikingly like my friend Krista (unfortunately this was the understudy so I have no idea who the actress is or if Krista was moonlighting). Oddly, both plays have a person pretending to be a police inspector as an important plot device.
The busking juggler in Leceister Square who gave me a supporting role (literally) in his act.
How Big Is Your God? The Freedom to Experience the Divine (2007) by Paul Coutinho, SJ is a book about relationships, specifically the relationship each one of us has with God. Coutinho is an Indian-born priest, his worldview greatly influenced by Eastern religions and mysticism. Yet, if that’s not your thing, don’t let it keep you away. Coutinho’s message is purely Christian, that a God who loves us and wants a personal relationship with each one of us.
In a series of very short chapters/meditations, well-illustrated with stories and metaphors, Coutinho guides us toward that relationship. He also describes some of the roadblocks to experiencing divinity. Coutinho’s writing is full of questions and challenges and I think it would be worth rereading as each read would lead to different conclusions. In fact, I think everyone will come away with something different from this book just as each person experiences God in a different way.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
How often in my life do I compromise the values that are most precious to me in my relationship with God because I want to keep my boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. How often do I keep my mouth shut in church so I can protect the good opinion that people in my parish have of me, when I think and feel differently because of my relationship with God? How often do I remain silent in the face of injustice, when my relationship with God demands otherwise? — p. 70
The Good News that Jesus came to give us is freedom — not freedom from suffering, sickness and death, but freedom that we experience in suffering, in sickness, and in the face of death. — p. 78
If you want a relationship with God, you must make space in your life for the spiritual. In a church where I once served, we would call the last Sunday of the month “BAD Sunday.” What was BAD Sunday? It was Basement Attic Disposal Sunday — and it was wonderful. Everyone was invited to go into their basement and attic and bring something they found there to church. — p. 88
We are enslaved by people, places, and things that we do not fully enjoy. How do we free ourselves? By enjoying them. If you haven’t enjoyed something and you are attached to it, do not give it away yet. If you do, it will haunt you forever. You will think of it often, fret over it, crave it. The thought of it won’t leave you. The way to get rid of material things is by enjoying them, being grateful for them, and then giving them away: good-bye, gone. — p. 91
Change is not a miracle. Change doesn’t just happen. We have to make it happen. We have to work at it — but it is not always difficult. In fact, sometimes it is so easy that we don’t believe that it’s possible, we don’t believe that we can change. The Buddha is supposed to have said that change is as easy as flipping a coin to the other side. What I believe is that if you want change, you will change. — p. 145
Jesus said that if we believe, we can do the same things he did. In fact, Jesus assured us that if we believe, we do even greater things than he. — p. 158
It’s hard to believe that we’re already three weeks into Lent. Of course, Lent snuck up on me this year and I have confirmation (Father Lasch, for one) that it is unusually early. That is because Easter is a movable feast that occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first full day of Spring. While I’ve long known this formula and that it ties into the Hebrew calendar for determining Passover (The Last Supper was a Passover seder), I still don’t understand why Easter and Passover rarely coincide. Even if we use different calendars, the first day of Spring and the first full moon should be the same, no? I also don’t know what happens if the first day of Spring is Sunday and there’s a full moon.
Anyhow, Easter falls on March 23rd this year. According to Snopes.com, the earliest possible date for Easter is March 22nd which last happened in 1818 and will occur next in 2285. In other words, this is the earliest Easter any of us will see in our lifetimes. Spiff, huh?
Another interesting aspect of this unusually early Easter is the affect that Holy Week is having on other aspects of the liturgical calendar. From Whispers in the Loggia I learned that Annunciation day, usually March 25th, has been pushed forward to March 31st and St. Joseph’s Day is moved up from March 19th to March 15th. The biggest move is of St. Patrick’s Day from March 17th to March 14th. Rocco Palmo notes that several cities/dioceses are moving their St. Patrick’s Day celebration appropriately, although I expect if will have little effect on the secular celebration of the day.
I did wonder what would happen in New York where the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is organized by a Catholic fraternal organization who always march on March 17th except when that date falls on a Sunday. Apparently they’re going forward with the parade on the usual date even though it’s Holy Week. In Boston, where the parade is always on a Sunday, tradition will also be adhered to even though the means marching on Palm Sunday.
Well, this is all very fasting, but does nothing for my observance of Lent. Another day is coming up during Holy Week that no one can move. March 19th is the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. Jim Wallis sets out a Lenten call to repentance in observance of that anniversary. That’s the type of thing that will give me the proper perspective on the season.
After more than five weeks of travel, I finally hit the wall on 27 February 1998. Most people just get plain tuckered out when constantly on the go, but I had somehow managed to keep my energy and enthusiasm up to this point. Then London just knocked it out of me.
I returned to the Tower of London, intent on spending the better part of the day exploring. It is well worth the time, and while I was not to interested in the crown jewels, I did enjoy strolling along the walls, taking in the aura of history. In one tower there were historical reenactors dresss in medieval garb demonstrating swordplay. I also took a tour led by one of the excellent Yeoman Warders who are just brilliant fonts of knowledge. The ravens also fascinated me. They’re much bigger birds than I imagined when one sees them up close.
There were a number of school children visiting, all wearing their charming school uniforms. One group got a bit rowdy, and a Yeoman Warder chewed them out, ordering them to behave “like good little people.” I found this much amusing.
After leaving the tower, I found myself riding the Underground and wandering the streets of London rather aimlessly. I felt tired, sore, and really didn’t know what to do next. I just felt I should be doing something to enjoy London. Finally, I gave in to the obvious and returned to Earl’s Court where I slept for about seven hours. While I napped, women from all over Europe gathered in my dorm room and pretty much had a picnic. I didn’t care and they didn’t seem too concerned either.
Good Little People at the Tower of London.
View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from the Tower of London walls.
I crossed under the Channel again on 26 February 1998, arriving in London for the final leg of my journey. I checked into O’Callaghan’s Hostel in Earls Court, which was a dump, but a dump conveniently located near a tube stop and charging only £10 per night.
I indulged myself in hokum by paying a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It was fun to play make believe at 221B Baker Street and read letters that real live people have written to Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, like the Dublin Writer’s Museum, there’s just something about books that you can’t really get into in a museum. The real fun is in reading.
I passed by Madame Tussaud’s, and while I’d not planned to visit, I figured as long as I was there and there was no wait to get in, I may as well find out what all the fuss is about. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the alarmingly life-like waxworks and their clever arrangement in various galleries. I found it interesting to learn the history of Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution and the “how a wax dummy is made” exhibit. Unfortunately, after all the exhibits I ended up on The Spirit of London, a psychedelic carnival ride in a “black cab” through London history with animatronics, anachronisms, and alarming chronological jumps from the Great Fire to Carnaby Street in the 1960′s. It was so disturbingly hokey it soured the entire Madame Tussaud’s experience for me.
That evening I engaged in a much more historic tradition, The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. A small group of tourists are allowed to witness this simple and rather quiet performance each night. I liked how the Yeoman Warder described the 700-year old ceremony as the “longest-running show in London.” He also pointed out that it happened every night, even with Jack the Ripper prowling around nearby and during the Blitz. Photography is prohibited, but I found this website that has pictures and videos of the Ceremony of the Keys if you’d like to see what it’s like.
I finished off the evening with some food and people watching in the “centre city.”
How many lips have touched that pipe before I put it to my mouth?
Me and the Dalai Lama are real close. We go back 3 or 4 reincarnations.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) by A.J. Jacobs follows 12 months of raised secular, agnostic writer for Esquire attempting the ultimate in Biblical literalism. While it is an exercise in participatory journalism, Jacobs is also a spiritual seeker and offers great insight on faith and religion.
For about 2/3′s of his year he sticks with the Jewish scriptures, and then about four months tackling the New Testament (something even more challenging since it’s not part of his heritage). He follows every rule from the scripture, those listed in the Pentateuch as well as many other direct commandments in books such as Proverbs, creating a list of over 700 rules. He illustrates just how difficult it is to follow each and every one of them not to mention simply remembering them all.
Then there’s the question of figurative language as even among Fundamentalist believers there is a difference of opinion on whether a particular passage should be accepted literally. Jacobs points out that even Christ teases those who take his teachings literally.It should be noted that this book is also very funny, but not in a mocking or detached ironic way. Instead there’s the humor of Jacobs grappling with the more perplexing Biblical commandments and the situations they land him in.
I learned a lot from this book too. I found myself growing very fond of Jacobs and appreciating his humility, open-mindedness and wisdom. He’s given a great gift by conducting this experiment and writing so eloquently about it. I think whether you are religious or agnostic, conservative or liberal, there is something in this book for you. This will definitely be one of my ten favorite books read in 2008.
I’ve decided…that the Wikipedia and the Bible have a lot in common. Hardcore believers say that the Bible emerged from God’s oven like a fully baked cake….The alternative is called the documentary hypothesis. This says that the Bible has many, many authors and editors….The passages have been chopped and pieced together by various editors. In short, the hypothesis says that the Bible has evolved, like humans themselves. Like a Wikipedia entry. – p. 200
My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religion professor at Seton Hall University, told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Onely the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.” – p. 213
I always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentence about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I’m not used to talking like that. It’s so over the top. I’m used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn’t be insecure. He’s the ultimate being. Now I can sort of see why. It’s not for him. It’s for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain. – p. 220
Greenburg tells me, “Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It’s irresponsible. Anybody who says X, Y, and Z is in the Bible — it’s as if one says, ‘I have no role in evaluating this.’ The idea that we can work with God to evolve the Bible’s meaning — it’s a thrilling idea…He says that just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you give up your responsibility to choose. You have to grapple with the Bible. – p. 268
This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates…But the more important lesson is this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se…The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, buy maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. – p. 328
On Ash Wednesday, 25 Fevrier 1998, I started with a bit of memento mori by visiting Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. This “city of the dead” is the final resting place of numerous illuminaries such as Sarah Berndhart, Frederic Chopin, Jacque-Louis David, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, and Jim Morrison. It’s ghoulishy cool place to take a stroll. Year’s later I would read a great book called Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson in which all the people buried in Père-Lachaise are reincarnated as cats.
I returned to Norte Dame, this time to worship. The cathedral was quite crowded and a security guard valiantly tried to keep camera-toting tourists out of the choir. I had no idea how to tell him in French that I was here to pray, so I made a sign of the cross on my forehead, and he let me in with a smile. I received the actual ashes on my forehead a little later during a lovely Mass where I sat next to a French woman with an amazing singing voice. Not knowing the language, I really couldn’t sing myself.
On Wednesday, the Louvre Museum was open to 10 pm, and anyone arriving after 2 pm got in for reduced admission. I figured 8 hours was a good amount of time to take in the world’s greatest art museum so I joined the snake-like queue leading into Pei’s glass pyramid. The line was long but moved fast and soon I was inside and overwhelmed by choices. I bought an English-language guide for first time visitors that described and guided me to the 51 top masterworks in the collection. Following that took me about four hours and was well worth it to see all the famous art works I’d heard of (as well as many I never heard of but liked anyway).
On my own, I revisited some of the galleries more in-depth, mainly the collections of paintings. I was amused by the crowds gathered in front of Mona Lisa, all talking nonsense. I figured one could make a comical recording of tourists in front of Mona Lisa with witty bon mots like:
AMERICAN MAN: What makes it so famous?
AMERICAN WOMAN: Marketing!
After being around so many Australian travelers, I was amazed by how many fellow Americans were in Paris. Luckily I had my English-language guide so I could tell the woman from Michigan that David’s Le sacre de Napoléon depicts the Emperor’s coronation, not his sacrifice.
I admired a lot of art, but settled on the following three paintings as my favorites: La belle jardinière by Raphael (I especially like that John the Baptist wore a hairshirt as a baby), La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche, and the drool-worthy Woman with a Mirror by Titian. After a full day’s work looking at art, I was bleary-eyed and staggering through the gallery. I took the Metro back to the hotel and dreamt of curvy, curly-haired women with mirrors.
An “avenue” in the City of the Dead.
If you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, expect company.
Venus de Milo and Newport Otter enjoyed one another’s company because they both understand what life is like with stubby arms.