Tolstoy, or Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. Though 15 weeks is long past, the end is near, this being number 14 of 15.

I am not like other men (or at least, not like many that I know). I have just past my forty-second birthday, and just read Leo Tolstoy’s immense novel Anna Karenina, by personal choice—and I loved it. 

My friend Fr. Tyler (from the Prairie Father blog) recommended it to me as “the greatest love story ever born in the mind of man and put to paper.” He has never led me astray in terms of fiction, but other men might not see that as a recommendation. I mentioned to a friend a week or so ago that I was reading it, and asked if he had ever. He laughed and said, “Ah…no.”

“It’s a great book,” I said, and again he smiled: “I don’t doubt it.” And that was that.

It is a big book (736 pages in my edition, with narrow margins and smallish type), full of Russian names and nicknames—Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Lëvin, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Russian place names and politics, and Russian aristocrats who flavor their conversations with French and occasionally German. (Thank goodness for Google Translate!)

Despite these difficulties, I struggled to put it down. It manages to be an amazingly detailed portrait of time, place, and people, and yet remarkably universal and relevant to this time and place: 21st century America and even the 2016 election. It is heartbreakingly tragic, and incredible hopeful and uplifting. It is newly ranked among my favorite books of all time.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina:

  • Complexity of Characterization: Tolstoy sees his characters clearly and portrays them in all their complexity. Think of this: Anna is written as captivatingly beautiful; men and women alike can’t help but respond to her appearance and charm—and neither can you. This beauty could seem stereotypical or convenient for the sake of the story. It could be hammered away at like a one-note tune. But Anna is never simply beautiful.* She is captivating and tragic: people are drawn to her and repelled; her passions are apparent; her motives unknown even to herself. Tolstoy makes you love her and despair, much like her husband. And all of the characters are this way. Tolstoy is a keen observer of people: his descriptions are not of men, but of  intellectual men, simple men, dashing and pasty men, dandies and duds (sometimes within the same character).The worst have their qualities; the best have their faults. None are flawless, and so we believe in them.
  • The Art of Pacing: Tolstoy’s novel is peopled by people, and they live as we do, in time, lost in thought and out in the world. He details the lives, habits, thoughts and appearances of his characters and weaves together different story lines in a way that is simultaneous clear and keeps the reader wanting more. I had to fight the urge to flip forward when he jumped from one thread to another. As a writer, I realized in reading this that I rush everything: descriptions, details, day-to-day life. I leap from scene to scene, dialogue to dialogue, crisis to crisis—and only sketch the people involved. Tolstoy takes the time it takes. I could learn something here.
  • Religion and Culture. In March of 2011, I wrote of The Brother Karamazov, “Dostoevsky does not shy away from religion and philosophy, permitting his characters to speak at length (and in character, so not always clearly) about the existence of God, morality, humanity, science, psychology, justice, the state, and more. I was struck by how a book written circa 1880 could have so much to say about our world in 2011.” Replace Dostoevsky with Tolstoy and 2011 with 2016, and it applies here. I have been struck throughout this challenge by the fact that the true classics of literature capture the universal condition of humanity. They are not old, but timeless. It’s a pity that increasingly these books appear not to be read.
One final note: What I loved most about the book (but didn’t share as one of the Three Things, because it’s so personal to me) is that I saw myself in it. Anna’s story is obviously the focus, but the protagonist of the main parallel story, Konstantin Levin, is an idealistic, emotional man who wants to understand how the world works, but when he engages in society, in politics, it makes no sense. He drives himself to the brink by contemplating what it all means; he wants marriage and family and life in the country—and yet he struggles to enjoy these things with all the pressures he puts on his heart. 
The description of Levin before and during the birth of his first son brought me to tears. (I am not like most other men.) And finally, this:

I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

My list of 15 classics has changed somewhat over time; my next and final book will be much shorter: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Back soon!
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* I’m free-associating now: we recently watched an old Western on Netflix, The River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. God bless Monroe, but she is a kind cinematic shorthand. She does what’s required: sing, seduce, weep, laugh, but her role in the story is, as our elder daughter once characterized her job as a toddler, to sit here and look beautiful. Anna is not that. At all.

We’re Not Meant to Go It Alone

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
– John 20:19
Imagine yourself as a follower of Jesus before His crucifixion. Imagine the excitement of coming to know the Messiah intimately and waking up each morning in his company, anticipating the day and wondering what profound teaching or miraculous sign awaits.
Now imagine that this man, whom you loved and believed to be the savior of your people, ripped from your midst and publicly tried, punished, tortured, humiliated, and put to death like a common criminal. Imagine the fear: if the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders could do this to such a man as Jesus, what could they do to me, a poor sinner?
What would you do?

The disciples chose, as many of us would, to keep a low profile—to remain out of sight behind locked doors. But they remained together. That’s curious.  Certainly a group of Galileans and the executed man’s mother all gathered together in one place did not escape the notice of their neighbors. Wouldn’t it have been sensible to disperse until the scandal blows over – to each return home, if only for a little while?
We are not meant to go it alone. We follow Christ to whatever end awaits us in communion with all believers, and we are meant to grow in faith, hope, and love; to face joy and suffering; to live and die; together as members of the Body of Christ here on earth. Only with the support of like-minded Christians can we find the courage and perseverance to pour out our blood, sweat, and tears for those who do not yet know God or His Church. This is yet another reason why our approach to faith formation and the sacraments here at St. Michael is family- and community-based.
In her book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute identifies five “thresholds” that people pass through on their way to full-fledged Christian discipleship. The first of these thresholds is trust. Put simply, the first step toward conversion is finding a disciple with whom you can relate: a “known Catholic” whom you can talk to, relate to, or admire – or even just a Catholic who seems normal. Believe it or not, you begin to evangelize just by being Catholic and available to the people around you!
And while many people have said that once you leave the church, you’re in mission territory, I would argue that we’re in mission territory even in the pews! So many of your friends, neighbors, and family members – including me – fall short of intentional discipleship and need help. To that end, LIFT this year will include ice-breaker activities and some less-structured small-group time in order to help parish families get to know each other better. 

This social time is just as important as the more structured classroom time, because these are the interactions that shape how we follow Christ, individually and as a community. As we get to know each other, we begin to ask about each other’s families, share each other’s concerns, and pray for each other’s needs—and Christ Himself passes through our midst, filling us with grace and the Holy Spirit, and sharing with us His peace.

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Sept. 27, parish bulletin.

Are We There Yet?

Gabe, napping in the minivan…

Back in my newspaper days, I wrote a column each Tuesday called “Almost There.” My bride and I were young parents of two preschool boys at that time, so “Almost there!” was a constant refrain wherever we went. But the name also captured the sense that we were on the verge of putting it all together—of making sense of marriage and family life, and of my newfound faith and fledgling career as a writer.

That was more than 15 years ago, and that sense has never left. The novelty of feeling so close to understanding wore off years ago, however—as a result, I am prone to asking our Lord like the spiritual child that I am: “Are we there yet?”

The answer, invariably, is no.

This world so loves achievement that we have turned even baseline accomplishments like participation and attendance into certificates and celebrations. In what other facet of life besides our faith do we commit ourselves to weekly participation, devotion, and study, year after year, and discover that we have done only what is expected of us?

We long for recognition of our efforts, and this longing even skews our perception of the sacraments. As children and as parents, we are pleased with having made it to Mass or Confession, but sometimes forget that these are not ends in themselves, but means by which we conform ourselves to Christ and reorient ourselves toward Heaven. We treat both Confirmation and Marriage as the culmination of work already done rather than the beginning of something new. The certificates we receive look for all the world like diplomas, when in fact they are birth certificates!

The path to Heaven leads out of this world, and among those born into humanity, only Jesus knows the path in its entirety—so we have no choice but to follow Him and go where He leads. Since we cannot know the path ourselves, the only way we can help others get to Heaven is to teach them to follow Christ who said, “I am the Way.”

Road trip!

How does one follow Christ? St. John of the Cross writes, “God carries each person along a different road, so that you will scarcely find two people following the same route in even half of their journey to God.” As a result, we need to teach others where to find God and how to engage Him—in the Church; through scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. And we need to do this as a community. Why? Since there are as many paths to sanctity as there are unique persons, each of us will resonate with others in ways that no one else can. Somewhere in this parish, someone needs your example!

Fr. Robert Barron shares a story of Jewish academic and Catholic convert Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who before her conversion went into a cathedral to admire the architecture and saw a woman still laden from her day’s shopping, kneeling and rapt in silent prayer. This simple act of devotion struck the future saint profoundly, advancing her on the path toward holiness and heaven. Who knows what saints we will help to create simply by showing up each week to bend our knees in prayer and worship?

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, June 14, church bulletin.

On the Verge: Local Band Pabulum Shakes the Shed With Eclectic Mix of Rock and Humor

Set List:
Are You Ready? – Pabulum
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
Luminous – Luke Eicher
Apologize – OneRepublic
I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
Tribute – Tenacious D
Fun-Size Love – Pabulum
Valley of Lights – Pabulum
Verbigeration – Pabulum

Who: Pabulum with special guest Luke Eicher (all ages show)
When: Saturday, May 16, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Where: The Shed in St. Michael

It’s a rare treat for a rock reviewer (or a rocker’s parent) to get in on the ground floor of a band’s rise to stardom, but that was the vibe at The Shed last night, where rock trio Pabulum and guest pianist Luke Eicher played their first-ever show. Local promoter Abigail Herbst took a chance on the new band to close Catholic Prom, a do-it-yourself formal dance for the youth St. Michael and St. Albert parishes and their friends hosted by the Eicher clan. The result? A rough and ready glimpse of young rockers in the making.

Although the three founding members of the trio aren’t related by blood, Pabulum is very much a family affair: cymbal-smashing drummer, accordian player, guitarist, and vocalist Joe Eicher is brother to part-time contributor and classically trained pianist and singer Luke Eicher; and laconic bassist Brendan Thorp’s bowler-hatted and bow-tied brother Gabe is the band’s stage manager, tech, and jack-of-all-trades. The band’s primary front man and lead guitarist Jeff Geiger is their brother-from-another-mother, setting the tone for the group by alternating freely between aspiring rock god and manic musical comic.

The band changes configurations between songs.

In fact, that dual identity pervades Pabulum’s music, their influences, and even their name. Webster offers two opposing definitions for pabulum: “intellectual sustenance” or “something that is insipid, simplistic, or bland.” The band enjoys the irony, and their set Saturday included radio- and  chick-friendly pop songs as well as classic rock tunes and their own unique sound. The band opened with the surging “Are You Ready?”, which ends abruptly just as the crowd swells to a fever pitch — the laughter showing that the band and their fans share a special brand of humor. A raw stomp through The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” kicked off and held together by Brendan’s deft bass work, was followed by a soulful rendition of “Simple Man.” (“By Lynyrd Skynyrd, covered by Shinedown, perfected by Pabulum,” Joe told the crowd). A cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” with the Eicher brothers harmonizing on vocals elicited a chorus of “Awwws” from all the ladies in The Shed (including the moms, I think), then Luke’s original piano-and-vocals composition “Luminous” brought the house to a hush, his voice and keyboard work highlighted only by accents from the rhythm section.

The crew…

So rapt was the audience that they didn’t notice Joe, who had gone out into the wet night to retrieve his accordion, which he played through the crowd and back to the stage to lead a cover of OneRepublic’s “Apologize.” The song reached its climax with Jeff leaping from a chair to match Joe solo for solo with his gleaming Strat and Joe’s accordion. The battling front men made amends moments later, combining voices and acoustic guitars on Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” (Jeff’s scatting was one of several humorous highlights of the evening.)

But Pabulum really hit its stride beginning with the cover of a band favorite, the epic rock-comedy masterpiece from Tenacious D, “Tribute.” Brendan set aside his bass to tell the tale of the band’s confrontation with a shiny demon who demanded they “play the best song in the world, or I’ll eat your soul.” They succeeded, of course, crushing the demon utterly — but they have no recollection of the song and are powerless to repeat it. What was essentially a hard-rock in-joke signaled a shifting of gears to three original pieces showing the depth and diversity of the band’s musical interests. The first, “Fun-Size Love,” dedicated to 6′ 2″ Brendan and his diminiutive girlfriend Olivia, was two parts ’80s power ballad; one part heartfelt ribbing among friends who share an affection for miniature candy bars and “short” jokes. (Best line: “I got to know you/It didn’t take much time.”) The second was the show-stopping “Valley of Lights,” a prehistoric slab of psychedelic blues rock penned by Jeff and propelled by Brendan’s huge, brontosaurus bass — showing the bands love of the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s and calling to mind Led Zeppelin, the early days of The Black Keys,  and Jack White’s post-Stripes projects, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. They closed the set with “Verbigeration,” a rousing blast of punk-piano-rock (or something like that), with Jeff’s rapid-fire rapping about Culver’s cheese curds and his emotions at the death of Jabba the Hutt in Jedi — Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys over a mellow-yellow summertime groove. It was classic Pabulum: smart, funny, energetic, and totally rocking.

According to Pabulum’s management, they are booking now for grad parties this summer. Email them at pabulumrocks@gmail.com, and catch them while you can — definitely worth the price of admission!

How the Baby of the Family Celebrates

“I’m three now!”

 On Monday, our monsterpiece turned three. Strangely, the fact that, for one special day, the world revolved around her seemed very much like any other day, except that she also got to choose what we had for dinner. Baked mac-and-cheese and meatloaf was the order. (Actually, Double Beetloaf, a tongue-in-cheek name for a family favorite recipe from Jodi’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, Tally.) And a castle cake, with pink frosting and multicolor sprinkles.

She just uncovered her new gift.

Her gift has been hiding in our shed since late last summer: a toy kitchen, complete with cookware and play food, picked up at a garage sale down the street. She’s been cooking vegetable-donut soup, making coffee with baked beans and green beans, and making giant cups of tea topped in strawberry ice cream ever since.

No real veggies could ever compare!

Based on these recipes, she will not be catering her birthday party this weekend, which she somehow convinced everyone she was having by talking about it for the past month as if it were a reality. She has invited two girls roughly her age from daycare, one preschool-age neighbor girl, plus Emma’s middle-school friends Ella, Emma, Paige, and Olivia; and Brendan’s and Gabe’s high-school friends Olivia, Joe, Jeff, Justin, and Joey.

“Excuse me…I need to take this.”

See, they’re her friends, too. She knows them. She talks to them. She claims them. And I think most of them are coming, because when Lily beckons, it’s what you do.

“She so cute!” Jeff’s and Joe’s parents gushed at Brendan’s wrestling meet tonight.

Oh, no, I thought. She’s got you, too.

Happy birthday, dearest monster!