Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Long live gravity

March 27, 2009

By Matthew Ralph

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary
some in the wrong direction
Practice resurrection”

When I heard these familiar lines of poetry recited in the opening moments of a play celebrating the farmer, author, poet and activist Wendell Berry on Thursday, I felt a chill come over me like I have seldom experienced watching a stage production.

Practice resurrection. Two words of the 1973 poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” that, repeated while a hammer dulcimer played softly in the background, nearly moved me to tears as I pondered the deep meaning behind a simple, yet insightful turn of a phrase.

The poetry of Wendell Berry is full of moving moments like that, times where a simple phrase, a humorous anecdote or an observation of the natural world triggers the so-called light bulb of our minds to ever so gracefully turn on.

Wild Blessings, a new play based on Berry’s poetic works, is billed as a celebration of a faithful steward, a friendly neighbor, a loving husband and a kind of modern day prophet claimed by environmentalists, literature enthusiasts, Christians and conservatives alike. But the 75-minute play is as much a celebration of the things Berry has inspired readers for decades to appreciate, enjoy and protect. 

Aided by the lurid sounds of a hammer dulcimer and the striking photographic and video images visible through a large wall resembling a bay window in the middle of the stage and an even larger screen behind it, the play features four actors – an older couple and a younger one – dramatically reading Berry’s words. The actors march in circles, dance, play violin, guitar and percussion and sing. The hammer dulcimer player also sings, but the music mostly provides the soothing backdrop for the words that indirectly weave (using only words from Berry’s pen) a narrative of a slightly mad farmer, out of place in the city who falls in love, returns to the fields, raises a family and fights to hold onto the simple, beautiful things in life like family, friends and God’s creation.

Following along, even for someone familiar with many of his works, was somewhat dizzying at times. Unlike reading the words on a page, the combination of stunning visuals, soothing music and dramatic acting gives little time for you to completely digest. Breaks in the action do occur and the topically connected transitions are generally well played (he titles of poems flash on the screen as the images change), but as the play inches intermission-less toward the finish it does make you wish you could hit pause or maybe rewind on a few of the scenes.

An outline in the playbook might have been helpful as a guide, but in the end Wild Blessings succeeds in maintaining a lot of the subtlety, humor and vivid description that make reading Wendell Berry’s poetry such an enriching and life-giving experience. It doesn’t tell you how to think or lecture about why mountain top removal, conspicuous consumption or infidelity should be avoided. It shows you what you are missing when you trade in natural beauty, elegance and grace for artificial comfort, perceived safety and reckless convenience.

In other words, it shows you what it means to practice resurrection.

Wild Blessings is appearing until April 26 at The Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Click HERE for more information.


Singing along

January 18, 2009

By Matthew Ralph

They sing so you don’t have to. That was the sarcastic response a friend of mine in college would belt out whenever he’d catch me singing along a little too loud or enthusiastically to the stereo.

He had a point, but that didn’t stop me then and doesn’t stop me now from singing along to my favorite songs. Heck, I even try to sing along to Sigur Ros sometimes when the mood is right. Most of the time I screw up the words to songs anyway so singing along with a guy who actually isn’t singing anything isn’t too much of a stretch for me.

My wife, of course, doesn’t always appreciate my singing. She often reminds me that she is aware of the song I have in my heart and that she appreciates it, just not all of the time.

I sing a lot during the day, usually from the moment the pop radio station wakes me up to the moment right before I go to sleep. It’s often something catchy and good like the refrain in Wilco’s “Impossible Germany,” or anyting on The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” album, but more often than not it’s the chorus of whatever Rod Stewart or Phil Collins song woke me up that morning. I’m really not particularly picky when it comes to the songs I sing during my day. I’ve been known to regularly belt out what I like to call growly-voiced Creed imitations I’ve heard on road trips when K-LOVE was the only station the car radio would pick up.

But as much as I love singing and don’t mind public embarassment on elevators or in grocery store aisles, I often hesitate to join the chorus of voices that are often singing along at rock shows. When I was in high school and wanted to separate myself from the other casual fans and people I considered posers I would mouth the words to the songs I knew to prove to those around me that I knew more than just the music video I had seen on 120 Minutes or the single that received regular rotation on Y100. When the crowd would go crazy singing along to “Cut Your Hair” at a Pavement show or “Sometimes Always” at a Jesus and Mary Chain show I would cross my arms and quiety judge everyone. They sing so you don’t have to, I would say to myself.

Now that I’m older and spend way less time going to see bands play I’m less sensitive about those who choose to sing along from the crowd. In fact, I often find myself enjoying the site of some stranger singing along more than I do watching some of the boring musicians I have seen over the years standing there mostly without any expression as they perform. One of my favorite and more memorable concert-going moments in recent years was at a Damien Jurado show watching a completely ecstatic guy from Sweden dancing and yelling the words to “Like Titanic” as a much more subdued Jurado sang from the stage at the Khyber Pass Pub in Philadelphia.

Just the other night, I was spellbound by a bearded man in the front row mouthing the words to Jamie Barnes’ “Harp of the Fool.” I had heard the song dozens of times before and even seen the Louisville singer/songwriter perform it on a couple of occasions. But as I watched this perfect stranger sing it and followed his intense facial expression as he mouthed the words “But the harder I fall the more that victory seems further away,” the song had a much richer and more meaningful connection. I’ve listened to the song a half dozen times since and I still get that guy’s face out of my head.

In that moment, it no longer mattered that I was standing way too close to the speaker and that the opening act played too long. I felt a connection to the performer, the song and the crowd around me that can’t be recreated in a digital download.

Maybe my friend was wrong, after all. Maybe they sing so you can too. And maybe when we sing along, we inspire others to let down their guard, to shed their fear of embarrassment or ridicule, forget the music review they are going to write on their blog later and tap into the power of redemptive art, creative passion and off-line community.

Photo by Michael Ralph

An anticlimactic ending, an endless debate

January 6, 2009

By Matthew Ralph

For the majority of college football fans who justifiably detest the BCS, there is sure to be continued protest long after the anticlimactic finish of the Division 1 college football season on Thursday night.

No matter what the outcome ends up being.

If Florida does what many think they will — Florida’s offense, Bradford winning the Heisman and the bulletin board material an OU d-back gave them on media day suggest this could be a likely scenario — the cries will come for 13-0 Utah and a one-loss Texas team that already beat Oklahoma in the regular season to get a share of the title.

If Oklahoma wins, the cries will be even louder for USC, the poor Pac-10 team supposedly the victim of east coast media elites who I guess were too enthralled by Rutgers and Connecticut to pay much attentino to USC’s winning another warm weather game in their backyard against a possibly overrated and long-rested Penn State team. 

The claims fans and UConn/Scarlet Knight-loving media elites in New York City will make will be all over the map.

They’ll point out that the Pac-10 was undefeated in pointless bowl games this year but they’ll shun any further analysis of match-ups and forget how little credit the Big East received for going undefeated in bowl games a couple years ago.

They’ll point out that Utah’s Mountan West conference went 8-2 against so-called real BCS conference teams in the mighty Pac-10 and SEC.

They’ll argue that Texas deserves the title because they beat Oklahoma in a so-called neutral venue in Texas and that a Texas Tech team that beat Texas didn’t have the same argument for a spot in the Big 12 championship because of how many touchdowns they lost to Oklahoma by.

They’ll argue that Oklahoma beat top 25 teams Florida, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, TCU and Missouri and that Texas beat only four (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Ohio State).

They’ll argue that Texas only beat a team USC blew out in the regular season by three without taking into account time off, match-ups or any of the other factors that make final scores largely irrelevant.

They’ll argue that teams in the Pac-10 and Big 10 should have to play a conference championship game like those in the SEC and Big 12. And that the Rose Bowl is a joke.

They’ll argue that Utah should have scheduled better non-conference opponents even though we all know that big schools only need to win their conference to be in the mix for a title and want nothing to do with talented mid-majors with an axe to grind.

They’ll argue that teams that start the season with zero chance to win a national title based on reputation and how a team looks on paper should be allowed to compete for a title elsewhere.

They’ll even argue, as’s King Kaufman has, that a case can be made for virtually any team — Tulane University was 2-10, but did beat Louisiana-Monroe, who beat Troy, who beat Middle Tennessee, who beat Maryland, who beat Mississippi, who beat Florida and Texas Tech, who beat Texas, who beat Oklahoma.

And so on.

For even the fans who get what they wanted in the end, the nonsense of how good the team you lost to was, what teams the teams you beat beat, what conference is better or worse, how a team would have faired without an untimely injury or two, whether or not a two touchdown win is a blowout kind of arguments will likely leave a bad taste.

I mean, does any legitimate fan really want their team to win by a technicality or have opponents foaming at the mouth for months even years about how their team that didn’t play in a conference championship game or play in the “title” were really the best team that year?

I still have mixed emotions about Kansas winning a basketball championship because of missed free throws and that was in a sensible college sport where the undisputed champ is decided on a court and not by computer, human votes and weird tie-breakers.

Debate in sports is inevitable, good for sportswriters and bloggers and even enjoyable to a point. But debating whether or not a team should be included in an eight-game playoff would be as memorable or important in the long run as the arguments over the field of 64 in college basketball once a team proves its worth winning three straight games against elite opponents to win an undisputed national championship.

Arguments for or against USC, Utah and Texas having a shot at a national title wouldn’t have much to stand on if a champion was decided where every other major college and pro sport decides it– on the field of play.

Photo by Michael Ralph

2008 in review: Matt Ralph’s best/worst

January 1, 2009

The Best

1. Honeymooning in Montreal. As unforgettable as my wedding was, spending a week in Montreal with my best friend was even more memorable. Chocolate croissants served at our door every morning, afternoon hikes, delectable meals and long walks around downtown and along the water at night. Not to mention, no computers, cell phones, work or other outside distractions for an entire week.  

2. Holding my niece for the first time. I have a really small family so the birth of my first niece/nephew and my parents’ first grandchild was a really big deal. Loudon Wainwright, Sigur Ros and Mojave 3 provided the soundtrack for this unforgettable moment in a Lexington, Ky., hospital in May.

3. Sherron Collins’ steal/three-point combo. Mario Chalmers’ shot will be remembered 100 years from now, but it was Sherron Collins’ acrobatic steal and subsequent three-pointer that gave Jayhawk fans everywhere hope, setting up Mario’s buzzer-beating, overtime-forcing shot for the ages.

4. The Wire. Access to HBO for the first time in my life during the first part of the year led to my prompt addiction to the final season of a show deserving of the endless praise lavished upon it over the last five years. I’ve since gotten my fix watching 30 additional hours of the show’s earlier episodes and read a significant chunk of The Corner before I ran out of renewals at my local library.

5. The Phillies winning it all. Mike Schmidt was still roaming the hot corner when I last considered the Philies a rooting interest (I was rooting for a Blue Jays win from the upper deck of the Vet in the ’93 series), but by the time the reality of the Cubs’ latest failure had sunk in I was excited to see the Fightins’ end that silly William Penn curse. Better the Phillies than the E-A-G-L-E-S and all of their annoying fans.

6. Finally finishing the book “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music” by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg. One of the best books about music I’ve ever encountered, this meticulously researched, insightful and heartbreaking book took me a while to get through, but it was well worth the time investment.  

7. Parking the car and riding the TARC bus instead. Rising gas prices convinced me that I needed to figure out my local bus system back in April. A September wind-storm wiped out one of our cars, but we didn’t even blink at being a one-car family thanks to the monthly bus pass I managed to get my work to subsidize in place of a parking space in a nearby garage. My bus riding also helped me win $200 in a TARC contest and read a lot of books that had been collecting dust on my shelves.

8. Turning 30 and going on a surprise scavenger hunt set up by my wife where I serenaded a TGI Friday’s hostess with the song “I Believe I Can Fly,” asked a couple of bikers to hug said wife and arm wrestled a guy who kept telling me the bottle he was carrying was filled with iced tea.

9. Slumdog Millionaire. I know the movie doesn’t completely hold up to critical analysis and that parts of it resemble a music video. I know it’s probably one of the most overrated and overhyped films of the year. I know the dance during the credits is hokey and that some of the graphic design of the promotional pieces is gawdy. I don’t care. I loved every minute watching what I would consider my most enjoyable cinematic experience of 2008 (Young @ Heart takes a close second).

10. Damien Jurado’s “Caught In Trees.” It wasn’t what I’d consider the best album of 2008 and it isn’t even Damien Jurado’s best album to date, but “Caught In Trees” received more rotation on my iPod than any of the other dozens of albums I purchased, downloaded or received in the mail in 2008.

The Worst

1. The presidential campaign. Simply put, the campaign brought out the worst in almost everyone involved either directly or indirectly…on both sides of the aisle. Inane conspiracy theory, anti-Muslim rhetoric and blatant racism from the right. Vile hatred, equally as ridiculous conspiracy theory and sexism on the left.

2. Libby Dole. Her campaign released an attack aid against her Sunday School teaching opponent trying to link her to an atheist group. Fortunately, the sleazy ad, which featured an off-camera voice yelling “there is no God” in the finale, back-fired.

3. Manny Ramirez. Though I’m still not sure what is more annoying, Manny Ramirez or the endless media coverage that has elevated Manny to the Britney Spears of baseball status. Fortunately, the Phillies put an abrupt end to the inane chattering and speculation of a possible Dodgers/Red Sox match-up.

4. Philadelphia sports fans. Whether it was booing vice presidential candidates or flipping over cars celebrating the end of a long championship drought, the bad apple Philadelphia fans gave some backing to the claim that the city of brotherly love has the worst fans west of New York City.

5. Kosuke Fukodome. “America, Fuk yeah,” was the way one clever Cubs fan put it when news spread of the Japananese star signing with the Cubs. His three-run, bottom-of-the-ninth homerun to tie the game on Opening Day only added to the endearingly clever word play, but unfortunately for Cubs fans that was the highlight of an otherwise frustrating and annoying rookie season.

6. Hallelujah. Just when you thought one of the most covered songs of our time couldn’t get any more ubiquitous, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was featured on the British reality show X-Factor. The song has topped the UK charts and propelled Cohen’s original and Jeff Buckley’s rendition into UK’s top 40.

7. Astroland closing. Another thing that made Coney Island a colorful, kitschy tourist attraction has apparently bit the dust. Astroland closed its doors supposedly for the final time in September, but fortunately landmark wood coaster The Cyclone is going to be sticking around. 

8. The New York Yankees. It wasn’t enough that they signed CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett. Oh no. They had to go and dump a wheelbarrow full of greenbacks on Mark Texeira too.

9. AIG executives. You know who I’m talking about. The ones that took a reported $440,000 spa trip a week after the company received an $85 billion bailout from taxpayers.

10. Josef Fritzl. The Austrian sicko who, we learned back in April, had sexually abused, raped and physically assaulted his daughter for three decades, holding her captive in a small cellar.

2008 in review: Scott Hatch’s picks

December 31, 2008

Top 10ish records (in alphabetical order)*

1970’s Algerian ProtoRai Underground (Sublime Frequencies)
Birchville Cat Motel – Our Love Will Destroy the World cd and Second Curved Surface Destroyer 3xcd
Earth – Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull deluxe LP
Johan Johannsson – Fordlandia
Julian Koster – The Singing Saw at Christmastime
Mount Eerie – Dawn, Lost Wisdom, and Black Wooden Ceiling Opening
Max Richter24 postcards
Shadow Music of Thailand (Sublime Frequencies)
sigur rosMeð Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
Cat Stevens – Harold and Maude Soundtrack, deluxe LP editions on Vinyl Records
Sun Kil MoonApril
Sunn o)))The Grimm Robe demos 3xLP re-issue
Ulaan Khol – I
Eddie VedderInto the Wild Soundtrack, deluxe LP edition on Vinyl Records

Stuff I gave 4 or 5 stars to on Netflix in 2008 and put into this list:

1. The King of Kong!!!! I don’t know of many documentaries I’ve ever seen that hold up so well upon re-watching. I’ve seen this probably 5 or 6 times and had many of my friends watch. This is a life changing movie. You will become an expert on Billy Mitchell. I think I may have first seen in 2007, but who’s counting. I did watch again in 2008.

It doesn’t matter much after number 1, but here goes:

30 days series
The Assassination of Jesse James
Big Love Season 2
Blades of Glory
Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 6
The Darjeeling Limited
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Into the Wild
My Blueberry Nights – Wan Kar Wai
The namesake
No Country for Old Men
Shadows – cassavettes
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance – Chan-wook Park

Top live shows:

Sunn O))) in the Unitarian Sanctuary
Efterklang in the Unitarian Sanctuary
Rhys Chatham at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport
Earth at Johnny Brenda’s
Jimme Dale Gilmore at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago

* Scott excluded all releases on Burnt Toast Vinyl, the record label he runs.

2008 in review: Matt Stone’s best/worst

December 28, 2008



1. Phils Win World Series. I’m a Red Sox fan (the Phils are my NL team) and as great as ’04 and ’07 were, it paled in comparison to being in Philadelphia, and surrounded by a celebrating community.

2. Rhys Chatham’s 100 Electric Guitar Orchestra in Williamsport. There was this kid who looked like Chunk from the Goonies rocking out. One of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

3. The Office. The Dwight/Angela romantic dynamic has surpassed the Jim/Pam relationship.

4. Discovering Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos.” Don’t know has this one slipped through the cracks. One of the greatest albums ever.

5. Turning 30 and getting a kegerator in return. It is my best friend.

6. William Basinski at Issue Project Room. One of my favorite ambient artists ever. Blew away my perception of him when we brought him donuts and called us “the sweetest guys ever.” The mechanic Japanese space jump suit didn’t hurt either.

7. The Mitchell Report. Only to see Roger Clemens go down in a ball of flames.

8. White Rainbow @ Johnny Brendas. Revolutionary.

9. The Field-Sound of Light/Nordic Track Hotel. On the surface, pleasant dance music. Once you dig in, it’s so much more than that.

10. The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters. 2nd. Best. Movie. Ever.

The Worst:

1. Rhys Chatham & His 200 Electric Guitar Orchestra performing A Crimson Grail. Actually, it wasn’t performed. Due to poor planning and poor decision making, this would-be-historic event (which I was a part of…Alto 2, Section 2) was rained out. 

2. Joe Morgan/Joe Buck/Tim McCarver. These guys make me turn the sound off when watching baseball. How can former players no so little about the game they played?

3. Working during the World Series Parade. The entire city was off work that day. Except for me. 

4. Philadelphia Brewing Co. All of their “beer” tastes like sticks and dish water.

5. Manchester United Double. I hate them so much.

6. Giants win the Super Bowl. Worst sporting event ever. Finally made me realize that American football is BORING and fraudulent.

7. Woody’s. Because of a snafu at work, I had to go down to Woody’s (most definitely a gay bar) to record a DJ. The worst part was, I didn’t even get hit on.

8. The stuff they pass off as new and interesting music. I can’t even think of a good record that came out this year (in the indie community) that excites me. Vampire Weekend? Deerhunter? Band of Horses? BOOOOOO-RING. No thank you.

9. Manny Ramirez. I was desperately NOT hoping for a Boston/Dodgers world series. Can you imagine the field day they would have had with that?

10. Blue Dog Trivia Night. We are regulars. But our regular staffers, Linsey and Joel, don’t work there anymore. So now we don’t feel like special regulars anymore. Kinda takes the joy out of going to the bar on Tuesday nights.

Deer pressure is all around you

December 14, 2008


From the archives. This piece originally ran in December 2004. 

By Matthew Ralph

As a musician, Michael Miller excels in subtle territory, spinning tender laid-back tunes on his guitar as a touring and recording solo artist. But music isn’t the only artistic endeavor at which this California surfer excels. For more than a decade, he’s applied his clever wit and drawing skills – evidenced on the liner notes of his most recent CD – to Christmas cards. The result has been a series of crack-ups and irreverent humor with Randolph the Butt-nosed Reindeer that has fun with the more ridiculous side of the most commercialized and secularized of the Christian holidays. Available at a trendy store near you, Mikey Boy, the maker of cards, has become a word of mouth phenomenon. I chatted with Mikey Boy via technology amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, after of course ordering a random pack of 12 designs.

How and when did you get started making Christmas cards? Where did Randolph come into play and what was the inspiration?

I started actually about 12 years ago. after making cards for family and friends all my life, I finally tried selling them to stores. Probably a typical evolution story. Each year I would feel pressure to come up with a new card to out-do the previous year.

Randolph the butt-nosed reindeer was one of the first cards I drew. I was always a big fan of the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons, and I always thought their camels, or cats, or most any animal looked like they had a butt on their nose. That’s really where it came from.

Being a songwriter as well, do you see any similarities between promoting your music and promoting your card line? Any similarities between the two “industries”?

I probably promote them exactly the same. It is more of an entrepreneurial mindset. A “do-it-yourself” mentality that says you can’t wait for anyone to do you any favors; you just have to rely on yourself and believe in what you do and not let the imminent rejection get to you. Both heart-wrenching songs and humor are so subjective, you just have to keep searching for the right audience who “gets it”.

Both industries are a massive cesspool of a million people all trying to do their art. Within each, you have to somehow get your own voice heard. I think success in both industries is reliant or at least fueled by word of mouth. People like to share their misery and heartache, or something that makes them laugh. If they hear a song or see a card that personally effects them, they want to share it with someone else.

How did the Mikey Boy deal come about? Since getting more widespread distribution have you found there’s more pressure to produce? How many different designs do you have currently?

Mikey Boy is still relatively an “indie” label. I have always dealt with companies directly. The merchant. The printers and manufacturers. The assembly workers/children. Everything is as self-contained as I can make it.

However, I have recently signed licensing deals with Weinerdog (a subsidiary company of Hallmark) and Smart Alex (they carry an awesome roster of artists and cards including super genius Jim Benton’s Happy Bunny). Both companies will start releasing year-round cards, not just Christmas cards.

The only pressure I feel is the same pressure I have always put on myself. Mainly, to just make myself laugh. If it passes that test, then I am happy.

What’s the basic process you go through to come up with a design?

I have not come up with a secret formula yet. I wish I could. Mostly, the designs have come from sketchbook doodling or late night brainstorm sessions. Very irregular and inconsistent.

What kind of interaction do you have with the people who buy your cards? I know you have Randolph plush dolls that your fans take with them on trips and take pictures of. What’s the response like this time of year? Do you have people at concerts/shows ever coming up to you and talking to you about your cards?

It’s funny, I have been out traveling and touring for music lately and have gotten people coming up to me at shows to say they saw my cards or the Randolph doll – which always takes me by surprise. As much as I know both worlds (my music and Mikey Boy) are so closely tied to each other in my own brain, I forget that anyone else does, and it is always a burning pleasure to be surprised with a crossover fan.

More typically though, someone writes me a nice letter telling me they love the cards. It always knocks me out – I mean, it takes a lot for someone to write a letter after buying something. I can’t remember the last time I have been so ecstatic about ANYTHING I bought that made me explore the company’s Web site or write a thank you to the president of that company. It always touches me or pricks my spirit!

I’m sure your cards have offended some people; what’s your response to critics who might think you are poking fun at Christmas or perhaps not taking the holiday serious enough?

It IS a fine line sometimes when you’re dealing with something that is based on something so sacred. I know I have offended some people. I even had a huge company request a recall because they were getting so many complaints (this was about the time of the Columbine incident). A few weeks went by and I never heard another word. I think once they saw the sales numbers, they quietly recanted. A sad testimony on the state of our capitalist society, but in the end, Mikey Boy prevailed! [laughs] 

There are many cards and designs that I have drawn that were definitely over the top and too blasphemous or offensive. They never made it to the public. A few friends have gotten to see them, they laugh and shake their heads in disgust or dismay or disbelief, but even I have a ceiling of taste guidelines. I think they still have to be exorcised out of me, but then get stored in the vault.

My only response that I ever have to give is usually to a friend or family member who is appalled. Sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I just shrug sheepishly as if I didn’t realize it was so offensive. Sometimes I say, “Jesus would have laughed at that.”

What is it about this holiday season in particular that so many people send cards? Why aren’t Easter or Labor Day cards popular?

It is probably tied to the fact that Christmas is the most secularized. Or maybe just more cleverly marketed. Or maybe people really do get more emotional at this time of year and need to exhaust it before it gets to be too much.

Any thoughts or plans to branch out into other holidays or occasions like birthdays, weddings? Hannukah, Kwanzaa?

I guess with the new licensing deals I will have a better opportunity to take a whack at those as well.

Has anyone ever unknowingly sent you one of your cards or told you that they thought you would enjoy Mikey Boy cards?

Not unknowingly. I have found out many stories of people sending my cards to each other not knowing they were mine, and only later realized I drew them. That always makes me happy. Or two people sending each other the same card on separate coasts, and not knowing until they each got the other’s card.

A soul-searching journey

December 10, 2008

By Matthew Ralph

Forty years ago today,a celebrated writer, poet, social activist and Trappist monk was electrocuted after stepping out of a bathtub in Bangkok and touching a short-circuited electric fan.

The 53-year-old resident of the Abby of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky was Thomas Merton.

Best known for his autobiographical best-seller “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton published more than 60 books, wrote hundreds of essays and influenced generations of spiritual seekers, activists and writers.

Few have explored the remarkable accomplishments or the settings that influenced his spiritual journey more than Louisville-based filmmaker Morgan Atkinson. A veteran filmmaker, Atkinson traced Merton’s journey for the PBS documentary “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.” The film, which will air on PBS this Sunday, also has a companion book Atkinson compiled with Jonathan Montaldo.

I caught up with Atkinson on e-mail to talk about a man whose soul-searching journey first caught my attention when I checked “Seven Storey Mountain” out of my college library a decade ago and continues to inspire me and thousands others four decades after his untimely death.

When did you first discover Thomas Merton? What was your initial reaction?

I grew up about 60 miles from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton’s home, but I wasn’t aware of him or his writings until I was in my mid 20s. My first impression was, “hmmm, this isn’t your your everyday preacher. (Growing up a Presbyterian I thought of every religious
type as a preacher). He actually seems to have experienced life in ways that I have. I’m actually interested in what he has to say and want to know more.”

At what point did you decide you were going to devote several years of your life filming a documentary and compiling a book about his life and work?

I did a documentary about life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in 2001-02. I enjoyed the experience a lot and it gave me the guts to presume I could do a program about Merton. I didn’t think i had any great insights about Merton myself but through the Gethsemani project I had made friends or established contacts with people who did have significant things to say.

You’ve no doubt encountered a lot of interesting characters and figures who have become subjects in your films over the course of your career. Was Merton just another one of those interesting subjects or was there something different about him?

Merton is definitely one of a kind. I’ve never done a story about anyone who could match his combination of intellectual depth and personal appeal.

How would you say this film and the film you did about the Abbey of Gethsemani have differed from your other works?

Most of my work (and most media today) you try to keep busy, busy, busy. Lots of action. “Dead air” is a cardinal sin. When trying to show a monk’s life you have to try to capture the stillness and quiet that is an essential component of their vocation in a way that doesn’t have people searching for the channel changer.

What was the most eye-opening aspect of what would seem like a rather daunting task of making a film about Merton? What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest eye-opener is just how much he wrote and complex he was. This led to the biggest challenge and frustration. You know in one hours time you can’t do justice to the breadth and depth of his thought. So in broad strokes you try to interest viewers in going
more deeply on their own.

This being the 40-year anniversary of his untimely death, a lot of people have been rediscovering Merton’s writings or discovering him for the first time. Why do you think Merton continues to be such an inspiration to so many people?

Merton continues to be relevant because his themes are perennial. He writes accessibly about issues that humans have pondered for thousands of years. He inspires people because he wouldn’t accept pat answers. He challenged authority and kept pushing for ultimate truths.

What do you hope those who see the film will take away from it?

I hope people see something of Merton’s joy in life and find that it helps them live more fully.

What impact would you say the making of the film and the compiling of the book has had on your own spiritual journey?

One of Merton’s students says in the film that he did teach a certain meditation method or technique. He said to simply settle down and be still. That seems like a good challenge.

Article: The miracle of charity

December 7, 2008

By Matthew Ralph

There’s a scene in the 2004 film “Millions,”  where a young boy named Damian (Alex Etel) who routinely sees visions of saints is talking to St. Peter about Jesus feeding the 5,000.

You know the story. It’s a Sunday School staple. A boy, presumably the same age as the kids in the Sunday School class being taught with paper cut-outs on felt board, gives Jesus all his mom packed for his lunch that day – five pieces of bread and two fish. Jesus then passes the modest meal around and next thing you know 5,000 people sitting on a grassy hillside have been fed and there’s still enough for seconds.

It’s a marvelous story, especially when taking into account what Jesus later says in the passage about being the bread of life and how those who seek him will never go hungry. It’s also a good passage to consider when fasting as the hunger pains stir.

That’s not quite the way filmmaker Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce’s St. Peter tells it. The rough-around-the-edges keymaster of heaven (played by Alun Armstrong) tells the boy Jesus’s miracle that day was actually one of inspiration and not supernatural multiplication.

According to his account, the people gathered that day had more food than they were letting on. They were just stingy and didn’t want to share. But their hearts changed when the little boy came forward and turned his lunch over to Jesus. Suddenly, they didn’t feel too good about hiding loaves and fishes of their own, St. Peter explains.

It’s a perspective that wouldn’t win too many points with many theology professors and certainly not any biblical literalists, but it’s one that has stuck with me since I first saw the film a few years ago.

Within the context of the film, St. Peter’s message to the boy is essentially that, like the boy with the five loaves and two fish, he could inspire hundreds of others by giving away his share of the mysterious “millions” that he believes fell out of the sky.

Given the news of late about the recession we are in here in the U.S., a recent re-reading of the John account of the feeding of the 5,000 put Boyle’s fictional account of the event in a different light for me.

The tighter the economy gets and the harder things begin to look, the more difficult it gets to give to charity. Regular news stories have been appearing lately about how charities are getting hit hard by the recession and that wealthy private donors of foundations and nonprofits may be giving less because of the hit they are taking on their investments.

The logic that an economic recession will naturally lead to less giving and harder times for those most in need may not be entirely accurate – Giving USA Foundation released a report earlier this year stating that recessions in the past have not cut into charitable giving as much as expected – but when times are tough the urge at least to want to hang on tighter to what you have makes a lot of sense.

But as the fictional St. Peter account illustrates, we often have a lot more to give away than we want to admit. Rather than cutting back on our giving during these times we should be increasing what we give and decreasing in areas less important than ensuring others are cared for and fed. Not only that, when we give things often have a strange way of coming back. It’s like that charming Coke commercial where instead of shooting and killing Grand Theft Auto style the video game character is giving out love. You know, the one with the catchy song – “You give a little love and it all comes back to you.”

Whether it’s giving up loaves of bread or giving your widow’s mite to a cause you believe in, the true miracle we all experience this holiday season might just be that in the end we’ll end up, even in a time of hardship, more well off and a lot less stressed out than we imagined.

Article: Holiday giving guide

November 28, 2008

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Channakuh, Kwanza, Festivus, all four or none of the above, the holiday shopping season is here.

And with it comes the always stressful decision-making of what to buy, make, re-gift or not give at all. We asked some of our astute readers and contributors to share their gift-giving ideas and advice for the holiday season. Feel free to chime in with your own in the comments below.

Just try to remember that the holiday season is not about getting lots of cool stuff, petty politically charged battles over rhetoric or pulling your hair out from stress.

It’s about spending quality time with the people you love and sharing with friends, family and strangers a genuine non-commercialized/non-politicized message of hope, peace and love.

A “New Jersey survival kit.”
The kit will include the first book of Weird New Jersey in paperback, CDs of Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, a t-shirt from the World Series Philly win, some delicious local-made chocolates (and relatively inexpensive, at that) from a candy shop in Haddonfield a box of Tastykakes. –Erin Boyle

Heifer International and personalized gifts
Click HERE for information on Heifer, an organization that enables you to give animals and training to needy people around the world.

I fully believe you can never go wrong with personal photos, especially put together in some way that required thought. Another free/nearly free options – volunteering to babysit for friends with kids so the parents can have a date night, making personalized mix CDs. -Ann Davis

Dog rescue donations, homemade calendars and stockings
Last year, I sent a letter along with my christmas cards asking people to donate to the dog rescue where I work. Not necessarily money (although that always helps), but we also need things such as paper towels, dog toys, towels & blankets, frontline or heartgard, or office supplies like paper.

Also one year I made homemade calendars for my family members with all our relatives birthdays so they would remember to send cards to each other. I also added dates such as “national accordion day” or “take your dog to work day” to make it fun to look at.

This year for Jared’s side of the family, I had the idea to get together and make Christmas stockings. We’d buy them from the dollar store, then decorate one to give to someone else in the family. Like, I would decorate one and give it to Jared’s sister. Jared’s sister would decorate one and give it to her dad. That’s a pretty inexpensive gift, memorable and creates family time
together. -Heather Hatt McDonald

Craft blogs, Etsy and Art Shop
My suggestion if they want to be uber-crafty is to check out blogs like Craft: or Whip Up, both of which promote what other crafty folk are creating (most often with a tutorial!) and get inspired. Or buy gifts via Etsy or at local craft shows (Art Shop in Philly!).
-Courtney Jones

Ten Thousand Villages, nets and a Butt
If you’re looking for a unique gift that can have a direct impact on someone in the third world, look no further than 10,000 Villages. If you don’t have a store in your area (Louisville has Just Creations) be on the look-out for special sales colleges, churches, schools or other groups in your area might be holding. Mosquito nets also make great gifts – for people in areas where malaria is a frequent killer. Consider donating a $10 net through the Nothing But Nets campaign in lieu of a gift to a loved one. For fun, you might also want to check out Butt Drugs, a drug store near where I live in Corydon, Ind. I bought my brother one of their I (Heart) Butt Drugs T-shirts last year. I think it’s pretty funny because, well, I’m immature like that. -Matt Ralph