e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu



We always had "School Mass" on holy days of obligation like Ash Wednesday. Boys in corduroys, girls in jumpers filing into pews. The priest coming down from the Altar for kid-friendly homily. Once the priest talked about Jesus saying we must forgive our neighbors not merely seven times but seventy times seven times. "How many times is that?" the priest asked. "490," an eighth grader volunteered. School Masses tended to be interactive. I was about nine and that kid and Jesus both seemed brilliant to me. We happened to have School Mass the day John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan and James Brady. Wikipedia says that was March 30, '81. I don't think March 30 is a holy day of obligation. Must have been some special occasion.

Once at School Mass, Fr. DeLucia gave a rousing talk about why people set up mangers at Christmas. Francis of Assisi started the tradition. An Italian invention, don't you know? Homilies at St. Anthony's often invoked the Italian people the way the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" invoked Greeks. We invented it all. The pinnacle of civilization. This "manger homily" was from the days when both Frs. DeMarinis and DeLucia were at St. Anthony's, right before the priest shortage rendered such an arrangement a luxury. Both priests had names starting with the letters "De." No wonder I entered seminary.

On Ash Wednesday, the homilies discussed what kinds of stuff one might give up for Lent. Candy, pop, fighting with siblings. Mass meant a day without Math or Social Studies. Those underpaid teachers, nun or otherwise, must have loved holy days of obligation. I'm talking about "grade school" here. We just called our Catholic school "grade school" because K-8 was under roof so distinguishing between "elementary" and "middle" made no sense. At Ash Wednesday Mass, every kid lined up for ashes on the forehead. Most boys ended up with black smudges on their uniforms by the end of the day. We also got burlap squares with black crosses on them, meant to be pinned to one's winter coat and worn throughout Lent. I've never seen these burlap pins since. Was that a late '70s/early '80s fad? I can picture dozens of kids at recess, running around in unbuttoned winter coats, little burlap pins above our hearts. I started Catholic school nearly thirty-five years ago and didn't go to a secular, public place of learning until grad school. And in 2012 these recollections rise again from the ashes.


Professional Accidents

I'm reading Roger Ebert's memoir LIFE ITSELF and enjoying the writing very much. I've long thought of Ebert not only as a good film critic but as a good writer. He's always personal and often funny. His readers know him and like him. After a bit of a false start in which Ebert lists extended family members (for a chapter or so it's like reading the genealogical passages from Genesis), LIFE ITSELF settles into a folksy, fond series of thematic recollections. A chapter on his dad. A chapter on Catholicism. More thoughts later, I'm sure.

In the meantime, a connection. Ebert points out that although he works hard, happenstance has played a significant role in much of his professional life. His boyhood pal's dad happened to be a newspaper editor. The Sun-Times happened to need somebody to review films soon after he became a "newspaper man." Is Ebert the exception or rule? Happy accidents and random events often conspire and affect our lives, sometimes in profound ways. When I started my master's program (1996), the new TA director happened to be an enthusiastic, recent graduate of Arizona's rhet/comp program who talked up his alma mater. More recently (2009), surfing the list of Fulbright host countries while racked with killer migraines, I came upon Lebanon and stopped surfing.

Here's a big one. At the end of my first year of undergraduate study (academic year 1992-1993), I was turning in some piece of paperwork (this was pre-internet) in the liberal arts dean's office. I hadn't declared a major but was thinking of either philosophy, Spanish, or both. The secretary, filing my papers, saw I was undecided and said, "Do you want to declare a major?" I was about to say no, when my Intro to Drama and Poetry professor peered around the copy machine and said, "Yeah, he wants to major in English." I had tested out of first-year comp (yes, it's the focus of my teaching life and I never actually took the class!) and instead took a literature class during Winter semester of freshman year. The secretary grabbed a major declaration form, wrote "English" on it, and handed it to me to sign. Which I did. Dr. Jim McDonald declared my major for me.