Friday, February 27, 2009

Amy Welborn’s Yes

If you haven’t already seen it, you should read this. You will be moved and strengthened. I had meant to add “if you’re a believer” to that last sentence, but perhaps you will be strengthened even if you’re not.

“Tell Amy,” this person said, “that Michael is watching out for her and that he says the answer is ‘yes.’”

(I know there are at least a few people who read this blog who don’t read Amy’s, or know who she is. So, for you: she is a well-known Catholic writer and blogger, and she lost her husband, Michael Dubriel, very suddenly a few weeks ago to a heart attack. He also was a Catholic writer and blogger.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Couple of Ash Wednesday Notes

(1) I need to just accept the fact that part of my Ash Wednesday penance is going to be having the sappy Catholic pop hymn that I dislike more than any other sappy Catholic pop hymn stuck in my head for much of the day. I refer, of course, to “Ashes.” I’m not going to say anything else about it, partly because I don’t need to encourage that side of myself and partly so that anyone not familiar with it can stay that way.

(2) The college campus where I work is located in the very most wealthy part of the city, and people who live in the area are often to be seen walking on the campus, which is very beautiful. Frequently they’re walking in the street—mostly affluent women who can afford to take an hour or two out of every day for keeping fit—and getting on the nerves of drivers, because they seem to think we should drive around them.

I confess to a prejudice against rich people. I further confess that it’s rooted in a sort of envy—not of their wealth itself, but of the freedom and assurance it gives them. It’s that assurance that makes their refusal to get out of the street annoying; they sometimes act as if they own the place, and we, the people who work there, are the intruders.

Mobile is unusual for the South in that a significant minority of its upper class is Catholic. Yesterday, at the noon Mass in the chapel, one of these well-to-do Catholic ladies sat down beside me: in early middle-age, with that indefinable look of being well-kept that rich women often have, thin as thread, dressed in an expensive-looking exercise suit and shoes and a cute little cap. I found myself thinking distinctly uncharitable thoughts about her, of which the general idea was “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as this publican…”

Then she knelt and took out her copy of Magnificat.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Order of Myths

If you want to learn a lot in a short time about Mobile and Mardi Gras, watch this movie. Netflix has it. Its focal point is the fact that there are two Mardi Gras organizations and celebrations, one white and one black. This is often a bit startling to newcomers to the area—it was to me. The movie is extremely well done. It’s both unsensational and unsentimental, generous but unsparing, about the racial situation. And it also provides a really accurate and vivid glimpse of the culture here.

One note of caution, though: don’t assume that the white people who are shown running the Mardi Gras show are typical—this is definitely the upper crust, the top 5% or so of the white population in wealth. As my wife said, we would not be any more at home among them than most black people would, we just wouldn’t be as noticeable.

Now that I think about it, this would be a useful movie for anyone who doesn’t know the U.S.—much of what it reveals about the racial situation is applicable to the whole country. One of the reviewers quoted on the film’s web site gets it right: “As big and richly complex as the United States itself.”

(Yes, while other people partied, we watched a movie about partying. Put that way, it’s kind of sad.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Camellia, or The Rose Above the Sky

(You really should click through to the larger image to get a better view of this.)

Some weeks ago my wife bought two little camellia bushes, one red and one white. They bloom through the winter here and even though these two haven’t been planted, but have been sitting on the patio in the containers in which they came from the nursery, they’ve continued to bloom through a couple of freezes. She had this blossom from the white one in a jar of water in the kitchen last week, and I was really struck by it.

“You should take a picture of that so I can put it on my blog,” I said. So she laid it on a red cloth and took this picture. She was playing with settings on the camera and isn’t sure exactly why or how that misty effect resulted.

Even though the flower is not a rose, the picture made me think of the great Bruce Cockburn song (not to be found on YouTube, unfortunately, or I would link to it), “The Rose Above the Sky”:

Till the rose above the sky
Opens
And the light behind the sun
Takes all.

Complete lyrics here, but of course you don’t really get it without the music.

The picture also reminds me of something from a David Lynch movie.

Other fun facts: the camellia is a member of the same family as the tea plant; it was named for a Jesuit; it’s the state flower of Alabama; “Camellia” was the first name of the girl on whom I had a crush in junior high school.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

An Exercise in the Blindingly Obvious

I’m always amused by the sort of news story that seems to appear every week or two, in which some social scientist claims to have proven something which is obvious to anyone who’s ever given the matter—whatever it is—a few seconds thought. Well, no, let me amend that: I’m not always amused; sometimes I’m annoyed. But this one is funny. A researcher has proved that men get a buzz from seeing attractive women wearing very little clothing. Not only that, but they want to take some kind of, um, action in response. Not only that, but they behave differently toward attractive women dressed provocatively. Says our psychologist, hilariously:

This is just the first study which was focused on the idea that men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if you present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses.

Well, well. It just goes to show you how lost we would be without social scientists.

And this story, like most such, follows the initial finding with the obligatory evolutionary explanation: “The first male humans had an incentive to seek fertile women as the means of spreading their genes.” Whatever. This mania for reducing everything human to some biological phenomenon driven by evolution is curious—but more about that another time.

I’ve always tried to explain this aspect of maleness to women, especially to young women who don’t have any idea what they’re dealing with when they dress (or undress) provocatively, by an analogy to food: think of the way you react to your favorite dessert. When you look at, for instance, chocolate mousse, you’re not thinking I want to get to know it; I want to share my deepest self with it; I want to love and be loved by it; I want to spend my life with it. No, you’re thinking about consuming it, getting a very brief and purely physical pleasure from it, and when it’s gone you won’t think about it any more, except perhaps for wondering when you can have another one. That’s the basic instinctive reaction of a man, especially a young man, to a woman in a bikini. If you want him to think about you—you as a person, to use the old feminist phrase—try to dress in such a way that he’ll be at least as likely to look at your face as at the rest of you.

Still, I suppose I should be grateful that psychologists are doing these investigations and coming to these conclusions, because they’re helping to destroy the idea that the human mind has no intrinsic qualities but rather is a blank slate to be written upon—“conditioned”—by culture, and therefore capable of being re-conditioned to think and behave in whatever way that same culture, or rather its rulers, wishes. That’s an idea that has done a great deal of harm in the world.

There is another note toward the end of this article that I find a little more interesting, because although it now seems very plain to me it wasn’t always:

Women may also depersonalize men in certain situations…. Evolutionary psychology would theorize that men view women as objects in terms of their youth and apparent fertility, while women might view men as instrumental in terms of their status and resources… [my emphasis].

I remember a conversation with a friend that took place some 35 or more years ago, when we were both unmarried. We were talking about women and romance and he said he felt at a disadvantage in the quest because he didn’t have much money. I was a little shocked by this, and almost offended, in a chivalrous sort of way: I thought he was unjustly maligning the female sex. Women weren’t like that, I thought. Women were concerned with deeper things, with love, with finding a soulmate; they weren’t as base and crude and materialistic as men.

Boy, was I wrong. Not that all women are dominated by that impulse, of course. But it’s far stronger in many than I would ever have supposed back then, and I think it’s at least present in most.

For a while in the 1970s, some feminists tried to argue that women are less materialistic than men. I think about that sometimes when I drive through downtown Fairhope and see all the expensive shops devoted exclusively to the material desires of women: clothing shops, jewelry shops, shops full of doodads for the home, spas (a very mysterious phenomenon to me). And I see the expensive women getting out of their $50,000 SUVs, wearing hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes and jewelry and makeup, of which they have vastly more in the huge closets and bathrooms of their $600,000 houses. And I think of those old-time feminists, and laugh.

I also thank God that my wife is not like them. But then no woman of that sort would ever have been much interested in me, nor I in her.

P.S. There was a similar report a few weeks ago, more interesting to me than this one: it said women have a much harder time resisting food than men do. Same sort of thing about different areas of the brain lighting up, if I remember correctly. I’ve long suspected this to be true.

Is Anybody Listening? Are You? Am I?

An X-Files episode that we watched a few days ago involved a story about Satan trying to kill a child who bore the stigmata (link for my non-Catholic readers). At the end Scully, a lapsed Catholic, has concluded, despite her skepticism, that the case may have in fact involved God. She goes to confession (nonsensically, because she doesn’t confess—I guess the writer just liked the Catholic paraphernalia):

Priest: Sometimes we must come full circle to find the truth. Why does that surprise you?

Scully: Mostly it just makes me afraid.

Priest: Afraid?

Scully: Afraid that God is speaking. But that no one’s listening.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

John Coltrane: My Favorite Things

Jazz has never been the genre of music that interests me most—it’s third or fourth behind rock/pop, classical, and maybe folk. But I do like the best of it, particularly from the roughly twenty-year period of 1950-1970. And John Coltrane’s music has always had a particular fascination for me that I can’t quite explain. That fascination is currently being revived by my reading of this book, a Christmas present from Jesse Canterbury (see sidebar):

A few nights ago I read the chapter that’s mostly devoted to one of Coltrane’s landmarks, his reworking of a show tune that even the most casual jazz listener knows: “My Favorite Things.” That of course sent me back to the recording, which I now appreciate and love even more.

I remember one Saturday morning in 1969 or 1970, a warm day with the windows of my apartment open, when I played this, and the guy who lived across the alley was so intrigued that he came over to find out what it was. Later, having bought a copy of the LP for himself he thanked me, as well he should have. But Coltrane more, of course.

Here’s a live version. The sound is not very good, making the soprano sax sound more quacky than it should, but it’s still a thrilling performance to me. This is the classic quartet—Coltrane, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, plus Eric Dolphy on flute.

So great has my liking for Coltrane’s music become that I’m considering selling the dozen or so cds that I have and buying the two gigantic boxed sets of all his recordings on the Atlantic and Impulse labels, which comprise most of his mature work.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Night Revisited: Mardi Gras

With Mardi Gras well under way, although the actual Tuesday is still over a week off, I offer you one of the first Sunday Night Journals, from February 2004: A Useful Frivolity. It remains a good account of my view of Mardi Gras.

As you may have read in one of the comment threads, I went to a parade Friday night, even though it was raining and chilly. It was a rather dispirited affair, with only a tiny fraction of the usual crowds on hand. But my wife took a lot of pictures, and I think the wet streets make for some nice effects, as does the fact that her camera can’t stop motion at these light levels. Click on the pix for larger versions.

One of the marching bands that was not deterred by the rain.

Float approaching, with apparent UFO about to descend upon it (actually a hotel, which does not fly).

The parading group is called the Order of Incas (who knows why?). If it hadn’t been raining hard all afternoon, and still intermittently at this point, the few people you see here would have been a huge crowd, twenty or so deep.

Closer view.

These people appear to be worshiping the big glowing object.

This moron is happy because he caught a rare peanut butter MoonPie, which his wife had specifically requested.

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S. M. Hutchens on Dogs and Cats

Or rather dogs vs. cats. Being one of those people who appreciates both, I always find this debate entertaining.

Being also one of those people who wonders about such questions as what it might be like if he outlives his spouse, I’ve wondered whether I would want a dog or a cat or no pet at all if I lived alone. We have a little dog which I never would have chosen, since although I like dogs in general I’m not fond of little ones, but whose company I rather enjoy and find comforting if I’m in a bad mood. He’s affectionate and amusing and not yappy, like most small dogs. But compared to a cat all dogs require a lot of maintenance, and I’m pretty sick of what ours require. So I think I might like a cat for company and aesthetic pleasure, provided it liked the occasional lap-sit. On the other hand, the need to walk our two dogs does mean that I walk down to the water more often than I otherwise would do, where I see many beautiful things. I remind myself of this every Saturday when I have to wash the big dog, who stinks.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What is more lovely...

...than stars seen through pine branches on a clear winter night? Not many things, I say.

For Darwin’s Birthday

I’ve gotten to the point where just hearing the word “evolution” makes me want to bang my head against the wall. My irritation is mostly with those who believe that “science” has proved that God does not exist, or at least made the likelihood that God exists vanishingly small. But it’s also with those on my own side who implicitly accept the atheists’ terms, that the debate is about the mechanisms of physics and biology. And it reaches the bang-head-on-wall point when I read the extremely dim-witted accounts of the conflict in the popular media.

So here, in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday, is an essay that explains why the question of God’s existence is intrinsically and forever outside the competence of the physical sciences: Thomas Aquinas vs. the Intelligent Designers, by Michael W. Tkacz, a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University. For those who may not want to take time to read the whole essay, here’s a crucial section:

Thomas points out that the judgment that there is a conflict here results from confusion regarding the nature of creation and natural change. It is an error that I call the “Cosmogonical Fallacy.” Those who are worried about conflict between faith and reason on this issue fail to distinguish between cause in the sense of a natural change of some kind and cause in the sense of an ultimate bringing into being of something from no antecedent state whatsoever. “Creatio non est mutatio,” says Thomas, affirming that the act of creation is not some species of change. So, the Greek natural philosophers were quite correct: from nothing, nothing comes. By “comes” here is meant a change from one state to another and this requires some underlying material reality, some potentiality for the new state to come into being. This is because all change arises out of a pre-existing possibility for that change residing in something. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. To be the complete cause of something’s existence is not the same as producing a change in something. It is not a taking of something and making it into something else, as if there were some primordial matter which God had to use to create the universe. Rather, creation is the result of the divine agency being totally responsible for the production, all at once and completely, of the whole of the universe, with all it entities and all its operations, from absolutely nothing pre-existing.

Strictly speaking, points out Thomas, the Creator does not create something out of nothing in the sense of taking some nothing and making something out of it. This is a conceptual mistake, for it treats nothing as a something. On the contrary, the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo claims that God made the universe without making it out of anything. In other words, anything left entirely to itself, completely separated from the cause of its existence, would not exist—it would be absolutely nothing. The ultimate cause of the existence of anything and everything is God who creates, not out of some nothing, but from nothing at all.

There’s much more where this came from, at Gonzaga’s Faith and Reason Institute (see the Links page). Thanks to Jack for pointing this out to me.

And by the way Gonzaga is a Jesuit school. The Jesuits are not by any means finished.

For the record, I’m of two minds about the ideas of the intelligent design movement; it’s possible that they’re right, in at least some cases, and they may well be pointing out genuine problems with evolutionary theory. But I don’t really see how their ideas, even if true, could be proven scientifically (not that the evolutionists don’t have their own library of unprovable assertions).

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Geography

A few nights ago my wife started reading Martin Chuzzlewit Little Dorrit (which I have never read). She liked the opening so much that she read it to me. It describes the city of Marseilles baking in the sun, and vividly communicates heat, heat, heat. This made me wonder where Marseilles is, exactly—how far south? So I went and looked at the big wall map.

Here’s a quiz for you: without looking at a map, name a city in the eastern U.S. that’s at roughly the same latitude as Marseille. I’m putting an answer in a comment.

Update: if you wonder why the comments on this post refer to Martin Chuzzlewit, it’s because I have a bad memory.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Sometimes Futurists Give Me the Creeps

Sometimes they make me glad I’m unlikely to be here for more than another twenty or at most thirty years. But then I think about my grandchildren.

There are a number of things in this article that strike me as creepy. There’s one thing that strikes me as creepier than everything else. I’d like to know whether this one thing jumps out at anybody else.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Drew’s Questions

Someone who signs himself only as “Drew” left a comment on this thread which hits several of the most powerful questions that we all—Christian, atheist, other—must face. I’m not going to attempt to make any kind of complete reply to all of these, but I do have a few observations, and then I’d like to sort of open the floor for everyone who wants to, believer or non-believer, to describe and explain their own views: how you deal with the instinctive demand of your soul for meaning, how you cope with the problem of suffering, and all the rest. Here’s what Drew said:

As a former Christian who has recently witnessed a friend die from cancer (27 years old with wife and 2 kids) I am really struggling with this subject right now.

While I fully understand that a belief in heaven and eternal life is tremendously comforting thing to have in light of death, I can't help but realize that that human need for this comfort is part and parcel with the belief and makes me all the more suspicious of its truth.

I mean maybe we all just die......that is a possibility....do any of us remember anything from 200 years ago....what makes us so sure we will be conscious 200 years from now?

I guess in some ways that makes an atheist’s beliefs more credible, an atheist isn't necessarily excited about their own annihilation, but at least they're courageous enough to accept its greater likelihood than trusting in a comforting ancient myth story.

in contrast what Christian doesn't think they're destined for eternal bliss?

We all see right through that with Jihadists and their 72 virgins.

I think at the very least death should make us appreciate being alive at this moment and appreciate the ones we love. And we should never presuppose that this life is just a stepping stone to the next, because if this is not true, than to live in such a way is truly tragic.

First, about that first point, the death of a young husband and father. Everyone knows a story like this. A while back a friend, a non-believer, was telling me about someone she knew, a delightful woman with two young children and a rich and full life, now paralyzed and helpless as the result of an auto accident. Why?! Why?!

Everyone knows a story like this, and many have lived one. I don’t generally go in for very personal confessions here, but I think I’ll tell something just by way of—I hate to say this—sort of establishing my right to discuss these questions on the basis of personal experience. There is a story very much like Drew’s in my past, only it was the mother who died at the age of 27. It was 1952, I was the child, and I was a little over three years old.

Now, I don’t remember this at all. No doubt my mother would be/was/is grieved (if she is in the next life, what is her relationship to our time?) that I have absolutely no memory of her. Recently someone gave me an ancient scrapbook that included a newspaper clipping about her death: “Popular 27-Year-Old Dies” (it was a small town, so lots of people knew her). It’s just a couple of paragraphs, the kind of thing that we see and immediately forget in the news every day. But it was a major part of several life stories. Though I don’t remember her, I’m certain that the loss marked my life in many ways, both inwardly and outwardly. I do think about it from time to time. I reflect on questions such as the fact that I’m now more than twice as old as she was when she died, and that I’ve had vastly more experience of the world than she ever did, including having children and seeing them grow from infancy to adulthood.

And of course I try to make sense of it; one can’t help trying to. And at times I think I may have a glimpse of how it might all somehow be for the best.

But here’s my main point: this is my situation, these are my questions and my answers. I find that usually when I think of my own life and problems of whatever sort, I don’t really worry about that general cosmic Why?, but rather focus on what the situation means for me, how I can make the best of it—how I can take an active role in fulfilling St. Paul’s assertion that All things work together for good for them that love God.

What I’m getting at is that the cosmic Why? is really not necessarily the most important question. When we look at the world at large and the suffering it contains, we’re overwhelmed, we want to rage at God, if we believe in him, or simply at the world, that all this can be permitted. But when we look at any individual situation from the inside, we find it possible to discern a way of accepting, and perhaps even partly understanding. We find that we are presented with a challenge, and that it is up to us whether we will accept this challenge gracefully or not. Why this particular challenge was presented to oneself, and not to someone else, becomes irrelevant. Life is a test—that’s an idea that’s common to most religions, and I think is believed on some level by many who are non religious. And this—whatever is happening to one—is the form the test is taking for oneself.

I think this attitude is possible for both the believer and the non-believer. But a Christian does have some advantages: not only confidence that the suffering has meaning, but the example of God himself, who entered the same world of suffering that we inhabit and accepted pain and death in solidarity with us.

The essential matter, the one that lies at the root of all debates about belief vs. non-belief, eternal life vs. eternal death, is a very fundamental choice: do I believe the world has meaning, or not? There is no definitive answer for that in abstract logic or in any amount of research and study. There is ultimately either a yes or no at the absolute center of one’s being. Many years ago I answered yes, and so say with Job: Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. (Though I find that I amend those words for myself: my attitude is maybe closer to Though he slay me, yet will I praise him.; trust is more difficult.)

I think most Christians would agree with Drew that one of the appropriate responses to the knowledge of death—not the only one, but an important one—is to appreciate being alive and to appreciate the ones we love. The suicidal jihadist sort of view has its counterpart in early Christian fanatics who would seize a stranger and demand that he kill them so that they could go to heaven. There is a certain logic to this, but it’s the logic of madness, and the Church has generally considered it pathological.

Whether it is psychologically easier to love what is good in this life if one believes in an afterlife is not clear. It could go either way: one could argue that the Christian might cherish life in greater peace because of his belief that it is not ultimately lost, or that he might disdain it because it’s only a shadow of things to come. You can find both in Christian thought, actually, and the correct view encompasses both, I think. One thing, however, that seems to be a common misunderstanding of Christian belief in life after death is that it renders this life unimportant. But on the contrary, since it is this life that prepares us for what happens next, this life is of ultimate importance—not because it is the ultimate thing, but because it prepares us for the ultimate thing. Life is a test.

As for wishful thinking—well, again, that can go either way. Is it wishful thinking to believe that life has no meaning and ends at death? That has some attractions; among other things it means one is not ultimately accountable for anything one does. Is it wishful thinking to believe that life does have a meaning and does not end at death? Well, perhaps, but that can also be a disturbing thought, because in that case one may be accountable.

Well, these are a few hasty thoughts. Yours?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Two New Blogs on the Sidebar

Mrs. T.’s Fine Old Famly and Tobias Danna’s Astonished, Yet at Home (which I think is a Chesterton quote—certainly sounds like him).

I’ve always been bothered by blogrolls with fifty or a hundred entries. I think “Surely he/she doesn’t actually read all those.” So I’ve tried to limit mine to the ones that I do read at least once a week, generally more often, and cull those that go inactive for months or more. And I’m leaving out blogs and other sites that are so popular you don’t need my link. By that standard a couple of mine—e.g. Mark Shea’s—are superfluous. Still it grows. I need to establish some kind of schedule...

Update: Duh—the Chesterton quote is identified right there on the blog; it’s from Orthodoxy, not surprisingly.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Two Items Concerning Death

If you haven’t already, you should read this post by Amy Welborn. It includes a column her husband wrote a few days before his unexpected and untimely death a few days ago, the subject of which is...unexpected and untimely death. It’s really a little spooky, and very inspiring.

Related, this post by Jennifer at Conversion Diary. She’s a former atheist who writes very powerfully of her conversion. In this post, occasioned by a tv program on the situation of prison inmates awaiting execution, she describes the fear of death she had as an atheist:

The date of our extinction was coming up soon, getting closer by the second. The only difference between a death row inmate and anyone else, in my eyes, was that the prisoner knew the date. I had those same questions that inmate expressed: Why play cards? Why watch TV? Why read a book? Sure, you might have momentary pleasure or gain some knowledge, but it was all fleeting, and it would all disappear -- along with you -- upon your impending extermination. And the clock was ticking. We were all dead men walking.

It felt wrong -- deeply, uncomfortably wrong -- to think about all of this. And upon my conversion to Christianity I realized why...

If I were an atheist looking at the human race with scientific detachment, I would find it puzzling that the people most at peace in the world are those who believe in what I regard as an illusion. How did it come about that we are so ill-adapted to the world, especially if it was a process of adaptation that produced us?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Inland Empire, or Fear of Bunnies

If you like David Lynch, and especially if you like Mulholland Drive but haven’t seen this, you’ll want to, although in my opinion it’s not as good. Although Mulholland is disjointed and obscure and contains a number of things that I never figured out, it does have a story which is intelligible in its broad outlines, and quite powerful (see my opinion here). Empire is more enigmatic, just as strange, just as disturbing, and half an hour longer (three hours). And although there appears to be a story in there somewhere, it’s only suggested, and it’s obscured by a great deal of disconnected Lynchian weirdness.

I like Lynchian weirdness, but I began to get exasperated with it here. I can only see so many hypnotic dream-edging-into-nightmare snippets before my hunger for narrative sense begins to make me impatient with the repeated stops and starts; every time things seemed to be falling into place they went off in some new and crazy direction. There’s an entire parallel sub-…something…I was going to say sub-plot but, like the main thread, it only seems like a series of hints and suggestions, scenes cut randomly from a normal movie.

And there’s the matter of tension. Lynch is a master at creating a sense of menace and foreboding, and he keeps you thinking that something terrible is going to happen at any moment. Three hours of that kind of tension is exhausting.

I found the thing fascinating, but in the end was more or less of the same mind as the Los Angeles Times critic who wrote “the film, which begins promisingly, disappears down so many rabbit holes (one of them involving actual rabbits) that eventually it just disappears for good.”

I wouldn’t say it quite disappears for good. I should mention that there seems to be an overarching theme here which is, on an elemental level, very much in keeping with the Christian view of things, though I don’t assume this is deliberate: I mean the themes of sin, guilt, punishment, and redemption. Or, on second thought, maybe it is deliberate: the last scene is accompanied by an old folk hymn, “Sinner Man.”  I should also mention that Laura Dern’s performance is strikingly good, if only with respect to its range.

Oh, and about those rabbits: this crew makes frequent appearances. That picture only suggest the foreboding emptiness that suffuses their little stage.

I’m not sure I want to see this again, but I may. Lynch’s world is alluring in a way that is probably not very healthy. I’m also not sure whether I want to see the other two highly regarded Lynch works that I haven’t seen, Lost Highway and Wild At Heart, as they’re said to be more explicitly violent than the others.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks Live

Van Morrison has released a recent live performance of his masterpiece, Astral Weeks. I read about this at cnb’s blog the other day, and thought, “Why? It can’t possibly have the magic of the original.” Well, you can watch a video of it here and make up your own mind. If you care. This is an album that affects some people profoundly and leaves others cold. I’m one of the former.

I don’t think this new performance is as good as the 40-year-old original, but it still gets me. It still produces in me, as it did when I was 21, the agonized yearning that we’ve talked about here and that is sweeter than most pleasures. It’s so powerful that I rarely listen to it. I can’t explain it; perhaps you have to be a person to whom regret comes naturally.

And we shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty wet with rain

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I have received a huge compliment

Praised and over-praised by Tobias Danna, whose blog, Astonished, Yet at Home!, I’ve read before but not recently—so many good blogs out there, so little time. But I’ll correct that, and I do thank him for the compliment.

I’m afraid I can’t fulfill the conditions of the award, though—I don’t know enough blogs that haven’t already been included in this sort of award chain-letter thingie.

Prayers for Amy Welborn and Her Family

I’m breaking my rule against posting during work hours to pass along this terrible news: Amy Welborn’s husband died suddenly yesterday. This leaves her widowed in her 40s with at least one very young child. Please see and grant her request for prayers at the link above.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What's going on with the comments?

See this message from HaloScan. Short version: they have more traffic than they can currently handle. Comment lag time is one of the symptoms, and the problem may persist for as long as two more weeks.

Monday, February 02, 2009

I don't care if it is a Class C misdemeanor...

...I sorta wish I had done this:

You’ve probably seen the story. It happened one day last week in Austin, but I was too busy to post anything about it: somebody reprogrammed a couple of those automated traffic warning displays with some rather more interesting messages. There is a story with a video at the news site from which I stole the above image. Other messages included “NAZI ZOMBIES!! RUN!!!

Yes, yes, of course we can’t have people running around inducing zombie panic unless of course there really are zombies in the area putting misleading messages on Official Highway Signs, but dang... You want to say to the DoT spokeswoman (in the video): “Yes, of course, but come on, admit you laughed.”

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday Night Journal

I’ve decided to take the suggestion that I repost an old Sunday Night Journal every week while I’m taking a long and possibly permanent break from writing it. Today being Super Bowl Sunday, I picked one occasioned by the 2004 Super Bowl: The Entertainment Industry and the Ratchet Effect.

Speaking of the Super Bowl: I watched it, in the beginning just because I haven’t watched any football since the Sugar Bowl, and having no interest at all in either time and therefore not caring who won. However, I’ve noticed that whenever I watch a game in which I don’t care who wins, I always find myself rooting for one or the other team by the end of the first quarter. In this one my pick was Arizona, maybe just out of sympathy for the underdog. But what with the red jerseys and Arizona’s general performance for most of the game I felt like I was watching the SEC championship game again. Well, congratulations to Pittsburgh, but I have to say that James Harrison’s personal foul which involved him punching a man on the ground left a bad taste in my mouth and took away some of the luster of his amazing 100-yard interception return.

And I hate to say it, because I used to like his music a lot, but Bruce Springsteen’s halftime show was tiresome. That theatrical rock-'n'-roll stuff just doesn’t seem real to me any more. Maybe it works better if you aren’t seeing it close up.

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Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True

Okay, Ryan, I finally gave Costello a fair look, courtesy of an Amazon $1.99 special.

My old friend Robert, who once seemed to buy or somehow manage to hear every pop album, bought this when it came out. It was a time when I wasn’t hearing a lot of pop music, but I’d heard of this, and asked him how he liked it. As I recall he sort of shrugged and said something like “Well, it’s okay, but it doesn’t speak to my condition.” I borrowed it from him and didn’t care for most of it. But I remember liking “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.”

Now, over thirty years later, my reaction is similar. But now I’d say I like most of the album, and really like those two songs. They remain the high points, though it strikes me now that “Alison” should have another verse rather than the repetitive fade. And I echo Robert’s comment: the songs are well-written and ingenious, the musicianship is excellent (way beyond what I understood was supposed to be the range of punk), but it doesn’t touch me very strongly. Part of it is that I don’t care for Costello’s singing, and part is that the lyrics don’t seem to get much beyond a general irritation; the tone is negative but the album doesn’t have the depth of spiritual melancholy that makes me like a lot of pretty dark music.

But how can you resist this portrait of a bored young woman watching cop shows on TV? (“Watching the Detectives”):

I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake

I Was Afraid This Would Happen

It might be more accurate to say I knew this would happen. At the very least I knew the odds of it happening were greater than the odds of it not happening.

At the end of December I dropped my self-imposed commitment to writing something more substantial than a one- or two-paragraph blog post every week. The plan was that I would spend the time working on bigger projects. It’s now February 1, and I’ve done nothing whatsoever toward any of those projects. Well, I take that back: I did have some ideas one day, and made some notes. But that’s it. I hereby declare publicly that I am going to produce at least a thousand words every week on either a magazine piece or a book. Of course no one except God and me will know whether I actually do it, but saying so in public is part of the mind game I play with myself.

Feel free to nag me occasionally.