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June 2006

Annie Lamott Takes Poison She's a sad case--an engaging writer when she isn't screaming at conservatives and especially pro-lifers, a self-professed Christian of eccentric stripe, but there seems to be something essential about the faith that she just somehow doesn't get. I say "sad," but after this story sinks in for a few minutes it's scary. To adapt Flannery O'Connor's famous appropriation of a safety slogan, the life she took may be her own. Say a prayer for her.

Comment changes This weekend (at the latest) I'm going to get rid of the Blogger comments link ("old blogger comments"), so the "comments" link, which uses the HaloScan commenting facility, will be the only one. Meanwhile, I'm disabling the Blogger comments link on any new posts, for the same reason I'm switching to HaloScan--Blogger comments don't appear until the blog is republished, so people leave comments and think they didn't actually post. So the "comments" link works, but the "old blogger comments" one takes you to a page that says comments have been disabled. Also, I've noticed on this as well as other blogs that use HaloScan, that the number of comments is not always accurate right away, even though the comment(s) will appear if you click on the link. Last night I moved the two comments on the preceding post to HaloScan, and it was 15 minutes or more before the count appeared correctly. I suppose this probably has something to do with cacheing on the HaloScan server.

Sunday Night Journal&mdash June 25, 2006

No Complaint, No Problem

One of my daughters just graduated from high school, and a few months ago we were visiting colleges. One large state school had invited her to enter a program advertised as providing, within the context of the big school, a sort of intensified liberal arts program like the one offered by St. John's College. All the students in this program, male and female, live in the same building, and we were given a tour of it.

The boys were separated from the girls only by a hallway. I asked about visitation. I was pretty sure I knew what the real practice would be, but I wanted to see what kind of answer the student who was conducting the tour would give me. She paused for a moment and said, "If there's no complaint, there's no problem."

Right, I thought. I know how that will work out. There would be no surer way to make yourself unpopular than to be the tattletale in that scenario.

Our daughter isn't going to that school, but I had a sad confirmation of my prediction a few days ago. I talked to someone whose daughter has just ended her first year at college (not the one described above, but a similar large state institution) in a state of serious depression which had sapped her motivation so badly that she did poorly in her second term and almost lost her scholarship.

I don't know the girl, but she's apparently brilliant, a National Merit Scholarship winner with math-science aptitudes and interests who wants to be an engineer. And I don't know the whole story. But I do know that she went to college excited about learning, and that she found herself living in an environment which, except for the fact that no money changed hands, might as well have been a brothel.

What is euphemistically called "partying" went on constantly in the whole dorm. But worse, her roommate's boyfriend was in the room at all hours, a sort of unregistered third resident of her room, with all that implies. And she felt that if she complained it would only cause trouble for her. "They'll think I'm a prude." Her mother asked if she couldn't ask the resident assistant (i.e. the person paid to keep order) privately to intervene. "No, she'll just laugh at me. Her boyfriend stays in her room, too."

It's not a new thing that the young person trying to avoid vice should be taunted and rejected by those who have embraced it. I recall my one year in a college dorm forty years ago, and the earnest evangelical young man who was laughed at because he wouldn't go in a room where Playboy centerfolds were on display.

What's different now is that the institution, and for that matter the society which sponsors it, offers such a person little or no moral support. It's like living in a society in which the police are in league with the criminals. At best this girl could have gotten a different room and roommate, but with the real likelihood that she would have ended up with the same difficulty, except that now she would bear a burden of ill will. If she had spoken out, she would have been considered the problem—that is the real implication of "no complaint, no problem."

So in the end there was no problem, so far as the institution was concerned: just a disoriented girl with an obsolete idea of what constitutes minimal decency. What a pretty world we've made, where vice is filled with self-esteem and virtue is expected to hang her head and keep to the shadows.


Dumb Headline of the Week (at least) "New Computers Can Read Minds" Even if this technology works, which is at least theoretically possible, do you consider yourself to be reading someone's mind when you infer something about his mental state from the look on his face?

Music of the Week &mdash June 11, 2006


Neko Case: Blacklisted

The story goes that Schumann, on first hearing Chopin play, cried out "Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!" I'm slightly embarrassed to say that something of that sort went through my mind after I'd heard this album a few times. No, I don't really think Neko Case is a genius in the sense that Chopin was, and anyway "genius" is a term that should, in my view, be applied to only a rare few people. So let's just say that within the realm of popular music this album stands way above most, and that Neko Case has a formidable degree of talent as both singer and songwriter. As to the former, I can't, from the point of view of personal reaction, put it any more strongly than to say that her voice can move me the way Emmy Lou Harris's does. As to the latter, let's just say that every song on this album is striking and memorable.

The only quibble I'd make about her songwriting is that she's chosen the obscure, elliptical, imagistic path for her lyrics, and while she does this very well, at times brilliantly, I think the songs often end up feeling a little too diffuse and open. Tightening this up some would give them more emotional punch. The two brilliantly-chosen covers here bring this out: their lyrics are less deliberately poetic, but they have a structure and coherence that makes them stand alone as songs in a way that Case's own work does not—I don't think it's very likely that other artists would cover her songs.

So what does it actually sound like? Well, I can't think of a way to describe it that wouldn't make it sound ordinary. Call it folk-rock, alt-country, Americana, or singer-songwriter for a very generic tag, but mainly call it exceptional popular music by an artist who could die proud of her achievement if she never sang another note after this (although on the basis of one sample track I think her new album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, may be at least as good). It has to be pointed out that the producer and supporting musicians, including Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico (a band of which I've heard just enough to make me want to hear a lot more), are major contributors to the magic, providing a Ghost-Riders-in-the-Sky sort of atmosphere.

B+ (maybe turning into an A later—I don't want to be too hasty)




A Prayer for the Anglican Communion Like a lot of Catholic bloggers and blog-readers, I've indulged in a certain amount of scoffing and I-told-you-so-ing over the past few days as the Episcopal General Convention pursued its typically unwise ways. Much of this came at the expense of the new Presiding Bishop's inaugural homily, and you can read some of it in this thread at Open Book, which includes a link to the homily itself. We—I—have been uncharitable. Her theology may be as erroneous as is rumored, but this homily is excellent, especially if read without suspicion. The day is almost over, and it finally occurred to me to invoke the intercession of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, whose memorial it is today, and who happen to be two of my favorite saints. Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, please pray for all souls in the Anglican Communion, and for the return of that unity in faith the breaking of which took your lives.

Sunday Night Journal &mdash June 18, 2006

Blood and Sapphire

It will come as no surprise to any non-Catholic reading this that we Catholics believe some pretty strange things. Catholics, on the other hand, are in some danger of losing sight, by force of habit, of this strangeness. I thought of it as I listened to today's readings for the feast of Corpus Christi.

First there was the Old Testament reading, Exodus 24:3-8, which describes the sacrifices performed by the Israelites at the behest of Moses after his return from his encounter with God on Sinai. What a scene that must have been—slaughter and butchering, burning flesh, blood collected in vessels and thrown about on the altar and upon the people. And sacrifices like these continued for centuries, especially in the great Temple of Jerusalem, constituting the core of the faith in which Jesus was raised and in the context of which he announced that he himself was to be the ultimate sacrifice, and that once his action was complete there would be no further need to slay any living thing as a sacrifice.

Leap forward a few thousand years, and see what happens in almost every Catholic church almost every day. There is an altar patterned after those in the Temple. Somewhere around it hangs a more or less realistic representation of a man cruelly put to death. Followers of this same Jesus believe that their priest, standing over this altar, re-creates the one sacrifice by speaking certain words over wine and unleavened bread. And when he has done this they become in some invisible supernatural way the literal presence of the man Jesus, who by the way was also God.

One who does not believe this can surely be forgiven for muttering "yeah, right" when told that this bread and wine are actually the flesh and blood of God. And if he thinks much about it at all he may even be repulsed by the fact that the priest and people will now eat this purported flesh and blood. He may think that they are doing something either insane, if their faith is not true, or repulsive, if it is. The whole thing, going all the way back to Moses and his basins of blood, looks like nonsense piled upon delusion.

But if he looks much further into Catholic doctrine he'll find it full of sound good sense, teaching reason, humility, honesty, peace, love, and forgiveness. Of course if he's a man very much of our times he'll also find a lot of things there—mostly those pertaining to sex—with which he will disagree and maybe even consider harmful, depending on how "liberated" he is. But if he reads the theologians and the popes, especially our two most recent popes, he'll at least have to admit that the teachings are logical and coherent. And in the case of the popes he'll hear a very down-to-earth reason, very much alert to and conversant with the world. In fact, if our man is very much a child of his time, he will begin to complain that it's all too logical. (Or at least this sort of reaction used to be possible—nowadays I'm afraid there are many in whom the natural light is so clouded that they can't even see the virtue of, for instance, the Christian concept of marriage.)

How can this be? It's as if one discovered streams of pure fresh water flowing out of an oil well. Sometimes it seems like the emergence from this faith of primitive sacrifice of so clear and reasonable a mind as that of St. Thomas is a miracle in itself. We can find part of the answer by reading the two verses from Exodus that follow the Sunday readings:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

You may recall that the initial encounter on Sinai involved darkness, fire, thunder, earthquake, and a sound like trumpets. Moses had to brave these alone in order to see the Lord. Yet now all is tranquility and clarity, and the seventy don't seem to be afraid.

Catholic teaching may seem as clear and bright as that sapphire pavement, but it has to be preceded by an acceptance of darkness and mystery. If we are going to understand anything at all, we must first accept that we cannot understand everything.


Music of the Week — June 4, 2006

Massive Attack: Mezzanine

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything described as “trip-hop” that I didn’t like at least mildly. It’s a matter of atmosphere, and to me the style seems a bit mis-named. No doubt the name arose because the style apparently began as a variation of hip-hop and “trip-hop” seemed clever, but the general vibe strikes me as far more narcotic than psychedelic. The first thing I ever heard that bore this label was Portishead’s Dummy, which will probably make an appearance here eventually: I instantly loved its romantic late-night melancholy, the nostalgic effect of some of the samples, and the sometimes yearning quality of the vocals and the lyrics. I thought on first listen that Mezzanine was not going to be any threat to Dummy’s position as the best thing I’d heard in this line, but two more listens changed my mind.

This is a very different sort of work from Dummy, much less song-oriented, much more obviously having roots in hip-hop, but equally compelling. I’d be surprised if anyone has ever described it without using the word “dark” at least once: it’s a dim, moody, sensual, almost Baudelarian atmosphere, and, as the AMG review says quite nicely, both earthy and ethereal. The lyrics are pretty negligible, and sometimes more lubricious than I would like, and musically it’s mostly a matter of rhythms and carefully placed instruments and samples, but it will definitely get under your skin. I look forward to listening to it on headphones sometime, as the production is so full of interesting details. Its very best moments may be the tracks on which former Cocteau Twin Elisabeth Fraser contributes vocals and, I’d be willing to bet, the melodies she sings, which have a very distinctly Cocteau Twins character. These seem to yearn upwards rather than to be heading into some sort of pleasant but unhealthy fog. It wouldn’t do as a steady diet, but I’ll allow myself Mezzanine as an occasionally permissible indulgence, like some sort of exotic absinthe-like liqueur .



After the Revolution I just posted the following in a comment on Dawn Eden's blog, and thought it worth repeating here. It's part of the continuing discussion of Dawn's book referred to below, and I'm replying to a commenter who signs himself (herself?) "Noumena":
Noumena refers to "Those of us who are the intellectual children of the sexual revolution..." Some of us are veterans of that revolution who looked at the resultant damage and decided that we had been on the wrong side, and are still trying to alert the rest of the world to what it was really all about. Maybe we're a little like ex-Communists, and I suppose we can be annoying that way. But I'd rather stand with Whittaker Chambers than Alger Hiss. Hell, come to that, if I have to, I'll stand with Joe McCarthy rather than Joe Stalin. Also there's: "you seem to be conflating the sexual revolution with the thoughtless and destructive 'mainstream' understanding of sexuality." Noumena, that is the revolution. The Playboy Mansion was the sexual revolution every bit as much as Woodstock was. The divorce rate is the sexual revolution. Omnipresent porn is the sexual revolution. The abortionist's trade is the very cornerstone of the sexual revolution. As Agent Mulder once said, "Did you think you could call up the devil and make him behave?"

HaloScan Commenting Enabled All right, then. I've added the free commenting service at HaloScan. I'm leaving the few existing comments in place for the moment, the ones listed under "old blogger system" but will plan to remove that code at the end of this month. Now I have to see what it will cost for me to get rid of those HaloScan ads. And I need to shrink the "Comment | Trackback" text...oh, that was easy.