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December 2008

Bad Moon Pie Rising

Let them drop whatever that toy is in Times Square. Down here in Alabama we are going to raise something: a 600-pound mechanical Moon Pie, undoubtedly the baddest Moon Pie in the world. Many lucky folks will also get a taste of the world's largest edible Moon Pie.

Let me pre-emptively address the objections of those who would say that no Moon Pie is edible: have a cucumber sandwich—white bread, no mayonnaise.

City Councilman Fred Richardson’s Moon Pie Dream

Behold, the thing itself:

(You have to sit through a commercial first.)

Happy New Year! And blessed be Mary the Mother of God—you’re going to Mass tomorrow, right?

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The Machinist

This is an open, spoilers-allowed post for discussion of the movie The Machinist (link should take you to the Netflix description, but note: there are spoilers in the reviews.) If you haven’t seen it but think you might want to, don’t read the comments here. Also, if you comment, please tag your comment as being part of this thread, since I can’t get the HaloScan feature that includes post names in Recent Comments to work.

I would, by the way, recommend the movie, with the proviso that it's very dark and sometimes disturbing; one scene especially is quite gruesome.

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Authors

“Well, he gets by. He’s self-supporting.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s an author.”

“Good heavens! Oh, well, I suppose authors are God’s creatures, too.”

—Wodehouse, Pigs Have Wings

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The Last Sunday Night Journal (For A While At Least)

Sunday Night Journal — December 28, 2008

The end of 2008 marks the end of five full years of Sunday night journals. I haven’t checked recently, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss a Sunday between January 4, 2004, and today. That adds up to 260 weekly entries. If they average at least 600 words per entry, which I believe they do—my guess is that it’s more like 700 or 750—the total comes to over 150,000 words. If those numbers mean nothing to you, consider that the low end for a novel is probably 50,000 words or so, the average probably 70-100,000, and the high end (e.g. Moby Dick) over 200,000. So in five years I’ve written enough to make a decent-sized book (not counting non-journal blog posts).

I will now reveal to you the secret purpose of the Sunday Night Journal. In late 2003 I had a dream in which I was told that every week for five years I must write a short commentary on any subject that came to mind and publish it on the web. At the end of that time I was to count all the words I had written, and that number would be one of the terms in a mathematical formula that would solve the dark matter problem and, incidentally, resolve the enigma of the continuing popularity of reality television. I expect to have the dream that will reveal the formula as soon as I’ve finished counting the words.

Ok, sorry. Here is the real sorta-secret purpose. All my life I’ve had a compulsion to write, but have done very little of it. Notice I don’t say I’ve wanted to write. Obviously, as Senator Craig could have told you as he prepared to explain his men’s room misadventures to the nation, to feel compelled to do a thing is not the same as to want to do it. We discussed the silly notion of “wanting to write” in a comment thread here a couple of weeks ago; I think anyone who says he “wants to write” without adding “a book about…” or otherwise specifying what he wants to write is probably fooling himself. I don’t want to write: writing is work, and I don’t much like work. I want to have written, yes, much as one wants to have exercised, but not actually to go to the gym or mount the Nordic Track.

Even when I’ve managed to work up the will to write, my laziness, procrastination, and a lack of concentration that borders on ADD have generally kept me from sticking with anything for very long. I have almost forty years’ worth of fragments to show for my efforts. I’d like to blame someone or something else for this, but, like Faulkner, I’m very skeptical of the “mute inglorious Milton” theory (see Gray’s Elegy, approximately line 60). I’ve engaged in a certain amount of complaining over the years about various obstacles life has put in the way of my writing, but I don’t think they’ve been decisive. If  I’d been really good and really determined, I’d have found a way. I’ve gotten over the idea that possessed me for a while in my early twenties, that I was meant to be a great poet or novelist.

Yet the compulsion persists, and I’m haunted, sometimes tormented, by the parable of the talents (explanation here for folks who don’t know the Bible). It is no pleasant thing to set foot on the threshold of old age with the sense that there was some work which one was supposed to do but has not done.

I discovered years ago that since I don’t like to write, it helps a lot to have some external force pushing me to do it. I noticed that I’m more likely to write if I’ve somehow obligated myself to do so. And that was the origin of the Sunday night journal. I publicly stated that I was going to do it, and at least a few people read that statement, and so the seed of a sense of obligation was planted. As time went on, and especially after I created a blog to make the journals simpler to post and maintain, the number of visits to the site went up, thus increasing the sense of obligation and supplementing it with evidence that people were actually reading and enjoying what I wrote.

In short, the weekly journal has been, in part, a sort of mind game I played with myself, a way almost of tricking myself into writing regularly. I could tell myself that even if I produced nothing else, there would be something after a few years.

And so there is. So why stop it now? Partly because I’ve produced enough that if I died tomorrow I would leave something solid behind for (at a minimum) that small number of people who have read me, and for any descendants who might be interested in knowing what sort of man their grand- or great-grand- or great-great-grand-father was. And partly because I want to pick up some of those fragments and incomplete projects and finish them, if I can (which is by no means certain).

I turned sixty this year. Perhaps I’ll live to be ninety, or perhaps I won’t see another Christmas. But taking the biblical three-score-and-ten as a rough guide to what to expect, I figure that the chances are pretty good that I have ten productive years left, but am taking no bets beyond that. Ten years no longer seems like a very long time to me. The recent removal of a melanoma also serves as a warning that the time ahead of me could well be less than the time between today and, say, the beginning of this century, which seems like yesterday. I wouldn’t say I have a sense of urgency, exactly, but I do have—finally—a sense that procrastination is no longer permissible if I want to get any substantial work done.

The journal, then, along with my other weekly commitment, Music of the Week, is going on hiatus for the next twelve months, and might or might not reappear after that. The two of them together have pretty much consumed my weekend writing time (Music of the Week was usually short, but often required a lot of thought and preparation). I want to work on some other things, including longer essays that require focus lasting more than a day or two. I want to go through several decades’ accumulation of poems and fragments of poems and see what can be preserved or completed.

The blog will continue, and in fact I may find myself posting more often but more briefly. The longer things may well appear on the web site, although one or two of them may find a place in magazines first. The poems certainly will—I have no interest at all in trying, probably without success, to place them in magazines that don’t pay and are mostly read only by poets anyway. I want to redesign and organize the web site, or at least clean it up, the better to post longer pieces in a readable way. And I have some other things in mind that I don’t even want to mention unless or until they show more sign of viability.

If I fall back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination, or if, after a year, I’ve run out of other things to do, I’ll restart the journal. I hope everyone who has enjoyed the blog will continue to read it.

As a retrospective glance, here is the first journal entry, transplanted after the fact to the blog—that, too, is one of the projects I want to finish. Here is how it looked originally—I would be interested in knowing whether you think one is more readable than the other.

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Wish Me Luck

I’m off work for most of this week. I’m about to venture into some dark territory: reinstalling Windows (and everything else) on my wife’s computer. I hope it doesn’t occupy the rest of my break.

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Music of the Week: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

I wouldn’t want to have to pick a favorite Christmas carol, but if I had to, I think this would be it. I think part of its appeal is the combination of the minor-key melody and lively good cheer—quite boisterous, in some performances. It’s very English and conjures all those wintry English Christmas associations that we Americans tend to love: holly, snow, and all the rest.

I’ve just spent an hour or so searching YouTube for a performance to include here. I couldn’t find my favorite, which is Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band’s, from my favorite Christmas album, A Tapestry of Carols (that’s a link to the eMusic page, where you can hear samples). One of the things I was looking for was a performance that includes all the verses. I didn’t find that, either. But here’s a good one, by the King’s College Choir (3:35):

And here, for something with a different flavor, more comparable to Maddy Prior’s, is Loreena McKennit’s version, featuring her characteristic Middle Eastern-flavored instrumentation. I have mixed feelings about her voice: it’s very good, but a bit...I don’t know, over-emotive or something. Still, this is very nice (6:49):

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Updated Links

I’ve changed the list of links in the right sidebar—several additions, one or two deletions; check ‘em out. Most are blogs, a few are personal sites of friends and family.

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Merry Christmas

We had planned to get a live tree this year and plant it afterwards, but the tree farm didn’t have the variety we were looking for (eastern red cedar). So we cut one. It’s a lot bigger than the live one would have been.

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A Prayer Request

For the soul of Will Tynes, the brother of my daughter Ellen’s husband Gabe. Will died unexpectedly in his sleep, of causes as yet unknown, yesterday at his parents’ home. He was about thirty, I think. You can imagine how this is affecting the family; please pray for them also. Thank you.

I didn’t know Will at all well, but he was the one who gave the toast described in this post about my daughter’s wedding. May eternal light shine upon him; may he rest in peace.

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Witness

Sunday Night Journal — December 21, 2008

I haven’t quite finished Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, but I’m ready to declare that it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century and the spiritual battle being waged in the modern world generally—meaning, by “modern,” roughly “post-Enlightenment.” This will probably not be my only post on the subject, but there’s one aspect of Chambers’ story as seen from the early 21st century that I want to note especially.

(If you aren’t familiar with Chambers and the controversies in which he was involved ca. 1948-51, this 1961 obituary of him in Time gives an excellent overview and what seems to me a fair assessment of Chambers’ character. A very brief summary is that Chambers was a communist who left the party and actively worked against it, to the extent of exposing communists within the government, which embroiled him in considerable public controversy and legal difficulty.)

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Sauron is defeated and destroyed. But we are given to understand—I can’t remember whether it’s in the book or in some remark of Tolkien’s elsewhere—that his evil does not cease to exist, but rather spreads as a sort of vapor, dispersing itself throughout the world; from this time on, evil will not be so concentrated and easy to identify, but will work subtly and obscurely.

Something like that is the situation we’re in after the fall of the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, communism and fascism. Of the two, the evil of fascism has generally been easier to recognize, or at any rate more widely recognized, principally because of the Holocaust but also because its mythos is in general less appealing, especially to those who set the terms and tone of opinion in our society. Communism had a deeper and wider appeal, in part because it spoke, superficially at least, to more benevolent motives. But if it’s possible to say that one is worse than the other, I would say that communism takes the prize, in part because it was more successful and thus able to murder more people, and partly because it was more consciously and systematically an assault on God. Communism involved a cold intention to remove from the universe any moral authority external to man, to seize that authority for man—for the handful of men worthy of it, on behalf of all the rest—and to exercise it for the purpose of creating heaven in the only place where it could possibly exist, in this life. (Fascism, in contrast, seems to have been less coherent.)

This is what Chambers makes vividly clear. He did not simply repudiate communism; he also found faith. From my point of view it’s more than a little strange that the mode of Christianity he adopted was Quakerism, because Quakerism as I have encountered it seems as secularized as Unitarianism, but never mind that at the moment: it’s certain that Chambers came to a deep and strong belief in God. And it was this belief that showed him with more clarity than most ex-communists—Solzhenitsyn also comes to mind—that the argument between communism and Christendom was not about economic and social conditions, but about God, and that there could be no permanent compromise between them any more than there can be compromise between those who say that two and two make four and those who believe the sum is five. There are some disagreements on which compromise is intrinsically impossible, because they’re based on mutually exclusive propositions.

Like the cloud that was Sauron, communism as an all-explanatory philosophy and an all-encompassing program of action, both directed against God, has been dispersed. There is no single ideology or mass movement with both its coherence and its popularity at work today. But the basic idea—there is no God, and we’re glad there isn’t, because now we can get on with the business of solving our problems without interference from superstition—is everywhere. The intellectual and spiritual presuppositions of much of our political and social discourse are the same as those of communism.

For many intellectuals, evolution has replaced communism as the all-explanatory philosophy (see Daniel Dennett, et.al.). It hasn’t yet become a program of action for very many, but you can see the impulse at work. Utilitarianism is the program of action: whatever works is right, and in this context “works” means maximizing comfort and pleasure. There is really no need for me to make a list of every moral question in which these views are aggressively at war with Christianity; anyone reading this is likely to know. Some are straightforward and involve specific acts, like euthanasia; some are more subtle and involve a general disposition, like hedonism.

Whittaker Chambers thought communism would win, and probably would have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. He thought what remained of Christian society was too weak and compromised to resist communism. He might have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. But he would not have been at all surprised by the persistence of the drive to destroy the metaphysical restraints on human appetites. And probably would have been just as pessimistic about the prospects of Western society resisting it:

It is part of the failure of the West to understand that it is at grips with an enemy having no moral viewpoint in common with itself, that two irreconcilable viewpoints and standards of judgment, two irreconcilable moralities, proceeding from two irreconcilable readings of man’s fate and future are involved, and, hence, their conflict is irrepressible.

Though it is no longer a question of “the West” against something external, this passage ought to be noted by Christians who still haven’t grasped the nature of their situation. The visible empire may have been defeated, but the evil lives on.

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