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February 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.)


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.


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.)


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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.