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June 2009

I Hate Death

A few months ago I walked out one Saturday morning and found a dead possum, a young one, lying in the street. It was so much the image of death that I took a picture of it, just as a reminder. I’m not going to shove the picture in your faces but you can see it here. It’s not especially horrible; the possum is not torn or decayed; it’s just dead. Nobody much likes possums, but still, when I saw it lying there, my first thought was I hate death. Last week seemed to be a week of death, because two deaths in particular were so much in the news.

Michael Jackson: I have an odd perspective on him, because I missed the major part of his career, the part that established his reputation as an artist. In spite of my excessive interest in pop music, I never really heard much of Jackson’s work. It was not the sort of thing that appealed greatly to me, and I didn’t often hear the radio when he was popular, and very rarely saw MTV. In fact the first thing that occurs to me when someone mentions Thriller is an Eddie van Halen guitar solo that occurs in one of its songs—“Beat It,” I think.

No, when I hear his name I think first (marking myself as far from young) of the Jackson Five. I didn’t go out of my way to hear them, either, but I did hear the radio a lot more then. And most of all I remember a Rolling Stone cover ca. 1970 featuring the cute, talented kid. It’s probably online somewhere…yes, here it is.

And then I think of the grotesque spectre of recent years, about which the less said the better. And the distance between those two images is so sad that I don’t even want to think about it. I’ve said before, and will probably have occasion to say again: I think the sort of fame that he had was one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Clearly he was a terribly damaged soul. May God grant him mercy, forgiveness, healing, and joy.

Farrah Fawcett: Forget that silly TV show, and that well-known poster. Go rent the very fine and neglected movie The Apostle, in which she plays the wife of the charismatic (in both senses) preacher played by Robert Duvall. Here’s the trailer.  I would guess that she’d rather be remembered for this kind of work.

On Thursday my wife heard from a friend that the friend’s brother-in-law has just been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the colon. He’s around 50 years old and he and his wife have six children, ages 4 to 15. His prognosis is poor. There are financial difficulties as well. This is one of those cases that makes you ask why? why? why? Why him? Why not, for instance, me? I like to think I’d be missed, but the youngest of my children is almost finished with college, and my wife would not be destitute. I will post his name and ask for prayers when I get permission from the family to do so.

And who knows what horrors are happening in the prisons of Iran?

Then came yesterday’s Scripture readings at Mass:

God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. (Wisdom 1:13).

And the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead:

…the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth…. And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Tal’itha cu’mi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, (I say unto thee,) arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked. (Mark 5:39-42)

Sometimes I think the whole Christian faith can be summed up this way: Do you hate death? Do you find it intolerable, unbearable, unacceptable, that you and everyone and everything you love will die and disappear for ever? If you do, then follow this man.

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Beyond the Overpass

UPDATE: I am definitely too distracted. This post sat here for three days reading “A few weeks ago I post something...” without my noticing it. I’d be surprised if no one else did. It’s okay to tell me if you spot something like that; in fact I’d appreciate it.

A few weeks ago I posted something about a strange pair of bumper stickers I’d seen. In the comments on that post, someone suggested the idea of writing a story filling in the background of that picture. It was further suggested that antiaphrodite might write it. In the same discussion, the practice of writing one’s girlfriend’s name on an overpass was mentioned.

Well, antiaphrodite rose to the occasion, including both topics in Beyond the Overpass:

Part One: Weather Forecast

Part Two: Tools and Stickers

Part Three: Currents

Is this what critics call a “lighthearted romp”? No?

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St. Eustace and the White Stag

A week or so ago Janet mentioned St. Eustace to me, and when I said I didn’t know anything about him, she sent me this beautiful excerpt from Pilgrim Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. I like it so much I’m posting it. I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Goudge, but on the basis of this I think I should.

“He lived in Italy,” said Sally the child, telling a tale to Ben the child. “He was a Roman noble, a great huntsman, a rich fairy-tale knight, riding out from the pages of an illuminated missal on his great white horse with its gay trappings, his spurs on his heels, his hunting horn slung over his shoulder, his hunting knife in his belt and his spear in his hand, his garments all bright and gay and richly furred, his dogs bounding about him.

“And one day, in this beauty and this pomp, he went hunting in the forest outside Rome, the dark forest where there were wild beasts in plenty for a brave man to slay, boars and bears as well as the deer and the swift hares. But it was not only because of the good hunting that Placidus rode through the Roman forest; he rode in pursuit of something else besides excitement and danger, something unknown to which his tongue could give no name and of which his imagination could form no image. And he rode alone because the huntsmen of the unknown must follow a path narrow as the confines of his own body, lonely as his own pain, dark as his own ignorance, and his way is his own way and cannot be shared with another.

“But though the forest was dark and dangerous, and the path narrow, it was full of gleams and flashes of beauty that were as candles lit along the way, beckoning Placidus on and on to that something beyond, of whose existence he had no proof except the fact of his own journeying, but which he knew he would surely recognize under whatever guise his quarry would choose to show itself to him at his journey’s end.

“And so he rode, and was glad of the flowers that were singing bright beneath the forest trees, of the melodious birds in the branches, of the streams and the pale stretches of still water, and of the running that could not be seen of skipping beasts. The day wore on and still Placidus rode he did not know where, after he knew not what.

“And then, at last, he saw it: a white deer, the most perfect creature he had ever seen, with great branching antlers, the magnificent head reared proudly, the splendid body poised for flight. For a moment the flashing eyes met his, commanding him, and then the creature was off, silver hoofs spurning the ground, the perfect body a white flash of speed, the antlers swaying this way and that, yet never entangled in the branches, beckoning, challenging, defying. One clear call did Placidus sound upon his horn and then he was off too, his dogs after him, his horse stretched out to full gallop with great hoofs pounding on the forest floor. Placidus bent low in the saddle, whispering threats and cajolements, reckless of time or place, life or death, knowing only that he must follow that deer until the end.

“And so the wild chase went on. But he could not catch up with the creature; it was always a little ahead. The horse was near foundering, his own breath came in gasps, some of the dogs had fallen behind, but still he went on. And then the ground rose steeply and the rocks of a mighty mountain towered up before the failing sight of horse and rider. The deer bounded up it, swift yet unhurried, as though winged. But Placidus could not follow. He reined in his horse, lest it dash itself to death against the rocks, and bowed his head in shame. He, the unconquerable huntsman, was beaten at last.

“And at that moment of his shame the miracle happened. The deer stopped and swung round to face him, lifting its proud head, and the antlers formed themselves into a gleaming cross, with a crucified Figure upon it, that strange symbol of the Christians which he had seen many times and wondered at for a moment or two, and then had turned aside and gone on his way thinking no more about it. But now he could not turn aside, for the deer, the vision sent to him, had led him directly to this end. His way was blocked by this impassable mountain and the challenge of this cross.

“There was only one thing he could do and he did it. He leaped from his horse and fell upon his knees. And a voice cried out loudly, echoing through the forest, ‘Placidus, why dost thou attempt to injure me? I am Jesus Christ whom thou hast long served in ignorance. Dost thou believe in me?’ And Placidus answered, ‘Lord, I believe.’ The voice came again, the words spoken this time very low in his own soul, as though in warning, ‘Many sorrows shalt thou endure for my sake, many temptations will assail thee, but be of good courage, I will always be with thee.’

“A thrill of dismay went through Placidus, yet he did not hesitate, for he knew that he was not yet at his journey’s end; as he had followed the vision of the deer to the vision of the cross, so he must follow the vision of the cross to something beyond again. What it was he still did not know, but in spite of his fear he did know that to attain the goal at last he would give all that he had, down to the last drop of his blood. ‘Lord, I am content,’ he said. ‘Only give me patience to endure all things for Thee.’ When at last he looked up again the deer with the crucifix between its antlers had disappeared and night was falling in the forest.”

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Dialog

My current Gmail chat status, a result of discussing the Doors here:

People are strange when you’re a stranger.

Janet’s:

People are even stranger when you get to know them.

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand

If you pay any attention at all to pop music, you’ve probably heard of this album, an unlikely collaboration between the former singer of Led Zeppelin and the queen of pop bluegrass. I never expected to hear it, much less to like it. I never cared much for Led Zeppelin, and what I’ve heard of Alison Krauss’s music was of very high quality but a little on the bland side to my taste.

But something caused me to listen to the samples at Amazon, and they sounded quite good. And I mentioned it to a friend who had bought it, and he made me a copy, and now I’m going to have to buy the dang thing. It’s really a pretty great album.

I think the magic ingredient is T-Bone Burnett. My friend Robert said years ago that Burnett’s name on an album as producer meant that it was probably worth hearing (come to think of it, maybe that’s why I checked it out), and that still seems to be true. Burnett has a way of getting a sound that’s very American-rootsy but with a hint (or more than a hint) of mystery, tasteful but not slick. I expect he also had a hand in choosing the songs here, which range from good to great. The voices of Plant and Krauss work together beautifully. Here’s one of the highlights:

I’ve heard this song before, sung by Chris Smither, and it was good (like everything by Chris Smither), but this is stunning.

My only reservation about the album is that some of the songs seem a little weak or a little out of place. For instance, the first track is a killer arrangement and performance, but the lyrics consist mostly of repetitions of “She got the money and I got the honey.” The heavy songs are quite heavy—especially Townes Van Zandt’s almost unbearably bleak “Nothin’”—and need a little contrast, but several of the lighter songs here don’t really seem like the right ones. But they’re very well done.

It looks like you can stream the whole album here. If you haven’t heard it, you should.

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No Such Thing As A Normal Year

That’s what my father used to say that his father used to say about the weather. The temperature here has been approaching 100F/38C—hotter than average for this time of year—for the past few days, and it hasn’t rained for over two weeks. My grass is starting to turn brown and I’ll have to water it this weekend. But a week or so ago I was reading about record low temperatures in the northeast.

Rainfall has been less than normal here for several years now. Up in north Alabama and north Mississippi, though, where Janet lives, they’ve had so much rain that the first planting of cotton rotted in the ground, and last weekend trees were blown down by heavy thunderstorms. Anja in Finland is unhappy that unusually cool temperatures and rain are spoiling the midsummer holiday this weekend, when the sun will barely set at all and the weather should be pleasant, at least. Louise in Australia is tired of the short dark days and the rain leading to the winter solstice.

Midwest Severe Weather Outbreak Today reads the headline at weather.com. Another headline notes that the U.S. Open golf tournament, somewhere in New York, is in danger of being rained out. Down here it’s hurricane season, and a tropical depression has formed off the west coast (good for us) of Mexico.

In general, the weather is never right for very long. And I suppose that’s a good thing. If it were, we might start thinking we belong here.

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The Wire Through Season Three

As I mentioned in a comment to Francesca the other day, my wife and I recently finished watching the third season of The Wire. The entire series so far has been extremely good, but whenever I offer that opinion to anyone I add that it’s half recommendation and half warning. The warning is there not just because of the usual violence and sex that are all too typical of the entertainment industry. In that respect the series is not all that bad: the violence is not excessive and the sex scenes, which appear about once every other episode, are mostly brief (and, I might add, contribute nothing to the narrative, but isn’t that always the case?).

No, the warning is about the cumulative effect of the unendingly crude-to-obscene language. For many of the characters this means that hardly a sentence is uttered that isn’t somewhere in the range from merely vulgar to pretty disgusting. (And I don’t think I’m especially easy to shock in that way.) But it’s very much justified artistically, because it is in fact the way the people depicted would talk. This is a show about the criminal and corrupt side of life in an American city (Baltimore). The characters are mostly cops, criminals, and longshoremen, with a few lawyers and politicians thrown in. It’s wearisome to hear this in real life, and more so on the screen, at least to me: somehow it seems more invasive, especially if you’re watching with someone with whom you would not ordinarily converse this way.

Why would you want to put up with all that? Because these are great stories full of great characters, and they show us something profound, something about life in the American city and something about the human condition in general. The only things I’ve ever seen on television that seem worthy of comparison to it are the great BBC productions of great novels—which is fitting, as the producer of The Wire, David Simon, has referred to it as “novels for television,” and that’s an apt description. So far each of the three seasons has presented a long, complicated, and coherent story, which I’ve not been alone in comparing to Dickens not only in plot but in character.

It’s the characters that really stand out. Perhaps it’s because in thirteen hours you see quite a lot of each major character, but it’s not only that. I can’t think of any television or movie production whose characters have come to seem so real to me—to the point where I’ve caught myself being startled by the impulse to pray for certain ones, or being genuinely fearful of what may happen to them, or genuinely grieved at what does happen. And clearly many viewers react this way. Included with the last DVD in this season are a couple of discussions and interviews with David Simon and others involved the show. At the beginning of one of these, the host notes that the story concludes with “The most unwelcome event in television since the creation of Fox News.” The audience begins to laugh and cheer before he names the event, because they all know exactly what he was referring to. (Substitute some other calamity if, like me, you don’t think Fox News is quite so appalling or important as that.) The event is not just important to the story, or merely startling; it is unwelcome; you really don’t want it to happen.

David Simon appears to be pretty much a conventional secular liberal, and he seems to see the show as having a pretty definite political message, having to do with the disastrous condition of the inner city and specifically with the role of drugs and the so-called war against them in creating the disaster. It’s interesting, though, that a lot of conservatives think the show is great. That’s because, whatever Simon’s vision of the solution to the problems of the city, his vision of the actuality is clear and unflinching about the complexity of the situation. The vision is very conservative or conservative-compatible, in the sense that it recognizes that no simple solution exists; it is an essentially tragic vision. It portrays systemic corruption and misjudgment without ever reducing its characters to mere automata reacting to those conditions, or to place-holders in a set of political opinions. It never stoops to the usual movie-and-tv level of attempting to convince you that if only the Republicans and capitalists and Christians would quit oppressing people everything would be fine. The struggle between good and evil is acted out not at the level of ideology and policy but in the heart of each character. It is tragic not in the loose sense of “sad” but in the classical sense: people are undone by their own flaws, their weaknesses and their bad judgment. Victories are more rare and more transient than defeats.

You could say that the artistic success of The Wire is a case study in the triumph of artistic vision and skill over abstraction. Whatever the abstract opinions of the creators of the series may be, they have been true to the reality they attempt to portray. And they’ve portrayed it so well that once you enter their world you’ll never forget it. I won’t, anyway.

Aside from the crudity, I have a few minor criticisms. Some of the acting is less than first-rate, for instance. There are one or two characters who aren’t really convincing (e.g. Brother Mouzone). But these are only quibbles relative to the achievement.

Here is the first scene of the first episode of the first season. It may give you an idea of the show’s appeal, or perhaps non-appeal.

“Got to. This America, man.” That may be my favorite moment of the series. At a moment of horror, stupidity, and waste, it speaks of an unwarranted but irrepressible hope.

And “Life just be that way, I guess” could serve as an epigraph.

Note to Tom Waits fans: that’s The Five Blind Boys of Alabama singing “Down in the Hole.”

Although I would love to discuss the series in detail, I’d hate to give away very much to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so if we discuss this let’s avoid spoilers.

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Front Porch Republic

I’ve added the excellent site by that name to my links, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. FPR is a collaborative effort on socio-political-culture themes by a group of people who describe themselves thusly:

We come from different backgrounds, live in different places, and have divergent interests, but we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend.

Some would call themselves conservative, or at least have in the past, some not; overall the vision is what might be called Wendell Berry conservatism, a desire to recover and renew what was good in America before our last fifty years or so of hyperactive cultural and economic dislocations. Or perhaps they could be called politically ecumenical (religiously as well—it’s not a specifically Catholic or even Christian effort, though I think Christians predominate).

Anyway, it’s very good, and as they are kind enough to link to this blog (which I suspect is currently disappointing them, as I haven’t had much to say about these things recently), I want to return the favor.

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