Previous month:
April 2010
Next month:
June 2010

May 2010

Firemen and the Gnostic Economy

Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2010

Friday night when I went for my usual walk to the bay with the dogs there was a car, a dark red Ford Explorer, parked in the turnaround at the end of the street. It’s not unusual for teenagers to come down here on weekend nights and have a party on the bit of beach or in the woods, and although they really shouldn’t be there and may be doing things they shouldn’t be doing, I generally ignore them as long as they don’t seem to be doing any damage and don’t leave a bunch of garbage behind. They must have been in the woods, because I didn’t see or hear them, though I did catch a whiff of smoke, which always concerns me a little. One group that I did eventually chase away had been there repeatedly, camping overnight in the woods and making big campfires during a long dry spell, and I was worried about the fires.

Saturday morning, again on my usual walk, but somewhat later than usual because it was the weekend, I saw that the car was still there, and I noticed that the license plate indicated that the owner was a member of a fire department. There’s a point where the direct path to the water branches off to the left toward where a tiny creek empties out into the bay, and where there is usually the biggest stretch of beach. Taking that path, I found that three or four young people were fast asleep on the sand, though it was after 9 and they were in the full heat of the sun. I figured that if they were sleeping that soundly they probably had not only stayed up most of the night but had sedated themselves with alcohol or drugs. Again, I left them alone, and although the dogs and I made a certain amount of noise, none of them seemed to have moved when we left.

Late Saturday afternoon, around 5:30, having completed some other chores, I was about to give the larger of the two dogs, Lucy, a bath, and decided to take her outside first, as she had been sleeping behind the chair in my study for some hours. I remembered the kids on the beach. The car had been gone for some time, though I hadn’t noticed them leave. I thought I’d go take a look and see if they’d left a mess.

Only a few steps into the woods toward the water, I heard an odd rushing sound and wondered what it was, thinking at first that someone must still be down there. When I reached the point where the path branches toward the creek, I was astonished to see flames climbing a dead tree on the other side of the creek, and all the underbrush around it ablaze.

For a second I was stunned. For perhaps another second I considered whether I should rush back to the house for a bucket, but it was immediately obvious that this fire was well beyond anything I could cope with. A storm was coming from the west, and a strong wind was blowing off the water, whipping the flames furiously—I could see that they were spreading quickly, even in the few moments I stood there. So I ran—something I have not done since I had back surgery in 1992—the hundred yards or so back to the house and called 911.

An hour or so of excitement followed. I heard the police dispatcher describe the fire as “a grass fire,” which I didn’t think quite did it justice. Fairhope has a volunteer fire department, and apparently many of them were out of town for the Memorial Day weekend. When a small truck with a small crew arrived fifteen or twenty minutes later, the fire was that much bigger. The truck was too big to get down the path and close to the fire. And after making a brief attempt to go at it with portable fire extinguishers, the crew called for assistance and more equipment to combat what I heard them describe now over the radio as a major fire. It had the potential to be a serious disaster: the fire had started on the northwest corner of a patch of woods maybe six or eight acres in size (that’s really just a guess), and the wind, which had increased, was pushing it south and east, toward houses.

In another ten or fifteen minutes another truck arrived with a portable pump, which the crew fed from the bay, and a long hose which enabled them to reach the forward point of the fire. And then the thunderstorm finally arrived, first with a light rain and then a drenching downpour, and between the rain and the work of the firemen the blaze was extinguished.

My guess is that the kids who had spent the night on the beach intended to put out their fire and thought they had, but had left something smoldering until the rising wind of the approaching storm blew it into flames again. I described the car to the firemen, and they showed a sort of pained amusement at the fact that it had displayed a firefighter’s license plate. They said there was no one in the Fairhope department who drove a dark red Ford Explorer and guessed that it must have come from some nearby municipality. I suppose it’s possible that they weren’t telling me the truth, not wanting to get some colleague into trouble, but if they did recognize the car I’m sure the owner will hear about it.

This adventure left me feeling pretty appreciative of the fire department, and got me thinking about all the work of the world that requires straightforward physical labor, often difficult or dangerous or both. (Of course fighting a fire requires a lot of knowledge and skill, but in the end it’s a tough physical job.) We don’t value it as we should. Perhaps it’s appropriate, since it is the mind that sets men apart from animals, that mental labor should be more prized and more rewarded than physical labor—but up to a point only. Those kinds of work which are primarily mental have meaning only in and because of the more physical labor of others. My own job in information technology, for instance, in which the mental labor is demanding but the physical labor consists almost entirely of typing, would be utterly useless apart from its role in supporting the organization that employs me. It does not directly produce or accomplish anything in the world outside the computer, but rather manages information about that world. And I would not be able to do it without the support of people laboring with their hands, doing everything from assembling the computers I work with to cleaning the building in which my office is located.

I grow impatient with hearing about “the information economy,” about “knowledge workers” and their privileged position in our economic life. Pundits seem to have a sort of gnostic view of the economy, speaking as if it were a totally incorporeal thing consisting only of financial transactions. They recognize that there must at some level be actual goods and services, but these don’t seem to really matter in themselves. What is important about them is that they be produced as cheaply as possible; it doesn’t matter where, or by whom, because they are only the raw material of the real economy, which consists of marketing, investment, banking, and so forth. And even most investing, which in theory involves placing one’s money at risk on an enterprise that one believes worthwhile, is only a form of gambling, in which the real investment is brief and abstract and based only what “the market,” meaning other gamblers, will do.

There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.) And there’s a presumption that the end point of social development is for everyone to be a “knowledge worker.”

But nobody calls for a knowledge worker when the woods are on fire. And I doubt that if Jesus had been born in our time he would have been a banker or a stockbroker or a computer programmer.

There is a growing gap between the people who run the gnostic economy and those who have no direct role in it and are seen as existing only to serve and support those who do. I think this is one of the many forces pulling our country apart. It isn’t very visible yet, and the effects are slow to develop, but they may prove to be very powerfully destructive, especially if a strong wind begins to blow.

Anthony Daniels on the Psychology of Pessimism

The May issue of The New Criterion contains a typically memorable essay by Anthony Daniels comparing Swift and Johnson, specifically with respect to the deep pessimism about human affairs that they held in common. I laughed at this passage, which describes a psychological pattern with which I am very familiar:

That life is a trial was Swift’s view also. Perhaps the fact that his father died before he was born, leaving his mother very poor, and that his nurse virtually kidnapped him from his mother for three years, without her apparently making any great efforts to recuperate him, lent a certain jaundice to his outlook. Experience early confirmed for him the vanity of human wishes. He wrote, in a famous letter to Lord Bolingbroke:
I remember, when I was a little boy, I felt a great fish at the end of my line which I drew up almost on the ground, but it dropped in, and the disappointment vexes me to this very day, and I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments.
It is no answer that, if he had caught the great fish, he would have been satisfied: for he would have complained that, once landed, it was not as big as he had supposed; or that adults removed it from him as soon as they saw him with it, and he was never allowed to see it again; or that its flesh was far less delicious than he had anticipated, being dry or muddy in flavor; or that the satisfaction of the meal was soon over.

A few miscellaneous things

I haven’t had time or mental space to write anything substantial this week. But here are a few interesting things I’ve run across.

  • At First Thoughts, the First Things blog, here’s one of those silly little games that book and music lovers like to play:  If you had a shelf of books to help explain yourself, which two books would form the outer boundaries—the bookends—of you? I’m not sure I get this idea entirely. At first I drew a complete blank: “the outer boundaries of me”?—meaning...what exactly? But soon two books did present themselves to my mind: The Lord of the Rings and Four Quartets. I suppose they explain me in some way; at any rate they are the two books that I would least like to live without, which certainly says something about me.

    Here are Sally Thomas’s thoughts on the question; though she doesn’t finally settle on only two books, her choices do overlap with mine significantly. What are yours?

  • Speaking of Four Quartets: I did, finally, finish Thomas Howard’s book about the Quartets, Dove Descending, and I really want to discuss it. Suffice for now to say that it vastly expanded my understanding of the poem and made me love it even more. In fact I might not have described it as “indispensable” before reading Howard.

  • Also at First Thoughts: liberal arts types really should not mess with stuff like quantum physics, because an actual physicist may come along and beat them up. This has been a temptation for some years now: a poet or philosopher or theologian or literary critic latches on to some highly simplified bit of esoteric physics and tries to appropriate it to support his views in his own field. It’s generally a big mistake.

  • Eve Tushnet completely knocks me out again.

  • In a comment thread, Janet linked to this profound meditation on marriage by Betty Duffy.

  • And my wife reminded me of this ancient truth: “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.”

Sometimes sex sells...

...but I have a feeling this approach is not going to work.

Right, nobody else ever played Beethoven with feeling. About a dozen of these showed up on eMusic this morning. I don't know whether "all female" is meant to have the connotations of "sisterhood is powerful" or "Lingerie Football League," but I don't think it's going to appeal to either crowd--the picture would annoy the first, but not be racy enough for the second.

Habemus Grandson

Sunday Night Monday Morning Journal — May 24, 2010

Emmitt Samuel Tynes, born at 12:43AM, 7lb 5oz (about 3.3 kilograms). Mother and baby are both fine, or more than fine: mother looked remarkably fresh at 2AM after being in labor for somewhere around twelve hours, and Emmitt is strikingly alert and hungry, and seemingly good-tempered about his new situation. Father delighted, grandmothers beside themselves, grandfather having a celebratory drink of Old Grand-Dad.  

There is some controversy about whether it should be "Emmitt" or "Emmett." I voted for "Emmett" but was over-ruled.

It occurs to me that the oil spill is a lot like most products of the entertainment industry: a big ugly toxic cloud spreading over and into everything. Which makes it more than a little ironic that most Hollywooders preach environmentalism. And hypocritical as well, since they tend to preach rather then practice--actually cutting back on energy consumption tends to be something they recommend highly for other people, but not something that can reasonably be expected of people as important as themselves.

About the oil spill

Maybe you've wondered why I haven't said anything about this disaster in progress. I think it's mainly because I feel somewhat stunned and fatalistic: it's totally out of my hands, and I'm just waiting to see how bad it's going to be. So far the effects have been less obviously catastrophic than one might have expected, because the oil has mostly stayed offshore. It's only within the last few days that quantities of actual crude oil have begun to come ashore in Louisiana marshes, and the effect there has been pretty terrible.

This article is a pretty good a summary of where things stand today. Naturally, people are pretty angry, and a lot of them want to lynch BP. Being the judicious and fair-minded soul that I am, I've been hesitant to assume that BP was grossly negligent. It was obviously not in BP's interest for this to happen, still less for it to continue for so long, and I don't usually buy the evil-corporation-will-stop-at-nothing view. But neither do I buy the benevolent self-portrait that the corporations paint. And at the moment I care most about getting the leak stopped. But I'm beginning to lean toward the old Western approach: give 'em a fair trial before we hang 'em.

The big question in my mind is whether this truly was culpable negligence, or an event so far out of the ordinary that there is some excuse for the failure, first of the supposedly fail-safe mechanisms that should have shut down the well immediately, and then of subsequent failures to stop it. And has BP been lying about the real quantity, or have they honestly miscalculated? I'm not sure we'll ever know. What I do insist upon is that this must never happen again.

They're going to try again this weekend to shut it down. I'm praying that they'll be successful. I invite you to join in that prayer.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sunday Night Journal — May 16, 2010

I sat down this afternoon to resume work on the next installment of the memoir, and had written a few paragraphs when my wife offered me some lunch, which of course I accepted. Then we decided to eat in front of the television, something we haven’t done very often since last fall, when she began work on an online Master’s degree in library studies. And that’s how I ended up spending the following two hours watching Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, one of three movies that have been sitting here unwatched since sometime in March.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I don’t discuss movies as much as I used to. That’s because I haven’t seen many of them for the past nine months. A few years ago we joined Netflix, and went on a long binge in which we saw a great many movies that we (or I) had always wanted to see, and a great many that people had recommended to us, and a great many that just struck one of us as interesting. Our habit got so bad that we upgraded our Netflix account to allow us to have three movies at once—that meant we always had at least one at home, while the others made their way through the mail back and forth to the Netflix distribution center. But that traffic dropped off sharply last fall, when my wife started spending every spare moment studying or attending class, and came pretty much to a standstill back in March. The three movies that we had on hand then had been here for six or eight weeks, until a week or so ago, when the semester ended. Sophie Scholl was the last of the three, and although I had some reservations about beginning a movie late Sunday afternoon, when I still had a lot of writing to do, I did it anyway.

All of this is to explain why that next installment did not get written, and why I’m writing about the movie instead: once I’d seen it I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on any other subject for a while. It’s a very, very fine work and I strongly recommend it. Moreover, it touches on a question so important to me that I’m not exaggerating when I say that I spend some time thinking about it every day.

As you may know, Sophie Scholl was one of the members of the clandestine German anti-Nazi group called The White Rose (you can read about them here). Most of them were Christians, Protestant and Catholic. The group was not very large, and it seems to have had little direct impact. Most of the participants, including Sophie and her brother Hans, were arrested and executed. The film begins with the incident that led to their arrest, and most of it follows the struggle between Sophie and her interrogators. At first she attempts (naturally) to deny everything, and when that proves fruitless she turns defiant, telling the authorities exactly what she thinks of Hitler and National Socialism. But this resolve does not come easily to her: she’s very much afraid, not only for herself, but for her family. And the authorities give her a chance to cooperate and perhaps save herself, or at least get by with a lighter punishment.

Why did she stand firm? In one way, we all know the answer to that. It’s clear to us that she was right, and from our safe places in societies where free speech is taken for granted and the government is not thoroughly evil and is at least somewhat accountable and constrained by law and custom, we applaud her purity. Certainly, we say, one must resist manifest evil, one must stand on principle, one must be true to one’s conscience,etc.—all true, all very fine things to say, and very, very easy to say when there is little or no possibility that one will be forced to live up to them at the cost of one’s life.

What makes a martyr? I think there are souls of such simple integrity that there is for them not much distance between knowing what is right and attempting to do it—not that the doing is easy for them, but that they are not much troubled by the decision to do it. If one is to believe what they say about themselves, some of the more vocal atheists are of this type, not thinking too deeply about what is right or wrong and why, or why one should choose the first and reject the second. They are positively contemptuous of the idea that one would want to seek an intelligible and metaphysically convincing justification for doing what is right: what’s right is right, and that’s what you do, and that’s all there is to it, they say; philosophy and theology don’t enter into it at all. I am not confident of their judgment as to what is right, nor quite as confident as they are of their own willingness to choose it when the choice is difficult. But that is the way they talk, and the way they seem to think it should work.

Others—and I am one of these—want a better answer. Like children, we can’t stop asking why? Not, in my case at any rate, why this or that action is right or wrong, but why is it so important that we choose? This is only another way of asking the question to which I alluded above: does my life have, finally, any meaning? Not just a subjective and emotional importance to me, because it’s mine and I desire to have pleasure and avoid pain, but an objective meaning, an absolute meaning.

If I should be put in the position of sacrificing my life for the benefit of others, what is at stake? If I believe that in a hundred or a thousand years, it will no longer matter, because everyone involved will be equally dead, and there is nothing beyond death, where will I get the strength to do such a thing? If, believing this, I were in the position of Sophie Scholl, twenty-two years old, still early in the one earthly life that is all I have and all I ever will have, why should I throw away my remaining sixty or so years for a mere principle, or for the hope that my actions might hinder the progress of the evil that is about to kill me? Isn’t the only rational position for any individual to preserve his own life for as long as he can, or at least until he finds it so unpleasant that he no longer wants to preserve it, all the while taking what pleasure he can find? If we are all going to disappear forever, what does it matter whether any of us disappears now or later?

I must believe that my choice matters in some ultimate way. Only then might I be able to make the right choice in the face of death. I might still fail—if this film is accurate, then Sophie Scholl suffered terrible anguish in her effort to persevere in her decision. But I must believe that it matters.

Ultimate or absolute meaning must be eternal. If there is a time when it will cease to matter, it is not ultimate or absolute. And meaning requires mind; it exists only in relation to mind. Therefore absolute meaning requires God—eternal mind— though it may not require me. I might be able to bear the idea that my death will be the absolute extinguishing of my consciousness if I believe that the meaning of my sacrifice is absolute because it exists forever in the mind of God. (Thus the atheist who gives his life for a cause or a person testifies to his belief in God.)

I understand of course that this logic does not persuade anyone who does not wish to be persuaded; to accept it is more a matter of seeing it than of acknowledging it as proven. And I don’t believe God wants us to be able to prove it that way. He wants us to make the choice, in the most secret places of our hearts, where we are hardly even conscious of choosing: the choice between meaning and not-meaning, between love and not-love. Sophie Scholl put her trust in God, but it was not simple or easy for her to do so. She submitted to her crucifixion, but not without the fear that God had abandoned her. And she prayed for deliverance that did not come. As I contemplate that unanswered prayer (and I must say in passing that it is portrayed with almost unbearable pathos in the movie) I ask myself whether she was, perhaps, a fool to think that anyone heard her prayer, much less that there was any possibility of its being answered.

But I don’t stop believing that she was not a fool, that she was right, that her prayer was heard, and that there was a reason why it was not answered. Well, maybe that’s not exactly correct: say rather that I don’t stop choosing to believe.


By the way, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is in German, with English subtitles. And the next installment of the memoir will be along in a few days; I’ve been thinking I might uncouple it from the Sunday night journal, because there are so many other things I want to write about in addition to it. But I'll only do that if I can continue to produce a new section every week.

Anybody know what this is?

My wife recently took the job of archivist for the Archdiocese of Mobile. In that capacity she's been helping some people do research for a book about the history of Portier House, a building which was the residence of the first bishop of Mobile in the early 19th century. She found, at the Library of Congress' web site, this WPA photograph of the front door of the house as it looked in 1935.

The question is: what is that vaguely leaf-shaped thing affixed to the left side of the entrance? It's all wrong for an ornament, yet it doesn't have any obvious function, either. Any ideas?

 More info about Portier House  here, if you're interested.

Uncle John and Possum

This is my brother John, Uncle John to our children and also to my wife and me, to distinguish him from son John. Uncle John likes animals, a lot. The critter on his head is a baby possum he rescued. The mother possum was hit by a car, I guess while carrying all her babies, and the mother and all the other babies except this one died. John says: "I was telling the possum that he wasn't on the endangered list and maybe I should let him be, and he said he 'was too endangered' so I took him home." That was about a month ago and the possum is still alive.


He's a lot cuter now than he will be when he's grown. This is how John kept him alive:


O'Connor vs. Percy (?)

Here's an interesting piece at First Things by Micah Mattix comparing Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, and concluding that O'Connor is the better fiction writer. I agree with many of the specific observations made by the author, but I have two objections:

One: O'Connor and Percy are so different, and they're attempting such different things, that to pronounce one superior to the other seems unwarranted.

Two: I disagree that by normal critical standards O'Connor is superior. It's true that O'Connor's plots have a narrative focus and intensity that Percy's don't, but so do Dashiell Hammett's, and in my opinion he doesn't rank with either of them. Percy's narratives are certainly more diffuse, but they almost have to be, as he is dealing with broad and complex philosophical ideas through his characters, while O'Connor is interested in the moment when God's grace strikes like lightning.

And I disagree that either O'Connor's characters or her plots are more fully realized. She has only a few main types: the ignorant and half-crazy fanatic who is nevertheless more right than wrong; the smug skeptic with a hollow and useless education; the fierce and upright, often self-righteous, old lady. And her plots are usually some variation of that lightning strike. I'm not saying this as criticism of her, because she used these somewhat limited tools to produce extremely important work. But I wouldn't say she is, speaking broadly, the better novelist.

I wouldn't want to be without either of them (which, I should note, Mattix is not suggesting, at all). It's significant that their work is so different, and yet in each case so thoroughly animated and informed by the Catholic faith.

A Tour of Greenbrier

I'm not sure how well this is going to work, but let's give it a try. I discovered a week or two ago that Google Maps Street View now includes Greenbrier (when I looked a year or so ago it didn't). The image below is the view from heart of downtown Greenbrier: the center (more or less) of the intersection of County Road 10 and Greenbrier Road. You're looking due east. If you click repeatedly on either the left or the right arrow in that directional circle in the upper left of the picture, you'll turn yourself all the way around without moving from that spot, and get a look at the entire place. When you get back to the due-east position and proceed forward along that road, the first driveway on the right that you get to will be that of the house that I've been referring to as my grandparents' house. (When I was 9 we moved there, but that part of the story is yet to come. One of my sisters and her husband live there now.) You'll have to click a lot, as the driveway is about a quarter of a mile (.4km) down the road. The next driveway is the house that belonged to the aunt and uncle with whom I was mostly living at this point in the story.

Since the view is limited to what could be photographed from a car on the road, you can't really see the houses, or much of the farm. But if you stand in the crossroads and go straight south on Greenbrier Road, everything on your left for a mile or so (1.6km) belongs to the family farm.

Clicking on the "View Larger Map" button takes you to Google Maps, where you can get a bigger view. That might be a good idea anyway, as I think navigation may be faster there.

Unfortunately the images are sort of dim and blurry. But this is really not dramatically different from the way the place looked in the 1950s and '60s. Some things are different, and there is more pavement, but a time traveller from 1960 would recognize it.

View Larger Map

The Best Knock-Knock Joke Ever

I'm posting this account of something that happened some years ago just because I happened to think of it. A little girl of seven or eight, who didn't speak with perfect grammar, was telling the knock-knock joke that goes like this, with her doing the knock-knock part:

Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say banana

But this is the way she told it, with the wildest sort of glee on the punch line:

Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Banana who?
Knock knock
—Who's there?
—Orange who?
Ain't you glad I didn't say banana!

She was more than pleased with the amount of very genuine laughter this produced.

Where I've Been

I was unexpectedly called to Washington to meet with the president.

That’s actually true, and I’ve been dying to say it, though putting it that way fails to take the full context into account, as I’ll explain. Remember that when you’re reading, for instance, a news story about the Pope in which the writer clearly wants to convict him of something.

My son John works for the Defense Department and has been assigned to the White House for the past two years. He’s about to "rotate out," as they say, which I find an immensely amusing image—I visualize people fixing themselves inside a big wheel, using their arms and legs as spokes, and rolling out of the White House and down the street. But part of this procedure, the departing people get to have their pictures taken with the president, and they can invite some family members. So it was that I made an extremely hasty trip to Washington—got a call from John on Friday afternoon, flew up late Saturday, left DC yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

And should have been home very late last night, but bad weather in the South caused Delays in Atlanta—a phrase no air traveller wants to hear, because Atlanta is such an important airport that problems there ripple out all over the country. And I missed my connecting flight and spent the night in the Atlanta airport, which of course has only helped to cement my dislike of air travel. It would actually be possible to sleep somewhat comfortably on the chairs in the airport, but for reasons which I must suppose to be deeply rooted in evil, the airport authorities leave their noisemakers on all night long, even between midnight and 5 or so when there are no planes running from most gates. I’m referring to the every-three-minutes repetition of security warnings, canned music consisting mostly of annoying lightweight pop, and CNN. I know the security warnings came every three minutes because, since they were keeping me awake, I used my cell phone’s stop watch to time them. At one point I was reduced to making an obscene gesture at the speakers in the ceiling. I’m running on about three hours of sleep right now.

But that’s ok; it was a fascinating experience. I think any but the most jaded and cynical and alienated American must inevitably be moved by coming so close to the heart of our system. All three of those words apply to me, and I think I have relatively few patriotic illusions. But I am a patriot, in my way. I didn’t vote for Obama and disagree deeply with many of his policies, but, dang it, he’s the president of the United States, and any American ought to feel a pretty powerful respect for the office, and to wish the man well, even if what we wish is not what he himself has in mind. I couldn’t resist saying "God bless you" to him, which I’m not sure he liked; perhaps he was thinking this a nut?

The actual meeting and photo with the president was, of course, a pretty quick and perfunctory affair. I think John said he had ten employees, each with an assortment of relatives, to get through in 15 minutes. Still, to shake hands with and speak briefly to the president, in the Oval Office, is not something one takes lightly, or is likely to forget.

In addition to me, John’s group included his brother Will, who works for the GAO (and yes, it’s amusing that a conservative who thinks the federal government is too big has two sons who work for it), my son-in-law Gabe, and John’s fiancee, Claire. After the photos, we were shown out through the White House Rose Garden, and the woman who was leading us remarked on how quiet we were. I thought of an anecdote which must be from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I hope I’m remembering this accurately:

Johnson was in some library or museum—perhaps it was in a private house—and the king came in. Johnson made some sort of formal greeting and then said little more. Boswell, on being told the story, asked Johnson why he hadn’t taken the opportunity to discuss something-or-other—the dictionary, maybe—which he knew interested the king. Johnson replied "It was not for me to bandy pleasantries with my sovereign."

I think we felt a bit that way: a respect, bordering on awe, which is not so much for the man himself as for all that his office represents. The American president is not a monarch (many of them have no doubt wished they were), but he does, for the duration of his term, embody the country, in a sense, in something of the same way a monarch does. We, the people, tend to place in him those often excessive, often quasi-religious, hopes, always in danger of becoming idolatrous, that fuel not only the ferocious defense of the nation by its citizens but also, though perhaps unconsciously, the equally ferocious attacks. And yet one felt—I felt, anyway— that the man himself, dissociated from the office he holds, was quite ordinary. I don’t meant that in any disparaging sense, but as a simple fact: confronting the actual person, as opposed to seeing the image, one saw him as no different from the rest of us. The immense respect one felt was recognition that the office resides in the man, and was not produced by some intrinsic quality of his.

By the way, we all agreed that he was smaller than we had pictured him to be.


There will not, after all, be a Sunday night journal this week. I did make a few notes but didn’t have time to do any more, and to write it on Tuesday or Wednesday seems unsporting.

Going Away for a Couple of Days

I'm having to go out of town very unexpectedly (long story, nothing's wrong). I'll be leaving in a couple of hours and won't be back till late Monday night. I don't think I'll take my laptop so you probably won't hear from me again till sometime Tuesday. With luck I'll be able to write the Sunday Night Journal but it won't get posted until at least Tuesday, probably late.

In the meantime, here is an old SNJ about how I mostly hate flying. It's still on the old blog--I'm only 2/3 or so through the process of transferring the archives, which can only be done in chunks of 50 or so posts. I hope everyone has a good weekend and that the Gulf Coast isn't covered with crude oil when I get back.