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July 2010

The Sundays: Summertime

Weekend Music

Let's see how long I can keep this string of husband-wife collaborations going. Thanks to Rob G for the link. This song is from an album released in 1997, and apparently The Sundays haven't released anything since. According to their AMG bio, they decided to withdraw from the music biz to focus on raising their child. I hope they've stayed together and had more children. (Note: if you're subject to motion sickness, this video could make you a little uneasy, I think).


Anne Rice Excommunicates Everybody Else

I know she's serious, and it's a serious matter, but I couldn't help snickering a bit at the way Anne Rice has publicly repudiated Christianity. It sounds so juvenile, like a teenage girl yelling "I just...just...HATE all of you!", bursting into tears, running off into her room and slamming the door.

I really don't know that much about her. I sampled Queen of the Damned, one of her vampire books, some years ago, really thinking that I might like the gothic atmosphere that I supposed her work would have. But I soon encountered a scene of such sickening violence that I stopped reading. (Anybody want to recommend that I give her another try?) I knew that she had returned to the Church, and had written at least one book about the life of Christ, but on the basis of a few interviews with her that I read or heard, I sort of had an uneasy feeling about it, as if she were still holding back and was not fully committed. 

I'm always a little surprised at those who think their personal opinions about who Jesus was and what he taught are more authoritative than those of the communities which have been thinking and praying about it for 2000 years.

“It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” Well, who can argue that she's wrong to call us “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” (though she might have acknowledged the good stuff, like, say the music of Bach)? But I'm of a quite different mind: thank God that it is possible for me to belong, to be allowed on board the ship which is the world’s only hope. If I’m also still a bit of an outsider, as she says of herself, on one level, that’s ok. I put up with the Church, the Church puts up with me: that seems fair enough.

I'm not responsible for what happens to your mind if you click here. I will note that it may take me a while to recover.

The Endurance

I'm embarrassed to say that I knew almost nothing about Ernest Shackleton until tonight. I knew that he was one of the explorers of one of the poles, but I didn't even know which one, and I didn't know whether he succeeded or failed, lived or died. Well, now I know, thanks to this excellent documentary, which I recommend highly. If you've complained about the weather or some other physical discomfort or inconvenience lately, or been impatient with some tiresome task, this will put it in perspective for you, although perhaps at the cost of making you feel a bit ashamed. What Shackleton and his men went through on their failed attempt to reach the South Pole is almost inconceivable. 

The film, narrated by Liam Neeson, includes both still and moving pictures taken on the voyage, liberal quotations from the diaries of members of the expedition, contemporary photography of the Antarctic (beautiful and, in this context, somewhat frightening), and interviews with historians and descendants of some of the crew. Very very much worth the hour and forty minutes invested in watching it.

War In the Closed World 20: Mooresville and Music

It was also in Mooresville that I first encountered my other great love: music. It may even be a greater love; if I’d been born with more musical ability and weren’t so lazy, I might have made myself a competent performer. There is an interview with Walker Percy in which he is asked what he would have liked to be if he had not been a writer; he replies that he would have liked to be an operatic tenor, a heldentenor. When I asked myself a similar question, the answer came to me instantly: I would have liked to be a really, really good electric guitar player.

My earliest memory in which music plays a part is only a sort of fragmented image. I think it was before my father remarried, though I can’t be sure; if that’s true I was probably around five years old. It was in the old house in Mooresville, in a wing that had just been converted into an apartment for my uncle Jimmy and his wife (I have a few memories of the conversion, of someone letting me hold a paintbrush and slap it at an upstairs wall). Jimmy and his father, my grandfather, were playing music, Jimmy on guitar and my grandfather on mandolin. I think other people were there. Perhaps it was a sort of party. They may have played “The Blue-tailed Fly”; at any rate I associate the song with that memory, and with that apartment.

I was fascinated by the instruments, especially the guitar. It was an arch-top, which was not usual for country or folk music, with f-holes like a violin, and a sunburst finish. I thought it was extremely beautiful, but I don’t think I was allowed to touch it, or perhaps I was just too shy to ask.

The odd thing is that I don’t remember this happening more than once. Of course it may have—after all, I didn’t live there. But I don’t remember either my grandfather or my uncle playing music again, except once, many years later, my uncle.

My first memory of hearing rock-and-roll is in Mooresville: I am outside my grandparent’s house and I hear Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” I suppose it must have been coming from a car radio. That must have been 1956, when I was eight.

My grandfather was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, among other things, and I loved to go to his shop with him, a small dim building a couple of blocks from their home, filled with aromatic lumber and well-made, well-kept tools. I even said at the time that I wanted to be a carpenter, which is very funny to me now and no doubt even more so to anyone familiar with my talents in the building line. But in my most vivid memory of the shop, I’m standing outside it, beside my grandfather’s car, a black ‘40s or early ‘50s-style Chevrolet if my memory is correct, listening to the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up, Little Susie,” on the radio. That would have been 1957, when I was nine.

My grandfather did not live much longer than that. I believe I was not more than ten when he died of lung cancer. It was a few years later—a long time in my life—that I began to have a conscious enthusiasm for music, and it was my grandmother Hill, whom I visited often, who provided the material. She had a record player, and a few dozen records, among which were Harry Belafonte’s two Carnegie Hall concert albums, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall. (She also liked Elvis.) These two albums, each one consisting of two LPs, were my gateway to a musical wonderland, and my grandmother eventually bought me my own copy of the first one.

There came a time when they seemed old-fashioned and too slick and show-business-y for my taste, and I haven’t heard them for decades. But looking at the track lists now, and remembering them, I understand why I was captivated. They have a sample of most of the interesting folk music that was happening outside the confines of commercial radio: American, both black and white, (Odetta singing both); calypso (the famous “Day-O” and others); college folk (The Chad Mitchell Trio); African (Miriam Makeba); Latin (“La Bamba”). There is humor (“A Hole in the Bucket”); sophistication (“The Ballad of Sigmund Freud,” with the chorus “Oh Doctor Freud, oh Doctor Freud, how we wish you had been differently employed”); high-energy dance-play songs (“Jump Down Spin Around”); emotional ballads (“Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah”). It was world music long before the term was coined, though the emphasis was on American music.

I continued to like rock-and-roll, but through my early adolescence it was folk music that I loved most. For a while it was the highly polished pop-folk of groups like the Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the time I was in high school my beloved grandmother’s mind had failed and she had been moved to a nursing home (more on that in another chapter), and when I visited in Mooresville it was at the home of my uncle Jimmy and his wife Libby, now living in a house they had built next door to the old family home. There I got a taste of the originals from whom the pop folksters had gotten their material and inspiration. There I heard real blues for the first time, in particular the sound of the blues guitar, for which I had an instantaneous love which has not only never faded but has grown stronger over the 45 years or so since I first heard it. As B.B. King said of hearing Bukka White for the first time: “that sound would go all through me,” and it still does.

When I was old enough to drive I sometimes spent Saturday nights at Libby and Jimmy’s. They cooked steaks and played records for me, and sometimes let me drink a beer or two. Jimmy’s great love was country blues, the rough one-man acoustic blues as it was played in the south, before Muddy Waters and others took it to Chicago and introduced the electric guitar and the rhythm section: Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy. Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell. Those evenings were magical, filled not only with the sense of discovery but with a sense of growing into something, of a sort of initiation, that probably can be had only in youth: the discovery of discovery, perhaps. One year they gave me, either for Christmas or my birthday, a four-LP anthology of folk music from the Vanguard label, which at the time had an excellent roster of folk and near-folk artists, people who were not necessarily the originators, discovered in Appalachia or rural Mississippi, but not the highly commercial popularizers, either—people like Joan Baez and Ian and Sylvia on the one hand, and Doc Watson and the Georgia Sea Island Singers on the other. That set became a sort of encyclopedia of folk music for me, serving me somewhat as the broader and more important Harry Smith anthology (which I still have never heard) served Dylan and other discoverers of folk music in the late 1950s. I was even a bit of a folk-music snob for a while, until 1965 or so, when rock got interesting, with Dylan moving that way and the Beatles getting adventurous and folk-rock appearing.

I don’t want to make this sound like music was something that I only heard in Mooresville. My mother made an attempt to introduce us to classical music with a recording of the Nutcracker Suite, which I liked, and she had some Broadway show albums that she played from time to time, of which I remember only My Fair Lady, which I considered not too bad for that sort of thing (but have since learned to admire). But there was not the same level of interest there as in Mooresville.

The Weepies: I Was Made for Sunny Days

Weekend Music

Another sweet catchy love song. I guess I'm ruining my reputation with stuff like this; the title of this one is especially against my usual grain, as I know I've mentioned how much I like rain. But it's not ironic. This song was given away on either eMusic or Amazon a few weeks ago. I had never heard of the group before, but I want to hear more.

The lyrics are really good. If you can't make them all out, click on the video again after you've played it, and you'll be taken to the YouTube page, where the lyrics are available (click on the text below the video--it expands).

I guess next week I need to find some metal or industrial.

I think this should be widely distributed

If you don't know what this is about, don't worry about it. If you do: I don't think the Tea Party is in its essence racist. I don't think the NAACP is in its essence racist. It's time, it's far, far past time, for all of us to stop actively looking for occasions to call each other racist, and making them up when they can't be found.

The constant resort to a questionable charge of racism is a deadly poison in our system. Those who use it for short-term political advantage are playing with fire.

UPDATE: I'm pulled between wanting to say more about this whole thing, which I've been thinking about a lot recently, and Why bother?—it's not as though this obscure blog has any great influence. Lack of time trumps both, though. And as often happens when I have something to say about politics, I find that someone else has already said it for me. In this case, Elizabeth Scalia aka The Anchoress:

This whole sordid mess of a story–which is clearly not over–may tell us that it is past time for people of good will to stop tolerating politically-expedient charges of racism, regardless of whether they originate from genuinely from overzealous, malicious bloggers or from Congressmen who are confident that any charge they make will be deemed insta-credible, or from journalists who ignore real racism while trying to ignite the charge elsewhere, for the advancement of their own partisan agendas, or from the rightly marginalized, fringe-living, stupid people who every sensible person condemns.

The NAACP’s maneuver last week was an attempt at cynical manipulation, a lazy card they thought they could play, because it’s always taken the pot, before. They ticked off Breitbart, who upped the ante, but appears to have done so recklessly.

Everyone’s credibility is now strained, and perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps the left should finally leave behind the smug instinct to sniff, “racism, straight up” over sincere disagreements on policy. If they can manage that, then perhaps the right can stop feeling so defensive.

The whole thing is here. You really should go read it, if you're much interested in this matter (and Americans ought to be, because it's poisoning our society), because she has much more to say, and a number of phrases in the above are links to examples of what she's talking about.

Volunteer Lilies

Sort of a strange thing: these Easter lilies just appeared by the side of the road near my house, here in the middle of July. I guess they grew from a discarded one. The plant is 6 feet tall or so (~2 meters).


Prayers for Mr. Hitchens

As most people who would be interested probably know, Christopher Hitchens announced recently that he is undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus. I have the impression that this is a form of cancer which is pretty difficult to cure. And since Hitchens is one of the half dozen or so most visible and hostile atheists on the public scene, a certain public drama is involved. Many Christians, and I'm among them, have a certain amount of admiration and affection for Hitchens, despite his ferocious bigotry (I see no need to mince words here) toward our faith. There are several reasons for this. One, I think, is an impression that he wishes to follow the truth wherever it leads. I emphasize "wishes" because his ability to make or follow an argument often seems to desert him when the subject is religion. For instance, in a recent review of an historical novel set in the English Reformation, Hitchens appears to denounce St. Thomas More in the strongest terms, not just as someone overpraised but as "one of history's wickedest men." (I say "appears" because I'm not 100% sure that More is the subject of that description, but I think he is.) Really, he said that. Sometimes it seems that when you scratch the surface of these English atheists you find the Rev. Ian Paisley. The whole review is a flight of classically obtuse Anglo-Protestant belligerence (you can read it here).

Another reason why some Christians may find Hitchens interesting is that he does sometimes give evidence of understanding the significance of Christianity better than most atheists and more than a few Christians. He's a bit like Nietzsche in that respect, though so far as I've seen he doesn't reach the depths that Nietzsche does. He does seem to understand--sometimes--that if the Christian faith were true the world would be a very different place from what he conceives it to be. There's an example at First Thoughts, a post by David Mills which includes an excerpt from Hitchens' review (which I have not read) of a book by fellow savage atheist Philip Pullman, in which Hitchens agrees with C.S. Lewis against Thomas Jefferson on the character of Jesus (the post is here).

I have seen mentioned in reviews of Hitchens' recently published memoir, Hitch-22, that his mother committed suicide along with a lover with whom she had left her husband. I have only seen it mentioned in one review that this lover was a clergyman, and have not seen at all what I read somewhere some years ago, I don't know where, that he was a fallen-away Catholic priest. If that is true, it might shed some light on the ferocity of Hitchens' hatred of Christianity.

There is a curious discussion taking place on that First Things post, and on one which preceded it: some people, Christians, are arguing that there is something wrong with praying for Hitchens: either that he doesn't deserve it, or that we should spend our limited prayer time praying for those closest to us, or that we have no right to interfere between Hitchens and God, or...well, I admit that I cannot comprehend this at all. Why should one not pray for anyone and everyone who comes to one's attention? Certainly we all need it, one way or another. There are a number of people for whom I pray often who either never were or have ceased to be Christians. I cannot begin to fathom any line of reasoning which would lead to the conclusion that I should stop. I'll be including Hitchens for a while.

Liturgical Music from...Pittsburgh?

Weekend Music

[Mac's much-abused conscience: Yes, Pittsburgh, and what right does someone from Alabama have to snicker at the juxtaposition of Pittsburgh and first-class liturgical music?]

[Mac's excuse-making faculty, not as far as I know specifically identified by theologians: I know, it's know, the image is, industrial and stuff...]

My daughter Clare is an excellent singer (a trait apparently in genes that are recessive in her parents). Last month she spent a week at Sacred Music Colloquium XX, held in Pittsburgh on the campus of Duquesne University (which Clare says is quite beautiful, by the way). I think she is in the choir singing this Ave Maria (you're supposed to be able to click on this button and play it):

Offertory from Saturday June 26 Mass

This may be by William Byrd, but it isn't clear from the listing; actually I think it's not.

Here's a piece by Tallis, which seems to be recorded a little better:

Tallis: O Nata Lux, from Thursday June 24

Go here for recordings of the entire Colloquium. (Too bad about the colors on that page, but the music is great, although the recordings vary in quality.)

(This is the first time I've used TypePad's audio upload/play feature; perhaps I'll read you a poem or something one day. [Mac's embarrassment-avoiding faculty: No you won't.])

Worst Football Dives

Consider this a postlude to the World Cup, sent to me by son John. I had never heard of this "diving" business until my World Cup post a couple of weeks ago, when it was mentioned and explained in the comments. I've since come across other references, and, interestingly, it always seems to be followed by the remark that "The Italians do it all the time." (Notice the music, by the way; I didn't realize at first what it was.)

Oh, and by the way, here is an interesting piece on the often-heard view that we (the USA) would be great in soccer/football/futbol if our top athletes went for it instead of basketball, baseball, and (American) football.

People Who Can Do Things (a repeat)

Sunday Night Journal — July 11, 2010

When I discontinued the Sunday Night Journal for the year of 2009, someone suggested that instead of shutting it down I might simply post a link to an older installment every week. I didn't want to put even that much time into it, so I didn't do that, but as the year went on I was a bit sorry I hadn't taken the suggestion. But I'm doing it now. I've been very busy this weekend, and it's now late Sunday evening. Rather than try to slap together something hastily tonight, I'm linking to the journal for June 26, 2005. Something like it or some part of it will probably be incorporated into the memoir. Also, it's a good companion to this N.T. Wright book, Surprised By Hope, which I'll certainly be saying more about, and which I think is going to have a lot to say about what the resurrection of the body means: it is not, repeat not, some kind of spiritual existence in which the body won't matter anymore, but rather a new kind of physical being, something we really can only make guesses about from where we are now.

Is Life Worth Living?

Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.


From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else--and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.

—N.T. Wright

I've just started reading a book I got for Christmas last year, Wright's Surprised By Hope, which is about the Christian conception of the next life, which Wright believes is widely misunderstood by almost everyone, including most Christians. The Camus quote was a chapter epigraph in a mystery I just read, The Way Through the Woods, by Colin Dexter (one of the Inspector Morse books). I was struck by the way the two quotations support each other.

I do think it's very difficult for the human mind to sustain the belief that life is worth living without a belief in some ultimate purpose, which almost inevitably leads to some sort of belief in an eternal God and an eternal life: it's hard for us to say something has absolute meaning if it has an end beyond which there is nothing. That's certainly true for me. Somewhat paradoxically, my naturally dark outlook on things makes me more open to Christian hope, because in its absence life truly does seem meaningless and probably not worth living, or worth living only as long as it's not too miserable.

I'm not sure a religion such as Buddhism which, if I understand it correctly, looks toward the end of individual existence as the only ultimate release from suffering, can be said to hold that life is worth living in any absolute sense.

By the way, apropos the previous post: there was one item in the Prose folder at the old site which seems not to have had a link to it, so it was inaccessible unless you happened to stumble on it via Google or something. I think I put it out there so I could bring it into some discussion or other and then never did. It's a review of Sigrud Undset's novel Gunnar's Daughter, written for one of the early issues of Caelum et Terra, now almost twenty years ago (!). It's here, if you're interested.

Site news

A small milestone in this long-drawn-out business of migrating everything from my old site to here: that handful of non-blog essays and book reviews that were listed simply as "Prose" on the old site are now here. See the "Here" sidebar, the item called Non-Blog Prose Writings. The verse is next. It's amazing how time-consuming this has been. Basically I only have to open each item in a text editor, copy the body of the piece (don't want all the headers, display control, etc.), open the create-a-new-post page here, paste the text in, and publish it. Sounds simple enough. But some of them had some specialized formatting that had to be removed, and the whole thing was complicated by the fact that some of those essays get fairly frequent hits from search engines and have a few links out there, so I also had to learn how to do an HTML redirect to bring anyone landing on one of those pages here. Then I had to update and republish those pages with the redirect code and the new links, check it out, correct mistakes, etc., all of which is more cumbersome than updating a blog page.

Coincidentally, it's 5:05. Perhaps I'll drink that last beer in the fridge.

I've decided not to wait until I've converted all the pre-blog Sunday Night Journals here before changing the domain to point here. They're not readily accessible now, so it's not like anyone is losing access to them and I realized that since there are still almost two years' worth of them to be done it was going to take longer than I want to wait.

Van Morrison: Almost Independence Day

Weekend Music

I was thinking about this song yesterday and complaining to myself that I couldn't hear it, because I only have it on LP and I still haven't replaced the needle that I stupidly broke a couple of months ago. Then I remembered YouTube. I think it's best heard in the dark or at least in dim light (you don't need to be able to see the "video," it's just that picture of Van)—it's a lot easier to see the water and the boats and the fireworks that way. The song is ten minutes or so long. Happy Fourth of July to everyone, whether or not it's your Independence Day—I mean, you can have a happy day anyway.

Why the Spring Pygmy Sunfish Matters: A Video from Emily Horton

In spring-fed Beaver Dam Creek, which borders the family property in Greenbrier, Alabama, there lives a teensy little fish called the Spring Pygmy Sunfish, which is on the endangered species list. Going back to the late '70s, there's been some controversy about development in this area because of this fish. My niece, Emily, is a fervent environmentalist and has made this rather charming video arguing for preservation of the SPS's habitat (filmed on location! as they used to say in old movie ads).

I'm posting it not because anyone reading this is likely to have any influence in the matter of the Spring Pygmy Sunfish but just because it's delightful, and in the final ten minutes, when Emily makes her preservation appeal to the rest of the family, quite moving (to me at least). It's rather long for a web video (25 minutes) and some people, including me, have had trouble viewing it. If you're interested at all, do try to make it to the last ten minutes.

Emily is the daughter of my brother John, who's the guy in the orange hat in the video. Emily's sister Nori is in it, too. Their mother is Japanese, in case you wonder.

A mischievous but obviously rhetorical question: who's the conservative--the environmentalist who wants to preserve this place, or the capitalist who wants to build a mall or factory on it? (The capitalist is hypothetical, by the way: there is not currently any such plan under consideration, but as Emily says there is almost certainly going to be development of some kind in the area.)

P.S. This is a QuickTime video.