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September 2011

August 2011

Forcing Myself to Jump

Let me explain the new and rather half-baked look. It's been well over a year since I moved this blog to TypePad. I did it in a hurry, because Blogger was making it impossible to continue what I'd been doing. I picked a canned design which I didn't care much for but which at least was not offensive. I've long since gotten really sick of it, but couldn't seem to make time to do much about it. I tinkered around with it and saved several variations, but all of them had problems of one kind or another. 

Well, I'm really pretty sick of looking at the old format, and still having a really difficult time getting all the colors etc. right on one of the new templates, so I decided to do what you have to do to make yourself swim in cold water, or at least what I have to do: just jump. The more you try to ease into it, the more you keep drawing back.

This isn't finished. At a minimum I will be playing around with the colors (you might be surprised at how many different color specifications are used in this design). For instance, the main background and that of the header image are supposed to be the same color. But now that I have to see it every time I look at the blog, I will have the motivation to keep working on it. Please bear with me. And opinions and suggestions are welcome (although I can't promise I'll use them).

Gregory Wolfe: Beauty Will Save the World

I meant to post something about this book several months ago when it was published, then it slipped my mind. I was reminded of it again tonight when I saw it mentioned on Facebook. I think I'll buy it, as soon as I finish a couple of the other books I've been trying to get to. Here is the publisher's page, including a brief interview with Greg (who is the editor of Image magazine--see sidebar for link). I don't always see eye-to-eye with him about specific works of art--well, I guess I should say that I disagree fairly often--but I agree with his principles. 

A Couple of Videos

Sunday Night Journal — August 28, 2011

I've been out of town all weekend, and once again I lack both time and mental focus to write anything substantial. Instead, I've spent a couple of hours doing something I've wanted to do for a while, which is to figure out how to do some simple stuff with video and put it on YouTube. I think I've succeeded. Although these videos will not play smoothly for me from YouTube, I think that's a problem with my network connection. 

There's nothing extremely striking about either of them. They're just things I saw and wanted to record (an impulse which has to be kept in check, because it tends to get in the way of simple and attentive experience). This first one was taken back in April, on a Sunday afternoon, when I was writing at the table on our patio. It was a sunny and breezy day, and I noticed a beautiful thing happening with the nearby hydrangea bush. It was in the patchy shade of a tree--must have been the big sycamore off to the left from this picture--and the wind waving the leaves and branches of the sycamore made a constantly shifting pattern of light and shadow on the hydrangea, so that at moments it looked as if it were burning with a cool yellow-green flame, or as if it were underwater with the refracted light of waves playing on it. Of course as soon as I pressed "record" on the camera the phenomenon all but ceased. In this clip, you only really get the effect for five seconds or so beginning at about the twenty-eight-second mark, and again around the one-minute mark. You can hear the wind and the birds, though you might have to turn the sound up a little.


The next one was taken last Sunday afternoon. There's a pole with two bird feeders hanging from it just outside the back door, and it can be seen through the kitchen window. Walking through the kitchen, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the feeders were swinging wildly, more than the usual small birds could possibly account for. There was a raccoon hanging from the "V" where the two brackets holding the feeders meet, digging furiously into the birds' food. I went and got my camera. I took this from maybe eight feet (less than three meters) away, but could have gotten closer. You'll notice at the beginning that the raccoon is looking toward me--he heard my approach and I suppose saw me, but decided I wasn't a threat and went back to work.


I was curious as to how he got up the pole, and whether he would have trouble getting down, so I opened the door. He scrambled down very quickly, if awkwardly, and ran away. But of course he was back in a few minutes. And there was no great magic about his climbing of the pole--he just went up hand-over-hand, like a person climbing a rope. There was a good bit of thrashing around while he got himself into the position you see here.

It's actually a bit crazy that I'm posting these, because I rarely play the videos that people post on blogs and on Facebook, because at least half the time they don't play smoothly, and I can't stand that, especially if there's music involved--I can feel a headache coming on within seconds.  I've noticed that sometimes they play more smoothly if you actually go to YouTube than if you play it on the blog, so you might try that if they won't play properly for you--click on the YouTube button at the bottom-right of the video frame.

David Blue: These 23 Days In September

Weekend Music

My buddy Robert sent me this a couple of weeks ago. It certainly sounds like it was released in 1968, which it was. Notice the sitar. A lovely and sad song. I don't recall ever hearing anything by David Blue back in those days, though the cover of this album looks familiar. It seems he was a friend of Dylan's. And his real name was David Cohen ("was" because he died in 1982--more information here if you're interested).


I will probably be offline all weekend, until late Sunday or possibly Monday, though I might have a chance to look in once or twice.

An Atheist Sees the Light

Or should I say the dark? At any rate, he sees and accepts the hopelessness of the atheistic attempt to derive morality from the bare facts of physical existence. The thing that annoys me most about the loud spokesmen for shallow atheism--Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, their refusal even to admit that this problem exists. When challenged, they just start blustering that they don't need God to tell them what's right and wrong, because they just know. But their combination of vehemence, glibness, and smart-sounding English accent seems to keep most people from noticing the emptiness of the response.

This guy, though--Joel Marks, of the University of New Haven--is willing to take a good look at his own assumptions:

I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

And what is more, I had known this. At some level of my being there had been the awareness, but I had brushed it aside. I had therefore lived in a semi-conscious state of self-delusion – what Sartre might have called bad faith.

And absent this Godless God, there is only personal preference (as Nietzsche, the one great atheist, understood):

 I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.

Of course anyone who realizes that a certain number of people will always have "preferences" that are very unpleasant for everyone else, e.g. the preference for killing anyone who gets in their way, will see that the universal adoption of these beliefs would not leave the world in a very happy condition. And that the next step must be the declaration that all preferences are not equal, and the imposition of some preferences by force. Why anyone would think this is more reasonable and desirable than the idea of a universally applicable transcendent morality is beyond me.

You can read Marks's whole piece here.

Odds and Ends

Sunday Night Journal — August 21, 2011

I've been so busy and pressured in my job, not only last week but through the weekend, that I'm really not equipped to write anything of substance on a specific topic tonight. Instead, I'm going to mention a few things that I had filed away with the intention of posting something about them.


I mentioned here some weeks ago that the traffic on this blog has declined over the past year or so. It never was very high--at most it averaged a bit over 100 unique visitors a day, and about twice that many page views. That is very small potatoes: really popular blogs count their page views in the thousands. And my numbers now are more like 80 and 160. If I subtract the number of accidental tourists--people who arrive here because they happened to be searching for Emmylou Harris or images of translucence--the number is even lower. It seems to be pretty typical that somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of visits to the site are from Google searches, and most of those are for something that's not closely connected with the main emphases of the blog, so I don't think those hits generate many continuing readers.

So when I read this post at Neo-Neocon a few weeks ago I was a little relieved to find out it isn't just me: it seems that fewer people are reading blogs in general. I'm pretty sure Facebook and Twitter are at least partly responsible for that.  


What's the most beautiful car ever made? I'm not a car fancier especially, and even if I could afford it I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to buy anything very expensive. But I do have an eye for a good-looking automobile. When I was a teenager in the 1960s I thought the Jaguar XKE (picture lifted from here, if you're interested in buying it) was by far the most gorgeous:

I'm not sure I ever saw one on the hoof until many years later. I also thought the smaller Volvos (I think the model number is 1800, which shows you how little of a car buff I actually am) of the 1960s were extremely handsome, and later decided that I really thought them more beautiful than the XKE, which began to seem a bit flashy and overdone. I took these pictures a while back of one that was sitting outside a garage that I pass every day on my way home from work:



But of the cars I see on the road today, the last iteration of the Ford Thunderbird is the winner, and maybe the all-time winner. I suppose there must be some unbelievably expensive European cars that are more beautiful, but I've never seen those, even in pictures.


There's something vaguely retro and classic about the style, though it doesn't look like any old car in particular, certainly not the old Thunderbird, so it doesn't seem like a self-conscious throwback (like the Chrysler PT Cruiser), and yet it's clearly different from the average contemporary car. Here is an interesting review of the T-bird's history. It seems emblematic of the progress of America in the last 50 years or so: an initial good idea, followed by a series of revisions which make it ever bigger and dumber, and finally an attempt to return to the vision of the past that fails: for as beautiful as the new Thunderbirds were, they apparently weren't very well made. Which was the point I intended to make when I saved that article in the first place.


The Atlantic has a story about the over-supply of virtuoso classical musicians. I've seen a little of this, having two children who would have liked to have made a career of music if there had been more jobs available. I was especially interested in that paragraph toward the end where the writer makes a similar point about the proliferation of writers. Anybody--look at me--can "publish" for next to nothing, or in fact nothing, if he uses one of the free blogging services. At the same time, the number of paying jobs that involve writing is in decline, as journalism struggles to find a place in the new electronic world (possibly a disaster in the making, because we need good journalists, but more of that another time). Similarly, digital recording technology has made it possible for anyone to make a decent-sounding recording with a couple of thousand dollars' worth of computers and software, or a professional-quality one for vastly less money than would have been required twenty or thirty years ago. The result is a flood of recorded music that mostly goes unnoticed. The piece concludes:

The big issue for education in the arts is not cutting enrollment to match supply, depriving gifted people of the chance to develop as far as possible. The challenge is to develop alternative career models that let people continue to develop their gifts.

I'm all for that but I can't imagine what it would be.


The state of Alabama recently passed a very aggressive law targeting illegal immigration, something like the one Arizona passed not long ago. Alabama has far less justification for something like this than does Arizona, where some reports I've read say that areas near the border are becoming dangerous for Americans. I assumed the law was in large part political grandstanding for the benefit of certain reflexively truculent descendants of the old Scotch-Irish, commonly known as rednecks. I also assumed that it didn't mean much, so when I read that some politically liberal religious groups were bringing suit against it, saying it would make simple charity toward illegal immigrants a crime, I supposed it was just their usual equally reflexive posturing.

But apparently I was mistaken. Sober people have read the law and concluded that it would indeed criminalize ordinary Christian ministry toward illegal immigrants. And the Archdiocese of Mobile has joined the lawsuit. 

Here is Archbishop Rodi's excellent statement. I agree with it, and I particularly like this:

The control and regulation of our national borders is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the federal government. An argument can be made that the federal government has not acted adequately to control and regulate our borders and to implement a just and workable immigration policy. Laws, such as this new one in our state, are born out of frustration with this governmental failure. However, the Church is not in charge of our borders. We do not determine who enters our country. But once immigrants are in our midst, the Church has a moral obligation, intrinsic to the living out of our faith, to be Christ-like to everyone.

If the federal government were doing its job, states wouldn't be passing laws like this. But be that as it may, this one ought to be repealed.


I'm sorry I haven't written any more about Tree of Life. I really wanted to, but it was crowded out by the same pressures that have produced this grab-bag post. I'm afraid now that much of it has slipped from my grasp. I'm really sorry I didn't go see it again--it was only going to show for one more night after I saw it, and I suppose now I won't have another chance until the DVD is available. I'll say one thing: the opening quotation, from Job--"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"--and the mother's words near the end--"I give you my son"--seem to me to define the vision.

Love of the World (2)

Christianity does not proclaim merely some salvation of the soul in a vague afterlife in which all that is precious and dear to us in this world would be eliminated, but promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come." Nothing that is precious and dear to us will fall into ruin; rather it will find its fullness in God.

--Benedict XVI

"...and then you die"

Some time back--almost five years ago, actually, which is a little disturbing--I tried to figure out why I don't have much interest in contemporary fiction. (The post is here.) One reason is that I didn't, and don't, care much for the static gloom that seems to pervade most of it, or at least most of what I've happened to see over the past thirty years or so.

Most of the stories in the The Atlantic struck me that way. They stopped publishing fiction altogether several years ago, and have recently resumed. The May issue has two stories, one by Stephen King, which only confirm my prejudice. "Once upon a time there were these miserable people. Then they died. The end." You can read them online, here (the Stephen King one--not a horror story, by the way, at least not in the usual sense) and here. The second one rather cleverly incorporates a crossword puzzle, and it's really not such a bad story, but still, it's basically in the Stoic Resentful vein. Suffice to say that I'm not going to seek out more work by either writer. (I've never read anything by Stephen King.)

Important Research Findings

15 Minutes of Exercise Every Day Reduces Risk of Death. I was about to say WebMD needs a better headline writer, but that's what the first sentence says, too: "A study published by The Lancet shows that if inactive people increased their physical activity by just 15 minutes per day, they could reduce their risk of death by 14% and increase their life expectancy by three years. "  So, exercise for 15 minutes a day and your chance of dying drops from 100% to 86%.  Very useful information. Surprised it isn't getting more publicity, though I did see it on Google News.

Love of the World

Sunday Night Journal — August 14, 2011

Some months ago in a Sunday Night Journal I talked about the melancholy person’s view of this world as being substantially correct, in that we must ultimately lose everything:

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life. …

...he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. 

(The entire post can be found here.) A couple of the comments that followed made me realize that I had left some important things out of this reflection. In particular, someone quoted C.S. Lewis:

Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the suffering inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

I’ve been meaning to get back to this topic. “He will no longer give his heart” was not the best way of putting it; what I really wanted to say is that he will no longer trust the world; he will no longer give his weight to it as a boy climbing a tree gives his weight to the next branch that seems to be sound. I didn’t mean that he will no longer love, but that he will not have illusions about the permanence of what he loves.

In fact I’ve always been troubled by the conventional spiritual counsel against loving the things of this world. When I say “conventional” I don’t mean that it’s false or shallow, but that it is widely given (though not nearly so widely accepted). I don’t have any specific examples ready to hand, but certainly any Catholic has encountered it, and there is plenty of support for it in the words of Jesus himself.

I love the things of this world very much indeed, and am troubled in both my conscience and my intellect by the thought that I should not. The problem for conscience is obvious; the problem for intellect is that I don’t know how one is to love at all without loving the things of this world. We know, of course, that we are to love each other. But as a matter of practical psychology I at least am unable to love people without also loving a great many other things, because the wellsprings of both loves are the same, having their source in delight. I don’t mean here the sort of distant benevolence,  or even (somewhat paradoxically) compassion, that one might have for people whom one does not know personally. I mean a kind of love that at its best encompasses both the most mundane and the most exalted response to the other, with the mundane being the simple pleasure of seeing and knowing, of liking. I try to love in the proper degree: I don’t love my books nearly as much as I love my children, and although I often think of my little bit of bay shore as a woman, I don’t love her nearly as much as I love my wife.

I think we must distinguish between appreciation and possession. The love for a passing sight can be our model—the love for something we can see but cannot possess, not because we aren’t allowed to but because possession is impossible. One of the things I love most is a moonlit night: I love the moonlight on the water and the shadows made by moonlight shining through trees. I don’t just mean that I love them in the sense that they give me pleasure. It’s somewhat more than that. It’s sensual pleasure first, but it also includes something like admiration, and reverence, and affection, and a great deal of gratitude. You might argue that what I am really reacting to is the beauty of God in these things, that they are pointing to God, and that it is he whom I should love instead. And that’s more or less true, except that I would say “more” rather than “instead.” I also love these things in themselves, and for themselves, for what they are. And I really don’t think there’s anything amiss in that. The essential thing is to keep things in their proper rank, and not to let appreciation turn into the desire to possess. In this case the latter is relatively easy, because I cannot possess these visions. I can’t even capture them with a camera, though someone with the right equipment and skill might be able to. And anyway a picture is not the same: it may be a useful memorial of the thing itself, or a thing of beauty in its own right, but it isn’t the thing and can’t give me the same experience.

C. S. Lewis has a great illustration of this principle in Perelandra. The floating islands on which the King and Queen live are sources of great pleasure which the Queen receives gladly (if you’ve read the book, you know we see little of the King). But it has never occurred to the Queen to try to stay on one island, and have continual access to its particular beauties. There is fixed land on the planet, but the King and Queen are forbidden to stay there, lest they begin to think that they have more control over the world than they do. I wrote about this some years ago, so I won’t repeat myself—the piece is here.

Something like that should be our model; at least that’s the way I resolve the difficulty. I’m not sure how much this resembles the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, but I think it’s more passionate. It’s vastly easier said than done, of course, especially when there is at least the promise of holding on to the thing we love, or of repeating the experience whenever we like. Surely this is part of the reason why it is difficult for a rich man to be saved.

I confess that I can’t accept the thought that the things of this world are lost forever when time takes them away from us. If I really believed that they were, I would be...well, I started to say I would be tempted to despair, but that’s overstating it, I hope; suffice to say I would be greatly disheartened.

I suppose this means that I’m not where I should be spiritually. But I can’t see God, or conceive of him in any very definite way. The Lewis quote above alludes to I John 4:20: “...for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I admit my love is more eros than agape, but I hope that’s all right. I’ll continue my monthly assignations with Lady Moonlight, though I know she can never be mine.