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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.

Are Things Really This Bad in Britain?

Peter Hitchens says they're very, very bad. I would be interested in hearing the views of anyone who is there or in contact with people who are. 

UpdateTheodore Dalyrmple thinks the same. But of course he would--like P. Hitchens, he's been playing Jeremiah for years.

I may have mentioned this before, but in case I haven't: one of my children spent some time in France (mostly)  teaching English, maybe eight or ten years ago now. I expected that he would like the English students that he met, but he didn't care much for them as a group, and said they were  known as "the drunken English" on the continent because that's all most of them were interested in.

What Stands In a Storm

I often bookmark things I read on the net with the intention of posting something about them later, but sometimes I don't get around to it or am too busy, and then I forget about them.  Here's one I saved a couple of weeks ago, and had forgotten till just now: Rick Bragg on last spring's tornadoes. Bragg, as you may know, is the author of the prize-winning (and excellent) memoir All Over But the Shoutin'

Erja Lyytinen: It Hurts Me Too

Weekend Music

I went looking for this Elmore James classic on YouTube a few days ago, and to my surprise found it performed very creditably by a young Finnish woman. Truly, American music has conquered the world.


I have to admit, though, that I prefer the original. It just has a flavor that's a product of a time and a place and a culture and a technology that can't be duplicated.



What Happened To Inside Catholic?

Does anybody know what's going on with the web site that once belonged to the old Crisis magazine, then was transmogrified into Inside Catholic, and not too long ago (some months?) reverted to Crisis?

I'm asking because Inside Catholic, despite its mildly annoying name, was a pretty good publication which I read regularly. Yes, it was a little heavier on the "democratic capitalism" advocacy than I would have liked, but it was fairly eclectic, and included a group blog which was frequently very interesting. But since it became Crisis again that's gone, and many of the articles are on the dull side, and too heavily focused on free-market advocacy etc., while others are just re"prints" of syndicated columns. At the moment it's been silent for two weeks, announced as a summer vacation, but that seems a bit long for an online publication. I'm just wondering if anyone has any, um, inside information. (Here is the site.)

American Responsibility

Sunday Night Journal — August 7, 2011

I’m still thinking about the questions raised by Walter McDougall’s piece that I linked to a week or two ago. Not long after that came the news that the Vatican’s envoy to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi, had died, and his obituary contained these remarks from a 2008 interview, in which he reflected on his reassignment from Jerusalem to the United States:

In the Holy Land, everything is small, and every small thing can become a big problem. In the United States, everything is huge: the country, the people, the possibility, the opportunity and the responsibility.

Responsibility. What sort of responsibility, I wonder? There are some obvious answers to that, which the nuncio mentioned in another part of the interview: moral and cultural responsibility. But what about other, more concrete responsibilities? As the most powerful nation in the world, the U.S. is obviously obligated to use that power for the greater good. And in some situations it’s obvious what that means: to assist Haiti after a devastating earthquake, for instance. In others it’s not so obvious: should the U.S. intervene to defend another country from invasion, or to depose a tyrant, or to stop the advance of tyranny? I’ve never been one of those who think the answer to those last questions is an automatic “no.” But nor do I think it’s an automatic “yes.” I never unequivocally declared either support or condemnation of the war in Iraq, because I could see the arguments on both sides. I thought I understood in part what the Bush administration hoped to do—to cut the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern politics by introducing a reasonably free regime in one important country. (I also thought they had much more reliable information about those now-infamous WMD than they did.) But I was worried that the attempt would not only fail but do more harm than good. It is difficult to argue now that—as is so often the case—the fears were not more accurate than the hopes. Still, I’m haunted by something an Iraqi human-rights activist said while the war was at its height: that if the U.S. had deposed Saddam some years earlier the troops really would have been met by people rejoicing in the streets. (That was in The Atlantic, and is probably available online, but it would take me a while to find it.)

Whatever the ultimate resolution of these issues may be, and whatever the verdict of history may be—I don’t say the ultimate verdict of history, because historians change their minds—it seems that such conundrums may arise less often in the coming years, because this period of global American responsibility is going to end. We can’t afford it any longer.

I doubt very many people really understand our financial situation. And even the supposed experts disagree violently with each other about the causes and possible solutions. But it seems to be a generally agreed-upon fact that we are spending far, far beyond our means, and have been doing so for some time. The twenty years or so following World War II, in which the U.S.A. was vastly more wealthy than almost all of the rest of the world, and in absolute terms more wealthy than any people had ever been, were anomalous in many ways, because the war had devastated so much of the industrialized world. It was real wealth, and we expected its growth to continue. We thought we could have everything, at both the individual and national level, and as our desires outstripped our resources we started borrowing. We lived in a fantasy in which we couldn’t accept that anything in the way of material goods or government services (including the maintenance of an enormous military force deployed throughout the world) that we really wanted was out of our reach. So we started borrowing.

Through the 1980s I worked for a growing computer company and was fairly well paid. I think my salary at the time was somewhat above the national median for families with children. But we lived modestly because my wife didn’t have an outside job, because we had several children, and because we didn’t like borrowing money. Other than the mortgage on our very unimpressive house, we just didn’t owe a great deal of money. We never bought new cars, we never took expensive vacations, we spent negligible amounts on clothing and entertainment, and we weren’t saving a lot. I used to wonder how it was that other people who probably made somewhere around the same amount of money seemed to be able to afford so much more.

In 1990 I left the corporate job for a support position at a small college, and took a significant pay cut. At that point I think our income was somewhere a little below the national median. Things were tighter, and our house even less impressive, and I often took part-time work in addition to my main job, but we were certainly far from poor. We were also far from rich, though, and I wondered even more, as I saw what appeared to be most of the world driving nicer cars and living in nicer houses, where all the money came from. If we were somewhere around the median, that meant that half the country was poorer than us and half the country richer. But it looked more like a 25-75 ratio.

The answer, of course, was that an awful lot of these people were and are very deep in debt, not just paying their living expenses from paycheck to paycheck, but minimal payments on their debt as well. Several years ago, before the crash of 2008, I listened to the conservative financial advisor Dave Ramsey’s radio show, and was amazed at the amount of credit-card debt many of his caller’s confessed to.

A lot of people who were barely getting by before the recession found themselves in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own. Others who were caught pretty far out on a limb where they had crawled of their own free will and against common sense. And they’ve paid the price.

The federal government is not subject to the same sort of encounter with unbending reality, because it can simple create more money, at least up to a point. The recent battle over raising the debt ceiling was the result of an attempt by some members of Congress to insist that we can’t go on this way. Depending on whose version of the events and numbers you believe, there may or may not have been a real and binding commitment to cut spending in a significant way. Right now there is a furious debate as to whether defense or “entitlement” spending (Social Security etc.) should be cut, but surely a reasonable approach would involve cutting both (as well as raising taxes or eliminating tax breaks). I can’t prove this, but I feel pretty sure that both could be cut significantly without doing severe damage to the really important work of both spheres.

But is there any reason to think that the reasonable will win out? I started this piece with the intention of saying that the necessity of pulling back from our fiscal irresponsibility would inevitably mean a withdrawal of much of our presence in the rest of the world. Does it really make sense, for instance, that we still have military installations in Europe? Undoubtedly that would be better for some people, worse for others.

But it’s probably more likely that rather than take large visible steps that make a significant difference, we’ll have a slow hollowing-out, pretending to do what we used to do while doing less.

I moved into an office in a new building in 2004. It was a great improvement over my old one, which was a grungy and cramped corner. The new building cost millions, and in many ways it’s great. It certainly looks great. But the roof leaks, chronically, and has since the beginning. (Mobile, Alabama, has the heaviest rainfall of any city in the United States—over five feet, 1.7 meters, per year. Why do they put flat roofs on buildings in Mobile, Alabama?) On the other side of my office wall is a men’s room. One of the fixtures in it has a tendency not to stop running when it’s flushed. The noise this makes is pretty noticeable in my office, and once or twice a day I realize that something is getting on my nerves, and that it’s the sound of the water running much longer than it should. It’s done this since the beginning, and no attempt to fix it has ever made much difference. So when the noise gets my attention I go give the pipe in question a few hard chops with the edge of my hand and it stops. A few weeks ago this happened, and apparently the outlet pipe was not draining normally, because when I went to stop the flow there was water running out from under the door. Someone found a mop and we cleaned up as best we could. It wasn’t until we had it under control that someone observed that there was a drain in the middle of the floor, as there would normally be, but that the water was flowing away from it. Whoever the contractor hired to install the tile for the floor had made the drain slightly higher than the rest of the room, rendering it perfectly useless.

I think there were efforts early on to fix the known problems, like the leaking roof, but whether by negligence or incompetence the problems persisted. Whatever legal obligation the construction company had for fixing these things has probably long since expired. I wish I didn’t find so much significance in this.

The Tree of Life

See it if you possibly can. I'm not going to say anything more about it now, partly because I'm still pretty close to speechless, but I'm interested in hearing what others have to say about it. And I suppose we have to allow spoilers to have very much discussion. 

I did write a Sunday night journal yesterday, by the way, but haven't had a chance to post it. Tomorrow sometime.

Are Your Political Opponents Crazy?

No, they aren't really, but a lot of them act like it. I know people who are otherwise very civilized who seem to unleash some sort of inner beast when the subject of politics comes up; if you disagree with them, you'd best just not talk to them at all on the subject.  Here is an interesting piece by a Notre Dame philosophy professor analyzing the process by which we come to see another's views as crazy. If heeded, it might take some of the heat out of our debates. But it's probably too cool and rationalistic for the people who might benefit most from it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Last night my wife and I finally got around to seeing this. It's good. I find that I don't really need to modify anything I said last year in a post about Part 1, or back in 2007 after I'd finished reading the book.

Moreover, we're planning to go see The Tree of Life Monday night. This amount of theater-going is unheard of in the Horton household.

It's pretty amazing that the three main Potter characters were selected for their roles when they were still children, and have developed so well with their characters--I mean, they are as convincing in their near-adulthood as they were as ten-year-olds.  That was a pretty big gamble on the part of the film-makers. Also, none of them seems to have gone off the rails as a result of their celebrity, and apparently they're friends. I do wish Emma Watson would eat a little more. She is a wonderful screen presence, but I find it hard to believe that this hipless look is entirely natural to her, or to most of the many young women one sees these days who look that way. I notice I said the same in 2007.

Patty Griffin: Mother of God

Weekend Music

I've been busy since Friday morning, and maybe it's too late to do my usual weekend music post, but I've been wanting to post this anyway, so I'll go ahead. Let me warn you: this is a real tear-jerker. Those lines

Something as simple as girls
and boys
gets tossed all around and lost
in the world

just really get me.


Myzzled and Awree

Discussion on the previous post led to mention of the phenomenon in which those of us who grew up reading a lot pick up words that aren't used by the people around us, so that we invent our own pronunciations, which are not always correct.

I experienced a slight variation of this: in at least two cases, the words were in fact pretty common, but I did not connect the word on the page with the word I heard, and so possessed a couple of half-invented words, which I pronounced as myzlled and awree. The first is pronounced like "puzzled" with "my" substituted for "pu". The second is more or less like "tawdry" without the "d".  Or "outlawry" without the "outl".

They were spelled "misled" and "awry." 

I had the sense of "awry" more or less right--I thought of it as something close to a synonym for "crooked." I'm not sure that I didn't use it in conversation, though if I did no one ever corrected me.

"Misled" was more of a problem, because I conceived it to be the past tense and passive voice of a verb, "to misle" ("my-zzle"), meaning "to sow confusion." I was a little, um, puzzled that I never heard this verb used in any other form, e.g. "The British set out to misle the French about the strength of their forces."

I was in my late teens or early twenties before I realized my mistake. I was a little embarrassed, but only a little. To tell the truth, I still sort of like "misle"/"myzzle" as a verb. And I was pleased a few years ago to learn that my then-boss, a woman with a Ph.D., had suffered from the same confusion, and similarly thought it a rather good word in the sense that we understood it.

David B. Hart Gripes About Grammar Etc.

Janet mentioned this several days ago, but I didn't have time to read it then, and then forgot about it until this morning.

I'm very sympathetic, but, as Hart seems to suspect, that way madness lies. Or at least a grave social difficulty: you'll become a person everyone hates if you insist on correcting these usages, and you won't make yourself happy, either. I am learning to ignore most of these things most of the time and of course I have many occasions to practice my patience. I used to work with someone who was in general very particular and accurate about spelling and grammar, and would mercilessly rip apart a memo or email message that included mistakes. And yet she would say "They invited he and I to attend the meeting." It was very hard to keep my mouth shut.

If I'm not mistaken, that one goes back further (farther?) than one might think. Not too long ago I ran across a reference to it that went back decades, but now I can't remember where it was. It may occur in a letter written by a character in Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case, published in 1959, though I could be wrong about that.

Another thing I notice a good deal now is the way our predominantly oral culture takes turns of phrase from print to voice and back to print again and gets very confused about them in the process. One that I encounter frequently is "tow the line," which should be "toe the line." Its origins seem to have had something to do with standing in a prescribed position, i.e. with your toes on a line, came to mean, metaphorically, to conform, whence it got mixed up (I assume) with the phrase "party line," and now is thought to mean the servile or thoughtless repetition of standard rhetoric. Which is not totally off from the original meaning, but isn't exactly the same. There are others, none of which I can think of at the moment.

I was a bit surprised by the complaint about "is comprised of." I thought that was legitimate: if these letters comprise the alphabet, isn't the alphabet comprised of the letters?

This piece shamed me into looking up, finally, after many years of assuming a very vague definition from context, the word "solecism." And some of the comments are amusing too.

Caryll Houselander: The Flowering Tree

Sunday Night Journal — July 31, 2011

I picked up this little book at a used-book sale a few weeks ago and immediately began reading it, partly because it’s so short. I’ve had a copy of The Reed of God sitting around the house unread for years, and have encountered intriguing samples of Houselander’s work here and there, but this is the first extended exposure I’ve had to her. It looks like a book of poetry, but Houselander doesn’t claim that description for it; rather, she calls these free-verse meditations “rhythms.” That was nicely diffident of her, because they aren’t especially good when considered as poetry. But as vivid devotional and theological pieces they are very good.

These Rhythms are not intended to be poems in a new form but simply thoughts, falling naturally into the beat of the Rhythm which is all around us.... The theme which recurs in them is the flowering of Christ in man.

Her use of the word “flowering” in that sentence would seem to be deliberate: it is her consistently used analogy for the Christ-life within us all. Neither is “man” an accident; she did not say “Christian,” because it seems to be a central aspect of her view of the world that Christ is present in all of us, not only in those who profess him.

The book was published not long after the end of the Second World War, and many of the pieces refer to the war, and so it is often the crucified Christ that she sees. And the tree that flowers is of course the Cross. “In an Occupied Country” is about the anguish of a woman standing in the ruins of her home, “Frans” about a refugee boy. The final piece, “Holy Saturday 1944”, describes the preparation for Easter Mass in a time of war, and the hope which includes and transcends hope for peace in this world.

Perhaps it’s only because the room in which I’m writing this has suddenly grown dark from the approach of a thunderstorm, and I’d rather watch it than write, but I’m feeling rather impatient with the role of book reviewer here. I think I’ll just reproduce what is at the moment my favorite of these meditations; better that you should read one of them for yourself than my attempt to describe them.


The Young Man

There is a young man
who lives in a world of progress.
He used to worship a God
Who was kind to him.
The God had a long, white beard.
He lived in the clouds.
But, all the same,
He was close to the solemn child
who had secretly shut him up in a picture book.

But now
the man is enlightened.
Now he has been to school
and has learnt to kick a ball
and to be abject
in the face of public opinion.
He knows, too
that men are hardly removed from monkeys.
You see, he lives in the light
of the twentieth century.

He works twelve hours a day
and is able to rent a room
in a lodging house
that is not a home.

At night he hangs
a wretched coat
upon a peg on the door
and stares
at the awful jug and basin
and goes to bed.
And the poor coat,
worn to the man’s shape—
round-shouldered and abject—
watches him, asleep,
dreaming of all
the essential,
holy things
that he cannot hope to obtain
for two pounds ten a week.

Very soon
he will put off his body,
like the poor, dejected coat
that he hates.
And his body will be
worn to the shape
of twelve hours’ work a day
for two pounds ten a week.

If he had only known that the God in the picture book
is not an old man in the clouds,
but the seed of life in his soul;
the man would have lived,
and his life would have flowered
with the flower of limitless joy.

But he does not know,
and in him
the Holy Ghost
is a poor little bird
in a cage,
who never sings
and never opens his wings,
yet never, never
desires to be gone away.


That last image is worthy of any poet, though Houselander's line in general lacks the mysterious tension of free verse at its best. Her writing seems to have been only one part of her work; she was also a wood carver and, perhaps most importantly, a mystic with a gift of spiritual healing. The Wikipedia article seems to be a pretty good introduction, and there is more material in the external links provided there. I notice that the library which houses my office has her autobiography; I plan to read it next.