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August 2012


My front yard, as of about fifteen minutes ago; the haze in the middle is a result of the lens fogging up when brought from the air-conditioned house to the very humid outdoors:


So Isaac, having barely attained hurricane strength, has bypassed us and headed for Louisiana instead. Unless something changes drastically, this will prove to be a fairly mild event, even for those in its path, which seems to be quite a disappointment to the people at the Weather Channel, who give every appearance of cheering for the storm. We haven't even had more than a sprinkle of rain, and a few wind gusts.

And everyone is either laughing at or complaining  about the various officials who called for evacuations, shut down schools, and so forth. The college where I work is closed today and tomorrow, though I won't be surprised if they call the staff back. So I'm getting an unexpected day or two off. It appears a ridiculous panicky over-reaction, but in fairness to those who made the decisions it has to be said that you just never know what these storms will do. And better safe than sorry is usually a good policy. Anyway, I'm not complaining.

Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2012

Waiting for the Hurricane

This will be brief, as I've been busy most of the day making preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to be Hurricane Isaac by the time it makes landfall somewhere along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The tropics have been pretty quiet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005--it's hard to believe that's seven years ago now--and we had gotten complacent. Even if these storms end up being relatively mild, they still produce a lot of anxiety, and it's a lot of trouble to get ready for them. You need to move things like patio furniture inside, or tie them down, so they don't end up coming through your window. Lots of people board their windows, but we're going to skip that this time. I hope we don't regret it. We're pretty protected from the wind here, and I always figure the biggest risk is of a tree falling on the house. Hurricane Katrina did send water up to the house, but fortunately not further, so we didn't get flooded. It would have to be a pretty extreme storm for our house to flood or be damaged by a surge, and at this point Isaac isn't expected to be one of those.

Here are a few hurricane-related posts from that period in 2004-2005 when we had Ivan and Katrina and several smaller storms:  Sunday Night Comes On a Tuesday Morning This Week, about waiting for Ivan. You Can't, In Fact, Always Get What You Want, written while waiting for Dennis, which preceded Katrina by six weeks or so. Then, a few weeks later, Not So Calm Before the Storm, written the night before Katrina. And Uneasy In the Aftermath, after Katrina.

I can't find it now, but I'm pretty sure I had a post at some point about how unprepared we were for one of the storms, and how bad it would have been if the storm had not turned out to be relatively mild, and how we had learned our lesson and would be prepared with food, water, flashlight batteries, etc. etc. for the next one. Well, that didn't last. But at least we no longer have the filing cabinets full of family records and important things like insurance policies in the part of the house that's on the side closer to the bay and four feet lower than the rest.

Truffaut: Day for Night

I watched this last weekend. I don't really know much of Truffaut's work. Jules and Jim was a staple of art film screenings in the 1960s, and I think I may have seen it twice. I liked it. I think I may have seen The 400 Blows back then as well, but can't remember for sure, so obviously it didn't make a lasting impression on me if I did. And I saw Stolen Kisses when it was in theaters in the late '60s--yes, there was a theater in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that showed the occasional artsy or foreign film. I remember liking it a good deal, though I don't remember anything specific from it. I recorded it off Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago and will be watching it sometime soon (if the house doesn't get destroyed by a hurricane). 

Day for Night is apparently considered one of Truffaut's best. It's a movie-about-a-movie, or rather about making a movie, which didn't produce great expectations in me. I've seen 8 1/2 and another Fellini film about movie-making of which I can't remember the name right now. I was unenthusiastic about both. I suppose I'll have to watch 8 1/2 again sometime, since so many critics regard it as a masterpiece, but am in no hurry.

I like Day for Night considerably more than either. It's an engaging and charming work, though it doesn't touch great depths. There's a kind of sweetness about it, a gentle touch: you feel that the director likes his characters, and wants them to be happy. And though they pass through a number of tribulations in the process of making the movie, they come out reasonably well in the end.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie Miller, an American actress recruited for the title role of the film-within-the-film, Meet Pamela. Before she arrives, she's described as fragile, having recently suffered a breakdown of sorts. And "fragile" is just what she seems. I didn't know much about her; beyond recognizing her name I can't remember whether I'd seen her in anything else. I was impressed. Truffaut himself plays the much-harassed director. 

I hate to sound like I'm damning with faint praise, because I really did enjoy it, perhaps the more because I wasn't necessarily expecting to.  But although I can recommend it, I can't muster a really passionate recommendation. I suppose it takes something either very big and serious, or very funny, to get that kind of reaction from me. 




Dar Williams: I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything

Weekend Music

I've heard Dar Williams's name here and there, but don't know much about her. This song was a free download at eMusic sometime in the past few months. At one time I had many, many of these that I'd never really listened to, because I always downloaded them without listening to the samples first. I've become more choosy now, downloading only the ones that seem really promising. I worked my way through the backlog by putting half a dozen or so tracks on a flash drive and listening to them in the car, and after a few listens marking (in the music player on my computer) the ones I really like with a four-star rating, so that I can find them later. This was in the most recent batch, and it very definitely gets four stars. Moreover, it makes me want to hear some more of Dar Williams. 

I'm not sure exactly what this song is saying--something about children and war and maybe more generally about children--but I sure like it. You can read the lyrics here



...stands for Anybody But Obama. I haven't said much (have I said anything?) about the election. But I posted a comment at Neo-neocon earlier, and since I spent more time than I had intended on it, and it's a pretty good summary of my view of President Obama and the election, I think I'll reproduce it here. The topic of the post (read it here) is why some people still find Obama likeable, and why they ever did in the first place. A number of people commenting there dislike him very intensely, to say the least. Here's what I said:

Well, this is interesting. Another data point: I was inclined to like Obama when I first heard him speak, sometime in the year or so before the 2008 campaign was in full swing. I thought well, maybe he actually is the sort of person who could bring us together instead of dividing us, who could appeal to what’s best on both sides of our divisions, etc.

That didn’t last long, but I still hoped he would beat Hillary for the nomination–because I have the visceral dislike for the Clintons that many of you seem to have for Obama. (I thought I was over that, but every time I hear Bill’s voice it comes back.) Even after he won the election, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and hoped that he would be a decent president. And, yeah, I admit to a sentimental warmth about the election of our first “black” (i.e. visibly mixed-race) president.

Pretty soon, of course, I realized how bad he was going to be, and that his idea of conciliation was that everybody would do what he told them to. So I lost any good feeling toward him that I’d had.

But I still have not developed that strong personal dislike. I’ve been in the Oval Office with him, shaken his hand, looked into his eyes, said a few words to him (“God bless you”). (No, I’m not anybody important, it was a ceremonial occasion.) I didn’t have any gut-level sense of “this is a bad guy” or even “this is a phony.” I just think he’s a man with very bad ideas and a very bad agenda upon which he is very determined, and I want to see him gone. It’s not personal.

I read a comment once from some Bush administration official that many people had the idea that Bush was dumb, but a nice guy, and that both were false. Substitute “smart” for “dumb” in that sentence, and I think it’s pretty true of Obama.

I was pretty sure from the beginning that Obamacare was going to be used as a tool by social progressives to impose their will on retrograde elements, and I was certainly right about that. The attack on religious freedom was the last straw, a matter so fundamental that it makes all other issues seem less important, the political equivalent of an enemy invasion, the point at which negotiation is no longer an option and you have to either fight or accept the invader's rule. At this point I would vote for an empty beer can over Obama and his zany sidekick.

Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2012

A Few Simple Commands

Thursday was the Feast of the Assumption, and I made my way across town to St. Mary of the Visitation, where our little Anglican Use congregation was having Mass at 12:15. I was having an extremely busy day at work, and had trouble getting away. Then the drive took a little longer than expected, and so I was late. I walked in just as the reading from Revelation was beginning. It was a bit of a shock to step so suddenly from the workaday world to the very strange events described there: a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, about to give birth; a dragon with seven heads and ten horns waiting to devour the child; the defeat of the one who accuses “the brethren” day and night before the throne of God.

What can all this mean? What is it really describing? We’re often told that it’s all symbolic and we shouldn’t take the specific imagery too seriously. No doubt it is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean the images are connected to what they symbolize only by the thread of metaphorical logic. I think we’re justified in supposing that the symbol is also an accurate picture of some aspect of the reality. But I also think the full reality is most likely something we could not possibly understand, the way the two-dimensional creatures in the classic Flatland are utterly unable to imagine the third dimension. We’re given these very strange but fundamentally simple representations because we aren’t capable of understanding anything more. 

I sometimes wonder what the reality represented by the term “throne of God” might actually be like. I can’t really say that I conjecture, or imagine, because I can’t even get that far. And I wonder about the relation of stories like the woman and the dragon to time and eternity. They happened, or are happening, or will happen, or perhaps all three together. How does it all work, this spiritual world of which the Bible and the traditions of the Church give us only hints and simple pictures? Dragons, thrones, women, moon and stars—we can make sense of these, but what the combat between God and evil really looks like, from an angel’s point of view, is probably as incomprehensible to us as a book on mathematics is to a dog. What does “looks like” even mean in that realm? The possibility of getting some sort of real understanding of these things is not the least of the pleasures I hope to experience in the next life. No doubt we’ll never be able to understand it all, but our understanding will grow and grow as we become more and more like God.

Meanwhile, we have to recognize our limits. I find it useful to consider my two dogs, Andy and Lucy, in connection with this. My wife and I from time to time have an exchange about their mental abilities. She’ll say, for instance, that they think its unfair if one of them gets some sort of treat or special treatment and the other doesn’t. I insist that dogs don’t “think” in that sense. It’s clear that when either of the dogs gets something, the other expects to get it, too, but I don’t think that is evidence of a concept of fairness, but rather simply that the second dog wants it. In any case, they certainly can’t form any conception of the reasons for that unequal treatment. Andy has to stay on a leash when we walk, while Lucy gets to go free (in the immediate neighborhood), because she’s reasonably obedient and he isn’t. I have explained this to him, but have never received any indication that he understood.

The human purposes that govern these things, indeed almost every aspect of the human life that goes on all around them, and occasionally makes some sort of direct intervention in theirs, are utterly incomprehensible to them. What , for instance, do they make of the sounds that we continually make and which to us constitutes a symbolic language referencing everything from the temperature of the house to theology? They recognize their names, though Lucy seems not to know the difference between “Lucy” and “Andy.” And they recognize a few simple commands: “no,” “come,” “sit.” They’re pretty good at recognizing a tone in the human voice that indicates displeasure or something bad about to happen, and they recognize a comforting gentle tone, but there’s no reason to think that they understand the content of a specific sentence like “Stop making that noise—it’s driving me crazy.” Essentially everything that isn’t a command signifies nothing more specific than approval or disapproval: “No!” “Good boy” (or girl)

Most of the activity that goes on in the house is utterly meaningless to them. What could they possibly make of, say, sweeping the floor, or washing the dishes? Every weekday morning they get put into cages,where they stay for the nine-to-ten hours we’re away at work. This was a last resort which we finally arrived at as the only way to prevent the trouble they got into while we were gone. They can have no least idea of where we go and what we do when we leave every morning, or why they have to be caged.

I think our relationship to God is very much like this. What we know is not false, but it is only a very small hint of the reality. Everyone knows the story of the vision St. Thomas Aquinas had toward the end of his life which made him declare that everything he had written was only straw. But I don’t think that meant that what he had written was false, only that it came nowhere near doing justice to the reality. All our theology tells us little more about God than my dogs know about me, which likewise is not false but which does not even have a vocabulary for the sort of knowledge it does not contain. We are capable of knowing a few things: who the food and the petting come from, and with a lot of training we can manage to understand a few simple commands—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery—but, like ill-trained dogs, we are not at all reliable about following them.

The big difference between the two cases is that we have been told that we are capable of more, and will one day pass into a different order of being where we will be capable of understanding things that are perhaps now as far beyond us as human speech is for a dog. I sometimes think we can learn something from our dogs about obedience to mysterious commands.


I’m sure this image is under copyright but I haven’t been able to find its source.