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November 2012

Duvall: Standing At the Door

Weekend Music

This is a catchy, slightly noisy pop song (using "pop" in the broad sense, without trying to pin it to any of the myriad sub-genres of pop/rock--emo? post-punk? whatever). It was a free download from eMusic quite a while back, like maybe eight years or so. I liked it but never investigated the group further. I happened across it the other day and it struck me as appropriate for (almost) Advent. 

 

A bit of interesting background at AMG.


But Hope for the Bookstore?

I started to post this link in the comments to the previous post but decided it was worth a post of its own. I just ran across this while reading something else at The Atlantic (namely this extremely exciting bit of news) and I only had time to read half of it: The Bookstore Strikes Back, an account of someone starting a new and so far successful bookstore in Nashville. 

Update: The statement about the astonishing fact below is inoperative. In my haste on Friday I misread the piece and thought the store owner didn't know what "Parnassus" was.

That link takes you to the first of two pages, which is as far as I read (I'll have to wait till after work to read the rest). Somewhere on that page is a fact that astonished me. I'm curious to know whether it jumps out at anyone else.


Lament For the Book

Anthony Daniels at The New Criterion muses on what appears to be its inevitable slide into irrelevance and obsolescence. He doesn't ignore the conveniences of electronic publishing, but like everyone who loves books he isn't happy about the trend. This is probably definitive evidence for the contention that the trend will not be reversed (barring some more or less catastrophic events that would make the electronic book  no longer viable):

A bookseller, from whom I had been buying for nearly forty years, and with whom I had grown old, told me, shortly before he closed down his shop, that the nature of customers had changed over the years. True browsers like me, who were content to spend two or three hours among the dust to find something of whose existence they previously had had no inkling, but which, by a process of elective affinity, aroused their interest and even sparked a passion, were few and were old. In so far as young people came into his shop at all, they came to enquire whether he had such and such a book, usually required reading for some course or other; and if he had not, they left immediately, having no further interest in his stock. Their need for the book in question must have been urgent, since it was available online for delivery next day; they must have been late with an assignment. So if youth were the future, the future, at least for second-hand booksellers with shops, was bleak.

This was a genuine cultural change, my bookseller said, and not just the complaint of a man who had grown old without seeing the time pass. When he started out in the trade, young people browsed in the way that only the old now did; and so he had been overtaken by a change that owed nothing to him, as wheelwrights, coopers, or blacksmiths had once been overtaken.

As it happens, I've recently been reading a book on a Kindle for the first time, and although there are some things I like about it I would much rather have an actual book.

And I don't really like to admit it to myself, but this is true of me:

...if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.

I don't think I would need the "perhaps" qualifier. I have a very, very happy memory of the moment during my brief time as a graduate student when I came across the bound volumes of The Criterion in the library. I had some notion that a time would come when I would have the leisure to stay in the library all day, and read them all if I wanted to. I think it was probably the feeling that some men have contemplating a retirement in which they would have nothing to do but fish or play golf.


Gephyrophobia

I did not know there was such a word. It means "fear of bridges." Coincidentally, apropos the discussion of bridges in the comments on the preceding post, I was reading a story on some news site and noticed at the bottom of the page a link to The World's Scariest Bridges, and that's where I found the word. Let me tell you, there are some truly scary bridges in that list. I don't have any particular fear of bridges as such, but I have a serious fear of heights, and just looking at some of those pictures gave me that weird shaky sensation in my lower body and legs that heights give me. So you've been warned. 

There is only one bridge in the list that I've been on: the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway. It doesn't bother me a bit. It's not that high, and you don't have the sense that you could drive off the side.


Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2012

Don and the Unprofitable Servant

When you pick up a hitchhiker, there's a moment when he opens the door and you look at each other, and you're both wondering whether you've made a big mistake: Is this guy going to do me some kind of harm? I could see that question in the eyes of the fellow I picked up the week before Thanksgiving, and I expect he could see it in mine. And for my part I had the impulse to say "Sorry" and drive away, because he looked and smelled so bad. The smell hit me almost as soon as he opened the door. He had stiff gray hair that stuck wildly out from under a baseball-style cap that would have looked dirty even without the painted-on bird droppings and the words "Damn Seagulls." He wore a grungy three-quarter length olive drab coat. His teeth were yellow and wildly crooked. A set of headphones sat askew, still on his head but not on his ears--so that he could hear, I suppose. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the 50s; whatever the number of years, they had not been kind.

This was on Interstate 10 in northern Florida, somewhere not very far west of Tallahassee. I was returning from a work-related conference in Ocala, driving a rented Toyota minivan (because the smaller car I had asked for was not available). It was a seven-hour drive, but flying would have taken just as long and cost more. And anyway, I very much enjoy a long drive alone with plenty of music to listen to. I had no desire for company, and had only stopped for this man out of a sense of obligation.

I often pick up hitchhikers if I think I can take them some useful distance, which means that on my way to and from work I pass up the occasional one near the Interestate who looks as if (or announces with a sign that) he has a long way to go. On my way to Ocala two days earlier, I had passed one by, and felt guilty about it. I had stopped for food--again near Tallahassee, but east of it--and was getting back on I10 when I saw a man sitting on a suitcase at the entrance to the on-ramp. And I hadn't stopped, because I didn't want to be bothered. I had my Zaxby's chicken and french fries open on the console where I could reach them easily, and had just inserted a CD of Mozart piano sonatas. I felt pretty bad about not picking up the hitcher, and for a few minutes wrestled with the thought of going back for him, until I had gone far enough that I could reasonably tell myself that it was now impractical, as I needed to reach Ocala by 6 or so and a time zone change was against me. 

 The drive on I10 across the Florida panhandle is extremely boring. The highway is many miles inland from the coast, and the area is sparsely populated. Towns are few and far between. Most exits take you only to a cluster of gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The man I had just picked up had been trudging along beside the open road, several miles past the last exit and several miles away from the next one. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and the sky was a uniform grey. I was cruising along happily, experimenting with the great variety of music on the XM radio. But having passed up the previous hitcher, I knew I had no choice but to stop for this one.

He was one of those who appears to be going a long way, with a backpack and a sleeping bag. When I stopped he began hurrying to catch up with me, but he was moving prettly slowly, so I backed up. He was a little out of breath when he opened the door and pushed his headphones aside. After that initial appraising moment, he asked me how far I was going. "To Mobile," I said. He  yelled "G*d*mn!", which startled me for an instant before I realized it was an elated and not an angry g*d*mn.

One reason I don't like doing this is the sheer tension of it. The odds are great that anyone you pick up is going to be perfectly harmless, but there's always the possibility that he won't be, so you're on edge, and in my case I generally stay on edge until I've taken the person as far as I'm going to take him. And even apart from that, there is for me the introvert's tension of having a stranger in the car.

Strictly speaking, I wasn't going to Mobile, but to Fairhope, which is on the east side of Mobile Bay, but I figured he probably wouldn't know where that was. I hoped maybe he wasn't going that far, but considering the load he was carrying I wasn't surprised to learn that he was heading for Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, another 250 miles or so beyond Mobile. I decided at that moment that I would in fact take him to Mobile, to get him past the long bridge and tunnel between the eastern and western shores of Mobile Bay.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Don, which happens to be my father's name (or nickname). He made me more nervous than usual because there was something about him that seemed...not crazy, but not entirely balanced, either. The tension was not eased when he pointed out the exit that led to a prison where he had spent several years. "I used to be a bad boy," he said with a chuckle. Nor was I pleased when he asked if I would stop at the next exit and let him get something to drink. I don't know why I agreed to that; mainly because I couldn't think fast enough to say no, and besides he didn't say he wanted alcohol, although I figured that was probably what he meant. But I did stop, and in fact gave him some money when he offered me a canned ham from his backpack in exchange for  something to drink. While he was in the store I considered dumping his stuff in the parking lot and driving away without him. But I discarded that idea, made the sign of the cross, and muttered Lord, into thy hands.

"Something to drink" proved to be four 16-ounce cans of beer, and it was only when he returned to the car with it that he asked me if I minded.

"Not as long as you don't get drunk and crazy," I said.

"Naw, naw, I'm a good drunk."

And he was. I'll go ahead and tell you right now, so you won't think later that I misled you, that this story isn't leading up to some violent or terrifying crisis. But of course at this point I didn't know what to expect.

He was very talkative, and I got more nervous when he mentioned another prison stay, this one at a sort of low-security camp which he considered much superior in the way of food and general atmosphere. At some point in relation to this second sentence I asked him what he'd been in for. Either he didn't notice the question--which is possible, because he didn't stop talking very often--or he didn't want to answer it, and I didn't repeat it.

He talked and talked. He was not unintelligent, and he was interested in many things.

"Tell me something. What's your theory of how the Grand Canyon was created?"

I admitted that I hadn't formulated one of my own. But he had: he thought an earthquake had released vast quantities of water from beneath the surface of the earth, carving, or blasting out, the canyon in one sudden cataclysm. He explained the tides as being caused by the magnetism of the moon pulling on dissolved metals in the oceans.

He talked about why he needed to get to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: for a court appearance, regarding a matter of battery on an officer of the law--"I might have nudged him a little when he was shoving me into the back of the car." He told me about his deceased wife, and his daughter of whom he thought the world, of various incidents on various jobs. I didn't know whether to believe it all, but it was certainly interesting. He discussed his sex life in extremely crude detail, which combined with the smell to make me feel that I might lose my own appetite in that regard.

The time passed fairly quickly. I suppose he rode with me for three hours altogether. By the time we were thirty or forty miles from Mobile Bay it had come out in conversation that I lived on the eastern shore and needed to return my rental car there. I told him I would take him on into Mobile and asked where he would like to get out.

"Aw, you don't have to do that."

"It's no problem. It's just another half hour or so over and back and I've got plenty of time."

"Well, I would sure appreciate it."

His talk at this point, three beers on, was getting even more lively and rambling. As we got onto the bay bridge, he started talking about the tunnel. The tunnel is on the west side of the bay. The bridge is six or seven miles long, and at the west end takes a sudden downturn into a tunnel which goes under the Mobile River. It is definitely not meant for pedestrians--there aren't supposed to be any pedestrians on the interstate. There is a bit of a walkway for emergencies, but it's very narrow, with only a rail to hold onto and nothing between you and the traffic--always including a good number 0f 18-wheelers--flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour a few feet away. It would be terrifying to negotiate on foot.

"I hate that g*dd**n tunnel. F***ing hate it. There ain't nowhere to walk."

He got more and more agitated. I told him I had a friend who was the same way about bridges.

"I don't mind bridges. But a tunnel is just not natural. Down in a hole in the ground, with a f***ing river right over your head."

And finally, as we entered the tunnel, it seemed that he was genuinely terrified, as if it had been the mouth of hell. "See what I mean? See?!? Where can you walk?!?" And then just "G*dD**N" over and over.  He was clutching the arm rest, and then he was clutching my arm, repeating "DAMN."

WallaceTunnelEntrance

But then we were out, and he rejoiced. He began to laugh, and to thank me profusely.

"You've gone above and beyond, Mac. I really do appreciate it," he said several times. I asked again where he would like to get out. "It don't matter. Long as I'm through that damn tunnel, it don't matter."

So I stopped at the Texas Street exit. While he was gathering his things he kept talking, repeating his appreciation, and I kept telling him I just knew that if I was walking along that highway I would be glad to have a ride. He thanked me for letting him drink, "even though you're a religious man," which was odd because I'd said nothing about religion and there was no sign of it in the car--no Bible, no pamphlets, no books, no rosary. 

 We talked a bit more. I gave him what cash I had, which wasn't very much, and then remembered I had some beef jerky and some trail mix, and I gave him that, too. He was really happy to have the jerky. He had one beer left and he took that. He courteously crushed the empties and was going to take them with him but I told him not to worry about it, I would get rid of them. And we took our leave, shaking hands.

"I hope you get where you're going and don't have to stay there," I said: if the court appearance didn't go well he would end up in the Breaux Bridge jail.

"Amen," he said, "me, too." He squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye for a long time and said, "I know I'm going to be safe, because there must be a hundred people praying for me."

"Well, I'll make it a hundred and one."

He looked at me a little longer. "Let me show you something," he said, and started rummaging in his backpack. Well, here it is, I thought.  Here comes the gun, and he's going to explain why he didn't rob and shoot me, or maybe even do it now.

"Where is it?...here..." He pulled out a battered paperback Bible. "This is my sword. I don't go nowhere without it."

We shook hands again, and I left him there near the off-ramp, driving off with a very mixed set of thoughts and feelings. My most immediate reaction was relief that my anxieties had been proven unnecessary. And you will have surmised that there was more than a little self-congratulation: how generous I had been; how kindly I had treated this near-derelict; how pleased God must be by my virtue, perhaps even more pleased than I. 

But both these were crowded out pretty quickly by the knowledge that I could have done more. I could have offered to take him all the way to Breaux Bridge--it was Friday, and I didn't have to be at work the next day. I could have offered to put him up for the night and given him something better to eat than a packet of jerky and a handful of nuts and raisins. I could have made him a continuing part of my life, giving him a hand now and then, instead of being anxious to be rid of him. And if I could have done more, I should have. 

Common sense argues: no, you did enough. You can't be expected to disrupt your life, or give away too much of your money. There are thousands of people like Don; what would happen if you tried to help them all as you think you should have helped him? Your own substance, spiritual and material, would soon be exhausted. 

But someone else counters:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

(I don't in any way intend to say that one is always obligated to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact I would say that a woman alone is generally obligated not to. I speak only of my own conscience and of this one episode.)


Lemons and Satsumas

It's citrus harvest time here. And these are our very own trees. Meyer lemon (a larger and mellower lemon):

OurLemons

And satsuma:

OurSatsumas

I've written before about the glory of the satsuma. I was going to say it was a couple of years ago but I see it was three. This is the tree I mentioned in that post, or one of them. The other didn't make it through an exceptionally dry summer, and, I regret to say, negligence on my part. This is the first year it's borne fruit, and I hope the first of many. The leaves of the satsuma are actually closer, quite close, to the color of the lemon's. I took the lemon picture with a small Nikon point-and-shoot camera, my wife took the satsuma one with her iPhone. Interesting. No doubt the general lighting was different, too. 

I should take a picture of the whole lemon tree. It's all as densely fruited as this shot indicates. We've given away a couple of grocery bags full of them and the tree is still loaded. 


It Really Is

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

—traditional English version of the prayer of thanksgiving from the Mass


Anglican Catholic News

(See this post for background.) 

Our little, and I do mean little, group perseveres. We now have our own chapel--well, almost: we don't have an altar yet, but we hope to have the first Mass there on the first Sunday of Advent. There is a group blog called Anglican Patrimony to which our priest, Fr. Matt Venuti, contributes, and he's posted some pictures of the progress on the chapel there. It's the long-disused chapel of a former convent. The convent building is sort of an all-purpose utility space for the parish of St. Mary in Mobile (Alabama). The chapel, as you can see from the first picture, had become more or less a storage room. We put quite a lot of work into cleaning and painting (that's me in the second picture, on the ladder at the back of the room, priming the wall). The pictures are not that great but you get the idea (you can click on them for a bigger view).

We have not grown, though we've had some interest and encouragement. If we don't grow and get to a point of being able to pay our own way as a parish (Fr. Matt's full-time job is with St. Mary), we will not be able to continue. All we can do is give it our best effort and leave the longer run to God.

Meanwhile in the Church of England, the vote to have women bishops failed by a slim margin, and progressives are distraught. But they shouldn't be, because obviously they're going to win eventually. Damian Thompson, on the other hand, is pleased, in a schadenfreudish sort of way. I have to agree with him that Anglo-Catholicism (in the old Oxford Movement etc. sense) is done for, but then I thought that thirty years ago. I like his remark about the Ordinariate:

Six months ago I thought the experiment had failed; now, having witnessed its determination up close, I'm sure it will find a secure place for itself in the English Catholic landscape. But it will do so by evangelism and punching above its weight, not by forming a church within a church.

I'd been thinking along those lines, too.


Dawn Eden on The Journey Home

I expect most people who read this blog know of Dawn. Her conversion story is pretty powerful, and connects with a couple of recent discussions here, including this week's Sunday Night Journal, about the state of relations between the sexes, and this one, which touched on the apparently absent sense of God's absence among so many young people. She was a guest on EWTN's The Journey Home, and it's a fascinating and engaging episode. You can watch the video at her blog, and also at YouTube if that doesn't work as well (sometimes it doesn't).

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.

Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.

These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.

The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.

 In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.

In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.

I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."

At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.

The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:

To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.

Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.

Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's  not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.

I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):

How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher

These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?

(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)