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January 2014

In These Times

What is asked of us is that we wrestle in faith with God and with whatever opposes us in the world. It is not the faith of cheerful fables that is demanded of us in these times, but rather a hard faith--for the softening and accomodating enchantment is falling away from all things, and everywhere the contradictions collide roughly with one another.

--Msgr Romano Guardini

The Thaw

It's a bright sunny day, the temperature is a few degrees above freezing, and I'm hearing something I've only heard a few times in my life. The sound of the thaw: water running off the eaves, dripping from the trees, and here and there a more substantial sound as a bit of ice crumbles and falls. Apart from the last of these, it sounds more or less like the aftermath of an ordinary rain, but the cold makes it feel much different. I'd forgotten what a pleasure it is; a bit of compensation for those who live in colder places.

Winter Storm 2014

I know this is nothing by the standards of any part of the country north of Tennessee or so, but it's hard to communicate just how freakish it is here. Normally the most severe wintry weather we get is a few days here and there slightly below freezing. Once, ca. 1996, there was enough snow in Mobile to cover the ground and stick for most of a day,  and against the stern instructions of the authorities, I drove several of my children over to see it. Now and then we get a bit of sleet or freezing rain. But I've been living in this area for 23 years and haven't seen anything remotely like this.

This was the view out the front door this morning. That looks like snow, but it's actually mostly sleet. It fell along with a little rain, so it was a bit slushy, and then it all froze hard overnight. Footprints don't show on it. The stepping stones are clear because I swept the sleet off last night while it was still falling, before it had a chance to harden. I did the same on the steps, and my wife found a box of ice cream salt which worked wonderfully for keeping the steps clear.


But the big news, and the sad news, in this picture is the dead leaves on that tree overhanging the front steps. That is our lemon tree. It should be green even in winter. The damage you see is from the similar cold snap of a couple of weeks ago, which involved no precipitation. We'll know in six weeks or so how bad the damage really is. But I think there are going to be no lemons this year. This is how it looked only six weeks or so ago.



The beach is covered with ice, too. 


On a slight slope, I could take a couple of running steps and have a nice slide, which was not very smart for a guy with a bad back, but fun.

I looked for ice along the edges of the water, because I wanted very much to be able to say that Mobile Bay is beginning to freeze over. But apart from a bit of frozen foam there really wasn't any. There was, however, some fresh frozen mullet.



We watched the weather report on one of the local TV stations last night, which we rarely do, and it was very funny. Roving correspondents all over the area, trying to think of variations on "Look at the ice on that highway. Gosh, there's a lot of ice! Ice is slippery, don't drive on it. Look at all that ice!" And there was a funny scene of kids from quite young to college age "sledding" on plastic storage-bin lids and anything else they could find that was flat and big enough to sit on.

Oh, and my wife and I, like almost everyone else in the area, got an unexpected two days off work, which is why I have time to do this.

Pete Seeger, RIP

Dead at 94. One of my early encounters with the folk music movement of the early '60s was this song by Tom Paxton, sung, unless my memory is playing tricks on me, by Seeger. There was a little clock radio in the room I shared with my brother at home in north Alabama, and I often listened to it at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I could pick up Chicago's WLS at night, and on Sunday nights there was a folk program. It's an extraordinarily vivid memory, of Seeger's clear simple voice and the poignant tune and lyrics sounding out in the dark.


Seeger's memory will always be a little tainted for me by his communism, and his clear sympathy for it that remained long after he had formally broken with it, something a wise man ought to have put behind him after the truth was known beyond any doubt. But he was like many, many others on the leftward end of the political spectrum in that. The music and his love for it remain.

What's Wrong

A few days ago I followed a link from somewhere or other to this story about the CEO of Caterpillar. Caterpillar is a big company, with approximately 121,000 employees. In 2012 it had about $5.6 billion in profits. A very hasty search informs me the company was doing worse throughout 2013, and profits are significantly lower, probably down below $4 billion for the year, although I didn't see any fourth-quarter figures.

The yearly pay of the CEO, Doug Oberhelman, was raised earlier this year from $16 million to $22 million, despite the fact that it was clear that profits were headed down. One immediately thinks "That raise should have gone to the workers," and probably it should have--but distributing that money to the workers comes out to only about $50 per employee. Even distributing the CEO's entire salary to the workers would give each one only about $180, which would no doubt be welcomed but is not enough to make a real difference in the way one lives.

Multi-million-dollar CEO salaries are often a scandal in many ways, but they aren't the main reason for stagnant or declining wages. But use $4.5 billion, a very rough midpoint between the past two years' profits, instead of $22 million, and the picture is rather different: roughly $33,000 per employee. Even half, even a third, even a sixth of that, would make a difference.

The fundamental problem here is that the profit made by the company is assumed to be meant for everyone except the people who actually built the product. The workers are considered no more than a cost of doing business, their wages no different from the price of steel. And the company feels justified, in fact obligated, to keep those costs as low as possible.

Who is the money for? Shareholders, directly--which is fine--and the stock market, indirectly, because high profit generally means higher stock price. In my limited experience in the corporate world, it seemed that the desire to keep the stock price up and climbing was one of the major, maybe the major, drivers of the practice of many companies. Granted, that was high-tech, where people were expecting a greater than average chance of investment windfalls. But I imagine it's operative throughout the corporate world.

It's almost funny that the CEO justifies his own salary by saying that the company has to be competitive. But it's not funny, because he uses the same reason to justify reducing the wages of his employees. Clearly he thinks that he would be difficult to replace, but his workers would not; therefore he can reduce their wages, or at least keep them from rising; therefore he will do so.

I get very impatient with people who say this sort of thing is a result of an immutable law, like the law of physics that says that if you push something hard enough, it will fall over.[1] What's being described here is as much a matter of culture and ethics. There is nothing in the nature of the universe that says it should be acceptable to exclude workers from sharing in the success of the company. There is in fact a lot of common sense justification for doing otherwise, entirely from the free enterprise point of view.

The great engine and virtue of the system is supposed to be incentive: if you work hard and produce something of value to others, you'll be rewarded financially. This CEO and others like him apparently don't believe in applying that logic to workers. This one isn't even willing to offer the traditional incentive to wage-earners: the assurance that if the company does well your wages will rise. But the company was doing very well at the time of this interview, and he was in the process of trying to freeze or reduce wages, offering only the vaguest lip service to the possibility that they would ever be increased. The only incentive offered is negative: work hard and maybe if things go well you'll keep your job. But no guarantees, of course. And if you don't like it, there are many others willing to take your place.

What would be the logical end point of this? To bring the cost of labor as near as possible to zero by paying the workers just barely enough to keep them alive and able to work? No doubt Mr. Oberhelman would take exception to that, but how far from the truth is it? I wonder if he's a Christian.

[1] Fudd's First Law of Opposition; see Firesign Theatre, I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus

52 Guitars: Week 4

When I thought "Time for a folk guitarist" the first name that popped into my head was John Fahey's. Then I thought, "Nah, it should be someone more authentically folk, not someone who came to the music from outside"; Fahey was a middle-class guy who discovered blues and country in his teens. But his presence was insistent. No, blues and country weren't his native language, but he took folk material and did something wonderful with it. I can't think of anything that sounds more like rural and southern America than his music. He himself referred to his style as American Primitive, and that's exactly right.

I recall seeing and hearing one of his albums when I was in college. If memory serves, someone brought it over to my apartment and we listened to it, but I think I was at least as interested in the strange text that came with it, and the general vibe: a strange mixture of musical folklore, whimsical fiction, philosophy, and religion. His first album, self-produced and distributed in 1959, was called Blind Joe Death, and that fictional bluesman appeared occasionally on other albums. There was a series of similarly-designed LPs on his own Takoma label through the early and mid-'60s, and it was one of those that I heard.

The only one of that series that I own is the one from which the following selection, its title song, is taken. The title communicates a good deal of Fahey's spirit.


Unfortunately my copy, found in a bin of used records somewhere many years after its release, does not have the accompanying text, but thanks to the Internet it can be found. Reading it will give you a better sense of the strangeness I'm talking about than anything I can say. And here is his Wikipedia entry, which will tell you about his life and career and also has links to other interesting stuff.

Here's one where you can see him playing up close.


I wish I'd bought some of those Takoma LPs in the '60s, though they were not widely available. They can still be found but sell for $30-$50 (they're available on CD at normal prices). I have a couple of others that were released on more widely-distributed labels, Vanguard and Reprise. The one on Vanguard, The Yellow Princess, is my favorite. In addition to Fahey's typical work, it contains some intriguing experiments like the sound collage "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee."

I discovered while researching this post that sometime in the 1970s he put out an album called Fare Forward Voyagers, which is a phrase from Eliot's Four Quartets. It consists of three pieces, each of which bears a phrase from Four Quartets as its title. I'll have to 

Happy 10th Anniversary To This Site

The first Sunday Night Journal was unveiled to an eager public in January 2004. Here is a link to that month's archive; the very first post was a review of Return of the King (the movie). The posts appear latest-first, so that post is at the bottom. I think I had put up some sort of "Hello World" announcement, probably including the assertion that it was not a blog, at the end of December, but I'm not sure. At the time I intended to publish only the one weekly piece.

For the first couple of years it was a very simple web site done with hand-coded HTML and CSS. I got tired of maintaining that, and also decided that I really wanted to have comments, and more casual posts, so I started a blog with Blogger. I believe that was in June of 2006. In 2010 I moved it here from Blogger. Soon after that all the previous comments were lost, which is too bad because there were some great conversations there and I'm sure future historians would have been fascinated by them.

It was actually only last year that I finally got all the stuff from the first two and a half years posted here. Wonder how many words there are in the whole shebang.

Not the Best Choice of Words

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stopped by Howard Stern’s radio show this week and revealed plans for his next big movie.

Weinstein got into a discussion with Stern about the issue of gun control, telling the controversial radio host, “I don’t think we need guns in this country, and I hate it. I think the NRA is a disaster area.”

“I shouldn’t say this, but I’ll tell it to you, Howard. I’m going to make a movie with Meryl Streep, and we’re going to take this head-on,” Weinstein continued. “And they’re going to wish they weren’t alive after I’m done with them.”

(quoted and ridiculed in this post at National Review Online)

Has there ever been a more egregious, yet oblivious, pool of hypocrisy than the entertainment industry? Harvey Weinstein has produced a number of very violent films, as well as some anti-Catholic ones, and "...has also cultivated a reputation for ruthlessness and fits of anger." (See Wikipedia article, which provided me with a link to this nice take-down of one of Weinstein's anti-Catholic efforts.

You Really Need to See These Wondrous Photos

Just a mother taking pictures of her children, as so many others do. She's Russian, and her name is Elena Shumilova. She says she "processes" the photos at night, and I really wonder what she does and what tools she uses, because I doubt that they come out of the camera looking quite this good. See the entire gallery here