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February 2017

Sunday Night Journal, February 26, 2017

In his review of SHEL, the group and the album, Robert Gotcher mentioned that their second album "is not nearly as good. They seem to have lost some of the innocence from the first album." I was reminded of this review, which I wrote ten years ago, of the first album by a group called Au Revoir Simone. The group consists of three young women (not quite so young now, obviously). The album is called Verses of Comfort, Assurance, and Salvation.

... this is a girlish album, and I mean that as a compliment: it’s sweet, though not the least bit sugary, and full of hope and longing, as young girls ought to be, rather than prematurely jaded and embittered by having given themselves too soon and too often to the unworthy. There are some indications here that they may have started down that road. This male listener who’s undoubtedly more than old enough to be their father feels protective toward them, gets a welcome touch of emotional springtime from their music, and hopes they don’t eventually give us Verses of Sarcasm, Anger, and Depression.

I haven't heard any of their subsequent work so I don't know how things have turned out for them. But what I was thinking of in those remarks, and what I speculate might be in evidence in SHEL's second album, is a phenomenon I've often noticed: more young women seem to be more disillusioned, often bitter and angry, than was the case not just when I was young but when I was middle-aged. And the more they seem to have embraced the sexual revolution the more angry they seem. I can't support that as anything more than a personal observation, and maybe it's a mistaken impression, but it certainly seems that way. I've noticed it since my own generation reached its late twenties or so, actually. 

Though now that I think about it I believe the impression that the phenomenon is growing comes more from the media than from real life. I mean young women in the media talking about themselves and their friends, and those are predominantly feminist, and feminists are generally angry, so maybe that's all it is. 

It looks to me in fact as if at least as many young men are pretty unhappy, too. The war between the sexes seems more like a war than it once did. The sexual revolution has given people a lot of pleasure, but I can't see that it's made them any happier. When I think of my parents' generation, people born in the 1920s, marrying and having children in the '40s and '50s, I don't see an idyllic world, but neither do I see the misery that's now held to be typical of the time. 

Maybe the epitaph of late American civilization will be "They had a lot of fun, but they weren't very happy." 


I've been thinking about the totalitarian propensities of contemporary liberalism (please insert standard clarification about classical liberalism etc. etc.), something which I've written about here before and which we've discussed. Whether what we now call liberalism in this country could ever become truly totalitarian--I mean thoroughly and violently repressive, in the way of fascism and communism--I'm not sure. If we include the entire left, there certainly are elements that would seem to be quite willing to use violence, and there certainly are elements which clearly want to enforce very rigid ideological conformity. 

But most dedicated liberals are nice people who don't condone or even dream about using violence (although I wonder if that's changing). And they're not big fans of the little fanatics who are in the news regularly for their attempts to shout down any and all opposing views. What they are, I think, is best described by the word devout. They have a religion to which they are passionately devoted, and as with any devotees, they want everyone to share their faith, and for everything around them to reflect it. 

There are some excellent examples of the syndrome in this piece by Kevin Williamson: progressivism, he says, is totalitarian the sense that it assumes that there is no life outside of politics, that there is no separate sphere of private life, and that church, family, art, and much else properly resides within that sphere.

Maybe a better word than totalitarianism would be totalism. (I didn't invent the word but it doesn't seem to have been used this way.) The liberal faith is, for its adherents, so very and obviously right, so clearly the path toward a far better life for everyone, that it should permeate everything, just as Christianity permeated medieval Europe. If the goal is an ever-nearer approach to global utopia which requires unity for its achievement, then every person who isn't with the program is not just a lost soul but an obstacle to everyone else's salvation.

And it should certainly be very important to personal relationships. I've seen at least two instances in print of liberals openly expressing a desire for segregation on the basis of politics, though of course they didn't use the word. I can't remember where I read one of them, possibly in the local paper when we still subscribed. It was about a small college town--Oxford, Mississippi, I think--which has a strong literary culture, and of course literary people tend to be liberal in politics, and to assume that all literary people are. And someone talking about how wonderful her neighborhood was said: "It's a street where everybody is a Democrat." That was striking to me. I have no idea at all what the politics of my neighbors are (except for the one house whose lawn sprouted a Trump sign late in the last campaign), and I don't care, and I won't care unless they badger me about it.

The other was in The Atlantic, and thanks to their online archive I can tell you exactly when it appeared and what it said. It was in the December 2013 issue, and the title of the piece is "Do Democrats Make Better Neighbors?". To my thinking anyone who even asks a question like that has thereby indicated that he is much too obsessed with politics. The writer describes his own neighborhood:

But in the past 10 years, the neighborhood has regained much of its leafy, prosperous sheen, drawing families and young people alike. Hobart Street, where I live, celebrates this newfound identity with an annual block party featuring bouncy houses as well as drag queens. Residents kick off a parade by reciting: “I pledge allegiance to Hobart Street Northwest … gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome on Hobart Street—except for Republicans.”

Substitute some other group for Republican in that and see how it sounds. I give the author credit for at least noting that it might be a problem.


Something astonishing from the Washington Post: they take seriously the claims of an obscure Christian minister in a Florida town that he has detected demonic activity. This is normally the kind of thing that the Post and any other sophisticated news organization would sneer at if it happened to come to their notice. Why does this guy get a sympathetic hearing? Oh, I see: these demons are pro-Trump.

I don't think news media like the Post are even capable of seeing how partisan they are, and how much it distorts their reporting. As everybody knows, I guess, the Obama administration issued a requirement that all schools that receive federal funding must allow students to use whatever restroom they want, depending on what gender they wish to claim. Trump has said that he will rescind that rule. The Post's headline on a story about that: 


Never any hint that much of the objection to the rule came from concerns that girls would not be protected. It's really quite remarkable how the concerns of and for girls and women instantly became silly when a newer and apparently more victim-y victim class came into the picture. Worse than silly--intolerant and very bad, as David French says.


Pope Francis was widely misquoted last week. You probably saw the headlines, usually something like "Pope Says Better to Be An Atheist Than a Hypocritical Christian." That sentiment was in fact expressed in his talk, but it was attributed to those who are scandalized by hypocritical Christians: 

And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard--all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere--"but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist."

That sort of bad witness seems more important than ever, with the culture at large tending more and more toward hostility to Christians. The talk, of which you can read more here, contains some strong words useful as we begin Lent:

It would be good for all of us, each one of us, today, to consider if there is something of a double life within us, of appearing just, of seeming to be good believers, good Catholics, but underneath doing something else; if there is something of a double life…


Well, I really didn't intend to talk so much about our collapsing culture this week. Here's something that's not collapsing: the right leg of this Canadian goose. (That's the name of the species. I cannot actually verify that the goose has ever been a resident of Canada.) Not a very good picture, but good enough for you to see that it's standing on one leg. It stood that way for at least five minutes or so while I tried to get close enough to get a picture without scaring it away. How is that even possible? The bird probably weighs at least ten pounds, and most of that weight is, as you can see, hanging in the air unsupported while the unsupportee gazes at the water.



52 Albums, Week 8: Hi-Fi In Focus (Chet Atkins)

This is not going to be an elaborate and insightful review of this album or Atkins. What can be said? He is the consummate musician, an amazing and versatile guitarist. He doesn’t pretend to be relevant or important or socially significant or insightful. He simply entertains by producing dazzling guitar. And, unlike, say, Les Paul, he is never merely showing off. Whatever he does, no matter how virtuosic, adds to the musicality of the piece.

He’s also almost single-handedly responsible, as A & R Man for RCA in the 1950s, for the Nashville sound.

Week8-Hi-fi in focus

This album is one of the few LPs that my parents had in the house when I was a kid. I listened to it a lot. It was produced by RCA to show off their high-fidelity technology. It also is considered one of Atkins’s best albums qua albums. The other one that comes to mind is the 1970s album Chester and Lester he made with Les Paul. Atkins influenced many guitarists, including George Harrison and Mark Knopfler.

Atkins’s usual technique a three-finger picking style with an alternating bass, palming the bass strings. He could use it so creatively and with such variety even within a song that it doesn’t get boring. It can almost seem like a walking bassline. A great example is “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. Atkins is “country,” but he has so many other influences, especially jazz. He does many other rhythms and moods, such as waltzes (“Shadow Waltz”) and Latin beats (“Anna”). He has lots of sweet harmonies.

And he’s fast.

Only some of Hi-Fi in Focus is available on YouTube. None on Spotify, but I found this site whereon you can listen to the whole thing.

Here is “El Cumbachero.” 

One of my favorites is “Walk, Don’t Run”. 

Here is the Ventures' version (with a wet guitar sound).

I don’t think one would score Atkins high as a classical guitarist, but he does have good taste.


Compared with Segovia.

Speaking of Knopfler, here is a funny duet between him and Atkins. Atkin’s voice is very recognizable.

I still have the LP.

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac. 

Sunday Night Journal, February 19, 2017

It was not long after Pope Francis was elected that I remarked to my wife that he seemed like someone who would be a wonderful parish priest, but I wasn't so sure that he would be good at running the Church. I've said it several times since, and it looks like there was something in it. I certainly never expected to see the amount of internal strife that is going on now. I guess I was naive in thinking that the "liberal" and "conservative" split in the Church was fading away under John Paul and Benedict, because it's back and very much alive. "Back with a vengeance" seems unusually appropriate.

I'm sticking to my resolution to refrain from taking a position on the Amoris Laetitia-induced controversy about communion for the divorced and remarried. I'm aided in this resolution by a prior one not to even read it (see this and this). But I can't ignore the fact that the controversy is happening, and it's not pretty. I did try to ignore it, and hoped that the critics were making too much of their reservations, but I realized that it must be serious when I saw that Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., had signed a letter asking for clarification on the question. I don't recognize the names of most of the signers, but I've read several books by Fr. Nichols, and he is a solid man, certainly not a crank.

Some say that no change at all is proposed beyond the encouragement of kindness and charity toward people in those "irregular situations." But this seems to be an attempt to avoid or squelch the controversy, because many on both sides, in and out of authority, seems to think that it's quite clear that the pope wants to change the traditional teaching. As far as I know he has not explicitly stated this. Instead, what we have is ambiguity, and persons in authority contradicting each other. Some say that the pope (as understood in Amoris) intends to change the sacramental discipline, but not the teaching. Others argue that the proposal does involve a change, more precisely a reversal, of the teaching. Others say that to change the practice would make a dead letter of the teaching. I admit I don't see how the last of these would not be a natural consequence, given human nature.

There are bishops contradicting each other. I am in an odd situation of having, in a sense, two bishops. Juridicially my bishop is Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (aka the Anglican Ordinariate, which is an officially forbidden term, because apparently it makes people think we are not Catholic). But geographically I'm in the diocese of Mobile, Alabama, whose bishop is Thomas Rodi. Both of "my" bishops seemed to be concerned by the change which many seemed to expect, and quickly issued statements saying that the practice is not going to change. Bishop Lopes seems to have been alarmed; at any rate he took the trouble of writing and publishing a substantial pastoral letter. You can read it at this page.  I think the matter may seem more urgent to Lopes because, as the bishop of a prelature specifically meant for converts, he was concerned that potential converts might get the wrong idea.  Archbishop Rodi made it the subject of his column in the biweekly archdiocesan newspaper.

Other bishops, apparently some in Germany and definitely those in Malta, have said, more or less, that it's up to the consciences of the individuals involved.

Worse, Cardinal Mueller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has taken the "nothing is changing" position, while Cardinal Coccopalmerio of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (I didn't know there was such a thing), has published what sounds like a sort of pamphlet in which he seems to take the position that seems to be the one that the pope seems to want to win out: that the divorced and remarried should have "absolution and access to the Eucharist as long as–I repeat–there is the impossibility of immediately changing the situation of sin."

Surely no one with a heart can fail to sympathize with people who made a serious mistake when they were young, or who have been betrayed, abused, or abandoned by a spouse. God knows I do, having been in "an irregular situation" myself. But you don't have to be a theologian to see that Cardinal Coccopalmerio's view is not only problematic in itself but has enormous implications far beyond the specific question. 

The pope created this confusion, and he could resolve it, but refuses to. I seem to remember him saying something to the effect that priests should be willing to make a mess. Well, he's following his own counsel, apparently.


We do not know how the Lord will call us to testify to the truth, but in the end there is no evasion. You will volunteer for the army of God, or you will be conscripted into the ranks of the enemy.

--Anthony Esolen, in Magnificat

Or, as Dylan said: "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody."


In one of her letters Flannery O'Connor writes about the difficulty she's having in finishing The Violent Bear It Away. She says something to the effect that she's trying to convince her impatient publisher that it takes seven years to write a novel. I remembered that with alarm the other day. I'm afraid the book I'm working on will take that long. I can't allow that to happen, but I am moving very slowly at the moment, too slowly.

Starting last summer sometime I began working in a really disciplined way. Ordinarily I spend most of the morning working on the book. (It turns out I'm only about two-thirds retired; the biggest part of the afternoon is taken up with work for my not-quite-former employer.) I required myself to fill at least two pages of a legal pad, which generally comes to something between 700 and 800 words. I filled several pads that way, and now I probably have 80% or so of the book in rough draft (very rough). Maybe more, maybe less, depending on how much detail I want to go into about certain things I haven't yet discussed; certainly the main body of it. At that point I decided I'd better take stock, especially as I sometimes find myself unsure of whether I'm repeating myself or not.

So I started typing the manuscript into Open Office files, and quickly found that I couldn't just do it mechanically, but was revising fairly heavily as I went. And of course I have to do this at the computer, instead of getting out of the house with just pen and paper, as I did all summer and fall. I find it very hard to stay focused--i.e., to stay off the Internet. And it's also easy to be distracted by things around the house, e.g. the refrigerator and the pantry. And when I'm revising I often find myself stuck for ten or twenty minutes on one sentence or even one word, trying to get say exactly what I want to say or to say it in a vivid way. (I may regret having admitted that, because I doubt anyone is going to say "Well, that sentence was certainly worth any amount of the author's time." Maybe it would be better to say I just dashed it off and never looked back.)

Anyway, my progress at the moment is slow. Worse, the result seems pretty dull to me. Really, I think if I weren't so old I would give it up as a bad job and a waste of time. I also suspect age may be reducing the quality of my writing, but there's nothing I can do about that. In any case it's getting late and I have to press on. I'm ready to have some feedback, so I hope sometime in the next few weeks to pull out a few thousand words or so, post them here, and solicit your opinions.


I've been playing, very intermittently for months, an interesting video game called Kentucky Route Zero, which one of my children gave me last year. (The game is not one of the distractions I referred to above, by the way--I don't have any trouble keeping it in its place.) "Game" is not really the right word for it; it's more a sort of illustrated story which can take different paths depending on your choices. And it's a very strange story.  You start out as a truck driver who's supposed to make a delivery at 5 Dogwood Lane. You stop at a gas station and ask for directions, and are told that you can only get there by taking Route Zero. That's not easy to do, because it exists in a sort of alternate reality. And once you get onto Route Zero....

Anyway, I finished it last night, and the scene below occurs not long before the end. And I thought the exchange between Ezra and Clara, which is about music, was apropos to my work on the book, and to any artistic effort. I sometimes find it difficult just to put the pen to the paper and write something. But as Clara says, there's only one way to find out.


The green and yellow/orange lines at the bottom of the text are possible responses Ezra can make to Clara. You choose one and click on it .

I say I finished it, and I did get to the end of it. A rather unsatisfying end: it just stopped. Then I found out that the game is still incomplete. There are currently four acts, and a fifth one is due out this year sometime. I'll definitely be getting it.


Seen on Facebook: "If they were really pro-life they'd have used low-flow showerheads."

52 Albums, Week 7: Something Else (The Kinks)

There was a moment in the mid-1960s when the irreverent new sensibility of English pop music met traditional culture on friendly terms: detached and maybe a little critical, but affectionate. You can hear it in some of the Beatles’ work—“Penny Lane,” for instance. In some of The Who’s songs. In Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. And others, I’m sure, that are not coming to my mind at the moment. But as far as I know The Kinks did it more and better than anyone else.


Something Else was released in late 1967 when all the attention was on psychedelic music: the Beatles, in Sgt. Pepper’s and the soon-to-follow Magical Mystery Tour, Jimi Hendrix and others inaugurating what would soon be called hard rock. Something Else was not at all fashionable and I don’t think it got the attention it deserved. Musically it’s very down-to-earth. There are no obscure cosmic—or just druggy—lyrics, and no striking semi-abstract musical experimentation, no noise and crunch and feedback: just 2-to-3 minute songs, with catchy melodies and down-to-earth lyrics, most of them exhibiting a nostalgic and sentimental eye for things English.

It opens with “David Watts,” the “abominable golden schoolboy,” as the witty liner notes describe him, and as he is seen by the song’s envious narrator:

I am a dull and simple lad
Cannot tell water from champagne
And I have never met the Queen
And I wish I could have all he has got
I wish I could be like David Watts

Next is the poignant “Death of a Clown,” which you may have heard even if you don’t know the album, as it was a minor hit. Then the portrait of “Two Sisters,” one a glamorous playgirl, the other a housewife: one looks into the mirror, one looks into the washing machine. And the song comes out on the right side of that conflict. “No Return” is a sad bossa-nova.

“Harry Rag” seems to be some kind of slang for “cigarette,” and the song is about that, but more:

And I curse myself for the life I’ve led
And roll myself a Harry Rag and put myself to bed

“Tin Soldier Man” is lyrically maybe the weakest song on the album, a bit in the vein of their hit “Well-Respected Man,” but not as well-developed. Still, it’s catchy. “Situation Vacant” is another domestic drama, about a young man driven by his mother-in-law to seek upward mobility. “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” is a bit out of place, a little noisier and closer to an ordinary rock-and-roll song than anything else here. And “Lazy Old Sun” is musically adventurous, with a very Beatles-like arrangement.

The speaker in “Afternoon Tea” misses the girl with whom he used to take it. I’m not sure what to make of “Funny Face”--it seems to be about a girl confined to an asylum, and musically is an odd mix of upbeat rock and heart-tugging refrain:

The doctors won't let me see her
But I can catch a glimpse through the doorway
Of the girl that I love and care for
I see you peering through frosted windows
Eyes don't smile, all they do is cry

“End of the Season” is a nod to the 1930s, a toff lamenting that his lover’s departure marks a premature end to the social season. As with another Kinks hit, “Sunny Afternoon,” there’s irony in it, but genuine feeling as well.

And the best comes last, with “Waterloo Sunset,” in my opinion one of the very best songs to come out of the great mid-’60s surge of English pop, a sweet and wistful vignette of London life, featuring Terry and Julie, small people in a big city, comforted by each other and the sunset. 

I’ve described these songs mainly in terms of subject matter, because it’s the lyrics that really elevate the album. But that doesn’t mean it’s negligible musically. Instrumentally it’s mostly your basic straightforward guitar, bass, and drums, sometimes keyboards and a bit extra--"Lazy Old Sun" seems to have strings. There's nothing spectacular or attention-grabbing, just solid unobtrusive vessels for great songs, every one of which has a memorable tune. And Ray Davies’s wry, un-rock-and-roll-like voice is perfectly suited to the material.

I don’t think the album was all that successful in its time, at least not as successful as it deserved to be, though according to Wikipedia it did better in the UK than here. I think it’s pretty generally recognized as a classic now. It was followed by two albums in a somewhat similar vein, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur. They’re both excellent, and I wouldn’t give you a big argument if you prefer one or the other of them, but this is my favorite. I think its predecessor, Face to Face, may also deserve to be ranked with these three, but I don’t think I’ve heard it since the early ‘70s. I’ll have to dig it out of the closet and give it a listen.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Even Unto Death (A Guest Post)

Yesterday, I started to write a comment on the Favorites of the Year thread saying that my problem with the thread was that every find that I had last year was a movie or book that I learned about on this blog, so everyone else already knew about them, and we had already discussed them. Then I remembered a song I had heard by Audrey Assad, and then another.

A while back I got an email from my friend Sheila in which she mentioned that she was listening to Audrey Assad's Death Be Not Proud over and over again. So, I listened to it, and bought it. It is based on John Donne's sonnet of the same name.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

At that time Ms. Assad had written about this song on her website and she said that she had written the song after several of her pregnant friends had miscarried. I read this in October, 2015, at which time my daughter had miscarried twice in about four months.

Then when Sheila and I traveled to North Carolina in the Fall of 2016, she brought along another album by Audrey.Assad, Inheritance, which includes the song, "Even Unto Death." This is a song which Ms. Assad, the daughter of a Syrian refugee (he came here as a child with his single, refugee mother), wrote after seeing the video of the 21 Coptic men who were executed by the Islamic State in February, 2015. I had never watched this video before because I didn't want to see anyone beheaded.

The video below contains the song, and part of the video of the martyrs—not the beheading—and Ms. Assad's explanation of the song. If you haven't seen the original video, you ought to watch this. Those men, except for maybe one, do not look like I would if I were about to be beheaded. They seem very calm and prepared for their deaths. When they first walk onto the beach and sink to their knees as one body, it is more like a liturgy than an exercise in violence, and as they kneel there with their executioners behind them, it is reminiscent of catechumens at Easter vigil with their sponsors.

When I had typed most of my comment, which was a great deal shorter than this, on the blog, I noticed that the two songs had a common theme, and it is a theme that anyone who has read much will recognize as being a recurrent theme for me.

I have planned close to a hundred funerals over the past three and a half years, and I have read all the readings that the Church has chosen for funerals aloud to the families many, many times. My favorite is from 1 Corinthians 15.

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O Death is your victory?
Where, O Death is your sting?

I love to read this at a funeral, I read it at my mother's funeral. I love to stand there and look Death in the eye and spit. (I would never spit in real life. I'm a Southern lady after all.)

However, about two months while I was reading this to a family, I almost caught my breath in the middle of the scripture. Because now it's different. Now it's not my 89 year old mother, or even my own death that's in the balance, but my infant granddaughter. If she had died, I would not have escaped that sting. And yet I know that even in that case, Death would not have had the final word.

Thankfully, she is doing very well, and we are all beginning to breathe a lot easier.

I'm posting this here instead of on my blog because I wanted to post more-or-less anonymously, although anyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows who wrote this. I just don't want it to be easily found by a Google search because I don't want to intrude on my daughter's privacy.

While I was in the middle of writing this, I got an email that a friend—not a close friend, but a sister in Christ—has died. Her name is Flo. Please say a prayer for the repose of her soul when you read this.


Sunday Night Journal, February 12, 2017

For most of my adult life, until I was getting near fifty or so, I spent a lot of time thinking about What Was Wrong with Society and what Society ought to be like. I tended to assume that Society was fundamentally messed up and therefore must be fundamentally changed. When I was twenty this change was supposed to be in the direction of some sort of leftist dream, more or less utopian. When I was forty it was Chestertonian-distributist-agrarian. The magazine Caelum et Terra, in which I was heavily involved in the early-to-mid-1990s, was devoted in large part to that basic idea.

I always felt a little dishonest and hypocritical about that, though, because in my heart I didn't really have a great desire to move to the country, much less to attempt subsistence farming, and I didn't really think it was something that should be expected of most people. I had seen farming up close and didn't fall for the romantic picture held by a lot of Catholic intellectuals. I could have come into my family's medium-sized cattle-and-crops farm if I had wanted to, and sometimes I think I should have, but it would not have been a life that either Chesterton or Belloc would have much admired. An acquaintance who grew up on a family farm, asked why he hadn't stayed there, said "it was too much like work." 

I was thinking about that recently when I read an essay by Joseph Epstein, "The Big O: the Reputation of George Orwell." It was published in The New Criterion in 1990, and, as a subscriber, I was made aware of it by an occasional email the magazine sends recommending things from its archives. The essay is excellent, but unfortunately is available only to subscribers. Anyway, this remark of Orwell's really struck me:

“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,” he wrote in his essay “Rudyard Kipling” (1942), “because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”

I'm afraid that is all too shrewdly accurate an assessment not only of left-wingers but of those Catholics who tend to idealize and romanticize Catholic cultures of the past. Let's face it: most of us have fairly easy and well-provisioned lives compared to almost all the people who have ever lived, and as much as we might see and deplore the various ills (spiritual, material, and psychological) that have accompanied it--life never gives us any gain without some countering loss--we don't really want to give up things like central heat and indoor plumbing and underground sewer systems. Not to mention a plentiful and reliable food supply. Not to mention a previously unknown degree of personal freedom. And window screens, something I often think of in this context, since I live in a very hot and buggy place.

By the time I started this blog in 2004 I had pretty much given up thinking about those What's Wrong With Society And How Do We Fix It questions. Yes, things are messed up. Yes, arguably the messed-up-ness stems directly from philosophical wrong turns taken several hundred years ago. And if you want to spend time analyzing that, by all means do so. If you want to spend time thinking about, for instance, how a Christian society ought to handle property ownership, or the question of lending money at interest, by all means do so. But I don't care anymore, not in a personal way, not in any sense that suggests the ills can be done away with and right order established in my lifetime or even my grandchildren's lifetimes. It's academic, in the dismissive sense: a matter of only abstract interest and no immediate import. 

You might reply that this was once true of the abstruse philosophical errors that got us where we are, and that in the long run, they had a great deal of practical effect. Yes, that's true, and it's good that intelligent people are working on the problem. But it's like engineers on the Titanic discussing the flaws of its design, and how they might be corrected in future vessels, while the ship is filling with water. 

Conservatives are often asked what they want to conserve. I myself, in a Caelum et Terra piece published some twenty-five years ago, wondered at what point a conservative would become so out of step with his society as to be a de facto revolutionary. I thought the time might be coming fairly soon. Well, things have gotten considerably worse, but I find that I have not only not become a revolutionary but am a rather desperate conservative.

What do I want to conserve? In a word, civilization. In a few more words, Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian Civilization. And more specifically, right here and right now, I want to preserve the Anglo-American system of constitutional government, which for a long time has been under suspicion and sometimes attack from the left. Now it's also being endangered--not really deliberately attacked, but threatened by foolish reactions--from the right as well. And the conflict between the two seems to be producing something like a national nervous breakdown.

The "fundamental transformation" promised and pursued by Obama produced a reaction, and put into the White House a man unqualified for and unsuited to the position. Now the reaction to that has some significant portion of the country in a state which can fairly be called hysteria. Fear and hate are at some kind of fever pitch in the opposition to Trump, and as always when that happens principles of abstract law begin to look like intolerable obstacles. A day or two after Trump's executive order on immigration was struck down by a court, in a conversation with a Trump opponent, I was talking about the danger of whipping up fear and hysteria. She replied that the order might not have been overturned if not for "what you refer to as 'whipping up hysteria'".

The implication there, that judges ought to respond to the popular passions of the moment, is shocking. But I'm afraid that a very large number of our citizens (if that word still has meaning) see the whole constitutional system that way. The vague view seems to be something like "The Constitution exists to promote good things. Therefore what is good is constitutional, and what is bad is unconstitutional. And my party decides what is good and bad."

I don't think about building a new society anymore. I only want to prevent the destruction of the foundations of the one we have. Fortunately there is a lot of inertia in the system.


Yeah, I know I need to avoid being hysterical about the hysteria. 


Well, I'd like to think about something more pleasant now. Also from The New Criterion, the December '16 issue: Kyle Smith, reviewing a new musical which is a sort of rewrite of Holiday Inn, the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie, writes:

When I say Holiday Inn is a musical feast for the family, I don’t mean bring small children: whether they’d be bored by such all-around excellence I have no idea, but I do know they can be entertained for a lot less than it costs to see a Broadway show. No, I mean bring the parents, even bring the in-laws, bring anyone who is wise enough to appreciate 1940s Hollywood stardust.

I rejoiced at that last bit, because I've come in my latter years to a great appreciation and affection for Hollywood stardust. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for instance. Neo-neocon had a post last week about them, a bit of cheer-up in the midst of the political strife. As she says, they "generated more human happiness than many do-gooders." In case you don't want to click over and read her post--go ahead, it's short, but in case you don't--here's the video she chose to make her point. 

 I know there's no accounting for tastes and all, but I don't see how that can fail to make you smile. 


It's Septuagesima Sunday. Here's Janet Cupo's post from last year on the occasion. I usually don't look forward to Lent. Ok, to be honest I usually have a slight dread of Lent. But this year for some reason I'm looking forward to it. I feel a greater than usual need for some kind of purification. My own sinfulness (actual and potential) is not noticeably greater or less than usual, but it feels like some kind of spiritual corruption in the environment is clinging to me, and I want to wash it off.


He wants you to serve him without joy, without feeling, with repugnance and revulsion of spirit. Such service gives you no satisfaction, but it pleases him; it is not according to your liking, but according to his.

Imagine that you are never going to be delivered of your anguish: what would you do? You would say to God: I am yours; if my miseries are agreeable to you, give me more and let them last longer. I have confidence in our Lord that this is what you would say; then you would stop thinking about the matter, at least you would stop struggling.

Well, do this now, and make friends with your trial, as though the two of you were always to live together. You will see that when you have stopped taking thought for your deliverance, God will think of it, and when you stop worrying, God will come swiftly to your help.

--St. Francis de Sales, via the January issue of Magnificat


Meanwhile, Mardi Gras parades have started. Friday we went with daughter and grandsons to see the Conde Cavaliers.


52 Albums: Week 6, SHEL


I used to be one of those people who thought the Beatles were the best musicians ever. I thought their compositions, arrangements, instrumentation, etc. were genius. My opinion of them has diminished considerably in the past few years. Now I find their music to be simplistic. McCartney is a great tune-smith and their instrumental work is very good, even creative (although not genius), but the lyrics are often trite or sophomoric, relying on adolescent cleverness. The arrangements were undoubtedly ahead of their time for rock ’n’ roll groups, but they certainly weren’t using many “tricks” that hadn’t already been pioneered by Bing Crosby, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, or even Phil Spector. The Beach Boys were much better at innovations in complex compositions, arrangements and harmonies (see Pet Sounds).

Two things helped change my opinion. First, my kids and I embarked on a multi-year deep study of music, both classical and popular. I listened to a lot of Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, etc. Plus, I listed to a lot of really good country music, swing, blues, American standards, etc. The Beatles just didn’t compare. I began to be irritated at McCartney’s brag about not knowing how to read music. How is that a good thing?

The second thing that helped change my mind happened in May of 2014. My son posted the following video on FB.


I was immediately captivated by the musicality, the instrumentation, the vocals and harmonies and the lyrics. Eva Holbrook seemed to have captured the experience of a pre-teen crush on a young man who was spending time with a young woman. The perspective is perfect, including the way the girl notices the woman’s “pretty shoes.” The video (produced by Sarah Holbrook) was great.

I began to listen to the rest of the album from which it came. I felt that these girls on their first album equaled or beat anything the Beatles had done. Admittedly, most of them were already in their early or mid-20s when they recorded this album, rather than barely or not even out of the teens, like the Beatles.

SHEL is four Holbrook sisters from Fort Collins, Colorado. The name comes from their first names: Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza. Their instruments are in order violin, keyboard, mandolin, and percussion. I am especially impressed not only by their superior competence on their individual instruments (including Liza on percussion), but by the way their arrangements weave the four sounds together. The mandolin really adds to the uniqueness of their style. Eva is really good, as can be heard on “Tuscany.” The harmonies add to the beauty of already complex compositions.

The album is decidedly melancholy. There is lots of pain and unrequited love. The first cut, “Paint My Life,” is sparser and darker than you would expect on the first cut of a first album. It is haunting. The second cut, “Like Minded Fool,” begins with a line that perfectly matches the melody:

Go tell my friends I fell again.
They’ll lift me up and set my broken wings to the wind.

Some of the songs are almost too painful (“Stained”).

Your cold strike took me by surprise
I used to see love when I looked in your eyes
Take what's left and run from this life
Leave this slow death behind

The lyrics, although they do veer into triteness at times (“Vinyl Memories,” “On My Way”), are often poetically rich and psychologically insightful. “Wise Old Owl” expresses the angst of a woman who wants to know why she keeps failing at love, but when she asks the Wise Old Owl, all he says is: “Ooh woo, ooh woo, ooh woo, ooh woo.”

I especially like “When the Dragon Came Down,” a fantasy from the perspective of a king whose Queen and kingdom were destroyed by a dragon.

Lay your head down, close your eyes
Sleeping on a golden bed, cold as ice
Oh is she really gone
I lost my queen along with my crown
When the Dragon came down
Oh deep within my sleep
Awakened by the sound of her scream
The Dragon came down like a dream

The lyrics in this one are at times enigmatic, which I usually don’t like, but it works here.

One of the best cuts on the album is a cover of Led Zepplin’s “Battle of Evermore.” Their version beats by a long shot both Led Zepplin’s original from Led Zepplin IV and the famous Heart cover. Compare them:

Led Zepplin



Another interesting comparison is between “The Man Who Was the Circus” and the Beatles “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”



SHEL’s song really has depth compared to the triteness of the Beatles' song.

The most fun song on the CD, but not the vinyl, is light-hearted and frivolous, “The Latest and Greatest Blueberry Rubber Band.” It is just plain silly, to quote Veggie Tales. This version is not the one that appears on the CD. 

SHEL’s second album, Just Crazy Enough, is not nearly as good. They seem to have lost some of the innocence from the first album. Plus, it is much more “pop.” The songs and arrangements are simpler and more repetitive. I hope they return to the richness of their first album.

I know that my musical tastes differ significantly from many of the people on this blog, but I hope at least you like steam punk.

Here’s a picture of the Gotchers with SHEL at their concert in Green Bay in August, 2014. Who would have thought that I would become the fan of a new group at 55!

Week6-SHEL-Gotchers and SHEL

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac. 

Sunday Night Journal, February 5, 2017

I'm beginning to suspect that Jean-Luc Godard is an over-rated filmmaker. Or at least that I don't care very much for his work. Maybe ten years ago I saw Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), and really liked it. But I suspect that may have been only because of a few charming scenes involving the beautiful and charming Anna Karina. I haven't seen it again so I'm not sure. Then I saw Breathless, and came pretty close to disliking it. I don't have a lot of patience any more for the romantic and glamorous criminal business. Yes, I suppose  that has something to do with the fact that I'm not romantic or glamorous or criminal, but even in my old age I find it a little depressing that chicks go for that type. (I also saw Weekend sometime back around 1970 or so, and thought it was sort of crazy, but I'll withhold current judgment on it until or unless I see it again.)

And then this week I saw Alphaville. I had put it on our Netflix queue years ago. Really, years--I put it on there in a burst of enthusiasm when we first signed up, but then kept putting other things ahead of it. And it finally made its way to the top only because I forgot to put the next series of Vera ahead of it.

It's a sort of science-fiction movie with a few film-noir trappings. The city of Alphaville is the totalitarian governing metropolis of some sort of giant civilization, apparently an interplanetary one--the term "galaxies" is thrown around but in a way that doesn't make much sense. A secret agent from the Outlands has been dispatched to the city with orders to assassinate a scientist who is in charge of a computer called Alpha 60 which is in the process of becoming the real governing entity.

There's nothing wrong with that as the premise of a movie, but I don't think this one is very well executed. There are absolutely no special effects, and all the action takes place in what is obviously a contemporary (that is, 1964) city. The secret agent initially appears driving a Mustang. I don't know whether Godard wanted to do it this way or just didn't have money to build some sort of futuristic environment. And maybe that's just as well, considering the state of special effects etc. at the time. But it lends a slightly ludicrous quality to some of the dialogue. More fundamentally, if the story was meant to be genuinely exciting, it certainly failed for me. Almost everything about it was unconvincing to me. There is a lot of fairly conventional sermonizing about mechanization, automation, control, dehumanization, etc., mixed with heavy 20th-century-French profundity. I actually laughed out loud when our hero said, in an interior monologue:

Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night you end it in death.

There were a few things I liked, most of all some really evocative photography of nighttime cityscapes and the cold empty interiors of office buildings and hotels. Anna Karina is there, playing Natasha, the daughter of the scientist, and there are many long looks at her lovely face. There is a long, really too long, scene, where the hero and Natasha are in a hotel room philosophizing and falling in love. And one device of the Alphaville environment struck me as a distinctive and still telling insight: dictionaries are treated like Bibles, but are constantly replaced with revised editions that omit some words as no longer permitted and add others that are now required. The hero finds that Natasha does not know the word "conscience." He tries to explain it to her, and she says something like "I feel that I know this word although I have never heard it." Yes--it's one of the things we can't not know.

Looking around on the net, I find that my view seems to be in the minority. Here's a more typical one, if you're interested. There is apparently some cultural context that I was not aware of: the agent is named Lemmy Caution, and is played by an American actor, Eddie Constantine, who was well-known for playing the same character in a series of crime dramas. 



 Years ago (I mean something like forty years) when I worked in a bookstore, we stocked the fiction of B. Traven. Or perhaps I should say The Mysterious B. Traven, as he is often described. Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia entry:

B. Traven (Bruno Traven in some accounts) was the pen name of a presumably German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. One of the few certainties about Traven's life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted for the Academy Award winning film of the same name in 1948.

I remember picking up one of his novels, The Cotton Pickers, one night in the store when nothing was going on, reading a little, and feeling a bit let down, because it didn't seem to promise anything as exciting as the vague mythology surrounding the author suggested. Then I got interrupted, and never went back to it. A month or two ago I saw The Cotton Pickers and another book, The Night Visitor, on the discard table at the local library, and grabbed them. 

Now I've read The Cotton Pickers, and that initial hasty impression of forty years ago seems to have been fairly accurate. I enjoyed it, but it's not a dramatic narrative, nor does it reach great psychological or philosophical depths. Insofar as it seems to have any aim beyond the picturing of a place and time and the telling of a story, that aim seems to be political: it is concerned with the oppression of the poor in Mexico (and by implication in the whole "capitalist" world). But it's not strident or plainly ideological, nor does it picture saintly poor people up against evil capitalists, so you never feel like you're reading a tract, but simply seeing things as they are. And in fact I would recommend it precisely as a social document, because it has the ring of truth, and it's good to be reminded sometimes, if one is inclined to forget it, of how deeply serious injustice is embedded in the world.

The story is set in rural Mexico, presumably in the 1920s when the novel was published. It's a loose first-person narrative of some months in the life of Gerard Gales, of whom we know nothing much except that he is "a white man," presumably American but possibly European, and is a vagabond without money or apparently any sort of stable life. The story opens with his arrival in a village where he desperately needs to find work. With a few other equally poor men he goes to work picking cotton. A good third or more of the book describes that experience. Later he puts in a bit of time at an oil field. He stays for a while in a little town, where he works in a bakery. He takes a job driving a herd of cattle to market. 

And that's it. There's no cumulative narrative, just a series of incidents peopled by characters who come and go. Only at the very end of the book is there a suggestion that there may be more purpose in his wanderings than meets the eye, and I'm not sure about that. It's very low-key, and Gales's voice is wry and ironic. I might even call it light, but in retrospect, I'm left with a cumulative effect of seriousness, as much picture as story, and a very vivid one. A blurb on the dust jacket of my copy says that Traven does what Hemingway only tried to do, but this book, at least, doesn't strike me that way. It doesn't have Hemingway's grim seriousness and self-conscious heroic fatalism.

Now I want to read Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which unfortunately was not on that discard table.

One reason I read this book before the other is the subject, with which I have a personal connection: I'm one of a dwindling number of people in this country who have actually had the experience of picking cotton all day. The title in German is amusing: Die Baumwollpflücker. Good thing I never called anybody that in the cotton field.


I can deal with people making cheap political points by way of slogans, "memes," and the like. Well, that's not entirely true. I can't really deal with them, but I can usually manage to change the mental subject and ignore them. What really drives me up the wall is when they think they've made a point, but it doesn't even make sense. I've long thought that "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries" was some kind of champion among that species. But I saw one a day or two ago that beats it: "The Constitution Has No Alternative Facts." The one about rosaries makes no direct sense; it's only word-association, but at least you can discern a connection between the words and a sentiment: the Catholic Church is trying to oppress me. I cannot find anything resembling a thought in the new one, though. I know what it means, of course: I don't want Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But is there any connection between that and a dig at Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" remark about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration? Well, there I go, doing what I really must stop myself from doing: trying to point out illogic in a context where logic is irrelevant. It's a trap. 


More and more often, in journalism and in the writing of young people in general (not real writing, but Internet postings of one sort or another), I notice misspellings indicating that the writer has only heard the word, not seen it in print, and is spelling it phonetically. This one caught my eye in a local news story the other day: 

 “She goes bizzurk, stabbing a gas station attendee in the neck and then goes across the street and attacks a female pharmacist, literally beating her to a pulp,” Nancy Grace said during a 2010 show.

I'm assuming this was the reporter's transcription, not an official one from the TV network (Nancy Grace is a TV "personality.") 



January 9, 2017

52 Albums: Week 5 - Rain Dogs

Imagine my surprise. Although I had read about it in Rolling Stone magazine and bought the cassette tape soon upon its release I was not prepared for the first song, or many thereafter. Rain Dogs sounded shockingly original and amazingly good, and since then I have collected through the years most of Tom Waits’ other recordings.

There was a time several years ago when he went on some sort of limited tour and came to Mobile. I was flying out to El Paso so could not attend. Strangely he played El Paso too, but I missed that show as well. Friends in both cities enjoyed the concert and told me tales. Who goes on tour and puts Mobile, Alabama and El Paso, Texas on their itinerary? Apparently, Tom Waits does. I may never see him in concert.

But there are the recordings. Through the years and buying his music I found out that Waits began as sort of a beatnik poet singer, speaking and singing lazily amusing and nice songs. Something happened around the time he decided to record Swordfishtrombones, the album which precedes Rain Dogs. I’m not sure what happened, but I sure do like it.

Waits sings in a rough way, he sings about dispossessed people and their circumstances, he and his musicians use real instruments that were not being used by just about anyone else I might have been listening to in 1985. If we try to remember music in the mid-80s it is not entirely heartening; there were smooth pop vocals with synthesizers, and artists wearing make-up with perhaps their hair sculpted in a certain way. They were not all bad, but they are not very memorable. The good music remains from that era, of course. But no one else was like Waits.

Take the opening stanza from “Cemetery Polka”:

Uncle Vernon
Uncle Vernon
Independent as a
Hog on ice
He’s a big shot down there
At the slaughterhouse
He plays accordion
For Mr. Weiss

There’s more to consider in those few lines than in the entirety of most songs, but what jumps out to me when I hear it is, “He’s a big shot down there at the slaughterhouse”. Who says this? I can hear Waits’ voice telling me this in conversation, but I cannot hear it coming out of my own mouth. Not only is Uncle Vernon in charge down at the slaughterhouse, but after hours he’s apparently playing the accordion somewhere for this Weiss character.

Glancing at the Wikipedia page for the album, along with the accordion here are some other instruments used to make the wonderful sounds on Rain Dogs: pump organ, harmonium, marimba, trombone, trumpet, baritone sax, tenor sax, double bass, parade drum … you get the point. Missing Persons and The Human League did not use any of these instruments for their recordings. These “real instruments” give the album an earthy, sometimes New Orleans kind of feel, punctuated with Tom’s ever-changing vocals sometimes barked, crooned, growled, spit … and other ways that don’t quickly come to mind. It is all quite affecting, reverberating, and memorable. Some of the music has a calliope feel to me … I write that and I’m not really sure what it means, but I think I am correct.

There are a few songs on the album that are for the most part sung “straight”, as in he just sings them and what makes them different from his previous (previous to Swordfishtrombones, that is) recordings is more the backup music. Two of these are: “Time”, and “Downtown Train”. The former has a line that for some reason I’ve been thinking of now for 30 years, and to me is wonderfully poetic:

And you’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause

The latter was covered by Rod Stewart in 1989 and became a hit single for him. A lot of Waits is covered by other artists. I think his songs are so interesting to other artists because, a) the lyrics tend to be interesting, and b) they know that their versions will sound nothing like Waits. Songs covered and sung the same way as the original are just not as compelling. I sort of like Rod’s version more than the original.

Back during the time that this album had come out and I was driving around Miami in my Ford Pinto listening to it a lot through a sad little improvised cassette deck situation I had going, a friend of mine named John decided to get into a fracas while driving with a crazy woman. John was/is of course crazy too, and I was present during the episode. So, I’m driving down I-95 to the courthouse in downtown Miami to give a deposition which eventually helped to have the entire thing thrown out of court and not adversely affect John’s medical school career (yes, he is now a doctor!) listening to Rain Dogs in my Pinto. The song “Gun Street Girl” has a refrain, which goes:

I said John, John he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana
Ain’t never coming home

I’m not sure why the “John” in the song was “gone to Indiana”, but all I could think is that my friend John would be sent to some sort of penitentiary there. It was a bad omen which luckily did not come true (I think his patients like him).

Those are all the musings I can come up with about Rain Dogs. The fun thing about this series is I feel the need to listen several times to an album before writing about it. It had been a long time since I listened to Rain Dogs, but BOY is this album good! I found myself driving slowly to work the first morning, wanting to delay my arrival and hear more music. Waits isn’t for everyone, but if you like him I believe this is a very good place to start.

TomWaits-Rain Dogs-Stu_html_m78c60285

Album cover


Waits singing title song in concert

—Stu Moore is an occasional contributor to this blog. He likes literature and music and tries not to think about politics.