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Sunday Night Journal, May 28, 2017

It's pretty obvious that there is some significant number of people on the left who simply don't believe in freedom of speech anymore. There have been a number of incidents lately that make the point. There were the attack on Charles Murray, the conflict at Duke Divinity School, the simultaneously hilarious and disturbing fight at the feminist journal Hypatia. In the latter case, fury was directed at a feminist author, and the magazine that published her, for considering the possibility that a person could be "transracial" in the same way that current academic orthodoxy believes one can be "transgender." That controversy is so demented that it's funny, but the attackers are deadly serious, and I have no doubt that if they could they would deprive the offender of her job, and will try to find ways to punish her.

The most recent one is the case of a biology professor who refused to go along with a racial-consciousness event that asked (ordered?) white people to stay off campus for a day.  Threats of violence prevented Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkley, and a parade in Portland was reportedly canceled when leftists promised to disrupt it because a Republican group was going to be part of it. 

There's a lot to be said about this that pertains to our politics and the rule of law, especially that last one. If its implications are not immediately obvious to you, consider what the reaction would be if the KKK attempted something similar against Democrats. But stepping back from the current situation a little, and trying to view it somewhat dispassionately, I think this may be one of several indications that the Enlightenment/liberal consensus about speech and ideas is falling apart. A week or two ago I got into a discussion of the Catholic Church and science on Facebook (Galileo!), which led into the general topic of forbidden ideas and speech, which led me to say this:

A further thought on censorship and the suppression of ideas in general: I suspect that our ideal of completely free speech and thought are somewhat anomalous historically, not only with respect to the past but maybe also with respect to the future. There are signs that it isn't going to last. A lot of progressives, especially young ones and especially in academia, apparently just don't believe in it anymore, and that could have a big impact over the next fifty years or so. It's a natural thing that a society would try to suppress ideas that pose a threat to its very existence, or offend its sense of what is sacred. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it's natural, and we may be going in that direction again. The classical liberal, John Stuart Mill style ideal of totally free and open debate may be on its way out. Like classical liberalism in general. 

One possible positive result of this might be a bit of understanding and sympathy for the medieval Church and society.

Possible. Not probable.


Last weekend I went to the wedding of a niece, daughter of one of my sisters. I'm not keen on attending weddings anymore, because I've seen far too many marriages end. But I went. The ceremony was supposed to take place at 5:30 Saturday afternoon on the big front porch of our old family home in north Alabama. A lot of rented white plastic folding chairs were set up on the front lawn for the guests. Planning an outside event is always a gamble in a climate and at a time of year when rain is fairly frequent. An hour or so before the appointed time I was putting gas in my car and noticed big dark clouds moving in from the southwest. They kept getting bigger and darker until they were a little scary, with a touch of that slight greenish hue that always suggests "possible tornado" to me. A few minutes before 5:30 the wind began to pick up until it was fierce, and soon I could see a mix of dust and rain coming across the fields. At almost exactly the minute the ceremony was supposed to begin, the cloudburst came. 

I think the rain plan was more or less "improvise." All the many guests crowded into the house, overflowing the front hall and all the nearby rooms and crowding the stairs. The minister and attendants took up their positions just inside the front doors, which were open. From where I was standing I could see a really potent storm going on: the rain was horizontal, and so heavy that I couldn't see the end of the driveway several hundred feet away. The worst of it was over fairly soon, and though the rain continued well into the night, it didn't seem to lower anyone's spirits. 

I'm sure there was some cynical "Well, this is a bad sign" joking about the rain, especially the way the beginning of the downpour was timed almost to the minute with the ceremony. But this is farm country, and the rain was badly needed. The forecast had been showing an increasing chance of rain for two or three days, and I had heard several people say "We sure need the rain, but I hope it holds off till tomorrow." My brother and I decided it was not a bad sign at all. Just the opposite: it may have been a sign of blessing. I hope so.


...and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.

--Ezekiel 34:36


I find lately that I feel more pity than envy when I contemplate young people. There's such a long road ahead for them. I even fear for them a little--there's such a strong chance for varieties of grief and pain that they can't foresee. Nevertheless, life is good.


From a piece about Hogarth in the April issue of The New Criterion:

Hogarth is a wonderful character—self-made and self-mocking, candidly ambitious and patriotic, easily slighted and angered. His life is a grand tour through the social and moral microcosm of Georgian London. His satires abound in easy English pleasures—lechery, drink, gambling, mockery, sanctimony, slapstick, cruelty to animals, and abuse of the French.

That's not relevant to anything. I just thought it was funny. 


We were talking about Roger Scruton last week. Here's an interesting review of one of his books at Craig Burrell's blog. The topic is education and its role in the transmission of culture. What happens when education is suborned to the repudiation and destruction of a traditional culture?

I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

52 Albums, Week 21: 1000 Kisses (Patty Griffin)

[Once again needing to come up with something in a hurry, I'm once again falling back on an old post. I haven't heard this album for a while but I'm pretty sure I won't have changed my mind about it.--mh]


Although I can’t claim to have heard all the competition, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Patty Griffin has one of the very best voices in pop music. She has prodigous strength and range and tone and control, with a lower register bound to produce odd spinal sensations in any human male who can hear, but unlike some singers with comparable natural gifts, she has taste and intelligence and sensitivity to the song. Moreover, she’s a terrific songwriter herself. All of this is rather unfair to those of us who aren’t so gifted, particularly to songwriters who don’t sing very well and singers who don’t write very well. Our compensation is that we get to listen to her.

Her first album, Living With Ghosts, is only voice and guitar and while it’s an impressive feat it feels stripped down. Her second, Flaming Red, is excellent but goes too far in the other direction: it’s over-produced, with that over-crowded and glossy sound that major studios seem to produce often and which sometimes seems—to me, anyway—to render the music somehow remote and untouchable, like something encased in plexiglass. This one, 1000 Kisses, is just right, production-wise. She’s backed by a small acoustic ensemble that plays subtly and sparsely, giving her voice plenty of room. The sound is big, open, and clear. The material runs the gamut from good to very very good. My particular favorite is a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song, “Stolen Car,” and it’s a testimony to her skill that she’s utterly convincing in it even though the lyric is from a first-person male point of view; in fact I don’t recall, on first listen, even thinking about the disparity until the song was over. I suspect she’d be capable of taking ownership of most any song in that way, if she liked it enough to go the trouble.


The album as a whole doesn’t quite come together in the way that makes a real classic. To my taste the material falls off a bit toward the end, and “Mil Besos,” sung in Spanish and more elaborately arranged than the other songs, seems out of place. But the first two-thirds or so is about as good as this kind of music can ever be. 

 The only problem with it is that a number of the tracks make me all teary-eyed.

P.S. If my memory is accurate her Impossible Dream album may be even better, but I didn't write about it here and haven't heard it for a while. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, May 21, 2017

The new Twin Peaks started tonight on the ShowTime network. I'm not sure when I'll get to see it, as I don't get ShowTime. I guess it will be available online somehow sometime. It's a little late for me to be making this recommendation, but if you're a fan of the show, you should read this book as soon as you can, because I feel pretty sure it will shed some interesting light on the new series:


It's a sort of novel, written by Mark Frost, the co-creator of the series. It provides a great deal of fascinating background for the story by means of a wonderfully entertaining mixture of truth and fantasy. You learn a lot about people and events from the series, but you also get some history and context that are not even suggested by the series. For instance, the book opens with some odd incidents in the life, and odd circumstances about the death, of Meriwether Lewis, and works forward in time until shortly after the time of the original story, with a link to the present day. I'm expecting that link to be present in the new series; we'll see.

Frost obviously had a good time doing this, connecting the strange events in the town of Twin Peaks with all manner of conspiracy theories and popular lore about unexplained phenomena--UFOs, occultism. It made me think of some  of the more interesting aspects of The X-Files, which in turn was (I hear) influenced by Twin Peaks. Frost weaves the secret history into real history very smoothly--the Lewis stories, for instance. Before I'd gotten very far into it I began checking references to any person or event presented as being known to real history, but unknown to me, and every one was genuine. (Shall I give you an instance? Would it be giving away too much? Well, here's one.) 

And I had a very good time reading it. The premise is that in the present day a cache of documents relating to the town of Twin Peaks, its inhabitants, and certain events that occurred in the late 1980s, has been "recovered on 7-20-2016 from a crime scene." Deputy Director Gordon Cole has given it to an agent identified only by the initials T.P. for "comprehensive analysis, cataloging and cross-referencing.... We need to learn and verify the person or persons responsible for compiling this dossier...."

The book then consists of "documents" assembled by that unknown person, who refers to him or herself as "the archivist," typewritten annotations by him/her, and marginal notes from TP. It's a very elaborate physical production, and you can easily pretend that it's all genuine history, or at least I could. I noticed the other day that an audio version is available. Don't. That would at best be like reading a script instead of watching a film.

Obviously I don't want to give away anything important, but I can't resist a few remarks:

  • I always did like Major Briggs a lot.
  • Doug Milford is full of surprises.
  • The Log Lady's attachment to her companion is eccentric but not crazy. 

My wife gave me the book for Christmas last year. I started reading it, but when it reached the point in time where characters from the series began to appear, I realized that my recollection of the series was pretty spotty. So I stopped reading and over a period of weeks we watched the series again, and then the "prequel," and then I went back to the book.

I ended up being very impressed all over again with the series. Even the latter part of the second season, generally thought of as a mess and a letdown, seemed better than I remembered.  I now feel fully prepared to watch the new series and hope it won't be a disappointment.

I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews or commentary on The Secret History because I didn't want to be prejudiced, or to learn anything that might have reduced the pleasure of reading it. And I still haven't read any. But I can imagine that some readers might be disappointed that it really does not answer a lot of questions that the series left open, questions about the specific events portrayed. I didn't feel that way, but others might. It's not about those events, and really only touches on them; it is, as the title says, about the history of the place, the forces at work there, and certain of the people; many characters from the series do not appear at all. And in what it does tell it not only leaves a lot of earlier questions unanswered, but raises new ones without answering them. It wouldn't really be true to Twin Peaks if it didn't. 

And in one important respect the book is not Twin Peaks: it's not really very Lynchian, which is to say it's not seriously weird. It doesn't have the depth or mystery of the series, even though it's about mysterious things. But then the whole premise is that it's a strictly factual dossier. 


In response to the related phenomena of Brexit and Donald Trump's rise, The New Criterion has been running a series of essays on populism (which naturally includes an effort to define the term, which is used pretty loosely). The seventh one, appearing in the March issue, is by Roger Scruton and is called "Representation and the People". The title refers to the tension between representative government and the direct, immediate wishes of the people. I won't try to summarize it, as it's long and fairly complex. But as part of his analysis Scruton illuminates an aspect of the Brexit and Trump movements which I think is very important. I'm going to excerpt it at length:

...democracies are held together by something stronger than politics. There is a “first person plural,” a pre-political loyalty, which causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. Many are the flaws in this system of government, but one feature gives it an insuperable advantage over all others so far devised, which is that it makes those who exercise power accountable to those who did not vote for them. This kind of accountability is possible only if the electorate is bound together as a “we.” Only if this “we” is in place can the people trust the politicians to look after their interests....

But what happens when that trust disintegrates? In particular, what happens when the issues closest to people’s hearts are neither discussed nor mentioned by their representatives, and when these issues are precisely issues of identity—of “who we are” and “what unites us”? This, it seems to me, is where we have got to in Western democracies—in the United States just as much as in Europe. And recent events on both continents would be less surprising if the media and the politicians had woken up earlier to the fact that Western democracies—all of them without exception—are suffering from a crisis of identity. The “we” that is the foundation of trust and the sine qua non of representative government, has been jeopardized not only by the global economy and the rapid decline of indigenous ways of life, but also by the mass immigration of people with other languages, other customs, other religions, other ways of life, and other and competing loyalties. Worse than this is the fact that ordinary people have been forbidden to mention this, forbidden to complain about it publicly, forbidden even to begin the process of coming to terms with it by discussing what the costs and benefits might be.

Of course they have not been forbidden to discuss immigration in the way that Muslims are forbidden to discuss the origins of the Koran. Nor have they been forbidden by some express government decree. If they say the wrong things, they are not arrested and imprisoned—not yet, at least. They are silenced by labels—“racism,” “xenophobia,” “hate speech”—designed to associate them with the worst of recent crimes.... Hillary Clinton made the point in her election campaign, with her notorious reference to the “deplorables”—in other words, the people who bear the costs of liberal policies and respond to them with predictable resentments....

And when the pre-political “we” has, for whatever reason, been jeopardized, it is too late for the political process to deal with it. Emerging from behind the politics there then appears another and deeper question, the question who we are.

There's considerably more to the essay than this, and I think the whole thing is available online to non-subscribers, so I suggest you read it. But the deterioration of that 'pre-political "we"' is part of the reason that Trump was elected, and no doubt part of the reason for Brexit. And both those events have damaged it even further. Do committed Hillary voters feel that committed Trump voters have anything much in common with themselves? When left and right say "we" do they intend to include the other? Not that I can see. We're at a point in the U.S. where a presidential election is seen by one side as a sort of coup by the other, with dire consequences expected for the latter. I'm inclined to think the breach is irreparable, but maybe that's too pessimistic. Scruton himself proposes some attempts at repair.


We were discussing drinks last week. I seem to have invented one which I like very much. I more or less stumbled on it last summer one day when I wanted a martini.  I was out of gin, and I don't consider vodka martinis to be martinis. So I messed around and ended up with vodka, vermouth (dry), lime slice (squeezed), and club soda. I make it roughly half-and-half alcohol and soda, but obviously that would be a matter of taste. It's really good if you like non-sweet drinks. There is no trace of sweetness in it at all.

As far as I've been able to determine by asking people and searching the web, it's not a known species. So I think I get to give it a name. I immediately thought of something related to moonlight. I wanted Half Moon, because that's the phase of the moon I enjoy most, when the moon is over the bay at the time I'm typically there. But Half Moon is already in use, as is Full Moon.

Bay Moon? Silvery Moon? Silver Moon? Feel free to vote and/or make suggestions. And fix yourself one, if you think it sounds good.


52 Albums, Week 20: Forever Changes (Love)

[I didn't have a piece from anybody else for this week, and have been too busy to write one, so I'm falling back on this post from 2006. I've updated it slightly but it's pretty much as it was. I don't think I've listened to the album since--where did the last ten years go?--and I think maybe I wouldn't rate it quite so highly in comparison to others of its time. But I'm sure I would still consider it a great one.--mh]
I had a friend in college who was very taken with the first two albums by this mid-‘60s Los Angeles band. When he heard Forever Changes (in early 1968, I'm guessing) he came over to my apartment with it and put it on without expressing any opinion, waiting for my reaction. When the trumpets really kicked in at the instrumental break of “Alone Again Or” he made a face. “Sounds like the Tijuana Brass,” he said with disgust. Since the rest of the album was in much the same vein, he hated it altogether. And I, although not sharing his disappointment because I didn’t share his expectations, did think it sounded pretty slick and sappy: not only brass, but strings, and not just as an accent here and there but as a key element of the sound. And the lead singer sounded a bit familiar, a bit like…Johnny Mathis? Could this be the same voice that sang “Little Red Book”? This wasn’t cool. It wasn’t rock-and-roll. Away with it.

In truth, though, I didn’t really think it was so bad. Yes, it was kind of—I’m not sure what word I would have used then, maybe “commercial”—but it was also kind of interesting, and undeniably melodic. If I remember correctly my disgusted friend left his copy with me. At any rate I acquired it, and listened to it now and then. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure but I had to admit to myself at least that I liked it, and then that I really liked it a good deal. I think I finally recognized how much I liked it one sunny but melancholy afternoon, listening to it alone in my apartment, and finding myself really moved by the last song, “You Set the Scene”:
This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that’s all that lives is gonna die
And there’ll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello there will be good-bye

As the business of life took most of my time and attention, I didn’t hear it for many years. Sometime in the late ‘80s I listened to it for the first time since perhaps 1970 or so. Yep, it was still good. And sometime after that I became aware that it was considered a classic, turning up frequently on lists of the all-time-best pop albums.

When Arthur Lee, the band’s driving force, died of leukemia in 2006, and eulogies and retrospectives popped up everywhere, I got out my old vinyl copy and listened to it again, just to see if it was really that good (having, once again, gone many years without hearing it). Yes, it is that good. I can’t think of anything else comparable in style from the last two years of the ‘60s that’s as good, and not much that even comes close. Nothing the Beatles did after their last few brilliant singles, the ones collected on Magical Mystery Tour, can touch it as a complete album. The Byrds? No. Simon and Garfunkel? No. Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog is in the same class but not as consistent and unified. This is one of the few pop albums that really seems to have a coherent and organic flow from beginning to end.

What is the style? I hesitate to describe it, for fear of making it sound bland and soft, but: richly melodic, with a sort of folk-rock base to which are added brilliant string and brass arrangements. Well, let’s not say “added,” because the arrangements are intrinsic and essential, and arranger David Angel ought, as with other great arranger/producers of the time like George Martin and Joe Boyd, to be credited as a group member.

The lyrics are a major strength. You can’t say they’re brilliant, exactly, and they’re often obscure, but somehow they capture the odd mixture of hope and alienation that characterized the late ‘60s.

Maybe it’s not so much that the album speaks to and of its time as to and of youth. I wondered, as I listened to it the other day, if it’s an artifact of its time, and if my liking for it is a result of having been young in that time. But I’ve asked around, and have found among its strongest admirers people who were born long after it was released. That constitutes a classic, at least in the shortened time frame of popular music.

At AMG you can read the sad story of the band, of Arthur Lee, and the not-quite-so-sad story of second guitarist-songwriter Bryan MacLean, who I suspect had a larger-than-recognized role in Forever Changes.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, May 14, 2017

As you know if you read (or contributed to) the 52 Authors series a couple of years ago, I am a great fan of the mystery writer Ross Macdonald. "Ross Macdonald" was the pen name of Kenneth Millar. Most biographical notes included in the Macdonald books say something like this, from my 1973 Bantam printing of The Wycherly Woman: "[his wife] is now well known as the novelist Margaret Millar." I've been seeing that since I began reading Macdonald in the early '70s, but had never heard her name mentioned anywhere else, and supposed that she had been a sort of pop novelist whose work was no longer read. (I did, however, in the course of writing that 52 Authors piece about Macdonald, come across some signs that a revival of interest in her might be under way.) 

I was mildly curious about her work but had never sought it out. Then a couple of months ago I saw a copy of Wives and Lovers at a library sale and grabbed it. I read it last week and can report that this instance at least of Millar's work is still very much worthwhile.


I started reading the book with low expectations but found myself getting excited: This is sort of interesting...This is not bad...This is pretty good...This is really good. By halfway through I was comparing her to Flannery O'Connor: "Flannnery O'Connor without the faith," I said to my wife. I've learned over the years to distrust my initial reaction, especially initial enthusiasm. So maybe the O'Connor comparison is a little too much, and maybe after a bit, or on a second reading, I'll back off a little from that. But this is not fluff, which I guess is what I was expecting. If nothing else, it is a very well-written novel.

It's what would once have been called a "woman's novel," and though it may not be polite to use it, I think the description is justified. I say that because the book is principally about four women--Elaine, Hazel, Ruth, and Ruby--and their relationships to each other and to the men in their lives. Elaine is married to a dentist, Gordon. Hazel is Gordon's assistant and the ex-wife of George, a restaurant owner (see the jacket cover). Ruth is Hazel's cousin; she has been a schoolteacher but, having suffered some sort of breakdown, is now unemployed and living with Hazel; she also baby-sits Elaine and Gordon's children. Ruby is a rootless young woman who is in love with Gordon, and he with her; George also develops a crush on her.

The story takes place in a small town on the California coast, which is where the Millars lived. Although the men are pretty crucial to the story, it is the women whose character is most thoroughly depicted and exposed. That latter word is the main reason for the O'Connor comparison: Millar is surgically skilled at portraying the ways people attempt to disguise from themselves their pursuit of selfish and malicious ends. She is particularly hard on Elaine, a cold and self-righteous woman who despises her husband and keeps him in line with the skillful exercise of a sort of psychological cattle prod. That may sound like a bit of a cliché, and maybe it is. The book was written in the early '50s and I think there was a sort of pop-psychology fashion at the time for blaming a lot of social problems on emasculating women. Maybe there's even some Freudianism lurking in the background of Wives and Lovers.

Well, okay, thinking about it a bit more, I'll concede that Elaine's malice and hypocrisy are a bit overdone. Still, overall it's a very well executed novel and very much worth reading. Here are a few bits that I marked:

Right was something you were going to do anyway, and if it didn't justify itself afterwards it became wrong.


George was an incurable optimist. Like an alcoholic who needs only one drink to set him off, George needed only one happy thought....[the "happy thought" that follows is completely without factual foundation]


Elaine folded her troubles away in one corner of her mind, neatly and carefully, so that it wouldn't be hard to find them again and unfold them as good as new.


"My land, the things that happen. The things that happen that aren't really anybody's fault." 


"Something must have happened."
"Something always does."


The Republicans have produced a health care plan, and of course the Democrats have immediately denounced it as "the worst, most heartless, most cruel thing on earth, causing untold suffering and death." That's Neo-neocon being sarcastic, but it's really not much of an exaggeration of the Democrat/media reaction. I find the whole thing very depressing. I had had at least a faint hope that the Republicans might try to come up with a truly different approach rather than attempting to patch a crazy mess. In 2009, before Obamacare was even passed, I wrote this assessment of the situation. I know nothing in detail about health care policy, but I think it was accurate then and still is. That's possible because what we've been doing for so long is obviously mistaken in its broad outlines. You don't need to know the details of how an automobile works to recognize that a design that includes wings and propellers is not going to work very well. On this point in particular I was basically correct, except that it proved to be an even bigger problem than I thought:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

It didn't necessarily have to be that way. The Obama administration deliberately chose to force that conflict, and it's reasonable to assume that progressives implementing a national system will not let up in that effort. For today's progressives, "divisive" means "you're in my way."

One of Obamacare’s major architects, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, has just co-authored (with bioethicist Ronit Y. Stahl) a major attack on medical conscience in the New England Journal of Medicine. His position is that physicians must abandon their own moral sensibilities once they don the doctor’s coat.

(That's Wesley J. Smith writing in National Review, and I'm including the link for the sake of accuracy, but I don't recommend following it, as their web site seems to get worse all the time for hogging up system resources and generally behaving badly.) 

Also, I would say now that we should be aiming for a system where small, routine expenses are not involved in the insurance system, and that medical insurance should be more like other forms of insurance (with some kind of government assistance for those who can't afford it). The employer as purchaser of insurance needs to be out of the picture altogether. I think it would be hard to overstate the damage this linkage has done and is doing. But if any politicians are trying to move us in that direction I haven't heard about it. At this point I think it quite likely that we will eventually have a government-run health care system, it will be extremely expensive and insanely complex, and, as noted, it will help to perpetuate the culture war. 


Speaking of Neo-neocon: she has an amusing account of her experience tasting a reputedly very high-quality Scotch whiskey. Her quotation from a review of the whiskey amused me. I never really believe connoisseurs of whiskey, wine, and beer who detect flavors like "boggy peat, strawberry jam, and chocolate fudge." "Boggy peat," yes. I have no actual experience of tasting actual peat or peat bog water, but I find it very believable that it tastes a bit like Scotch (which is not to say that I dislike Scotch--it's not my favorite thing but I like it). But strawberry jam? Come on.

I tend to be skeptical of connoisseurs in general, and strongly suspect them of making things up. I consider that the correct sensitivity to various nuances in whiskey, wine, beer, audio, and most anything else is roughly mine. Anything less is cloddish, anything more is probably just a pose. But I once knew someone who believed that those who claim to be able to taste the difference between butter and margarine were lying, so maybe I'm just a clod. 


With the Comey firing and even more with his raving and lying after it, Trump convinces me that I was right last year in saying "Donald Trump is not right in the head." I had hoped he would get better but he doesn't seem to be. 


The gardenias are blooming. It's too bad you can't smell this one. 




52 Albums, Week 19: Hats (The Blue Nile)


After their well-received debut album from 1984 A Walk Across the Rooftops, fans of this Glasgow trio had to wait five years for the next record. Both internal issues among the band members and record company disagreements caused nearly a whole album’s worth of material to be scrapped, material they’d begun working on almost immediately after the first record was released. But when they finally made it back into the studio in 1988, most of the problems had been sorted out, and they were able to create a masterpiece in a relatively short amount of time.

The previous record had been an odd duck of a thing – released on a small label, and containing a mixture of cool electronics and soulful lyrics and vocals, it took time for it to catch on, as people didn’t seem to know what to make of it. I remember buying it in 1984 and really not being sure whether I liked it or not – it seemed to be simultaneously cool and old-fashioned (don’t those strings and guitars on “Tinseltown in the Rain” sound a lot like disco????) Eventually, however, it grew in popularity, and by the time Hats came out in 1989, fans were ready for it. And it was worth the wait.

It follows in the same basic sound world as the first record, but is warmer and more lush, less coolly electronic. Paul Buchanan’s rich Sinatra-like baritone remains the sonic focal point, while his introspective, emotional lyrics set the mood. This is rainy-night-in-Glasgow music, like a sonic representation of the album covers of Sinatra’s No One Cares or In the Wee Small Hours. Most of the seven songs are either slow or mid-tempo affairs, with only one truly upbeat number, “Headlights on the Parade.” Most of them are sad as well (jazz singer Curtis Stigers called “Let’s Go Out Tonight” the saddest song ever written), with the exception of the album’s hopeful closer “Saturday Night.”

As on the first album the songs on Hats tend to grow slowly and run long (the shortest track clocks in at four minutes). This is no detriment, however, since it gives them a chance to develop in sometimes unexpected ways. For instance, the surprising coda-crescendo of “The Downtown Lights” comes just as you’re expecting the track to fade out, and “Let’s Go Out Tonight” includes a very short bridge which appears out of nowhere, and which features one of the most sublime, perfectly placed piano chords in all of pop music.

Really, I could go on all day about this album, but it’s better just to listen. As there are only seven tracks, I’m going to link to only one, the full album version of “The Downtown Lights.” The video is not “official,” but is a nice amalgam of views of Glasgow and footage from the song’s shortened promo video (which excludes the coda mentioned above). If this track appeals to you, the rest of the album will too.


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Sunday Night Journal, May 7, 2017

Well, I finally saw Manchester By the Sea. It was as good as everyone has said, and it deserved the honors it got. But I don't want to see it again: so much pain, and for me the artistry, as good as it is, is not enough to make me want to experience it again. 

Addendum, on re-reading this after posting it: why do I not feel that way about Bergman's equally pain-filled films? Why do I actually own copies of most of his best ones? I don't have a very good answer for that, beyond the fact that Bergman's work just moves me more, and more deeply, and that this is in part at the fundamental level of imagery, character, and dialog. And I'd also say that in many instances Bergman often seems to show more spiritual depth. 


 I wish the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, commonly referred to as the Anglican Ordinariate, had a more concise and descriptive name. Or, failing that, a more vivid one, one with a bit of poetry in it. If you don't already know what it is, the name won't tell you. And that's a fairly big reservation to have about a name, although a pretty small reservation to have about the thing itself. We are not supposed to call it "the Anglican Ordinariate", because that apparently leads to the impression that we aren't Catholic.

If you don't know what it is, it's the structure so generously established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to allow people in the various Anglican churches to come over to Rome and bring with them whatever Anglican traditions and practices were compatible with Catholic faith, which is quite a lot. Click here to learn more. Actually I should be using the plural, as the St. Peter ordinariate is one of three: one in this country, one in the U.K., one in Australia. Each is a sort of non-geographic diocese.  

I also wish it had come about earlier. In 1980 John Paul II implemented a somewhat similar but more limited arrangement, the Pastoral Provision. I can't recall the details now, but its applicability and availability were limited in ways that the Ordinariate is not, and some (including me) have speculated that if the Ordinariate had been instituted in 1980 it might have attracted more Anglicans than it is doing. By 2009 most Anglicans (including me) who were open to Catholicism had already converted on their own. And those who have stayed, either in the Episcopal Church (or the Church of England, etc., as applicable), or in various "continuing Anglican" bodies, have made their peace with the situation. 

It looked for a couple of years there as if the Ordinariates were going to languish and fade. And they may still. Certainly they aren't doing as well--i.e., attracting as many people--as was initially hoped. But recently things have been looking up a bit.

One significant development concerned Our Lady of the Atonement parish in San Antonio. It was the first parish established under the Pastoral Provision, and it has been very successful. It's a large and thriving parish with a well-regarded school. Some months ago a crisis arose there. The Pastoral Provision parishes are ordinary diocesan parishes, their main distinction being their liturgy. Atonement wanted to join the Ordinariate. The local bishop tried to stop them, removing their pastor and directing him 

to dedicate some time to reflect on some specific concerns that I have shared with him. These specific concerns relate to expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.

Apparently this meant, being interpreted, "I have no intention of allowing this parish to leave my diocese." The parishioners were up in arms. A crisis ensued. Appeal was made to Rome, and the decision did not go the bishop's way: not only was Atonement allowed to join the Ordinariate, but "the Vatican"--I'm not sure whether it was the pope or some bureau--decreed that all the Pastoral Provision parishes would become part of the Ordinariate. As, obviously it seems to me, they should. There aren't many of them, but I think several have been quite successful, so their inclusion strengthens the Ordinariate.

My own tiny local group, The Society of St. Gregory the Great, seemed for a while at death's door. Our founding priest had literally been there, having suffered a heart attack that would have killed him if he hadn't been near a hospital. Due to problems related to that initial attack, he has not been able to return to active ministry and now, though only in his mid-30s, is considered legally disabled. We have been in existence since 2012, had a few people come in early on, and then lost some of them. We could not, obviously, continue without a priest. But a local priest who was a former Anglican volunteered to celebrate Mass every other week for us. Then a few months ago an Ordinariate priest, retired from the Episcopal Church, moved to the area. And now we have Mass every Sunday again. And at Easter (well, actually the week after Easter, due to some logistical problems) we received two converts. And several new people have begun attending regularly, either Latin Rite Catholics who just like our liturgy, or potential converts. 

So. As far as I'm concerned, the Ordinariate in this country at large, and locally, is Not Dead Yet. The mustard seed has sprouted, and may yet grow in to a tree, and the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.


Assuming that Pope Francis himself decreed that the Pastoral Provision parishes would become part of the Ordinariate, I'm grateful to him. But I thought he was somewhat unfair to some young people in remarks he made last week: "I think of the many young people in the Church today who have fallen into the temptation of rigidity."

I know such young people exist. But "many"? I would have said "a few." A miniscule number, surely, in comparison to those who are so far from being rigid that they have hardly any conception of what it means to be a Catholic. He is probably thinking of those inclined to be traditionalist in liturgy etc. But I know several young people (under 40 at least, some under 30) who want a rich liturgy, and who take the teachings of the Church seriously. I would not call any of them "rigid," self-righteous, or anything of that sort. My Ordinariate group would not exist without them.


Over the past year or so I undertook a couple of more or less organized classical music listening projects, getting acquainted with related works I either had never heard or had heard only piecemeal. One of these was Bruckner's symphonies. I had heard some of the earlier ones a couple of times and never been all that taken with them. This time I started with the 1st (I skipped the 0th) and listened to each one three times before going on to the next. Those three times typically weren't all that close together, just because life doesn't make such things convenient, and I took a long break after the 5th because I was getting a bit tired of Bruckner.

I wish I had made some notes as I went, because now I can't remember which symphonies, and which movements, I liked best. In general it tended to be whichever I had most recently heard. So if you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago I might have said the 9th, despite the fact that it's unfinished. Rob G's account of attending a performance of the 8th caused me to listen to it again last week, and I think maybe it takes the prize. Definitely I like it better than the 9th, and although if I work my way back down the list I know I'll find individual movements that I like as well, this may be my favorite as a whole. The Adagio seems almost literally heavenly.

It's hard not to compare Bruckner to Mahler, both of them composers of monumental late-Romantic symphonies, but as of now I have to say I like Mahler a little more. That's not necessarily healthy. Bruckner, a solidly faithful Catholic, is fundamentally serene, however effectively he may blow your socks off in his grandest moments. The jacket illustrations of Bruckner recordings tend toward mountains and other majestic scenes, and there's a good reason for that. But as I said after I'd heard Bruckner's first three or so, to a friend who also loves Mahler but doesn't (yet) know Bruckner, there's more pain in Mahler, more anguished yearning, and I guess I like that. 



52 Albums, Week 18: Spirituals and Songs From the Stoop (The Bay Ridge Band)

Week18-Spirituals and Songs from the Stoop

Way back in the late 1990s we were hanging out with a couple from Communione e Liberazione. Because of that I become interested in the works of Luigi Guissani, the founder of CL. After reading his books I decided to use The Religious Sense as part of a class I was teaching at Marquette called “20th Century Christian Responses to Modernity.” Soon after that Riro (Maurizio) Maniscalco, one of the big names in CL, came to Milwaukee to organize a symposium on the use of The Religious Sense in university teaching. I gave one of the presentations, as well as did a friend of mine, Rodney Howsare, who had also used the book in his class. The great theologian, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete also presented—and David Schindler was there.

As it turns out Riro was also part of a folk group called The Bay Ridge Band, who had produced a CD called Spirituals and Songs from the Stoop. So I wound up with a copy of the CD (probably free, since I never buy anything).

It was wonderful.

The Bay Ridge Band is six men and women from at least three countries who sing folk, blues and gospel.

  • Chris Vath, Piano & Vocals
  • Valentina Oriani, Vocals
  • Molly Poole, Vocals
  • Cas Patrick, Vocals
  • Riro Maniscalco, Rhythm Guitar, Percussion & Vocals
  • Jonathan Fields, Lead Guitar, Bass & Vocal

The voices of the two women are particularly sweet and strong. Sometimes the men’s voices are a little on the overkill trying to sound bluesy, but that is a minor critique. The arrangements are often compelling. The harmonies are rich, complex and varied. My family loves to sing them. In fact, we sang “Keep Your Lamps” at a talent show once—in four-part harmony.

What I like most about it is the joy. The album is fun in the same way that the Weaver’s Carnegie Hall Christmas Album is fun (I intend to review that later). A kind of freedom and joy even when they are being “serious”.

Most of the songs are traditional, but some are originals. One of my favorites is “A New Creation.” It is a wistful reflection on the American immigrant experience and the true longing of the heart.

Other favorites include “Bamboo,” “Sister Mary,” and “I Got Shoes,” which changes style several times, from folk to blues through classical and back again. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of cuts from the album on Youtube. The only other one is “The Things that I See,” which isn’t the strongest cut on the album.

David Schindler later invited me to an in-house CL discussion of Guissani’s book The Risk of Education. Several members of the Bay Ridge Band, including Riro and Chris Vath, were there so we had great sing-a-longs in the evenings.

The album and other Bay Ridge Band CDs can be sampled and bought here or at the usual outlets that I don’t promote online because why should I they don’t pay me anything.

Note: This isn’t them.

—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, April 30, 2017

When First Things appeared in the 1990s (I think), I read it occasionally but never subscribed. That was mainly because a fairly large portion  of the articles were too specialized and academic for me.It seemed, for instance, that there were a lot of long commentaries on contemporary intellectual figures whom I had not (and have not) read. Moreover, I often found its neo-conservative orientation tiresome, even though much of the time I didn't fundamentally disagree with it. And anyway, I had very little free time for reading and didn't want to spend it on that. Over the years I read it occasionally in the library, or a friend sent me something photocopied from it, and once the web became a big thing I read some of what they published there. But in spite of its prominence--and, I assume, influence--in the world of religious-political journalism, it mostly passed me by. I expect I missed a lot of good work.

Recently, though, reading articles on the web, I began to get the impression that they were publishing more stuff that was more interesting to me than had been the case, so I decided to risk $25 or so on a digital subscription. (My wife bought a used iPad a couple of years ago, and reading on it is really pretty comfortable.) I'm glad I did. Traveling over the Easter weekend, I read pretty much the entire April issue on the plane, and I thought every single thing in it was excellent. I don't expect every issue to meet that standard--I've already skipped one lengthy article in the May issue. But for now I'm very much enjoying and benefiting from the magazine. 

For instance, the first piece in the April issue, "Moral Minority," by Patrick Deneen, is an excellent overview of three books that have been very much in the Christian news recently for their analyses of the situation of Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian culture: Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, Archbishop Charles Chaput's Strangers In a Strange Land, and Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes. It is as much Deneen's own perceptive view of the subject as it is a review of the books. One of his points is one I've often made: that the Christian right, as exemplified by Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, was already, in the late '70s and early '80s, mistaken in the belief that America was a fundamentally Christian nation that only needed to be awakened to the threat against it. I don't think I'll try to summarize it. I think it's available on the web to non-subscribers--try clicking on the title above. 


A few weeks ago here I was scoffing at the people who think the inauguration of Donald Trump was also the inauguration of a police state along the lines of 1984. These people seriously misconstrued either the book (if they've read it--many are probably just repeating something a journalist said) or the present political moment. The whole point of the suppression of truth by the government in 1984 is that dissent is not just forbidden but suppressed to a point where it hardly exists, and that this is most effectively done by making it psychologically difficult or impossible. And the last weapon, the one brought to bear in very stubborn cases, is to crush the dissenter so thoroughly that he will be at first afraid to speak, and eventually unable to conceive, of truth as existing apart from whatever the government says. One does not learn the true solution to the equation 2+2=x by mathematical reasoning or even by counting fingers, but by listening to Big Brother. 

Now, anybody who genuinely believes that this is a description of current conditions in the U.S. under the Trump administration  is simply out of touch with reality. I don't think many people are actually that deluded; most likely it's just a form of hysteria, or the thrill of reading a ghost story or watching a horror movie (for those who consider the latter a thrill--I don't). Trump can't open his mouth without someone calling him a liar, suffering no harm for the deed and probably getting some applause. Most of the news media attack him relentlessly, and do not suffer for it. And that's as it should be in a free society.

But there is at least one place in the world where the methods of the state in 1984 are practiced. That is China. The experience of it is described in a piece in that April First Things, "Struggle Against the Gods," an excerpt from the memoir of Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng:

Once a guard of mine described an experience he’d had as a new recruit. He went to an “inaugural meeting,” a ritual that was an old Communist Army practice. After roll call, the squad leader pointed to a soldier next to the classroom’s shiny white wall and asked, “What color is that wall?” When the soldier answered that it was white, he was thrashed. After five soldiers in a row were beaten for giving the same answer, the sixth one replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.” The squad leader praised the soldier and once again asked the soldiers who had been beaten what color the wall was. They all replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.”

That is what Orwell was talking about. The enemy is not a blowhard who doesn't care about the truth, who will say anything that seems expedient at the moment and doesn't care whether you believe it or not, but very intelligent people who care very much about both and are determined to control them. Very intelligent and very effective. 


Another interesting item from First Things...well, "interesting" is not the most apt word--interesting and disturbing: in the February issue, "The Devil and Hilary Mantel," by Patricia Snow. I decided several years ago when I read a review by the late Christopher Hitchens of Mantel's novel Wolf Hall that I was not interested in reading the book. The review was, naturally, strongly anti-Catholic, and according to Hitchens so is the novel. Why bother? I thought, though I had the impression it was a well-crafted novel. That was also my reaction when a BBC dramatization of the novel began to appear on PBS. 

Anti-Catholicism in contemporary literary life is a pretty predictable business, so I was just barely interested enough to start reading Snow's piece. Let's just say that the other person named in the title is not a rhetorical device. As I said, it's disturbing. No, make that frightening. You should be able to read it by clicking on the title above. If you want to.


I didn't set out to collect discouraging things to write about this week, but there's so very much of it around. And I keep saying that this thing and that thing are "interesting," and they are, even if disheartening. I saved the URL for this piece last week-before-last with a note to myself: "most interesting thing I've read this week," but then didn't use it last Sunday. It's a very sad story about a young woman who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, lost her faith, then found another in "transhumanism," the techno-faith that we will fairly soon be able to make ourselves immortal by some technological means or other.

I am fairly certain that none of these will ever happen. In particular the idea that we can somehow transfer our consciousness, that is to say our selves, that is to say our souls, from our brains, seen by materialists as a species of computer, into digital computers, and become immortal that way, is almost certainly no more than a fantasy. Even if you think it's possible, the practical difficulties and potential problems involved are rather staggering. But I'm all but certain that it's not even theoretically possible. The whole idea rests on the assumption that our souls--to use a word that the transhumanists probably don't--are some sort of by-product of our brains. That assumption is not only unproven but unfounded. It's simply asserted as an article of materialist faith, as if it were self-evident. Even if it were true, there is no reason to think that this whatever-it-is that constitutes one's consciousness could somehow be encoded as a sequence of ones and zeros, which it would have to be in order to be stored by computers as we know them. 

Anyway, here is the story, lengthy but very much worth reading. It's in The Guardian. Left-wing though it is, I find myself reading it fairly often, usually via someone else's link to a piece there (I think this was a Facebook post). The political stuff is not of much interest to me, but a lot of the rest is. I wonder if I should give them a donation, like they keep asking me to.


Once a week or so I read an article about the menace of artificial intelligence predicting that machines will soon become conscious, becoming super-intelligent almost immediately when they reach a certain point in "evolution," then either turning on us or making us obsolete. If you read these, too, and are alarmed, don't be. I am not a scientist or a philosopher but I know how computers work. Do you think the lights in your house are intelligent because they know to shine when you turn them on? If not, don't worry about artificial intelligence taking over the world. 

There is, on the other hand, plenty of reason to worry about software taking over more and more functions that used to be performed by people, and thereby continuing to make jobs obsolete. This is not a new problem. It's just a new wrinkle in the general trend toward automation that began with the industrial revolution. But it's significant. And we don't know how to deal with it. 


The misty upper part of this picture is not fog but rain. We had some violent thunderstorms yesterday evening and this was taken as they were moving in. Five minutes earlier I had been able to see far out into the bay, though not all the way across as I can when the air is clear. There is a sailboat anchored a couple of hundred yards out. This bank of rain approached as a white mass, moving fairly quickly, hiding the boat in a matter of seconds. I like the way rain falling on the water looks, but this picture, taken with my phone, doesn't really show it. I have an actual camera. I guess I should start carrying it around more.