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July 2017

Sunday Night Journal, July 30, 2017

I am beginning to accept the fact that there are simply too many books for me to read and too many recordings for me to hear in the amount of time I have left to live, even stretching my potential longevity as far as it can be stretched. I'm finding this surprisingly difficult. It was always true, and would have been true even if I had continued to pursue both at something like the rate I was doing it before I devoted the better part of forty years to job and family. But I had in the back of my mind that when I retired I would finally be able to do all the writing and reading and listening that I'd been putting off.

Well, even apart from the fact that I'm only about two-thirds retired, it isn't working out that way. Life still makes a number of demands that I hadn't really considered. I don't mean to sound whiny, because I am thankful every day that I don't have to go off to a job that will, including the commute, occupy at least ten hours of the day. Still, a reckoning with reality must be made, priorities must be set.

I'm saying all this as preface to an admission. I have just done something which as far as I can remember I have never done before, and of which I am somewhat ashamed. I have chosen to skim a book that I chose to read. I suppose I have skimmed a book before--my freshman biology textbook in college, for instance, when I was desperately trying to absorb enough information to avoid failing a final exam. But I don't think I've ever done it with what I am tempted to call a real book, and one that I wanted to read. Now I have.

The book is William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. As anyone who's ever been anywhere near the conservative movement knows, this was Buckley's first book, written when he was a recent graduate of Yale. I've always had the impression that it's considered a conservative classic. It's been sitting on my shelf for some years, and I decided to check it off my list.

It's a disappointment. If it were not by the man whose initials all conservatives and many liberals recognize, it would probably have been mostly forgotten, and of mainly historical interest. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the book is more specifically about Yale at that moment (the late 1940s) than I anticipated. It's a case study of the state of instruction on religion and economics at Yale--or rather, I should say, the process of secularization and liberalization (in the political sense) at Yale, because that's what Buckley is describing. As such, much of it is far too detailed to be of much interest to me. It includes a discussion of specific instructors, textbooks, events, speeches, and controversies which I would think only a historian or very dedicated Yale alumnus would care about. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not specifically interested in Buckley or Yale or both.

That said, I am struck by how familiar Buckley's complaints sound. The process by which we arrived at the almost complete domination of leftist thought in the academy was well advanced by 1950. Buckley chastises Yale for pretending to be engaged in a disinterested search for truth but actually having an orthodoxy favoring secularism and statism. By our standards it was relatively conservative, giving lip service to Christianity and opposing communism. Buckley wanted Yale to dispense with the pose of neutrality and to openly favor what I will very loosely call Americanism (not that he puts it that way). Well, he certainly got part of that wish: the pose of neutrality is not fooling much of anyone these days. I wonder if even those who preach it belligerently on their own behalf really believe it. When cant words like "diversity" are part of the mission statement, and institutions insist fervently on their dedication to them, everyone knows what is meant. And every day brings us a new story of some notable incident involving the enforcement of this orthodoxy.

I will say of God and Man at Yale that it is well-written and well-argued, and in general pretty impressive for a 25-year-old. But it's a period piece now.


I referred back there at the start of this little piece to reading and listening. I used two different words for two different things. It might have been handy to have one word. But not at the cost of resorting to a construct I see often, sometimes used by people who I think should know better. I mean the word "consuming," as in "consuming art" in reference to multiple arts.   How can anyone write or read that without a shudder? It makes me think of this character, the vacuum monster, from Yellow Submarine, which I had not thought of since I saw the movie ca. 1970. 


When I think of something being consumed, I think of it being gone, chewed up and swallowed or otherwise used up. Years ago I read some technology writer predicting the ways--the devices and the media--by which we would "consume infotainment." The phrase comes close to physically nauseating me.


Last week, writing about the film Mother and Child, I meant to mention Annette Benning's performance as Karen, which was one of the best of several excellent performances in the film. And it made me think about acting in general. For much of my life I really didn't have a great deal of regard for the art of acting, for the gifts required to do it well. I just took it for granted that some people had a knack for pretending to be other people, or for creating an appealing screen persona (e.g. John Wayne), and in fact for pretending in general.

I just spent an hour looking for a remark, which I was sure was by Samuel Johnson, which disparages acting. What I recall is that he said it needed only "great plasticity of features" and...something else...I can't remember what.

Well, if Johnson said that, I don't know where. I must have read it somewhere, because I don't think I would have invented that phrase. I've searched an online version of Boswell's Life without finding it, and done a number of Google searches for the phrase and variations of it, with no luck. At the moment I'm suspecting that it wasn't Johnson who said it, but someone else of roughly the same period, and that I read it in The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations. But if so it'll take me a while to find it.

Anyway: when I first read it, I knew, of course, that it was hyperbole, but came close enough to agreeing that I thought it was pretty sharp. At at some point, maybe fifteen or so years ago, I began to appreciate just how difficult good acting must be. The thought crossed my mind during several scenes in Mother and Child when the camera is on Karen's face: for instance, the moment when she is combing her mother's hair and chatting about her day at work. She mentions that a new guy has started there, and that he seems nice. 

"Karen, don't get your hopes up," is her mother's response. Karen says nothing, and there is not a great deal visible in her face, but it's enough to say everything about Karen's relationship with her mother and indeed about her life in general.

"Plasticity of features," indeed. Yes, that's required, just as an unusually high level of manual dexterity is required for playing a musical instrument well. But that's just the minimal requirement.

Of course the writer, who was also the director, must get credit for creating the exchange. He's the composer, the two women are the performers who bring it to life.


I'd like to know how these roses came to be here, stuck in a log on the beach. Was it a sad story or a happy one? There were several others here and there, one some distance away as if perhaps it had been tossed.


52 Albums, Week 30: Befriended (The Innocence Mission)


I'm once again digging into my old music posts for this series. This one is from July of 2004, only seven months into the life of this site. Before deciding to post this, I listened to the album for the first time in quite a few years, and would not have been surprised to find that my opinion of it had changed a bit. I remembered that I had been very enthusiastic about it, and wondered if I might be less so now. No, I'm not. The six months mentioned in the post turned into thirteen years, but if anything I find the album more deeply moving now than then.

This is the original post, with only a few minor changes. A few years later they released a new and similar album, We Walked In Song, and I liked it just as much. I haven't heard it for a while.


I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.

But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.

Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.

With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.

These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond, out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.

It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.

The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:

When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came

Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:

The snow is here
The light is bright

Of course it's the tune that gives that most of its effect.

The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.

One slight reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.

There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so: 


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 23, 2017

Some months ago The New Criterion offered a look back at Kenneth Clark's  old BBC documentary Civilization. I had never seen it, though I vaguely remembered hearing of it. In 1969 when it first appeared I was in college and rarely caught so much as a glimpse of a television. And even if I'd had the opportunity I probably wouldn't have been much interested: it would have struck me as middle-brow eat-your-cultural-spinach stuff. But the NC piece praised it highly and made me curious, so, finding that it's available on Netflix, I put it on our queue, all four disks and thirteen hours of it. It made its way to the top of the queue some weeks ago, and we've watched one disk, four episodes, now.

My conjectural prejudice was not altogether wrong. There is something almost quaint and a bit stuffy (some would say a lot stuffy) about watching and listening to this stereotypical British connoisseur giving us a tour of the great art of Europe. And, not surprisingly, it's more than a little out of step with our times, with few traces of the apologizing for the civilization it describes that would be expectable in such a venture today.  But as the New Criterion writer, Drew Oliver says:

The intellectual journey that Clark chaperones is plenty invigorating, and more than sufficient to justify the series. But the production itself is a worthy vessel for his learning. Throughout, it maintains a majestically slow pace. Luxuriously long moments where the visuals are completely unencumbered by any commentary whatsoever are hallmarks of Civilisation; you can almost feel the delight that the cinematographers must have felt as they tested the full power of their new, full-color medium. And the wide range of geography, architecture, art, music, and ideas that are explored is its own intrinsic expression of civilization, as well as a defense of it.

I especially appreciate that slow pace, though I'd like for some of those long moments to be even longer. Now and then I see an advertisement for a documentary that looks interesting, but have learned that unless it's something I really want to see, I'd rather not bother, because they never give you more than a three or four-second look at anything. Five seconds is generally the maximum. (Yes, I have timed it.) I find this extremely frustrating: just as I'm getting a good look at something, it's snatched away.

I think the whole series is on YouTube, by the way, though I haven't looked for it. 

I didn't--we didn't--want to watch all thirteen episodes of Civilization in a row, so I had moved the DVD that followed it to the top. It was The Lady In the Lake, which is not about King Arthur but a dramatization of the Raymond Chandler novel. I thought I might have seen it before, and I have. I'm not sure how it got onto our queue when it had been there once before.

But anyway: although our Netflix subscription is limited to one DVD at a time, we occasionally get an extra one. When the one at the top of the list is temporarily unavailable, Netflix will go ahead and send the next one, then the first when it becomes available. The result, since we don't usually watch them immediately, is that we have two at once. So apparently The Lady in the Lake was unavailable, and so was the rest of the Civilization series. In any case Netflix reached down to the fifth item in the queue and sent us a movie called Mother and Child. As far as I can remember, I had never heard of it. I figured my wife must have put it on the list, but if she did, she didn't remember it. I wondered if maybe someone in the course of our many discussions about movies here had recommended it to me, so I searched the blog for the title (using Google, not the unreliable Typepad search, which I really ought to get rid of). No luck. Well, maybe someone recommended it to me via email. I searched my email. No luck there, either. 

So I have no idea why this movie was on our queue. (Please let me know if you did recommend it.) It came out in 2009 and for all I know has been in the queue for years, as a number of other titles have. But here it was. And I wasn't at all sure I even wanted to watch it. The Netflix description was not at all promising to my taste:

Fifty-year-old Karen (Annette Bening) regrets giving up her daughter, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), for adoption; years later, Elizabeth questions her own approach to life. Their stories intersect with that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who hopes to fulfill her dreams of motherhood through adoption. Rodrigo García writes and directs this drama about parenting, sacrifice, romance and self-fulfillment. Eileen Ryan and Samuel L. Jackson co-star.

Oh yeah, that sounds great: two hours of female emotional travail--just what I want to relax with on a Saturday night. Maybe this was going to end up being one of those disks that I send back without watching it. And then The Lady in the Lake arrived. So last night when we got ready to watch a movie, we had a choice. I really wanted to watch Phillip Marlowe. But for some months now my movie-and-television diet has consisted almost entirely of murder mysteries, grim sensationalist fare like House of Cards and The Americans, and BBC costume dramas that are basically very well-produced soap operas. Feeling, out of some odd sense of duty, that a change might be beneficial, and also that Mother and Child sounded like something my wife might like more than Marlowe, I suggested it, trying not to sound like I meant "let's get it over with." 

Somewhat to my surprise I found it totally engrossing and very moving, even though it was in fact two hours of (mostly) female emotional travail. To expand that Netflix description a bit: the movie opens with a vignette that takes place in 1973, where we see fourteen-year-old Karen getting pregnant and giving up the baby for adoption, never so much as holding her. It is suggested that this was at her mother's command. Then we jump forward thirty-five years or so to find Karen, at almost fifty years old, never married, caring for her aged mother, lonely, bitter and prickly with everyone around her. And we meet the daughter, Elizabeth, a beautiful, gifted, and successful attorney in her mid-thirties who lives in a hard shell of self-will and self-protection. This doesn't preclude her having an active and selfish sex life, which leads to some cataclysmic consequences. At the same time we follow a young couple, Lucy and Joseph who, having failed for a long time to conceive a child, are looking into adoption and encountering various difficulties with it. For most of the film it isn't clear what the two story lines have to do with each other, but they are in the end very much connected.

First impressions sometimes mislead, but as of right now I would certainly recommend this film, with the one reservation that it has a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes of which the dramatic need is questionable, as is generally the case. They do have some justification, which is more than can be said of many such instances. And anyway any objection to them is more than outweighed by several very good things which I would like to mention but will not because they need to be encountered within the film. It's a story of love breaking through walls, but at very great cost. 

I didn't notice, when I first glanced at the Netflix description, the name of the writer-director. After seeing it, I would have confidently bet that it is the work of a woman. But unless "Rodrigo" is the name of a woman it is not.  


Yesterday I went to a funeral. The deceased was the mother of a sister-in-law, and I had never met her, so my attendance was an expression of sympathy for the family, not of personal grief. Yet there was a moment when I did feel it: when I saw a photograph of the woman taken when she was young, perhaps a high-school yearbook photo. She was about my age, and so the picture resembled in a general way--hairstyle and so forth--the pictures of the girls in my high-school yearbook, the girls I knew as a teenager. In the picture she is fresh and pretty and smiling, expecting good things from life, as most of us do when we are young. But life was going to deal her some terrible blows, and the difference between what that sweet young girl hoped for and what happened seemed heartbreaking to me. As I've mentioned several times in recent months, I feel a little sorry for young people now. 

And yet I know there was joy in her life as well. A country song, a sort of hymn, that I didn't recognize was played during the service. I was struck by one line of it, where the singer, facing death, bids goodbye to this "sweet world of sorrow." That sums up our situation pretty accurately, doesn't it? 

With that phrase I was able to find the song. It's "Lead Me Home," sung by Jamey Johnson. You can hear it on YouTube.


I read somewhere that the Huffington Post is going to put a bunch of its staffers on a bus and send them out from whatever metropolis they inhabit to have a look at those parts of America which have upset them so badly by voting for Donald Trump. This is a very funny prospect. I expect there are many frightening moments in store for them. The whole country probably ought to have a trigger warning. Especially the South.


52 Albums, Week 29: Hounds of Love (Kate Bush)

Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love: A Deeper Understanding


(Fair use,

She’s a flower of the mountain. I see only see her face, framed by hair the color of chestnuts. Full red lips blossom into a smile, eyes full of stars. We do not touch, but warmth fills my heart to the point of tears as I breathe the perfume of recognition. When she approaches me, I wake myself. I remember who I am: a man with nine kids and married to someone else. I remember who she is: Kate Bush, the neo-romantic British pop singer who attained great popularity in the eighties. This is the fifth time I’ve dreamt she is my wife.

Later that morning, as I fill my travel mug with coffee and wrap my almond butter wheat toast in paper towel, I tell my wife about the dream. “I dreamt I was married to Kate Bush again. Isn’t that funny?” She utters a sound somewhere between “indignant scoff” and “incredulous pshaw.”

“Nothing happens,” I explain. “I’m just married to her. I think she’s supposed to be you.”

Indignant scoff. “So do I. Why isn’t she?”

“I mean she represents you. Like a cipher. Something to give me objectivity.”

“What time are you coming home, Mister Objectivity?”

I know when to stop.

I grab my mug, my toast, and my book bag. I hug her and kiss her lightly on the lips. She’s under ice.

“Cut it out,” I say. “Nothing happened.” Then I add, “She reminds me of you.” Which is true (one of my kids even thought a video of Kate singing “Hounds of Love” with David Gilmour was his mom), but it is not necessarily the right thing to say at the moment.

I am not going to win.

I first encountered the music of Kate Bush in 1985. I was twenty-three, a struggling songwriter and guitar player given to idealism, when I heard the end of her “Running up that Hill” on the radio. Intrigued, I went out the next day and bought a cassette copy of Hounds of Love, the album on which it appears. I didn’t play it right away. I saved it.

That night, a rainy Thursday in November, I decellophaned the cassette alongside my friend and bandmate (and very recently my brother-in-law) Jason as we sat in a party store’s parking lot inside my grey Chrysler TC3, trying to drink enough of our Cokes so we could top them off with a little Grand Macnish. The TC3, while it was not the slickest ride on the strip, did have a fine Pioneer sound system. Our beverages in order, I popped the tape into the deck: Track A:1, “Running up that Hill (A Deal with God).” As the opening C minor chord on the Fairlight swelled and then bled into a martial yet profoundly emotional drum cadence, we sat enthralled. In the song’s passionate bridge, when Kate sings, “Let’s exchange the experience,” a drum fill climaxing in thunder, Jason turned to me and yelled over the soundtrack, “I’m going to marry her!” We are both guilty. So guilty.

Years after Jason and I were blown into the ethers by the English girl from Kent, my wife and I were awaiting the arrival of our fifth child. The due date was July 25th. July 25th came and went and no baby. On July 29th, on a trip to the grocery store, I heard a disc jockey on public radio, one of those pretentious bastards who peppers his between song banter with words like “oeuvre” and “zeitgeist,” introduce a set of Kate’s songs in honor of her impending birthday on July 30th (coincidentally, also Emily Bronte’s birthday). Once home, I told my wife what I’d heard. Stupidly, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if the baby came tomorrow?”

“Just great,” she said. But she didn’t sound like she meant it.

The baby, a girl we named Zelie, was born at home on July 30th at around 11:30 pm, just squeaking in under the deadline, as it were. Now almost fourteen, Zelie loves to sing and dance, write poetry, and play the piano. A coincidence? I think not.

Hounds of Love is one of about four CDs I have in rotation (the others are The Waterboys’ This is the Sea, Derek and the Domino’s Layla and other Love Songs, and Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief). Okay, so I’m kind of stuck…but the record has only gotten better with age The imaginative scope of the album is astounding—from the heartache of the opening track, the Romantic stoicism of the title track, the optimism of “The Big Sky” and the memorial to Wilhelm Reich in “Cloudbusting” on side one (I still think in terms of album sides) to the Ninth Wave sequence on side two, particularly the exhilarating “Jig of Life” and the haunting “Hello Earth,” the album is a masterpiece from start to finish. And, even though the sound of the Fairlight permeates the songs, they don’t sound dated. No doubt, this is all due to Kate’s lyrical imagination which is lent clarity by the pure splendor of her voice, uncompromised as it is by the sordid need to sell product so characteristic of the music of our current moment.

But, then, it may be that I can no longer tell the difference between biography and aesthetics.

Kate Bush impersonating my wife:

Original version: 


Jig of Life: 

—In addition to teaching philosophy and English at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer living with his wife and most of his nine children in Waterloo Township, Michigan.


Sunday Night Journal, July 16, 2017

I suppose Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and his co-writer, Marcelo Figueroa, thought "ecumenism of hate" was a clever turn of phrase. They were wrong. It is unjust and seems to be malicious, though perhaps less malicious than ignorant. The article as a whole (I assume you've heard about it, it's in La Civilta Cattolica, considered to be something of a mouthpiece for the pope) is so incoherent that it doesn't warrant much further comment. It's not entirely wrong, but that could be said about almost anything from the people it attacks. 


I know someone who is associated with the anti-Trump movement called "Indivisible." He has said forthrightly that he "has always despised" the religious right, apparently not noticing the irony. 


"Lord, I thank thee that I am not as this Pharisee" rather misses the point.


I remember when my children were young thinking that observing them gave me a very different view of Jesus's counsel that we must "become as little children." Before that I had tended to think of the prescribed surrender as a sort of passivity, accepting without much thought what one was told about grownup matters. But one evening at dinner I remarked to my wife that of the three people at the table, the two-year-old was clearly the most intellectually active. Young children may be ignorant of a great deal, but it is certainly not because they aren't trying to learn. They are relentless inquirers, testers, and speculators. There's nothing passive about the "childlike faith" which we attribute to them. The faith they exhibit consists not in their lack or suppression of intellectual energy, but in their trust that we are telling them the truth.  

This has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, as two of my grandchildren, boys ages 5 and 7, are spending several days a week with me while school is out for the summer. Except when they're asleep, they never stop looking, wondering, questioning, investigating, experimenting, and in general trying to figure out literally everything in the world, as far as they can see it. They noticed this stack of back issues of The New Criterion.


It was jumbled, and they--mainly the seven-year-old for this--put it in order by year and month. They noticed that an issue was missing, and we looked around the house until we found it on my desk. Then they put it in its proper position. They hypothesized that each month had the same color every year (I had never bothered to notice), and to the extent that they could verify that, they did, and rearranged them to put like colors together. They wondered why the September issue was black (the 15-year-anniversary of 9/11/2001, I think). It was mid-June when they started this, but the June issue had not yet arrived, and they wanted to know why. They asked every day if it had arrived, until it did, and then they put it with the others. Once July had begun they wanted to know why the July issue hadn't arrived. When I told them that the magazine is not published in July and August, they were a little offended, and wanted to know why. And almost every day they ask me if I've finished reading the June issue yet (not quite), and why not (well, something to do with dealing with two small boys all day).

Why? Why? Why? I read somewhere years ago that the average four-year-old asks some great number--in the hundreds I think--of questions every day, and I believe it. And no doubt a large percentage of them begin with "Why?"

"All men by nature desire to know," said Aristotle. Well, ain't that the truth? And much of what they want to know involves purpose: what is it for? why do you do that? why do I have to stop playing games on the iPad? Why? 

Watching my grandsons gives me confidence that the commitment of the modern world to suppressing the question of ultimate purpose will not stand indefinitely. One way or another, that empty space will be filled. I hope it will be filled by truth.  


I've been reading The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest at all in the Book of Common Prayer itself or the history of Anglicanism in general. It is just what the title suggests, the story of how the BCP came into existence, and how it has developed over the centuries since its birth in 1549. Well, before that, actually, because Jacobs goes into some of its antecedents, and naturally has to deal with the whole matter of the establishment of Protestantism in England. 

I think I've been half-consciously half-suppressing my awareness of that history. I know it, of course--what Catholic has not seen A Man for All Seasons at least once? But having grown up in an Anglican-ish tradition (Methodism), and spent some time in the American Episcopal Church, and now being a member of the Anglican Ordinariate (which is not what we're supposed to call it), and having a great love of many elements of the Book of Common Prayer, I didn't especially like to contemplate how thoroughly rooted in heresy and schism it really is. I found myself wondering "Why do I want to be associated with this thing? Is it really salvageable?"

Of course most of it is salvageable; a prayer written by a heretic needn't be heretical; I can (and do) pray right along with most of what would be included in any Protestant prayer. And in fact it has been salvaged--thank you, Benedict XVI--and purged of its heretical elements. And as to why I want to be associated with it, to use it: the prose. Ecclesiastical criminal Cranmer may have been, but he was also a great writer of devotional prose. 

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

 That is a sample of what I loved, what as a Catholic I missed, and what keeps me going in the effort, always on the edge of failure, to keep our local Ordinariate group alive. 

Chesterton has a great commentary on the Prayer Book in The Well and the Shallows, one of the books I read long ago when I was considering conversion.


Distant rain, 6/29. We're having a rather wet, cool summer so far.



52 Albums, Week 28: Floating Into the Night (Julee Cruise)


(By Source, Fair use)

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about Disintegration I mentioned that it comes in second behind this album for the Saddest Pop Album Ever award. I had not heard it for maybe ten years when I wrote that, but now, having listened to it again in preparation for writing this, I'll stick with that opinion. More importantly, of course: it's really beautiful.

It's credited to Julee Cruise, who is primarily a singer, but it's really a collaboration among her, Angelo Badalamenti, and David Lynch. If you've seen Twin Peaks, you've heard parts of it, and will have a good idea of what to expect, not only in purely musical terms but in general atmosphere. You'll remember the haunting instrumental theme music, written by Badalamenti. The song "Falling" on this album is that music, with lyrics. Pretty simple lyrics, but very powerful with that melody, ending with the simple question "Are we falling in love?" on that last rising phrase of the melody. 

Some of David Lynch's work has a quality which I've described as "bent nostalgia" and which I suspect is most powerful for people of a certain age--people who can remember the America that existed between the end of the Second World War and the revolutions of the late '60s, and the pop culture of that time. It must be available to younger people, too, in some fashion, because some do seem to get it. It references certain visual and musical motifs of the time, but gives them an odd, dreamy, and sometimes sinister twist. The heavily reverb-ed guitar in the Twin Peaks theme is a good example: it sounds like Duane Eddy on opium. That aspect of this album is presumably mostly the work of Angelo Badalamenti, but I'd be surprised if Lynch didn't have a good deal of influence. The song credits assign the lyrics to him and the music to Badalamenti, but he has some musical ability himself and has released a couple of albums under his own name (which I haven't heard). So I figure that at the very least involved he was involved with the music itself to the extent of saying "Yes," "No," "More of that," etc. 

You could call it a concept album, even a narrative. The concept is an old, old one: lost love, a broken heart. The songs, all in first person, begin with the moment of falling in love, then move on to abandonment, desperate yearning and loneliness, and something close to despair, with just a hint of acceptance in the title of the last song, which also comprises its last words: "The Word Spins." It all seems superficially fairly straightforward and simple, but as in some of David Lynch's superficially conventional and even banal scenes, there is an atmosphere, and subtle twists. that give it a deep and powerful resonance--at least for those of us who are susceptible. And I would say now, listening to it with the printed lyrics in front of me, that there are profundities in that simplicity.

I first heard it in roughly 1992 or so, on the radio program "Schickele Mix," in which Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach, played a variety of music centered around a particular musical concept or technique. Most of it was classical, but he would throw in a bit of pop and folk here and there. I was transfixed when I heard "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart."


That last bit really touches me, that little reminiscence of the simplest and sweetest of moments. And it's clear that the singer is remembering something lost, not found. It occurs to me now that what makes it so powerful is not that it describes or expresses those moments so well as that it describes and expresses the experience of remembering them. This, possibly, is where one's age plays a part: the music touches on a specific cultural past, and is probably more powerful for anyone with a personal memory of it. 

By the time the song was over I was listening eagerly to find out who it was. I had never heard of Julee Cruise and never seen Twin Peaks, though I was somewhat aware of David Lynch's reputation as a very...challenging filmmaker. A few years went by before I actually acquired the album--this was during my years of buying very little music--and many more before I saw Twin Peaks, which only added to my appreciation of the album. I probably haven't heard it more than half a dozen times. For me it's not something to be played casually. Its mysterious sadness and its strange and fragile beauty might be spoiled by overexposure, and anyway it's only appropriate for certain times and moods.

As I've said about several of the albums I've reviewed in this series, if you like the tracks I've included in this post, you will surely like the whole thing, so I'll leave it for you to discover rather than including more samples here.

A few weeks ago I picked up from the local library's discard table The Rolling Stone Album Guide. I've disliked Rolling Stone since the '70s, when I realized it had become in essence an upscale fashion magazine, and would never have paid money for this book, but figured that the magazine does have some good critics and so there ought to be some worthwhile reviews in the book. Today I looked up this album in it. The reviewer gives the album two out of a possible five stars, indicating that the work in question is a "failure." Here is the entire review, which is, as far as I can recall, the single most wrong-headed and obtuse opinion of a piece of music that I've ever encountered:

With a voice that rarely rises above a whisper and a songbook (lyrics by David Lynch, music by Angelo Badalamenti) wreaking [sic] of camp and irony, Cruise comes across as a sort of post-modern Claudine Longet--an amusing concept, to be sure, but hardly worth an entire album.

The review at Allmusic is much better.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 9, 2017

Johnson said of Paradise Lost that "No one ever wished it longer." I can't give my opinion on that, since I've never read more than excerpts from it. But on the basis of those I suspect I'd agree. And by that standard I would have to rate J.R.R. Tolkien's Lay of Leithian at least as high as Paradise Lost, because I've just read a substantial portion of it in a newly released book, Beren and Lúthien, and I definitely wished it longer.

This book is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to publish as one semi-coherent narrative the story of those two lovers, which is an important part of his father's mythology. He tells us in his introduction that he is now ninety-two years old (which surprised me, though it shouldn't have, as my father would be almost that old now if he were still alive). Accordingly, he expects that this will be the last of the books he has edited and published from his father's many scattered and unfinished manuscripts. I am not a Tolkien...what?...I'm trying to find an alternative to "geek" and not succeeding. "Fanatic" I guess would do, but it has a slightly unpleasant connotation, while "fan" doesn't suggest the same zeal and dedication. And "scholar" is too formal. "Nerd" is a little derogatory. "Geek" suggests, nowadays, an innocent sort of enthusiasm, while "enthusiast" doesn't convey the absorption in minute detail which "geek" does. (The development of the term is interesting: how did it go from denoting a person who performs disgusting acts in a carnival show to its current sense denoting intense and maybe obsessive interest in the details of something or other?) 

Anyway: I am not one of the people who has pursued extensive knowledge of Tolkien's entire created world and languages. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite books, also to a lesser degree The Hobbit. I read The Silmarillion in the early 1980s and found it not much more than interesting, though I had young children and a new job at the time and might have gotten more involved with it had there been fewer other demands on my attention. Of the many later books (more than a dozen) compiled by Christopher Tolkien, I've read no more than bits and pieces, though there are one or two on my shelf. I probably wouldn't have read this one if my wife hadn't given it to me for Father's Day.

It's a nicely produced volume, with illustrations by Alan Lee, whose illustrations for other Tolkien volumes I've liked more than most. I took it up because I thought it might be a pleasant diversion, maybe just shy of escapism. I found myself more involved than I expected to be, and more moved. It's something of a hodge-podge, as the attempt to put the entire narrative in one volume requires grabbing bits and pieces from a number of manuscripts composed over a period of decades, some in prose and some in verse, and in many instances varying significantly in details about the characters and events, .

And so, back to the poem: it's by far the longest sustained piece in the book, comprising more than half of the actual J.R.R. Tolkien material (as opposed to Christopher's explanatory material). It tells, in brief, how the man Beren and the elf-maiden Lúthien met, fell in love, and, in order to gain her father's permission to wed, undertook to steal a Silmaril,  one of the fabulous jewels for which The Silmarillion is named, from the crown of the evil lord Morgoth. Frankly, I expected all this verse to be rather tedious, especially as I had greatly enjoyed the first piece in the book, an early prose version of the legend called The Tale of Tinúviel (Tinúviel being another name for Lúthien). 

Well, I didn't find it tedious at all. First I was impressed by the skill with which Tolkien handled his form: tetrameter couplets. Granted, there are vast quantities of 20th century literature I've never read, but I don't know of anything else in it which sustains such a strict form so well for so long. And it's no empty technical feat: the story is a good one, the narrative moves well, and the verse is skillful and powerful. Here's a sample. Luthien and Beren have come in disguise, he as a wolf and she as a bat, to Morgoth's fortress and are challenged by a great supernatural wolf, Carcharoth. Luthien is wearing a cloak which gives her the power of casting a man or beast into an enchanted sleep.

.... The vampire dark
she flung aside, and like a lark
cleaving through night to dawn she sprang,
while sheer, heart-piercing silver, rang
her voice, as those long trumpets keen
thrilling, unbearable, unseen
in the cold aisles of morn. Her cloak
by white hands woven, like a smoke,
like all-bewildering, all-enthralling
all-enfolding evening, falling
from lifted arms, as forth she stepped
across those awful eyes she swept,
a shadow and a mist of dreams
whereon entangled starlight gleams.

Okay, maybe you find that archaic--well, it is archaic, but maybe you also find it corny, maybe even funny. I could quote some passages that might strike you even more that way. He makes use of all the old-fashioned artifice required to maintain the form he has chosen; conversational or prosy this poem decidedly is not. And then there is the whole legendary-mythological subject. But I think it's good.

I know there are a lot of people, people of intelligence and taste, who find Tolkien's whole enterprise ridiculous, who are so formed by and committed to the naturalistic methods of modern literature (as I see it), that they can't take this sort of thing seriously outside of its natural element in time, which is to say some centuries ago. I do understand that; Tolkien was certainly something of a freak, and he knew it. But I can enlist Auden on the side of those of us who do like it--The Lord of the Rings, at least, of which Auden said "If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again." I won't go that far, but I do take a dislike or dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as a mysterious and odd gap in taste which one neither approves nor disapproves but as a quirk, like hating the taste of beer.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I believe there is at least a fair possibility that a time will come, say at least a century or two in the future, when this poem of Tolkien's will be of more interest to critics than many of our lesser contemporaries. The poem is, sad to say, unfinished: only seventeen of a projected twenty cantos were written. They run to something over 4,000 lines of verse, less than half of Milton's 10,000-plus, and, as I said earlier, I'm sorry there aren't more.

I think the entire poem can be found in one of the other Christopher-edited Tolkien volumes, so I guess I'm going to have to find out which one and read it. I see a slight but real possibility of my becoming a Tolkien geek. Perhaps fortunately, I don't really have time.

Whatever one thinks of Tolkien's work as literature, the sheer scope of his invention is rather stunning. Until you've delved into it a bit, beyond The Lord of the Rings, you don't appreciate just how vast and detailed his invented world is. It is simply astonishing that one man could have invented so much, while maintaining a respected career as an Oxford professor and raising a family.



Another Fourth of July has come and gone, and with it the usual round of meditations and appreciations. I particularly liked this one by Charles Cooke, a young British expat. I like it not because I agree with his admiration of this or that specific thing about America, much less his general view of the world (he's a secular libertarian-leaning conservative--or conservative-leaning libertarian), but because I like his enthusiasm, and in general share it. 

I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does. I have spoken to other immigrants about this, and I have noticed that there is generally a satisfactory explanation — religious freedom, the chance at self-expression, the country’s size — and then there is the wistful stuff that moistens the eyes. Show me a picture of two canyons, and the fact that one of them is American will make all the difference. Just because it is American. Is this so peculiar? Perhaps.

I have to say, though, that I always thought this Oscar Wilde remark that he criticizes is actually quite funny: "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." I'd heard it before but didn't realize it was Wilde.


When I read that piece and came across the term "Googie architecture" I thought at first it was a misprint for "Google" and wondered what sort of architecture was associated with Google. So I googled (of course) the term and found that according to Wikipedia "Googie architecture is a form of modern architecture, a subdivision of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age." For instance:

Car_Wash _San_Bernardino _CA

(By Cogart Strangehill - Ext. Car Wash, San Bernardino, CA, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I like it, too. I mean, in a backwards sort of way. Or more accurately I feel a kind of affection for it, even though it's pretty ugly.


Here's an image from my Fourth of July. From here we have a great view of the fireworks launched after dark from the end of the big pier, three-quarters of a mile or so away over the water. 


52 Albums, Week 27: Sleep No More (The Comsat Angels)

Week27-The Comsat Angels

Back in the early 80’s when I first started paying attention to the post-punk/new wave scene, mostly via college radio, The Comsat Angels were a frequently mentioned band among others like Joy Division, U2, and The Teardrop Explodes. Although I heard of them often back then I can’t say I ever heard much of their music, if any at all, as my radio listening was fairly scattershot and at that time I was listening just as much, if not more, to “Christian rock.” I’m inclined to think, however, that if I would have heard the Comsat Angels back then I would have liked them.

My interest in them was kindled earlier this year when I watched the film Control, which tells the story of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Reacquainting myself with some of the music of that period, The Angels were one of the bands that came up a lot in various searches, and quickly became one I wanted to revisit.

Sleep No More, which was released in 1981, was their second LP, coming after the well-received debut Waiting For A Miracle. Good as it is, the first record has the feel of a band still trying to find itself. With Sleep No More everything has fallen into place. Somewhat darker than the first album, it also features instrumentation that’s more spare – guitar, bass, and drums, mostly, with keyboards playing a largely supportive roll. Still, it sounds remarkably full for a record from 1981: the guitars are loud, the bass is fat and prominent in the mix, the drums sound huge. I remember a long time ago reading a review where the writer said that an album, I forget what, “sounded like it was three feet thick.” That’s the way I’d describe this one.

The guitar work is jagged and angular, but still musical, a little like early U2 but more complex and fuller sounding. The songs, though not exactly catchy, are consistently engaging and interesting, the general feel being fairly bleak and angst-ridden (Cure fans take note!) And despite clocking in at only 38 minutes (many of the songs run less than four minutes) Sleep No More feels more substantial, probably due to this intensity of both musicality and tone.

When playing the album for the first time “Be Brave” was the track that really grabbed me on that initial listen:


The other song that I loved instantly is “Our Secret,” which closes the record. Despite the guitar line being the virtual apotheosis of “jagged and angular,” the song has a great hook, augmented by the most prominent use of keyboard on the entire record – the wonderfully inspired presence of a very “retro” sounding organ in the chorus. At 4:12, the song simply ends too soon!


I’m pretty sure that if you like these two tracks, you’ll like the rest.

I haven’t had the chance to listen to their subsequent records yet, although it seems they went in a more commercial direction in the mid-80’s, only returning to their early form on 1987’s Chasing Shadows. The 1982 follow up to Sleep No More, Fiction, is supposed to be a little lighter in tone but still quite good. I haven’t heard it yet, but I do tend to check out the rest of their material. In the meantime it sure was fun discovering this album, even if it was 36 years late

—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, July 2, 2017

My view of the current political-cultural situation in the U.S. is unquestionably somewhat dark. It always has been. I'm a pessimist by nature; I was born this way. But is it darker than it was ten years ago, as Quite Grumpy said last week? I'm not so sure that it is. But if it is, the reason is that certain tendencies are further along now than they were then, considerably further than I even expected.

I'm thinking in general of the intensity of division in the country. Stu said that it "Doesn't seem like the 'end times' to me, with the blue and red either battling it out, or living in separate states." I disagree--not that I think it's necessarily the end times for the U.S., but I do think that we are in new and dangerous territory, and I see a real possibility of some sort of schism. Not anytime soon, but within, say, the next fifty years. California, as you no doubt have heard, now forbids state-funded travel to several other states, including mine. This amounts to a declaration of political war, and is certainly a step in a very bad direction. And for what it's worth, I'm very, very far from alone in my worry on this score. I've read pundits on both right and left who see it as a possibility, though I think on the left it's viewed as being not necessarily a bad thing, maybe even a desirable one. The right is in general more attached to the whole historical concept and reality of the United States. (Rudy Guiliani got a lot of criticism for saying that he didn't think Obama loves America, but I thought he was at least partly right, in that Obama, presumably owing to his unusual circumstances, never seemed to have that visceral love of country that many or most Americans do, or at least used to.)

And I'm thinking in particular of the divisions created and continually intensified by disagreements about sex which involve fundamental disagreements about the nature of society, of government, and even of what it means to be human. Looking for evidence of what I was thinking about this ten or more years ago, I found a very relevant post from May 2004, less than six months into the life of the site (which was not, strictly speaking, a blog for its first couple of years). It's about the division that would be deepened and made permanent by the creation of same-sex marriage, and it is really prettyaccurate in its prediction of what the effects would be:

If this arrangement is given the force of law throughout the country, it may very well be seen by history as the point where the deep and bitter division in American society which we call the culture war became once and for all irreconcilable. Or perhaps I should say recognized as irreconcilable, for it may already be so. This will be a tragedy, and like all tragedies all the deeper for having been preventable.

Please read the whole thing if you want to discuss it. Things have of course moved far in the direction I predicted there. What I did not foresee, what I don't remember even occurring to me, was that as soon as victory in the marriage campaign seemed assured, the same forces (I'm not sure what to call them) would immediately take up the "transgender" cause with exactly the same fervor, self-righteousness, and intolerance toward disagreement. It certainly didn't cross my mind that the government would ever attempt to coerce schools into opening toilets and locker rooms to members of any and all "genders." 

It would be said by gender activists that my emphasis on this whole complex of issues is a product of "homophobia," "transphobia," etc. That's to be expected. But it might also be said by less extreme voices that I'm unduly concerned with the morality of certain sexual practices. Why should I care? Why pick on this one sin? Why not divorce, or adultery? (Or climate change denial!) The answer is that it is not the morality I'm concerned with.  It's the principle: the legal redefinition of a fundamental institution.

The reason for resisting these things, for me at least, is not to try to prevent people from sinning. Even if you agree with the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, anyone with a mind in reasonably good working order can see that not everything which is wrong is a matter for the law. Most people, regardless of religion, would agree that in general, it is wrong to lie. This does not mean that we want the state to monitor everything everyone says, rule on its truth or falsity, and prosecute everyone caught in a falsehood. 

But there is a point where lying becomes punishable by law: lying in a legal contract, for instance, or when under oath in a court of law. It is in those situations that lying becomes a matter for the whole commonwealth, and can't be tolerated, because it threatens the very fabric of society, its principles of order.

The objection to same-sex marriage, and all the many demands of the transgender movement, is not that they enable or encourage immoral or simply unwise acts, but that they seek not only to redefine the institution of marriage (which is more fundamental than the state), but to require that everyone participate in a denial of fundamental biological, psychological, and social realities regarding sex.  

This is a big deal. It turns the concept of marriage into something created, rather than recognized, by the state, and in essence, by making sex irrelevant to the concept, makes it meaningless except as a legal construct, seen, from that point of view, primarily as another avenue by which one receives "benefits" (tangible and intangible) from the state. This has enormous, far-reaching consequences, and I don't think they're good. I think the ones I predicted in 2004 are very much with us now, and I was speaking in 2004 only of the divisiveness. It's more than divisive, of course: the question now is to what extent dissent from the new order will be allowed. And that in turn has a great deal to do with the reasons why so many Christians supported the manifestly non-Christian Donald Trump for president. 

It's been pointed out that the times are less troubled than were the 1960s: there are no cities in flame, for instance. And that's true. What's different now is that the country is more evenly and more intensely divided on fundamental principles, and each side believes that the other wants to subjugate it. If more open conflict comes--violence, or a serious attempt to break up the country--part of the tragedy of it will be that most of these people can get along perfectly well with each other at the immediate, personal, and local level. It's the deep religious difference, the difference as to what society is forwhat life itself is for, and the attempt to shape it accordingly, that really fuels the conflict. And makes the situation seem so dark. Or partly, anyway--it's not as if we don't have other serious problems. But the division makes it difficult or impossible to work on them together.

Grim reflections for the Fourth of July, I know. The most hopeful note I can sound is one I've sounded before: that a willingness to allow for more diversity across the nation, to let California be California and Alabama be Alabama--federalism--might yet preserve the republic as something deserving of the name.

Anyway, perpetual crisis is pretty much the human condition.


I'm actually not much more concerned with trying to discourage homosexual activity than I am with trying to discourage any number of other sins, sexual and otherwise. Aside from the fact that discouraging anyone's sin is usually not my responsibility, and I'm more than fully occupied in trying to discourage my own, I tend to assume that by now, forty or fifty years on in the sexual revolution, most of us are knowingly acquainted with homosexuals, male and female, have been on friendly terms with them, and do not want to see them demonized or persecuted. In my case that has included at least one very close friend. And so I tend to assume that the accusation that Christians hate homosexuals--are "homophobic"--is grossly exaggerated at best. It also causes me to feel that there is no particular need for me to say that my objection to same-sex marriage etc. is not malicious and personal. But this post by David Mills at Aleteia reminds me that my view may not be typical, and maybe there is such a need. Though the effort is probably pretty hopeless now: if you aren't supportive of the whole program, you're an evil bigot, and that's that. 


By the way, my view of life, the universe, and everything is in general definitely not darker than it has been in the past. I'm in fact more serene now, or closer to being serene. I think this is mainly the result of age, and an increasing ability to resign the troubles of life to God's care, because there is so little I can do about them. The blog may give a misleading impression in that respect. I tend to comment more on the passing scene, on Vanity Fair rather than the permanent things, and most of that is not edifying. The deeper reflections are going into my book, or into other writings which I will try to place in magazines. 


True love is always bleeding in our mortal life. You simply cannot have love in this life without pain.

--Sr. Ruth Burrows, O.C.D. (quoted in Magnificat)