Sunday Night Journal 2005 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — October 16, 2005

Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America

I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in high school. At least I think I did. I’m sure I must have read at least some of it, because otherwise how would I have such a vivid memory of disliking it? The doubt comes from the fact that I remember nothing specific about it, while I remember with perfect clarity what it was like to read the works of Shakespeare and Eliot and any number of others that caught my heart, even ones which I now see are of a lesser order, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which may once have been over-rated but might now, I suspect, be under-rated), and Carl Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and war and fog. In some of these cases I can in fact call to mind the look of the pages themselves, and often the place where I read them: I see “The Hollow Men,” for instance, laid out in my high school English textbook, and the book on my desk, and the desk in the classroom with painted concrete-block walls and some kind of institutional linoleum flooring, and the window to my left.

But Franklin? I remember only thinking that this was pretty dry stuff. It was all about being prudent and industrious, all worldliness and pragmatism. Though I wouldn’t have used those words at that time, I was able, over the next ten years or so of reading, in and out of school, to recognize what it was that I disliked in Franklin and many other American writers: a rationalistic practicality which seemed to have no eye at all for the mystery and richness of life.

I never read Franklin again, and having just read Christopher Hitchens on the Autobiography in the latest issue of The Atlantic, I doubt that I ever will. The number of books I want to read or re-read is now so great in proportion to any reasonable expectation of time remaining to me in which to read them that it seems unlikely that I will re-visit any of those with which I have little sympathy.

Mr. Hitchens is, of course, well-known for his detestation of religion. And if he reads Franklin correctly, he confirms my adolescent aversion, for he sees the Autobiography as being filled with a subtle but intense disparagement of Christianity, and the evidence he brings forward for his view says to me that Franklin was, as I think more than one of our founders were, an adherent of a sort of bloodless Whiggery, a thin and superficial skepticism which, while scoring just points against religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, leaves me feeling that I’m listening to a tone-deaf man complaining about the histrionic gestures of an orchestral conductor. He may be right that the conductor is a ham and perhaps even something of a sham, but if he doesn’t understand music, and why someone making music might be so moved as to seem eccentric, he is no more than a dog barking at a stranger.

We think of the American conflict between the irreligious and the believer as a relatively new thing, and it is newly virulent and now impossible to ignore, but in truth it has been there since the beginning. Most American writers and intellectuals have been at least quietly skeptical and often openly hostile to religion—meaning, specifically, Christianity—all along. My own sense, which pre-dates my conscious conversion, that the religious mind sees more deeply into things is most of the reason why I preferred English literature to American and never could bring myself to read much of Emerson and Thoreau. It was not that the English writers of the same period were more religious, only that they understood the issue: a writer like Carlyle knew what it meant for England to lose her religion.

Of course the religion which Franklin, Jefferson, and others rejected provided plenty of justification for their doing so. Puritanism was unattractive and difficult to sustain, and where it ebbed it left an even more unattractive shell. And so the American soul was split, with skeptical rationalism on the one hand and narrowness and emotionalism on the other.

The Catholic faith provides space and support for both these human impulses to fulfill themselves, where rationalism need not finally fling itself into the void and emotional fervor need have no fear of the facts, for it is perfectly justified by them. Although I can’t say it seems likely, it does sometimes seem possible that the future of the USA, or at least of its Christianity, is a Catholic future.

Sunday Night Journal — October 9, 2005

What was Caelum et Terra all about?

An exchange on the Caelum et Terra blog prompts me to bring up a question which often presents itself to me: what was the magazine all about, really? Perhaps the most frequent description I’ve heard is that it was an agrarian publication (agrarian and Catholic, of course). I myself always thought of that as only an implication, one of many, of some of the magazine’s central ideas, and not necessarily a necessary implication, albeit a fairly strong one.

Since Daniel Nichols was the founder and editor and the magazine was very much a reflection of his personality, he’s the one who, in the end, is most authorized to answer this question. It was also Daniel who located the contributors and, for the most part, decided what to publish. Apart from mostly relatively minor editing, my direct contribution was largely in what I myself wrote. So in a sense the question I’m going to answer is not the one I posed above but something closer to “What did Caelum et Terra mean to me?”

For me, the magazine was fundamentally about re-connecting Catholic life and thought with two things: first, the Christian culture and traditions eclipsed by secular modernism; second, nature. Let me take the latter of these first because, although it is the less important of the two, I don’t want to leave room for misapprehension. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about a romantic or Rousseau-style return to nature, and certainly not nature-worship. I mean first of all human nature, but I’ve never thought it possible to discuss human nature intelligibly without acknowledging the degree to which it is grounded in physical reality generally. Daniel included in the first issue a quotation from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger which became a sort of touchstone for me:

In the world of technology, which is a creation of man, it is not the Creator whom one first encounters; rather, man encounters only himself.

This is an extraordinarily pregnant observation. In what it says, and in what it implies, is contains a great deal of what is wrong with the modern world. To acknowledge that we first and most often encounter the Creator by means of his creation is not nature mysticism, but sound common sense and good theology. If this encounter becomes difficult or impossible, first illusion and then evil are bound to follow. In the end one can envision arriving by this path nowhere else but at the place inhabited by Milton’s Satan: Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.

I cannot doubt that man in his attempt to make the world revolve around himself, and to enforce his sin-bent will to power not just on external but on his own nature, is constructing a hell. Acknowledgement of our own nature and our situation in creation is a necessary instrument of virtue, of understanding what is and isn’t possible and permissible to us.

As for the first connection, to Christian culture and tradition, of course I mean attention to what those cultures and traditions have to say to us (and I use the plural because Caelum et Terra was always intended to be both intensely Catholic and deeply and broadly sympathetic to other traditions), but I also mean something more: a re-incorporation of some of the Christian (and indeed simply human) mental habits we have lost. As I’m attempting no more here than a hasty sketch, I’ll mention only two things.

First: what has become of our appetite for the real? For the true? We live in a culture which tends to devour every genuine cultural artifact and then offer it back to us as a flimsy and often ridiculous decoration. We accept that we should swim in a sea of half-lies for which those who utter them bear no moral responsibility whatsoever. The most advanced of us may openly deny the existence of truth, but far too many of the rest treat it in practice as optional and negotiable. I noted in a short piece published in the first issue of Caelum et Terra that advertisers do not show us the factories in which their goods are actually produced, but instead romantic images of artisans, or, if the product is something inherently factory-based such as an automobile, a fantasy which makes comparatively little reference to what the actual product actually does, but rather shows it creating a kind of heaven in which we can live in effortless pleasure. A real interior appropriation of Christian thought on a wide scale would eventually render impossible this establishment of deliberate miscommunication as a cultural habit.

Second: how can we think in all this noise? I was talking the other day about the 18th century poets who wrote entire volumes of verse in rhymed couplets, and of other artists whose accomplishments now seem almost superhuman to us. Surely one reason they were able to do these things is that their minds were more free than ours, in the sense that they had fewer distractions and were less superficially busy. They could attain, far more frequently and easily, the state of inner silence required for real thought, or real creative work, to present itself. But these accomplishments were only the flowers of culture. It seems reasonable to assume that everyone’s attention was occupied by fewer but more substantial matters than is ours—more substantial in the literal sense, harkening back to what I said earlier about nature. As with our attitude toward nature (using the term broadly), this doesn’t mean indulging in a medieval fantasy, but it does mean recognizing that something important has been lost and needs to be restored.

It may be said, quite accurately, that there is nothing specifically Christian in the preceding two paragraphs. One of Caelum et Terra’ concerns was the way in which the Gospel becomes unintelligible to people who have lost all sense of connection with the fundamentals of human life. We (I think I can use the plural here) were concerned that contemporary culture was a soil increasingly hostile to genuinely human life, and therefore to Christian faith.

Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, but not long ago I read about a saint who maintained a peaceful little garden in the midst of a city, and by means of this garden brought many to step away from the world for a short time and allow the eternal to speak to them. That garden serves as well as anything I can think of as a metaphor for what I conceived Caelum et Terra to be. For me, any specific position articulated in the magazine—any opinion on economic, politics, education, art, technology, marriage—was to be judged in light of its support for those fundamental concerns, which I considered to be compatible (in principle at least) with quite a wide range of specific opinions on controversies of the day.

Sunday Night Journal — October 2, 2005

Simply Dispose Of Them

I noticed a change in the language of the pamphlet that was inserted in today’s bulletin for Respect Life Sunday. In place of the phrase we’ve heard for some years, that human life is sacred and to be protected “from conception until natural death,” the pamphlet has “from natural conception until natural death.” What a world of disorder and disorientation is implied in that change.

It put me in mind of a conversation I had with a co-worker some years ago, when in-vitro fertilization was new. She was young, staunchly Catholic, and either recently or soon to be married to another co-worker. Last I heard, more than ten years ago, she had quit her corporate job, and she and her husband were happy and well on their way toward a large family. I mention all this by way of saying that she was certainly not disposed to reject Catholic teaching. But she was puzzled by this one, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching against artificial birth control: she couldn’t understand why, if the Church were so keen on married people having children, it would forbid this technique for accomplishing precisely that.

Thinking about this, I realized that I really don’t know much at all about IVF, so I did a Google search which took me straight to this site. There I got a very clear answer as to the Church’s reasons for condemning it, in the question-and-answer section, in response to the question “What happens to any extra pre-embryos?” The answer: “One option is to freeze pre-embryos for your later use. Other options are to donate or simply dispose of them.”

Whether or not that last phrase gives you a cold chill says a lot about your attitude toward the question which is the most decisive and fundamental of our time: whether human life is a sacred thing or just another object, whether there are any limits upon our liberty to manipulate it for our own ends. I’ve sometimes thought that “Respect Life” is a bit weak and vague as a slogan, but suddenly it seems perfect. One of my teachers in junior high school used to say that the hallmark of Western culture was the idea that every human life is sacred. I think she was right, but whether or not she was right, no one can dispute that this idea is now held in contempt by the educated elite of our society.

There is indeed something close to a lust for the destruction of the old Western idea. It’s of a piece with the lust to destroy what remains of Christian culture altogether. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic, but I don’t think so. I don’t know what else to make of developments such as the state of California, a state acknowledged to be in fiscal crisis, pouring millions of dollars into embryonic stem-cell research which is, from what I’ve read, a questionable scientific enterprise.

One engine of this drive to foster contempt for the idea that human life is unique and sacred is the desperate need clearly felt by many people to keep abortion available. Any effort to devalue embryonic life assists that effort. And does anyone really believe that the fundamental motivator of the drive for unrestricted abortion is not the drive for the end of all constraints on sexual activity? The abortion culture wishes to make uncontroversial that statement I quoted from the IVF FAQ: that a perfectly good answer to the question of what to do with the unwanted lives that are sometimes the by-products of sexual activity is “simply dispose of them.”

I don’t think I knew enough to give my co-worker a very good answer, all those years ago, about in-vitro fertilization. I hope she eventually figured it out for herself, perhaps when she apprehended for the first time that a new person had come into existence in her womb.

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2005

The Storms that Herald the End?

The subject of the end times came up at dinner the other night, apropos of the recent hurricanes: it seems that one of my daughter’s teachers suggested that they might be a sign of the end. I doubt that, myself. For one thing, hurricanes of this strength are far from unheard of, although it’s true that these have been unusually close together in time, were unusually strong at least while they were still well out at sea, and have struck in unusually close proximity to each other. Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, and Rita were all very strong storms, and they all struck a section of coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border on the west to the Alabama-Florida border on the east, a span of roughly four hundred miles, perhaps an eighth (I’m looking at a map and guessing) of the coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I think those of us who live in that area can be forgiven for wondering if there is some design at work here. Still, if the events have been unusual, they can’t be said to have been so improbable as to be anomalous, and the fact is that more and more severe hurricanes struck the United States in the decade of the 1940s.

There’s a simple reason why Americans are engaging in apocalyptic speculation: these hurricanes have affected us dramatically. I don’t remember hearing any of us talk this way in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch, a late-season (October 29) monster, struck Nicaragua and killed some 11,000 people.

I’m a resolute agnostic as regards the end of the world, and in fact tend to believe that the more widespread the belief that it is near, the less likely it is to be so. Sooner or later, of course, someone is going to be right in predicting it, but every age has provided ample reason for those living in it to believe that wickedness is so widespread that it meets the criteria of prophecy, that the end must be soon or else the world will be utterly given over to evil, and so I neither make nor believe any very specific predictions.

There is, however, one thing that gives me pause. The old familiar wickedness of the human race we know very well: the wars, the tortures, the oppression, the lust and the lying. C. S. Lewis once speculated that the quantity of good and evil in the world remains more or less constant, but gets distributed differently in every age: so (for example) our age is horrified by the brutality and cruelty of punishments once handed out for very minor crimes, but has positively encouraged people to abandon on a whim marriage vows made before God, and to throw over the whole concept of sexual morality. Perhaps it all adds up to equal measures of virtue and vice.

But we have invented a new crime. We propose to meddle with the very substance of human life. We propose to destroy human embryos in order to improve our own health. We propose to tinker with the genes of the newly conceived so that when they grow up they will look like we want them to look and behave as we want them to behave. We propose to grow duplicates of living people in a laboratory for purposes of our own.

Once, back in the 1970s when I was more or less testing the waters of Christianity after a long absence, I had a conversation with an Episcopal priest known for his “liberal” views. I had the feeling that he was trying to impress me, under the mistaken impression that I was looking for a modernized and contemporary religion, long on secular enlightenment and short on revelations and commandments. I only remember one specific thing from the conversation; as best I remember, he said something like this: “We (the Episcopal Church) don’t hold the sort of only-God-can-make-a-tree position that the Roman Catholics do. We would see nothing wrong, for instance, in genetically engineering people with gills so that we could mine the bottom of the sea.”

I was dumbstruck and horrified by this, not yet being aware of the apostasy happening within every Christian community at the time. Ten years or so later I related the conversation to a great-aunt of mine, who as far as I know had no religion and was in her late 80s at the time. She considered what I had said for a moment, then replied simply “Well, I suppose people will always want to have slaves.” She saw plainly what the Christian bien-pensant could not.

Perhaps our experiments with cloning and genetic engineering and all the rest of it will prove to be unfeasible. Perhaps they are just slavery under a new name, and perhaps God will let us get away with it, as he has let us, individually and collectively, get away with so much. But it seems to me that they have the potential to distort beyond recognition the elementals of human life: the bond between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, one generation and the next. And I find myself hoping, if not expecting, that God himself will put an end to these obscenities, since it seems unlikely that we will voluntarily turn aside from this path, those of us who oppose it being, apparently, in the minority.

Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2005

Is There Such a Thing as Price-gouging?

As usual when there’s a hurricane, the topic of price-gouging has come up, and, also as usual, I’ve come across a few columns by libertarian free-market purists saying, in essence, that there’s no such thing, and that what we may call price-gouging is just the natural operation of supply and demand. The latter part of that sentence may well be true; if it is, it is a confirmation of the fact that the law of supply and demand is not sufficient as an ethical guide.

I’m very much a proponent of economic liberty and believe that, speaking broadly, we’re better off if prices are set by market forces rather than legal mandate. But I emphasize the speaking broadly part. There are certainly situations in which prices can be set unreasonably and unethically high. To the libertarians who would argue that no price is unreasonable if buyer and seller agree on it, I would say that your definition of reasonable is unreasonable.

Let me tell you about two businessmen and our recent spate of hurricanes. Both these men are in the home construction and remodeling business. One of them is the husband of a co-worker of mine; let’s call him Barry. The other is known to me only via the story I’m about to tell; let’s call him Harry.

Barry, like a lot of people in his line of work, finds, in the days before a hurricane, that his services are in great demand for boarding up windows. Before Hurricane Dennis, I was one of those who asked to be put on his list; we’ve never been consistent about boarding, had never kept the supplies on hand, and decided it was time to do it right. Barry had all the work he could handle, and in fact had to turn people away. He made money off the hurricane, money which I do not begrudge him in the least. He left his prices at their usual reasonable level, and took people more or less on a first-come-first-served basis, with perhaps some exceptions here and there for people whom he saw as having a stronger claim than others, such as several elderly widows who have come to rely on him. If he made more money than he might have in a normal week, he certainly earned it.

In fact, Barry embodied in that week the virtues that would give all businessmen a better name if they were more widely practiced. He worked himself to exhaustion, trying to service as many people as he possibly could, and made no attempt to jack up his prices to exploit the situation.

One reason I’ve never boarded up my house is that I didn’t know how to do it easily and effectively. It’s a brick veneer house, with the windows set back several inches into the brick. I wasn’t sure how to do it without a lot of drilling into brick and other things which seemed a little too much for my limited knowledge and skill. But some clever soul invented Plylox, and if he’s gotten rich off his invention I’m happy for him. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem consisting of spring steel clips which lock a sheet of plywood into place, making it pretty simple to put up and take down your plywood once you’ve cut it to the right sizes. Barry planned to use these on my house, but they were in short supply. Calling around the area, he located a store which still had some, and, since it was close to where his wife and I work, he sent her—let’s call her Ann—to buy them.

It was there that Ann encountered Harry, who got there just before she did and scooped up all the Plylox still in stock. They were selling for somewhere around fifteen dollars for a bag of eight or ten clips. He made the mistake of bragging that he intended to charge his customers thirty dollars a bag for them. A bit of an argument ensued. In the end, I think partly by appealing to the store manager, Ann was able to get a reasonable share of the Plylox.

It might be said that Harry was merely being a rational economic actor. Well, maybe, but he was also being a jerk, and what he was doing was wrong. No amount of abstract economic theory can convince me that it’s right to snatch the entire supply of a scarce commodity for the sole purpose of extracting an unusually high price from people who really need it. And any theory which leads to the conclusion that it is right has got some problems, most likely with some of its fundamental axioms.

Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2005

A Few More Hurricane Notes

I haven’t felt much like writing since the hurricane, and still don’t. I don’t, in fact, feel like doing very much of anything. I realized a couple of nights before the storm, as we made merry in a restaurant after a high-school football game, that the discomforts I kept feeling were the early symptoms of a cold. That was over two weeks ago, and I haven’t felt entirely well since. And there’s been quite a lot of work to do, along with a vague uneasiness that seems to be some sort of effect of the disaster.

So here, in lieu of anything requiring that I think very hard, are some additions to the hurricane story:

First, regarding the question of global warming and its role in this year’s epidemic of hurricanes: this chart from NOAA seems to put that question pretty well to rest for the time being, at least as far as this country is concerned. There is no correlation between whatever warming has occurred since the 1850s and either the number or severity of hurricanes striking the U.S. The possibility remains, of course, that the U.S. is not representative of the entire planet.

This piece by Quin Hilyer strikes me as a pretty sound appraisal of the events surrounding the storm. Hilyer is an editorial writer at our local newspaper, the Mobile Register. He grew up in New Orleans and knows (or knew) the Mississippi coast well. He gets at the agony of knowing that a place one loved is, for all practical and near-term purposes, gone. He’s also seriously ticked off at everybody who had anything at all to do with the government’s response in New Orleans.

If this is not too paradoxical a thing to say, I’m not sure that all the anger is reasonable, although it’s certainly understandable. That is, I’m not sure exactly how much culpability to assign, and to whom. It can’t be denied that the failure of the levees was a possibility that could have been foreseen and prevented, and it certainly appears that the response, after the storm, was bungled in many ways. But I would like to see a serious and reasonably dispassionate investigation into both problems.

Regarding the first of them, let’s note that the widely-cited Times-Picayune story about the potential damage a big hurricane could do to New Orleans discussed the levees mainly with regard to the possibility of their overflowing, not breaking., which seems to be a reasonably even-handed source, confirms that yes, it’s true that the Bush administration cut funding for levee work, but that the failure of the levees was not considered a high probability. As a co-worker said when we were discussing this the other day, nobody builds for the absolute worst-case scenario. That’s why your car can move at speeds far greater than any at which it could protect you from the effects of a head-on collision.

Regarding the second, well, there seems to be hardly any doubt that some egregious errors were made, but I’m waiting for a balanced appraisal before I pass judgment on the entire effort. In sheer scale, if not in loss of life (at the moment reports on this count are encouraging), this is one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. But it’s also been one of the largest rescue efforts, with an enormous number of relatively happy endings (I mean, how happy can the ending be if it involves losing everything you own?). This editorial provides a needed reality check. I don’t think we should be surprised that things did not go smoothly, but I also don’t think we should leave it at that. There are worse things that could happen, and, wherever the blame may lie, we need to be better prepared to deal with them.

I’m afraid that the political climate is going to prevent an honest appraisal of what went wrong. My most intense disdain right now is for those who have leapt upon the crisis to exploit it for immediate partisan advantage. In that war, truth is not just a casualty but a primary target.

Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2005

Uneasy in the Aftermath


The photograph above was taken last year as Hurricane Ivan bore down on the Alabama-Florida Gulf coast. The restaurant survived Ivan with light damage. When I drove by it on my way home the day before Hurricane Katrina, it looked very much as it does in this picture, except that the writing on the plywood used to board it up said “Pray for New Orleans.” When I drove by it two days after Katrina, nothing remained of its first floor except the pilings that still support the upper floor, which looks salvageable.

Everybody knows what happened to New Orleans, and I don’t have any intention of speculating on what role prayer played or didn’t play in it, or for that matter what role God played. It seems to me that the only reasonable answer to the question of Why? in these situations is We don’t know. I said this at slightly greater length last summer, in this journal entry, and that may be as much as I will ever have to say on the subject.

We got off pretty lightly here on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. No lives were lost, and serious property loss was limited to homes directly on the waterfront. I got a good scare but only light damage.

We decided to stay in town for this storm. We have two children at home these days, and my wife’s brother, who’s diabetic and spends most of his time in a wheelchair, lives across town. My wife and son went to sit out the storm with him, while my seventeen-year-old daughter and I stayed at home. Around 11am or so it looked like the wind might be about as bad as it would get, and it didn’t seem too bad, so we figured we were all right as long as a tree didn’t fall on the house. Then I looked out from the glassed-in porch on the northwest corner of the house and saw water lapping into the backyard. For the next hour or so it continued to rise until it was lapping against the house. We have a little sailboat which was soon tossing around in a light chop in the back yard, so we had to wade out and secure it. Part of the picket fence floated up out of the ground, concrete footings and all.

To hear little waves slapping against your house when you live a hundred yards from the water is a disturbing sound. I’m glad the storm arrived during the day; to have these storms come at you in the dark, when you can’t really see how bad they are—where the water is, how much the trees are swaying—is far more frightening. But the water came right up to the house and then receded. Aside from the carpet of debris, the broken fence was, in the end, the only real damage.

Our lives were not in danger, because our house is at the bottom of a thirty-foot-bluff, and if the water had kept coming we would simply have walked up the hill. But it was clear that if we got a direct hit from a storm like Katrina we would most likely lose the house. To contemplate that, and its aftermath, is enough to give me some sense of what the people from here to New Orleans must be feeling. By American standards my home and possessions are pretty modest, but they are part of me, and I don’t want to let them go, especially family memorabilia and other things that have sentimental value. My wife and I have begun to expand our disaster preparation plans to include packing the family scrapbooks early in hurricane season and leaving them that way for the duration.

I’ve lived in this area for fifteen years now. I’ve always been too busy to explore the coast to the west of us, which is rich in history and atmosphere, but expected to have the leisure to do it one day. On the occasional trip to New Orleans, usually to pick up or drop off someone at the airport, I’ve noticed the sign pointing to Jefferson Davis’ home and marked it in my mind as one of the places I’d visit when the time came. Now it’s gone, although it had been there a hundred and fifty years and had weathered storms like Camille in 1969. (“This storm can’t be worse than Camille,” many people thought. But it was.) The whole coast from Bayou La Batre in Alabama to New Orleans is, in its human structure and history, gone. Whatever is built there now will not be the same—and indeed the Mississippi coast had already lost a lot of its charm to casinos.

I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me a that a sense of melancholy and unease hangs over even the areas that were not badly affected by Katrina. It comes partly from knowledge of the terrible misery, loss, and disruption to the west of us, and partly from the knowledge that it could be us next time. With near misses from three major hurricanes in less than a year, and most of September, which is generally the most active period, still to go, there’s an anxiety in the air, a sense that it would be unwise to let one’s guard down, worsened by the unnerving speed with which this storm went unexpectedly from relatively mild to one of the most intense on record—as Erik Larson puts it in Isaac’s Storm, the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, “it exploded forth like something escaping from a cage.” God keep all other such creatures locked up and far away.

This is the Oyster House after Katrina:


Sunday Night Journal — August 28, 2005

Not So Calm Before the Storm

Yet again, only six weeks after Hurricane Dennis, we are preparing for a hurricane. Although Hurricane Katrina is as of right now (10pm Sunday night) heading for New Orleans, a lot can happen in the next twelve hours or so. And besides, this storm is so large and intense that even if it doesn’t change course we’ll still get a hurricane.

We completed most of our preparations much earlier in the day, and now although there is nothing much that I can do I find it hard to focus on anything. I had intended to write tonight about a movie that I saw for the third or fourth time Friday night: The Day the Earth Stood Still. But that will have to wait till next Sunday, or some other time.

I find this foreboding idleness very hard to bear. I figured out many years ago that I have a very low tolerance for novels or plays or movies in which the characters brood and fret and talk inactively and unproductively. I think I remember an essay in which Matthew Arnold declares this a fatal fault in drama, and I agree with him. I understand perfectly well that beneath a superficial calm profound inner dramas may occur, psychological or spiritual crises may arise and be resolved. But it had better be done with genius, as by Ingmar Bergman. If not, bring on the car chases.

Sunday Night Journal — August 21, 2005

How Guns ‘n’ Roses Came to My House

Continuing from last week’s journal the train of thought about the difficulty of keeping the entertainment industry at arm’s length, an anecdote:

Although I have a fairly big collection of pop LPs (I didn’t start buying CDs regularly until ten years or so ago), I rarely listened to them when our children were young. This was partly because I didn’t want them to grow up on that diet, and partly a practical consideration: when I listen to music, I like to listen, and it’s hard to do that in a houseful of children. When I did play rock music around the house, it was fairly benign: tuneful and tasteful music from the mid-‘60s and such.

For several years when our two oldest children were around ten or twelve years old, we listened regularly to Shickele Mix. If you’re not familiar with this radio program, it’s an entertaining musical miscellany hosted by Peter Schickele, the musico-comical mastermind behind the works of P.D.Q. Bach. A typical episode takes a particular musical technique and looks at the way it’s used in all sorts of music, including various folk and popular forms. It’s a lot of fun and you can learn a good bit about music from it, even if you disagree with Schickele’s dogma that “all musics are created equal.”

Frequently it was not convenient to listen to the program when it was broadcast; also, in many cases programs were worth listening to more than once. So I often taped it. One broadcast which consisted mainly of baroque arrangements of Beatles songs also included a string quartet transcription of a Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle.” Most people who were anywhere near a radio in the late ‘80s will have heard this song, but if you haven’t suffice to say that it’s very abrasive hard rock. And the original song was included, by way of comparison, along with the string quartet version.

One of my sons, who was probably about eleven at the time, fastened onto the song with dismaying alacrity and intensity, listening to it often until I over-wrote the tape with the following week’s Shickele Mix. It was striking to see how powerfully it took hold of him.

The point of this story? There isn’t much of one, really: simply to note how easily the less desirable elements of pop culture can slip, uninvited, into a home where a reasonable effort to suppress it is being made. I don’t want to say “you can’t be too careful,” because in a sense you can: I do believe that some, or perhaps many, Christians, go too far and become overly fearful and paranoid. And obviously listening to one song a few times is not going to undo anyone. But it is very hard to escape pop culture entirely, and as it’s the steady diet that matters most, not the occasional snack, I return to my point last week about the importance of the surrounding community: it surely makes a difference whether the likes of “Welcome to the Jungle” are to be heard regularly in the homes of your friends, neighbors, and family.

Sunday Night Journal — August 14, 2005

Advice to Parents(?!)

Now that all but one of our children have left home, and the last is about to begin her senior year of high school, I’ve attained the de facto status of old-timer at the Catholic child-rearing game. That, and my association with the counter-cultural Caelum et Terra, cause me to get the occasional request for advice from Catholic parents who are not as far along in the journey.

My first reaction to this request is that I have no advice to offer. And then, of course, I give a little anyway, against my better judgment, which instructs me to say no more than “anything can happen.” I can’t say that I myself have succeeded as a Catholic father, and I’ve seen all kinds of children from all sorts of families go in all sorts of directions. Children are not mechanisms, and there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will produce the right results, even when it’s clear what the right thing is, and much of the time that’s far from clear.

The one thing I’d say without qualification—the one piece of advice that I usually give in spite of my disclaimers—is that the nearer you can come to living within a Catholic culture, the better off you’re likely to be.

Obviously to find a genuinely or at least seriously Catholic milieu of any size at all is not easy nowadays. Less obvious is that you may not actually have achieved it even when you think you have, because even among pretty zealous Catholics—yes, even among Catholic home-schoolers, who are obviously among the most determined to do the right thing educationally—there can be a surprising amount of disagreement about how to manage a problem like that presented by the entertainment industry.

There are three basic approaches to dealing with something like television which is not intrinsically wrong but which is questionable or unhealthy, depending on what and how much: prohibition, moderation, and license. A surprising number of fairly serious and traditionalist Catholic parents practice the last of these with television, at least in respect to quantity: that is, they may strictly limit what may be watched, but not how much. I’ve always thought this a bad idea, not for specifically religious or moral reasons but in relation to basic mental soundness. This was never an option for us (although I must say we’re a lot slacker with our youngest than we were with the older ones—an old story for parents in general).

Prohibition, on the other hand, may backfire and produce a reaction in the other direction, unless the family is part of a community where pretty much everyone does the same thing. When I think of this, I always remember a family in our home-schooling group who were extremely strict about diet: they were vegetarians and moreover what I think of as health-food puritans, allowing no food in the house that wasn’t positively and certifiably good for them. When the group got together and less restrictive families brought bags of potato chips and the like, the children of this family descended like locusts on the junk food. (That was eight or ten years ago, and the family moved away, so I don’t know how the children behaved when they became old enough to make this decision for themselves.)

My wife and I were of the moderate party (see this Caelum et Terra article), but moderation may seem to the children just a sort of prohibition lite, unless, again, all or at least most of the families with whom they might spend time agree with you about what is permissible. In the absence of this, the children are more likely both to resent their restriction and to have an opportunity to escape it, and you may find yourself with a choice between isolating them and knowing that at the homes of friends and relatives they’re watching things you don’t want them to.

This community of parents probably needs to be fairly large to work very reliably. A small group of like-minded families may not suffice to give the children sufficient scope and opportunity for making friends. We never had a very large group, and as all the children got older and their personalities more distinct, children who had played happily together as eight-year-olds found that at fourteen or fifteen they no longer had much in common. Or a child would develop a serious interest which no one else in the group shared and which could only be pursued outside the very small Catholic milieu. (To be honest, this was a problem for the adults, too: despite our shared interest in Catholic home-schooling, very few real and continuing friendships developed.)

Sometimes I think that in the end none of these considerations are as important as heredity, and I’m sure that they’re no more important. The more you watch children grow up (yours and others’), the more you see in each of them an irreducible essence which will find a way to manifest itself. And we parents do well to remind ourselves that in the end we do not have the power to save anyone else, not even our children. We can certainly help or hinder, make the road straighter and shorter or crooked and longer, but ultimately the choice for salvation is made by each soul alone.