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Accents of the British Isles

(Does Ireland count as part of the British Isles? I wouldn't think they'd be very pleased about that.)

I saw this on Facebook, then went looking for it on YouTube so that I could post it here. I was surprised to see that there are a number of videos of the same basic type. There's a lot to work with, I guess; it always surprises me a little that there are so many and such different accents in such a relatively small geographical area, though it really shouldn't. I suppose the actually atypical thing is that they all speak English, which is of course a political more than an organic linguistic development. There are different accents within Alabama, which is roughly the same size as England, and they didn't have hundreds of years and geographical concentration in which to develop.

I've developed a strange liking and fascination for the Scottish accents that I hear on some of the British TV shows. In one, the villain was a Scotch (Scottish?) woman, and I kept wanting her to be on screen more just so I could listen to her talk. Katia Kvinge, by the way (whom I had of course never heard of), is "a Scottish BAFTA New Talent Award Nominated comedian, actor and impressionist." Doesn't sound like a Scottish name--I wonder where it came from. Oh wait--from her web site:

Q: Where is Katia Kvinge from?
A: Mum is Norwegian, Dad is American. Born in London, grew up in Oxford and Scotland

Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 


A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 


The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 

"Good morning. It's 8:05 in the cone."

I'm told that a local radio host introduced his show that way yesterday. He's referring to the cone on hurricane tracking maps. As of this morning the cone for Hurricane Zeta is narrow and we are not actually in it, according to NOAA. We're in the blue area. If the storm actually follows that track, it won't be a big deal for us. There'll be a strong south wind which maybe will straighten some of those trees bent over by the north winds of Hurricane Sally.

We are really sick of this. This is the fourth time this year that we've been in the cone. Only Sally really affected us, and that was as close to a direct hit as we've had since I moved here in 1992. Thousands of trees were knocked down, and a good number of those fell on power lines. We've never had such an extended power outage--six days, I think. But it could have been a lot worse, as it was only a middling sort of storm as hurricanes go. 

Here's the view looking up the street from in front of my house the morning after Sally.

MyStreeAfterHurricaneSallyAt the middle of that pile is a pine tree about 18 inches in diameter. I'd guess that pines accounted for at least 3/4 of the downed trees. Streets and roads are still lined with piles of debris. I saw an estimate that there's something on the order of a million tons of it. My yard still looks like one of those morning-after battlefield pictures. 

Sunday Night Journal, October 14, 2018

A few years ago I picked up two of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s spy novels from a giveaway table at the library. I've never been a big fan of Buckley's writing as such, but I like the genre, and was curious as to how Buckley handled it. Recently, having begun to look at the overflowing bookshelves in this house with an eye toward culling the stock, I put these two in "read it or get rid of it" status. I picked one of them, The Story of Henri Tod, to sample.

Henri Toddweiss and his beloved sister Clementa are the children of a wealthy German Jewish family. They are in their teens when the Nazi nightmare takes hold. When the Gestapo come for their parents the children are spirited away to live with and be protected by a farm family. (The background of this arrangement is not made clear but I think the family had no previous connection with them, but rather are members of a resistance group.) When he approaches draft age Henri is sent to school in England, and he and Clementa are separated for the first time in their lives, swearing that they will be re-united.

Before that can happen the Nazis learn that Clementa is Jewish. I will leave out the details of how this comes about because they are extremely important to the story. The couple who have been protecting them are shot on the spot, and Clementa is sent to Auschwitz. 

The above events are seen in retrospect; the novel takes place in 1961. In Berlin. In August. If you are a better student of history than I am, you will see that it probably involves the erection of the Berlin Wall, and you will be right. Henri Toddweiss is now Henri Tod--"Tod" means "death" in German. He is the head of an underground organization known simply as the Bruderschaft, the Brotherhood, fighting the Communists. Why is he fighting the erstwhile enemies of Nazism? He believes that

What Nazism and Communism had in common was that both systems sanctioned the killing and torturing of innocent people, and if one saw that, all else that was sayable about the nice ideological differences of the two systems was, well, trivial.

Which I pretty much agree with.

Berlin is full of uneasiness about what the Russians may do to get control of their problem, which consists mainly of the fact that people are leaving East Berlin for the West in droves. Buckley's spy protagonist, Blackford Oakes, enters this situation as an agent charged with figuring out what the Russians may actually do, so that the American government and its allies can decide what they will do in response. Oakes is put in touch with Tod. 

What happens from here also involves a resourceful young man who happens to be the nephew and secretary of Walter Ulbricht, the East German ruler, his girlfriend, and Hitler's private railroad car, which has been sitting unnoticed in a garage with hundreds of other similar ones. It also involves Clementa; here again I'll say no more, for fear of spoiling the story. And it involves John F. Kennedy, not just off-stage in his role as the American president but in chapters which give us Buckley's notions of what Kennedy might have been thinking. 

It's a heartbreaking story, but I don't think Buckley quite does it justice. He is competent, but not brilliant. His approach could be described as understated, but it could also be described as flat. Or, if that's not really fair, let's just say it's lighter than the story calls for. Still, I'm haunted by certain aspects of it. In John Le Carre's hands this basic story would have been devastating, perhaps one of the best of his novels--and I say that as one who thinks Le Carre one of the better novelists working in our time. 

I might add that the Americans don't come off very well in this. That's not surprising, I guess, given Buckley's strong anti-communism. I surmise from the story that he thought we should have made an effort to stop the closing of East Berlin. There's an amusing moment in the book where Oakes reads (and agrees with) an article on the subject--by William F. Buckley writing in National Review. I'd be surprised if that article isn't real. 

And I'll note in passing that the book contains a really cringe-making sex scene. It involves Oakes and a woman he meets on a train. The incident adds nothing to the book except to give Oakes a bit of James-Bond-ish glamour by making him irresistible to women. It needn't have been there at all, and it needn't have been described. It's not explicit, it's just...I'm having trouble thinking of a word to describe it, and the only one that comes to mind is "corny," in a romance-novel sort of way, male version. I don't think "corny" is used very much now. "Cheesy" is a more recent similar usage. 

I do plan to read the other Buckley novel I have, High Jinx. I doubt that I'll keep them, though. 


Actually I lean toward the view that it's almost impossible to write effectively in any detail at all about sex. It usually just seems a little silly and somehow embarrassing, unless it's actually meant to be pornography, and in that case the effectiveness is a bad thing. I can't think offhand of any such effort that I thought worked well. Best to just close the bedroom door, making sure, if you think it necessary, that the reader knows it's happening, then leave it behind that door. 


I mentioned the term "resistance" above in reference to resistance against the Nazis. It strikes me as ridiculous and a little disgusting that those who object vehemently to Donald Trump and all his works have described themselves as "The Resistance," as if marching, screaming at politicians, and griping on the Internet, all with complete impunity, were in any way comparable to risking torture and death. 


I live on the Gulf Coast, 150 miles or so from where Hurricane Michael hit, but I can't tell you anything more about it than you can learn from the news. You probably know it was possibly the most devastating storm ever to hit the Florida panhandle. All we had here was a somewhat windy and cloudy day, not even any rain. I don't think I'd have known that a hurricane was anywhere near, though perhaps someone more weather-wise would have been suspicious of the wind and the rapid and steady movement of the high clouds. Hurricanes of course are a fact of life here. You just have to live with the risk, and sometimes your area is the one that's hit. This one was particularly disturbing, though, because we usually don't get bad ones past the end of September, and it strengthened so much so quickly. When it first developed in the Caribbean and seemed likely to come this way, everybody thought "Oh, even if it does hit here, it won't be that big a deal." And then just a couple of days later it was looking bad, then worse.

I have no big conclusion to draw from this, just a sense of awe. And, I admit, relief that it didn't come here. I always feel a little guilty about that. 


When your mailbox comes loose from the post and you don't have time to fix it, you improvise.


Sunday Night Journal, December 10, 2017

Somehow or other I've become Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who know a lot of theology. Some are professional theologians (i.e. they are theology professors) or just have studied it extensively. Several of them seem to be very excited about René Girard. I'd never read anything by him and really only vaguely recalled having heard of him, so I decided to read one of his books. I chose I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I think on the recommendation of one of those Facebook people. 

I finished it a few days ago and...well, I'm not sure what I think, though I can certainly say it was interesting. One of the blurbs is from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who advises the reader to "prepare to be changed" by this book. My reaction to  that was, approximately, Yeah right. But having read the book, I could almost say the same thing. Only almost--I'm not exactly a disciple, but I think the book is going to stick with me, and Girard does show us a way of looking at things unlike anything else I've ever encountered in the theological line. That of course isn't saying a whole lot, as I haven't read very much theology, but a number of people who have seem to think it's true. 

There's an overview of his life and thought in his Wikipedia entry. Sometimes those are questionable, of course, but having read this book I'll vouch for the accuracy of this description:

Girard's fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Girard's thought seems to have puzzled some readers, not only in the sense of being puzzled by his ideas but of being puzzled as to what exactly those ideas are. For that reason, I assume, the translator of this book (originally published in French)  provides a foreword in which he these ideas explicitly in a numbered list (1-10). (Not a "forward" (!) as I see more and more often in discussions of books.)

That first idea, that all our desires are borrowed from other people--we want what others want, and learn those wants from  models, beginning with our parents--seems so obviously wrong, so obviously at best a partial truth, that I keep thinking I misunderstand it. All these very intelligent, very knowledgeable people who esteem Girard so highly seem to understand and accept it; if I don't, it must be my error. Or at least there's a good chance that it's my error. Note that these are all people whom I have reason to respect intellectually; that is, it's not just their academic credentials that I respect, as those lost their association with good sense in my mind a long, long time ago.

Obviously this mimetic desire operates in some cases: we only want the blue ribbon in a contest because we want the prestige it symbolizes, and we absorb the whole idea of prestige, and attach value to it, by the influence and example of others. We learn manners and to a great extent virtues and vices from others, and rivalries involving them can easily arise. But surely there are many desires that are not mimetic, and Girard does not seem to limit his claim very much. The translator seems to say that Gerard asserts this for all desires except the instinctive, but he doesn't go into much detail. So perhaps the range of desires which he counts as instinctive is much greater than I think. 

Take the desire of a child for ice cream, for instance. Most of us learn this desire the moment we taste the marvelous substance. No one has to tell us that it's something we should like. We don't have to observe our parents enjoying it in order to desire it for ourselves. I could multiply instances of this sort a great length, and so could you. Men don't desire beautiful women primarily because other men do, but because they are beautiful, and a man's immediate spontaneous reaction to the sight of them is to desire them. That desire begins with instinct, certainly, but goes well beyond it. 

And "mimetic rivalry"? Yes, certainly, rivalry for a desired woman (to continue the last example) can certainly produce conflict, and envy and prestige play a part in increasing the conflict. But they aren't its root. I would think that in a great many cases, including both my examples, scarcity is at least as much a contributor to conflict as rivalry. Ice cream usually has to be shared, and every bite that my siblings eat is one that I don't get. Not all women are beautiful, and any one beautiful woman is desired by more than one man; they can't all have her. Or consider the desire for wealth: it is in part a means toward the satisfaction of desires that are thwarted more by scarcity than by rivalry as such. 

So before I'd read a single word of Girard himself, I seemed to disagree with him. I'm going to stick with "seemed" there because I'm still allowing for the possibility that I'm misunderstanding. Like I said, the objections seem to me so obvious that they must not apply to what Girard actually means. Perhaps the examples of desire I've given are ones which he would count as instinctive, and therefore outside his sweeping assertion. If so, it would help if he made that clear. And perhaps he does in other books. (And if any Girardians read this and can straighten me out, please do so.)

Why, then, do I say that Neuhaus's prediction of the book's effect might be true for me? Why did I proceed from skepticism to excitement about the book? Because, having mentally registered my objection to at least part of Girard's premise, having placed some limits on its applicable scope, I found that it does shed a great deal of useful light on the relationship of Judeo-Christian religion to human culture. The "Judeo" part of that is not a formality, as Girard very explicitly includes both the Old and New testaments in his analysis. Let me see if I can briefly sum up this relationship:

Human culture, Girard believes, is produced by the efforts of a community to mitigate the effect of intra-group violence caused by mimetic rivalry. Conflict intensifies and if not somehow resolved and dissipated will destroy the community. The mechanism for doing this is the scapegoat: the community unites in blaming one person, kills him or her, and is restored, at least for a time. The cycle repeats itself. The release of collective violence against a single victim makes the continuation of a culture possible, i.e. prevents its self-destruction. Often the victim is, after the fact, accorded a god or god-like status by the (unconscious?) conviction of the community that the sacrifice of the victim is the direct cause of the restoration. 

In order for this mechanism to work, the community has to believe, at the time of the killing, that the victim is in fact guilty and deserves to die. The victim must truly be, in the eyes of the group, responsible for the trouble which it is experiencing. This conviction is the work of Satan, who was also responsible for the trouble in the first place. By the victim/scapegoat mechanism, Satan casts out Satan. But the casting-out is temporary. It is based on a lie about the victim, and the violence of mimetic rivalry sooner or later returns. 

What Judeo-Christian religion does--uniquely, according to Girard--is to unmask this cycle, to reveal the actual innocence of the victim, and thus to expose the Satanic power of the scapegoating mechanism. And to expose it is to end its power.

Girard elaborates all this in some detail, though perhaps still not enough, which may cause me to read more of his work. Is he really accurate, for instance, when he grounds all of non-Judeo-Christian mythology in the single-victim process? I'm not knowledgeable enough either to agree or disagree with this.

Through most of the book I tended to applaud Girard's passing observations more than his principal thesis. It is in the latter part that he really makes his mark on me. He winds up his story with an explication of the place of the victim in contemporary secular culture, and it was there that I most often found myself getting excited, saying Yes!, and marking passages. I just counted and I've placed thirteen book darts (what?) in this book. That's a good many for a relatively short book (193 pages).  One of them marks the entirety of Chapter 13, "The Modern Concern for Victims." Here he makes the case that such a concern is almost unheard of in pre-Christian cultures (I think in fact he would remove the "almost.") 

This is, as usual, going on a bit too long for a blog post. I'm skimming Chapter 13 in search of a quote that will serve as an example of Girard's insight. It's hard to isolate one bit, but I'll make do with this:

There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.

To some extent this is a variation on the oft-made point that our society is living on the moral capital of Christianity. Girard seems to be a little hopeful that universal concern for victims is a sign that Christianity is still very much alive and well. But he also wonders (I think) how this will play out when separated from its foundation. At any rate I wonder that. Right now I'd say that the signs are not encouraging, that the secularized community of concern for victims is now characterized by mimetic rivalry in victimhood, is tearing at itself, is therefore in search of a scapegoat, and is looking toward Christianity as a candidate for that role. 

It's probably inaccurate to classify this book as theology. It's more a species of anthropology--religious anthropology, maybe. Whatever it is, it's worth reading. If the list of things I really, really want to read were not so long I think I'd immediately re-read it.


This afternoon I went Christmas shopping with my wife at the local Barnes and Noble store. I had not been in one of those for a long time, some years at least. Browsing the shelves there made me actively question the notion that reading is in itself a good thing. What a lot of drivel, some harmless and some not at all harmless, is on display there. You would be better occupied in staring at a tree then reading most of it. 


It's almost the end of the year. Does anybody want to do 52 Things next year? I think we considered 52 Poems. I would be willing to do that. However: as I've said before in this context, if I say it's going to be 52 Things, I want it really to be 52. It will really bother me to miss a week. I know I can't count on other people delivering something every single week, so I have to be prepared to do it, and I'm finding that to be more of a distraction that I can really afford (my book is not going well at all). It shouldn't be, but I have trouble concentrating under the best conditions. So if we do something this year it will have to be something for which I can do a post without actually writing anything. Poems would work, as I could just copy-paste the poem into a post, or link to it, without necessarily writing any commentary beyond "Here's one I like." 

If we should decide to do poems, I would have some specifications for how they're submitted to me. Nothing too complicated, but formatting poems for the web can be time-consuming, so I'd like to have them in a form where they can just be copied and pasted. Details if we decide to do it. 


This picture was taken a few minutes before 11pm Friday night. I was on my way to Christ the King church in Daphne for my hour of Adoration. Yes, it was taken from the driver's seat of a car in motion. No, I should not have done it. But snow is so very, very rare here that I wanted to capture the image. It was really much thicker than this. I guess a lot of it just wasn't bright enough for the camera to catch.


I've been living in this general area since 1990, and I think this is only the third time that there's been enough snow to leave a visible accumulation, though only for a few hours. This is midnight at Christ the King.


Sunday Night Journal, October 8, 2017

Contrary to my usual practice, I'm writing this on Friday afternoon. Maybe not the post as it will eventually appear, but a start on it, because we are expecting Hurricane Nate to arrive here on Sunday, and who knows whether I'll even have internet access then. I'm not terribly worried, as it isn't expected to be a bad one, just barely over the wind speed that serves as the somewhat arbitrary point where a tropical storm officially becomes a hurricane. Quite possibly it won't even be a hurricane by the time it gets to this latitude. Or it may get stronger, or it may change direction and go somewhere else. There's a peculiar suspense about waiting for a hurricane, especially of course if it's a bad one. 

A few weeks ago, when it looked possible that Hurricane Irma might end up coming this way, my wife noticed a dead tree among the many live ones on the bluff behind our house. I don't know why we had never noticed it before, as it's obviously a danger to the house, even without a hurricane. We agreed to call a tree company "soon" and get it taken down, but we haven't done it. So that's my point of greatest unease about this storm, as that tree looks as if it wouldn't take much to bring it down. I'm going to set myself a reminder on my computer or my phone for June 1, 2018: get ready for hurricane season (which officially runs from June through November). The serious ones generally occur in late August and throughout September. This October one is a little unusual.

It occurs to me that for some days now I've seen no news stories about the situation in Puerto Rico. I'm sure they're there, but they aren't appearing on the headline-aggregating web sites where I most often get my general news. I've seen a number of snarky Facebook posts about Trump's behavior regarding Puerto Rico, but I don't pay any attention to those. And that pretty much goes for the mainstream news, too. As I seem to say here at least every other week, I'm no fan of Trump. But the media have gone so far overboard in their open desire to destroy him that I don't pay much attention to their attacks, either. I figure they're usually based on some kernel of fact, but that the reporting will exaggerate, distort, and select to make Trump look as bad as possible. And unless it's a hugely important question, it's not worth the bother of trying to dig out the truth. In a day or two they'll be baying about something else anyway.

There are millions of people who look at the "mainstream media" that way, or with even more skepticism and hostility. This is a bad situation, for journalism and for the country. Institutions like the Washington Post and New York Times and the major TV networks still do very good work where their political interest isn't invested. But where it is, they simply aren't trustworthy. They want to be regarded as impartial judges, like referees in a football game, but they openly favor one team over the other, and rule accordingly. I'm sure they are sincere in their belief that it is their moral duty to work for progressive policies, but in so doing they have destroyed the respect which should have been their most effective tool. (This piece at National Review is a good treatment of the whole syndrome.)

On the left end of the political spectrum, invective inflation has set in, and I hear more people saying that they just don't have words to express their hatred and disgust for Trump. That's not surprising. They've been calling everyone who disagrees with them a Nazi for 40 years and more now. If Nixon was Hitler, and Reagan was Hitler, and Bush (2) was Hitler, and Trump is vastly worse than all of those, what can you say about him? Maybe a howl of rage is the only thing left.

I just did a quick search for news on Puerto Rico's situation. Most of the stories that turned up were much more about Trump  than about the situation on the island. The media clearly want this to be "Trump's Katrina". So far it isn't. But then "Bush's Katrina" wasn't Bush's Katrina, either. If the same thing had happened in the Clinton or Obama administrations, the disaster wouldn't have been hung around their necks in the same way. 


If you're ever in the path of a hurricane and want to extract the maximum possible anticipatory dread from the waiting, I recommend reading Isaac's Storm, a vivid account of the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas. I think I read it in 2005, not long before Hurricane Katrina, though it could have been the previous year, when we had Hurricane Ivan, which was bad enough. Here's my Sunday Night Journal from September 4, 2005, a few days after Katrina: "Uneasy in the Aftermath". I mention in that post that the water was lapping against the side of my house. This is what it looked like:



When a hurricane is churning up the sea, somewhere below the surface there is still calm. I don't know how far down the turbulence extends, but I have the impression that it isn't so very far. That thought has been on my mind frequently of late, with hurricanes in the news, and a hurricane of sorts raging in the Church. I'm referring mainly to the controversy about Amoris Laetitia, but also the general prevalence of factional conflict.

I was sick at heart when it became clear that such conflict was going to be one of the most immediate and striking characteristic of Francis's papacy. I really had thought that the worst of that was behind us, but obviously I was wrong. I think the level of animosity is actually higher than it was thirty years ago; perhaps the internet has a lot to do with that. Or probably. In this respect it mirrors our political culture.

We could argue all day about who is most to blame for the situation, but no matter what one thinks about that, the situation is there. I decided a while back that I would not participate. Occasionally I do let myself get drawn in, but not very far. For the most part I'm able not only to stay out of the fights but to avoid following them in much detail. I avoid the web sites and the Facebook posts where they are conducted. There is nothing I can do to resolve the debates, and they have nothing immediately to do with my own spiritual life. The moral questions involved are not ones that affect me directly and I have no theological qualifications enabling me to pass judgment on the abstract questions. No one is looking to me for guidance and counsel. I trust that the Holy Spirit will eventually straighten it out, but that won't be in my lifetime. And I'm grateful to God and Pope Benedict for the Ordinariate.

I pray, I go to Mass, I receive communion, now and then I go to confession. I read and think. I'm swimming below the surface now, and I don't feel the effects of the storm above very strongly. The analogy breaks down in one way, though: as you go deeper into the sea, it gets darker, but down here there more light, not less.


If you're thinking "He should treat politics the same way he treats the Church's quarrels," well, so am I. It's harder to get away from that stuff, though. And it does have a more direct influence on my life.


Sunday evening

As you've probably heard, the hurricane ended up being a pretty mild affair. I'm not sure it was even a hurricane when it made landfall sixty or seventy miles west of here. The wind we got wasn't much stronger than a big thunderstorm can muster, though it lasted a lot longer. And we had a lot of rain, six inches or so, though I've seen more in the same amount of time (roughly twenty-four hours) from more or less ordinary storms. There was quite a storm surge in the bay, though, The water came up at least four feet higher than its usual high-tide level, washing a great deal of sand and debris into the woods. A lot of piers were damaged; when the waves start pushing on the cross-pieces from below, they come loose pretty quickly. Much of the debris consisted of boards torn loose from piers and other shoreline structures in just such events. I spent an hour or two this afternoon hauling pieces of lumber, some of them quite large and heavy, from the shore and the woods up to the place where the city will pick them up. I'm grateful that I'm still able to do that kind of work.

This is what I saw around 8 this morning. There's not supposed to be water where I'm standing. The beach should start about where that wave is breaking beyond the trees. 



Sunday Night Journal, May 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Possible. Not probable.


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

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

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


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

--Ezekiel 34:36


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


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

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

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


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

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

Ravages of Climate Change

I found this poor creature, apparently some terribly malformed waterfowl, perhaps an infant, washed up on the beach a few days ago. It couldn't have lived very long, having apparently no internal organs at all. And of course I  immediately thought: Climate change!


I'm not completely inventing this fear, either.

I've always described myself as agnostic on the question, but I lean more and more toward skepticism. I suspect this alarmism is going to be laughed at fifty or a hundred years from now. It's not that I don't believe that there has been a warming trend since 1880; if the people who study such things say that's what the measurements show, they're probably right, though I wonder if we really can attribute that much precision to measurements which purport to tell us temperature across the entire surface of the world. I'm willing to believe that human activity is at least partly responsible for it. 

But we're talking about less than one Celsius degrees, less than one and a half Fahrenheit degrees. The attribution of all manner of calamities to that amount of change is simply implausible on its face, and the manifestly emotional-religious fervor of the climate change activists, as well as the fact that their proposed responses happen to match what they wanted to do anyway, suggests that skepticism is warranted. It's not a good sign that they now respond to doubters by branding them as Very Bad People, possibly cut from the same cloth as Holocaust deniers, which in turn puts one only a step away from being a Nazi.

I wonder, too, if anyone really believes we can fine-tune the global climate in the way that seems implied by the clamor for action. Suppose we took some drastic action, and it lowered the global temperature. What if we didn't get it exactly right, and the temperature dropped by .8C from its apparently optimal 1880 level? Wouldn't that be a crisis, too?

Of Course

I saw this headline on Google News yesterday:

Huge New Holes In Siberia Have Scientists Calling For Urgent Investigation Of The Mysterious Craters

and immediately thought "Someone will blame it on global warming/climate change."

I clicked on it and read the story, at the Huffington Post. Sure enough: 

The leading theory is that the holes were created by gas explosions triggered by underground heat or by rising air temperatures associated with climate change, the Siberian Times reported last December.


The Thaw

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

Winter Storm 2014

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

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


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



The beach is covered with ice, too. 


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

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



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

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

It's even cold here--I mean, not what natives consider cold, but something that people who live in actual cold places might admit is somewhat chilly, if they were out in the wind and not wearing heavy parkas and such.

But don't you love that phrase "polar vortex"?

W.E.B. Du Bois Would Have Loved This

Yes, as I was saying, our racial problems are serious. But this scene is a nice reminder of how much things have improved. It could not have taken place fifty years ago. 

Alan Sealls is a local meteorologist whom I call the prince of weathermen--he's tremendously knowledgeable, and has this infectious enthusiasm for the subject. You can tell he is just utterly fascinated by it, and he makes you feel that way. I rarely see him on TV, but he's one of a rotating series of weather commentators in the local paper, and I always read his pieces, because there's always something interesting in them beyond the forecast.


My front yard, as of about fifteen minutes ago; the haze in the middle is a result of the lens fogging up when brought from the air-conditioned house to the very humid outdoors:


So Isaac, having barely attained hurricane strength, has bypassed us and headed for Louisiana instead. Unless something changes drastically, this will prove to be a fairly mild event, even for those in its path, which seems to be quite a disappointment to the people at the Weather Channel, who give every appearance of cheering for the storm. We haven't even had more than a sprinkle of rain, and a few wind gusts.

And everyone is either laughing at or complaining  about the various officials who called for evacuations, shut down schools, and so forth. The college where I work is closed today and tomorrow, though I won't be surprised if they call the staff back. So I'm getting an unexpected day or two off. It appears a ridiculous panicky over-reaction, but in fairness to those who made the decisions it has to be said that you just never know what these storms will do. And better safe than sorry is usually a good policy. Anyway, I'm not complaining.

Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2012

Waiting for the Hurricane

This will be brief, as I've been busy most of the day making preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to be Hurricane Isaac by the time it makes landfall somewhere along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The tropics have been pretty quiet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005--it's hard to believe that's seven years ago now--and we had gotten complacent. Even if these storms end up being relatively mild, they still produce a lot of anxiety, and it's a lot of trouble to get ready for them. You need to move things like patio furniture inside, or tie them down, so they don't end up coming through your window. Lots of people board their windows, but we're going to skip that this time. I hope we don't regret it. We're pretty protected from the wind here, and I always figure the biggest risk is of a tree falling on the house. Hurricane Katrina did send water up to the house, but fortunately not further, so we didn't get flooded. It would have to be a pretty extreme storm for our house to flood or be damaged by a surge, and at this point Isaac isn't expected to be one of those.

Here are a few hurricane-related posts from that period in 2004-2005 when we had Ivan and Katrina and several smaller storms:  Sunday Night Comes On a Tuesday Morning This Week, about waiting for Ivan. You Can't, In Fact, Always Get What You Want, written while waiting for Dennis, which preceded Katrina by six weeks or so. Then, a few weeks later, Not So Calm Before the Storm, written the night before Katrina. And Uneasy In the Aftermath, after Katrina.

I can't find it now, but I'm pretty sure I had a post at some point about how unprepared we were for one of the storms, and how bad it would have been if the storm had not turned out to be relatively mild, and how we had learned our lesson and would be prepared with food, water, flashlight batteries, etc. etc. for the next one. Well, that didn't last. But at least we no longer have the filing cabinets full of family records and important things like insurance policies in the part of the house that's on the side closer to the bay and four feet lower than the rest.

Truffaut: Day for Night

I watched this last weekend. I don't really know much of Truffaut's work. Jules and Jim was a staple of art film screenings in the 1960s, and I think I may have seen it twice. I liked it. I think I may have seen The 400 Blows back then as well, but can't remember for sure, so obviously it didn't make a lasting impression on me if I did. And I saw Stolen Kisses when it was in theaters in the late '60s--yes, there was a theater in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that showed the occasional artsy or foreign film. I remember liking it a good deal, though I don't remember anything specific from it. I recorded it off Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago and will be watching it sometime soon (if the house doesn't get destroyed by a hurricane). 

Day for Night is apparently considered one of Truffaut's best. It's a movie-about-a-movie, or rather about making a movie, which didn't produce great expectations in me. I've seen 8 1/2 and another Fellini film about movie-making of which I can't remember the name right now. I was unenthusiastic about both. I suppose I'll have to watch 8 1/2 again sometime, since so many critics regard it as a masterpiece, but am in no hurry.

I like Day for Night considerably more than either. It's an engaging and charming work, though it doesn't touch great depths. There's a kind of sweetness about it, a gentle touch: you feel that the director likes his characters, and wants them to be happy. And though they pass through a number of tribulations in the process of making the movie, they come out reasonably well in the end.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie Miller, an American actress recruited for the title role of the film-within-the-film, Meet Pamela. Before she arrives, she's described as fragile, having recently suffered a breakdown of sorts. And "fragile" is just what she seems. I didn't know much about her; beyond recognizing her name I can't remember whether I'd seen her in anything else. I was impressed. Truffaut himself plays the much-harassed director. 

I hate to sound like I'm damning with faint praise, because I really did enjoy it, perhaps the more because I wasn't necessarily expecting to.  But although I can recommend it, I can't muster a really passionate recommendation. I suppose it takes something either very big and serious, or very funny, to get that kind of reaction from me. 





Well, not exactly. But it's strange: much of the country is enduring a crushing heat wave, while down here almost in the tropics we're having a more pleasant than usual summer. So far, anyway--I don't expect it to last. Roughly the northwest quadrant of the country has been having temperatures in the range of 100F/38C or more. But ours have not much topped 90F/32C during the hottest part of the day, and once the sun gets low in the afternoon we drop down to 85/29. It's nice. For us, for this time of year, that's cool and refreshing.

Of course some people are trying to make global warming climate change arguments out of this, but I don't think that has much to do with it, since the non-hysterical voices in that debate seem to be talking about a rise of a degree or two (Celsius) over a number of decades. Anyway, there's no such thing as a normal year.

Update: Monday morning temperature: 73F/23C. Slightly lower than the thermostat setting. Frequently at this time of year the temperature doesn't get much lower than 80/26 even at night.

Sunday Night Journal — May 6, 2012

Images and Sounds

I haven't posted any pictures here (my own pictures, that is) for a while. The reason is partly that I haven't been taking very many, and partly that I haven't sorted through the ones I have taken over the past months. And the reason for both those things is lack of time.

And if you're a very regular and attentive reader of this blog, and also have a very good memory, you might remember that sometime last year I posted a couple of videos (nothing elaborate, just things captured with the video setting on my camera), and that I mentioned that I was also planning to post a video taken during Tropical Storm Ida, which I believe was in 2009.

So I decided this afternoon that instead of writing I would spend some time selecting and beautifying some nice images from my past six months or so of pictures, and also post that tropical storm video. Well, as is often the way with computers, I ran into unexpected technical problems with the video, which I won't bore you with, and then was pretty much out of time. But here are a few pictures, starting with a still from Tropical Storm Ida.


One of those strange spider webs on the ground in the woods, that you only see when the dew is heavy:


One of many pictures I've taken of these dead trees in the bay. They were probably cypresses. I don't expect them to be standing that much longer--the next hurricane will probably knock them down. This was taken last October.


A heron in morning fog, December 31 2011:


And, from the same morning: I don't know why I took this, and it's entirely possible that it was an accident, but I for some reason I really love it:


And also: a couple of years ago my wife gave me for my birthday a little hand-held sound recorder. Sometimes I use it to record little notes to myself, usually about something I'm writing, while I'm on the way to or from work. I've also played around with recording natural sounds with it, and I did that one night a couple of weeks ago when I was taking my nightly walk to the bay with the dogs. There is a little creek that empties out into the bay, and up in that creek a bit there are a lot of reeds or rushes which provide homes for frogs. (It's the mouth of that creek which reflects the trees in the picture above--it moves around and changes shape all the time.) And there are woods all around. For some years now we've had very few lightning bugs--"fireflies" to most of the world, and I think that's a nicer word, but it feels slightly pretentious for me to say it, because I grew up saying "lightning bugs." But this year there have been quite a lot. I was standing about halfway between the bay and the reeds with the recorder going, and the woods beyond the reeds were full of those sweet cool flashes of light from the lightning bugs. You can hear tree frogs, an occasional bigger frog, and insects, but mostly the waves. At some points you can hear the traffic from up on Section Street, several hundred yards away. I'm sorry you can't see the lightning bugs.



The Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

Hmm, sounds a bit like the name of a rock band.... But no: Friday will be the first anniversary of the devastating (to put it mildly) tornadoes that hit northern Alabama last year. An old friend of mine, one of a number of people who came to Tuscaloosa for college in the late 1960s and never left, was in a neighborhood that took a direct hit from the one that destroyed a big part of the city. She lived to tell the tale, and has recently put it online here. It's pretty long, too long for me to read in one stretch, but only the first quarter or so of it deals with the day of the storm itself, while the rest describes the aftermath.

More About the Weather

It is an interesting commentary on the changes produced by the Internet that a letter to the editor in the local newspaper contained a link to this piece in the Telegraph. Fifteen or more years ago it would have been rare for anyone in this area to be aware of the Telegraph's existence, and extremely rare for anyone to read it. Perhaps it was (and is) available in some libraries, but it's safe to say few would have read it without some specific reason for seeking it out.

Anyway: the letter writer suggests, based on the Telegraph piece, that the position of the polar jet stream is a major factor in the generally drier weather we've been experiencing, and that the movement of the jet stream in turn is an effect of...sunspots? I don't know--this would imply that the overall rainfall in the eastern part of the U.S., at least, has been lower than usual, and I don't know if that's true. And of course I don't know how accurate this theory may be; I'm passing this on purely as an item of interest. I hope it's wrong, actually, since it predicts forty more years of drier-than-normal weather.

Weather and climate are such very fascinating topics. I've always thought it would be fun to be a meteorologist. Here's more than I previously knew about the jet stream(s).

Sunday Night Journal — January 15, 2006

Report from the Hurricane Coast

I made an overnight visit to New Orleans this weekend, and it left me wondering whether the city can ever recover fully. What struck me most forcefully there was not the physical damage done by hurricane Katrina, for which I was more or less prepared, but the fact that, as I was told, the current population of the city, four months later, is somewhere in the range of twenty-to-twenty-five percent of its pre-hurricane level. And there seems to be some willingness to accept the possibility that the city may be permanently much smaller than it was before, both in population and in area occupied, with some of the lowest-lying areas being permanently abandoned.

That would leave a sort of museum city with tourism at the center of its economy. And maybe that’s workable, but it won’t be a living city in its own right. Maybe, further, that won’t be a bad solution for a city that has been in decline for a long time. I don’t claim to know New Orleans very well, but I do know that, like many of our older cities, it has been struggling economically, and suffering the same loss of the middle class.

We didn’t do any sightseeing on this visit, and most of our time was spent in the areas that were least affected by the storm, areas that were not flooded at all. We thought it unseemly to go gawking at the damage, but simply driving into the city from the east on I-10 is enough to give one a pretty strong hint of what has happened. This is where Lake Ponchartrain came in, and for miles everything we could see was damaged and abandoned. And I think the abandonment is really the most unnerving thing. What we saw from the interstate was the typical suburb-scape—shopping centers, apartment buildings, fast-food restaurants, vast parking lots. But it was almost all uninhabited, like a scene from one of those last-man-on-earth movies. Here and there we could see a crew of men and machinery, but the only place that seemed to have anything close to a normal level of people and activity was a Home Depot.

According to the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed, most of the really badly flooded areas are still in terrible shape. Those Ninth Ward houses of which we saw so much on TV are still full of a muck which is said to have an appalling and persistent odor. The cleanup continues, slowly, and a good deal of it is being done by college students from all over the country who come for a week or so, their expenses paid by churches in their home towns, and go into the houses with shovels and rubber boots. We were told that these students are presently doing as much as FEMA to help with the cleanup. I think that is not a widely known fact. If you have the opportunity to donate to a church that’s involved with this effort, you can be confident that your money is being put to good use.

On the way back we took a detour south from I-10 to the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi. As you know if you followed the news of Katrina at all, this stretch of the coast took the most brutal impact of the storm. We had some idea of following Highway 90 along the coast, not realizing that it ends abruptly at what used to be the bridge across Bay St. Louis. Turning left/north where the bridge should have been, we went along the water’s edge on a damaged but passable road for a couple of miles. What had been a neighborhood of homes among what had undoubtedly been a lovely stand of live oaks was a wasteland. We could see foundations, a few pilings—even the houses built with floods in mind had been destroyed—and an occasional trailer, one with a Mardi Gras flag flying bravely. The most doleful sight to me was not the traces and debris of houses, but the trees. Even in January, a live oak is normally full and green, but these were stripped not only of leaves but of their smaller branches: a broken, skeletal forest. With money, houses can be built fairly quickly, but many of these trees must be a hundred years old, and if they live it will be decades before they are the huge kindly canopies they were on August 28th, 2005.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the place itself has been destroyed, at least for a generation or two. That is, if you knew these places as they were, if you had grown up in them and loved them still, they are lost to you, just as you might say a beloved relative in the last stages of Alzheimer’s is lost to you, though still physically present.

I don’t have much stomach for trying to discern God’s plan in a disaster like this. It presents a stark choice: you can choose to believe that it is all somehow caught up in his providence, or that it is not. The latter is all too plausible when you stand in the middle of the damage, but I choose the former.

You can get some idea of what it’s like from these photos; the last three are from the area I’ve described. And here is a closeup, at twilight:


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 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.