November 2007 Archives

A Theory of Reading

| | Comments (1)

Those of you who read this blog frequently know that I am neither a very profound or close reader. I don't spend my time thrashing through the text in search of subtexts, symbols, extended metaphors, semiotic signposts, hegelian dialectic, or any number of the other quixotic treasures hunts often engaged in by professional readers of literature.

Nevertheless, you might also note that I don't shy away from books, either great literature or not-so-great bestseller thrillers. LIke Michael Dirda (a hero of sorts) I enjoy all sorts of books for all sorts of reasons, and some of those reasons might help the reader understand what sorts of books. (Why nonfiction makes up such a small portion of my repertoire.)

For a book to interest me if must have compelling examples of one of three things--magisterial and innovative use of the English language to a purpose (even if the purpose is only pyrotechnics--and I don't think "deconstructing our sensibilities" ranks anywhere at all in a theory of purpose. Frankly, I don't need my sensibilities deconstructed, I'm perfectly happy with them as they are), great story, plot, characters, gimmick, or information that is highly useful to me.

If the book is of the latter form, I've come to expect very low quality prose--writers who have three handsful of thumbs when it comes to any sense of nuance or beauty in the language. And perhaps that is all to the good, because after all the intent is not to dazzle with prose but to convey information. Obviously there are exceptions to the expectation, and each of those is greeted with great joy on my part. (The most recent in my recollection was Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

The thrillers, mysteries, much of the science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels fall into the second category. If there isn't anything there for me in story, plot, gimmick, or character, it can all go away. I read innumerable thrillers and am often disappointed at the conclusion of them. For example, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Cloud have produced a long line of thriller from Relic to the most recent--the title eludes me now, and I read every one of them hoping that the conclusion will be somewhat better or more satisfying than the last such. Hélas, too often it is not so. The same was true for Dean Koontz, up until my fortuitous discovery of the Odd books (thanks Julie).

When it comes to literature, I experience another kind of handicap. Quite frankly, I don't much care what it says about the human condition or society or the plight of _________ (fill in the blank), or humanity's relationship with ____________. Ecclesiastes kind of nailed it, "There is nothing new under the sun." What I care about is the aplomb, finesse, panache, élan, you name it with which it is said. "Ozymandias" is magnificent to me not so much for what it says, which, if one thinks about it, isn't really a new or powerful message for our day--in fact, a true classic will breath out a truth that is for all time and is powerful because it is universal, and therefore, the particulars, the trappings, the environment are what I find compelling and interesting. Taking a recent example--does Faulkner have anything to tell me that is new or different about the human condition? Nothing that hasn't been said since Gilgamesh--but oh, what language he uses to tell me. What a magnificent, rolling, magisterial prose--imbued and soaked in the rhythms and intonations of that Jacobean Classic that has informed so much of English and American literature.

Does Jonathan Edwards have anything different to say to us from preachers and prophets from the time of Melchizidek on? No, not really. And yet those orotund phrases, that rhythm, that high and precise and colorful and powerful and authoratative use of the language. Images that grab the attention and hold it.

It is for these reasons that I find many of the supposedly great books largely inaccessible to me. Dostoevsky may be fantastic, but I am often reading him through a glass seven inches thick--the translator faced with the double bind of conveying the original authors intent and style, often leaves me astounded and exhausted with their own lack of command of the language into which they are translating. I've done some of this myself and so I deeply sympathize with translators, it's a darned difficult task. But the fact that I recognize that does not immediately make the work that I'm trying to read more enjoyable or accessible to me. The only language other than English that I have full enough command of to be able to say anything worthwhile about quality is French. And even there, I fail to see the often sited magnificence of Flaubert or Balzac, while I am still able to appreciate the works and stories in their original tongue.

The point of this--my enthusiasm for great works comes from my engagement in the way the story is told--not so much the elements of the story, which often are as old as the Greek Myths from which they spring. As such, I don't tend to be a profound reader, pulling apart the prose to reveal to the reader the clockwork ticking of the interrelated symbolism. In fact, if it is overt enough for me to notice it, I often find that it is mechanical in the extreme. When on first reading I can say to myself, that is a symbol, it is like a magician whose slight of hand is just a little too slow--the magic is gone and all I can see is the fumbling. Modern works, ironic in the extreme, tend to make a show, a parade of their endless symbols, references, and meanings tend to be spectacular show pieces of the technical skill of the author. (I'm thinking here of cute and coy ploys like the e-mail address in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections --gaddisfly. Franzen so desperately wants to belong to that group of litterateurs associated with the Gaddis circle, it is pitiful to see.) Unfortunately, technical skill without heart doesn't give a reader much of a reason to read.

Bookmark and Share

And, of course, I haven't read a single one of them.

Bookmark and Share

More on Kindle


From somone who seem to have spent the time, effort, and energy to get acquainted with the publicity and some of the features. However, I would note that the reviewer, as thorough and as balanced as he is does not appear to hold one of these in his own hands yet. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Nevertheless, some interesting points are made and I am very curious about the device, being an inveterate e-book reader myself and have thousands upon thousands of e-book files (unfortunately in palm format--but it is of little consequence to go and convert them to TXT or to get them once again--or even dig the original files out of the massive archive I have.)

Bookmark and Share

A reader very kindly sent me this link to an in depth "reading" of the King Crimson Album, In the Court of the Crimson King. This particular section seems to be a "close reading" of "21st Century Schizoid Man" and looks at it from a psychoanalytic and Christian perspective. Go and enjoy.

Bookmark and Share

Moving toward Connectedness

Bookmark and Share

Supercool Human Assist Devices

| | Comments (1)

An exoskeleton to help in military operations, but what might it mean for people with debilitating disaeas such as ALS or MG?

As one correspondent noted to me: "The takeover has begun." We are Borg. But in this case borg may mean significant improvements in the lives of those stricken with horrible illnesses. Not today, not tomorrow, but in the near future. What a wonderful, terrible thing the human imagination can be.

Bookmark and Share

Kindle Reviews

| | Comments (1)

Check this review or the slashdot review roundup to correct a few misconceptions about the availability of "outside" material on the Kindle.


At the end of the day, Amazon's DRM applies only to books you actually buy - everything else works natively or with minimal hassle.

It's surprisingly easy to get non-Amazon material on it. I just plug it in to the USB cable which perpetually hangs off the back of my laptop, and it shows up as a hard drive. I drop .txt and .mobi files into the "Book" folder and they show up. I convert a handful of PDFs to .mobi files using Mobi Creator and they work perfect, Tables of Contents and all. Sweet.

And, I'm noting that others seem to agree with me in one of the great ironies of recent time: Amazon, the great online retailer, needs a brick and mortar presence to get these into the hands of people who might use them. I know I'm disinclined to purchase another pig in a poke.

Bookmark and Share

Compare and Contrast


A couple of days ago, I gave an excerpt from The Unvanquished which serves well to set against this excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!.

from Abasalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

it was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies flew and drifted in soft random--the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting-room at Harvard. It was a day of listening too--the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 (and, on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the same steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid paint-smears on the soft sumer sky); a Sunday morning in June with the bells ringing peaceful and peremptory and a little cacophonous--the denominations in concord though not in tune--and the ladies and children, and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks, and even a few men (the ladies moving in hoops among the miniature broadcloth of little boys and the pantalettes of little girls, in the skirts of the time when ladies did not walk but floated) when the other men sitting with their feet on the railing of the Holston House gallery looked up, and there the stranger was. He was already halfway across the square when they saw him, on a big hard-ridden roan horse, man and beast looking as though they had been created out of thin air and set down in the bright summer sabbath sunshine in the middle of a tired foxtrot--face and horse that none of them had ever seen before, name that none of them had ever heard, and origin and purpose which some of them were never to learn. So that in the next four weeks (Jefferson was a village then: the Holston House, the courthouse, six stores, a blacksmith and livery stable, a saloon frequented by drovers and peddlers, three churches and perhaps thirty residences) the stranger's name went back and forth among the places of business and of idleness and among the residences in steady strophe and antistrophe: Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen

One long paragraph, and still only half the length of the normal "period" of motion in the book. What is wonderful is the mechanism whereby we are moved from the here and now present of the novel (1909) into the world of 1833 and the beginning of the saga of Thomas Sutpen in the village of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. We move from the present smell of wistaria into the future (five months later) and then smoothly into the past in one long singing, rolling phrase.

The sentences are not difficult, but they are like Latin--before the real sense of each becomes clear, the entire sentence must be taken in and disassembled and the constituent parts placed in proper relation to one another. It is, undeniably, work. And yet it is a work that has such a fine pay-off--one comes to know the mind of the narrator and one enters the time and the world of Faulkner's fiction in a way that rarely happens in light fiction treating of similar subjects. There is substance here that goes beyond the status of "literature" or "classic" and enters the world of simply satisfying--solid, grounded and grounding, substantial--the author has authority (ever wondered about the similarity of the two words) and the world is authentic. To read Faulkner is to enter a world that is accessible in no other way (the same is true of every author worth his or her salt), but there is a pleasure in reading Faulkner that comes from acquaintance with a master. Too bad our early experiences cause us to shy away, often thinking that the work is beyond us or ill-conceived, or otherwise not available to us. In their enthusiasm and desire to introduce us into these new realms some of our early literature teachers do inestimable harm. But stop blaming them and avail yourself of the wonders of great prose despite those bitter early memories. You'll be glad you did.

Bookmark and Share

The Unvanquished


Having already begun the inextricably intertwined premier book of this civil war diptych (Absalom, Absalom), gives some perspective on this work of William Faulkner. This is, by far and away one of the most accessible of Faulkner's works. While there are some subtleties and complexities in the prose, the stream of consciousness approach is filtered through the mind of a highly educated adult, even in the early parts of the book which are told from the point of view of a child between the ages of 10 and 12.

The novel originated as a chain of short stories published during the time Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom, and people more knowledgeable about Faulkner as a writer and a person might say that this book is, in a sense, a inner response of Faulkner to the harsh portrayal of the south found in Absalom, Absalom. In The Unvanquished, the South comes out looking fairly good--not admirable in all respects and bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the horrors of the war. The main character, Colonel John Sartoris is, in some ways, the Civil War equivalent of a Mrs. Jellyby--his attention focused completely outwards toward the war and his own accomplishments within it, things at home are left to run more or less on their own, with the disastrous results which often follow when anyone shirks their primary responsibilities.

By turns poignant, touching, sad, hilarious, and horrifying (often within a ten-page stretch), the novel charts the progress of Bayard Sartoris (son of John), Marengo (his friend/brother/slave/servant), Granny, and a host of other characters familiar to those who have dipped into Faulkner's world before. We meet the ancestors of Quentin Compson, even if only peripherally, Colonel Tom Sutpen, and Ab Snopes, progenitor of the generally useless Snopes clan. In the trajectory of the stories we are able to compare and contrast the fates of Grumby (a man responsible for one major moment in the book) and Redmond (the man responsible for another, similar major moment in the book.)

The last chapter, "The Odor of Verbena," is often read as a separate short story and is a moving account of the real coming of age of Bayard Sartoris, made more powerful here by its juxtaposition with the story of Bayard, Ringo, and Grumby.

To get a sense of scope, in this one book, we learn about the Sack of Vicksburg and vicinity, the exodus of the Mississippi slave population with predictably disastrous results, Granny's mule trading--in which she confiscates, sells back, and reconfiscates a number of United States Army Mules through clever forgeries of an original licit document, Drusilla's stint in the Army in Virginia with Colonel Sartoris, her forced marriage to said Colonel as a result of the suspicious minds of the neighbors, and John and Drusilla's interference in the first (monumentall ill-conceived) reconstruction elections, Granny's assistance and support of the poor of Yoknapatawpha County, the utter destruction of the countryside as the Union troops withdraw from Mississippi, and a legion of other events. Most importantly one learns that, in Drusilla's words, verbena is the only scent that can overpower the smell of horses and courage.

The book is short, easy to read (for Faulkner), and powerful. It is the "up side" (and not much of one) of Faulkner's vision of the Civil War South. It provides an insight into how one can still find something to respect despite the fact that the war was fought for all the wrong reasons and for far longer than it need have done. (This point leads to a very interesting turn around in the course of the book in which at one point Bayard sees the wisdom of women as supporting and pushing the war effort forward, and toward the end sees that same wisdom as having given up on the war effort years before the men realized that they should have done so.) Read in juxtaposition with Absalom, Absalom it provides the positive print to the negative that is exposed in the latter work.

But the most powerful thing to come out of the book isn't about the South at all--it is about people struggling to be human and humane in the face of tremendous obstacles, difficulties, misunderstandings, and completely correct understandings. It is about the courage to defy expectations or fulfill them and how, where moral certainty is lacking, the circumstances must help us understand, how our circumstances help us feel the way to the (often incorrect) conclusion. It is a story about how we understand and fail to understand one another and how we can, despite ourselves and our surroundings, learn to understand each other better.

By all means, pick this up and read it. Faulkner is not so difficult as we might have come to believe from premature exposure in high-school or college. He is by no means easy and light reading; however, reading his prose is both a challenge and a deep pleasure and delight. It is a break from post-modernist brokenness and escapist fictional flights (against which, I should note, I have no gripe). Do yourself a favor and read it--not because it is good and classic and expected, but because it is enjoyable in a way that few other things are. There is here the enjoyment of accomplishment (having read Faulkner) and the enjoyment of a good set of stories well told, full of sound and fury, and yet signifying much. The tale told by an idiot is best saved for a time when one has become more acquainted with Faulkner by way of more accessible works.

Bookmark and Share

Faulkner's Humor


It's out of context, and it may be hard to situate, but Ringo is Bayard Sartoris's best friend, brother, slave. Ringo has been sitting and drawing a picture of the Sartoris House before the Yankees burned it to the ground. Looked at in the present of the text, the house consists of four chimneys and a yardful of weeds growing out of the ruins. As this excerpt begins, a Yankee officer is speaking to Ringo; Granny has been using a variety of names to steal donkeys back from the Yankees, sell them and split the proceeds with the needy of the town.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

"All right," he said. "Who lives up there now? What's her name today, hey?"

Ringo was watching him now, though I dont think he suspect yet who he was. "Dont nobody," he said. "The roof leaks." One of the men made a kind of sound; maybe it was laughing. The lieutenant started to whirl around the then he started not to; then he sat there glaring down at Ringo with his mouth beginning to open. "Oh," Ringo said. "You mean way back yonder in the quarters. I though you was still worrying about them chimneys."

This time the soldier did laugh, and this time the lieutenant did whirl around, cursing at the should; I would have known him now even if I hadn't before; he cursed at them all now, sitting there with his face swelling up.

It's played so straight that it is funny, and it is a detail that could easily have been left out of the narrative--but what a robust richness it lends to the tale--what a sense of versimilitude. I have always loved Faulkner, even while I struggle sometimes to understand where he's going. His wordplay and his ability to get into his characters and convey something real and yet something nearly surreal are astonishing.

Oh, and for those who have asked--no, I don't read these things because I'm supposed to, or trying to show off, or anything of the sort. At my age, to paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson, "No one but a blockhead reads for anything other than the desire to do so."

I've spent too much time reading things that simply don't have the substance to warrant having read them. And yet there is much joy in reading both the bad and the great. And the great is even greater when set beside the mediocre or poor. Some say that Faulkner can't write, and my usual reaction is polite silence as I think, "Some people can't read." Faulkner or Dan Brown, let me think a moment. . .

Bookmark and Share

Motion Toward Freedom


A beautiful and moving passage from Faulkner in which he describes the movement of the emancipated slave population of Yoknapatawpha County toward the river, the crossing of which symbolizes for them freedom.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

We began to see the dust almost at once and I even believed that I could already smell them though the distance between us did not appreciably decrease, since they were travelling almost as fast as we were. We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind; they covered and hid from sight the road exactly as an infiltration of flood water would have, hiding the road from sight and then the very wheels of the wagon in which we rode, our two horses as well as Bobolink breasting slowly on, enclosed by a mass of heads and shoulders--men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

But mostly they did not look at us. We might not have even been there. We did not even ask them to let us through because we could look at their faces and know they couldn't have heard us. They were not singing yet, they were just hurrying, while our horses pushed slow through them, among the blank eyes not looking at anything out of faces caked with dust and sweat, breasting slowly and terrifically through them as if we were driving in midstream up a creek full of floating logs and the dust and the smell of them everywhere and Granny in Mrs Compson's hat sitting bolt upright under the parasol which Ringo held and looking sicker and sicker, and it already afternoon though we didn't know it anymore than we knew how many miles we had come. Then all of a sudden we reached the river where the cavalry was holding them back from the bridge. It was just a sound at first, like the wind, like it might be in the dust itself. We didn't even know what it was until we saw Drusilla holding Bobolink reined back, her face turned toward us wan and small above the dust and her mouth open and crying thinly: "Look out, Aunt Rosa! Oh, look out!"

And what happens next falls into the realm of tragedy or bathos as the Yankees, for inscrutable purposes of their own, destroy the bridge but fail to stem the tide of yearning. And then, a moment of redemption with a compassionate Yankee officer coming to the aid of Granny--an officer who allowed her to protect her two charges in a previous episode, even while he denied their existence.

This book is Faulkner, pure Faulkner, and yet immediately more accessible and comprehensible than say The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. And it is enjoyable--a visit to the roots that gave rise to the blossom of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.

Bookmark and Share

Reading List


The Unvanquished--William Faulkner. Faulkner, like Hawthorne, is notoriously under-read and his humor under-appreciated. Perhaps it is the difficulty of plumbing the depths of his prose. If so, The Unvanquished should prove a satisfying, if perhaps slight, entry point into his work. (I don't know whether or not it is slight, I'm not a Faulkner expert--and all of Faulkner works to one end any way, most of the works sharing a dynasty of characters, or even more importantly for a work of southern fiction a continuity of place. (I plan to follow up with Absalom! Absalom!, Intrude in the Dust, and the collected short stories. I've already read and really enjoyed The Sound and the Fury (much falls into place in the beginning of Benjy's first section when you remember that his sister's name is Caddie) and As I Lay Dying. (What I most recall with this one is Vardeman's assertion after Addie's death, or perhaps just prior to it, that "My mother is a fish." You have to read this mordant study to get it--it's one of those places where Faulkner is at his finest talking about the foibles of humankind.)

Map of Bones--James Rollins--I don't know why, but I don't find this book nearly as compelling as The Judas Strain or The Black Order. You'd think the theft of the bones of the magi would be a matter of great interest, but somehow it just isn't really compelling.

Soul Provider--Yep, you haven't seen a final review because I didn't want to rush through and end the experience of the book. It has been enormously helpful, insightful, and meaningful, taking the abstruse and difficult thought of ancient asceticism and applying it in a meaningful way to how we live our lives today. Truly a book to savor and enjoy again and again. I will never read St. John Climacus in exactly the same way again--which is a good thing--pawing through desert dust for a kernel of insight is hardly rewarding, but realizing that what is said has relevance for people who do not live in the same circumstances--that we're not pawing through desert dust, but walking through the living water of the love of God.

The Purgatorio--Dante. Don't know if I'll end up finishing it this month, as so little time is left, but I'll give it a try if other things move out of the way.

Lined up are a biography of Louis Mayer and other assorted delights from my local library and my personal collection. We'll see how it all works out.

Bookmark and Share
Bookmark and Share



More great science news thanks to FPJ. A giant eurypterid found in a quarry in Germany indicates one of the larger species every found. There have been specimens found in NY that have been estimated to be upwards of a meter. (I thought E. buffaloensis was upwards of 2 meters). But this guy (or gal) is estimated from claw size to have been upwards of 8 feet long. Very, very cool.

Later: Reading more carefully--as to the contention that it is the largest arthropod ever discovered, there is room for some doubt. Arthropleura, an arthropod similar to centipedes and millipedes has been estimated to be up to three meters in length by some scientists. Of course, so long as one is finding only single tergites or detached claws, there is reason to doubt the estimates. (Some very small arthropods have extremely "oversized" claws. I'm thinking here of species such as the coconut crab of the Andaman Islands. (The species pictured in the article are unfamiliar to me, they all seem to come from the south pacific.) But in these cases the claws are roughly half of the body mass--unusual, but not unheard of, and so it makes estimation from the claw a rather difficult matter.

Bookmark and Share


| | Comments (2)

This may be the breakthrough I've been waiting for. Great. Now I have at least four or five devices to trundle along because I'll still need my PDA for on the go writing, my iPod, because I can't keep enough memory on my PDA to play music, my cell phone AND now, my Kindle. I'll just be bristling with electronic gear. Call me "Neuromancer."

And the huge deal, is that using Amazon's retail strength, they've argued the price down to $9.99 or less. In most cases e-books were costing close to the full price of the book. Now, I know enough about the book business to realize that a goodly portion of the cost is wrapped up in what is called ppb (print, paper, and binding) and in inventory. When you're delivering electronically, you don't incur these costs, so the books should be commensurately cheaper. But they have not been. Now, just glancing through the titles, I found The Omnivore's Dilemma for $6.50. Amazing!

The down side is that I'm not likely to be able to find many of the great public domain things I've been able to derive from the internet. However, it is reputed that this device will also read Word files so there may be a way around that difficulty as well.

But right now, I just can't see my way to $400.00. Soon though, perhaps.

I do note that it's only getting 2.5 stars in the Amazon reviews. Much having to do with the lack of reading PDF, or some preferring wireless to cell-phone technology or "it's ugly." Etc. Well, there are some who will not be pleased with anything. But, as I've said to others, I'll need to find someone who owns one and hold it in my hands before I'll be able to decide. But it is cool, and it is only the start. I'm sure Amazone is already using the feedback they've gotten to improve the reader.

Bookmark and Share

Giant Microbes


Okay, I stumbled onto the cute little pokeman-like Noctiluca scintillans, but looking around, I found these giant microbes. Really interesting and cute.

Bookmark and Share

The Judas Strain


This is the usual piece of fluff one might expect from James Rollins. Highly inventive, highly imaginative, mostly well-written. Mr. Rollins composes the novels Dan Brown wishes (or wished) he could do. They are intricate puzzles that often combine disparate elements into a suspense/thriller that really takes off.

In this case, we combine cyanobacteria (incorrectly identified early on as slime-mold--but more about that later), Christmas Island Red Crabs, Cannibalism, Marco Polo, Angkor Wat, Angelic Script, and a few other ingredients into a thick ragout of the outrageous, unlikely, and yet highly plausible. In all of his books, this is Mr. Rollins's forte--the combination of highly disparate elements into a very enjoyable romp through the world. In this case, Washington D.C., Christmas Island, Angkor Wat, Hormuz, Istanbul, Vatican City, and probably other locations I've forgotten.

Now for the little down side--as Mr. Rollins's works become more popular, the editorial staff seems to back down and leave more of the raw writing. This shows infrequently, but unpleasantly in several sentences in the book. The unpleasantness is that they shock the alert reader out of the "vivid and continuous dream" of the prose just momentarily. Fortunately, Mr. Rollins is a better stylist than most thriller writers and only slips out occasionally. (I'm not counting the small hunks of exposition disguised as conversation--you've got to get that background in somehow when you're spanning the globe.)

The one place where I was most highly irritated occurred early on (as mentioned above) when cyanobacteria (which once were called blue-green algae) are confused with slime-molds. Slime molds are either a kingdom unto themselves, or a group of protists (depending on the taxonomy one is following). Cyanobacteria, as the name implies are bacteria--they are responsible for some of the oldest fossils on Earth.

Additionally, he attributes luminescent "milky seas" to cyanobacteria blooms. This may well be the case, I've not done enough to associate the two. However, much of my experience with such phenomenon is the result of a dinoflagellate--Noctiluca scintillans (see here. Anyone interested in my psychological well-being could feel free to cheer me up with one of these). In this case, the discrepancy may be that we are talking about different phenomena and I haven't seen the one described by Mr. Rollins.

These quibbles aside--for those in the mood for a fast-paced puzzle thriller that combines all sorts of interesting persons, places, and things into an interesting and compelling story, The Judas Strain could be your cup of tea.

Bookmark and Share
Bookmark and Share

Feed Your Mind, Feed the World


Expand your vocabulary as you feed the world.

I scored a 50 and sustained it for four turns--so don your vair, avoid the pecculant, and help to prevent kwashiorkor.

Bookmark and Share

Stem Cell Breaktrhough


I have long contended that there would be ways to get the benefits of stem cell research without the ethical implications of taking them from embryos. I have not yet read the referenced papers, so this could just be media hype. However AP reports that such a breakthrough has been accomplished. If so, it may be the source of great benefit to humanity. Just as possible is that it will return nothing or even negative effects. Let us hope and pray that scientists doing this research proceed with all due caution.

Bookmark and Share

TheTipping Point


Malcolm Gladwell's book is a study in the epidemiology of ideas, fashion trends, and even trends in violence. From Hush Puppies in Manhattan night clubs to suicides among young teen males in Melanesia, from Sesame Street to cigarettes, this book is filled with interesting ideas and social psychology studies. From the rule of seven to the rule of 150, there are interesting ideas and suggestions about how an idea might propagate.

My problem with the book is that it doesn't dive deep enough. There are suggestions that this is the way things might develop, but there isn't enough substance. That may be an effect of what is being studied. In social psychology, one can never be absolutely certain of cause and effect; research is more often conducted along the lines of correlations. For example, the rule of 150 is supported by the fact that every major nation on Earth through time has organized its individuals into groups that do not exceed 150 at the lowest levels. There is a profound reason suggested for this; but I wonder how one would go about testing that reason.

What Gladwell's book put me in mind of was the need for a tipping point in many aspects of the political, social, and spiritual lives of Americans. I have a feeling that a great many marketing firms will be studying this book closely. I know that a good many people in my own company have read this book and have suggested it to others to read.

While it may become a weapon in the armament of marketing, it is also an interesting anecdotal appreciation of the spread of ideas. Whether or not it is substantial is a matter that must be left to more documentation or testing. Throughout the book, I was wondering whether what Gladwell was talking about was similar to the broad characteristics one could find upon reading one's own character portrait from horoscopes: you see something vague enough and say, "That's it, that's me exactly." And of course, the statements you are reading could describe anyone at all at some point in time. Gladwell's book struck me a little that way--interesting observations that never quite gel for me into coherent theory.

However, I enjoyed it tremendously, expanded my knowledge of the field and encountered the utterly fascinating essay by George Miller "The Magical Number Seven, Ply or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." (It begins with the remarkable sentence: "My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.")

Recommended for readers interested in social trends and social psychology. It makes fine, light, entertaining non-fiction reading for most.

Bookmark and Share



Whether or not Wasichu actually means "eaters of fat" or "the ones who take the fat," the myth of the meaning provides entry into today's brief exploration of Fr. Beck's book. The "eaters of fat" were those who were so all consuming that they ate at the expense of everyone else--immoderately and seemingly all-consuming, taking even the last, most precious of ther reserves.

from Soul Provider
Father Edward L. Beck

Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, can kill us not only physically, but spiritually as well. Saint John Climacus says: "Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed and crammed, it wails about hunger. Glutton thinks up seasonings, creates sweet recipes. Stop one urge and another bursts out; stop that one and you unleash yet another. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time."

The sin here is not only in the doing, it is is the inordinate desire even when the impulse is controlled.

I have a friend who has lost a large amount of weight; she has adhered especially closely to one particularly program of eating. She is justifiably pleased with how well she has done and she claims that food no longer possesses her. But in actual fact, it merely possesses her in a different way. Everything is oriented toward eating in this way--all thought is about the next meal or this meal and whether it conforms in every particular to the ideal. This isn't gluttony--but it is similar to how gluttony works. And gluttony, hasn't only to do with food. It has to do with any inordinate appetite for goods of any sort. Gluttony is when we rise from the breakfast table asking "What's for lunch."

A later quote from C.S. Lewis in Father Beck's book makes the point more clearly:

"Anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating will admit that we can ignore even pleasure."

Bookmark and Share

Political Writing Revisited


The other day I wrote a short review of Ralph Nader's book The Good Life in which I said that it was disappointing but unsurprising; however, I'm unconvinced that I made my main point about disappointment because it was so lost in digression. And so, I'd like to revisit that in a more focused way.

Explicitly, my disappointment in Mr. Nader's book stems from the difference between stated objective and actual accomplishment. At the beginning Mr. Nader makes a powerful point about the necessity and obligation of the ordinary citizen to participate in the political and social world around them. In short, the ordinary person in the street is called upon to contribute to change. This is a powerful, wonderful, much-needed message. The book goes on to detail why such change is needed. Unfortunately, in so doing, much too much is made of those who are to blame for our present situation--and that blame is always thrown at anyone who disagrees with Mr. Nader and most of the time there appears to be in the implicit assumption of malice, conspiracy, or both. For example, the Republicans are out to deliberately oppress and create an underclass of the ordinary working person. While it may be true that there are some Republicans who might positively delight in such a prospect, I seriously doubt whether that is the express intention of the majority of Republicans, even powerful republicans, as they go about their daily duties. Why not look at the households of famous Democrats or liberals who hire and mistreat illegal immigrants routinely? I'm sure that the number of these is approximately equal to the number of Republicans whose deliberate mission it is to create an underclass.

In all political discussion of the present day, there appears to be an at least implicit assumption of ill-will or malice. This may be the case with all political writing through time, but I don't get the same sense from writers of previous eras. That may be because what survives to come to us today, survives because it transcends the tropes and diatribes of the time. It may, however, be indicative of the time, I do not have the breadth of experience to suggest the truth of the matter.

However, I do believe that it is possible to urge people to action on an issue without spending time blaming one group or another for the present situation. What does it matter who is responsible for allowing parking lots to be built on the watershed that directly feeds into the Everglades. The reality is that they are being built and will continue to be so until action is taken to prevent it.

Any effective action is by its own nature bipartisan any way. Yes, some laws are passed by a party, but those that stay in place are usually passed by a majority in both parties. The situation we are in is the result of input from both groups--it implies at least implicit consent from one group or another despite griping. (This goes, of course, only for true legislation, not for legislation from the bench, which seems almost impossible to overcome by any means allowed within the Consitution,)

My point is that civic action is a duty of all citizens. Involvement in the the political life around us is required so that we can inform it. It is the realm in which religion legitimately and purposefully enters into the social sphere. It is the intersection of "in the world" and "Of the world." and as such, helps to define that world for better or worse. As we choose to remain outside that interaction, society is deprived of the proper formation of conscience. Thus, there is a purpose to peaceful prayer outside of an abortion clinic, but no purpose to violent bombing of clinics or assassination of doctors who perform abortions.

My disappointment with the book stemmed from the fact that I was hoping to read about individuals who were working for the good life implied by the title. Instead, I'm told about how messed up life is and how it is all the result of Republican scheming to maintain and enlarge the underclass while exploiting the world.

Why is it not possible to engage in political discussion with an assumption of good will (if perhaps bad reasoning, or poor thought) on the part of all of those engaged. Why do we find it so hard to refrain from maligning the person rather than dealing with the idea? I think this is in part the same phenomenon that occurs when we drive and there are not longer people on the road, but cars. In the same way when we address people who hold ideas and call them idiots, morons, whoremongers, or whatever terms we use, we have placed a child of God within the vehicle of idea and have condemned them both.

By all means, bring every weapon to bear upon bad thinking. Help to correct the immoral or incorrect assumptions or bad data or other source of error in the thought of a person holding an opinion that differs from one's own. But my plea to all politicians and to all who would engage in political debate is to debate the ideas. Do not tar with one brush all people who self-label. All Republicans do not want to exploit migrant workers and toss them out of the country. All Democrats do not want to open the borders to all and sundry and allow the terrorists to overrun us. Why do so many writers write as if it were so?

Bookmark and Share

Memento Mori

| | Comments (4)

Another powerful and beautiful reflection from Fr. Beck's book:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

Is it true that death gives meaning to life or, at least, informs life? Saint John Climacus writes, "Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. . . The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it b the hour is surely a saint." The knowledge of our mortality is therefore an incitement to live more fully. When we realize that we have a limited time to revel in the gift of human life, we are infused with an urgency that an endless life might not offer. There is only so much time to climb that beautiful mountain, or swim in that pristine ocean, or appreciate the sound to that bird calling to its mate. More significantly, our time with those whom we love is limited. Why waste the time with the nonessentials: family feuds that last for years, long-held grudges, opportunities at loving never taken?

The absolute certainty of death is something most of us look at (if at all) with a sidelong glance--perhaps detecting it most of the time in our peripheral vision. It would be better for all that if be faced squarely and clearly.

We know this--we don't face it. However, it is expressed beautifully in this song:

"Live Like You Were Dying"
Tim McGraw

He said I was in my early forties, with a lot of life before me
And one moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays
Talking bout' the options and talking bout' sweet times.
I asked him when it sank in, that this might really be the real end
How's it hit 'cha when you get that kind of news?
Man what did ya do?
He said

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

He said I was finally the husband, that most the time I wasn't
And I became a friend, a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden goin' fishin, wasn't such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
Well I finally read the good book, and I took a good long hard look
At what I'd do if I could do it all again
And then

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Shu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

Like tomorrow was the end
And ya got eternity to think about what to do with it
What should you do with it
What can I do with it
What would I do with it

I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And man I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I watched an eagle as it was flyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

To live like you were dyin'

Another way of asking the same thing is, "Why wait for judgment to try to do what you know you ought? Then is too late." Our time is now. It can be intolerably brief, or it can seem like an eternity of waiting. Either way, if we live it knowing that it will end, perhaps it will serve to make us a little more patient, a little more tender, a little more willing to risk vulnerability, a little more inclined to take risks to help others. Think of how those we love could blossom, those with whom we work could grow into new possibility. What if I took my position as a manager seriously and used that position to truly serve others? Because our leaders, ideally, are in fact our servants. They blaze the trails for us and point the direction. They don't do all of the work, but they help clear the way for work to be done. Or, perhaps they would, if they lived in the shadow and foreknowledge of Eternity--knowing that this ends and afterwards comes Judgment. And perfect love casteth out fear--particularly fear of judgment because we do what we do not for hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, but solely for the love of God.

Bookmark and Share

How What is Divided Grows


I post two separate entries on Dante because while they abut one another in the poetry, they seem to go separate directions in thought. And this particular point is one that a lot of people have difficulty remembering because this world is so limited.

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?" He replied:

"Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

If you visit colonial houses, you will often find on the wall sconces with convex mirrors or polished surfaces behind them. The purpose was to capture the light from a single candle and use it more efficiently. And so Dante's metaphor. Love that falls on a surface ready to receive it both lights that surface to the degree that it is prepared to be lit, and is "multiplied" to reflect from other such surfaces. Love, as we are well aware, does not diminish in the division, but paradoxically, multiplies. The metaphor of reflection is a clear and perfect trope for the activity of love.

Bookmark and Share

From Dante: The Remedy for Envy


Here, Virgil explains to Dante how to remedy the evil of envy:

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"It is because you focus on the prize
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say 'ours'--not 'mine'--
by that much is each richer and brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine."

In Heaven, as we will discover in continuing our reading, there is no zero-sum game--no, you do better so I do worse. St. Therese expressed it in a metaphor of flowers--some are lilies, some are roses, and some are the little buttercups that grace the feet of the most high, but all are loved equally and all are pleased to be what the Lord has ordained that they be. Our place in Heaven, whatever it is ordained to be, like our crosses, are uniquely made for us--no other person will fit into them. Nor will we be able to fit into that place designed for another. This is the economy of salvation and blessedness. We may not stand with Dominic or Francis, or John of the Cross. We may be rubbing elbows with people who we would disdain here on Earth. But there, we are exactly what God fashioned, corrected of all fault and flaw through the suffering of purgatory and placed exactly where we will do the most good for all.

Envy has no place on heaven; hence, it should have no place on Earth. Our object, in so much as aided by the Holy Spirit we can, is to make this world a true reflection of the kingdom of Heaven.

Bookmark and Share

I started Ralph Nader's book with the hope that we would get some really new insights and some new thinking. And I suppose that was just blind hope because I know where books like this always end up. While there was a refreshing element of the necessity of civic duty that goes beyond mere voting, and while there was some interesting information, Mr. Nader falls back on long-held beliefs and cherished anodynes.

I stopped reading the book when I slammed up against the tired and unconvincing old canard that access to abortion is the thin thread and sole shield against a decline in women's access to equal employment. I have no problem with the fact that there does still appear to be a glass ceiling in place in many corporations. I don't contest that there may be many places in which women are paid less than men for the same work. (People being people, they will do what they can get away with.) However, to tie the overall improvement in the condition of women to this one imagined "right" (or more properly--real right wrongly manifested) is to buy into the same tired old thinking--something Mr. Nader is asking us to stop doing even as he dishes it out.

The book is one long tirade against every republican after Eisenhower, with an occasional jab at some democrats as well. Given Mr. Nader's views, hardly surprising. But given his desire to have a critical thinking public involved in the issues, he sets a remarkably poor example. Time and time again, he falls back on the false or fallacious assumptions and conspiracy theories of adherents to far-left thought.

It's a shame, because there is a great mind here with important things to say. If he had stuck to his point--why citizen action is needed and where it has been effective, without wandering into the realm of who's right and who's wrong in political terms, he would have had a substantial book supporting the central thesis--the United States does need to have people who care as much about what happens in their communities as they do about what commercials will be shown during half-time at the Superbowl. I know such people exist, we just need to have a great many more of them trying to pay attention to what is happening in their own back yards.

For example, here in Florida community association routinely write in deed restrictions that force homeowners to support and grown the pernicious vine called St. Augustine Grass. This is despite the fact that it is a monoculture that requires an extraordinary amount of water to support. Given dwindling water tables and a drought situation (not as bad as Georgia's, but certain bad enough), this kind of restriction is simply out of order. This is one place where local citizens can get together and request a universal change to such deed restrictions. It isn't earth shaking or world changing in the large sense, and yet it is something we can do regardless of political affiliation.

What I would have desired more of is more of the inside story. For example, Mr. Nader details the actual events surrounding the famous McDonald's Coffee episode and the actual final award in the case. (Of course, given the other false things supported by a lack of critical thinking, I also wonder about the validity of the information supplied in this case). In my experience his caution about Corporate influence in American family life is salutary--but his own vision may be more paranoid than my own. And so on.

Mr. Nader's book, The 17 Traditions did a magnificent job of detailing important possible changes in American life in a way that this book manifestly fails to do. I would like to hear someone sound the clarion call for personal responsibility in American Civic life without turning it into the beating of the ancient drum of cherished causes.

Each of us has a worldview that corresponds to a greater or lesser extent to the reality that is out there. For an example, see the post below on poverty and the comment received. Obviously the two parties disagree based on the experience they have had with the question. Mr. Perry works out of his own knowledge and experience as do I, and working from these viewpoints, separate from a political affiliation, each can work to better the situation as he sees it. This is the important of personal involvement. See an issue and address it. Address it both through personal action and through involvement in politics to help change the underlying situation.

It is my personal belief that the interest in politics is exactly the reverse of what it should be. It seems that many people are intensely interested in politics at a national level (which are manifestly important as they set the base from which all other laws work); however, the greatest good is often accomplished in small local races where your concerns and interests can be better channeled into local changes that make small improvements in the local situation. Too often, the sheer magnitude of the national concerns and elections trumps these small individual issues. And I am speaking for myself. I don't know how my local commissioner is or even who the Mayor of the nearby city is. I don't know who represents me in the local government, and it is high time that I found out because I've waited too long for changes to come from the top down.

But this was about Mr. Nader's book. Despite some premises that i can find myself in agreement with, it is entirely agenda-driven and not really interested in inculcating a thing political body so much as it is a stirring example of unfocused and relatively unthinking demagoguery. I can only be thankful that Mr. Nader has made of himself such a nuisance that few people pay him any attention.

Definitely not recommended for any other than the die-hard Nader fan. Read The Seventeen Traditions instead and derive from it some interesting and helpful insights into how we can make lives better for our families.

Bookmark and Share

"The Figure a Poem Makes"


from "The Figure a Poem Makes"
Robert Frost

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

The entire essay or, at least, a longer excerpt, here. For those interested--here's a link to an Arabic translation. Isn't it lovely even to look at?

Bookmark and Share

As I view the situation there are problems with both liberal and conservative strains of thought. The problem with liberal thought is intrinsic to the philosophy, the problem with conservative thought is extrinsic, but so pervasive one might be led to conclude that it is an underlying principle.

The intrinsic problem with liberal thought is the Rousseau-derived absolute confidence in the ability of human reason to restore paradise and the assurance that human will follows human reason. The extrinsic problem in conservative thought is the underlying turf-rooted suspicion of absolute depravity and the Puritan assumption that the elect are identifiable by their lot in this life.

As a result conservative thought, particularly economic conservative thought, tends to overlook the plight of the poor and suggest that they shift for themselves. The suggestion that one might consider raising a minimum wage sends thrills of horror through them, convinced as they are of two things: economic disaster is immediately upon us, and those who are doing poorly are doing poorly because they don't care to work for themselves. The ultimate conservative economic statement comes from Ebenezer Scrooge--"'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there." Which is not to say that every individual conservative holds to these lines of thought, nor even that it is a majority, nor even that the thought is held consciously--I don't think it is. But I do not among conservative thinkers a distinct lack of appreciation of the plight of the poor. Conservatism has been and continues to be the economic philosophy of the well-off.

In this sense, the intrinsically flawed philosophy of liberalism offers seemingly better recourse. The problem here is that the recourse depends both upon the strength of the idea and upon an assumed willingness to see the idea through to completion. Liberal thought is the supreme philosophy of incompletism. There is the assumption that because government is established for the common good it is, within a society, the source of all good and what good may come should come through the government. In a sense, the liberal mindset establishes the prisons and the workhouses that the resentful conservative supports and pays for.

These two strains of thought working in tandem do and have done absolutely nothing to relieve the true desperation of the poor. Over the last hundred years or so fewer of the poor die from hunger, malnutrition, and other woes visited on those who do not have enough to eat (at least in industrialized nations), but the number of poor and their condition has neither diminished nor has there been any sign that it ever can be diminished. The welfare state grows larger and larger, and still the poor are poor and remain visited by non-economic manifestations of poverty.

The solution may not be in raising minimum wage or in any sort of governmental assistance, but it certainly does not rest in refuting and refusing all such helps and providing no useful suggestion about how to address the problem. More often than not, a conservative thinker will suggest why a solution is not viable without suggesting anything that is more viable. For example, alleviating poverty through an individual response to the poor. How is this to be organized, on what basis can we rely upon it to happen, what will be done to encourage and foster this response? On these question the conservative thinker is silent. On these same questions the liberal thinker, ever-ready to contradict his or her own Rouseauian roots doubts the capacity of individuals to address the problem. Not only do they doubt the capacity, but the willingness, and therefore the solution must be forced upon everyone through governmental interference.

What is needed in the realm of economics is for both sides to come to the table and admit their failings. Each needs humbly to approach the problem and seek viable solutions that may be organizationally or even governmentally mediated, but not institutionalized. In this sense "the thousand points of light" is the right view of how to approach many of the problems of poverty. Mother Teresa's approach to the alleviation of the strife of the poor was not to seek more money and set up a foundation that would dole out food or money or both to the poor, but to help each one with human hands and human heart. I don't know for a fact that she ever lifted anyone out of poverty, but she taught each person that she came in contact with what it was to be loved whether rich or poor.

The solution to poverty is in God's hands. But a first step is for everyone to see what it looks like and experience it first hand--frequently. When we understand that poverty is not a disease and not infectious, we might begin to have a better appreciation for how to begin to combat it, or at least the effects of it. As it stands, we remain opposed (rightfully so) to the forced reapportionment of goods that we work hard to obtain, while providing no other recourse for those who cannot fend for themselves. The hard reality we need to face is that for every child we pray or argue away from the hands of the abortionists, we incur an obligation to assure that that child will have at very least all that he or she needs to thrive and become a productive citizen. There is a cost to doing what is right, sometimes a painful cost, but that is our sacrifice offered up to God. In the words of this morning's morning prayer:

"We have in our day. . .
no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.

But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received. . .
so let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

And now we follow you with our whole heart. . . ."

Next stop--liberal and conservative social thought (maybe).

Bookmark and Share

Another Country Heard From


from The Good Fight
Ralph Nader

Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized this in a message to Congress: "The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism:ownership of the government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power." We would do well to heed this age-old wisdom as we ponder why our corporate and political leaders assume more and more control over our lives and futures.

[and later just one memorable, highly evocative sentence]:

Society, like a fish, rots from the head down.

[And a last notion from a bit later]

This vulnerability results from the absence of an absorbed information base to provide a shield against artful propaganda and deception.

In one context or another, we are all powerless. The society is simply too complex. Contemplating participation in power in most contexts--environmental, political, social, economic, technological--invites anxiety. Yet, to throw up one's hands in defeat guarantees anguish and deprivation. Individual obligation absorb daily time and attention, of course, but ignoring our civic obligation, our public citizen duties, profoundly affects our daily lives as well.

In a sense, I am obliged to participate in these debates to the extent that I can. I can't participate in all equally, nor will much that I have to say be particularly astute or profound. However, it is part of my duty as a citizen to be concerned about things beyond my front doorstep. For example, I am deeply concerned that most of the civic associations in local communities are more concerned about lawns with brown patches than they are about diminishing water tables and corporations that want to siphon off water to create "bottled water" products. The crises in Georgia and in Tennessee (it is hoped that they are transitory) point to the importance of wise, careful, and considered use of water. Creating a perfect magnificent monoculture--one long golf-course of lush green is not among these careful uses.

But that is only one example that springs to mind as a result of personal experience with these type of deed-restricted communities. Perhaps, as a result, I should be working with my local government to put restrictions on what kinds of things deed restricted communities can regulate. In some communities nearby, for example, it is prohibited to xeriscape your property. It is outrageous that we put in place restrictions on the plants that grow naturally in environment, favoring instead highly fragile, laboratory developed strains of ground cover (St. Augustine turf is NOT grass but a low growing exceedingly thick and unfriendly green vine). A small, small issue, but one that is something I CAN act on.

And so, look around you. Is there something you can do in/for your community that you've not yet started to work on?

One final note from Mr. Nader:

And civic motivation can start with our personal experience, from which we derive the public philosophies that nourish and animate our consciences. It can start with family upbringing, or a jolting event.

I don't know about nourishing and animating the fullness of our conscience, but they certain inform and help us articulate those things that occupy the civic portion of our consciences. They don't require that we change who we are, but they do require that we act upon it.

Bookmark and Share

An Harmonic Convergence


Reading a number of things at once sometimes leads to some interesting observations that might not come from reading any one of them separately or from reading them sequentially.

Saturday the bookgroup decided to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I duly went out and bought this book because I felt that it was one that I was likely to want to refer to in the future. It is certainly getting a lot of play in business circles and I thought it might be useful to have on hand. (I'm not usually one to read books that are popular in business circles, but this also seems to be about memes and the effect thereof on people--and that is of intense interest.)

Also to hand as a result of a visit to the library yesterday is Ralph Nader's The Good Fight. Subtitled, Declare Your Independence and Close the Democracy Gap, Mr. Nader's thesis is that we are slowly abdicating our form of government from a sense of helplessness and the futility of it all. (For example those among us who would argue that our vote "doesn't make a difference" because ultimately it doesn't boil down to one vote.)

It occurred to me that it would be possible that the "futility" argument could become a particularly virulent (and fashionable) sort of meme that would lead to a crisis of voting and governmental participation. While I wholeheartedly agree with folks who point out that when the choice is between Giuliani and Clinton, there is not no candidate to vote for, does that mean necessarily that I must or should not vote.

No. Once again, I'm led to the conclusion that we must vote. We must exercise the franchise each and ever time, even if voting means writing in the name of a person we liked but who didn't make it through the primaries. Even if it means writing in, time and again NONA. Even if it means, eventually, getting involved ourselves--on a local, state, or even national level.

If the way of life we celebrate today, given to us through the actions of many noble people who lost life, limb, family, and property while fighting, is to continue we are required to take action. Each of us is required to exercise that franchise in whatever little way we do, because THAT is the meme we want infecting future generations. Not angst, trial, apathy, and cultural anemia, but a strong statement that we believe in our present way of life and we will, in our own small way, honor those who came before by exercising to the fullest the freedom they bequeathed us.

Shalom to all on this Veteran's Day celebration. May the happy memory of those who gave their lives, literally or through their toil in the defense of our country, remind us always to be respectful of what they have secured for us. And may those who passed away in battle or as a result of war rest in peace and rise to the resurrection dawn assured of their place in heaven by their sacrifice for others. As we remember those who died, let us offer some suffrage that they might see God's glory and dwell in the light of the beatific vision.

Bookmark and Share

Sloth and Acedia

| | Comments (1)

One of the worst things we face is a sense of boredom or the uselessness of doing anything at all. Father Beck addresses this:

from Soul Provider
Father Edward L. Beck

Someone's boring me. I think it's me.
--Dylan Thomas. . . .

In his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned of the West's "spiritual exhaustion": "In the United States the difficulties are not a Minotaur or a dragon--not imprisonment, hard labor, death, government harassment and censorship--but cupidity, boredom, sloppiness, indifference. Not the acts of a might all-prevading repressive government but the failure of a listless public to make use of the freedom that is its birthright." If we are indeed a listless public, what has made us so, and what can we do to infuse our lives with new vigor?

We can do a few things. The authors I have just quoted suggest that boredom is an evil to be conquers it if leads to despondency, hopelessness, and ingratitude. Sloth is clearly the result of a refusal to celebrate the gift and potential of life. But there is another way to look at it. We can embrace boredom, hoping to transform it into something not boring at all. We have been convinced that we always need to be doing something to be happy, usually something other than what we are doing. So if we are driving, we can't simply be driving. We must also be listening to the radio or talking on the cell phone or doing both. Perhaps we are even listening to our 10,000-song iPod, the contents of which could last us our lifetime. What about simply listening to nothing instead?

The "art of doing nothing" has long been extolled by religious traditions. Nothing becomes something when nothing produces results that something cannot.The power of meditation is rooted in the power of nothingness. . . The reason for stillness in the midst of chaos is so that the chaos does not consume us. Stillness gives us distance from what we cannot see when trapped in the never-ending swirl of diversion. . . .

My only response is "guilty." We credit ourselves with "multitasking" when, what is actually happening is that we are not accomplishing any one thing with anything approaching the attention it requires. While I belong to an order that looks to cultivating silence, it seems that we've all bought into the idea of silence while doing something.

Silence, stillness, the embrace of the moment in which there is nothing in particular required of us is an art. We have difficulty, convinced by some inner prompting that such moments are "wasting time." But perhaps it is our railing against them that is the waste of time. Were we to realize that we are bored precisely because nothing is required of us at this time and rather than seek solace in a book, television, or endless iPod, we should seek solace in the silence, perhaps then we might make of boredom the gift that God intends for us.

Limitless diversion leads to limitless ennui, but a few moments of stillness, of letting the swirl and twirl of existence settle down--these have limitless potential--I need to become better at exploiting it.

Bookmark and Share

Bearing Our Crosses


I don't do this often, and probably should not do it even as often as I do; however, this notion has been on my mind a great deal in recent months. This is a meditation composed for another web site.

My thanks to Joachim who maintains the site and who gets a really good proof-reader/copyeditor to help improve each meditation.

Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me . . .
(Luke 14:27)

This passage may contain some of the most difficult words that Jesus shared with us. Hating father and mother, carrying crosses, renouncing possessions--what does it all mean, what sense can we make of it? There is such richness here it's impossible to encompass it all, but what I hear almost every time I go back is "whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." And I am always encouraged to remember that crosses are not "one size fits all."

Sometimes we look at others in our religious and secular lives and wonder, "Why is it so easy for them? What cross are they carrying?" It does us well to remember that what is a cross for one may not be a cross for another. Crosses are not one-size-fits-all. They are individually tailored to the person we are, and they are excruciating (literally) precisely because they are designed to straighten out what we have made crooked--they are designed to rectify what we have corrupted through our poor choices. Sometimes they are to help others bear their own burdens because we all participate in the economy of salvation--what another cannot carry, we help to bear so that we all advance together.

We must always bear in mind that, like Simon of Cyrene, we do bear the cross, but we bear it for the One who takes away all sin, the One who makes the crooked straight and the lame walk. Jesus doesn't say we need to be nailed to it in the way He was. Rather, He tells us that our job, like that of Simon, is to bear part of the burden for all of humanity. We carry our crosses, but ultimately it was and is Jesus who is nailed to it. We bring the burden of sin--He takes it all away.

Bookmark and Share

St. Augustine, the City


Spent some time yesterday visiting a Carmelite Community in St. Augustine. That was a wonderful experience. They meet in a house near the Mission of Nombre de Dios the site of which was where the first Mass was offered in the United States in 1565. In addition, the shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is there as well, and a number of other interesting buildings and memorials.

But overall, St. Augustine is a sad little city. It has a beautiful, small historical district, that is so overrun by commercial interests that it is hard to identify anything at all historical about the place. You walk by houses that are hundreds of years old and discover that they've been converted to sales areas for new age relics or bikinis or lingerie.

The Castillo de San Marcos, as a National Park site, is well maintained, well kept (as much as a building almost four hundred years old composed of local coquina can be. It marks a high point of any visit to the city. It overlooks Mantanzas bay and the Bridge of Lions which is under reconstruction now. But as for the rest, it's hard to believe that you're walking through an area of any great vintage--the concerns and the obvious plights--homeless, drug-addled, just plain vicious, are so evident and so numerous, that one is left with the sad recognition that this most historic of cities is in desperate need of God's mercy and help. It was more than a little sad.

Bookmark and Share

A friend sent this link to a very interesting article on the prayer life of Clarence Thomas.

In the course of it, there is a litany from Cardinal Merry del Val, that struck my friend as a hard teaching:

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should...

My friend noted that to take it seriously seemed to invite despair. But I pointed out that it was a detailed version of St. John of the Cross' todo y nada. That is, the litany does not prohibit one from accepting such graces as come to one, but asks God to grant us the freedom from fear or desire of these things, because such fear and/or desire was distracting from the "one thing necessary." It isn't that the objects mentioned are not legitimate things to desire or to fear, but rather that in either desire or fear of them we may find ourselves doing things that are not part of our particular vocation--going out of our way to seek or avoid things.

But this seems to be an interesting point and I'd love to hear what others think of the article and especially of the Litany.

Bookmark and Share

Another Library


I don't know what all is included, having just discovered it as I was looking for the Pharsalia quoted in the post below:

Online Medieval and Classical Library

Bookmark and Share

Dante's Purgatory


Two points from Ciardi's translation that I found fascinating and beautiful. At the end of Canto IX, Dante and Virgil enter purgatory proper, having spent the first part of the book in a place at the base of the mount called ante-purgatory. And the passage below describes the first experiences of purgatory:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

The Tarpeian rock-face, in that fatal hour
that robbed it of Metellus, and then the treasure,
did not give off so loud and harsh a roar

as did the pivots of the holy gate--
which were of resonant and hard-forged metal--
when they turned under their enormous weight.

At the first thunderous roll I turned half-round,
for it seemed to me I heard a chorus singing
Te deum laudamus mixed with that sweet sound.

I stood there and the strains that reached my ears
left on my soul exactly that impression
a man receives who goes to church and hears

the choir and organ ringing out their chords
and now does, now does not, make out the words.

Which sounds should be sharply contrasted with the first sounds heard in Hell.

On another point, Ciardi makes the following note:

from Purgatorio Note to Canto IX
John Ciardi

I owe Professor MacAllister a glad thanks for what is certainly the essential clarification. The whole Purgatorio, he points out, is build upon the structure of a Mass. The Mass moreover is happening not on the mountain but in church with Dante devoutly following its well-known steps. I have not yet had time to digest Professor MacAllister's suggestion, but it strikes me immediately as a true insights and promises another illuminating way of reading the .

And I would add to that last line, of reading our lives in faith. Part of our Purgatory are the hours gladly spent here on Earth working out the scars and physical remains of sin in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Attended with proper reverence, attention, and intention, the Holy Prayer of the Mass advances us far beyond any other activity in which we might engage. Done in the proper spirit of confession and contrition for sins, the activity of Mass begins here on Earth what is completed afterwards by those who have not achieved God's perfection in Purgatory. And perhaps that begins to help us understand what Purgatory actually is.

One final, wonderful point. The efficiency and efficacy of Ciardi's notes are such that one is led to the following passge of Lucan's Pharsalia:

At this Metellus yielded from the path;
And as the gates rolled backward, echoed loud
The rock Tarpeian, and the temple's depths
Gave up the treasure which for centuries
No hand had touched:

Read the entire work--a recounting of Caesar's return from the battle of the Rubicon here.

Bookmark and Share



I particularly cherished the following experience recounted by Fr. Beck. It spoke to me intimately and provoked a line of thought that I had never really considered. We start as Father Beck is trying to avoid the eye of a modern-day John the Baptist in Time's Square:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

I maneuvered to get around him, but, seeming to sense that I was an unwilling convert, he would have none of it. He made a bee-line for me as I lowered my head and tried to get lost in the crowd that I now appreciated. He held a tattered black Bible that he massaged gently with his thumb.

"Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, young man?"

He was standing right in front of me, blocking my passage. (At least he called me young.) I didn't answer, pretending I thought he was talking to someone else.

"You, sir, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" he persisted.

I looked up, unable to ignore him any longer.

"What?" I said, though I'm not sure why, since I had clearly heard the question.

"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" he repeated more forcefully. A woman bumped me from behind letting me know in her own not-so-gentle way that I was blocking the path.

"Yes, I do," I said. "I do, thank you." I walked around him and started to make my way down the street.

"Hey," he called to me. I looked back. "Isn't it wonderful?" His eyes were glowing.

"Not always," I answered truthfully.

I continued walking and was about a hundred feet from him when he shouted, "Well, then, repent, blue eyes, and it will always be.

I don't necessarily take the street-corner prophet at his literal word here, but it occurred to me that with a good deal more repentance, and a good deal less Steven, that personal relationship might be made more manifest to those around me. And a personal relationship with Jesus is next to useless if it isn't influencing the world around us. Perhaps what I need more of, then, is a spirit of continual repentance--heaven knows there isn't a day I go through that doesn't encourage me to confession before participation in Mass. I'm one of those who wishes that confession were offered moments before Mass so there would be some likelihood of making it to Mass before needing to get to confession again. I often wonder whether I've ever really managed to gain a plenary indulgence for any of the poor souls because the conditions are so rigorous. If Mass immediately follows confession and/or the action that merits the plenary indulgence, there is a remote possibility. Otherwise. . .

Repentance, it's not just a seasonal thing--it's a way to live, really live, a life.

Bookmark and Share

Detachment á la Beck


I have read about halfway through Father Beck's marvelous book and find a scattering of thirty or so tags--things I want to remember, things I want to share. By sharing, I remember better, but choosing among all the wonderful points is so difficult. In the chapter on detachment alone there must be ten or eleven vital points, but one of the most pointed in made in the story below:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

There is a classic Zen story about two celibate monks who are on pilgrimage together. As they approach a raging river, they see a beautiful, distressed young woman standing on the bank afraid to make the crossing. The yonger monk picks the woman up, put her on his shoulders, and wades into the river as the older monk looks on, horrified but saying nothing. When the three reach the other side, the monk puts the grateful woman down safely, and the two monks continue on their journey in silence. Hours go by without the two speaking. The older monk is obviously angry and upset. He finally looks at the younger monk and says, "How could you have done that?" "Done what?" says the younger monk, surprised. "How could you have carried that woman? You know we are to have nothing to do with women and yet you intimately carried her on your shoulders." "My dear brother," replies the younger monk, "I set that woman down on the shore of the river hours ago. Why are you still carrying her."

Of course, this passage speaks to more than mere detachment. It speaks to our habit of nurturing anger over perceived slights, over differences of opinion on religion that make no difference, on matters such as liturgical preference or any number of opinions held either rightly or wrongly by either side of a dispute on religious matters. One could say with almost equal equanimity to either side of the dispute on, say, women's ordination--"The church set that issue down on the banks of the river years ago, why are you still carrying it?" Because, most naturally, we cling to those things for which we feel we have the proper scope of righteous anger--just as does this monk.

Bookmark and Share

What Is Home?

| | Comments (5)

I have a curious experience every time I go to Virginia. If I'm driving, I count the states Northward on my journey as steps back into time (even though, technically speaking, I live in the state with the oldest continuously populated city in the Continental United States.) I note other things as well--the way Florida flora only gradually is replaced by more northern species so the net effect is that Georgia and South Carolina are more like Florida, and North Carolina and Virginia like more temperate states. I also note how drab (in comparison only) North Carolina is. It probably isn't drab at all, and that is part of my point. When I cross the border between NC and VA, no matter where it is that I cross it, the heavens open up and a choir of angels sings and light becomes light.

In short, for reasons I can't begin to fathom, Virginia is home. I wasn't born there, I did spend ten formative years there, but so did I in New York, Columbus, Ohio, and other places. Virginia has no claim geographically, chronologically, or otherwise to being home. And yet, it is.

I love Florida. If I can't live in Virginia, Florida is a fine second place, there is no other place I've lived outside of Virginia that I would return to. But Virginia is home. As much as I dislike some aspects of it--winter cold and D.C. traffic, and a certain surliness amongst people who are supposed to help you and a dampening (in the Northern Part of the state) of the tradition of Southern Hospitality and courtesy--still and all, Virginia is home. When I have to leave, it is deeply wrenching--worse, in some ways, than leaving family and friends. l

This time we drove throught a part of Virginia that wasn't even intimately familiar. My home was Northern Virginia and I was acquainted with most of Virginia down through tidewater. This time I drove up through Roanoke and the valley and ridge region. The autumn colors were magnificent. We stopped at natural bridge and the sense of home even there was profound. Even the rocks, folded, tilted, occasionally deformed by the processes that raised the Appalachians, even the rocks spoke of home and reminded me that I belonged in some deep, indeed unfathonable, way.

Have any of the rest of you had similar sorts of experiences with places? Have you happened upon any explanation of the phenomenon (outside of the concept of reincarnation, which I'm not particularly interested in considering at the present time)? I'd love to hear if this is a shared experience or merely the peculiarity of one individual.

Bookmark and Share

Request for Prayers


I have an extremely important presentation to do today and an extremely important inquiry to make. Would you please remember the success of these two ventures in your prayers today?

Thank you

Bookmark and Share

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley


In Winchester, on the land of the historic Glen Burnie estate, is one of the finest small museums I've ever had an opportunity to appreciate it. This is one of those small places with an obvious deep love of their topic, run by people dedicated to it.

The Museum of the Shenandoah valley is relatively small, having a single floor of exhibit space with additional space for meetings, a library, a small gift shop, and an unusually fine cafe that specializes in a variety of tea and scones. with a couple of offerings for actual meals.

The exhibit floor has five major divisions. One part of it is dedicated to the antiques and collectibles assembled by the most recent owners of the Glen Burnie house. These run from paintings, statues and furniture to quilts small textiles and handicrafts.

Adjacent to what might be termed the "fine art" wing is a superb collection of textiles (quilts) artifacts, furniture and items that breath life into the the frontier life and rural life of the Shenandoah valley. There are antiques from the local area crafted by local artisans or owned by local families for a long period of time.

A third area attempts to chronicle, a a small space some of the events of the history of the Shendoah valley and some of the culture of the area. This space is remarkably successful considering its compressed nature. The history stems from the ancient Native American peoples thought to the early nineteenth century touching upon such subjects as distilleries, the humble abode, and the nature and purpose of cow-bells. What's really nice is that this area is highly interactive with computer games for the kids and a number of videos. In addition there is a "cowbell" song that most visitors are reluctant to pursue because it makes such noise--but the Irrepressible with whom I travel eschews these mere mortal concerns.

The fourth area is dedicated to changing exhibits. In the case of our visit, it was dedicated to the photography of a person who might well be called the Ansel Adams of the Shenandoah--Hullihen Williams Moore. Beautiful black and white photographs of the national park really demonstrate the art of photography.

Finally, there is a small gallery of miniatures, and for those who like doll-house like things and miniature furniture and such, these are a treasure. Personally, I don't find these nearly as interesting as the female visitors who were accompanying me--as so we early parted ways with them spending some significant time in the miniature gallery and tea-shop and me visiting much of the rest of the museum.

Your museum visit starts with a context-setting film in a room built from recovered timbers of a 19th century barn. The docents and guides are extremely helpful, well-informed, and a real delight to talk with.

Right next door is the historic Glen Burnie house and gardens--also worth your time if you haven't visited them. This trip we did not take them in, wanting to spend some time instead really observing what the museum had to offer. But I've been through both before and it was among the more interesting tours of a house I've had the opportunity to participate in.

So, if you live in the area and you're looking for a day trip--you might consider a trip out to the Museum of the Shenandoah valley and Glen Burnie house and Gardens. It would reward your investment in time and money. One suggestion for the dedication of a Patsy Cline museum was that the people who ran this museum might also run the Patsy Cline when it was built and dedicated. I could think of no more felicitous decision. The work of the curators and staff in this small museum is far above and beyond what one might find in many more well-known institutions. The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley has much to be proud of.

(Oh, and the day we were there, the lawn beneath one large tree was covered with what looked (from a distance) like green apples and up-close looked like Osage oranges. They were, in fact, the commodious seed-pod coverings of black walnuts. What a wonderful autumnal welcome!)

For official site information--see here.

Bookmark and Share

Jesuit Saints


In a curious bit of historic irony today is not only the day of the Gunpowder Plot, but the day that those who were falsely accused of instigating it celebrate their illustrious dead.

This link will take you to a site that has brief biographies of Jesuit Saints and this one covers Jesuits Blesseds. Both have a great deal of information delivered concisely.

Bookmark and Share

Autumn at Mount Vernon


It had been some time since last I visited Mount Vernon. During my recent trip back to visit my wife's family, we made an excursion over to see the newly updated Mount Vernon Visitor's complex.

A while back, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had spent a good deal of time and effort updating the shops that flanked the entrance to the estate. They did this while retaining the Colonial feel of the Mount Vernon Inn and created a pleasant mix of the modern and the historical.

Since that time, they have spent a great deal of time and effort building a magnificent new annex and entrance to the estate. Entering one is exposed to a wonderful statue of the Washington Family--George, Martha, Martha Custis, and John Parke Custis (Martha's daughter and son by a previous marriage). (I must admit these last two identifications are speculative because in later life the couple raised at least one, and I think two grandchildren.)


In this wing one can watch a brief film that traces some of the high points in the life of George Washington--Fort Necessity, the Death of General Braddock, etc.

What is most wonderful of all about this, is that the new wing was build without any obvious intrusion upon the estate itself. What was once a lengthy gravel road walk is now an entrance through the visitor's center and from the grounds the center is not visible.

In addition to the new visitor's center, the estate has added two small buildings that represent the living conditions of the slave workers on the plantation. Over time awareness and acknowledgment of Slave life at Mount Vernon has increased and so has the willingness to own up to this problematic situation.

One final and truly magnificent addition to the grounds is a small museum complex that features something like 12-15 audio-visual presentations of different lengths on different aspects of George Washington's life and life at Mount Vernon. Among these are four short clips about slavery, a short clip about George Washington and Religion. As short film about the relationship of George and Martha Washington, some information about George Washington's Spy network, and a nicely realized account of George Washington as military leader, from the debacle of Fort Necessity, to the triumph at Yorktown that secured for us our initial independence.

Along with these presentations there are stunning forensic recreations of George Washington at various periods of his life for which there is scant extant documentation of appearance, etc; his "false teeth", which are, in fact, real teeth secured in a metal plate that looks like a truly arcane torture device, and various artifacts both from Mount Vernon and from the time period.

In addition to the permanent exhibit, there is an exhibit hall for rotating exhibitions.

In all, a stunning change from previous visits, and a welcome one. All of this was done and the price of entry was essential the same as it was some five or six years ago, the last time I went to the estate. It is one of the finest small museums you are ever likely to see. What is truly notable in it is the attempt to be as impartial as being part of MVLA could possibly allow, including some clips and moments in movies that actually levy some criticism of George Washington as general and as slave-holder.

What the complex now does is finely balance the true veneration, devotion, and respect always exhibited by MVLA with the (sometimes) unpleasant historical facts to create an all-round picture of the life of George Washington that only embues more respect and appreciation in the visitor.

One last note, MVLA has added a round of historical personalities who show up on the grounds. I was able to visit with Martha Washington and with the chief of George Washington's spy organization for about half an hour. Each gives a short presentation and then engages in conversation with the audience in character and in time. Thus, they can't answer question about events after 1799, the death of Mr. Washington.

If you're in the area, or you plan to visit the area, you really need to stop by the new complex. It is fascinating, detailed, and multifaceted. With the house, the grounds, and the museum, you have the equivalent of a theme park, with a great deal more grit, gusto, hard and fast reality, and in some ways entertainment. (And this you're hearing from someone who truly enjoys what Disney has to offer us.)

Bookmark and Share



With merely the title of this post I have chased away half of the small audience that might drop by on a regular basis. Renunciation is not a popular subject--most often because it is not fully understood.

However, renunciation is one step on the road to union with God that we all can consider and that with God's grace we all can effect.

There is such a wealth of possibility in Father Edward Beck's Soul Provider, it is difficult to choose among the possibilities; however, for the purposes of supporting the main contention of the chapter, perhaps the conclusion would be most useful:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

Renunciation is therefore a kind of purification and asceticism that does not exist for its own sake but rather for the sake of higher goods. Thus, I renounce excessive use of alcohol so that I don't destroy my marriage or my work. Or I renounce consumerism so that I don't lose my soul to what money can buy. . . .

In view of John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent renunciation lights us and frees us so that we can climb less encumbered, ascending without restraint toward the good. Renunciation exists for the sake of freedom. It liberates us and ultimately allows us to love more wholeheartedly. Who of us doesn't want that?

The man who renounces the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends in smoke. . . . but the man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon creates a conflagration.

(Climacus Step 1)

Fr. Beck's book seems to be a very hard-headed, light-hearted, full-spirited survey of how to improve one's life with God. The advice given is solid, orthodox and complemented by insights from other religious traditions that both inform and help to bring out implicit aspects of each topic. Each chapter ends with a set of very hard, very pointed questions that allow the reader to reflect upon his or her own state with respect to the Ascent to God.

In coming days I hope to quote more from this book and to share more of Fr. Beck's insights. In the meantime, if this excerpt interests you, you might do well to seek the book out on your own and not wait for what small portions I might share.

Bookmark and Share

Present Reading


I have a large number of things going at the present time:

Purgatorio--I had started this much earlier, but then considered what rewarding reading it might be through this season during which we remember the faithful departed and are reminded of our responsibility toward them.

The Moviegoer--I read this novel by Walker Percy in the beforetimes, however, I have forgotten it completely and wanted to reacquaint myself with some of its contours. In short, I was wondering why it was though worthy of the National Book Award in its time.

Founding Father:Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser and His Excellency by Joseph Ellis, probably soon to be joined by 1776 by David McCullough--All inspired by the inspiration and dedication of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Society--about which, perhaps, more later.

Soul Provider by Edward L. Beck--A book recently received in the mail and claiming to be something of a reworking of St. John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent. I know only that indulging myself in a few lines of the introduction, I found myself lured in and enormously entertained by the first example in the book. Again, more later if time permits.

Bookmark and Share

The Rake

| | Comments (1)

In this slight politcal story by William F. Buckley Jr. a deplorable character reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kerry combined comes to his rightful and righteous end. I didn't know that Mr. Buckley engaged in the composition of fairy tales, high fantasy, or merely wishful thinking.

The chief character of the novel, the Rake, is a student in the university of North Dakota who gets his girlfriend pregnant, runs off to Canada to marry her and spend the rest of his life and political career ignoring that first marriage, engaging in a second and unfaithful to any. He has a dubious record in Vietnam etc., etc., etc.

While the book is well written, compellingly readable, and composed with the aplomb and deep insider knowledge that Mr. Buckley appears to have of our political system, it is a slight entertainment--neither profound, nor truly provocative. It tells one nothing more than one's own prejudice is willing to have confirmed.

Even so, for those who like political novels and even novels of manners, The Rake is a fine piece of entertaining reading.

Bookmark and Share

Envious Casca


(Warning: Oblique spoiler for the astute reader--I'm assuming most blogs are scanned so most people are safe.)

Georgette Heyer did not write only Regency romances. At some point in her career she wrote a number of mysteries in the classic tradition. Envious Casca is one of these.

As a mystery, it is fairly obvious from about midway through who was responsible for the crime. (In retrospect, properly framed, it is clear from the title alone who did it.) How the crime was committed is an interesting piece of work and ultimately revealed by one clue that becomes positively annoying in the frequency of its presentation--annoying more for the fact that it is so oblique than that it is an irritant.

The trademark work of Ms. Heyer is here in all of its glory--the witty observations, the incisive cutting through to the root of character, the dialogue, the description, the atmosphere. The writing is clean and clear and the characters marvelously drawn and well-assembled.

While Ms. Heyer lacks the incredible creativity and astute plotting that might mark out Dame Christie, Ellery Queen, or John Dickson Carr, she is one of those Golden Age writers whom I have too long neglected. (Even when I began to read her romances, I didn't give a second thought to the mysteries--partially because I had forgotten them.)

For a delightful light read in the classic mystery tradition, you could do worse than Envious Casca.

Bookmark and Share

All Saints


Perhaps it is appropriate to record this day with something Sam shared with me.

On Sunday, Sam went on a hayride at a Church Harvest Festival in Inwood, West Virginia. The parish priest drove the tractor that pulled the haywagon around the church and into the fields. I asked Sam what happened on the trip, where did they go?

"To a cemetery."

" A cemetery?" I asked.

"Yes, and Father said that some people are afraid of cemeteries, but a cemetery wasn't a place to be afraid of. It was a place where the people you knew here started on their way to Jesus and that was a good thing."

I don't know enough to comment on the theology implicit in that explanation, but I will be thankful to Father Bryan for a long time for what he said to Sam. It was a beautiful explanation and something that I hope Sam carries with him for a long time. I hope I also am wise enough to learn from Father.

Bookmark and Share

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle


Even though my agenda-detection device hummed through the entire course of this work by Barbara Kingsolver, I have to admit, I LOVED it.

What did I love about it? A great deal. In all, I can't argue with much of what Ms. Kingsolver points out in the course of the book. Our present food supply business is dangerously based upon a fragile monoculture that is controlled in large part by several industrial/chemical firms. One case of corn-rust and the food base is demolished.

Secondly, the lack of buying locally damages local farmers and as a result local communities. It imperils a ways of life that has been foundational in the structure of American Society from the founding of this country. But more importantly it does deprive each of us of some of the genuine pleasures that come from seeing a crop grow, of eating from the bounty of that harvest table, food that is freshly brought from the fields.

Thirdly, Kingsolver produces one of the most profound and wise arguments against the Vegan assault on sensibilities I have seen in a long time. That's right, she doesn't even let the vegan's off the hook.

Finally, while Kingsolver is committed to her line of action she is not unsympathetic to the plight of many who cannot afford to live in the way she describes. She is absolutely certain that the way of life she describes is a good one, the right one, and the one that would foster the good of the community and individual--but she doesn't rail against those who disagree or those who would be unable to commit to this much time and energy invested in the raising of food.

The book is a mediation on the miracle of eating with the seasons, of the richness of harvest and of knowing precisely where your food comes from and how it gets to table. It is an intimate history of eating, of food, and of community. There are touching and beautiful moments in the book and hilariously funny ones. One that I haven't mentioned in previous posts is the love-sick turkey who, as a chick imprinted on a human male. You have to read it to get the amusing and touching outcome.

One last point--on my recent trip, I was able to drive through some of the country that Barbara Kingsolver extols in the book, and once again found myself mysteriously drawn to a place that I have no claim on, but which obviously has staked its claim firmly in me. I hope to right more about that later.

In fine--Recommended. For those interested in food and in eating locally and in the slow food movement and in the expansion of the food market--Critical reading. But if you pick it up for any reason at all, just join in the enjoyment of the seasons, in the beauty of the feast, and in the miracle that is the cycle of food and life.

Bookmark and Share



About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from November 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

October 2007 is the previous archive.

December 2007 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll