March 28, 2014

More from Cusk's Paris Review Story


I suppose, I said, it is one definition of love, the belief in something only the two of you can see, and in this case it proved to be an impermanent basis for living.  Without their shared story the two children began to argue, and where their playing had brought them away from the world,  making them unreachable for hours at a time, their arguments brought the constantly back to it. They would come to me or their father, seeking intervention and justice, they began to set greater store by facts, by what had been done and said, and to build the case for themselves and against one another. It was hard, I said, not to see this transposition from love to factuality as the mirror of other things that were happening in our household at that time.

March 27, 2014

Let's Play....Why's My Bookbag or E-reader Equivalent So Heavy


 Snippets from a Paris Review short story:
I said that I thought that most of us didn't know how truly good or bad we were, and most of us would not be sufficiently tested to find out.
…they watch the brightly lit family scene inside. Looking through the window, the two of them saw different things, Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprives of. But neither of them can see things as they really are.
And of those two ways of living - living in the moment and living outside it - which was the more real?

From Jack Gilbert: 
I try to see in what is left of the light down there the two I was. The ghost of the boy in high school just before I became myself. The other is the ghost of the times later when I could fall in love: the first time, and three years after that for eight years, and the last time ten years after. I feel a great tenderness for all the dozen ghosts down there trying to remain what they were... It puzzles me that I care so much for the ghost of the boy in high school, since I am not interested in those times. But I know why the other one frightens me. He is the question about whether the loves were phantoms of what existed as appearance only. I know how easily they come, summoned by our yearning. I realize the luminosity can be a product of our heart’s furnace. It would erase my life to find I made it up.
From Karl Ove's novel "My Struggle": 
“This is all about purity, nothing less. Through and through. Asceticism. Don’t be corrupted by TV or the newspapers, eat as little as possible. 
          *
...and if it didn’t turn out the way we had imagined, that made us rage against the state if a tsunami came and you didn’t receive immediate help. How pathetic was that? Become embittered if you didn’t get the job you had merited. And this was the thinking that meant the fall was no longer a possibility, except for the very weakest, because you could always get money, and pure existence, one where you stand face-to-face with a life-threatening emergency or peril, had been completely eliminated. This was the thinking that had spawned a culture in which the greatest mediocrities, warm and with a well-fed stomach, trumpeted their cheap platitudes, thus allowing writers such as Lars Saabye Christensen or whoever to be worshipped as if Virgil himself were sitting on the sofa and telling us whether he had used a pen or a typewriter or a computer and what times of the day he wrote. 
Getting things to run smoothly, working to achieve a lack of resistance, this is the antithesis of art’s essence, it is the antithesis of wisdom, which is based on restricting or being restricted.
Sometimes I thought the longing for the terrain we had grown up with was biological, somehow rooted in us, that the instinct that could make a cat roam for several hundred kilometers to find the place it came from also functioned in us, the human animal, on a par with other deeply archaic currents within us.
*
From there we moved onto Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, the fantastic portrait of the turn of the last century, when age and gravity and not youth and beauty were desirable, and all young people tried to look middle-aged with their stomachs, watch chains, cigars and bald patches.

“When I read Lucretius it’s all about the magnificence of the world. And that, the magnificence of the world, is of course a baroque concept. It died with the baroque age. It’s about things. The physicality of things. Animals. Trees. Fish. If you’re sorry that action has disappeared, I’m sorry the world has disappeared. The physicality of it. We only have pictures of it. 

A Diary By Any Other Name




So yesterday was the long anticipated day: the “magic” pile of found money in my amazon.com account as part of the ebook settlement. Unfortunately the euphoria of finding the email awarding me money for books was somewhat undermined by the small sum: $27.39. Somehow I'd anticipated over $100, and many of my fellow Kindlers did find amounts of $100, $180, even (supposedly!) $587. (That dude spends way too much on books or is a good liar.)

I think part of it is that I didn't buy too many bestsellers between '10 and '12, and that's where you get up to 30% of the book's value. For other books it's much less. And I buy books from religious publishers like Ignatius Press, which obviously weren't involved in the lawsuit.

Still $27 is $27 and I went on a spending “spree” and I picked up George Will's new book on baseball and Wrigley Field.  I also got the biography of Bozelle, the flamboyant conservative crusader. Was tempted by a James Joyce biography but ended up requested that one from the library, as well as a big new book on Pete Rose (how much more can be said??)

So that was fun while it lasted.

*

You can't live on bread alone, but some have lived on prayer alone or so the hagiographers say. I've been trying to live off the spiritual high of Monday night's spiritual reading but it's Thursday so it must be Denmark. You can gin that stuff up; you have to let go and let God.

I'm still edified by a single word in John's gospel the other day: “wearied”. As in Christ was wearied by a journey (on foot). Somehow I tend to have this picture of Jesus as being without stress/strain until Holy Thursday and Good Friday. As if he might've simply snap his fingers and bi-locate if he wanted to be, in this case at the scene of the Samaritan woman at the well. But of course that's not what his miracles were about. They weren't for himself but for others.

That Jesus was tired is even more telling in John's gospel since John so likes to emphasize His divinity rather than his humanity (going so far as to ex-nay the part about Simon of Cyrene helping carry the cross). “I don't need no stinkin' help!” is the gibe I get from John's gospel: which is one of the reasons I like John's gospel. I always tend to error on the side of my patron saint, St. Thomas the Apostle, in assuming that natural processes rule the roost.

The high point of the day was around 1pm: Mass at lunch with its pleasing metanoia - followed by lasagna capped by “found” cookies, chocolate chip, scarfed via a co-worker the other day and residing in all their latent power, in my desk. A “look what I found” rebound if there ever was one.

At 2 there was one of those content-free leader chats that tend to amuse me for their content-free nature. I participated, answering the question “What is something that makes your work environment less satisfying?”, saying it was this uber-focus on engagement scores. One of the leaders had the perfect response, perfect for the Orwellian reply: “Yes, we've heard from employees tired of the word 'engagement' which is why we're avoiding it and emphasizing what we can do to make the work environment better.”  In other words, let's get at engagement by calling it something else. Somewhere there's a Dilbert cartoon….

*

On diaries: I kept one for 4 months back 40 years ago when I was 10 years old. Over that period of time we see:

    * Number of babysitting nights: 10 -- (3 Linda, one Mark C. and the rest me)
    * Average payment I received for babysitting:  12.5 cents
    * Average payment I received for snow shoveling: 50 cents
    * Number of pizza nights: 14
    * Number of fights between my sis and me: 2
    * Number of times Dad went through red light that "wasn't red": 1
    * Times bro got paddled/ broke something/ was on TV and got sick: once each
    * Times Mom's friends/family came over: 5
    * Times Dad's family/friends came over (excluding his father): 1

Entry 40 years ago today:


After school I went straight to Joe 's on his bus. We practiced are play called, "Another dull day at school". Then Joe, Rusty, Tom M., and I played football against Maureeen's brother and Tami's brother. Mom went to buy Jeannie a Easter-suit. 

Jump that shark baby!

March 26, 2014

Ahhhh.....



The interior of Rizzoli bookstore on West 57th Street in Manhattan. 

March 20, 2014

Stuff Mostly Unrelated but Tied Together By Helpful Asterisks

My beer coaster with Kindle backdrop

The gospel the other day could be read not only as criticism of the Pharisees but, if reversed, the characteristics of God?:
“Observe all things whatsoever they [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen…They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces…

Reversing we have:
Observe all things whatsoever God tells you, and follow His example. For He practices what He preaches. His burden is light and He'll help to carry it. Many of his works are performed in secret, not to be seen…He loves places of honor at soup kitchens, seats of honor at sinner's houses.

*

I feel like I'm in full “shark” mode, book-wise. Am hungry for text and hungry not just for the ineluctable delights of Kindle but also hungering for print editions as well, especially for classics. Burton's 17th-century classic Anatomy of Melancholy is on my short list, even more so given the high praise of Dr. Johnson (who said it was one of the few books he could read in the morning and smile, he apparently having a disgruntled morning disposition). Then too it'd be nice to have Joyce's Ulysses as well as a Chesterton Complete Works edition (though Ignatius Press's offerings are lame to the extreme - ugly paperbacks! At least if you're going to do paperbacks made them attractive, i.e. use gloss.)

Anyway my Bible-mania is spreading. The proximate cause of this itch was receiving a Folio magazine. (I checked Anatomy of Melancholy on the Folio Society website and it's $180!  No way Jose.)

*

I love the poetry of Isaiah! I dipped into it a bit in the spectacularly gorgeous Oxford edition. It sings, it singes! Yes the prophet does both!

Read a bit of Chesterton's poetry this morning. Dreamy. Certainly uneven but still there's a vivid image here and there and coupled with a Christian underpinning, something rare in most poetry I come across.

*

Somehow I'm not surprised that the 13th century interlocutor of St. Christina the Astonishing didn't reveal the details of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory as seen in Christina's vision. Somehow it seems like God holds these sorts of secrets close to His vest for obvious reasons (i.e. to discourage presumption or despair). We can speculate and some visionaries have given us numbers of a sort: most folks in Purgatory, some few to Heaven and significant group to Hell. Ah but wouldn't that be a bit prosaic, and thus unlike God, for us to die and find the reasonably predictable outcome of the above ratios? Isn't that too human a judgment? Wouldn't it be far more surprising to see 80-90-100% go to Heaven or, heaven forbid, those numbers going to Hell? I remember reading a Medjugorje seer quote those approximate numbers and felt almost disappointed. But ultimately I guess I don't understand how everyone can be going to Heaven when we've already seen in the angelic world a significant host choosing the devil and Hell. It seems unlikely that humans are somehow exempted from the awful cost of free will.

(On that happy note...let's end on something more positive:)

March 17, 2014

Ponders



This, from Kevin Williamson's “End is Near” book, seems almost crazy if to be believed:
It would take very little for the twenty-first-century American to replicate the standard of living in the alleged golden age of the 1950s—the median income was only $10,000 a year in today’s dollars, meaning that a full-time job at the minimum wage today (with two weeks off every year) would produce an income in excess of the typical household income in the 1950s.
I guess it shows how poverty is so relative, relative to what others are consuming. The flip side of this factoid is if we Christians did live near 1950s levels we could do so incredibly more for churches and charitable causes.

I ran it by an econ-philiac and he said:
I’ve heard that before from the Cato institute. Standards of living are an apples to oranges comparison. You assume everyone has to have an iphone and 2 cars and viola, you have poverty. 
*

Another fascinating read was still reading how train wreck'd Detroit came about. I suppose it's a confluence of issues, much like how the Roman Empire fell. The “gun”, to make an analogy, seems to have been the decline of the auto industry. The “trigger” was the African-American unrest and reverse racism, starting with the riots of '67. Williamson quotes Ghandi as saying any self-respecting country will prefer bad self-government to good government by a foreign power, and then adds that Detroit followed this dictum “but its motivating factor was racism, not nationalism.”

And the trigger for Detroit black racism appears to be 1940s-era white prejudice and police racism. The governor at the time wanted to build a housing project for black defense workers in an ethnically Polish neighborhood and there was an uproar in the white community.

From another book on Detroit, written by a Jew, there's an interesting take on the struggle between writing off people as simply products of their environment versus holding them accountable for their own actions.  Forgiveness is much easier when we simply ascribe faults to environmental factors even if it might be patronizing. But isn't there something positive to be said for ease of forgiveness (even at the possible expense of truth?), especially in light of the degradation of modern Detroit's misery (mostly caused by a lack of forgiveness)?  The author talks about a deep friendship with a black kid he knew named Charles and how Charles ended up betraying him:
I knew Charles; I knew him well enough to blame him, personally, for betraying our friendship and his own nature. And yet, despite this knowledge, I gradually came to see what happened in the same impersonal way my [liberal, detached] classmates did. What can you expect? I asked myself. It’s not his fault, it’s the way society made him. It was the easiest way of understanding what had happened, a thought that helped me forgive Charles and dismiss him from my life.
*

I wonder why 2-year olds (although that's a generalization given my familiarity with only two two-year olds) find the simple light game we play so much fun. It goes like this: they switch on the light and I cheer. They turn off the light and I frown and make a sad face.

My hunch is it's due to one of two factors. One is that they feel empowered: they can make grandpa happy or sad based on the power of their actions. That can't be too familiar a thing for them! Second, more doubtfully perhaps, they feel empathy (although empathy is rarely shown by delight, ha). They empathize with someone being subject to another's whims.

*
 
I like Word Among Us!:
God has a plan for you. So often, we reduce that plan to the things we have to do, like spending time in prayer, confessing sin, sharing our faith, or serving at our parish. Of course, these are all good things, and we should seek God’s guidance in them. But they are all small parts of God’s greatest plan: to fill us with his divine life and usher us into the glory of heaven!
We know that the call to holiness can be challenging at times. But it’s not always supposed to be hard. Sometimes it means gazing into the night sky and thinking about God’s goodness. Sometimes it means enjoying a family gathering. At its heart, holiness is a deep assurance that God is with you at all times, whether you are experiencing prosperity or hardship, joy or struggle.

March 15, 2014

Like Shy Animals

I remember the night
on the blank Atlantic
looking up at a sudden host of stars
like deer grazing freely
where man couldn't hurt them.

March 12, 2014

Un-Imprimatured Thoughts

Full sun on a Monday afternoon in Cloudumbus - wonders never cease! Sporting near-60 degree temps such that I could wear sunglasses indoors. Pretty stellar for March 10th. I love the way the sun shines in through our huge windows late day thanks to the miracle of Daylight Savings Time. Sun won't set till around 7:30pm now. Love the way the light streams in and illuminates the sharp wood color of the end table and how it catches the colorful red dust jackets of the Little Rock Bible and New Oxford RSV. Nice to finally use my ballpark coasters too, bought years ago somewhere. They depict Wrigley, Fenway, and other famous bastions of ball.

Added some books to the end table swivel case: “Shadow Country”, “Moby Dick”, “Oxford Book of Verse”, Donald Hall's “Seasons”, Wright's “Transfigurations”, Edith Sitwell's “A Book of the Winter”.

(Later, at 5:35: the curse of the fruit of my own hand! The sun is occluded by my own evergreens as planted in 1998.  I wish I'd just put up a fence instead since fences never grow so tall as to obscure that beautiful God-made symbol of God! But the weak March sun is perishable upon impact and one must appreciate the moment.)

*

Am ever puzzled by how even spiritual geniuses can seem to get things wrong, such as how Pope John Paul II was a big fan of the discredited Legionaries of Christ founder Fr. Marcial Maciel, how no one seems to know if Medjugorje is for real, and how Pope John XXIII seemed a bit too optimistic on the eve of Vatican II when, for example, he wrote rejecting the voices of those “who say that our era in comparison with the past is getting worse.” In 1962 Mass attendance, vocations and marriage were all still pretty much intact.

I know there's no infallibility with these sorts of pronouncements but it's still sort of surprising how easily we can all be mistaken. You see ever more clearly how big the gulf is between God and men of God!

The tough spot the Church seems to be in these days is that over the past century it's tried mercy and it's tried severity (sometimes in the same pontificate - see Pius XII and JP II) and neither approach works too well. As much as I want to believe there's a “Francis effect” there's no empirical data showing that people are going to Mass more or that there's any other discernible impact. But you got to try, just as that boy with a few loaves and few fish had to try. You never know when God might do a miracle, which is what it's going to take to renew the world.

*

Matthew chapter 25 seems to say everything and sometimes I read it and wonder what else is there to say? Sheep, goats, God will separate the two so best get busy.  On the other hand, reading Matt 25 you can err in thinking Jesus simply an ethical teacher who provided goals without grace.

*

Wanted to show my visiting niece my framed picture of her great-grandpa Ernst in a 1920s-era baseball uniform. Bummed I forgot - wanted to test her and see if she could pick him out of the lineup of six or so players. Odd to think that there is someone in my memory, a family member in our direct line, that is not in her memory bank whatsoever. Odd because I've always been the young person, the one at the end of the family line so to speak.

*
George Gissing on his first trip to Rome, diary entry from December 14, 1888, Letters of George Gissing to Members of His Family (London : Constable, 1927) p. 264:
Woke early this morning an enjoyed wonderful happiness of mind. It occurs to me, is this not partly due to the fact that I spend my days solely in the consideration of beautiful things, wholly undisturbed by base necessities and considerations? In any case the experience is most remarkable.
Yes I can often relate to that, especially when on a sea vacation or in a great art museum. It feels like cheating and reminds me of the old 1980s-era book titled When I Relax I Feel Guilty.

*

Fred at “Late Papers” has a fine meditation up:
Lent has arrived, the bright sadness. The public confession of many that we are sinners who are going to die. In this case, a smudge on the forehead is not a sign of exclusivity or belonging to a club, but a sign of belonging to the human condition, the communion of sinners I believe PĆ©guy called it.
For adults, Lent begins not so much with liturgy and ashes, but with the hidden, personal and communal act of fasting, a shot across the bow of those of us who are tempted to fall into the reduction to appearances, the reduction to physical needs. An invitation to follow Jesus in affirming the priority of the Mystery who gives life over the means which mediate life to us.
Amen to that, especially about the shot across the bow of those tempted to fall into a reduction to physical needs. Lord knows I'm prey to that such that when Christ says, “is not life more than about food?” I flinch a bit.

Praying the rosary the other day I thought of the usually unfamiliar notion that Christ would've died for me alone, would it have come to that, and indeed he “dies” in a sense for me individually when I consume the Eucharist. I also pictured him thinking, as he carried his cross: “this will prove to people that I love them; they cannot doubt this!” and thus any thoughts of Jesus not loving me, of being disgusted by me (as St. Christina the Astonishing was by the stench of the people at her own funeral), is unworthy and insulting to Him.

Read also a bit of Augustine's “Confessions”. He recalls his former sins of lust not out of love for them, but for Christ, “thinking over the past with bitterness so that You may grow ever sweeter to me.” Well there's a reason he's a saint. I'm always tempted to go over past sins of the flesh for purposes more scandalous, of reliving the moments in the way a ballplayer might savor a game-ending homer.

*

From Archbishop Chaput:
Prayer is more than just that portion of the day when we advise God about what we need and what he should do. Real prayer is much closer to listening, and it's intimately tied to obedience. God certainly wants to hear what we need and love and fear, because these things are part of our daily lives, and he loves us. But if we're doing the talking, we can't listen. Note too, that we can't really pray without humility. Why? Because prayer requires us to lift up who we are and everything we experience and possess to God. Pride is too heavy to lift.
Seventh, read. Scripture is the living Word of God. When we read God's Word, we encounter God himself. But there's more: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Georges Bernanos and so many others — these were deeply intelligent and powerful writers whose work nourishes the Christian mind and soul, while also inspiring the imagination. Reading also serves another, simpler purpose: It shuts out the noise that distracts us from fertile reflection. We can't read The Screwtape Letters and take network television seriously at the same time. And that's a very good thing.

 *

Also picked up a book for $7 called “Lost Books of the Bible”, a compendium of apocrypha from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Nice to have a reference book containing the rejected gospels and letters. Be interesting if I'll be able to tell why they were rejected. The editor of the collection is naturally anti-institutional church (sympathetic to Arius) but does say,
“It the formulation of early church doctrines there was dissension, personal jealousy, intolerance, persecution, bigotry. That ouf of this welter should have arisen the Bible, with its fine inspiration, would seem to present a plausible basis for belief in its Divine origin.”
Which reminds me of how that argument could be used for the Catholic Church given that so many popes and members have tried to unwittingly destroy it via our sometimes poor witness.

*

Amazing thing, to see the Creator of the Universe, the power of all things, right before me in a single humble host at Eucharistic Adoration. It's an astonishing sight in its own right, of power made small. The whole world passes by; just four worshipers inside, and here the secret of the world resides. How perfectly like God is this, to hide in plain sight? To want us to find Him in the small and fragile and unremarkable?

Archbishop Chaput writes:
Over the years I've heard from many good people who want a closer relationship with God. But they're stymied by what they perceive as God's silence. What they often mean, without knowing it, is that they'd like God to do something dramatic in their lives; something with a hint of Mt. Sinai that proves his credentials.

But God typically doesn't work that way. He's not in the theater business. God wants to be loved and even in a sense “courted” — which means that we can't be passive partners in the relationship. We need to pursue God as we would the persons we love.

I had an image the other day during the words of institution at Mass, of Jesus blessing and breaking each of us rather than the bread. And yet that's not unlike what He wants to do! We must be broken to live. I was reminded of this when I came across this web comment from a fellow LOGOS user:
I was struck by this from St. Jerome in his commentary on Joel (first reading from today): The heart, like wineskins, does not tear of its own accord: it must be deliberately torn” (Commentarii in Ioelem, 2, 12ff). In the Prayer Over the People at the end of today's Mass we prayed for the gift of compunction, literally that we might be punctured — a concept very close to matanoia. Anyway, it struck me what courage this takes: to ask to be broken open so that Another may begin to heal us by His Mercy! Beautiful!

*

Did a Bible study today on Sunday's gospel, starting at Matthew 6:20. It's where Christ asks us not to worry about food or clothing. And yet I always feel like this is a very difficult passage given how many strong Christians have not been taken care of food-wise, i.e. witness the Irish famine. But as one author says, God will take care of you as long as He wants you to remain on Earth, which is to say, He cares for us and it would make no sense to consider God as Creator and not Sustainer.

I read a few commentaries but what really freed me, to some extent, was the limpid prose of Leiva-Merikakis in Fire of Mercy, that magisterial look at the gospel of Matthew. He makes the words of Christ so appealing: While I looked at this particular gospel passage with a “how can this be? how can it be squared with 'reality'?”, Merikakis makes it seem as though Jesus's words were the most sensible and wonderful thing:
“Worldly wisdom in my knowing I know; heavenly wisdom, by contrast, consists in my know that God knows and living in the light of that knowledge.”
“His reference to the birds of the sky really says everything if we read it closely. No creature is more careless and free of movement, and yet no creature is more industrious, than the birds, who sing as they work and "sleep all the night with open eye”, as Chaucer says.
“The 'worrier', the 'over-achiever' who is always calculating losses and gains and providing for the morrow, the person the world considers a 'responsible adult', is here judged by Christ to be wasting his time on trifles, to be throwing away the better part of his energy and talents on a cause without a future. His soul is atrophying from lack of use, choking from incarceration…According to Scripture, the adult in the sight of God is the man who accepts the divine invitation to come to the banquet of grace in order to eat God's bread and drink his wine, while the immature child is the one who prefers to go on eating bland pap, that is, the insipid products of his own efforts.”
He then quotes the Bible, Wisdom 16, concerning the Old Testament manna in the desert:
“You gave them the food of angels, from heaven untiringly providing them bread already prepared, containing every delight, to satisfy every taste.  And the substance you gave showed your sweetness towards your children, for, conforming to the taste of whoever ate it, it transformed itself into what each eater wished.”

March 05, 2014

Pope Emeritus

I'm surprised that Benedict has been as visible as he's been after his time as "active" pope; I thought he'd be pretty much a monk! 

College & Frats in The Atlantic

Well-written piece in The Atlantic about college with the funny phrase "the Weimar Republic of traditional-college pricing":
The entire multibillion-dollar, 2,000-campus American college system—with its armies of salaried professors, administrators, librarians, bursars, secretaries, admissions officers, alumni liaisons, development-office workers, coaches, groundskeepers, janitors, maintenance workers, psychologists, nurses, trainers, technology-support staffers, residence-life personnel, cafeteria workers, diversity-compliance officers, the whole shebang—depends overwhelmingly for its very existence on one resource: an ever-renewing supply of fee-paying undergraduates. It could never attract hundreds of thousands of them each year—many of them woefully unprepared for the experience, a staggering number (some 40 percent) destined never to get a degree, more than 60 percent of them saddled with student loans that they very well may carry with them to their deathbeds—if the experience were not accurately marketed as a blast. They show up on campus lugging enormous Bed Bath & Beyond bags crammed with “essentials,” and with new laptop computers, on which they will surf Facebook and Tumblr while some coot down at the lectern bangs on about Maslow’s hierarchy and tries to make his PowerPoint slides appear right side up. Many of these consumer goods have been purchased with money from the very student loans that will haunt them for so long, but no matter: it’s college; any cost can be justified. The kids arrive eager to hurl themselves upon the pasta bars and the climbing walls, to splash into the 12-person Jacuzzis and lounge around the outdoor fire pits, all of which have been constructed in a blatant effort to woo them away from competitors. They swipe prepaid cards in dormitory vending machines to acquire whatever tanning wipes or earbuds or condoms or lube or energy drinks the occasion seems to require. And every moment of the experience is sweetened by the general understanding that with each kegger and rager, each lazy afternoon spent snoozing on the quad (a forgotten highlighter slowly drying out on the open pages of Introduction to Economics, a Coke Zero sweating beside it), they are actively engaged in the most significant act of self-improvement available to an American young person: college!

That all of this fun is somehow as essential as the education itself—is somehow part of a benevolent and ultimately edifying process of “growing up”—is one of the main reasons so many parents who are themselves in rocky financial shape will make economically ruinous decisions to support a four-year-residential-college experience for their children. There are many thousands of American undergraduates whose economic futures (and those of their parents) would be far brighter if they knocked off some of their general-education requirements online, or at the local community college—for pennies on the dollar—before entering the Weimar Republic of traditional-college pricing. But college education, like weddings and funerals, tends to prompt irrational financial decision making, and so here we are. Add another pesto flavor to the pasta bar, Dean Roland! We just lost another kid to online ed!

That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. Hardly conditions that would augur the current trillion-dollar student-loan balloon that hovers over us like a pre-ignition Hindenburg. But sexual frustration and homiletics would not last forever as the hallmarks of American college life.

March 04, 2014

Jamaica by Morning

The crazy, colorful streets of Falmouth, Jamaica and vicinity:

















MONDAY:

Ah-la-la. Cruiseland, USA. Out the frozen tundra of the Great White Ohio to a  plane taking us to Hotlanta which would then ferry us to Fort Lauderdale. And so  it went smooth as silk, car-plane-tram-plane-taxi-boat in that particular order.

Arrived around 2:30 and after a quick room visit we hit the Windjammer where  I indulged in terrible food sins: fried chicken, pizza and a hamburger.  All RC needs is a beer I.V. and they'd really have it down.


At some point I mean to take an impromptu tour of where the staff lives. I'll  have to sneak and will surely get caught immediately but I've been curious since  I've read that book on the lives of the cruise ship workers.


Read a bit of St. Augustine's Confessions on the aeroplane. He  adjectives the word pleasure with “venomous” given its tendency to lead us  astray from God. Which isn't particularly nice to read while on a cruise!

Also read a riveting piece on Schiller's view of beauty, of how it balances  and engages both our passionate side and need for intimacy as well as our desire  for order and control. The author also made the very intriguing and true  statement that:

“when we recognize beauty in a piece of music, or the graciousness of  someone's conduct, we see things we know we have neglected or betrayed, and we  feel an astonishing combination of anguish and delight.”

Schiller says if the sense drive dominates we become brutish and superficial  and if the form drive is too dominant we become dry and callous.

This reminds me of the stereotypes in the religion: the liberals superficial  (felt banners of the '70s) and brutish as far as not caring too much about sins  like abortion, and traditionalists being dry and callous and living too abstractly.

*

I cherish the Eucharist and to a lesser extent Rosary beads: both tactile expressions of God's  love and reassurance.  Protestants, obviously being similarly embodied, find theirs in the fetish they have for their physical Bibles. 


TUESDAY:

Wonder is not optional. Lately G.K. Chesterton's advice “Don't look a gift  universe in the mouth” seems apropos. (How clever that line! It urges us to  gratitude while providing the impetus for that gratitude by upping the ante from  a gift horse to the universe!) I tend to find wonder in natural landscapes or  seascapes and in fiction or poetry. Sometimes music. Winter has a diminishing  effect on wonder since the trees of the local park are bare and lifeless and the  local pond is iced over, silent and flat-looking. That leaves fiction and poetry  and I've been culpably absent from those of late.

Reading requires a kind of trance best fed  nightly. There's a kind of discipline to fiction reading, surprisingly.  Sometimes you have to read your 10-12 pages even if it's not that appealing  because the next day it will be – you've built that muscle so to speak.



*

Last night we blew off formal dinner and headed to the cigar bar briefly: ah  the magic scent therein! Three other smokers; eventually a woman came in and  ruined it with a cigarette. She obviously defined “cigar bar” loosely.


Had four Sierra Nevada Pales  before the Platinum show. I may be a heavy drinker by  societal standards but that seems a bit fuzzy, a social construct. One era's heavy drinker is  the next's light-to-moderate drinker. What I really want to know is how much the  old medieval monks drank.

Coffee, my old friend, hasn't been much of one lately. The “scarcity  principle” seems to apply in spades to that favored liquid: When I had only a  cup a day, it felt precious, even life-giving. Now that I have two through the  day it feels a tad commonplace.

*

In the novel “Goldfinch”, the author details a rich house in  Manhattan with antique furniture antiseptically arranged with lights on like taxiderm animals. A character in the story contrasts it with the controlled  chaos of a antique shop, with jumbled juxtapositions of all kinds of furniture  with “different personalities” and yet arranged together, chairs together,  settees together. It reminds me so strongly of that piece on Schiller about  beauty being a reconciliation of order and chaos, of emotion and logic. The  antique shop exhibits both while the rich family's house is “dry and callous”.

Can we see the sense/form divide play out in American class distinctions? The  upper class rigid with well-ordered lives but dry and callous, while the lower classes so sense-oriented, sometimes brutish or superficial, gambling, smoking,  drinking?

*


There are two worlds on a cruise: the private balcony and the public (ie  pubic) places.

Embodied  we are - we all have one - and there's a story in each one. Genetically for sure,  but also environmentally given our weight, tattoos, scars, even hairstyle.  Self-disclosure as robe removal, we inevitably tell about ourselves when we get  (nearly) naked and the surprise is that we do so in this public environ. At  least when we wear clothes we're able to project a certain image. Here on deck  our sins of excess are often evident.


*


Bottom line to everything, the answer to all questions: God didn't make us,  or the world, in a finished state. He chose, for reasons mysterious to us, to  make a creation that tends toward the end of perfection over time. So the  catechism says, and I think it rather neatly explains the paradoxical mix of  beauty and death, of good and evil, that we see in nature and ourselves.

“But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world  “in a state of journeying” toward its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this  process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the  disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less  perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good  there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached  perfection.”


WEDNESDAY

Haiti greeted us this morning. A unrelenting sun, shockingly hot already at  7:10am without breeze. Picturesque green mountains all around and the pungent smell of fires from  domiciles in the hills. Cooking breakfast? Or businesses? I can see smoke from  several source but can't make out through the trees what the associated  buildings look like.

We started out on our adventure after a leisurely breakfast-in-bed (or close  enough for guvmint work - the couch being right next door). Walked into the swelter-heat, down the pier and to the central point until - alas - Steph  realized she'd forgotten her snorkel gear. We retraced our steps, adding maybe a mile in goodly and  much-needed exercise, and arrived back around 10, 10:30.

We took a tram (that's new!) and scoped out the much enlarged Royal Caribbean  grounds. Been maybe four or five years since we'd been here and they've made  significant changes. More beaches for sure, and we picked “Nellie's”, a winsome  cove that seemed to have fewer people around due to it being farther away from  the big shelters where lunch is served as well as from the disembarkment point.

A helpful Haitian (say five times fast) copped us the perfect spot (and  likely the last remaining really good spot): under the dappled shade of a tree  within easy sight of the water. Oh how sweet the simple pleasure of dappled sun  and the near prospect of reading! And the beauty-view of great green mountains  in the hemi-distance beyond the calm sea. All hemmed by quaint stone walls,  rustic and interest-adding. Unobtrusive bungalows sat along the far edges.

We entered the water and swam to the buoys and saw the ship, Liberty of the  Seas, big as life on the right. Afterward back our spot, an exuberant native  wearing a shirt titled “Beach Monitor” talked the ear off a young French couple.  I told Steph he should be called “Beach Talker”. A musical language, French.

Speaking of t-shirts, we saw a big dude wearing one saying “Yes I'm Fat But  Have a Big Cock”. Okaaaaayyyy, another sign of civilization coarsening.

Another guy's shirt said “This is not a beer belly, it's protection for my  rock hard abs”. Yes, it's all how you look at things…

Suddenly, without warning, it was lunch time. (I must've spent too much time  reading t-shirts.) We wandered to the shelters and I picked up some bbq ribs and  corn and we sat next to a solo cruiser, a retiree in his 50s (forced to retire  due to disability of some sort related to having smoked for 35 years but not  grave enough to force him to give up an active schedule of golf). This is his  third cruise this year, and we're not through February. Says he booked  this one three days before we set sail at about 50-60% off and thus overcomes  the “single surcharge” cruises engage in. He told us a lot in a little bit of  time, that he was divorced due to stress related to both losing one of their parents within a 24-hour time period in faraway places. Of the cost, $80,000, to  charter a private jet in order to get his mother's body from some far-flung  place halfway around the world. Of almost being in an accident driving home  after a cruise after two weeks of the “patch”, a “psychotic” drug that prevents  sea-sickness. That he lived in L.A. for a long time and loved it but it's just  too expensive now and so he's settled for Sarasota, Fl. Colorful lot, these  cruisers. At least compared to us.

After lunch we hustled through the art market where I picked up a couple  bookend statues. Very different vibe these days - no high-pressure, and they  take Visa! Who knew Haiti, or at least Labadee, would become so gentrified? The  prices too were commensurately higher for this new professionalism. Somehow I  missed the old amateurism.

Then onto our “Snorkel Safari”, an almost 2-hour excursion that probably  wasn't worth the price but… The “best snorkeling in Haiti” is probably faint  praise but we bit and while we didn't see too many fish it was still nice to see  the stark brain coral, the occasional flash of neon-blue fish, the floating  jellies. Unexpectedly, sixty of us were forced to follow a rather narrow coral  trail so there was little time to linger or spread out much. And in the  universal hierarchy proper to the male eye, it's pretty difficult to concentrate on fish with so many bikini-suited females in range.

On the trip back they liquored us up with two rum drinks, stiffer than I  expected. I also bought a drinkable Haitian beer “soon to be exported” called  “Prestige”.

Juiced by the rum and beer, it was back onboard and we headed immediately for  the 12th floor to enjoy the last regnant rays. Leaving a port is a “little  death”, an opportunity for instant nostalgia. Hard to pull away from those green  mountains.

So: delightful day. Zipped by faster than a zip-line. I always underestimate  how much I'll like the “Potokem Village” of Labadee. If its charms are mostly  ahistorical and manufactured, it still has an odd power. Haiti may lack natural  resources in the usual sense but they sure don't lack resources of sun, ocean,  and verdant hill – which can presumably be shared for tourist dollars. Glad to  know Royal Caribbean is doing its part.

I got to spend a couple hours watching the north coast of Haiti, east to west, as the ship hugged the shoreline (maybe 'hug' is the wrong word - we didn't follow too closely). An older gentleman next to me had his binoculars and peered at the third world country, as close as he'll surely get to those little seaside villages.

THURSDAY

Morning ad in breakfast menu
Offers a mimosa
breakfast alcohol,
the  way Truman started his day,
And the Inklings on Tuesdays.

*

Woke this morn at 6:50 but no Falmouth, Jamaica. Still cruising along open  ocean, suggesting that there was a reason we had to roll away from Labadee at 3  - we were too far out to make it to Jamaica otherwise. I tend to take for  granted the ship can make it anywhere in the Caribbean in short order if it  wants to.


*

(Later) Most interesting was the tour and scenery as we went the thirty minutes to Montego Bay. Montego Bay itself - blah, tourist trap extraordinaire. Maybe just the particular beach (Aqua Sol Theme Park near Blessed Sacrament church) we were on but it was certainly nothing to write home (or in a  trip log) about. Local gals giving $25 half-hour massages. Got a complimentary neck rub.

Jamaica looks poor; lots of those ramshackle tin corrugated roofs that say  “poverty” next door to high rises. Funny how the stock images of a country seem  true: saw some Rastafarian beards, the distinct hat wear and the smell of  marijuana smoke.

Took a nice run along the main strip. Dangerous intersection proved a bit  challenging - almost got hit. They drive on “wrong” side of road here. Locals  tried to flag me down for monetary gain. (Amazing how many friends I have here  that I don't even know.) Wanted to run to little church “Blessed Sacrament” but  appeared fenced off all around road. Hopefully do some post trip tourism and  read more about the country and that particular church. Definitely feels like a  crime-ish area given this beach is gated. Never good when church is gated  either. I stuck like glue to only main road aware I stuck out like an ugly girl  at a beauty pageant.


FRIDAY

Last day at sea, oh sola mio!
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

I breakout a virginal cigar and look at the calm 7am seas, balcony-bound, zephyr-wind with zaftig sun. Always interesting to see the “full on” peeps who go with the all-you-can-drink $55-a-day alcohol packages. I probably am spending $30 a day, not including tips, so it's pretty close to being worth it just for the novelty of  having the cruise feel like a true all-inclusive. Of course if you're sober  enough to know how much you're spending then you're too sober. Haven't been even  close to having a hangover this trip - I'm hoping lack of hangover is a sign  you're not doing your liver too much damage though I suspect the issues are not  related.

Speaking of alcohol, met some talkative, blitzed people on shuttle back from  Jamaica. White-haired 60-something gentleman from Poland had got in tiff with  girlfriend and she refused to go on island with him so he immediately met four  middle-aged female passengers and spent the afternoon impressing them with his cheer and, reportedly if suspiciously, his knowledge of European history. They all went the bar route rather than  beach route and were suitably elated.