Sunday, August 30, 2009

Random Thoughts


I think some American Christians would be surprised to learn the message of Christianity is not "Love thyself".


If we knew that we had only X number of times to go to mass and receive the Eucharist before we are prevented by physical infirmity, an oppressive political regime, or what have you, we would never want to miss mass and its chance of receiving grace in that way.


I don't think it's not a good sign for our society that the word "lover" has become quaint.


Maybe there would be less taking of God's name in vain if, every time someone used "Jesus Christ" as a swear word around Christians, they responded with "Blessed be his name forever!"


I think DYI stands for Do Yourself In, which is either the term for DIYing things that shouldn't be DIYed or the socialized medicine promoters' advice to old people. You know, either one of those or it's just a typo for DIY.


It would be well if more Americans devoted less time to seeking to have the most prestigious logos on their consumer goods and more time seeking the Logos.

(Just because that sounds like my contribution to the smarmy Christian tee-shirt industry--"Less concern about logos, more about the Logos"; "Fewer logos, more Logos"--doesn't make it any less true.)


Uncle Pookie: "Should we think it's strange that the demons of sloth and laziness are very active?"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quote of the Past Week

Last weekend I was finishing up The Return of Don Quixote and found this:

It seems to be a sign of education first to take a thing for granted and then to
forget to see if it is still there. Weapons are a very good working example. The
man says he won't go on wearing a sword because it is no longer any good against
a gun. Then he throws away all the guns as relics of barbarism; and then he is
surprised when a barbarian sticks him through with a sword.

The whole rest of the paragraph this is taken from is interesting, but I'll stop there.

Religion would be another good working example of what the character I've quoted was saying. The educated modern long ago threw out religion as a relic of a superstitious past, and he is now surprised when people within his own culture still claim to hold to it and when people in other cultures do things that seem actually to be motivated by it. (Including running him through with a sword.) The idea of there really being such a thing as good and evil is something else some of our more enlightened moderns have thrown out, along with sexual morality and notions of honor, sexual chivalry, and reserve.

Oh, and let's not forget the idea of there being differences in the sexes: the educated modern has for a generation taken it for granted that the only sex differences are ones inculcated by oppressive cultures and so they must be falling away rapidly as we all grow more educated. Then is surprised when the little boys around him like knocking over block towers as much as building them, the college girls are more likely to respond poorly to binge drinking and one-night stands than their male counterparts, and the women he knows often wish they could stay home to raise their babies while the men he knows may not take paternity leave even if their employers offer it. What on earth could be going on?

But back to the book. The Return of Don Quixote is a short novel with an interesting premise: Some young people on an English estate are putting on a play set in the Middle Ages and come up one actor short. They ask the slightly obsessive, otherworldly librarian, an expert on some obscure Hittite subgroup, to fill in. He sets to by first researching the Middle Ages with scholarly zeal, then plays the part, and afterward refuses to take his costume off, because he's realized how much better medieval clothes were, in many respects, to modern ones. It all leads improbably to a return of the Middle Ages movement in England, which clashes with a trades union uprising (or sitting down), and to both the creation of romantic interests and their entanglements. I don't think I'm giving away too much if I say that all the Jacks shall have their Jills and, even if things do go ill in some wise, all shall be well.

It's all very Chestertonian and the only problem is I kind of wish someone else had written it, even though I don't know who else could have. Much as I love Chesterton's sprightly essays, I just don't like his fiction much. I know Father Brown is much beloved and for a writer to make any character that is still around after a century is an achievement not to be sniffed at, but I'm still not a fan. Father Brown makes good points in his stories, but I don't enjoy the stories. Innocent Smith (Manalive) is a great idea for a character, yet he remains more idea than character. The Flying Inn is a good idea for a story and I am sometimes reminded of part of it while reading the newspaper, but it never really came alive for me. The fictional work of his I like the best, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, has a proto-gamer as a minor character, a good idea for a book at its heart, and actually made me laugh out loud once--and yet I wouldn't call it a great novel. All of his fiction seems to suffer from a carelessness about details, and the characters often don't seem to live.

Somewhere in her Misanthrope's Corner columns, Florence King said she finally realized she couldn't write fiction because she cared more about what her characters thought than what they did. Reading The Return of Don Quixote, I found myself wondering if that was Chesterton's problem. He cared very much about what people think and spent a lot of time arguing in his essays and newspaper columns that what people think about the big subjects--God, life, death, love, war, sex, marriage, family, religion--is important and can't be dismissed with a bland, "Oh, well, it doesn't really matter, we all think the same" or never talked about because it's both vulgar and not really of as much consequence as having the correct opinion of "lawn art" or Andrew Lloyd Webber. This mindset may have helped his delightful essays, but I don't think it helped his fiction.

Most good fiction has a moral component so what a character thinks about the big things does matter and of course it goes without saying that, in even the most frivolous fiction, what the character thinks about other characters or the silly mess he's gotten himself into matters, but we don't go to fiction for philosophy, we go for a story. Things have to happen, it's better if they happen to well-rounded people we can remember afterward, and the things should mostly make sense. If an author is more interested in his characters' philosophies than in anything else about them, he's probably not going to flesh them out as much for the reader. If an author is mostly interested in contrasting how different characters think or in the interesting idea he had about a social situation or some such, he may get careless about details in his rush to get to the parts that interest him. In that flesh-out and in some of those details lie much of the appeal of the story we came for; in other of the details are the shots of realism necessary for us to buy the improbable bits. You can't use hand-wavium to explain away a major social revolution happening in a matter of a few weeks; it's not even a good way to go from no romance to romance.

But I'm just thinking out loud here. I don't really know why I find Chesterton's fiction less satisfying than you'd think I would. He had some good ideas, but the execution left something to be desired, which I can't pin down.

Never mind, I still have his nonfiction to love and, having joined the Church he loved, I can picture him in Heaven (or speeding his way through purgatory to get there, but I like to think he's St. Gilbert, however unofficially), and ready to pray for me or you if we ask. And if any Chesterton fans want to defend his fiction to me by pointing to the endurance of Father Brown or saying that The Man Who Was Thursday has never been out of print (as I think I heard was the case) or even demanding whether I can do better, I shall only take off my hat to that person and bow with a flourish. Or so I would do if I were male. Ladies do not remove their hats for such reason; perhaps I'll curtsy and say "touch'e", which sexually confused response [sings "I'm a happy fella-girly"] should give the speaker enough pause that I can wander off and find a book to read.

Incidentally, if this notion that caring more about what characters think than what they do causes trouble in fiction-writing is correct and if that was a problem of Chesterton's, then the Chesterton book I'm currently reading, The Ball and the Cross, may prove an exception. The two main characters are a committed atheist and a believing Catholic who keep trying to have a duel and keep getting interrupted. I'm not far in, but I think caring more about what the characters think than what they do may work for him in this one, since the whole point of the story is the clash of genuine beliefs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reflections on the Psalms

The Psalms have been called the prayer book of the Church and a nice little introduction to them is Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis, which I read a month or so ago. Lewis does a good job of talking to the reader about things in the Psalms that might seem odd to modern Gentiles--cursings and anger (in a holy work?!) or the idea of God's law being sweet.

The most notable chapter, to my mind, was the chapter on praising. Lewis said that when he was on the cusp of Christianity the repeated exhortations of some Christians to praise God was one of the more hard to understand things for him. Why praise? Why would an omnipotent being care if he were praised or not? After a couple of brief bits on this, he shares the realization that came to him: that the everyday world is full of praise and that, in a sense, our enjoyment is not complete until we praise. When we see a movie we love, what do we do as soon as it's over? We turn to the people we saw it with and say, "That was great! Didn't you love that part where X happened?" If we talk to a friend or coworker who hasn't seen it, we say, "It was great, you have to go see it." If we have a good meal, it almost isn't complete until we express our enjoyment verbally. Most of us love the chance to praise a family member, even if it's only to outsiders and not to the person himself. And people who are healthy in mind and spirit are even more apt to praise than others; they will not stint their praise of something good in parts because it was not perfect in all.

But Lewis says all of this better than I do. Check it out. I found this book at my public library, but it's available inexpensively at Amazon in a paperback with a pretty cover, as well as in an audiobook download. I would recommend this book as a gift for nearly anyone. Being composed of short, more or less stand-alone type chapters, I should think it would suit people who don't read much, and it might be a good corrective to anyone who, never having read much of it, assume the Bible is full of Precious Moments moments.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Emboldening Our Enemies

Earlier today, when I mentioned to Uncle Pookie that Scotland has freed the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing because he has prostate cancer (see here), UP remarked that, "It would be funny if he came back as a suicide bomber. What does he have to lose?" Good question. A dying man has less to fear from a suicide mission than a healthy man, and any man might prefer going out in a blaze of what he considers glory to lingering in a hospital bed. Even John Wayne, playing an old gunfighter in The Shootist, preferred provoking a gunfight and dying in it to dying of prostate cancer.

And if he should get caught before he could carry out his suicide bombing, what of that? He would know that the last time he was convicted of terrorism by a Western nation he only had to serve less than three months per person for the people he killed (not to mention nothing for the property damage he caused), and that in the relatively cushy confines of a British prison. Why worry about that?

We in the West should worry. We've just sent the message that we consider the lives of our civilian populations to be of so little worth, that we see no reason for outsiders who murder us to get a full three months per murder in prison. I sure feel safer knowing that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ever Notice...?

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged among contemporary people that some groups--teenagers, college students, poor people, Africans--simply can not be expected to have the kind of self-control necessary to refrain from sex. They are simply not capable of it. Everyone knows that. And yet, when we bring our attention down from groups to individuals, suddenly everyone is capable of it, especially if they're individuals with whom we are romantically involved. No woman says of her husband, when she finds out he's had an affair, "Oh, well, I guess it was unrealistic of me to expect him to keep his pants zipped." No young man seeing his girlfriend off on a weekend trip reminds her to take along some condoms in case she meets someone and just can't control herself.

We feel perfectly free to expect self-control from the individuals around us, but we deem it naive to expect self-control from certain groups.

Last time I checked, groups were made up of individuals.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Leading Men--A Sad Progression?

Last year I found myself remembering a fluff piece from one of those women's magazines I read back in the eighties, in which the author pointed out that the previous generation or two's manly leading men, like Clark Gable, had given away to perpetually boyish leading men, like Matthew Broderick. And I wondered if she'd been onto something and there really was a progression--from manly men to boyish men, and now from boyish men to Topher Grace and that kid from Juno.

Don't get me wrong, I like Topher Grace (he was great in That Seventies Show, he was fine in In Good Company, and it wasn't his fault Spiderman III was a flop) and if I were a very young girl, I might very well want to cosy up to that supremely non-threatening boy in Juno. But, let's be honest, neither of these actors have very manly onscreen personas. Both are physically scrawny, Topher Grace plays awkwardness like a fiddle, and the central fact of that Juno boy is that he is non-threatening. Heck, the girl's father's response to finding out who was the father of his daughter's baby was to say in surprise that he never would have thought the boy had had it in him. How many teenage boys can you say that about? And did you notice how I instinctively switched to a more passive voice when I referred to the pregnancy? This is not a kid you say "got someonely pregnant" or "knocked a girl up"; he's too passive for that. Superhero and action movies aside, it almost seems as if the passive male is the new ideal.
This morning, unable to sleep, I check The Corner and what do I see, but Kathryn Lopez posting that "Jay Marini, who watches [The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance] with groups frequently, explaining that young women increasingly like the Jimmy Stewart character, Ransom Stoddard, whereas women used to go for the Wayne character, Tom Doniphon." Jimmy Stewart normally played good guys, but preferring him to John Wayne--well, that doesn't sound right. Not in general, or based on what I've heard about the movie. Jonah Goldberg came in with a suggestion that it might be understandable for women to prefer Stewart's character to Wayne's: "Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is honest, heroic, compassionate and principled. No, he's not as well-suited to frontier life as John Wayne, but John Wayne is not as well-suited to the rule of law and civilization. "

Well, now I have to watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I've actually been meaning to watch it for a long time, but like that big westerns-viewing marathon I keep saying I'm going to do, I've been fairly content in my ongoing procrastination. But now I have to know which Liberty Valance character is more attractive, so I'm going to be driven to getting off my duff to procure a DVD and getting on my duff to watch it. I hope they're happy with what inconvenience they've wrought upon me. [grumble, grumble]

The weird thing here is that I don't know which character I will find more attractive. Jimmy Stewart did play good and decent characters generally, but he's too lanky for me to find him sexually appealing. And like most Americans, I love John Wayne--indeed, even if I hadn't liked him before, I might be afraid not to now, considering that Uncle Pookie once advised a friend to call off his wedding upon finding that his intended did not like Wayne--but somehow I've never thought of John Wayne as the romantic lead type, even though he did sometimes have love interests in his movies. He's tall and non-scrawny (two of my big requirements) and he's definitely manly, so I don't know what it is. Perhaps it's that he's almost too much of an institution to be erotically appealing; nobody wants to do the Washington Monument.

Of course, this is John Wayne in the movies. Perhaps if I'd met him in real life, I would have done a Maude and melted like butter on a biscuit before him.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A New Favorite Feste

My favorite Twelfth Night and my favorite Shakespeare movie in general has for years been Trevor Nunn's 1996 Twelfth Night movie. I'd seen at least a couple of other Twelfth Night productions, not counting the charming half-hour Shakespeare: The Animated Tales version, but that movie was the best. Maybe it still is, but I have a new favorite Feste.

Unless I prove fickle and go back to Ben Kingsley, my new favorite Feste is Trevor Peacock.

I recently finally got around to watching the BBC Complete Shakespeare Plays' 1980 version of Twelfth Night. These productions weren't all good, but I'm more easily pleased than a lot of people when it comes to filmed plays, and I like a lot of them. Their Twelfth Night turns out to be one of the ones I like. I like the Elizabethan costumes and interiors. Felicity Kendal is, as always, cute as a button as Viola. Duke Orsino is much more palatable than he usually is. Sir Toby Belch (Robert Hardy) is good, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is good, and so is Maria (Annette Crosbie, perhaps best known as Victor Meldrew's long-suffering wife, in One Foot in the Grave) . The attractive Robert Lindsay, whom I've mentioned before, is also in this as Fabian and he's good too.

But as you might guess from the title, my favorite here is Trevor Peacock as Feste. Remembering him only from his somewhat less than coherent or pleasant comic character in The Vicar of Dibley, I was surprised the first time he turned up in one of the Complete Shakespeare Plays history plays. He seemed an odd choice. Physically, if for no other reason. But he's actually a good actor and his short, stubby appearance is no impediment to playing a jester. I really like him as Feste. His interplay with Olivia (Sinead Cusack) works very well; I totally buy their relationship--I see why she welcomes him back into her home and why, other than the obvious patronage, he comes back.

But what I especially love are his songs. You can hear them in clips from the YouTube user ShakespeareAndMore. I love best the "sweet and twenty" song from the rowdy three's overnight carousing scene; it is so poignant, it pulls at my heartstrings, corroded with cynicism though they may be. But he's no slouch in the "wind and rain" song, either, which was the part I liked best in Ben Kingsley's performance.

I really, really wish the owners of the rights to these old TV Complete Plays programs would get with the program and make them available individually to viewers at a reasonable price. I would love to own this DVD, but I can only rent it from Netflix. Word to whoever out there is in charge of this: There is an audience, guys. Make your product available to us, somewhere we can actually find it, and at a price that doesn't make us gasp, and we will buy it and you will make a little money from each one we buy. Overprice it and make it hard to find at any price and you might make more per each DVD you manage to sell, but you won't make as much overall.

Only tangentially related to any of this, is an experience that YouTube user gave me. Months ago I found an old (1960) version of The Tempest from American television and starring Maurice Evans (Bewitched) that he'd shared. Remember I've mentioned how I've often been known to "channel" Homer Simpson and at least once channelled Foamy the Squirrel? Well, upon seeing the male playing Ferdinand walk toward the camera in his pantsless costume, I--for the first time ever (and after disagreeing many times with my husband and his bachelor friends about the supposedly always baleful presence of male "parts" in movies)--channelled the bots from MST3K and yelped out an "aaaargh", followed by a "Men should not have 'areas'!" Sorry to any guys who enjoy dancing around the French Quarter in similar costumes on Mardi Gras, but it was a spontaneous reaction.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

My Daily Catholic Bible

It may seem odd, but I wanted to put in a plug for something I don't use myself.

In late 2007, I bought a copy of My Daily Catholic Bible: 20-minute Daily Readings. (Available from Amazon.) This is a fairly nice-looking paperback Bible--easy-to-read print in two columns per page, well-laid out, on decent paper. Each day (except Leap Day) has a short quote from a saint or other holy person, a reading from the Old Testament, then a reading from the New Testament. The Old Testament readings are in order, right through, but the New Testament books have been rearranged, presumably to spread the Gospels out through the year. (I say presumably, because the editor's introduction does not explain his method of dividing the texts up, except to say that it is similar to the method used in Carmen Rojas' How to Read the Bible Every Day.) There is no commentary or notes on the Scripture. The translation used is the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, so all of the OT books are there. All in all, it is a good choice for anyone wanting a daily Bible.

I bought mine because I wanted to foster a daily Scripture-reading habit and thought that having each day's portion already laid out for me would be easier than the various "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" plans I've seen online. (Easier than anything other than the uber-simple, "read four chapters a day" advice, that is.) And it is easy and convenient, if you want to do it this way. What I discovered, though, is that I don't like reading the Bible in this way. I like reading all of a Bible book I'm interested in--either straight through or in big chunks--and, if I'm really interested, going back and re-reading that book soon after. I don't like pre-planned menus, where I can only have so much OT and so much NT today and so much tomorrow. With the daily Bible, I found myself reading ahead, on either the OT or NT reading, but not usually both, so I had trouble remembering where I was. I felt lazy when I eventually gave up on it last summer, but now I've admitted the method just doesn't work for me, I don't mind my failure to last the whole year.

I'm happily back to my undisciplined, "read as my mood and interest take me" method. What I'm not happy about is the days with no Scripture reading I intersperse with the Scripture reading days. I'm having some good effect with, on some of those days, either reading a few psalms in a prayerful sort of way or saying prayers (mostly psalms and canticles) from the Divine Office at the Universalis site. Using the Psalms in this way, besides being a lovely way to pray, ensures some Scripture each day, but each psalm feels complete in itself, so I'm not caught up in the "must read more, more" mood.

For people who prefer the daily dose to the fits and starts--or feast and famine--method of Bible reading and for people who are so short on time they have trouble fitting scripture in any other way, I recommend My Daily Catholic Bible. The daily readings really can be done in twenty minutes or less. And one upside of having both a NT and an OT reading each day is that seriously time-constrained people could read the NT portion in the morning and the OT in the evening, or vice versa.