Thursday, February 28, 2013

The (heart) break of dawn

It would be hard to imagine a day more emotional than yesterday, when Benedict XVI made his final public appearance in his Wednesday General Audience.  For all the talk, all the discussion, all the controversy - yesterday was the day of heartbreak, when it all started to become real.  Perhaps it was the shot at the right, of many of the Cardinals in attendance overcome by emotion.  Perhaps it was the caption on EWTN's live coverage, which read "Final General Audience of Benedict XVI."

Usually we don't have this knowledge in the Catholic Church - sure, in the last days of John Paul II and Paul VI and John XXIII we knew that the end was near, that it wasn't long now - but this was so different.  The Holy Father standing before us, giving his love to his flock and receiving theirs in return, everyone knowing that this was the end (or near it) and yet he was still with us, among us for the time being.  It was a scene of indescribable drama, which is why these words themselves do so little to encapsulate it.  Benedict's farewell tour of St. Peter's Square, jammed with over 200,000 people coming to say goodbye - again, we don't generally get the chance to say goodbye to our popes, and after witnessing the scene one can understand why so many people hate goodbyes.

And now begins the time of Benedict's martyrdom. I mentioned in yesterday's Opera Wednesday having recently seen the opera Assassinio nella cattedrale, Pizzetti's adaptation of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, in which Thomas Becket faces down his impending death at the hands of Henry II's henchmen.   I do plan to write about this opera next week, because it is timely on so many levels, but here a word or two seems appropriate.  I mention Benedict's martyrdom, because when a man becomes pope his old life dies, and he is (in a sense) reborn into a new ministry, a new relationship with both God and man.  Some of the traddies who've been having kittens about Benedict's abdication sputter "He can't do this!  He's supposed to die as pope!"

What they miss, I think, is that in abdicating the papacy Benedict is dying, in a sense.  He is laying down his new life - that of being pope - in order that his people might be saved from what he sees as a grave threat, one that requires a younger and more physically vigorous man to act as shepherd.  He is, in other words, laying down his papacy for love of his flock.  He now becomes evermore a man in this world, but not of it.  He enters into a new and likely deeper relationship with God, uniting himself through prayer, continuing to lead - but in a new, perhaps more profound, dimension.

And as we continue through this penitential season of Lent it might do us some good to pause for a moment and consider how we, his most difficult sheep, have contributed to this drama.  In the Good Friday liturgy it is the congregation who assume the role of the mobs at Christ's Passion, and we are given the lines "Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!" It is an uncomfortable moment to be sure, because it strikes so close to the bone.  So perhaps we should all take time to think of how we've helped to create the martyrdom of Benedict, through our disobedience, our obstinance, our so often hearing his words but not listening to them.

Benedict reassured us yesterday that "I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord."  John the Evangelist reminds us that when Christ came into the world His people knew Him not, and I think it's fair to say that many (most? all?) of us have helped to drive a nail or two into the Cross that Benedict now carries.

In the Western, the great American contribution to storytelling, the story usually ends with the hero walking into the sunset.  This is oftentimes a bittersweet moment in the movies, for while the hero may emerge triumphant, he frequently does so at great human cost.  Today, Benedict himself will walk into the sunset, his papacy done, his work just beginning.  I began this piece by saying that it was hard to imagine how today could be more difficult than yesterday.  But, at 2:00 ET this afternoon, the reality will sink in.  We will be in sede vacante, the papal crest will change, and we will be left to wait and pray that we get the pope we need, not the one we deserve.  And though I am not an emotional man, it will be difficult to restrain a lump in the throat, a tear in the corner of the eye, for as the reality sinks in, we will all find out just how much more difficult the day can be.

UPDATE: For a touching tribute to Benedict's papacy, I recommend this article from Rorate-Coeli. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Van Cliburn, R.I.P.

I had been told, by a friend in Dallas, to expect this news shortly, but it was still sad to hear.

 Van Cliburn came from a time when a classical musician could be not only famous, but heroic.  His victory in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was at once both a triumph for America in the Cold War and a victory for international brotherhood.  Khrushchev, asked by the judges if it was permissible to make the award to a foreigner, replied, "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize." He was feted in both countries, received a ticker-tape parade in New York, and forever after remained one of the best-known pianists in the world.  CNN reported that he performed for every American president since Harry Truman, and I can believe it.  If Billy Graham is America's preacher, Van Cliburn was America's pianist.

But as great a pianist as he may have been (and there are those who think he could have become even better had he not chosen to embrace his celebrity as a way to spread goodwill), I think of Cliburn as even more admirable as a witness to the power of art.  At the end of that parade in NYC, as he was presented with the keys to the city, his words sent a message that we all really ought to take to heart.

"Because I'm only one of many. I'm only a witness and a messenger," he said. "Because I believe so much in the beauty, the construction, the architecture invisible, the importance for all generations, for young people to come that it will help their minds, develop their attitudes and give them values. That is why I'm so grateful that you have honored me in that spirit."

That speaks not only to the power of art, but also the power of witness.  Who knows how many people were influenced by Van Cliburn through the years?  How many may have been introduced to classical music, and had their lives affected in some way?  How many came to understand that unique power of music, and how it can only be a Divine Gift of an invisible Architect?  How many looked at him and may not have had the gifts he had, may not have been interested in music, but thought to themselves that because he could make a difference, so could they?

That's not a bad legacy to leave.  And the guy could twirl the ivories, too.

Here's a great clip of Van Cliburn as the mystery guest on What's My Line?

And here is a retrospective on Cliburn's remarkable life. 

Hard to picture them as operas...

If you’re like me (and goodness knows, you should be), you probably can’t count the number of times you’ve sat at home watching The Manchurian Candidate on DVD and thinking to yourself, “This movie isn’t bad, but I’d really like to see it as an opera!” If you have had that thought (and I confess, I haven’t), the Minnesota Opera has heard you:  "The Minnesota Opera is commissioning a work based on The Manchurian Candidate, the 1959 political thriller that also was adapted into two movies...The new opera is scheduled to be performed in the 2014-15 season."

In the game of operatic-political one-upmanship, the Fort Worth Opera isn’t taking this lying down: Fort Worth Opera commissions work about JFK’s final day.

I’m not entirely sure what to think of these two developments, although I suspect they’ll either be works of genius or complete train wrecks. Of the two, I lean slightly toward the JFK opera, based solely on the success of John Adams’ Nixon in China. I would never have thought that would make a successful opera, let alone that I would have found it strangely affecting, and to that point it would seem that the story of JFK’s last day lends itself structurally and dramatically to a more compelling story.

I'm more leery when it comes to The Manchurian Candidate, though. First of all, unlike JFK, it’s a work of fiction, and whereas you can interpret many facets of a real-life story (precisely because there are so many of them), an existing work of fiction has a much narrower frame of reference with which to work. You can cite the fact that Candidate has already existed as a book and two different movies, but in doing so you invite the second challenge: the iconic status of the original 1962 movie, which starred Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. I haven’t seen the Denzel Washington/Meryl Streep remake, so it might well have stood on its own as a reimagination of the story*, but the original casts a shadow that’s very hard to get out from under.  As Terry Teachout recently said about such situations, "it's all but impossible to survive the comparison game."

*The original wasn't always faithful to the book either, but it got all the important things right.

Then there’s John Frankenheimer’s imaginative direction of the original, especially the famous “garden party” scene. How that winds up in the movie is difficult for me to imagine. Not impossible, mind you – just difficult. Very difficult.

But who knows? I’ve been wrong before (many times), and I’ll be wrong again (many times, which, come to think of it, is a reason you might not want to be like me after all). Candidate does come with solid credentials: composer Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer for his opera Silent Night, also done for Minnesota. I could be just as surprised by this as I was by Nixon in China. We’ll have to see.

I can’t help but think though, and not for the last time, that if it’s political opera you want why not remount something like Menotti’s The Consul, as timeless as they come? Or you could look to an opera that deserves to reemerge on the scene: Pizzetti's Assassino Nella Cattedrale, his interpretation of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.  Having just seen this, I'll have more thoughts to share in an upcoming piece.


Bobby passes along a sad note on a loss to the opera community:

Shanghai-born mezzo Zheng Cao, 46, died last Thursday night at her San Francisco home after a long battle with cancer.  Her roles include "Madama Butterfly," "Idomeneo," "The Mother of Us All," and "The Bonesetter's Daughter."  She is survived by Dr. David Larson, her parents, and a sister.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This cheese has holes in it

Classic Our Word

Fulton J. Sheen once wrote that "Knowledge of the moral life is conditioned upon the removal of all prejudice.  Not everything that is novel is true, and what is called modern, may be only a new label for an old error."  That quote put me in mind of a piece I wrote back in 2005, in the first months of this blog.  Many things have changed since then, but my feelings on this banal book have, if anything, intensified over the years.  An oldie, but I think it's still a goodie.

Every once in a while you stumble on something that perfectly fits the mood you're in. It's even better when you find this completely by accident, without even looking for it.

Such is the pleasant coincidence I had looking through Eve Tushnet's blog this evening, wanting something to write about. (It's not that I don't lack for subject matter; it's Friday and I'm tired - I lack for energy!) I followed her link to Doublethink, where she'd had a piece published recently. And here, in the table of contents, I came upon this article: "Who Moved My Cheese? and the Meaning of Life," by Peter J. Hansen. With a subtitle reading, "How business bestsellers help impoverish our souls," it was irrestible.

I read Who Moved My Cheese? once, and considered myself both richer and poorer for it. Poorer, in that I was exposed to thinking and writing so banal that I could easily have become depressed at my own lack of success in getting published. Richer, in the sense that I was both encouraged ("Hey, if he can get published, anyone can!") and in knowing that I'd never run out of things to write about, thanks to the unlimited pablum in Spencer Johnson's "book".*

*Richer also in that I was given the book at the job I had at the time, which means I didn't have to pay for it.  As the man said, "free is good."

Ever since the birth of this blog almost a year ago, I'd intended to write about Cheese. I'd gotten as far as doing a first draft of a fairly lengthy, if sloppy, post. There wasn't a month gone by that I hadn't meant to get back to work on it. But other things would always come up, often pieces that I found easier to compose, and Cheese remained on the back burner. Thanks to Peter Hansen, it's time to move it to the front.

Hansen only tangentially touches on Johnson's magnum awful, concentrating on the business book world in general. And what he sees isn't pretty:
In general, the business book genre reflects and reinforces our desire to make careers fill a place in our souls that they cannot truly fill. As human beings we want more out of life than jobs can provide - and thank God for that - but many or most of us don't know where else to turn. The business book genre as we know it is born of that emptiness; and it issues in emptiness as well. The lonely hunger of atomized individuals invites the empty promises of (mostly unwitting) false prophets. Whatever faults Americans had in the generations before we acquired a taste for these books (and no doubt we had many), we do not seem to have gained in self-understanding or happiness.
One of the reasons I never finished my piece on Cheese was that I knew I'd have to go back and read it again in order to get my facts straight, and I figured I'd wait for a really, really bad sin to pop up in confession so that I might suggest to the priest that I read Cheese as a penance.

But I don't think I need to reread this cheesy book to know that the central premise is a dangerous one: the idea that nobody is in control. Sure, as Christians we understand that the strength that lives in us comes from the reality that God, not us, is in charge. So there is a benefit to understanding that we can't control everything. But Cheese goes one step further, suggesting a nihilistic world in which an unseen hand maliciously manipulates our actions, moving the cheese around the maze like a deranged scientist experimenting on rats.

Why do I use the word nihlistic? Because in Johnson's world, no one has the answers. The fact that the book has become popular with CEOs everywhere (including, as Hansen dryly points out, some of the most unsuccessful companies in business today) indicates that the lesson applies to them as well: even a billionaire CEO has to react to circumstances beyond his control. And while there's something levelling in this (the idea that your boss, no matter how glib he or she might be, could just as easily be steamrolled as you), there's also something disturbing, at least to my mind.

For where, in the world that Johnson describes, is the motive in living? Free will would seem to be a farce; your only choice is to adapt or die. There's no suggestion that your decisions can play a an active role in shaping your future, that God has an interactive plan for us all. No, the message is that change happens, there's nothing you can do about it, get used to it. No wonder we look for refuge in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll - or in the increasingly impersonal Internet. Having already discovered the dehumanizing world of Corporate America, which breeds cynicism and despair the same way mosquitos breed disease, why bother to have any human interaction at all?

Hansen does cite business books that seem, however imperfectly, to recognize this. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton "argue that it is generally more important to develop one's strengths or talents than to overcome one's weaknesses. 'Without underlying talent, learning a skill is a survival technique, not a path to glory.'" However, Hansen adds, the book is flawed by the "apparent absence of the thought that there is something higher than being an effective cog in the economic wheel":
The problem isn't merely that the authors are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. One subtle effect of books like this is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers. The book implies, or at least encourages the reader to feel, that one should either redirect or neglect those strengths that have no economic application.
Hansen explains that "[s]mall organizations (including families) can experiment with giving their members a high level of autonomy; but this is much more difficult for large organizations." This would have come as no surprise to G.K. Chesterton, who raised precisely this point in arguing against the dangers of Big Business. Although Hansen doesn't use the term, the employes he describes - those for whom "[s]ubordination and drudgery are inevitably part of the job" - are living, breathing examples of Chesterton's "wage slaves."

The modern company in Corporate America does recognize the existence of human beings, and the necessity of satisfying their needs. However, the humans they serve are not the employees, but the stockholders; and the needs are not spiritual, but material - the bottom line is, indeed, the bottom line.
Hansen makes a telling observation about the change in the relationship between our work lives and, for lack of a better word, our "real" lives:
As late as the 1950s, most men saw their jobs primarily as a means of supporting their families, the most important thing in their lives. As the success of books like Now, Discover Your Strengths attests, many men and women now look to their careers to provide the central satisfaction or meaning in their lives.
Corporate America not only reflects this change in our priorities, it's been the agent of the new reality. And they expect us to put up with it, indeed to thrive in its toxic atmosphere. As Johnson says, when your cheese is moved you don't stand around wondering what happened; you accept and adapt to change, because there's nothing else you can do.

But that's where corporate martinets are wrong, for there is something we can do about it. There always is. For starters, we can reject the world painted by Johnson and his like-minded cronies. We can fight back against the idea that we're only puppets in a deist world, that we've been left alone to bob up and down in the cruel seas of life, buffeted by these incessent winds of change. By applying logic, reason and critical thought we can use our minds - our God-given minds, infused by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit - to determine the proper response to a new idea. And we can realize that there is a place to go for answers, and Someone Who can and will give us the straight scoop, unlike the impotent CEOs that live an implied existence in Johnson's maze.

Sometimes change must be embraced, or even championed (the civil rights struggle, let's say), but sometimes it must be fought - to the death if necessary (the heresy of the Reformation, to cite just one example). The past, just because it's old, doesn't always deserve to be swept under the rug every time something new comes along; the new, just because it's new, shouldn't automatically be seen as preferable. That might be the way Elizabeth Taylor treated her husbands, but human dignity deserves and demands more.

And you're not going to get it by eating cheese that's been left out in the open for too long.

Monday, February 25, 2013

This Just In

New Senate Child Care Center To Open for Discovered "Lost" Kids

(WASHINGTON, D.C.- February 25, 2013) A little-heralded appropriations bill sailed quietly through the Senate yesterday that will provide $25-million in funding to establish a multi-story child-care center--located adjacent to the Senate chamber itself--that will provide free, daily care for the previously unacknowledged children of Senators and ex-Senators who, until recently, no one knew existed.

"This may not be understood by everyone, but we want to meet the needs of the children, which after all, is paramount to our nation's ideals and values," said John Edwards, former senator from North Carolina, who was one of the first to enroll his child in the center. "We all could have been a bit more forthcoming in these matters, perhaps, but given the challenges of issues like national security, the national debt and financial cliffs, international terrorism, and the like, we just didn't think the American people needed to fret about these personal matters. This will also help working families which deserves a higher priority on the national agenda."

The Center, tentatively known as the Strom Thurmond Memorial Child Care and Life Enrichment Center, will provide 24-hour-a-day care for the children, along with limo transporation to the facility. A special unit of the Secret Service will make sure the names of the children will not be released to the public, and large pieces of black construction paper were already in place on the windows of the facility to block attempts to see who is inside.

Former Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who is serving as honorary chair of the Center's foundation, did speak briefly with reporters after leaving the building yesterday. "This would have been a nice to have around in my day," he said. "It would have given us a chance to see our kids more since it is so conveniently located. But at least today's Senators, and the Senators of the future, will be able to establish an even better work-life balance than we did. We can all be proud of this."

Children in the Center will receive free services from trained child care specialists, licensed nurses, and dieticians, as well as free health care for life for them, their parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Washington matters

Today is the birthday of not only our greatest president, but the greatest American – George Washington. And that duel fact is why Washington, and not Lincoln or FDR or even Reagan, is the president that matters most to America nowadays.

It’s fashionable to talk of Lincoln as the greatest president, even when there’s not a big-screen movie about his life, and his name habitually tops the “greatest president ever” lists. But while Abraham Lincoln was unquestionably a man of towering strength who almost willed the Union to remain united, I’ve always had some trouble reconciling his presidency with the values of the Founders. Lincoln created a much larger, more powerful, more intrusive Federal government; he showed scant regard for freedom (of the press, of the accused, etc.), and his decision to compel the Southern states to remain in the Union at gunpoint is still, in my mind, problematic.

One could make the case that membership in the United States is a voluntary one, and that when the government of a state feels that they are no longer represented by the laws, values and will of the larger body, that government has the right (if not the obligation) to withdraw from that union. Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War certainly puts that idea to rest for many people, although I don’t know that he established any kind of legal authority that definitively denies the right of secession.

However, my larger point here is to neither praise nor bury Lincoln, but to extoll the virtues of G. Washington. Here we have a man who attained great power and voluntarily relinquished it, not once but twice, earning the admiration of the world.

As general he successfully led the American army; he may not have been a military genius, but he executed a strategy that ultimately achieved its aim. (Think of him as a basketball coach who designed and implemented a gameplan that stymied the other team, didn’t allow them to play their own style, and ultimately frustrated them into making critical mistakes. “Winning ugly” is still winning.) He withstood miserable support from his own government, used his stature to quash a potential rebellion, and repeatedly declined suggestions that he use the post-war army to seize power.

As president he assumed an office that had been virtually created with him in mind,* and governed with no blueprint to follow, no precedent by which he could be guided. Everything he did created precedent, and he was acutely aware of this. He refused to impose his own political positions on legislation that, though he may have disagreed with, he nonetheless felt was legal and within the Constitutional province of Congress. He conducted himself with immense dignity and won the respect and love of his fellow countrymen. And, at the end of two terms of office, with no limit as to how many times he could be reelected, he once again voluntarily stepped down, preferring to return home to Virginia.

*In drawing up the job description the framers of the Constitution had no trouble granting presidential power to Washington, who could be trusted with it. Their worry was whether or not it could be trusted to those who followed him.

Like his aide and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, Washington was a Federalist. He recognized the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and understood the need for a strong Federal government to hold the disparate pieces of the country together. He knew that as head of state he represented not only the American people but the American ideal; although he personally was never able to become a biological father, he viewed all Americans – not only those living, but those for decades and centuries to come – as his children, and he saw the United States as the legacy to be bequeathed to them. It was with this in mind that he served, as soldier, landowner, businessman, general, president and patriot.

Washington had confidence in America. He did not see the people as infants to be protected by an overweening Big Brother of a Federal government, but as stewards of a creation which he had helped to bring about. He was admired around the world and revered in his country (“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”), which not only named its capital city after him (and many other cities as well, plus a state), but put his visage on the dollar bill, the quarter, the Purple Heart, the side of a mountain, and many other places. His monument in D.C. is not an enormous statue, a Greek temple, or a recitation of achievements, but a simple obelisk that soars toward the sky.

Some say that George Washington was the first American. I would add that he was not only the first, but the greatest. And the fact that a nation could not produce greater than its first is not a denigration of America, but a tribute to the greatness of that man – a greatness which, I fear, we shall never see the likes of again.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Defiance using opera leads to a DQ at the Marathon

Our Word is naturally big on classical music. We have an appreciation of the orchestra and opera, as you've likely read throughout the years we've written. But an incident last year at Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon XIV turned out to be a disaster for poor Bobby.

After a flu bug weakened me in the last seven days, I thought I was over it by that Thursday and felt confident I could take a shot at marathon #9. About 30km into the race, I came down with dehydration and cramps, and an official wanted me off course, calling an ambulance. After waiting 30 minutes I felt I could continue after hydrating, even becoming defiant I wanted to continue (which I did with a 7:24 marathon). Even was defiant I told a medical tent in humour that I wanted to kill myself off the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno if I wasn't allowed to continue, and those of us who appreciate opera understand the meaning. But I thought I was safe.

Turns out a few days ago, the medical official called race directors and sent me a note that I had been effectively disqualified from this year's race by the medical official who rejected the entry after it had been approved. I was outraged. He thought I was an emotional basket case, with the problem being my satirical look at failure from opera's eyes.

So as events keep adding rock bands, have we lost the art of satire and the look at classical music? When you are taught in your youth failure means you become a beggar on the streets, that's one thing. Failure is symbolised by death as we've seen in entertainment, whether it is failing a video game (your character dies), game shows (on foreign versions of "Family Feud," wrong answers are called losing a life; the term here is a strike), or tragic characters in opera. As an opera fan, failure is akin to watching Lauretta jump off the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno (which she didn't) or Magda Sorel stuff herself in the gas oven of the family kitchen (which she did, leading to the lore between a master's student teacher and her older adult student), let alone Tosca jumping off the castle into her death down below. I don't want that. The ultimate meaning is failure. Sadly, we have people do not appreciate classical music or opera today. They probably did not understand my anger being cast into an opera, and thought I was being too serious.

Mona Charen is right about our society after the Presidential inauguration. We do need a greater appreciation of serious, high culture again. It's clear the lack of understanding of high culture led to my suspension and disqualification, and her January column shows we've lost the seriousness when the Presidential inauguration went to the gutter. "Gutter" music (see the trends towards garage-type rock bands on courses) is not something I can understand compared to the sound of serious music. But gutter music thinking does hurt our society.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jack of all trades

Terry Teachout makes a very interesting observation in a recent post:

"For some reason that I don't fully understand, I decided around the time that I graduated from college that I didn't want to specialize in anything, thus ensuring that I wouldn't become an academic, much less a professional musician."

I can understand this on many levels.  Not that I ever desired to be a professional musician, or fancied that I could become an academic, but to me life can be so boring if you stick to one thing and one thing only.  That's one of the things that's challenged me not only as a writer, but for life in general*. It also, however, makes things a lot more interesting.

*I can't, for example, imagine loving your job so much that you make it the focal point of your life.  On the other hand, it may mean I've got undiagnosed ADHD.

My work as a writer - indeed, the very existence of this blog - reflects these divided interests.  Just what is Our Word all about?  Well, it started as a predominantly Catholic blog but, as I've alluded to in the past, so much of the Catholic blogosphere can be both venomous and ignorant that it's a wonder there's anyone left in it, other than those who like to peddle venom and ignorance.  A few years ago we did the "Our Word Enemies List," a link to which could be found on the sidebar for years.*  Had I chosen, I could have made an entire enemies list solely from Catholic blogs.  But what's the fun in that?

*It can still be tracked down through the search function. 

Truth is, there are many things I'm interested in, and interested in writing about.  Religion still plays a part in that, but there's so much more - history, politics, sports, opera, literature.  On top of that, of course, I started a new blog totally devoted to television and culture; and while I spend most of my time there, there are still going to be things I want to write about that only fit in here. (My colleagues' interests are similarly varied, which makes the blog something of a smorgasbord - we are, after all, still a "Journal of Cultured Opinions.")  And then there are the long-form projects I want to pursue - fiction, cultural histories, more extensive writing on television.  Honestly, I can't imagine what the fun is in writing (or being interested in) only one thing, or a handful of things.  Because of those varied interests, my knowledge of any specific area might not be as deep as I'd like it to be*, and it may make me more reluctant to engage in discussions with those whose level of expertise exceeds mine.  But on the other hand, when I go into my library I'm seldom bored.

*You've heard of the saying, "Jack of all trades; master of none."

More importantly, however, I think that having various interests like this helps me achieve a perspective in a particular area that I might not otherwise have.  I would argue, for example, that my interest in television has greatly informed my perceptions of politics and sports, and vice versa.  Without this holistic approach, you really are only getting part of the story.  And if wanting to understand why something is the way it is causes me to spend time researching something else, all the better.  As my wife says, you can learn something new every day if you're not careful.

And that's the challenge to life: to keep the mind healthy and active.  The world is, to coin a phrase, a big and beautiful place, and it's a crime not to sample as much of it as you can. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stray thoughts on Benedict XVI

For many of us, it's been a year or so of klongs*.   First there was the surprise Obamacare decision by the Supreme Court; next it was the not-particularly-suprising-but-still-disappointing reelection of the President in November.  Now it's the abdication of Benedict XVI.  One wonders how many more klongs the heart can take before it blows up completely.

*This is a wonderful term I've used now for many years, which comes from William Safire's novel Full Disclosure, which he describes as  "A sudden rush of s**t to the heart" (minus the asterisks).  As Safire puts it, "It's the feeling you get when you're having a drink with a friend at your friendly tavern and all of a sudden it dawns on you that at that exact moment four people are standing on your doorstep, ringing the bell and expecting the dinner to which you've invited them." 

Of the three, Benedict's announcement on Monday was probably the biggest klong of all.  Whereas there had been at least a possibility of the other two events happening, this one was completely out of left field.  Yes, I know that in the past he'd talked about the propriety of a pope resigning, but it still wasn't something one could expect

One of the reasons this ranked as a particularly brutal klong was the knowledge of how the story would be played.  Predictably, the media have made a hash of it, trying to apply theories of temporal politics to a spiritual situation, with an added dollop of ideological hatred thrown in.  And in truth, it is a hard situation to grasp.  As the American Spectator's Aaron Goldstein recounted a conversation he had with co-workers, "The consensus [which Goldstein did not share] was that he was either forced out or that he had done something untoward."

The Catholic blogosphere has been equally alive with speculation, rumor and opinion, and - in my opinion* - most of it has been just as ill-informed and, let's not beat around the bush here, stupid. (One reason I've largely abandoned that arena.)  Some of it has been negative ("Benedict is shirking his responsibility!  Why couldn't he have hung in there like JPII?") while others, like Goldstein's co-workers, see an ulterior motive ("The Curia forced him out!  He finally threw up his hands and gave up!").  Some are emotional ("I feel betrayed!  When I heard the news I wept uncontrollably!"), and some are coldly Machiavellian ("He's using his German cunning to prepare a trap for the Wolves chomping at his heels!").  Some despair, seeing nothing but calamity in store for the Church. Some even look at the prophesies of Malachy and see the end of the world approaching.

*An opinion which I happen to hold in high regard.

The ones I like the most, the ones that mirror my own feeling, say simply - we can't know.  Understanding this is above our pay grade.  I don't know the truth of what goes on in the Vatican.  I don't know the truth of Benedict's health.  I don't know what he feels the Holy Spirit is compelling him to do, and I'm not privy to his conversations with God.  I don't know what the future of the Catholic Church looks like other than Christ's assurance that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against it.

If you were to ask for my educated guess, I'd say that Benedict believes the Church is in a perilous time, facing a grave and immediate threat - one that requires a Pontiff with physical as well as mental energy, one who can not only stand up to the threat, but fight back.  It's all well and good to suggest, as some do, that God would have provided whatever Benedict might have lacked, but as Christ says, His ways are not our ways.  Perhaps what God provided him with was the courage to abdicate in the face of people who would not understand.  But again, this is just speculation, and I've no more insight into this than the average man on the street.

Again, we don't know, and we shouldn't pretend that we do.  It's time for us to take "His ways, not ours" a little more seriously.  Don't second-guess the Pope - if we believe that he is indeed the Vicar of Christ, we have to assume that he might have just a little more insight into things than we do.  If we believe that the Gates of Hell will not prevail, we shouldn't worry unduly about the future.  If the Holy Spirit does indeed drive the Cardinal electors, let's let the Spirit do his thing.  And, in the name of all that is good and holy, let's stop analyzing this as if it was American politics and the Pope was the president.  Let's quit thinking of Benedict as a CEO and the Papacy as a "job."   If we direct our minds in the spiritual, rather than temporal, direction, I think we'll all feel a lot better about it.

This rampant speculation, opining and, no pun intended, pontificating, isn't doing anyone any good, and in some cases it may be causing scandal.  Want to do something?  Try prayer instead.  Take our Lent a little more seriously.  Sacrifice and do penance.  Release the burden of worry and uncertainty - a very real burden, by the way, which I think a lot of us feel - and, in the immortal words of Bart Simpson, "Don't have a cow, man." 

A note from the editor

For some reason, the "Comments" function currently seems to be missing from old posts.  (Not that we get that many comments anyway.)  So if you feel the need to offer an opinion, please email us.  We'll try to have this rectified as soon as possible.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Opening Day

It may only be the 8th of February, but it’s still Opening Day. That is, if you have Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

Like most kids, I played board games when I was growing up. My own interests ran toward sports games – games like All-Star Baseball, which featured real players and was designed to reproduce their performance with deadly statistical accuracy. The first game of this kind I ever bought was called Negamco Golf, which was made by a company in Duluth.* I suppose the fact that my first game was a golf game indicated I was going to grow up to be a Republican, but at the time it was more likely because I was a fan of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and the other giants of the game.

*I always liked ordering things from that company; not just games, but books, posters, sports cards. This was back in the days when mail order meant four to six weeks, but because of their proximity to Minneapolis, I’d have my order by the end of the week.

In my early teens I came to a rite of passage: my first Strat-O-Matic baseball game. I’d played the game with some of my friends and enjoyed it, and so I saved up my pennies and ordered one, back when you could only get it through the mail. It was, I believe, a replay of the 1974 season – I can verify this because it was for the season when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and as I set out to replay that season, Aaron hit three home runs in the season opener against Cincinnati, thus breaking the record right then and there.*

*Which would never have happened in real life. The Braves opened the season with three games on the road against Cincinnati; Aaron homered in the first game to tie Ruth, and the Braves sat him down, wanting him to break the record in Atlanta. They were warned by the Commissioner about this and Aaron did play in the series closer, but still broke the record at home. Obviously I hadn’t yet developed my obsession with accuracy.

Strat-O-Matic was a great game, but eventually I lost interest in it. It was a combination of things; I was for the most part a solitary kid, which meant that most of the time I was playing by myself, and that can only take you so far. The baseball season was also very long – 162 games per team, 12 teams (at that time) per league, and since I was playing all the games myself, it was likely that most of these players would, in real life, be long since retired by the time I completed the season replay.

One of the coolest games ever
I was also at an age where I preferred football to baseball, and since I also had a football game – NFL Strategy Football, which didn’t have real-life players, but was strategically quite advanced (hence the name). Replaying a football season meant I could start my own league, with fewer teams playing fewer games. A 12-team league each playing 16 games was easy enough to manage, and manage that I did, for nearly 20 years.*

*Or until I got married. Having my own football league was fun, but having a wife is more fun. 

The emphasis in today’s gaming world is on electronics, hyper realistic graphics, joysticks. Those can be fun, but I feel sorry for kids who don’t know the drama that comes from flipping a card over, rolling a pair of dice, spinning the arrow on the dial, waiting to see what statistically accurate cards combined with random chance can combine. I never needed all the fancy stuff; the stadiums, the fans, the announcers, the players – they all existed up here, in the mind, and that was a greater, more vivid thrill than any video game could ever produce.

So have at it, Strat-O-Matic fans. And if you ever need one more player to fill out the league, I just might be able to be coaxed out of retirement.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Of the Anglican Schism, NBA threats, and Dear Leader

Frank Larisey, an independent Anglican minister who is part of the Diocese of South Carolina (the group that split from The Episcopal Church in November), wrote an article tracing the corruption of their seminaries more than a century and a half ago that led to the historic November breakaway from the national denomination of an entire region that spans half of our state.

A California lawmaker is threatening Microsoft because the CEO is involved in the purchase of a National Basketball Association franchise in Sacramento (see the Jack Twyman article in regards to the franchise's historic roots) and relocation to Microsoft's headquarters.

Michael Brown reacts to the inaugural speech of Dear Leader, noting that his goal is to put Christians in hiding as sexual deviants gain special rights and can banish Christianity.

Bob Unruh reports on the Department of Social Engineering's increasing push where women in combat becomes legal; lower standards will likely be the result. Why do we need to lower our standards? Where would the motivation be in our society? 
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