Thursday, July 31, 2008

Life without TV

June, 1996. My apartment almost unbearably oven-like as I lay on the couch, fan wafting stale hot air down on me. An empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s sat on the glass coffee table, condensing an ever-widening circle of water from the air. A video was playing on the TV – it was, appropriately, Heat starring DeNiro and Pacino. You’ve seen the movie, right? Remember the end, the very end, a cat-n-mouse hunter-vs-hunted turn-the-tables extravaganza? Remember who bought it at the end?

Well, it was at that precise moment, that … my television bought it.

My first instinct was to bang the top of the set. I did. No luck. Then, I powered it off and on. Still no picture, though I could hear the music over what I assumed to be the closing credits. Hmmmm. When you troubleshoot a PC, you’re supposed to let it rest for thirty seconds before powering it back on. I turned it off again, and waited an anxious five minutes before switching it back on, pacing like an expectant father outside a 1950s delivery room.

Nope. Nothing but a black screen. Not even that little white dot in the middle.

Thus began my inadvertent journey into the unknown: life without a television set. I don’t know why I didn’t just go to the store and buy a new one. I had money back then. I even had a Toyota pickup truck with plenty of space to transport the biggest TV set I could find. I just didn’t buy one. Probably laziness, probably a little bit being afraid of looking dumb (I have an allergic aversion to whatever’s the latest in technology).

The first couple of days, I have to admit, there was a void in my life. It was weird, and quite disconcerting. I wasn’t addicted to television, or so I thought. There weren’t too many shows I watched regularly, but I did enjoy watching the Discovery channel, A&E, classic movies – even the sci-fi channel before it started only airing its own lame productions. MST3K was a staple on Saturday mornings, and I always rented videos Saturday and Sunday nights. Now – nothing but blackness.

But then I found myself not missing it that much. To fill background noise, I started listening more to music and even talk radio for the first time out of my car. I remember one bizarre July night defrosting the block of ice in my freezer (helping it along with a butcher’s knife) and listening to four hour’s radio news coverage of the plane that exploded just off of Long Island.

By August I found myself completely cured of my TV addiction – or so I thought. For some strange reason I started, more and more, to look forward to my bi-monthly trips to my mother’s house to do my laundry. My mother has a 42-inch monster television set.

I broke down a month later and bought a new TV. Oddly, I still remember the date (it was September 12) and the very first movie I watched on it (it was From Dusk Till Dawn). By the end of the week I was coming home, snapping the TV on for background noise, and going about my nightly routine. Habits very quickly reappeared and set, like drying concrete. Today, I still have that TV; it’s in my bedroom and my wife, daughter, and I probably watch it a dozen hours a week. I hate it with a passion but it will remain there until it dies.

Then, my whole family can do a television detox. Nah, we’ll just do our nightly viewing with the new flatscreen we bought, May 2, in our living room.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Warrior at World's End

It happened a long, long time ago, maybe thirty years’ past. Like most little kids, I was an explorer. And where did exploration take me this day? Why, our new dining room, specifically the hutch, which is where my parents kept all the good dishes they used on special occasions. Imagine my utmost surprise when I opened the bottom center drawer, and there before me lay – a half dozen paperback books! Brand new (this was the 70s), but what drew me most were the pictures of scantily-clad barbarian women on the fantasy novels. Yeah, there were books of other genres that I was unaware of (one of the books was a novelization of the George C. Scott movie Hardcore) but the two that lured me in was one by John Norman (Google him – he’s written dozen of novels about Gor – a Conan-type world where sensuous yet submissive women are always writhing before muscle-bound men) and one by Lin Carter.

It is Lin Carter that I want to speak about here.

The Warrior at World’s End fascinated me. What exactly was this book? A history? Or a story? It was written as if it were both – case in point the footnotes on every other page! It was like an anthropology text, though I knew vaguely what that might be. But it was written with authority, and my young confused mind kept wondering – did this really happen, ancient history like the wonderful mythology stories my uncle made me read, or is this simply a fairy tale? Yet, I knew it didn’t really happen, but – my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the narrative style.

This needed investigating. So, thirty years ago, I read it, cover to cover.

And swiftly forgot about it, particularly after I read the world-shattering LoTR the following year.

Twenty-four years later, I stumbled across The Warrior at World’s End in a used book store. It leapt out at me, immediately, and I mean, quite literally, flying off the shelf and into my hands. I had to buy it (luckily, the gnarled paperback was priced at only two dollars), and I had to read it, a.s.a.p. I did, while commuting on NJ Transit trains into NYC, in two days.

Well, here follows a short review of the novel, just a paragraph, dated April 15, 2002. Note: there’s a major spoiler here, so fellow egghead-weirdo-SF-lit travelers, be warned!

I give The Warrior at World’s End a solid B+. It was a fun, quick guilty pleasure, having no redeeming social value but pure escapism to the epics of my youth. Carter has a great imagination and a surprisingly complex vocabulary for an alleged hack. He created an exotic world, kind of like an Arabic Middle Earth. His enthusiasm shows through. The characters, while slightly one-dimensional, all boast strange back stories, especially the protagonist, Ganelon. The overall storyline was well written, though if I have one complaint it was that things went too fast. This is fine for action sequences, but for background exposition, Carter should have laid back a bit and really delved into it. The 140-page book could easily have been a 350-page epic akin to the ones that Robert Jordan now puts out. But maybe anything longer would have made the reader feel more ashamed for indulging in this epic. I particularly liked Ganelon's introduction and origin, and how the Elphod (the story's main antagonist, though introduced way too late and shallowly drawn) met his demise: crushed to death by an invisible dragon coiling itself around him.

Sadly, I don’t know what became of the gnarly old paperback. Perhaps it sensed its time with me had come to an end and ducked out when no one was looking; more likely, perhaps, my wife threw it away. In any event, the moral of this story may be, simply: A book read as a child and reread as an adult is never the same book

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


For the longest time now I’ve been contemplating putting some relevant quotations somewhere on this blog, probably somewhere near the top at the right. It’s a fairly involved project, to be honest. I want the quotes to be broadly representative of my interests; I also want them to be moving and wise. Now, I don’t have a shortage of quotes; I’ve always been a stealth quote-catcher. The problem is that I have really bad organizational skills. I have a three-year old Dell PC, a nine-year-old Toshiba laptop, a couple of desk drawers, and an untold number of manilla folders (none filed away where they should be), all containing quotations that fulfill the above requirements. So, for this entry, I just went through a couple of docs on my laptop (about thirty), and found these:

Let him that would move the world, first move himself. – Socrates

The quality of your life will be determined by the depth of your commitment to excellence, no matter what your chosen field. – Vince Lombardi.

Imagination is more important than facts. – Albert Einstein

If you do not write for publication, there is little point in writing at all. – George Bernard Shaw

Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch. – Pope John Paul II

Not bad, right? Some kick my butt to write more and better, some make me want to do much more radical things to really live up to my potential. Not an exhaustive list, but these are representative of quotes I like best, ones that I want to honor with a place of prominence on my blog desktop. Well, more to follow as I keep hunting through my files of junk. I know there’s some mind-bending stuff from Voltaire somewhere …

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chum Bucket

Mr. Carlson died in the crash; Tom told us it was instantaneous. Both pilots lost their lives, too. Of all of us, the littlest one, Naciel, had a concussion, possibly, thrown against the metal lock when we hit, and most of us had some minor bruises and pains.

Finnick thought it was a crack in the Pipeline that sucked us out. He’d always been the brains of our class, interning for Carlson since summer, all his other courses AP, so we naturally deferred to whatever theories he suggested. In retrospect, though, Tom was our leader. When he agreed with Finnick, so did we.

Problem was, the scuttle’s batteries were all but dead. The indicator hovered in the red, just above the criss-crossed black zone. Too low to run diagnostics. Which essentially meant any troubleshooting to be done would have to be done by our brains. Finnick scoped two other kids, Mai and Ron, and at Tom’s command, they dissembled the navigatrix tapes to try to discover what went wrong.

Why the navigatrix computer, we asked, and were told, simply, because we had no idea where we were. Nor did CLAXON, our homeship. The first night on the planet, under unfamiliar stars in unfamiliar patterns, we huddled together around the bonfire, all twelve of us, scared, tired, hungry (the restitutor was shot), and guessed possible names of the overhead suns. Finnick and his two assistants loudly offered theories. The best they could hope for is that we were still in the general line of the pathway to Arcturus, and that somehow the MSC had shot out a beacon before we crashed. The worst, well, we tried not to think about that.

Maxowell did, though. No one particularly liked him, but he was big and built, an excellent addition to the school mungi team. So I surmised his best friend was Tom, but Tom was busy everywhere, getting us shipwreckers into organized survival mode. That freed Maxowell to gripe, ever more vocally, that the crack in the Pipeline shot us all the way to the other side of the galaxy. He also offered his own theory that we were thousands of years into the past or the future to anyone within hearing range.

I could understand his panic. I felt a similar panic deep within me. It was difficult to keep it buried. In fact, in an unspoken way, we all did. I swallowed mine, sick to my stomach, and kept busy with the busywork Tom gave me. Me and Sylvia combed through debris that four or five others removed from the dead hulk of the scuttle. Separating equipment into big circles: one for the science equipment, one for food and the restitutor and recycler, one for the communications equipment, one for miscellaneous odds-n-ends we could possibly rig into a shelter.

Early the first morning, as we all pretended to sleep, we first heard the far-off, warbling howl, and its answer. Minutes later, we separated the odds-n-ends into another pile: that which could be used as weapons.

Maxowell didn’t take that howl well. Something in him … shifted, broke. I must admit shivers kept traveling up and down my spine. The cry sounded far off, but that was tough to tell, not knowing the geography or the atmospheric density of the planetoid. Finnick placed it at five kilometers. The crash site was surrounded by tall wavy grasslike stalks, punctuated with large boulders of varying size and unknown composition, limiting our vision to only a few dozen meters in any direction. Near or far, didn’t matter to us, especially the younger ones. Powerful and deep, something big had to emit it, and the echoes took way too long to die down. And – it called out to something else, a something else that responded.

Before we could even scrounge for breakfast the howl repeated, silencing us in fear for more than a few minutes. Then, the arguing, first in hushed whispers, then in more passionate voices, as to whether the creature responsible was approaching. And then, at the mere suggestion of “approaching”, panic, cold and clammy and short of breath, broke out.

Immediately Tom herded us all from the smoldering bonfire to the shelter of the burned-out scuttle. He ordered two others to bring the scrapped equipment closer, to set at least a rudimentary perimeter, and set a couple more on watch. No one went back to sleep, nor complained of growling bellies, as the strange blue-tinged sun rose that morning. An hour went by, then two, then we stumbled about yesterday’s tasks, little zombies, and even managed a small communal meal. As sunlight washed over us those eerie cries became unimportant, almost laughable, a distant memory. Some braver boys heckled Maxowell. But all glanced now and then at the blue sun, and with dread we watched as it sunk below the horizon.

One of Finnick’s chosen, Glenda, managed to get the biometer working; this device could be used to assess chemical properties of everything from atmosphere to dirt to plant life to animal tissue. It had been thrown roughly around in the crash, and rattled when you shook it, but tests proved it worked. Tom made two of the younger girls forage out in ever-widening circles around the crash site, testing plant life for food potential, and to look for signs of water.

Towards evening, when we finished the last of the last of the prefab foodstuffs, the great stalks of grass surrounding the crash site parted, and the girls spilled out into our arms.

“IT’S HERE!” they screamed in utter terror.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Scary Corners

Skylab's falling - will it fall on me or my house?

There is something called the Son of Sam out there, and lots of people are scared of it - will it come for me?

A place called Three Mile Island has many people really worried - will it explode, and hurt me?

In the jungles somewhere a man named Jim Jones has people drink Kool Aid - what will happen to me if I drink the Kool Aid in our refrigerator?

My mother cries as the important man on the TV screen talks to reporters - why is she crying?

Legionnaire's disease is making some people very, very sick - will I start coughing and be taken to the hospital?

They rescue a planeload of people, also in the jungle, from very bad people, and lots of people get shot - I hope they don't shoot me -

Something is creeping into basements in a strange place called Love Canal making many people sick - will I get sick down in my basement?

Some lady is kidnapped and they make her rob a bank - they won't take me in the middle of the night, will they?

I watch my almost-four-year-old daugher as she watches the television, and I wonder what goes on inside that inquisitive mind of hers. Or I catch her on our perimeter, a bunch of adults discussing / complaining / sharing worst-case-scenarios about current events, and I wonder what she must be thinking. I want to protect her, to shelter her, and though I know I can't, I can at least delay the day when she becomes aware that the world we live in has some very nasty corners. I can console her, and assure her, that those scary places are very few in number and very far away, much fewer and farther than the media or even a bunch of dumb adults shooting off their mouths wants so very badly to make it seem. I hope.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


We have a ginormous amount of cells in our body, something like ten-to-the-fourteenth-power, which is, simply, a lot. About a hundred million million, if my memory of exponential notation is correct. But anyway, all these cells are basically similar. They're all surrounded by a wall to protect all sorts of factories and processing facilities for making protein and keeping everything functioning in top shape. All have nuclei, analagous to the brain of the cell. With the exception of red blood cells, every cell in your body - brain, bone, heart, whatever - every cell has a nucleus, and each nucleus contains DNA, which is the genetic blueprint for the type of creature you are. In humans, such information is encoded in our 46 chromosomes.

However, inside you this very minute, hostile entities much, much smaller than cells are attacking your cells. They're called viruses. They lack that cell wall, and most of the internal structures of your body's cells. What they are, basically, is just a floating piece of DNA wrapped in a protein with a little hook. The DNA is so rudimentary that it is debatable whether they are living or not.

What do viruses do? Well, they make you sick. How? A virus uses that protein hook to rip open the wall of a cell in your body and invades, not unlike Visigoths breaching the concrete defenses of a Roman citadel. Then, the virus uses the defending cell's own replicating structures to produce copies of itself. Soon, thousands and thousands of new viral chunks are floating about the cell, and eventually the cell wall bursts, disbursing the little monsters to attack other cells in your body. A full-blown invasion leads to symptoms of illness of some kind.

Why am I telling you this?

Recently, in my search for weirdity across the Internet, I came across the concept of a cognitive virus. A little monster that attacks our thinking, replicates itself inside our thoughts, and eventually produces only copies of itself. The idea is intriguing, and, I have to admit, a little off-putting. I first ran across the idea in a philosophy forum but saw that there were other web sites that bought into the premise. Let me describe it, though with the caveat I'm not sure if there's anything of merit here or whether its pure unadulterated nonsense.

This anonymous person's manifesto was about something called the Platonic Truth Virus. It's simply this: Plato's insistence on an objective truth has tainted philosophy for the past 2,500 years. Since hundreds of philosophers over the centuries have placed Plato and his student, Aristotle, in a position of reverance and honor, our systematic thinking has been tainted by deference to the two ancient Greek thinkers. The Church alone, in Aquinas' synthesis of Aristotelian doctrine with Church teaching, is one of the biggest infected bodies of this cognitive virus. The author of this piece, without giving any supporting information, claims (somewhat hysterically, I believe) that the virus is responsible for 26 million deaths this century alone.

I have intense difficulty disbelieving an objective truth. Something must be true; indeed, even if you hold a philosophy that there-is-no-Truth you're holding that up as Truth. It's a very dicey problem, one that a small part of me think's really isn't a problem and another small part thinks there's something worth investigating there. However, as far as the Platonic Truth Virus goes, the idea in itself intrigues me, but I think it needs to be applied to an area other than truth. Or perhaps I need to read from someone different just what the essence of this idea really is. The temptation is that you can claim anyone who doesn't believe what you believe is succumbing to the virus, and that's the impression I got perusing the original forum entries. Still, I'll keep the concept in the back of my mind, terribly infected by the little monsters as it may be ...

Friday, July 25, 2008


We gave our all, we ran the good race. Tirelessly though aching in body and mind, set-jaw determined though we knew not what would come next, hoping in the face of brutal adversity. We were chased, spat at, stoned, flogged, threatened, cursed, jailed, assaulted, shouted down and, sometimes, ignored. Some listened, and some heard.

Often, at campfires alone, we’d talk of old lives, lives never ever to return to, even if given the opportunity. The power, the deference, the respect and the money, all is gone, and gone forever, simply because of what we saw and heard and what came to us.

We were not popular; we did not say what they wanted to hear. But to some – that was exactly what they needed to hear. We spoke in the temples, in hovels and huts, in caves and crypts, on salt-sprayed ships and on dusty trails, even, on one or two occasions, in the palaces. We spoke to kings and queens, governors, autarchs, satraps, scribes and merchants in the midst of counting caravans, blacksmiths and soldiers, farmers and fishermen, old widows counting coins and young boys playing with wooden swords. We spoke to whoever had ears; whether they heard us or not was not, ultimately, our burden.

Once, we lost a companion, a good man, who lost his faith. Several times, men died in our presence, and once, a man was brought back to life. We were awed, amazed, astounded, privileged, uncomprehending, misunderstanding, fearful and bold, at times, courageous and complete cowards at others, but one thing we did that was required of us: we persevered.

We shed tears and laughed and slapped men heartily on their shoulders. We plowed fields, hauled cargo off the docks, inspected metal-works, plumbed archways and the plotted the celestial dome with the learned ones. We argued wisdom with the Greeks, ground herbs with the doctors, swam the salt-waters with sailors. We mended nets, thatched roofs, tarred hulls and cooked for armies of mercenaries. All things to all men, it is said, and we were.

Thrice we circumnavigated the world, losing companions yet gaining legions. We knew not where the next sunrise would take us; indeed, we knew nothing of when the journey would end. In the rough chop of the wintry sea our ship went down, but that was not to be the end of us. We washed ashore, and converted the men who tended our broken bodies.

We saw signs and wonders seen by none before or since; worked wonders that none of us would have thought possible. The highest heights and the lowest depths of men were revealed to us. We ourselves – our thoughts, our speech, our deeds – often delved those depths, as often as we soared loftily. But we focused on the goal, and held it, sweetly yet securely, in our minds at all times, but most importantly, in our hearts.

And we wrote. And wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Idylls of the King

Idylls of the King is Tennyson’s collection of a dozen Arthurian epic poems written over a period of twenty-nine years. To me, it is the height of English poetry. For some reason, the sonnets of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries never clicked in my brain, but these poems do. What lovely, evocative words the master uses! Words such as puissance, seneschal, scullion, caitiff, vexillary. Countless others. I could spend hours going through the idylls with a dictionary, savoring the beauty and sublimity of Tennyson’s verse.

Things that stand out to me?

Man am I grown, a man’s work I must do.
Follow the deer? follow the Christ, the King,
Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King –
Else, wherefore born?

For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.

Know ye not then the Riddling of the Bards:
‘Confusion, and illusion, and relation,
Elusion, and occasion, and evasion’ ?

He compass’d her with sweet observances
And worship, never leaving her, and grew
Forgetful of his promise to the King,
Forgetful of the falcon and the hunt,
Forgetful of the tilt and tournement,
Forgetful of his glory and his name,
Forgetful of his princedom and its cares.
And this forgetfulness was hateful to her.

For Arthur on the Whitsuntide before
Held court at old Caerleon upon Usk.

Where can I get me harborage for the night?

I bought a used, ancient paperback copy of Idylls at a large unnamed book store chain for $3. It saddens me that a pinnacle of English culture has so low a demand today as to sell so cheaply. And yet, because of just that it is available for someone like me to enjoy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Calendar Trick

Want to know a simple memory trick to astound friends, family, and co-workers? Okay. How about this: tell them you know the day of the week for any date in the year 2008. They’ll say, all right, September 26. You’ll respond: Friday. They’ll check, confirm this as true, be puzzled, and try again. March 16. You’ll smile and say Sunday, and they’ll stand there, mouth agape, and demand how you know this esoteric information.

It’s really quite simple. All it entails is memorizing a 12-digit number.

For dates in 2008, that number is 632641637527.

To make that easy to remember, break it up into groups of three: 632 – 641 – 637 – 527.

What does this number represent, and how does it tell you the week day of any date in 2008? Simple. Each digit stands for the first Sunday in each consecutive month in the year. So, January 6 is a Sunday, as is February 3, March 2, April 6, May 4, June 1, etc. Get it?

Now, when your coworker wants to know what day Christmas falls on this year, you’ll be able to figure it out. The 7th is the first Sunday in December, so add 2 weeks and you get to the 21st as a Sunday. Add four days to that and you come to Thursday. Christmas, December 25, 2008, falls on a Thursday.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Celibacy and the Priesthood

Yesterday I wrote on two commonly-stated solutions to the vocations crisis that’s plaguing the American Catholic Church: ordaining women and allowing married men into the priesthood. In that post I hope I accurately explained Church teaching on why she cannot ordain women. Today, I’d like write why the Church only encourages a celibate priesthood.

First of all, there are situations where a priest is allowed to be married, and that’s usually when the priest in question is a convert from another denomination, such as Anglicanism, and is currently married. Strictly speaking, as illustrated in these rare instances, a celibate clergy is a doctrine, not a dogma. (Again, this whole doctrine/teaching vs. dogma haziness comes into play. What an ideal topic for a sermon at a Sunday mass! Think of the learning opportunity for the average lay Catholic.)

And to state the obvious, the Church does not forbid anyone to marry. If a man wishes to enter the priesthood, he must willingly accept the yoke of celibacy. But it is done of his own free will. Not all are called to be celibate; not all are called to the priesthood.

Similar to women’s ordination, the precedence here is Jesus Christ. Specifically, following Him as closely as possible. It is an imitation, motivated by love, of Jesus, who Himself remained celibate His whole life. In choosing celibacy, the priest responds to Jesus’ basic question, at the end of the gospel of John, “Do you love Me?” The priest responds with total self-giving, staking the most important part of his life on his trust in Our Lord. It’s shows us all, by actions and not just words, that serving Christ is a privilege worth more than the greatest joys earthly life can provide us.

Celibacy, at least our society’s understanding of it, is too often defined by what one is giving up, not what one is gaining. What does the priest (or the religious brother or sister) gain? A spiritual union that could be described as an eternal marriage as opposed to an earthly one. And let’s emphasize, lest anyone throw this out, that the marital act is not considered sinful. Obviously such a belief runs completely counter to Church teaching. But when one is as close to the Holy as one can be, it is right and fitting to be of undivided mind, heart, and soul.

Some Biblical foundations for a celibate priesthood? Okay. Celibacy is the greatest possible acceptance of Jesus’ command to renounce all for the sake of the gospel. In Matthew 19, He states, “Some are incapable of marriage … because they have renounced marriage for the sake of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” And Paul writes to the Romans that we should make our bodies a living sacrifice to God; the celibate priest is the highest example of this.

Ours is a culture that waters down everything; nothing is good or holy, all is relative to everything else. Celibacy provides the highest counterexample to the sexual sin that so permeates our society (and a small percentage of the priesthood). How noble it must appear to incur such wrath! It’s a proof that commitment can be lifelong, something our culture does not believe in one iota. It is sacrificial in nature, another quality our hedonistic culture despises.

Then there’s the tired argument that allowing priests to marry will cure the rare instance of deviant sexual behavioral addiction. Completely and utterly untrue. As one example, how often do we read of teachers, women as well as men, involved with immoral and illegal behavior with minors? Teachers are allowed to marry. So where’s the logic in the argument, then? Statistics alone prove this to be baseless.

If women’s ordination and a married priesthood are not valid answers to the vocation crisis, what else can and should be done?

First of all, I think a whole host of American bishops need to be urged into early retirement. Some have remained upstanding, but too many have not done enough; a couple have even gone out of there way and succumbed to self-interest instead of tending their flocks. Regardless, it is clear they have not done their jobs well. However, I’ve heard convincing arguments both ways, and I’m not stubborn enough to believe I have the answers that the Church doesn’t. I was so thoroughly overwhelmed when Pope Benedict came to the United States this past April that I place my full trust in this man’s wisdom and guidance, as all Catholics should.

Second, and I feel much more strongly about this, American seminaries need a thorough cleaning out and disinfecting. It is simply heartbreaking how these institutions have failed us over the past couple of decades. For all the details of this travesty you can stomach, you can check this book out. What a terrible, terrible shame.

I’ve heard it said that there really isn’t a liberal / conservative dichotomy in the Church. When you use those terms, those politically charged terms, you’re coming at issues from the wrong angle. Instead, there’s only orthodox / heretical. Faithfulness and fidelity to Church teaching is the marker. I think somewhere shortly after Vatican II, sadly influenced by the concurrent sexual revolution of the 60s, the American Church got quite a bit sidetracked. Only a return to orthodox, Catholic teaching, not only for seminarians, priests, and bishops but also for all lay Catholics, is what can cure this.

No man is willing to give up his life for a wishy-washy set of platitudes; but how many over the centuries have given up all for the almost unbearably hard life and simple truth that Christ offers –

Monday, July 21, 2008

Women's Ordination

Had some interesting discussion with a couple of family members this weekend – one in Pennsylvania and one in Southern New Jersey – over a second crisis in the Catholic Church – one not likely to make page one headlines as that other crisis. I’m referring to the shortage of priests, which seems to be mainly affecting rural areas, for now.

An obvious solution, at least to some, to solve this “crisis” is to ordain women and married men into the priesthood.

Both are not true answers, because the only true answer to the vocation crisis is an increase in valid ordinations. Neither of these two “solutions” are valid in the eyes of the Church. This has always been part of Church tradition, for almost two thousand years. And concerning women’s ordination, not only is it the tradition of the Catholic Church, but also her closest sister, the Orthodox Church, as well.


Let’s focus on women’s ordination in this post. Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood because, to paraphrase John Paul II from his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotum, the Church does not have the ability to do so.

Here’s the reasoning, the way I understand it.

The priesthood has its origin in the choice of the twelve men Jesus chose to be His Apostles and found His Church. In His three years of public ministry, there is not a single record of Jesus conferring this commission on a woman. Not even the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most perfect of all human beings, His sinless mother, received such a commission – and she would undoubtedly have been the ideal candidate had Christ wanted to choose women for this mission. (What do I mean by “commission” here? The ability to baptize, anoint the sick, forgive sins, consecrate the Eucharist – those abilities Jesus specifically gave His Apostles.)

There are many key roles in the Church for women, in ministry and religious orders, but the priesthood is not one of them. A slightly imperfect metaphor is that of childbirth. The honor and duty of bringing new souls into this world has been given to women by God; men do not have this privilege. Similarly, only men can bring the Body of Christ into this world through the sacrament of Holy Orders; women do not have this privilege.

A common response to such reasoning is that if Jesus was alive today, He would do it differently and would ordain women to His priesthood.

How do Catholics respond to this?

Well, for one, we do believe He is alive today, haven risen two thousand years ago, and is present and active through His Church and through the Holy Spirit. Faithful Catholics believe in the Magisterium, the body of teachings of the Church. Teachings may evolve over the centuries, but dogma does not change. (This sentence is at the center of much confusion about the role and power of the Church. Whole books could be written about it, and probably have been. It is a worthy topic to delve into further, but I am digressing.) The inability to ordain women to the priesthood is Church dogma.

Second, it’s never been proven that the specific reason Jesus did not call women to the priesthood was because of the cultural norms of the times. This is just a modern assumption.

Third, this response implicates Jesus as sexist. It says that just because many of the men in first-century Palestine had opinions of women as inferior to men, Jesus must have had, too. We all know that Jesus did not hesitate to overcome and transcend the cultural norms of the times that were unjust, particularly with women.

Fourth, the idea of priestesses was common in many of the pagan religions of the time, though it was not found in Judaism. If Christ wanted to open up His priesthood to women, the precedent was there. And yet He didn’t.

Another common response from those uncomfortable with Church doctrine is to accuse it of being sexist. They accuse the Church of considering women to be inferior, incompetent, or otherwise unable to perform the duties of the priesthood. This has been thoroughly rebuked throughout the teachings of Church, most recently by John Paul II in his two apostolic letters, Mulieris Dignitatem, on the dignity of vocation of women, and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which clearly explains that the Church’s inability to ordain women is in no way due to a mistaken belief of women as inferior to men. Indeed, if anyone claims to hold such erroneous beliefs, he is not truly Catholic.

Those who claim that the Church’s inability to ordain women is a ploy to keep “power in the hands of men” are approaching from the wrong direction. They are framing the question as a political problem, when in reality it is a theological one. To me it is a small but vocal minority who refuse to accept Church teaching and her valid reasonings in order simply to rebel. Such statement about “power” so completely miss the mark as to be not worthy of consideration.

See this for a fuller explanation of the Church’s inability to ordain women.

Tomorrow, I’ll post on why the priesthood must remain a celibate institution and not allow for married men, and my thoughts on solving the “vocation crisis.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Simple Pleasures

* a tall shot of port on a cold, snowy evening

* a glass of ice-cold imported German beer on a hot day

* the thwok of a well-hit golf ball

* the metallic strum of a 12-string acoustic guitar tuned to open-D

* the smell of yellow, dog-eared paperbacks

* the odor of salt dispersed in the beach air

* the smooth warm skin of a newborn

* a hot bath after a hard day's work

* sunsets on Puerto Rico

* the starry night sky in the Adirondacks

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stealth Writing

I've been working pretty hard all morning getting my basement cleaned out. For a little over the past four years my writing office has been down there, along with my "library." It served me well and everyone was happy with the arrangement (though I jokingly refer to it as the "Radon Cave"). Here's the problem. My wife spends at least one day a week working from her home office, which is located up on our third floor, next to our bedroom and our daughter's bedroom. Now, we're expecting our second child this September, in exactly two months. So we're facing a bit of the old "shrinking house" syndrome.

A few months ago my wife hit upon the solution: refinish the basement and put both our offices down there (as well as a new walled-off laundry room), and make her current office the newborn's room.

Okay. Well and good. We called a few contractors, got some estimates, and went with a friend of a friend to refinish the basement. Only problem is he can't start work until August 1. But after some consideration, we decided that wasn't a problem because he insisted he needed to finish the job within ten days or else he wouldn't make money (I hope we're not being too naive here). So, I have twelve days to empty out the current unfinished but very well-lived in basement.

So all this morning I've been packing up books, CDs, and printed papers - so far six boxes full. And I still have to get two more boxes from work to finish the remaining two bookshelves (I estimate I had about 150 books, hardcover and softcover, down there). Just to finish the set up to my thoughts here, earlier in the day I spent 45 minutes updating Quicken and paying bills, showered, dressed my daughter, took her with me to the post office and then the library, then began working on the basement at the same time doing a couple of loads of laundry.

I got to thinking: what happened to all that free time I used to have? My weekends seemed to stretch out endlessly for me as a younger guy in my twenties. My options were open, limitless, really. I had money and presumably all the time in the world to do whatever I pleased.

In retrospect, I did not manage that time well.

Yes, I know, I know, marriage, a house, a child, another on the way, and all the work and time demands they all entail. I understand and welcome all that. I am well aware and appreciate that these are the things that truly matter, not being a dopey twenty-five-year-old lounging in front of the TV for six hours nursing a hangover. I wouldn't change anything. Well, one thing.

Time. I need more time. I need to find more time, to read, to decompress, to do some physical fitness stuff to keep my heart healthy. Time to myself (and my wife understands this). And, I need time to write.

I have so many projects on deck I'm almost at the point of analysis paralysis. I have two short stories buzzing about my skull, as well as a short novel that's a cross between SF and mystery, and a longer epic novel that's got some elements of fututistic SF and medieval fantasy intertwined. I also want to take a crack at a nonfiction book and have a couple of subjects under consideration. But it doesn't matter, 'cause I don't have time to write. No, scratch that. I don't make time to write. I've maintained this blog and its daily entries for over four months. So I can find thirty or sixty minutes a day to write.

There's plenty of examples of what's known as stealth writing. My favorite is Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty and a whole host of those gritty crime noir-slash-tongue-in-check-comedies). I read that before he was able to write full-time he had to support himself working for either a marketing or an advertising firm. He'd write at work. But he'd do it by stealth. You know those desks that have the center drawer that slides out at you? You put pens, pencils, staples, etc. in there? Well, he cleared it out and put his notebook in, with a folder to cover it should he have to open it when a supervisor was looking. And he'd write during the day, and if a boss came in, he'd simply close the drawer and attend to the work sitting on top of his desk.

I like that. Stealth writing. Now, to brainstorm ...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Charles Ives

Charles Ives is one of the most baffling composers, stylistically speaking, you’ll ever hear. It is impossible to categorize him, except, perhaps, as a pre-modern "modern." Eclectic, abrasive (or abusive) to the ear, a man who requires you to work when you listen to his music. Yet some of his pieces move me unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. He lived from 1874 until 1954, almost eighty years, and he’s one of the most antithetical of musicians who ever lived.

After listening to a wide selection of his music, it’s obvious he has no predecessors. It’s also apparent that he’s had no true imitators, either. His music is truly experimental, before "experimental" became commonplace. Some have labeled his music grotesque, and I agree, much of it is. He departed from conventional tonal music years before it would be made avant garde by composers like Schoenberg, Webern, and Stravinsky. What sums up his philosophy? Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but as for his composing technique Ives essentially combined American melodies and tunes, Americana if you will, and mixed them with what we consider "classical" music (or perhaps "romantic" music by this point – it was the late 19th century) and the result was something extremely discordant and dissonant that somehow worked.

What begat this man and this never-before-heard style of music?

Simple: his father. Charles’ dad, George, was a well-known band master, and like his son a New Englander through-and-through. The boy picked up the cornet, eventually becoming competent enough to play in his father’s band. George saw in Charles a tabula rasa, and implemented a rigorous training program upon his son. Two words and two words only suffice to describe Charles’ early musical training: unorthodox and unconventional. The primary rule was to experiment, to investigate, to see where music could go and only after that see where it had been.

What type of training are we talking here? Well, dad would play a fairly well-known hymn on the piano, say, in the key of E. And he’d have Charles stand and sing the lyrics to the song – but he’d be forced to sing it in the key of F#. They’d do it over and over, familiarizing themselves with the tensions, the unresolved peculiarities that the warring keys brought out, discovering what worked well, what working somewhat well, and what worked less than somewhat well. Then they’d do it in different keys, different intervals.

Charles started to compose. Quite soon, by his fourteenth birthday, George’s band performed his son’s first work, "A Holiday Quick Step."

Yale called when Ives turned twenty. I’m not sure what exactly he studied there, but if he didn’t major in music it was a big part of the program. Charles tried to conform, tried to study all the "classical" methods of composition. His first symphony, rife with European influence decades old, was a bland failure. A few years later, his second symphony, while still containing derivations of Beethoven and Dvorak, also included some passing references to American hymns and songs. Closer, in the right direction, but still not there.

He left the University after four years (I don’t know if he was graduated or not), moved to New York City and sold insurance. And sold, and sold, and sold some more. So much so that he co-founded an insurance firm a few years later, and quickly became financially independent, providing freedom for the remainder of his life.

Intelligent enough to realize that he was ahead of the times, or perhaps completely out of time, Charles knew there was no market for his music. It would never be fashionable, nor commercially viable. So he wrote for the pure enjoyment of it, for the mental exercise, for the creative release. Never with publication or performance as the end. So as he made his millions in downtown New York none of his coworkers knew of the sublime and extraordinary music he was creating every night.

The major productive portion of his life lasted twenty-seven years, from 1901 until 1928. In that period Ives composed his Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Concord Sonata for piano, Three Places in New England, the Holiday Symphony, four violin sonatas, Tone Roads for small orchestra, and a score of smaller orchestral works. His personality during this period, from those that knew and worked with him, was one of openness, completely lacking in pretension. He was always receptive and willing to try new ideas, as a few minutes of listening to any of these pieces will reveal to you.

At the end of this period illness overtook him; by 1930 he decided to retire completely from the insurance racket. He and his family relocated to a farm in Connecticut, and though he suffered from diabetes and heart disease, he lived another twenty-four years.

His music crept into the public consciousness very, very slowly, at first only through limited circulated copies distributed among his closest friends. A smattering of philharmonic performances here and there. Then – the Third Symphony managed to win a Pulitzer Price in 1947. Still, though, the Second was not publicly performed until four years later, and the Fourth not at all until eleven years after his death.

In 1960 his widow donated his manuscripts to Yale where they were methodically catalogued. Thirteen years later the Charles Ives Society was formed with the aim of performances of his works. And thirteen years after that, the two CDs which I have heard (and the one that I purchased) were recorded and pressed.

My personal favorite, the work that made me forget the traffic I was driving in and furiously search for the replay button on my car’s CD player: Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day, the last movement from A Symphony: New England Holidays. The music quickens, building theme upon theme, mismatched, tense, increasing in volume and density, until choral resolution, though, true to form, not in a straight 4-4 reading but drawn out, over climactic symphonic release –

O God, beneath Thy guiding hand
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea;
And when they trod the wintry strand,
With prayer and psalm they worshipped Thee.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Flower and Eagle

Two short and potent poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892):


Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies; –
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower – but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

I once read that this poem sums up the main difference between the Western mind and the Eastern mind. Tennyson, obviously an example of the Western point of view near its fullest, observes a flower that catches his eye. It could be the most beautiful and vivid specimen he’s ever beheld or something simple and commonplace as a dandelion; he doesn’t say. Put he plucks it out, studies it, contemplates such a wondrous thing, a thing created and alive, revealing his own inabilities. How can he understand the anything if he can’t even know what this flower is? But he does intuit a glimpse of the Almighty in that little flower. Such is the Western analytical mind in motion and in contemplation. The Eastern mind, it is argued, would see the flower, come to similar conclusions, but – would not pluck it from the wall.


He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Couple of things fly out at us here. There’s Tennyson’s vibrant choice of words: crag, ringed, azure, wrinkled, crawls, thunderbolt. Notice the alliteration with the hard-c’s. Then we have the two-syllable adjective and one-syllable noun pairs: crooked hands, lonely lands, azure world, wrinkled sea, mountain walls. In fact, the only word longer than two syllables is thunderbolt – how that calls out for our attention. There’s also the tension between passivity in the first stanza and activity in the second. Oh, the sheer power of that final line. But think of this as a slight twist to this denouement – perhaps, just perhaps, our magnificent creature is not falling the hundreds of feet landward to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Perhaps he himself is the prey, a victim, possibly, of the hunter’s aim? Sacrilege, no?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I know what I should do to be happy.

Do you? I think you do. I think we all do. It may take a bit of digging, a bit of searching and exploration, but I think if you gave someone a pencil and paper and set the egg timer for three minutes and say: “Write down what will make you happy!” that sheet will be filled with all sorts of answers.

But why don’t I do it? That is, why don’t I do those things that will make me happy, or at least lead to the future realization of happiness? Why?

Let’s assume X will make you happy. It could be anything from a new career, traveling through an exciting country, getting season tickets to your favorite team, getting married, even doubling your salary, though we all know that money as an end does not bring happiness. It doesn’t matter what X is, as long as you have defined it perfectly, meditated on it, and decided, “yes, X will make me happy.”

I have a short list of four X’s.

Anyway, we’re all intelligent. We all know, or can figure out, or can have someone tell us, what we need to do to obtain X. Let’s assume there are three conditions to be met or steps that must be done and presto! your precious X will be obtained or brought into reality. Do A + B + C and you’ll have X, and, presumably, happiness.

So far so good. I know what I need to do to bring my four X’s to reality. (Though they’re a bit more involved than just A + B + C and depend on some factors that are beyond my control. But for simplification, let’s stick with the A + B + C.)

Reason would simply tell you, “Do A, then B, then C, and you will have X.” We’re all reasonable, right? This makes sense. It’s logical, no?

So why don’t I do it?

There could be a variety of factors. Perhaps I really don’t want X. Perhaps A or B or C or their chain won’t lead to X. Maybe completing A, B, and/or C is beyond my ability. I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, I want X. And, yes, A, B, and C have to be done, as well as all the other items in the chain leading to X. Sure, the task is daunting and frightening, but the rewards will be worth it. Yes, some items are beyond my ability, but I’ve stretched before and surprised myself with what I can accomplish. To continue toward the point I’m driving at, let’s assume we want X, and A + B + C will lead to X, and we can actually do A and B and C.

Why don’t we do it?

After all, we all understand reason. And it’s simple. Do A, then B, then C, and you will have X. We want X, and we can do A, B, and C.

Why don’t we do it?

Inertia? Well-grounded self-defeating bad habits? A lack of determination and self-discipline? Interference from others? Emotional incapacity? Insufficient passion for X thrown in the mix?

Yes, these all contribute. But doesn’t reason tell us that inertia can be overcome? Bad habits, with a little effort and consistency, can be overcome? Isn’t it logical that with some thought and effort we can convert others to our cause? Fear can be overcome – slowly, progressively, incrementally if necessary? Doesn’t reason tell us that if we keep our eyes on the prize, on our X, if it is our true X, the passion will be there?

Still, we don’t do it. Why?

I am becoming more and more convinced of one simple thing. It has to be the only answer. It is simply this: we are not reasonable beings.

We say we are, but not one of us is. Western civilization, from the dawn of philosophy in Greece, up until fairly modern times, prides itself on reason. The power of the mind to think clearly, dispassionately, focused on itself and its environment, bringing both under its control. Reason. Whether combined with faith, or combined with emotion, it is there, supreme, in each and every single one of us, awaiting simply for us to yield to it and allow it to bring forth truth, beauty and goodness in our lives and our world.

Perhaps I’m committing the intellectual sin of extropolating out from my own life. Perhaps I’m suffering from blind spots or not being rigorously honest. As for the lack of reason in the lives of others, all I can offer is anecdotal and experiential evidence. Yeah, reason’s there, somewhere, but it doesn’t have the place it should have, or is said to have, in our lives.

None of us is reasonable. What are we? An organic and immaterial bag of emotions, of passions, of habits, of vices and virtues, of faith and beliefs chosen or chosen for us, but not of reason. Yes, I can be reasonable solving a math equation. I can even be reasonable solving an interpersonal problem at work. But when it comes to myself, when it comes to ourselves, we are incapable of reason.

Apologies for this rambling, semi-formed, pessimistic lecture. My thoughts are still trying to fall into some order. Two major questions remain. One, if not reason, then what else is there? And two, how can we ever get anything done if we are incapable of submitting to reason?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


If one removes the possibility of God, is the consciousness of man the highest consciousness possible? What could be higher?

Must consciousness be either human or Godlike? Might there not be something in between? Intermediate?

Fechner thinks so.

Born in 1801, he lives to be 86 and spends 70 of those years in the same city – Leipzig. Despite passing medical exams at 21, he’s inexplicably pulled to the physical sciences, and throws himself wholeheartedly into intensive study. Ten years struggling in poverty pass as he grows in knowledge, and finally he’s granted the license to teach. To earn money, he translates and writes volumes on physics, chemistry, pharmaceuticals and electricity, philosophy, poetry, essays on literature and the arts, half-humorous musings. However, overwork causes a partial nervous breakdown at age 38, and he suffers a mental condition which magnifies unbearably all his sensations – visual, auditory, tactile. After three years on the edge of insanity, he miraculously recovers – and feels compelled to explain the faith that saves him.

What does Fechner believe?

First, he feels the gravest error of the times is to view the spiritual as the exception, rather than the rule. Extrapolating using analogy, he realizes that he has built his home; something or someone else had to have built the world. He moves his body through the influences of his will; something or someone else has to move the sea, the wind, the celestial orbs. He lives and changes day by day; someday he shall live beyond, and still change.

God must have a body, he concludes, but the mistake is to make too close an analogy. Yes, He has a body, but it does not necessarily have to be a body exactly like ours, only greater. With a vaster order of mind comes a vaster order of body. And such a vaster mind necessitates a vaster consciousness. What is immediately greater than ourselves? Why, the earth, the moon, the sun and stars. Might these have some type of consciousness which we cannot comprehend?

Perhaps we are but sensory inputs, in some way we cannot truly fathom, to the earth, which in turn is a sensory input to the sun, leading up to a chain of larger and greater and vaster consciousnesses, until God is reached as the Sum of it all.

How can the earth possess a “consciousness”? The earth is developed from within, like a man is, without being deliberately acted on like a piece of clay in the hands of a creator. The earth differs from every other celestial body, much the same way as you or I differ from every single other human being. Again, the analogy is not perfect; it is not meant to be. Fechner is talking about a different, higher type of consciousness.

He thinks deep and hard about different types of consciousness. Early on he publishes a book describing what he believes may be the inner life of plants. Man has a central nervous system which unifies sensation and brings order out of them. Since plants have none, it is assumed they have no consciousness. Other various types of life activities take place in plants: respiration, nutrition, etc. Why not a lower form of consciousness? Perhaps a lower form but one unencumbered by higher states, therefore free to be deeper, richer, more vivid, more lively. Could you even imagine what such consciousness may be like?

In our minds, there is something greater than the sum of all sensations brought into it. We have eyes that bring in visions, ears that bring in sounds, fingertips that being in tactile stimuli. Imagine if, for a moment, Fechner is right, and we are the sense organs for the earth consciousness. What then, is that something greater that is more than the sum of all its sense stimuli?

And what happens when your eye, viewing a beautiful sunset, closes? Why, the memory stays in our mind, to be recalled whenever we wish, and its related to other images in our consciousness. Now, what do you think happens to us when we die, when our lives close, when we are no longer capable of yielding stimuli to the higher consciousness? Think of the memory analogy, and you have Fechner’s theory of immortality.

You may think the man a little off-kilter – maybe that mental breakdown was not a hundred percent repaired. You may think him the great-grandfather of all tree-huggers, a pagan, an idolater, or a genuine full-blown kook. You may say whatever you want about him, but one thing he is, according to William James: He’s thick. Not dense, not stupid, but thick, as opposed to thin, or scanty, or underdeveloped, or shallow. Aquinas and the medieval theologians are thick in this sense of the word. Hegel is thick. And Fechner is, too. His thought is original, deep and well-reasoned, much more creative and eye-opening than my ignorant short summary here can do justice.

Think about that next time you order a salad.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bradbury and the Memorization of Books

If you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 you may remember a scene towards the end of the story when the protagonist meets the “book people” in the woods who … memorize books as a way of preserving them against the controlling book-burning tactics of the totalitarian society in the novel. That image has always stuck with me. I mean, who can memorize an entire book? Yes, I’ve memorized prayers as a child. I memorized a passage from Shakespeare (Hamlet’s “to be or not to be …”) for recital in a Public Speaking class. I’m aware that actors, especially those performing in plays, memorize huge chunks of dialogue for their performances. Legend has it that St. Francis Xavier memorized the Bible in order to prove himself worthy enough to join the newly-created Jesuits under St. Ignatius Loyola.

An entire book? Like the Bible, or like those Bradbury’s characters memorize? That seems somehow impossible. Or at least uncommonly heroic.

But for the sake of exploration, let’s assume it isn’t. It may take extraordinary effort, it may take years of daily study, but it can be done. Which book would I memorize?

In my post on the Catechism, I said that it would be an ideal book to memorize, if you are a Catholic and are serious about practicing your faith to the utmost. You would be aware of exactly what you believed and why you believed it. Your paths would be lit and you would not stumble. Well, your stumbling would be less frequent and less painful, let’s just say. I also stated that I would memorize the Bible if I knew it could be done. It is, after all, the main foundation that the Catechism builds on.

What about a third book? Would I continue on in this religious vein? Something eminently practical, giving me both comfort and assuring me of a future life as well as a better life in this plane of existence? How about something like the Summa Theologica by Thomas, or the City of God by Augustine, to internalize the strong logical and rational reasons for what I believe? Or the Spiritual Exercises by Ignatius, to reshape my character as one more deserving of and valuable to the Lord?

Or maybe I would take a more secular approach. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, or Plutarch’s Lives, would teach me virtuous living without necessarily adhering strictly to the Catholic worldview. I would also consider some of the Platonic dialogues, particular the couple that deal with the trial and death of Socrates.

How about history? The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. Too depressing? How about The Second World War, Winston Churchill’s memoirs? Perhaps the United States Constitution? Definitely, if I were to consider a career in law or politics. But must this memorization be only for practical ends?

To satisfy my inner physicist, and probably of no value to myself or others, I would, if I could, memorize von Neumann’s Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Or if I’m really in a math groove, why not Disquisitiones Arithmeticae by Gauss, expounding on number theory. Oh, but if actual comprehension of what you read was a requirement of memorization, well, then forget it! I’d have to nix those two.

To get a little closer to what would really thrill me to memorize, I’d have to hunt through a bunch of dusty old used book stores, stalking dusty old books until I found a title like this: The Complete Works of … Byron, or Keats, or Shelley, or Tennyson, or Browning. I did memorize two of Tennyson’s poems (“Flower in the Crannied Wall” and “The Eagle”, both six-line poems, and quickly forgot them). But to have all that imagery, that mastery of phrase, the summit of the greatest language of the world, at your fingertips …

Ultimately I think I’d have to go back to my roots to pick the book to memorize. Something that meant a lot to me, something that sustained me all those years ago. No amount of crass commercialism can spoil this work in my heart. So let’s go back, shall we? Say, twenty-eight years, to the summer of 1980, and see a little kid in a tree, or on a rowboat, or at a race car track, or by the light of a washing machine in a dark basement, completely absorbed in these books, traveling through strange worlds with stranger friends to walk with.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Triangle

I flew through the Bermuda Triangle twice last summer. Obviously, I lived to tell about it.

Did anything strange happen?


However, the day before we were to fly out from Puerto Rico back home the island was hit with a relatively minor hurricane. Our bungalow had been constructed into the side of a cliff facing eastward out into the Atlantic, about a hundred feet up off the surf. The groundskeeper came and slid metal plating over the glass doors and windows to protect us, I assume, from implosion should they break in the strong winds. Despite the nervousness of the women, my friend and I braved a good portion of the storm out in the pool, tossing a football, drinking a few cervezas, enjoying the excitement and the low heat and humidity that the hurricane brought.

The Bermuda Triangle first attained worldwide notoriety 1950 when a reporter for the Associated Press claimed an excess number of disappearances of ships and planes between the Florida coastline and Bermuda. Sporadic magazine articles and books came out mentioning the losses, with explanations ranging from strange physical phenomena to UFO involvement. It wasn't until February 1964 that the "Bermuda Triangle" name came to be, in an article in Argosy magazine.

For the first five days of our vacation Puerto Rico was hot, humid, and absolutely beautiful. The sky was an incredible shade of blue and the sunsets were amazing. Outside of an artist's pallette I have never seen such vivid and dancing colors. The smell of salt in the air, the tidal rhythms playing in the background of our conversations - sights, smells, sounds - all served to relax me as the warmth of the sun caressed my face and the earth slowly turned in its neverending spin with me hitching a ride on its surface.

There were some quite famous disappearances. The most notable was perhaps Flight 19, a squadron of five Avenger torpedo bombers on a training mission a few months after the end of World War II, inexplicably vanished without a trace. Theories quickly surfaced: methane bubbles capable of overturning ships, rogue waves, magnetic variations interfering with compass readings, piracy, just plain human error. One biologist-investigator, Ivan T. Sanderson, believed the source of the problem to be an intelligent, technologically advanced underwater civilization.

But let me tell you ... when that hurricane rolled in, the whole character of the island changed. It felt different, and I don't mean just the dropping temperature and humidity. It affected us all; everyone seemed to be on edge. We were assured we were in no danger, and probably 80 percent of me believed that. But one look over that railing, high above the cove where people swam and surfed the gentle waves only a day earlier, and now all I saw was white foam and opaque waves, larger and stronger, smashing upon the empty beach. When I stared straight out, the mottled sky and the turbulent water merged together a few miles out at the horizon.

Most of the early books on the Triangle, up until the mid-70s or so, seemed to be the same book rewritten over and over again by different authors with a similiar motivation: to get rich selling a mystery. However, by this time more rigorously-researched books were being offered to the public. And you know what? A lot of these disappearances in "calm seas" actually occurred during storms. Lloyd's of London, the famous insurance house, was quoted as stating that 428 vessels have been lost since 1955 (this was 1975), and there's absolutely nothing to indicate that the "Bermuda Triangle" has more losses than elsewhere.

Early in the morning of our last day, around 4 am, I awoke, and just could not get back to sleep. Tip-toeing out of our room to avoid waking my wife and daughter, I made my way past the other rooms, outside, up some stairs to the pool, which lay inground overlooking the Atlantic. The wind was still present, strong, but there was no rain. And it was right outside my door I first heard it; it grew louder as I made my way up towards the pool. The ocean. Vast, dark, mysterious ... powerful. I stood at the edge of the balcony and glanced down upon the black sea, afraid to stare too long. I watched the waves hammer against the rocks which supported our bungalow. I felt the roar of untold tonnes of ocean and fought against the wind pushing me back, as if in warning. The blackness of the ocean at night: How much potential energy lay within the deeps of that great beast? That unfathomable presence, the source of our life and all life on this planet, and the source of so much death and disappearance.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


One of the great things about the Catholic Church, I think, is that it spells out clearly and concisely its beliefs and teachings in what's called the Catechism. A paperback edition has been out for at least twenty-five years; I bought a new copy four years ago for $8.99. Yes, it is 844 pages long, but its divided into logical sections discussing subjects ranging from our concept of God, sacred scripture, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the role of the Church, other fundamental beliefs we hold such as those regarding Mary, bodily resurrection, and everlasting life, the liturgy, our seven sacraments, how we should live virtuous lives in light of the commandments, and prayer. Teaching is spelled out clearly in numbered paragraphs, citing ancient authority from the Bible to Augustine, Aquinas, and Church councils. A huge index in the back of the book can point you to any subject you might be interested in.

How many Catholics own one?

If I was a wealthy mover-n-shaker, I'd strike a deal with the publisher and buy up a couple hundred thousand Catechisms and hand them out free throughout the parishes across the country. The American Catholic Church is hurting bad, and I feel a return to correct teaching would help get us back on track. Heck, sexuality alone has so many Catholics confused I'd guess that only one or two in ten could accurately explain Church teaching on the subject.

If so many Catholics are ignorant of true Church teaching, how can we expect a 51-year-old tenured professor of biology with a PhD to have any clue as to what we believe and why we believe it?

In my Catechism, discussion of the Eucharist falls under Part II ("The Celebration of the Christian Mystery") Chapter I ("The Sacraments of Christian Initiation") Article III ("The Sacrament of the Eucharist"). Twenty-five pages are spent on this sacrament, covering paragraphs 1322 to 1405. Specifically, our teaching that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist is expounded in paragraphs 1373 to 1377.

Quoting documents from the Council of Trent, paragraph 1374: "In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.' "

Going again to the index at the back of the Catechism, I searched under "sacrilege," and it brought me to this teaching:

Paragraph 2120: "Sacrilige is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us."

After much thought and reading numerous postings and comments on other blogs, I agree that its best to use spiritual weapons against those who willingly and actively plan to desecrate the body of our Lord. Tomorrow at mass such disillusioned lost souls will be respectfully in my prayers.

[If there was one book I could commit to memory, aside from the Bible, it would be the Catechism. A really interesting blog post would be what that third book would be .... ]

Friday, July 11, 2008


This is Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Morris.

He obtained a PhD in biology from the University of Oregon and currently teaches evolutionary developmental biology. He is an avowed atheist, a liberal, a skeptic, and a vocal critic of Intelligent Design.

He is also a bigot.

That’s a pretty weighty charge in this day and age (although it’s thrown around rather frequently and carelessly). But this is why I came to this conclusion:

There was some recent controversy in the past couple of days when a student at the University of Central Florida received the Eucharist at a campus mass and left without swallowing the wafer, to “hold it hostage” in protest of mandatory student fees for religious functions. The student allegedly received death threats from alleged Christians angered over the incident.

Here’s where the courageous professor jumps in.

Myers wrote a blog entry on Richard Dawkin’s website in support of the student. He titled it, in a fine example of classy and sparkling writing, “IT’S A GODDAMNED CRACKER.” Further, he asked readers to acquire consecrated Eucharist hosts for him, promising that he would photograph all sorts of “profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse,” which he would perform “joyfully and with laughter” in his heart.

Catholics hold the consecrated Eucharist to be more than a wafer. We hold it to be the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. How this happens is a mystery, a deep mystery on par with the Trinity and the Incarnation, but we hold the words of Christ to be true, and we interpret the Eucharist in light of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, particularly chapter 6.

Myers oversteps a line when he openly and actively advocates desecration of a group’s devoutly-held beliefs. And more than beliefs, but actual physical and tangible objects. He has no more right to do this than to paint swastikas on the walls of synagogues.

Now, our learned professor is entitled to his opinions, certainly. And I am entitled to mine. Professor Myers, you are a coward. How much courage does it take to spit in the face of believers who have been commanded by their Lord to turn the other cheek? I wonder if Myers would have the courage to flush a Koran down the toilet. Or, even worse, in the hearts and minds of his clique, would he have the courage to tear up a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr?

Isn’t academia’s highest value “tolerance”?

Isn’t it?

Where is the tolerance of Catholics and their deeply-held beliefs?

See the Catholic League’s response here.

Also, some commentary here and here.

The man’s words and actions reveal him to be a bigot and a coward.

* It should go without saying that I do not advocate the desecration of the Koran or endorse the symbolism behind tearing up of a picture of Martin Luther King. It should, but it often doesn’t, so I am stating it bluntly. I don’t.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reality II

After some thought, I come to the conclusion that yesterday’s post on “Reality” was kinda vanilla. Suit-and-tie, tell-it-like-it-is. Two-dimensional, instead of multi. I didn’t spend much time on the nature of underlying reality, which is what interests me far more than “orientations” we take toward it. I have the feeling that underlying reality is anything but straightforward and two dimensional. It must be wonderful, fantastical, awe-inspiring (awe in the sense of dread, that is), greater in all adjectival categories than anything the human mind can conceive.

This brings to mind an appropriate question.

If reality, true reality, is greater in every way, shape, form, concept, etc, than anything we can conceive, how can we even talk about it? Describe it? Hypothesize about it in any meaningful way that’s more than a guess, a wild stab in the dark?

I believe it can be done. We’ve probed the interior of the atom, something we can’t directly observe or experience, with great success and accuracy. And this was over a hundred years ago, shucks, even before computers! This was done through experimental analysis.

Can this be applied to the study of reality?

Yes, but our tools of experimentation will necessarily have to be mental ones. Thought experiments.

Now, after rubbing my hands together, I ask, what if Reality is –
- conscious?
- an intelligence?
- a will?
- a self?
- a collection of selves?
- truthful, good, and/or beautiful? Or if not, why not?
- God?
- God’s creation? The clay in His hands?
- God’s dream?
- within time?
- beyond time?
- our own conscious creation?

What if Reality is a seamless whole, as (to my understanding) what Hindus or Buddhists believe? A seamless whole that we are intimately part of and not separated from, as taught in the Judeo-Christian religions?

What if, from a quantum mechanical point-of-view, there is no underlying Reality, just observable phenomena? Wait, that can’t be true, could it? What would observable Reality be created from? Some ghost world? Does the world we experience float on such a ghost world, a world that is not real? Or does observation create a world, a Reality, out of nothing? And speaking of observation, is consciousness a requirement?

Another weird (but now possibly trite) science fiction-ish idea that comes from quantum mechanics is the idea of parallel universes. Reality consists of an ever-increasing number of parallel universes. At every possible choice, A or B, at the subatomic level, each happens; Reality simply branches off into both futures as opposed to only one or the other. Something about this does not sit well with me – an infinite amount of universes would be created nearly an infinite amount of time every smallest interval of action. As far as I know the theory is internally consistent, though I haven’t read much non-fiction about it. But how could it ever be tested?

A few years back I constantly read Philip K. Dick, a legendary science fiction writer whose reputation seems to grow every year since he died back in 1982. It seems every year Hollywood is making a film based on one of his books (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Imposter, Paycheck, Minority Report, Through a Scanner Darkly, Next). While his storytelling skills fluctuate greatly from book to book, depending a lot I suppose on the amount of drugs he was taking at the time, all contain really cool riffs on our traditional concept of Reality.

(possible spoilers!)

I won’t mention titles, but some of the themes or backgrounds of PKD’s novels are:

- an alternate arm of history where the Axis powers have won WWII; characters from this branch inexplicably become aware of our branch of history, and maybe actually visit us;

- a group of characters encounter a Reality which seems to be crumbling; it turns out they have all died but are unaware of it;

- the contemporary world (the early 1970s) is actually AD 70; the Roman Empire still exists in shadow; the intervening 1,900 years are manufactured memory;

- and one book whose title I will mention, VALIS (1981) which is so damn weird I had no idea what was going on, what was real and what was hallucination, or even what the ultimate message was. But it was interesting, even very funny at times.

Well, the search continues …

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


… a preliminary rough draft …

What is reality? How do we experience it? Can we know what it is, as it truly, nakedly is?

Reality is all this about us, including us. It’s our existence, both materially and immaterially, our physical environment, our relationships, our thoughts, our deeds, our past, present, and future. It’s all, it’s everything we know or ever will know, and even that which we never will or can know, in its entirety.


How can we ever “know” all that? In even formulating that question, scores of others are raised as well: what does it mean to “know”? And what are “we”, materially and immaterially? What’s physical? What are thoughts and thinking? What is time? I could go on but I won’t.

This is just a sketch to see what kind of an outline I can come up with. Hundreds and hundreds of books and thousands and thousands of pages have been written by men hundreds and thousands of times smarter than me, so what can I possibly contribute? Just my own understanding, perhaps. For what it’s worth, I do believe that “true” reality (what is truth, eh?) can be known, or experienced, or at least the “truest” form of reality it is possible for a human being to know or experience. More about that later.

For the purpose of this post I assume words to mean their face value, their common meaning as understood by the average man. I reserve this right even though I fully understand that most nouns and verbs, when used in philosophic debate, do not correlate to this common understanding, and that can completely twist and perhaps destroy any outline or opinions I construct here.

Let’s think of underlying reality as something misty, gray, undifferentiated, undefinable to the average human mind, completely alien to our normal experience. To make sense of this “mist,” we view it through a lens and it condenses into something we can understand and relate to. What is this “lens”? Basically, it’s our Self plus an Orientation we choose (or have chosen for us).

Without digressing too much, our “Self” here simply means us: our personality, our outlook, our experiences, thoughts, and deeds right up to this current moment. Certainly a Self who grew up under the cruel dominion of a physically and mentally abusive parent will choose different Orientations in which to experience reality than a person who was raised in a nurturing environment with every need provided for.

What is an “Orientation”? It’s the way you choose (consciously or unconsciously, habitually or with decision) to interpret the undifferentiated mist. We don’t have the capacity to view it as it truly, nakedly is, so the mind (your Self) must view it from some sort of position (your Orientation).

There are many, many types of Orientations, and each reaches varying layers of true reality. I view it as a funnel, with superficial, habitual orientations around the top edge of the funnel. We have a choice to pursue deeper orientations. Sometimes tragic events force us to. True reality lies through the bottom of the funnel. Another image, perhaps a bit more nobler, is that of a cloud-enshrouded mountain. On the surrounding plains lie the superficial orientations, but there are others you can investigate, each at different levels, different heights up the mountainside. True reality lies above the clouds, on the mountain’s summit.

Regardless of the image that appeals best to you, different orientations have different degrees of effectiveness revealing true reality. What about the superficial ones already mentioned? The most superficial is the one adopted by the man who has no interest in reality. Indeed, he has little interest in any things requiring hard thought. His only task is to survive another day. It’s almost a non-orientation. It’s our most basic default orientation, hard-wired into our DNA. You need a full belly and a roof over your head before you ponder the mysteries of reality.

Then there’s herdspeak. This is the “crowd.” The voice of the crowd or the voice of the mob. What your friends say, your family says, your coworkers say. Then, before you realize it, it’s what you say. Commonly it’s a cynical orientation, a negative view of reality. Often it’s major pronouncements on “the way of the world” by men who are actually uninformed, ill-informed, or downright ignorant. This, too, can easily become a kind of default orientation, many times the unfortunate result of pure habit. We’d be best to shed this orientation, the sooner the better.

Another orientation is that which we get from the media: television, movies, newspapers, websites and blogs. This is a dangerous orientation to adhere to, however, as the main purpose of the majority of the media is not to inform and educate, but to make a profit. They make a profit by making you come to accept them as necessary and essential in your life. The best way they do that is to keep your interest, and the best way to do that is to keep you scared. Not the only way, mind you, but the best way. Whether or not this orientation is higher up the mountain is debatable. It does its job lensing reality for you. The best tack to take is to supplement this orientation with others.

Political discourse is a similar orientation. Many view their party affiliation as a core part of their identity. At its best, political discourse can elevate the citizenry and produce well-rounded men; at it’s worse it can descend into virulent nationalism and produce war and terror. The main purpose of all political discourse is, however, not to elevate the citizenry, nor create war, but to obtain power. The ends of power can be many, but the attainment of power is the true goal of political discourse. So, like an orientation derived from media, an orientation derived from political discourse is one to be careful about; its place on the mountainside too can be at any height. Best to supplement this orientation with others.

A deeper or higher orientation can be the religious one. There are many, many different types of religious orientations: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, New Age/Old Age/pantheism, as well as scores of lesser-known belief systems and cults. I would place “Nature” in this category of orientation, too. Each has its “truths”, its philosophical underpinnings, its metaphysics and descriptions of realities. I believe they are higher up the mountain for the simple fact of their longevity: some have been around for thousands of years and have flourished and survived persecutions for much of that time. The idea that each of these orientations explains a facet of true reality appeals to me; the image of looking at the center of a diamond from various angles seems representative of this idea.

Many get their orientation of reality from Science-with-a-capital-S, particularly from the quantum revolution of a century ago. Indeed this is where I first read about the shadowy, undifferentiated mist of reality. If you follow the tenets of quantum mechanics to their ultimate results, you can discover some really weird consequences. One of which is that we create our own reality. To what degree is debatable. There’s a wide spectrum of views towards reality that sprout from this orientation, depending on how completely you wish to adopt them. The most vocal and extreme of late seems to be that of atheistic materialism of Darwinism.

It appears to me that your view of reality, your experience and knowledge of it, depends upon who you are and the scheme you wish to utilize. Self plus Orientation. But that yields only a copy or a representation of that undefinable, gray mistiness we’re calling here true reality. Can it be possible to attain a direct experience of this deepest reality?

Yes and no. Einstein has been quoted stating to the effect that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” I think the principle is the same here in dealing with the experience of “truer” reality. To pierce the veil, to see with clear eyes, to make our Orientation transparent, requires a higher consciousness. The ordinary, normal, average, common human mind does not have this capability, so it must be raised. The only type of man able to do this, to my knowledge, is the mystic. And the only systematized mysticism I am aware of is Zen Buddhism. Have you ever read the words of “enlightened” Zen masters? Quite confusing, baffling even, to our unenlightened minds, but perhaps that is a glimpse of what seeing true reality is most like. Indescribable.

That’s my thesis, and I’m sticking to it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Monster Movies

Reviewing The Host yesterday had me thinking monster movies all day. What makes a great one great? After a little bit of thought, I realized that, to me at least, what’s required is that the movie (starting with the “monster” and spreading out to plot, characters, special effects, etc) create a sense of thrill in the viewer. It just has to be thrilling. Not in the sense that a roller coaster’s thrilling, but in an earlier meaning of the word. It encompasses a feeling of mystery, a feeling that penetrates the recipient and produces strong emotions up to and including tingling sensations of excitement. A sort of horrible wonder. But that feeling of mystery is key with the monster movie. All the best ones leave a little bit hidden, unresolved, unexplained. It’s a cliché that the scariest parts of any movie are not shown; those originate in the viewer’s imagination. And it’s so very true.

So there needs to be a thrill and a mystery. Action movies with “monsters” (like the Terminator films) do not fall in this category. Nor does torture gore, that disgusting genre that’s currently rave in Hollywood nowadays. Nor does its predecessor, the slasher flick. It’s a surprisingly difficult type of movie to pull off, the LE monster movie, but I managed to come up with my ideal list. Going back an arbitrary thirty years, the ‘modern’ era of film-making, I came up with an even dozen.

So if we leave The Host out, how about the other eleven? Well, I found it impossible to rank them in any true order, but I could group them into two tiers: the really, really thrilling, and the really thrilling. Any true fan of the genre will have seen them all, numerous times, and possibly own a couple, if not all, on DVD. But if there’s a flick here that you haven’t seen, well, what’s your excuse???

The Top Shelf Items

- Alien (1979). The greatest modern monster movie. My coming-of-age monster movie, too. I remember reading the novelization of the movie before seeing it, and feeling horrified and thrilled at once. I had to see it, and when I did when it came around to cable TV, I was not disappointed.

- Aliens (1986). Saw this in the movies. One of the most intense experiences of my life, in that movie theater. That rare breed of sequel that could be considered better than the original. Intense, scary, dreadful, it’s very, very close to perfection.

- Signs (2002). M. Night Shyamalan’s last really thrilling movie. Yeah, there’s tons of plot and script inconsistencies, and its arguably not a ‘true’ monster movie, but it has some thrilling scenes that are incomparable. How about that alien Mel glimpses briefly on the roof of his barn? Or at night in the cornfield? Or – well, no spoilers here. See it.

- War of the Worlds (2005). Next to Aliens this is second most intense movie I’ve ever seen. Is there any filmmaking more effective than when we first encounter the alien tripod? And when Tom and the others are in the middle of the airplane wreckage, and we hear the tripod signal in the distance, a blanket of dread fell over me.

- Cloverfield (2008). Forgot about this one when I was writing The Host review yesterday. I saw it this past January in the theaters and – shaky-cam aside – it left my jaw hanging open. A great concept whose time had come, executed with near perfection. The only drawback was a lack of backstory and likeable characters, but a thrilling ride nonetheless.

The Best of the Rest

- The Puppet Masters (1994). I think I’m the only one who actually liked or even remembers this movie. Based on the Heinlein novel, I thought the monsters were bad in a good way and I liked the characters. Alien slugs infest a couple of American cities. Apparently red-tape and bureaucracy killed this from being a better movie; I say see it anyway.

- Pitch Black (2000). Plot and script inconsistencies, but as for the monsters – who only come out every 20-odd years when a solar eclipse … ah, forget it – the monsters were scary. And the characters were just fodder.

- The Blob (1988). My only remake on the list, this is a scarier, meaner blob than its '50s predecessor. The original scared me awake many sleepless nights as a kid (you can’t hide from the blob, see, it just oozes under the door), and the remake took a little courage for me to watch. I think I finally did about ten or twelve years after it came out.

- Predator (1987). Almost an action movie as opposed to a monster movie, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt because there were a few scary scenes with the title creature.

- Species (1995). Definitely a second-tier flick, but because they made the monster a female, and I really liked the characters assembled to hunt her/it down and kill her/it, I put it on the list.

- Tremors (1990). One of the best mixtures of comedy and monster movie, a very noteworthy achievement in itself. Memorable characters and highly original monsters. Haven’t seen it in a good many years, but I remember enjoying it lots when it first came out.