Back to basics

This morning brought the first snow of the season:

Even though I dread the coming of winter each year, when the first snow actually arrives it is like walking out of a shopping mall into a quiet room–a visually quiet room, if you see what I mean, and one that usually brings with it auditory peace as well.  After six months of painted glory, the world is suddenly reduced to a charcoal sketch of itself.  It has some of that tender emotional effect that keeps black-and-white photography ever in style.

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The accidental snipe hunt

Although I wrote into my schedule for Saturdays “blog”, in hopes that I will do so at least once a week, most of the weekend has been lost to migraines.  Nonetheless, God was so kind as to drop a blog post into my lap–or rather, into my front yard, which, inasmuch as my house is like a large version of me, is more or less my lap.

For a couple of hours yesterday, this little guy ran around the yard hunting grasshoppers:

Here’s a view of his distinctive breast:

Although I can’t be sure, it seems to me to be some kind of snipe.  At least, that’s what I arrived at by looking through Sibley’s Guide to get the general kind of bird and then watching the video “Better Bird Watching in Wyoming and Colorado” until something came up like our front yard guest.  Anyone else have an opinion?

Our bird feeder out back has finally attracted a good crowd, but they are all little seed-eaters.  This fellow stood out right away as a runner rather than a flitter and as a hunter rather than a gatherer.

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The Gifts of the Spirit

Sorting through old boxes of junk, I found this hand-written poem titled “The Gifts of the Spirit,” from my early graduate school days:

The Angelic Doctor self-described
was a “bat in the sunlight”;
Oh, to feel the warmth of the sun!

I am a bat in a blizzard,
fighting every gust of wind
– but who knows where the wind blows,
whence it comes, and whither it goes?
Perhaps to somewhere good.

God send right wind!

That was scrawled quickly during the last week of the semester, as I slapped together the dismal last in a series of required essays.  Five teachers waited until only four weeks were left in the semester to assign their ten-page papers; knowing that it took me one week to write a good ten-page essay, I saw right away that I would turn in four good papers and one stinker.  The above poem was written as I churned out the stinker.  It was a hard time in other ways as well.

The funny thing is, all these years later I still resonate with the message of that poem.  Life still sends things to all-at-once, I still don’t know where it all goes or where it comes from.  God send right wind!

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Music and Morality, part 2

Picking up the theme of music and morality, I want to jot down a few thoughts about how to talk to people about a morality of music when they lack the self-awareness needed in general for conversation about ethics, or when they lack the self-awareness in this particular area for an Ignatian discernment of spirits.

Lacking interior, subjective evidence, one must point to objective, sensible data.  And the first of these is that people get angry if you call their music bad—very angry.  People don’t blow a stack if you hate the seafood they love, or if you hate their favorite baseball team—most people, that is—but if you say you hate their music, those are fighting words.  Their anger shows that they identify their own person with the music; the music is an outward sign of what kind of person they are, so that an attack on the music is an attack on the person.  (Paradoxically, my conversation partners have proceeded from anger to the assertion that music is morally indifferent, a mere matter of taste.)

But it is probably not a good strategy to attack a man’s music, let him get angry, and then point to his anger as a sign that he is wrong.  No, better to point far away, to others whom he sees as very, very other.

So a second datum is the fact that extremes in music create recognizable populations:  heavy metal fans dress and walk alike and are often pale and thin; huge belt buckles and hats pick out the serious country music buffs; rap consumers fit a stereotype; and on it goes.  Along with the visible similarities go internal resemblance:  heavy metal folks are brooding and angry, rap people are bouncy but irascible, country music people are cheerful and loyal, and so on.

Few things create visible populations the way music does:  drugs do, jobs can, religious vocations do.  Sports don’t, foods don’t—you can’t pick out baseball fans from hockey fans in a crowd, or lovers of Italian cuisine as opposed to French cooking.  Living in a certain region can produce a particular “look,” but the effects of music will override regional differences.

The fact that extremes in music create visible populations of people who morally resemble one another indicates that less extreme musical forms—light jazz, pop, classical music, and so on—are also forming populations in less visible ways.  After all, if factor X produces an extreme difference when applied heavily, wouldn’t factor X produce some difference if applied more lightly?  If extreme musical forms like heavy metal produce extreme visible and moral differences, then wouldn’t jazz or Baroque music produce real but less extreme moral differences in men?  Certainly, the hypothesis that music is morally indifferent doesn’t predict the observed results of the extremes.

In fact, the observed facts say that music is a powerful moral force:  it is used in ecstatic cults for a reason!

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Music and Morality

Music has loomed larger in life of late for the Mrs. and me, as a result of our visits to Norcia and Vienna.  Its increased role in our life has to do, I hope, with our moral life, so I’d like to set down a few thoughts that have developed over the years about music and morality.

The initial challenge is to persuade people that music has anything to do with morality, that is, with right and wrong in action.   Music is as subjective as anything could be:  what music I like depends entirely on how I feel at the moment and on how the music makes me feel—it’s all about my feelings.  On the other hand, morality has exactly to do with how I feel about things:  an evil man will feel good about bad things, while a good man will feel bad about bad things, and this is precisely because the one man is morally good and the other morally bad.  But it is hard to make this point manifest.

The source of the difficulty seems to be a lack of self-knowledge:  Talk about morality requires a certain minimum level of awareness of what goes inside of us.  The Office of Readings for the feast of St. Ignatius recently brought this back to my attention.  While recovering from war wounds in a hospital, Ignatius would sometimes think on worldly things and romantic novels he had read before, and sometimes he would think about the lives of the saints and of Christ such as he was reading in the hospital:

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience.

I had a similar experience with music.  At some point in college I realized that after listening to some kinds of music I had a hard time praying or focusing on homework, while after listening to other kinds of music I prayed better and focused better.  That, to paraphrase the life of Ignatius, was the first time I applied a process of reasoning to my musical tastes.

Years before that, I began to notice that some music makes me want to move this way while other music makes me want to move that way.  It’s a real difference in the music, but I only noticed the difference when I began performing it or dancing to it.  If I just listened, I didn’t notice the impulses created in me by the music; they only made themselves known when I acted on them.  From this perspective, musicians and dancers are in a better position than most to talk about the morality of music.

But if someone lacks the self-awareness necessary for an Ignatian discernment of spirits then it is hard, if not impossible, to have a conversation about music and morality.  There are some things one can say—but more on that next time.

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New font: wed dings

As a young hobbit, Frodo was often invited to weddings.
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Marriage talks too much

I am translating a snippet from a medieval commentary on 1Corinthians.  At the part where St. Paul advises the Corinthians not to marry because of the many difficulties involved, my commentator notes that Paul says

that marriage should be avoided because there are many pressing difficulties.  Hence they are said to be in a millstone, Mt. 24:41.  Hence in common speech it is said that marriage has a big mouth.

Excuse me?  Odd proverbs making the rounds in the late middle ages.  But I love the creative interpretation of Mt. 24:41!

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Test your Joachim and Anne knowledge

Sts. Joachim and Anne are marvelously fascinating.  What kind of parents raised the Virgin Mary, who was fit to raise God himself?  While St. Anne has historically received more attention, for me Joachim’s title as “God’s grandpa” has an awesome ring.

So go ahead:  take the feastday quiz, test your knowledge, and feel your devotion to these saints growing with each click!  (Answers will be displayed when you are done:  responses that would be correct will be printed in green.)

[wpsqt name="Joachim and Anne Feastday Quiz" type="quiz"]

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CYOA experiment

I am experimenting with the possibility of creating Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) stories for the blog.  Click here for a CYOA story that I wrote based on a Wilderness First Aid course I took last year.

When I wrote this, I thought that CYOA might be a good format for reviewing or quizzing first aid knowledge.

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Air conditioner victory

The hot season has lasted much longer than usual this summer, so we decided to install the old air conditioner we have lugged around unused for the past six or seven years.  The challenge was that our windows open side to side instead of up and down.  To make it work, I built a figure-eight shaped frame that slides into the window sill; the bottom half of the frame houses the AC unit while the top half has plexiglass.

My camera lens is smudged, so the picture is blurry.

The plexiglass is 1/8 inch thick, which just so happens to be the width of the groove cut by my table saw.  Worked out well.

I covered the screws on the side with wooden plugs that I cut with a special drill bit.  They always cut a bit too small for the hole, but I dropped them in water for a minute or so and now they are swollen to fit the hole:

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