Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Boredom and the First Fifteen Minutes

This November has taught me a lot about productivity—not that this blog has much to show for it; the productivity has manifested elsewhere.  Among other things, I have been reminded yet again that deadlines and (still more) competition are excellent ways to make myself write more and better than I otherwise would.  And writing, like workouts and daily prayer, is beginning to share more and more of the characteristics of a habit: one of those things that grows easier with frequency, with the ease fading as the exercise of the habit lapses.

Most of all, however, I have gained a greater appreciation for the fact that writing is one of those activities that are difficult for the first five, ten, or even fifteen minutes.  It is unlike movie watching or eating good food—activities that appeal immediately to the appetites, require little effort, and are almost universally described by human beings as “fun.”  Many people, indeed, would express outright disbelief that the word “fun” could possibly apply to so laborious a pastime.

And writing isn’t fun, in the sense that watching a movie is fun.  Perhaps “rewarding” would be a better word; but that too is inadequate.  There is a writer’s high, just as there is a runner’s high and a musician’s: a place you reach when the words come fluently and without difficulty, and the end product is none the worse for all that.  And nothing is more “fun” than reaching that state of “work.”  The effortless activities that we usually call fun cannot even compare.  We become sated and stuffed; we feel we have over-somethinged when we conclude them, and turn in disgust away from the screen or the plate, disgruntled by the thought of how much time we have wasted.  There are no such regrets, and no such feeling of overindulgence, from scaling a peak with writing or making music or exercise.  But of course, to be the sort of runner or writer or pianist who finds this wonderful and perilous place, once needs to be pretty good already: one needs to have achieved a state of fluency, rather than mere competency.

I don’t mean that one needs to be playing late Beethoven sonatas
or writing War and Peace to enjoy this high.  One may achieve it
with Clementi and Nancy Drew fan fics.  But even in that case,
one needs to be fluent with the idioms concerned:
fluent in the twists and turns of Clementi and Carolyn Keene.

Even once one has achieved fluency in a certain idiom, however, there is still a dragon at the gate.  There are still the first five, or ten, or fifteen minutes.  The fifteen minutes, when the most fascinating project, if it requires but the slightest bit of effort, is dull.  The fifteen minutes when the internet, the couch, and even the dishes have more appeal.  The fifteen minutes when the only word for the thing you love is boring.

Children, it seems, don’t have this problem.  Because they are just discovering the world around them, they are endlessly fascinated by it.

Or are they?  I can certainly remember plenty of late mornings and afternoons growing up when I felt bored.  I’ve seen one-year-olds, having exhausted what Mrs. Elton would call their “resources,” wandering about rooms and whining plaintively in search of something to entertain them.  No, the wonder with children is not that they don’t get bored.  The only wonder is that the things that catch their interest are mostly simpler than those that tantalize adults.

If anything, children are more in danger of being bored than adults are.  When you live in a state of wonder which is partly due to incomprehension, it is easy to grow used to being entertained by things that catch the eye.  Instant gratification oftentimes works, and with the simplest of objects; and so instant gratification becomes the rule, the constant desideratum.  Once a thing’s been handled a minute, dropped, licked, and stuffed into the available containers, it’s aged.  It’s become boring, and the incipient toddler is bored.  He hasn’t yet learned—nor could he comprehend an explanation—that with a little effort the boring block could become interesting again: could become part of a tower, a wall, a path, even (heaven help us) a projectile.  In other words, he hasn’t learned to play.  He needs an adult or an older child to teach him how to get past the first fifteen minutes (or, given the length of his attention span, the first two) to find that place where imagination and joy take over.

The terribly sad thing about modern life, of course, is that most adults have never learned not to be toddlers, or else have regressed to the toddler state.  (If you doubt me, consider briefly America’s two great addictions, one manifested in obesity and the other in private, usually solitary, vices.  The plate and the screen.)  We could blame the fact that schools don’t let children play, speak of “the hurried child,” suggest more Tiger Parenting, find fault with Baby Boomers or Millennials, and of course declare that Apple is to blame.

I don’t think any of those explanations are necessarily false, but they are negative—being mere diagnoses of the disease by which we reached our present state—rather than constructive.  The only real constructive solution, I think, begins with a personal dedication licking those first fifteen minutes in the interest of something worthwhile.  In other words, it would behoove each of us to learn again to play.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and see about those Thanksgiving leftovers, and maybe hit up a Black Friday sale or ten.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stop Spoiling My Thanksgiving!

thank you very much.

As I stood over the sink, reading the cooking instructions on a twelve point five pound bird (why do they print them on the package? when there’s a handy dandy tag attached?), and reflecting on the four hour saga about to commence tomorrow in my oven (I do mean saga: cold bird; fiery … electrical tubing? whatever they call that; and a savory victorious finish), my eye lighted on a few choice words, neatly printed in unmistakable and literal black and white:

Do not cook your stuffing in your bird.  We think your bird will take about four hours to cook, UNSTUFFED.  We refuse to provide a stuffed estimate because DO NOT COOK YOUR STUFFING IN YOUR BIRD.  The FDA says if you do this you will probably curl up and die.  REPEAT: DIE.  REPEAT: DO NOT COOK YOUR STUFFING IN YOUR BIRD.  Put it in a separate dish where it will proceed to bake dry and flavorless as a four-hour fire hazard, because we are turkey breeders and not qualified to tell you how to cook your stuffing.

Well united company of turkey breeders or whoever you are, I DEFY YOU.  My turkey is stuffed.  Go stuff yourselves for Thanksgiving.  Or … actually … don’t.  Eat your unsatisfying morsels of dry, overbaked turkey and charred stuffing.  Or tofu.  Or whatever it is that healthy people eat these days.  My turkey is stuffed.

REPEAT: My turkey is stuffed.  It is in the fridge at this moment.  I don’t know, but I suspect refrigerating a raw stuffed turkey is also going to kill me and the other ten-ish people who partake of it.  Probably also the raw cookie dough I ate a month ago, the sushi from two weeks ago, and the mushroom I just ate off the floor after my toddler chewed on it.

It’s OK.  The mushroom came out of a little plastic package so we’re pretty sure it’s safe.  Well, it WAS safe.  Before the toddler got it.  But since he ate sand earlier today, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to die.

But not until after we’ve had some really delicious turkey with cornbread sausage stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

Sincere apologies to anyone who has actually had recent food poisoning.  Also, happy feast of St. Cecelia!  Happy Almost Thanksgiving!  And don’t forget to call your family tomorrow!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Coming Soon to Your Radio: ‘Ode to St. Cecilia’

Growing up in a large Catholic family, my siblings and I didn’t watch TV outside of the World Series and presidential debates. We did, however, have an enormous collection of old movies on VHS and a collection of cassette tapes almost as large, and every Sunday night on 88.5 we’d catch Ed Walker’s old-time radio show, “The Big Broadcast.” Every now and then too, spinning the radio dials, we’d catch a bit of Adventures in Odyssey, the long-running children’s series produced by Focus on the Family.

I associated the show, enjoyable as it had been, so strongly with Protestant radio that I was surprised to hear recently that Paul McCusker, who worked on Adventures in Odyssey over the past 30 years, had entered the Catholic Church. Not only that, but McCusker [has] been producing Catholic radio drama for nearly three years at Denver’s Augustine Institute, an organization designed to train Catholics to participate in the New Evangelization.

I was able to preview McCusker’s latest work, an as-yet unaired drama titled Ode to St. Cecilia, and McCusker was kind enough to answer my questions by email.

Read the rest at the Register.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Goodbye, Good Families

Not too long ago the New Yorker published a piece on court-appointed “guardians” who steal from the elderly (“How the Elderly Lose Their Rights”).  The article was full of heartbreaking personal stories and troubling legal shenanigans, many of them enabled by laws which seem to have been designed without the best interests of the elderly in mind.  As the story drew near its close, I found myself quickly reviewing where my and my husband’s grandparents lived, and how they were situated, and breathing a sigh of relief at the consideration that nothing like that was likely to happen to them.

But the piece was troubling to say the least; and for hours after I had set it aside, one lingering sentence struck me as especially poignant: the notion, trumpeted by a particularly appalling “guardian,” that family members, even when present in an elderly person’s life, were not to be trusted.  “They just want the money,” was the quote attributed to him.  (And guardians don’t?  Hm …)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Francis de Sales on How the Love of God Is Manifest in Conformity and Stability

These are a few highlights from the past week’s reading.

*                      *                      *

The great S. Thomas is of opinion that it is not expedient to consult and deliberate much concerning an inclination to enter a good and well-regulated religious Order; for the religious life being counselled by our Saviour in the Gospel, what need is there of many consultations? It is sufficient to make one good one, with a few persons who are thoroughly prudent and capable in such an affair, and who can assist us to make a speedy and solid resolution; but as soon as we have once deliberated and resolved, whether in this matter or in any other that appertains to God's service, we must be constant and immovable, not permitting ourselves to be shaken by any appearances of a greater good: for very often, says the glorious S. Bernard, the devil deludes us, and to draw us from the effecting of one good he proposes unto us some other good, that seems better; and after we have started this, he, in order to divert us from effecting it, presents a third, ready to let us make plenty of beginnings if only we do not make an end. We should not even go from one Order to another without very weighty motives, says S. Thomas, following the Abbot Nestorius cited by Cassian. I borrow from the great S. Anselm (writing to Lanzo) a beautiful similitude. As a plant often transplanted can never take root, nor, consequently, come to perfection and return the expected fruit; so the soul that transplants her heart from design to design cannot do well, nor come to the true growth of her perfection, since perfection does not consist in beginnings but in accomplishments. The sacred living creatures of Ezechiel went whither the impulse of the spirit was to go, and they turned not when they went, and every one of them went straight forward: we are to go whither the inspiration moves us, not turning about, nor returning back, but tending thither, whither God has turned our face, without changing our gaze. He that is in a good way, let him step out and get on. It happens sometimes that we forsake the good to seek the better, and that having forsaken the one we find not the other: better is the possession of a small treasure found, than the expectation of a greater which is to find. The inspiration which moves us to quit a real good which we enjoy in order to gain a better in the future, is to be suspected. A young Portuguese, called Francis Bassus, was admirable, not only in divine eloquence but also in the practice of virtue, under the discipline of the Blessed (S.) Philip Neri in the Congregation of the Oratory at Rome. Now he persuaded himself that he was inspired to leave this holy society, to place himself in an Order, strictly so called, and at last he resolved to do so. But the B. Philip, assisting at his reception into the Order of S. Dominic, wept bitterly; whereupon being asked by Francis Marie Tauruse, afterwards Archbishop of Siena and Cardinal, why he shed tears: I deplore, said he, the loss of so many virtues. And in fact this young man, who was so excellently good and devout in the Congregation, after he became a religious was so inconstant and fickle, that agitated with various desires of novelties and changes, he gave afterwards great and grievous scandal. (Treatise on the Love of God, Book VIII, Ch.XI)

*                      *                      *

Now one of the best marks of the goodness of all inspirations in general, and particularly of extraordinary ones, is the peace and tranquillity of the heart that receives them: for though indeed the Holy Ghost is violent, yet his violence is gentle, sweet and peaceful. He comes as a mighty wind, and as a heavenly thunder, but he does not overthrow the Apostles, he troubles them not; the fear which they had in hearing the sound was of no continuance, but was immediately followed by a sweet assurance. That is why this fire sits upon each of them, taking and causing a sacred repose; and as our Saviour is called a peaceful or pacific Solomon, so is his spouse called Sulamitess, calm and daughter of peace: and the voice, that is, the inspiration, of the bridegroom does not in any sort disquiet or trouble her, but draws her so sweetly that he makes her soul deliciously melt and, as it were, flow out into him: My soul, says she, melted when my beloved spoke: and though she be warlike and martial, yet is she withal so peaceable, that amidst armies and battles she maintains the concord of an unequalled melody. What shalt thou see, saith she, in the Sulamitess but the choirs of armies? Her armies are choirs, that is, harmonies of singers; and her choirs are armies, because the weapons of the Church and of the devout soul, are only prayers, hymns, canticles and psalms. Thus it is that those servants of God who had the highest and sublimest inspirations were the most mild and peaceable men in the world, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob: Moses is styled the meekest of men; David is lauded for his mildness. On the contrary, the evil spirit is turbulent, rough, disturbing; and those who follow infernal suggestions, taking them to be heavenly inspirations, are as a rule easily known, because they are unquiet, headstrong, haughty, ready to undertake or meddle with all affairs, men who under the cloak of zeal turn everything upside down, censure every one, chide every one, find fault with everything; they are persons who will not be directed, will not give in to any one, will bear nothing, but gratify the passions of self-love under the name of jealousy for God's honour.  (Treatise on the Love of God, Book VIII, Ch. XII)

*                      *                      *

I speak of a noble, real, productive and solid humility, which makes us supple to correction,
pliable and prompt to obedience. While the incomparable Simeon Stylites was yet a novice at
Teleda, he made himself indocile to the advice of his superiors, who wished to hinder him from practising so many strange austerities, which he did with an inordinate cruelty to himself; so that at length he was on this account turned out of the monastery, as being too little capable of the mortification of the heart, and too much addicted to that of the body.
But having entered into himself and become more devout, and more prudent in the spiritual life, he behaved quite differently, as he showed in the following action. When the hermits who were dispersed through the deserts near Antioch knew the extraordinary life which he led upon the pillar, in which he seemed to be either an earthly angel or a heavenly man, they despatched a messenger whom they ordered to speak thus to him from them: Why dost thou, Simeon, leaving the highway trodden by so many great and holy predecessors, follow another, unknown of men, and so different from all that has been seen or heard to this day? Simeon, quit this pillar, and come amongst other men to live, after the manner of life and way of serving God used by the good Fathers who have gone before us. In case Simeon, yielding to their advice and giving in to their will, should show himself ready to descend, they had charged 360 the deputy to leave him free to persevere in the manner of life he had begun, because by his obedience, said those good Fathers, it could well be known that he had undertaken this kind of life by the divine inspiration: but in case he should resist, and, despising their exhortations, follow his own will, it would be necessary to withdraw him thence by violence, and force him to forsake his pillar. The deputy then, being come to the pillar, had no sooner delivered his message, than the great Simeon, without delay, without reservation, without any reply, began to descend with an obedience and humility worthy of his rare sanctity. Which when the deputy saw: stay, said he, O Simeon! remain there, persevere with constancy, take courage, pursue thy enterprise valiantly; thy abiding upon this pillar is from God.
(Treatise on the Love of God, Book VIII, Ch. XIII)
Manuscript Illumination with Saint Dominic Saving the Church
of Saint John Lateran in an Initial A, from a Gradual

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Story for Catholic Gentlemen (and Ladies Too)

As the Harvey Weinstein story continues to ripple outwards, the articles about the souring of our culture, particularly the souring of male-female relations, have flooded my newsfeed.  (If you haven’t been following the story, don’t bother: All you need to know is that a man in Hollywood took advantage of a number of aspiring actresses in the most abhorrent way.)

One effect of this scandal has been the appearance of #metoo across social media.  A number of my friends and acquaintances (mostly women, but some men as well) have put up the hashtag, many admitting publicly for the first time that they have dealt with some form of harassment or worse.

As I scrolled Facebook the day the hashtag peaked, I wondered whether it applied to me.  Two cases quickly came to mind, later a third … a fourth … a fifth … But all of them were so minor: guys, or even boys saying rude things that I didn’t for a moment take seriously.  And it seemed to me that it would be presumptuous, unhelpful, and ultimately untrue to type #metoo for a merely sassy remark when so many people have suffered truly serious injuries.

Of course, some would insist that these days even snark and sass need to be called out.  And it is true that language can be abusive, a sort of gateway drug to violence in a culture desperate for healing.  But then again, “pretty and smart” hardly rises to the level of abuse, any more than (in Shakespeare’s in Much Ado About Nothing) Benedick’s sneering at “My Lady Disdain” is cause for Beatrice to demand a duel.  There is a difference between harmless dumb jokes or rapier-like wit—and harassment.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

In Which We Wonder If Mass Is a Sacrament

Well.  That escalated … if not quickly, at any rate to a higher altitude than expected.  Apparently, at least over here at the Register, the topic of children’s liturgies is even hotter than Game of Thrones (pun obviously intended).  I don’t know whether to lament this as an instance of one of those regrettable skirmishes in the endless wars over religious nonessentials, or to take it as a net positive that people are more eager to defend their children’s souls than to defend their entertainment choices.  (Why not both?)

A few comments indicated points itching for clarification.  First, I confess that I have never attended or taught at a children’s liturgy—I’ve only watched the kids march out.  This does indeed preclude my critiquing children’s liturgies per se (although many of my readers, being more experienced, felt no such qualms).  But my point was not that children’s liturgies are bad (see disclaimers in the previous post) but rather that there are (at least for my family) better options.
Second, and more importantly, one commenter (“Sharon”) had this question:
Can I ask, though, in what way is Mass itself a sacrament?  I know we refer to the Blessed Sacrament, that comes to us at the Mass, but we don’t refer to the Holy Sacrament of the Mass.  I think I’m missing something, and I don’t like missing anything about what the Mass is!
Actually, I doubt Sharon is missing anything.  She was reacting to my statement that “The Mass is a sacrament—yes, even for those too young to receive Communion—and there’s an advantage to a young soul in being there, beginning to end, even if it isn’t always perfectly comprehensible to a young mind.”  That is, I think, substantially right; but Sharon is also right that we don’t speak of “the Holy Sacrament of the Mass.”

The Count Is Seville

Today we got some fresh farmer’s market fruits and vegetables from a neighbor.  And today, researching how to use three enormous and very green oranges, I finally understood what had long been one of my favorite neglected Shakespearean lines.

It’s one of those difficult lines for actresses, thanks to pronunciation changes from Shakespeare’s day.  Any playgoer who consults his footnote will understand its meaning, but conveying the sense to a nube in the seats is nearly impossible.  It’s one of those fruity Shakespearean jokes that are, alas, ripe for the cutting.

In Much Ado About Nothing, poor Claudio has been informed that his Duke has stolen his girl Hero.  In fact, the Duke has interceded on Claudio’s behalf, and persuaded Hero to agree to marrying the handsome young soldier.  When Claudio’s friends go to collect him so that the Duke can break the good news, Claudio is, understandably, in a sour temper.  He puts on a show of indifference—after all, he can’t very well take a stand against his duke—but underneath he’s seething.  Hero’s cousin Beatrice explains Claudio’s ambiguous humor to the puzzled Duke in the following words:

The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor

well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and

something of that jealous complexion.

The basic joke, as I mentioned, is explained in the footnote of any solid edition.  Beatrice is punning on the word “Seville,” which evidently in Shakespeare’s time must have sounded much closer to “civil” than it now does.  “Civil as an orange” would have been grasped by an audience as “Seville, like an orange,” the city in Spain being, presumably, known for oranges then as it is now.  (Incidentally, this is an interesting illustration of how changing vowel sounds are rarely so much of an issue as changing accents.  If, for example, we now pronounced “Seville” “SEE-vul,” the pun would still be easily rendered in speech.  The fact that we say “civil” “SIH-vul” and “Seville” “suh-VILL” is much more problematic.)

So much for the footnote.  Claudio is of the same jealous complexion as a Seville orange.  Recalling that jealousy is supposed to be green-eyed (itself a Shakespearean coinage—see Iago’s lines to Othello), one naturally supposes that Seville oranges must have arrived in England green, perhaps plucked green from trees by Spanish matadors in the off-season, and shipped to England unripe in order to survive the arduous voyage that even an Armada could not withstand.  Some tough fruit, that.

But no.  As I learned today, oranges are normally green.  I had only been getting half of Beatrice’s joke all these years.

The moral of this story?

(1)  Don’t put green oranges in the windowsill to ripen.

(2)  Never assume Beatrice is telling a lousy joke.

(3)  Always trust a duke named Pedro.

(4)  Shakespeare scholars don’t know everything, even the ones who get paid to write footnotes.

(5)  Someone should hire me to edit a new edition of Much Ado About Nothing.

(6)  We will never really see Shakespeare “the way his audiences saw him.”

(7)  Emma Thompson is an amazing actress.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In Which We Wonder If the Mass Is a Sacrament

Well.  That escalated … if not quickly, at any rate to a higher altitude than expected.  Apparently, at least over here at the Register, the topic of children’s liturgies is even hotter than Game of Thrones (pun obviously intended).  I don’t know whether to lament this as an instance of one of those regrettable skirmishes in the endless wars over religious nonessentials, or to take it as a net positive that people are more eager to defend their children’s souls than to defend their entertainment choices.  (Why not both?)

A few comments indicated points itching for clarification.  First, I confess that I have never attended or taught at a children’s liturgy—I’ve only watched the kids march out.  This does indeed preclude my critiquing children’s liturgies per se (although many of my readers, being more experienced, felt no such qualms).  But my point was not that children’s liturgies are bad (see disclaimers in the previous post) but rather that there are (at least for my family) better options.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Very Great Adventure, Part I

For many years I had a love-hate relationship with the movie Peter Pan.  We grew up on the Mary Martin film of the Broadway show (while the Disney version was familiar too, I don’t think we owned it).  The movie hews fairly close to Barrie’s original text (which, like the dutiful homeschooler I was, I had also read), including the ending—which I hated with the passion of a thousand flaming suns.  Peter Pan, come back after many years’ absence, finds that Wendy’s daughter is ready for an adventure and that Wendy, now “old, ever so much more than twenty,” has forgotten how to fly.  After some back-and-forth, it is agreed that Wendy Jr. will gallivant off with Peter for a limited period of time, just “to do his spring cleaning.”  Wendy expresses a wistful wish that she could go too.  Peter (and it was Mary Martin’s smirk that made the lines truly unbearable) replies: “No, Wendy.  You’re too old now.”

I was still a kid, and it still stung.

Of course, James Barrie would probably say that it was supposed to sting.  His Peter Pan is a lovely adventure story, but filled with winking irony intended for adult readers speaking to their children.  There is the occasional dash of social criticism (the Darlings worry that their unconventional dog-nanny Nana will lead to raised eyebrows), and plenty of wry commentary on the differences between male and female perceptiveness, especially in affairs of the heart.

Thus we learn, for example, that Wendy’s mother

… was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.  (Ch.1)

It’s a kiss that Mr. Darling can’t get either (and he is not aware of the innermost box, says Barrie); and Barrie adds that not even Napoleon could have gotten that kiss.  Who does get the kiss in the end?  Why, Peter Pan of course.

That’s what is so frustrating about Peter.  He’s not fair.

I am aware, of course, that I am speaking Hookishly here.  But Peter really is so much of a brat that one is forced occasionally into feeling that even Hook had a point.

To be fair to Peter, it must be admitted that the grownups in Peter Pan have an inconvenient way of interfering in their children’s lives.  For example:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.  (Ch.1)

Peter, if he is not exactly an evil passion, is certainly a naughty one.  But so irresistible is he that, troublemaker though he is, Mrs. Darling forgives him.  Indeed, even after he has stolen away her children, she cannot bring herself to say a word against him.

“That fiend!” Mr. Darling would cry, and Nana’s bark was the echo of it, but Mrs. Darling never upbraided Peter; there was something in the right-hand corner of her mouth that wanted her not to call Peter names.

Something in the right hand corner of her mouth, perhaps, that wasn’t quite grown up.

*                      *                      *

Not long ago I watched Hook for the first time, and recently I rewatched it.  For those who haven’t seen the movie (which I suppose is getting a little old now, as grownup things are wont to do): it is a cheerful, scary (for children at least) flick with a lot of “heart” and the occasional unfortunate moments of vulgarity and salaciousness that are for some reason obscure to me considered de rigor in comedy.  The conceit is that Peter Pan—now “Peter Banning,” played with delightful goofiness by Robin Williams—has indeed grown up, and not only grown up but forgotten his past, and not only forgotten his past but become a small-souled lawyer who is so absorbed by his work that his relationship with his wife and two children suffers.  Worse yet, he is afraid of heights (as his scornful and resentful son discovers on a transatlantic jaunt).  Worst of all, as his aged “granny” Wendy discerns, he has become “a pirate.”

In the immediate context, Wendy is referring to Peter’s activities with his firm: he is the tough negotiator who swoops in and defeats the small companies struggling against absorption by their larger competitors.  But the judgment has further implications.  Peter is physically cowardly, self-absorbed, and incapable of recognizing the reality of anything remotely fanciful or imaginative.  Little children, one suspects, are not fond of him—certainly he has alienated his son Jack, though his younger child Maggie remains loyal.  He does not tolerate fooling or teasing or play.  And he does not recognize the reality of time.  Though living in a world bound and governed by time—unlike the world he inhabited for ages as a child—he acts as if its rules do not apply to him.  He can delay attendance at a baseball game or while away the hours of a rare vacation on his phone—indeed, can while away the years of his children’s childhood—without repercussions.  He is master of his time.  At least, he acts as if he thinks this way.  Probably, he doesn’t think about it at all.

Interestingly, all these qualities—the anti-time attitude, the intolerance of jokes, the antipathy of children, the lack of imagination, the egotism, and the cowardice—are qualities of Capt. Jas. Hook.

Of which, and of what Barrie might think of all this, more anon.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why Children's Litrugies Give Me the Willies

A recently witnessed Facebook exchange forced me to confront a deep, dark truth about myself: I hate—no, not hate; I loathe, despise, abhominate, and abhor children's liturgies.  The feeling was a little overblown, and prompted some self-examination.  What exactly was it that gave me such a visceral negative reaction to something that many parents embrace with waves of relief?

I think I know now.  None of these are arguments that your children’s liturgy that your children go to in your parish is anything but the bee’s knees.  They are simply my attempt to articulate to myself why the idea of any child of mine ever attending one makes me shudder like a lizard just ran up my leg when I was almost asleep (true story).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

St. Christina the Astonishingly Nasty

I cannot remember to which Facebook friend I owe my introduction to Kirstin Valdez Quade’s reimagining of St. Christina the Astonishing.  Published in The New Yorker, Quade’s longform story incorporates text from Christina’s thirteenth-century vita into a first-person narrative from the mouth of one of Christina’s sisters, covering many of the events recorded of Christina: her miraculous levitation; her report of having visited purgatory; her eccentric avoidance of people who carried the stench of sin; her extreme penances; the accusations of madness and possession; and, ultimately, her entrance of a convent.

Quade takes the outlines of Christina’s story and her penchant for “astonishing” behavior and weaves a disturbing tale.  I was reminded of The Toast’s epic transformation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” into a horror short—except that while The Toast keeps tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Quade appears to have intended her smackdown of Christina seriously.

Read the rest at the Register.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“To Trip the Light Fantastic”

John Milton’s pair of longish poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, are a beautiful depiction of mood.  The first joyful and the second meditative, sad, and even grim, they show the world—in large part, the world of nature—through the lens of two mental states which in their extremity might almost be called proto-Romantic.  They are also the source of a few phrases that the wide reader might recognize: “to trip the light fantastic” derives from the following pair of lines:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

… which hail, not surprisingly, from L’Allegro.

For many years I had known of the poems, but not known much about their reception or what effect they had on subsequent artists—until one afternoon when, working on one writing project or another, the baroque music blaring from my husband’s speaker system set a synapse firing in my brain.  What was that line? I asked myself.  Fortunately, in songs lines are generally repeated; the tenor gave it again:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

“What is this?!!” I demanded out loud.

It was George Frideric Handel.  Yes, that Handel, whose other accomplishments apparently include the composition of a “pastoral ode” entitled L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and, you guessed it, inspired by Milton’s poems.  I highly recommend the piece.  You can hear the light fantastic toe around 10:50.  (Full libretto here.)

Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Gardiner,

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir


A bit of historical trivia from the usual quick source:

At the urging of one of Handel’s librettists, Charles Jennens, Milton’s two poems, L’Allegro and il Penseroso, were arranged by James Harris, interleaving them to create dramatic tension between the personified characters of Milton’s poems (L’Allegro or the “Joyful man” and il Penseroso or the “Contemplative man”). The first two movements consist of this dramatic dialog between Milton’s poems. In an attempt to unite the two poems into a singular “moral design”, at Handel’s request, Jennens added a new poem, “il Moderato”, to create a third movement. The popular concluding aria and chorus, “As Steals the Morn” is adapted from Shakespeare’s Tempest, V.i.65–68.

Oh, Handel.  How very Aristotelian of you, to demand the addition of a moderate man!  Poor Milton is probably turning over in his grave, much like the librettist for Messiah, who (the story is possibly apocryphal, but too good not to repeat) complained that Handel had destroyed the poetry with his music.

But what music!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Discerning Censorship

When I wrote my last post here some days ago, I did not expect it to be particularly controversial.  The point seemed straightforward: that it was healthy for people to take personal responsibility for actions done in their free time; specifically, that even seemingly neutral things like entertainment promote increased virtue or stagnation (and, as C.S. Lewis reminds us through the mouth of Screwtape, in the spiritual life stagnation means going downhill).

But the popularity of Game of Thrones is such that its trees rather overshadowed the aforementioned forest; and the post, though not designed to cast shade (pun intended) on fans of the show (who number such respectable Catholics as Ross Douthat), did have the aura of a minor condemnation.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Wrong Question

Even among secular media watchers, HBO’s Game of Thrones has its mild detractors.  Among Catholics, debate about the ethics of—and the ethics of watching—the show can get heated.  I’ve seen multiple social media dumps on articles about the series: articles critiquing its violence, articles praising its realism, articles slamming its sixth commandment shenanigans, articles noting the limited virtue of various characters.

What I haven’t seen is the series itself; and I don’t plan to see it.  I don’t plan to see it because, of all the articles I’ve read on Game of Thrones, not one has made a case for the series that convinces me it’s worth my time’s investment.  I’m not saying a convincing case for the series couldn’t be made.  But the arguments I’ve read for GoT so far have been unconvincing: for none of them ask the right question.

Read the rest at the Register.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Goodnight Stories for ... Rebel Girls?

I have a reading recommendation for feminists (and non-feminists as well, actually): Andrew Lang.

Lang, a Victorian-era writer learned in folklore and mythology, put his academic knowledge to commercial use when he published The Blue Fairy Book (1889), a collection of stories which spawned a series of twenty-five books, mostly named in the same style (the last “color” book, The Lilac Fairy Book, was published in 1910, and the final book of all, The Strange Story Book, in 1913.)

Our regional library owned most of the series; and I devoured them in middle school and high school.  Weaned (I exaggerate only slightly) on Tolkien and Lewis, I graduated

… some would say regressed; but where was there to go but down?

… to fairy tales.  The Lang books were a long and largely rewarding (if occasionally repetitive) sop to my fantasy-starved mind.  And it was not an unhealthy sop: more of a porridge, really: basic, but fundamentally nourishing.

Oddly enough, the stories were also what a person sensitive to political correctness might call “gender neutral.”  Oh, not always in the particular stories, any given one of which might have featured a long-suffering damosel in distress.  But it was interesting how often meek male characters were the butt of stepfamilial abuse, or the committers of Pandora-like errors, and often a female character showed up everyone around with her courage, wit, and resourcefulness.  The fairy tale genre, if it is offensive to either sex, is, like the melancholy Jacques, an equal-opportunity offender.

Thus, when I encountered a certain video ad for Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, I found myself muttering “Gag me with a spoon.”  To be fair: the authors express laudable intentions.  In answer to the query “Why a Book for Girls?” they explain:

Because we are girls. Our entrepreneurial journey made us understand how important it is for girls to grow up surrounded by female role models. It helps them to be more confident and set bigger goals. We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with, lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn't change much over the past 20 years, so we decided to do something about it.

And indeed, the collection of stories of real women, from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams, looks promising (though I haven’t read it).  Nor will I attempt to take issue with the authors’ judgment that there is a high proportion of shows that fail to show women at their best.  Nevertheless, I took umbrage at the video, for two reasons.

The first is simply that, as suggested above, the video’s rhetoric is based on a flawed understanding of the fairy tale genre, an understanding that would have been corrected by a knowledge of (for example) Lang’s work.  The video begins with a cartoon man, blond, buff, and handsome in a stereotypically over-muscular Hollywood style, who is introduced as the victim of his stepbrother’s beatings and general highhandedness.  There is a ball, a princess, a rescue of this Cinderfella, and then—the warm and comforting narrator is swallowed by a black screen, supplanted by stark white text.  We wouldn’t read this to our sons.  Why read it to our daughters?

I was yelling “stop” a long time before that, right at the part where Cinderfella was submitting meekly to his stepbrother’s maltreatment.  Because—let’s be honest—while both boys and girls can be sensitive and submissive, and both boys and girls can be feisty, boys tend to be more punchy than girls.  For every Anne Shirley who (admirably) breaks her slate over the bully Gilbert Blythe’s head, there are perhaps a dozen girls who would simply have burst into tears at his teasing.  With boys, the ratio is reversed.  This Cinderfella parody had a plausibility issue from the beginning.  You can tell a Cinderella-esque tale about a male character—cf. Andrew Lang’s collections, or google any of the following: “Iron Hans,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Glass Hill,” “Billy Beg and His Bull.”  But that particular Cinderfella was inconceivable.  A jacked, jut-jawed lad who weighs double what his brothers do and could easily bench press them in one hand each, cowering under the onslaught of brooms …  The video’s creators have weighted the dice from the beginning, making the whole story feel absurd.

Of course, the tale is a clear parody not just of any Cinderella story, but of what had become, alas, our culture’s most prominent version thereof: the admittedly somewhat absurd animated film that hales from the studios of a man whose name begins with “W” and “D” and rhymes with Dalt Wisney.

Which sounds like the name of a foolish side
character from the Harry Potter franchise ...

A good deal of the ridiculousness that the video’s creators see in the tale, then, has to do with the particular version of it they have chosen to ridicule—a version in which Cinderella is, in fact, more helpless and less resourceful than she happens to be even in Perrault.  Probably if the video’s creators had been exposed to anything more substantial (dare I say, “wholesome”?) than American film growing up, they would not have picked fairy tales for their whipping boy.

This sort of cultural ignorance, of course, is not their fault.  But there are other assumptions in the video that troubled me.  Most basic of all, the presentation of the problem-solving book suggests that their notion of “Women at Their Best” may differ from mine.  Indeed, it suggests a difference in our notions of “People at Their Best.”

The collection’s title, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, may serve for a launching point.  The idea communicated is surely that women (and girls) who lead noteworthy and/or admirable lives can only do so if they are willing to stand out, whether that means bucking societal notions of what girls “should” do, or simply working really hard to develop their talents and interests.  Put in these terms, there is nothing wrong with the idea: choose almost any female saint of the Catholic Church, from Cecelia to Clotilde to Hildegard of Bingen to Margaret Clitherow to Mother Teresa to Giana Molla and you will confront a woman who stood out, in many cases defying her society.  Heroic virtue of the obvious sort (which is what it nearly always takes to be canonized as a saint) entails taking a stand when it’s tough.  And the same, of course, can be said on the male side: secular male figures and saints, like their female counterparts, are canonized because they did extraordinary things, difficult things, things that their society may not have supported, and of which it often disapproved.

Mind you, they are all saints because they loved God.
But they’re canonized saints because they demonstrated
this love in sometimes surprising ways …

Granting all that, take issue with the concept of rebel.  We are Americans, whose country was founded out of a rebellion.  We love to imagine ourselves the scrappy underdogs, the buckers of trends, etc.  We may be the richest nation on earth, but we love Jean Valjean.  We tend to forget that there is nothing inherently virtuous about being rebellious.  It all depends on what the rebel stands for and against.  Queen Elizabeth was indeed a bit of a rebel, but so was Bloody Mary Tudor; and depending on your historical viewpoint, you may regard either or both as loathsome, as readily as you regard one or the other as heroic.  Jezebel was a bit of a “rebel,” and a wicked woman.

As one character in the Hollywood film
of the same name memorably remarks) …

Lucrezia Borgia.  Wu Zetian.  Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde).  A handful of female Nazis who worked as guards in the concentration camps.  A handful of female serial killers.  And of course, this is just the women: history records the names of thousands more men who were outstanding in their fields, but frankly nasty to live (or die?) with.  There’s nothing inherently great about being a rebel.

Conversely, notwithstanding my acknowledgement of heroic virtue, there is nothing unheroic about meekness.  And herein lies the real crux of my uneasiness with the Rebel Girls project.  I suspect that any version of the Cinderella story, Disney or Lang, male or female, which seemed to praise meekness would have met with their scorn.  Meekness is an underrated virtue.  We tend to read it as weakness at best, prissiness at worst.  We cannot abide Fanny Prince.  We find it paradoxical that “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

What we forget is that meekness itself requires a great deal of strength.  Turning the other cheek and forgiving those who persecute us or even merely “trespass against us” is a terrible burden to bear.  “Lead us not into temptation!” we pray.  “Do not require us to be meek!”

The great question, requiring considerable discernment, is when to rebel and when to suffer.  The recent Cinderella movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, while in many ways excellent, could have tackled this question head-on but failed to do so, though the key line, “Have courage and be kind,” at least attempted to address the issue.  Any “realistic” or live or “grownup” adaptation of the move really does have to deal with the question of why Cinderella accepts her abuse: it’s the motive for doing so, not the fact that she does, which determines whether or not she is worthy of emulation, and embodies the final paradox of virtue: the meek rebel: the womanly woman who also outshines every man born.

For example …

Buxtehude, btw.