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— 1 —

 

Well, hello from a place where it’s warmer than twenty degrees.

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Not much warmer – the high today in Pensacola was in the mid-40’s, but compared to what we’ve had in the far northern reaches of Birmingham, it felt balmy.

And tomorrow! 50’s!

So…what’s up?

 — 2 —

The older of the two boys has had and is having a busy week. He went with scouts last weekend to Sugar Mountain, NC, to ski – they left Saturday, skied all day Sunday, then returned Monday…which was to be followed up by a Wednesday departure for the March for Life in DC.

It was all fine, but I was just a little concerned about the proximity of two marathons of sleeping-in-buses and sleeping-on-the-floor-of-church multipurpose rooms  and the flu germs and who knows what else, along with having to get up early for school Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve been making him bulk up on Echinacea and vitamin C since the beginning of January in preparation. I’ve been reading lots of articles over the past few years declaring that herbal remedies in pill form and vitamins-in-pills are essentially useless, but I have to tell you that years ago I had a rather dramatic experience of quick recovery from something (don’t remember what) after starting on Echinacea, and since chewable vitamin C actually tastes like it might be getting to work in your body – I’m sticking with those two at least.

I was greatly assisted in my proactive doctoring by the fact that around these parts, Snowmaggedon threatened this week, everyone got really scared, and so school was cancelled Tuesday, which was great, and then Wednesday, which was even better.

(Not for the teachers – I feel for them. These AP teachers in particular, looking at that calendar…those tests aren’t budging from early May, and must be prepared for….)

But it was good for him – he could sleep, sleep, sleep. He’s up in DC today (they drove all night Wednesday night, arrived Thursday morning, did museums and the JP2 Center, then will march tomorrow) and so…..

 

— 3 —

M and I had some time. I wanted to go somewhere warm, but wouldn’t you know it, everywhere in the south within driving range is nothing but cold. Pensacola was as good as we could do…and maybe it will be fine? As I said, it’s supposed to be in the 50’s on Friday.

I’d never been here before. I’ve been to various spots on the Gulf shore, both in Alabama and Florida, but never Pensacola. What do I associate it with? Traffic, I guess. And weird evangelical movements. And towering condos.

But it turns out, there’s some interesting history here, and so I decided that some history studies would be just the thing for the rest of the week. It’s off season, so it would give me a chance to check out the area without the aggravation of endless lines of traffic.

What’s the interesting history? Well you can read about it here but in short – Pensacola (not St. Augustine) was the first attempt at European settlement in non-Mexico North America – and it was a disaster. The fellow in charge of bringing hundreds of people and livestock up here from Mexico parked the ships in the bay while he sent a party inland for a few weeks to reconnoitre. And guess what happened? A hurricane happened, sunk all the boats, and wiped out any chances for a well-founded settlement. They stuck it out for two years, but ended up being rescued and returned to Mexico. In subsequent decades and centuries, Pensacola bounced between Spain, France, Great Britain and of course the U.S. of A, with time in the C.S. of A as well – although not long, since the Union grabbed it in 1862 and it was a key point in the blockade.

–4–

We left home around 10 – later than I’d intended, but last night, I read that roads around Montgomery were still iffy – and in fact, schools were closed there again today – so I decided to let the sun warm things up a bit before we headed out.

(I had originally thought we might drive down Wednesday night, but I’m glad we didn’t do that – there were indeed icy patches under underpasses and on bridges which would have been far more hazardous in the dark of night than they were mid-morning.)

First stop was a very brief one: in Georgiana, Alabama, to the house where Hank Williams lived from age 7 to 11, and where he was first given a guitar and learned to play it.

In preparation, I blasted Hank Williams for a good 45 minutes on the car CD player as we drove and told Michael the Hank’s story, included his death (which has always intrigued me, not just because it’s intriguing, but also because of the Knoxville connection.)

We’ve been to the Hank Williams gravesite in Montgomery, but it was years ago – I didn’t think he’d remember it, but he claims he did (“Was his wife buried there too? And it was big? Yes, I remember.” I guess he did.)

There’s a museum in the home, and the sign said, “Open,” but I really didn’t want to spend a lot of time, so we just stopped, took in the sign and the location, and moved on south…

 

–5 —

We reached Pensacola about 2, ate a Jaco’s on the water (Cuban for him, crabcake salad for me), then walked up to the downtown area – there are several small museums in the historic area, and we started with the largest one – the T.T. Wentworth Museum, which is housed in the former City Hall, a lovely Mediterranean Revival structure. The origins of the museum lies in the huge, eclectic collection of local Famous Person T.T. Wentworth, a fraction of which is exhibited in one room – the rest of the museum is dedicated to a history of the Pensacola area and changing exhibits.

I do love what the collectors of old gathered and left us. It’s usually so much more interesting than the carefully-curated, ideologically shaped contemporary museum. Both have their place, but given that I am a person who delights in finding meaning in the purportedly random, you know which kind of experience appeals to me more.

The ticket gets you into other smaller museums in the historic district – but everything closes at 4, and since we arrived on the scene at 3, we were out of luck – we can use the tickets on Friday, so we’ll probably do that for part of the day.

 

 

— 6 —

We made our way back to the car, engaging with way-too-tame squirrels along the way, and looking at various bits of archaeological finds along the way (mostly foundations and bits of walls from the British period – they were the ones whose plan forms the shape of the downtown even today).

Across one bridge to Gulf Breeze, with a short drive down to one of the entrances of the Gulf Shores National Seashore just to check out the layout, and then to our hotel. There are several heated pools, but I’m thinking the 40-ish degree weather is going to deter this one from making an attempt.

Dinner at local mediocre tourist staple Peg Leg Pete’s, just because – mostly because it’s slow season and there’s no waiting.

And…I’m already aggravated because there’s so much we want to do tomorrow, and so little time. We just can’t do the Commerce Museum, Business and Industry Museum, Naval Air Museum, Archaeology centers and do any walking In Nature….Well, we can come back, next time with the other son joining us.

 

— 7 —

 

Last night, M and I watched Chaplin’s The Kid. I had never seen it. It was lovely – Jackie Coogan was natural and charming. The linked article relates some of the real turmoil that are in the background to the film: the recent death of Chaplin’s infant son and his own removal from his home at the age of seven. I was struck, not only by the charm and humor of the movie, but also by:

  • The relatively honest treatment of an unwed mother and the implicit condemnation of the condemnation of unwed motherhood – if that makes sense. “Her sin was motherhood” reads the card accompanying “The Woman’s” discharge from the charity hospital, babe in arms.
  • The pervasiveness of prayer in the film. There is just a lot of praying. The Woman prays for her baby to be found, Chaplin and The Kid pray before they eat and before they go to sleep in the flophouse, and The Kid prays desperately when he’s being taken away – such a wrenching sequence!
  • The look of the film – maybe it’s just now with our monster television, I can actually see detail – but the textures of the walls, the furniture, the clothing – everything in The Kid – are almost palpable. Chaplin grew up in poverty, of course, and the set quiet consciously and powerfully evokes that life.

Chaplin, Hank Williams…it’s all education. Every bit.

 

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Recent….reads:

“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.

 

 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.

 

–4–

Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.

 

— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?

Meh.

Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:

 

— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.

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It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….

 

 

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It’s early January, yes, but temperatures today were supposed to get into the 60’s. And since the next few days promise rain followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, it seemed like a good day to get out of town.

Where to go?

I have a slew of daytrip ideas stacked up, but here’s what’s bugging me: I’d really like to take my 16-year old with us on most of them, too. For example:

  • M and I went to Memphis two summers ago and had a great time – and when the older boy (who’d been at camp, I think) heard about what we’d done, he said, “I want to go next time…”
  • During World War II, there was a huge POW camp in Aliceville,Alabama. Not a scrap of it remains, but there is a museum – that’s supposed to be rather good.
  • We’ve not yet made it to the important sights in Selma or Tuskegee – again – those are trips I’d like the older boy to be on, too.

So cross those off the list (well, and Memphis is too far for a day-trip anyway). Since it was going to be pleasant, we’d want to be outdoors. But somewhere different…where to go?

How about…here?

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It didn’t take long. We left well after the older son went to school and beat him back home, but it was just enough, and it was amazing.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a large area that embraces the banks of the Tennessee River and tributaries around Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. If you’ve driven on I-65 across the Tennessee, you’ve touched the Wheeler Refuge.

Here’s the story:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established July 7, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was the first refuge ever superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment and in the early stages, considered an experiment to determine the possibility of attracting migratory waterfowl onto a multipurpose impoundment. 

 Although designated as a waterfowl refuge, Wheeler provides for a wide spectrum of wildlife. Its great diversity of habitat includes deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. This rich mix of habitats provide places for over 295 bird species to rest, nest and winter, including over 30 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and an increasing population of Sandhill cranes and a small number of Whooping cranes. 

 

I’m glad I honed in on it this week – the cranes will start migrating again soon. It had been on the edges of my radar for a while, but crept closer to the center this week because I saw a notice about a “Crane Festival” up there this weekend – I’d considered doing that, but then thought – why attack the place with thousands of others when we can just run up there during the week? I’m very glad we went.

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It was an astonishing sight that our cameras couldn’t capture – perhaps with a better telephoto lens, we could have. Also – a lot of the photos were taken through the glass of the observation building, which is, incidentally, apparently suffering from the same infestation of ladybug type beetles that we are down here.

Just know that to see, even from a bit of a distance, thousands of Sandhill Cranes hanging out, occasionally taking flight and making a lot of noise, is fascinating. There were apparently some whooping cranes in the crew as well, but I didn’t see them.

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Again – not a great photo, but just know – that mass of gray? Sandhill Cranes. Thousands. 

(If you want to hear them – or at least what I was able to capture – go check out Instagram.)

Here we are, toting our gear, poking around in the grasses, and there they are en masse, finding whatever it is they find, always together, never alone.

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There were, of course, a lot of waterfowl as well, and high up in a tree we spotted bees swarming around a cavity in the trunk.

There’s a decent little visitor’s center with exhibits to get you going. There were many other visitors, mostly older (ahem) folks as well as two school groups. It seems to be a well-used facility.

We drove north, along 565 (which takes you to Huntsville), and pulled off to walk a couple of other trails – we were told there were a lot of some type of waterfowl on a particular branch – which we saw, but from such a distance, even with binoculars, they were impossible to make out. The Beaverdam trail didn’t, unfortunately, have any beavers, or dams, but during our twenty minutes or so there, we walked through something different – a swamp populated, not by cypresses, as we usually see, but Tupelo trees.

And then back home, reading and being told about the Mayans, once again, as well as his latest read, Dune in which – he reported  – “Something happened. Finally.”

Next stop – eagles!

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Christmas in New York City….what to say?

How about…been there, done that. 

Or…There. That’s done. 

I’d always thought Christmastime in the City would be fun to experience, and now that my oldest lives there, we had a good excuse. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve got the gist of the trip: we left Christmas night from Atlanta, spent Tuesday-Thursday there, left at the crack of dawn on Friday for other parts of the country. I was glad to do it, glad to spend time with my son and see friends, but heavens, it was cold and wow, it was crowded. As I said: been there, done that was what I thought as we flew away for points south!  Highlights:

  • First highlight was in getting there in the first place. The boys were scheduled to serve Christmas Day Mass at the convent, and when I made the reservations, did so assuming that Mass was at the usual Sunday morning time – 11am. Only to find out a few weeks later that no, Mass was at 12:30. Flights were at 6:19. From Atlanta. 2 hours from Birmingham.  A time zone ahead. So essentially, we would be leaving for a 6:19 flight a little more than four hours before it took off from two hours away, with perfect traffic.
  • Well, we obviously made it. The most tension-inducing aspect of the situation was that I had purchased United’s most recent low-level fare – the Basic Economy, which comes with a lot of restrictions, most of which – only being able to take a personal carry-on like a backpack, no guaranteed seating together – didn’t bother me (we each took a backpack, which was fine for three days, even in winter weather – we are not fashionistas), but there’s one more restriction: you can’t check in ahead of time online unless you are checking a bag (which costs extra, natch). This is to enable them to enforce the no-carry-on rule on site, so it’s understandable, but still. You know how it is when you’re racing to the airport. You can think: Well, at least I’m already checked in. Nope.
  • But, we made it, with time to spare. Go me. I mean…go. 
  • We flew into Newark, which was a first. Arrived, then took the very crowded train into Manhattan. Why was it so packed on Christmas night? It seemed to me, since it was crowded when we boarded at the airport, that the riders were folks who’d done their Christmas elsewhere and were returning home. We had to stand for most of the trip, but that’s fine.
  • Got to Penn Station, then walked the seven blocks in the cold to our hotel – the Leo House.
  • Now, this was a new discovery for me. I am not sure how it had never crossed my radar before. The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse that’s been around for decades, named after Leo XIII and originally founded to be a safe haven for German immigrants. You can read its history here. It certainly showed its age – particularly in the bathrooms – but it was very clean and the breakfast was substantial and varied every day. I prepaid, and so we had a double room – two rooms connected by a bathroom, with three beds – for under $200/night. With breakfast. In Manhattan. In a good location, a block down from a subway, with the Empire State Building in view. It worked. It would be just about perfect if the bathrooms were updated, but that would be a multi-million dollar, probably unaffordable project. I’d stay there again – and probably will!
  • Day one (summarized on Instagram here). Yes, we went to the Central Park Zoo. We’d never been, and online commentary indicated that it wasn’t a bad winter activity – there were animals that flourish outside in the cold, and there was enough indoors to make it bearable. Walked through the park by the skating rink (we heard them introduce a skating session with about 5 minutes of announced warnings and disclaimers – #ModernTimes) – then to the subway to take it up to the Natural History Museum, which was…packed. As was everything over those three days. It made sense: Christmastime in the City has its appeal, plus it was so bloody cold, any attraction that was indoors was…attractive.
  • I stood line to get tickets – me and many Russians. We paid extra to see the Mummy exhibit, and probably shouldn’t have. It is part of this museum trend to just bring in extra $$$ with special exhibits that have a particular appeal – you think, “Oh, we want to see mummies!” and so you can…but for a price! Anyway, we’d seen many mummy displays all over the world, so I’m not sure why I gave into the pressure on this one (from the sales clerk, not my kids), but I did and was irritated. There wasn’t a lot to it that we had not seen elsewhere.
  • But I did see Mammoths and mastadons, which interested me because I’d just read this book. I find these early mammals much more interesting than dinosaurs, perhaps because they are closer to us in time, and in fact inhabited the planet with us.
  • We’d been here before, but it was several years and a couple of trips ago, but it was worth a revisit. I like the Field Museum in Chicago better, though….
  • Then dinner with my son and my friends Ann and Paul Engelhart at this very good French restaurant..and then Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • I need to think a bit more about this production, but I’d say that it was interesting, worth the time and money, and captured an aspect of the thematic essence of the piece while missing another part of it. Let’s put it this way: it’s not a light holiday confection, but honestly, who thinks of Hansel and Gretel this way? It’s a dark tale of suffering, temptation, exploitation and revenge or justice – or both. The German Expressionistic tone of much of the production brings out this darkness effectively, but what was muted was the spirituality of the piece, which is pretty strong: Hansel and Gretel are protected by angels, and in a sense, their journey to the witches’ house is a journey they’re led on for the salvation of others – the children the witch has turned into gingerbread who are freed by Hansel and Gretel, brought to that place by their own suffering.
  • The weird thing about the evening was this: a friend of mine from Alabama was in NYC at the same time. We’d said we’d meet on Wednesday or Thursday, but we came very close, without knowing it, on Tuesday night: she and her group ate at a restaurant on the same block as ours at the same time…and then they went to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center…as we were at Hansel and Gretel. 
  • Small world, again.

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 [Insert ritual apologies for negligent posting here]

— 1 —

What are my excuses?

  • Holiday & family – all of them at one time or another. #Blessed!
  • Homeschooling
  • Recovering from one project
  • Gearing up for another…or two.
  • Pondering Stuff. Really trying to get that Guatemala e-book finished.
  • A news cycle that is impossible to keep up with
  • Widespread insanity that would take 28 hours a day to address.
  • Wrestling with the temptation to do just that – to add one’s voice to to the cacophony, to come up with the Hottest Take of All.
  • Deciding that it would be better to talk with the kids, do stuff with the kids and read books instead.
  • Lost. But not for too much longer! Season 6 is almost halfway done. It will be sad when it’s over, but also somewhat of a relief. It’s kind of exhausting.
  • Planning travel. You know that was in there – obsessively Kayak-ing, AirBnB-ing and TripAdvisor-ing always puts me into radio silence elsewhere.

 — 2 —

That said a few links and notes. First a link: From Aletia, a nice piece on Rorate Caeli Masses. What rot to discourage, get rid of or outright suppress such traditions. In the name of..who knows what. So pagans and the National Council of Churches would like us more? Bah. 

First of all, since the Mass is normally celebrated right before dawn, the warm rays of the winter sun slowly light up the church. If timed correctly, by the end of Mass the entire church is filled with light by the sun. This speaks of the general theme of Advent, a time of expectation eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Son of God, the Light of the World. In the early Church Jesus was often depicted as Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun,” and December 25 was known in the pagan world as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Saint Augustine makes reference to this symbolism in one of his sermons, “Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by believers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun.”

Connected to this symbolism is the fact that this Mass is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referred to by the title “Morning Star.” Astronomically speaking the “morning star” is the planet Venus and is most clearly seen in the sky right before sunrise or after sunset. It is the brightest “star” in the sky at that time and heralds or makes way for the sun. The Blessed Mother is the true “Morning Star,” always pointing us to her Son and so the Rorate Mass reminds us of Mary’s role in salvation history.

Secondly, it echoes to us the truth that the darkness of night does not last, but is always surpassed by the light of day. This is a simple truth we often forget, especially in the midst of a dark trial when the entire world seems bent on destroying us. God reassures us that this life is only temporary and that we are “strangers and sojourners” in a foreign land, destined for Heaven.

— 3 —

To prove how tardy I am in these takes, here’s a link from 11/21 – a wonderful homily from Fr. Roger Landry on the Feast of the Presentation, reflecting not only on that feast, but on its traditional association with contemplative religious:

But Zacchaeus didn’t care. He wanted to see the Lord and none of these obstacles was going to stop him. His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll climb, in order to see Jesus more clearly. Are we capable of being accounted fools for Christ for following those means that others might consider silly if they will bring us into greater relationship with Jesus? Contemplatives are those who seek to overcome all obstacles to come to be with Jesus, to be perpetually looking at him who is passing by. Monasteries are like great tree houses in which they can be looking out for the Lord and praying for all of us. Similarly, Zacchaeus is a model of immediate receptivity. Jesus said to him, “Come down quickly,” and that’s precisely what he did. He didn’t delay. He received Jesus into his home in a consequential way, doing reparation for whatever wrong he had done in a super-compensatory way. God wants our quick response as well. And when we welcome him, we welcome the salvation that the Savior brings. Contemplatives show us the priority of this welcome!

— 4

I am usually the curmudgeonly skeptic when it comes to tech in the classroom, but this looks quite interesting:

The game provides far more interactivity than is possible by listening to a traditional lecture or reading a text,” said Susan Sutherland, lecturer at Texas A&M. “It delivers a tangible way for students to not only recognize works of art, but to explore the context in which they were created. As students are immersed in the game, they build strategic thinking skills and gain knowledge to motivate them to keep playing and learning. The goal of the class is not only to increase their knowledge and have fun playing the game, but to spark interest in further research on the Medici, or perhaps even to go to Florence to see the art and architecture that they have studied!”

— 5 –

Current reads:

  • The Yearling – I’m (re)reading this along with my son. I haven’t read it since I was about 12 years old, an experience that had quite an impact on me. I loved the book, was thunderstruck by the end, and sobbed, probably for days. As I re-read, I understand the book’s appeal to me, aside from what would appeal to anyone: the lush, precise descriptions, the humor, the humanity. It’s the fact that Jody is an only child and feels that only-ness quite deeply, yearning, as he does, just for something living to call his own and care for. Yes, I can see how that would appeal to only-child me.
  • If you’ve never read The Yearling, give it a try. It’s not a young children’s book, although strong readers can certainly enjoy it. It won the Pulitzer Prize, for heaven’s sake.
  • I grabbed a  copy of The Nine Tailors in the “free” bin at Second and Charles. I had probably read it as a teen – I think I read all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels then – but it has been a while, and it’s a pleasure to  be back in that world, even as all the bell-tolling business is certainly impenetrable to me.
  • Today on the “new” shelf at the library I picked up The Leper Spy, which was an interesting, if padded account of the life of a Filipino woman who did some important espionage work for the Filipino Resistance and the Americans during the Japanese occupation. It is one of the books that would have done just as well as a long-form magazine article, but because those sorts of things have no home anymore, a book it is.
  • Joey Guerrero was in her early 20’s when she contracted leprosy. The hook of the story is that she used her condition as an asset in resistance – she was able to move about among the Japanese occupiers, gathering and passing along information, because the Japanese would go out of their way to avoid being close to her.
  • The book, however, is odd. Perhaps because there is not enough detail on Joey’s wartime activities, the author has to basically offer us a history of World War II in the Philippines to give us enough for a book. Which is fine, for those of us who don’t know a lot about it. The problem though, is that since the actual Joey Guerrero-in-wartime material is so sketchy – seriously, maybe ten pages out of the first hundred – the reader is left wondering if this person really merits a book-length treatment. That’s why I think a shorter account would pack a bigger punch.
  • It was definitely worth a couple of hours of my time, though – more worthwhile than scrolling hopelessly through the news online! The author treats Joey’s deep Catholic faith with great respect, although right off the bat he gets the definition of the Immaculate Conception wrong, and honestly, when that happens, it makes me want to toss the book right there because, really? Can I trust you at all now? But I forged on, hoping that was just a blip. But can we put it in some Manual of Style somewhere? THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION ≠ VIRGINAL CONCEPTION OF CHRIST, PEOPLE.
  • The latter part of the book tells an interesting tale, as well, for after the war, Guerrero eventually made her way to the Carville, Louisiana facility for Hansen’s Disease patients – and the story of her fight to enter the country and stay here is instructive, particularly considering contemporary immigration debates.

— 6 —

One brief jaunt this week (although it’s Thursday night as a write this, and Friday usually sees Jaunts – go to Instagram Stories to follow whatever might happen in that regard) – to Red Mountain Park,  a vast tract of land that is slowly but surely being developed with trails, adventure areas, and highlights of the mines that once were active there.

Frank Gilmer and John T. Milner founded the Oxmoor Furnaces and opened Red Mountain’s first commercial ore mine in late 1863. This mine became known as Eureka 1 and is located on Red Mountain Park. In 1864, Wallace McElwain built the Irondale Furnace (Cahaba Iron Works) and supplied it with iron ore via tramway from the nearby Helen Bess mine. Union troops, led by General James H. Wilson, destroyed both furnaces as they swept through Alabama late in the war. These early furnaces laid the foundation for future growth and prosperity. Soon enough, the “secret” of Red Mountain would be a secret no more.

The last mine closed in 1962.

This time we headed to a newly -developed section, containing a recently re-opened mine entrance and, for some reason, giant Adirondack chairs.

 

 

The photo on the far right was taken through a grate. Don’t worry. You really can’t go in the mine. 

 

— 7 —

Advent family devotional! Get it instantly! For .99!

St. Nicholas day is a few weeks away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

 

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

Looking for Christmas gifts? Try here!

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— 1 —

Today’s one of my Living Faith days. Here you go!

(By the way that restaurant is doing the same Thanksgiving free-meal-for-all this year. Information here.)

 — 2 —

Moving on…

In  the words of my favorite math video guru…And….we’re done!

Friday morning, I’ll be sending along the manuscript of my next book for Loyola, to be published next fall. The manuscript is due 12/15, and look at me, submitting a month early.

Unheard of!

I’m usually not late, but nor am I this early. So settle down and I’ll tell you what happened. Apply to your own particular life as you will:

I knew writing this book would be a bit of a challenge because I would be back in the homeschooling game during the writing time.  I wrote The Loyola Kids book of Bible Stories last year while they were both in school, and while I had written a few things – devotionals and such – during the couple of years they were both homeschooling, I was a bit nervous about being able to fit writing this book into my life this year.

It’s not that my 12-year old demands attention. Not at all. It’s not him, it’s me. I’m so into the homeschooling thing, especially with this mature, curious young man and especially since I can see the end in sight: five more years, at the most, and he’ll be on his way (and it could be sooner, considering his capabilities). I want to spend time facilitating his learning – I want to do things with him and travel about and so on.

But then as I began writing it, I discovered a few things.

— 3 —

First, the subject matter and the very clear structure the editors and I laid out at the beginning meant that it wasn’t a very mentally taxing book to write. I didn’t just color by the numbers, but it wasn’t like writing War and Peace, either. Not that I know what writing War and Peace is like. It was just that with the structure established, that was one less aspect to agonize about.

Secondly, my high school aged son began driving himself to school. Over the past couple of years, before he was driving, we’ve done some carpooling, but it’s been sporadic, which is the way it is once you hit high school and everyone has their activities, particularly in the afternoon.

But now, as he takes himself back and forth,  I find myself with an hour or two more to myself than I’ve had over the past couple of years during each day – for on the days that I got hit with both mornings and afternoon, that was a couple of hours that I’d be in the car.

Not having to drive back and forth across town twice a day has changed my life.

He gets up at 6:45, I wake up, he leaves a bit after 7, and I get to work. The other one won’t wake up until 9 or so (I let him stay up as late as he wants because in the evenings he’s either reading, drawing or playing music – no screens at that point – and so if he wants to do those things all night, that’s fine with me.), so there’s my first chunk of work for the day.

Which,  will tell you, is…different.  I have lived most of my life as a night person -and for the most part, I still am. I have never been able to actually think clearly and creatively in the mornings, especially early – probably because I’ve been up so late doing all that (usually pointless) thinking, and I’m tahred.

But as I have aged, I’ve found my powers of nighttime concentration dwindling, and more than that, my desire to work at night evaporating. I basically want to read, so leave me alone.

So if I was going to get good work done, I was going to have to set that sense of myself aside, develop some self-discipline and hit work first thing instead of staring into space or scrolling through my bookmarks online.

Which I’ve done. Actually done. Consistently, all fall. Amazing even myself. There’s prep work involved, though. The mental routine I’ve developed is a variation of the way I’ve always worked on these things. Basically, I realized a long time ago that I have a very active and fertile subconscious. Perhaps everyone does, but it’s something I became quite attuned to in high school, especially as I struggled with math and the more abstract sciences. I realized that when I agonized over something in the evenings, and then set it aside, forgot about it and went to sleep, when I woke up in the morning….I got it. I didn’t even have to try. My brain had just figured it out for me. Thanks, brain!

In college, I came to understand that there was only so much active studying that was useful to me. I would read, read, read, and then set material aside for a day…and then be able to do well on the exam, for the most part, no matter how jumbled it all seemed when I set it aside.

— 4

So when I work on writing projects of a certain type (catechetical, instructional), my process is generally:

  • Have a very clear structure laid out. If you look at my Loyola books, you can see this structure in the tables of contents. Once, for example, with the saints book, I figures out the structure of those subsections: “Saints are people who…” I was off to the races and wrote the book in six weeks, no joke. This latest book that I’ve just finished is the result of thoughtful collaboration with the Loyola editors. Their concept was quite smart and lent itself to very easy writing.
  • Research, research, research. Spend an hour, two – a day – whatever, reading. Then take a day. Or go to sleep.
  • Get up the next morning and write. No agony, just get it all out. And there it is.
  • Come back the next day and rewrite. That also functions as the warm-up for writing the new stuff you’ve researched the previous night.

I write on both paper and the computer. It depends on what, at that moment, helps me feel freer and less constrained. Sometimes that’s paper, but sometimes the physical act of writing is too slow, so I go to the computer and pound it out. And sometimes composing on the computer makes me feel a very confining, daunting expectation of putting down a perfect product – so back to paper I go.

And then I edit (my favorite part – love editing – it’s when the real stuff happens and I can really understand what I was trying to do and what I need to do) – and pull all the pieces together, and send it in, stuff the file folder with all my notes in a drawer (that’s one thing I do by hand – take notes), and then when the final MS has been okayed for publication…I toss it all away…

I’m not writing great, creative, inventive, stuff, but I’m committed to accessible and engaging, and I think I have a knack for it. I believe the stuff. I believe it’s all true, and I want to help spread that Good News. I really do. There’s one little thing I think I’m okay at: taking these concepts that are sometimes complex, and communicating them to various audiences.

But it feels…so good …when you’re done!

— 5 –

Oh, this was the other thing I was going to say: my intuition had told me to push myself on this one. Just do it. To suppress my natural tendencies to procrastination and just go ahead and do it and get it done. I do try to obey my instincts when they strongly tell me to just do it  – because what I find when I don’t is that sure enough, something will happen to eat up all that time I thought I was going to have: someone will get sick or have some other sort of crisis, or there’ll be some political or culture explosion that is impossible to tear myself away from watching – and then, once again, I’ll learn that lesson…you should have obeyed your instincts because now it’s due tomorrow, and here you are, idiot.

Well, I’ll just say that the instincts were correct again, and not because anything bad happened, but because a couple of opportunities for good work came up, opportunities that both had very tight, inflexible deadlines – and I wouldn’t have been able to take them on if I’d left this project until the last month before it was due, thinking…oh, I have time….

So yes. It was one of the few pieces of advice my mother ever handed out, and she was right:

Obey your first instincts.

— 6 —

Homeschooling this week:

  • Frog dissection
  • Symphony concert – Beethoven’s 4th – that’s this morning.
  • Piano, of course.
  • Basketball practice.
  • More Yearling. He’s enjoying it, as am I.
  • Monday’s jaunt: he is playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for one of his recitals, and as he was playing it, my memory was jogged….isn’t there a Birmingham connection to this song? 

Why yes, there is! The composer, Hugh Martin, was born and grew up in Birmingham, and some accounts say he wrote the song here, but I am thinking that is probably not correct. But whatever the case, he had strong Birmingham ties, so on Monday, we drove ten minutes and found his childhood home, complete with historic marker. His father was an architect and designed, among other local buildings, one of my favorites, the wonderful main downtown library. This home is not terribly far from where Walker Percy’s first childhood home would have been before it was torn down for the Red Mountain Expressway. Same general area. (the second Percy home, where is father committed suicide, is still standing.)

IMG_20171113_130034.jpg

  • The other usual stuff.
  • A side trip to …wait for it…BESSEMER, ALABAMA!
  • Jealous?
  • Yeah, well, don’t be. I just went to get my new car registered, and since we were in the neighborhood in this town that was once at the center of the once-thriving iron/coal/steel industries of this area, we took a look around. There’s a little museum: The Bessemer Hall of History, the star holdings of which are a typewriter from Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway and the door of a jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why was King in jail in Bessemer? Interestingly enough, that arrest was King’s last arrest, and occurred fifty years ago last month. The pre-arranged arrest was a fulfillment of punishments for charges related to the 1963 arrest (when “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was composed):

After King’s release from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, he fought charges that he and several others protested without the proper permits. He appealed several courts’ rulings until in 1967 a Supreme Court judge upheld his conviction and ordered him to serve the remaining three days of his four-day sentence.

The fanfare surrounding his arrival in Birmingham prompted officials to reroute him to Bessemer to escape the overwhelming attention from the media and the public. 

  • We searched for and eventually found the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the, if not the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the country. As I said, we eventually found it, but could not figure out the pathway in, and then it was time to head home, so we did.
  • Lunch was not at the venerable local institution called Bright Star – one of the oldest continuing operating restaurants in Alabama, but rather down the road at a lunch counter in a gas station, a spot noted on “best hamburgers in Alabama” lists. The hamburger eater agreed with the ranking.

— 7 —

St. Nicholas day is a few weeks away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

Looking for Christmas gifts? Try here!

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For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Faith…science….all here.

His memorial is today, November 15. 

The Nashville Dominicans – who run the school one my sons have attended in the past – have a  nice page on him. 

From B16, a 2010 General Audience:

He still has a lot to teach us. Above all, St Albert shows that there is no opposition between faith and science, despite certain episodes of misunderstanding that have been recorded in history. A man of faith and prayer, as was St Albert the Great, can serenely foster the study of the natural sciences and progress in knowledge of the micro- and macrocosm, discovering the laws proper to the subject, since all this contributes to fostering thirst for and love of God. The Bible speaks to us of creation as of the first language through which Albert the Great StampGod who is supreme intelligence, who is the Logos reveals to us something of himself. The Book of Wisdom, for example, says that the phenomena of nature, endowed with greatness and beauty, is like the works of an artist through which, by analogy, we may know the Author of creation (cf. Wis 13: 5). With a classical similitude in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance one can compare the natural world to a book written by God that we read according to the different approaches of the sciences (cf. Address to the participants in the Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 2008; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 5 November 2008, p. 6). How many scientists, in fact, in the wake of St Albert the Great, have carried on their research inspired by wonder at and gratitude for a world which, to their eyes as scholars and believers, appeared and appears as the good work of a wise and loving Creator! Scientific study is then transformed into a hymn of praise. Enrico Medi, a great astrophysicist of our time, whose cause of beatification has been introduced, wrote: “O you mysterious galaxies… I see you, I calculate you, I understand you, I study you and I discover you, I penetrate you and I gather you. From you I take light and make it knowledge, I take movement and make it wisdom, I take sparkling colours and make them poetry; I take you stars in my hands and, trembling in the oneness of my being, I raise you above yourselves and offer you in prayer to the Creator, that through me alone you stars can worship” (Le Opere. Inno alla creazione).

St Albert the Great reminds us that there is friendship between science and faith and that through their vocation to the study of nature, scientists can take an authentic and fascinating path of holiness.

His extraordinary openmindedness is also revealed in a cultural feat which he carried out successfully, that is, the acceptance and appreciation of Aristotle’s thought. In St Albert’s time, in fact, knowledge was spreading of numerous works by this great Greek philosopher, who lived a quarter of a century before Christ, especially in the sphere of "amy welborn"ethics and metaphysics. They showed the power of reason, explained lucidly and clearly the meaning and structure of reality, its intelligibility and the value and purpose of human actions. St Albert the Great opened the door to the complete acceptance in medieval philosophy and theology of Aristotle’s philosophy, which was subsequently given a definitive form by St Thomas. This reception of a pagan pre-Christian philosophy, let us say, was an authentic cultural revolution in that epoch. Yet many Christian thinkers feared Aristotle’s philosophy, a non-Christian philosophy, especially because, presented by his Arab commentators, it had been interpreted in such a way, at least in certain points, as to appear completely irreconcilable with the Christian faith. Hence a dilemma arose: are faith and reason in conflict with each other or not?

This is one of the great merits of St Albert: with scientific rigour he studied Aristotle’s works, convinced that all that is truly rational is compatible with the faith revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. In other words, St Albert the Great thus contributed to the formation of an autonomous philosophy, distinct from theology and united with it only by the unity of the truth. So it was that in the 13th century a clear distinction came into being between these two branches of knowledge, philosophy and theology, which, in conversing with each other, cooperate harmoniously in the discovery of the authentic vocation of man, thirsting for truth and happiness: and it is above all theology, that St Albert defined as “emotional knowledge”, which points out to human beings their vocation to eternal joy, a joy that flows from full adherence to the truth.

St Albert the Great was capable of communicating these concepts in a simple and understandable way. An authentic son of St Dominic, he willingly preached to the People of God, who were won over by his words and by the example of his life.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray the Lord that learned theologians will never be lacking in holy Church, wise and devout like St Albert the Great, and that he may help each one of us to make our own the “formula of holiness” that he followed in his life: “to desire all that I desire for the glory of God, as God desires for his glory all that he desires”, in other words always to be conformed to God’s will, in order to desire and to do everything only and always for his glory.

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes, under “Faith.”


I. Faith

  1. Introduction: Jesus is Born
  2. John the Baptist: A Hero Prepares the Way
  3. Early Christian Martyrs: Heroes are Faithful Friends
  4. Medieval Mystery Plays: Heroes Make the Bible Come to Life
  5. St. Albert the Great: Heroes Study God’s Creation
  6. Sister Blandina Segale: Heroes Work in Faith

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