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The Science of Cinema

Compared to the amount of blogging I've done about music, books, comics, and sports, the amount I've written about movies must seem relatively small. To some degree, that's probably because movies generally don't loom as large in my personal pop-culture universe as the others do. I mean, music and books are something I encounter daily, while comics and sports have been fields where I've devoted insane amounts of time over long periods of my life, even if I don't pick up a copy of Swamp Thing or Astonishing X-Men whenever I go to the bathroom or check scores on ESPN every day.

Movies, though, are much more occasional. Sure, I've seen every James Bond film ever made, and I revere a classic Chuck Jones short more than a sane human being probably should, and Katharine Hepburn is still on The List even now, but I doubt I go to the theater more than a dozen times in a typical year. I watch the majority of the films I see through some other method--DVD, Netflix streaming, occasionally even an old VHS tape. And though I have taken one film criticism class (and won its Oscar pool, thanks very much) I'm not a cinephile in any true sense of the word. I don't watch a lot of foreign films, I've ignored many of the medium's classics, and there are whole genres (particularly biopics) that simply hold no interest for me. Maybe there's a reason you don't see a lot of movie talk here.

But talk is one thing that I very definitely get from movies. My conversation (not to mention my writing) is peppered with catchphrases and vocabulary gleaned from films of all sorts.
"We're gonna need a bigger boat."
"Never tell me the odds."
"Well, ain't that a geographical oddity."
"It is only wafer-thin..."
"I am shocked, shocked..."

Heck, the number of times I'll quote Ghostbusters or Airplane! in a typical day is probably in the dozens. If not for movies, I literally wouldn't sound like myself.

And that's probably true for a good many people today. Our common parlance in the past was built primarily on the rock of the Biblical allusion, with a certain well-read native of the West Country providing words, words, words. But for the modern American, these are not necessarily areas of common experience; instead, we rely on something we've all heard said by James Bond, or Michael Corleone, or Yoda. And eventually, even people who've never seen the movies begin to know the phrases, just as non-Christians and non-Shakespeare fans still say "Hallelujah" or speak of thing vanishing into thin air.

With all that cinematic information flying around, then, it's natural that any modern individual, even one who's not a serious student of film, would have a set of ten favorite movies. My particular set, however, may not be seen as exactly natural.

For one thing, the films on my list aren't set in stone. Well, to be honest, some of them are. Like a scientist considering the theory of gravity, I must allow for the possibility that new evidence MIGHT persuade me to change my mind about the validity of this long-tested theory, but I recognize that the odds of that evidence appearing are infinitesimal. So yeah, I have a top ten list, and it's possible that it may change over time, but I can say with confidence that four of the films on it are never going to be kicked off it.

DSC02767.JPGIn alphabetical order, the four permanent members of the PC Cinema Council are Brazil, Local Hero, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Raising Arizona. I've loved each of them too long and watched each of them too many times to have any doubt. Holy Grail in particular is a foundation of my speaking habits and my sense of humor, and an appropriate (usually) quote from it is never far from my forebrain. In addition to being just bloody hilarious, Raising Arizona is a fantastic exercise in storytelling and characterization, with Nicholas Cage's best performance ever holding the center. Brazil is an amazing work of imagination, where every visual pushes reality farther and farther away even as it drags the film's theme closer and closer to the viewer's life. And Local Hero remains in some ways my Platonic ideal of a movie, with gorgeous scenery, distinctive characters, sparkling dialogue, plaintive music, and a wistful, inspiring tone; there's a reason I insisted on taking Kelly to Scotland on our honeymoon.

But there are six other spots. What's in those?

Teetering right on the edge of the top five is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I love it, and when I've rewatched it I've been reminded again and again of how good it is. But I haven't seen it enough to be completely confident that it should sit at #5.

The second half of the top ten is tricky. There are movies that have had a major impact on me over decades, and movies that have given me untold delight, and movies that I quote regularly but don't actually like that much, and movies I remember loving but not enough to buy the DVD, which suggests I don't love them that much. But if I had to put five more films on the list to fill out the top ten for today, the alphabetical list would look like this:

Arsenic and Old Lace
(terrific on so many levels, but mostly just Cary Grant)
The Empire Strikes Back
(the best of the Star Wars movies, and I just can't ignore Star Wars)
(I love music, I love animation. Why wouldn't this be a favorite?)
The Man Who Would Be King
(an old-fashioned classic)
A Mighty Wind
(a movie this funny shouldn't be this touching)

That leaves a lot of favorites out--Airplane!, Blazing Saddles, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, GalaxyQuest, Ghostbusters, Gregory's Girl, The Impostors, Much Ado About Nothing, Pinocchio, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Toy Story--but they've all got a shot at rotating into the top ten at some point. As long as they bring the evidence.

11:02 AM

A Scale of Tens

Former schoolmate, former co-worker, master of fandom, self-described dilettante, and longtime friend of the blog Kevin J. Maroney (a/k/a "Womzilla") recently noted on Twitter that his reading habits have changed over the years; he compiled a list of writers with ten or more book-length works that he had read, discovering that he had explored only 16 writers to this degree. In his post-college years, however, he has been more inclined to read only a book or two by a given writer, diving more deeply into the world of comics and exploring prose in a more scattershot manner. Since graduation, only three writers have moved him to read ten or more of their books.

Curious to see if my own reading patterns were at all similar, I whipped up a list of my own, and here's what I discovered.

Ignoring comic books and comic strips (and thus the scores of titles by Alan Moore or G.B. Trudeau that I've read) and anthology-editing (which knocked George R.R. Martin and his dozen Wild Cards books off the list), I looked only at writers with ten or more book-length works that I had completed. Seventeen of them made the list:

Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy, plus Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Empire; The Gods Themselves, The End of Eternity, Asimov's Mysteries; Nightfall and Other Stories; The Best of Isaac Asimov; and probably a few more I'm forgetting.)

Ray Bradbury (R is for Rocket, S is for Space, Twice 22, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Halloween Tree, A Medicine for Melancholy, I Sing the Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and probably others)

Orson Scott Card (The four Ender books, Ender's Shadow, the four Maps in a Mirror volumes, the five Alvin Maker books, A Planet Called Treason, Treason, Wyrms, Hart's Hope, Songmaster, maybe some others. I no longer own any of Card's books.)            

Jack L. Chalker (The five Well World books; three newer Well World books; the four Warden Diamond books; The Identity Matrix; four of the Dancing Gods books; Downtiming the Nightside; The Messiah Complex; two of the Flux & Anchor books)

Harlan Ellison (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Deathbird Stories, The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, Alone Against Tomorrow, Partners in Wonder, Strange Wine, Angry Candy, Shatterday, Slippage, Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled, An Edge in My Voice, Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, perhaps others)

Stephen Jay Gould (ten collections of essays from Natural History; The Mismeasure of Man; Wonderful Life; Full House; Questioning the Millennium)

Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Friday, The Number of the Beast, Job, The Past Through Tomorrow, Glory Road, Podkayne of Mars, Tunnel in the Sky, Farnham's Freehold, Starship Trooper, The Puppet Masters, Methusaleh's Children, The Door into Summer, Time Enough for Love)

Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half, Night Shift, Different Seasons, Cujo, Christine, It, Thinner, Misery, The Tommyknockers, Gerald's Game, Bag o'Bones, Everything's Eventual, Danse Macabre, On Writing)

Ursula K. Le Guin (the six Earthsea books; Always Coming Home, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Changing Planes, The Lathe of Heaven, Lavinia, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest, Planet of Exile, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else)

C.S. Lewis (the seven Chronicles of Narnia; Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, Till We Have Faces, Of Other Words, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity)

Julian May (the four-volume Saga of Pliocene Exile; the two volumes of Intervention; the three Galactic Milieu books; two (with the third still in progress) of the Boreal Moon Tale books)

Larry Niven (three Ringworld books; Tales of Known Space, World of Ptavvs, Protector, A Gift from Earth, Neutron Star, All the Myriad Ways, A Hole in Space, The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, The Flight of the Horse, Convergent Series, A World Out of Time, The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring, N-Space, Playgrounds of the Mind, and collaborations including The Mote in God's Eye, Lucifer's Hammer, Footfall, Inferno, The Legacy of Heorot)

Terry Pratchett (39 Discworld books, Nation, Dodger, A Blink of the Screen, and collaborations Good Omens and The Long Earth)

Neal Stephenson (eight paperback volumes of The System of the World, though it was released in three hardback volumes; The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem)

J.R.R. Tolkien (the Lord of the Rings trilogy; The Hobbit, The Tolkien Reader, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, The Children of Hurin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

John Varley (the Gaean trilogy; The Ophiuchi Hotline, The Barbie Murders, The Persistence of Vision, Blue Champagne, Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Millennium, Mammoth, Slow Apocalypse, Red Thunder, Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder)

Roger Zelazny (five volumes of The Chronicles of Amber; five volumes of The Second Chronicles of Amber; This Immortal; The Dream Master; Lord of Light; Creatures of Light and Darkness; Isle of the Dead; Damnation Alley; Jack of Shadows; To Die in Italbar; Doorways in the Sand; My Name Is Legion; Roadmarks; Changeling; Madwand; A Night in the Lonesome October

So: seventeen writers, most of them in the realms of science fiction and/or fantasy, most of them encountered when I was in college or beforehand. The most recent discoveries are Gould, May, Pratchett, and Stephenson; I began reading the first two in graduate school, if I recall correctly, but didn't dive into the latter two until the late 1990s.

Was anyone else close to making the list? Oh, you bet. Realistically, both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman should be on it, as I've read dozens of stand-alone volumes and collections by each, but I've only read Moore's comics (I find his prose a bit on the slow side, in all honesty) and the non-comics Gaiman books I've read tally only seven, plus a collaboration with Pratchett and two rather brief children's books.) But I'd said I'd keep comics off, lest Trudeau (58 books, not counting Sunday collections) and Walt Kelly (25 books and counting) take over completely.

There are also plenty of writers moving close to the magic number, but who haven't gone over the top yet. With nine books each, it's only a matter of time before David Quammen and John Scalzi go over the top. Jim Crace is standing at eight, Octavia Butler at seven, Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin at six apiece, and Mike Carey and John McPhee at five each. All but Butler are still writing, but I've got a number of her works yet to open, so in a year or two we could be looking at a list of over two dozen authors. Every one of these writers, I should note, is one I've discovered in my adulthood; in fact, I came across Quammen, Scalzi, Crace, and Carey only in the 21st Century.
In short, right now my list of Deeply Read Writers is skewing powerfully toward my schooldays. That's to be expected, given that those are the days when you tend to have both the ability to focus intensely on an idea or a story and the time to devote to that intense focus. But I have to say it's been an interesting exercise, if only because I can see from the numbers just how much I have left to read, and how I can hope to discover wonderful new writers even as I get older. Thanks, Kevin.

6:09 PM


*I haven't done an LBJ post in a while, and certainly not since the move, so why not now?

*The move is effectively done. We got everything out of the house at Woodberry weeks ago, and after a couple of weeks where we couldn't bear to carry more than one item at a time up the stairs--say, a roll of wrapping paper or an umbrella--we've finally cleared out the cars as well. Mind you, I do have to go back and get my stuff out of my classroom, but I'm hoping that won't be a task that requires too much hauling. I've got books there, and posters, and some office supplies, and SOME file folders I'm going to want to keep--SOME--but it shouldn't be as brutal as cleaning out the house was.

The counterbalance for this, of course, is that the new apartment is full of stuff. A great deal of it has been unboxed and placed in proper locations, but we're a long way from done with that process. For one thing, we're going from a three-bedroom house with a finished basement, three bathrooms, and no fewer than three storage areas to a two-bedroom/one bath apartment--that means we're having to be a bit more creative with placement than we had to be in recent years. The good news is that though we now have fewer rooms, the new place has a) much larger rooms, and b) much larger closets. Each of the four non-linen closets is bigger than any of the closets we had at WFS, and the master bedroom actually has enough space that we can fit our dresser at the foot of our bed AS GOD INTENDED IT. At the moment, figuring out where to put everything is something like working out a giant Rubik's Cube, but we're getting there. I'm hopeful that we'll be ready for visitors by, say, Thanksgiving.

*Home birding has become a rather different pastime here. Because we're in a third-floor apartment overlooking a parking lot, I can't really put up any of my feeders. My new yard list (which consists of anything I see while standing in the apartment complex--four buildings and the parking areas/grassy areas that lie between & around them) stands at a mere baker's dozen after over a month here--and four of those are birds I've only heard and not seen. Granted, the former group includes both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, both of which obligingly flew overhead, and the latter includes Barred Owl and Pileated Woodpecker calls, but the quantity is on the low side. That's why I've got a second list going for anything I see across the street--in Forest Hill Park. This expanse of grass, trees, lakeshore and riverside (if you follow the creek down to the adjoining James River Park) is an incredibly rich and varied ecosystem, and it's rumored to be the best place in Richmond for spring warblers. It's certainly host to plenty of nesting birds in the summer; I've got 35 species there so far, including Acadian Flycatcher, Great Blue Heron, Eastern Wood-pewee, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Orchard Oriole, and Osprey. Still, my daily summer birds now are House Sparrows, European Starlings, and American Robins, rather than the Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches, and Eastern Phoebes of the countryside. Ah, well.

*I can't recall which blogger it was who made the somewhat controversial suggestion that everyone should take a year to read only books by women and non-white men, but it was an idea I found at least potentially interesting. The hard part would be giving up the work of some of my favorite white-guy writers for twelve long months, but the benefits would be enormous: I'd get to read plenty of some other favorite writers--Le Guin, Wharton, Byatt, Rushdie, Ishiguro--and I'd be motivated to explore the works of a lot of other people whose work I haven't yet read--James Baldwin, N.K. Jemesin, Barbara Tuchman. In the end I didn't consciously commit to the plan, but as I look at my reading list, I find that I may have done so unconsciously. Seven of the last nine works I've finished have been non-white-guy-created, including such winners as Castle Hangnail, Ursula Vernon's terrific YA fantasy about a young girl who wants to be a wicked witch and run a haunted castle, or Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley's delightful comics memoir of her upbringing among the foodies of North America. I'm finishing up a fantasy trilogy by Ms. Julian May right now, but after that, if I can't get my hands on Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, I may dive into The Sculptor, the latest graphic novel by Scott McCloud. I've met Scott, and I can confirm that he's a white guy, but I'm not going to hold that against him.

*I've been teaching my students about certain subjects for a long while now, and one such subject is the Confederate Battle Flag. I do so using a fairly simple process: to show them what the Flag stands for, I have them look at the words written by those who first raised that flag--the Confederate States themselves. When the South Carolina legislature voted to be the first state to secede from the Union, it declared its reasons for doing so openly; Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and other states did likewise. And those declarations state, with no real lack of clarity, that the stimulus provoking this drastic response was slavery.

You don't have to take my word for it, though. You can read those declarations for yourself right here.

A few quotes that may stand out for you:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." -- second sentence of the Mississippi declaration of secession

"For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." -- second sentence of the Georgia declaration of secession

"A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery." -- South Carolina declaration of secession, issued three months before Lincoln's inauguration

"We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states." -- Texas, pushing not just for slavery, but for white supremacy, in its declaration of secession

In short, you may choose to fly the Confederate flag for reasons other than racism if you like, but any reasonable observer who views it as a racist symbol has history on his side, and will be likely to view you as a racist for flying it. If that bothers you, you may wish to reconsider flying it; if it doesn't bother you to be viewed as a racist by reasonable observers, well, maybe it should.

*Speaking of my old job, if anyone knows of a job that can be done in Richmond or done FROM Richmond, I'd be happy to hear about it. Drop me a line at if you like.

*I'm not really motivated yet to write about next year's presidential election, but I can't help noting that Donald Trump, who leads the GOP field in several polls, is pretty much already in what Bill Simmons used to call "the Tyson Zone." That zone, named after the former heavyweight champ and sometime ear-biter, is the residence of any celebrity about whom ANY story, no matter how outrageous, has at least momentary plausibility. If you heard that Mike Tyson was caught at the Sydney airport trying to smuggle a cocaine-filled, fifteen-foot taxidermied salt-water crocodile to the U.S., you'd have to consider that it might actually be true. At this point, if I saw on the web that Trump had walked into a bar, dropped his trousers, and rubbed his naked hindquarters in the face of a Mexican-American busboy, I'd have to at least spend a few minutes researching it before I dismissed it as a hoax. Needless to say, I had no trouble believing that he'd criticize John McCain for having been captured and imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton for five years. No, what I found hard to believe was that a number of Republicans--among them Bobby Jindal, Bill Kristol, and Rick Perry--dared to criticize Trump for running down the reputation of a war hero. They certainly didn't seem upset when their fellow GOP members were doing it to John Kerry a few years ago.

*My dad recently bought me the most expensive beer he'd ever purchased. That happened partly because when I asked him to buy it for me, I didn't expect it to come in giant 22-ounce bottles. I also didn't expect him to buy me THREE of those bottles. Still, the contents more than lived up to the hype, and I'd have to call Starpoint Brewing's Whiskeytown milk stout one of the best beers to cross my palate recently. Brewed with chocolate malt flavoring and milk sugar, and aged in retired bourbon barrels, it's got a heady aroma and an aftertaste that's almost as tart as a cola, but it's smooth and tasty in the extreme. It runs about ten bucks a bottle and isn't easy to find, but if you're in the Triangle area, keep your eyes peeled.

*That novel thing? I'm working on a new draft. Since it's a combination of brand-new stuff and previously written stuff, it's a bit hard to say exactly how far I've gotten with it, but I hope to keep at it until I get, y'know, employed or something. I'll keep you posted.

10:06 PM


I'm currently sitting at a table at my local cafe--for a revised definition of "local"--enjoying a brunch on this, the first day I don't have to drive back to Madison County to get more stuff out of the old house.


Life is good.

12:06 PM

The Way We Live Now

A few changes:

We're in a third-floor walkup apartment, sans kids.
We're down to two bedrooms and one bath.
There's a coffee shop within two blocks of us.
Next door to it is an African/Caribbean restaurant.
A bit beyond that is a convenience store, a bike shop, and a garage--all within easy walking distance.
Across the street from us is one of Richmond's best and least crowded parks.
At the far side of the park, about half a mile away, is the James River.
If we go a dozen blocks west, we find a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, and an Irish pub.
Near that are a library, a comics store, and an Italian restaurant.
We're a bit more than a mile from a bridge into downtown RVA, and we can be on Cary Street in under ten minutes.

I think I could get used to this.

9:03 PM

Last Night

To say I'm exhausted is to understate the case; I've been packing now for over a week, and tomorrow I get up to get the moving van, and when our helpers come at 9:30, we're off to start a new chapter of our lives in Richmond. The excitement that accompanies such a new chapter will doubtless start to seep back into our spirits sometime next week, but right now it's hard to do anything but look around this house and think about what's happened here. We moved in back in the summer of 2008, when both boys were still in high school, and now they've both graduated from college and are fully out of the nest. I cannot express my gratitude to both Ian and Dixon for what they've done this weekend helping us get ready for the move, and what they'll doubtless be helping us do as we settle into the town where they've lived for the last six and four years, respectively.

But honestly, right now I can't really process what's happening. I'm getting ready to leave the place where I've lived and worked for the last two decades, and what lies ahead is a great unknown. All I know is that I've loved a great many things about this school, not least because it was such a good environment in which to raise our kids. For all the stress, the unrelenting pace, and the frustrations of having to mix career and home life to an extraordinary degree, Woodberry Forest School helped make our children into the men they are, and that's not something we (or they) will ever forget.

Starting tomorrow, I'll look out my window on a very different landscape. I'll have different needs and different expectations, but I'll keep the memories of this place forever, and the ways in which it brought possibilities into being.

100_2475.JPGAmici usque ad aras.

11:33 PM

Quitting Time

With a click of my mouse, I just submitted my final comments ever as a faculty member at Woodberry Forest School.

The last message on my screen before I closed the program for the last time was:

"Are you sure you want to quit?"

A good question.

And here's my answer.

PC on Hawksbill.jpg

2:43 PM

First Principles

No one has ever asked me what my favorite Constitutional Amendment is, but if pressed, I'd have to say it's good old Numero Uno. The First Amendment offers a great many things I value, including protection of my rights to speak my mind, publish what I think, and assemble with like-minded individuals, but at its core, I think the most important guarantees it makes are those involving freedom of religion. I am not alone in this; it's arguable that the Founders put  religion in the first two clauses of the First Amendment because they too considered it the most important topic the Bill of Rights had to address, and there are certainly millions of Americans whose lives, liberties, and various pursuits of happiness depend on the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

One such group of people is the self-identified Religious Right. Obviously, if the first adjective you choose to describe yourself is "religious," then you'd better be pretty darned aware of what the Constitution says about the way that adjective works. Sadly, however, I see all too many cases where the "Religious" part seems subservient to the "Right" part--and this "Right" refers to a political wing, not to something protected by Amendment I.

This article by Damon Linker, appearing in The Week, discusses something called the "Benedict Option," a proposed withdrawal of the Religious Right from the political sphere. Speaking as an individual whose disputes with the RR have been legion, ranging everywhere from the science classroom to the movie theater to the boudoir to the justice of the peace's office, I can't say I'd be sorry to see this withdrawal take place, but I find myself fascinated by Linker's points about it. He begins with a history of the Moral Majority, a group whose very name makes two bold (and unsupported) assertions about America: first, that only those supporting Jerry Falwell's ideology are moral, and second, that said group makes up a majority of Americans. Linker rolls with it, noting that the evangelical Protestants were able to form a coalition with conservative Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others to advance their shared agenda, overcoming the opposition of various elite powers (Hollywood, bureaucrats, universities, etc.) through sheer numbers.

Now, however, the numbers have shifted. Positions that the Religious Right has held fiercely--especially its opposition to gay marriage--have left them in a minority position. Attempts by state legislatures to permit anti-gay discrimination, most carefully couched as bills protecting religious freedom, have drawn intense and high-profile criticism from Democrats and business-minded Republicans alike. As Linker puts it:

Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we're now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

This is the fascinating thing: that in a nation where 70-75% of the people identify themselves as Christians (according to the 2010 census), the Religious Right is beginning to see itself as outnumbered by the roughly 23% who identify as irreligious.

Of course, it's correct, but not in the way it likes to think. The RR remains a part of a hugely dominant religious majority, one so ingrained into our culture that we don't find it even remotely surprising that our government shuts down to observe the birthday of Christ. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was famously surprised that a cross might not be the universal marker for every dead American, and every cent of U.S. currency proclaims the nation's trust in the Abrahamic deity. If the RR believes our modern nation is anti-Christian, all I can say is that our modern nation isn't doing a very effective job.

But while their religion is very much in the majority, the RR is increasingly outnumbered in a political sense; while millions of Christians worship in the same churches, using the same texts, singing the same hymns, and celebrating the same holidays, only a minority of them are engaged in trying to enshrine their beliefs in law. These people are certainly Religious, and they may even be politically on the Right side of the spectrum, but they also understand the First Amendment: that their Christian beliefs get government protection precisely because they give up government promotion.

The problem is, too many members of the RR see their politics and their religion as interchangeable. If they cannot use the power of the government to promote their own faith's teachings, they consider the government opposed to them. That's why, when a judge points out that a law violates the Constitution, I am so amused by cries of "Judicial activism!" from the RR; if a judge allows unconstitutional laws to stand, how can the RR's churches be protected?

But the most interesting thing about this article, in my opinion, is its anti-democratic (small D) philosophy. It's one I've observed in other areas of right-wing thought over the last twenty-odd years, to the point where I'm beginning to think it's a fundamental tenet of American conservatism: if victory can't be guaranteed, don't play.

We see this in the various GOP attempts to limit voting, whether by ID requirements, elimination of electronic registration, or even (while we're on the subject of Constitutional ignorance) the recent attempt by Ohio Republicans to reinstate a poll tax. We see it in the relentless gerrymandering of state and Congressional districts--an activity which is, I hasten to point out, enormously popular among Democrats as well--and in the Supreme Court decision that cut off the recount in Florida in 2000, a decision that basically said it's more important to declare a victor than to enforce the rules of the game. We even see it in the various attempts to deny President Obama's eligibility for office, the idea being that if he can't be beaten in an actual election, some authority will just have to vacate the win.

When Linker says this:

Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

he reveals a number of misunderstandings. America is and always has been a secular nation--by design; the vast majority of the citizens aren't secular, but the nation itself is. Nor are "devout Christians" necessarily conservative Christians. For Linker to proclaim the Benedict Option as a necessary response to recent developments simply proves that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or Christianity, or politics, or even basic math.

If Linker and his cohorts withdraw from politics because they believe themselves too good for the rest of us, I can't say I'll shed a tear on their behalf. But if they can accept that they are a minority in the political sense, rather than the religious sense, then perhaps they can start figuring out what they need to do to attract more voters. Because that's ultimately what this is about.

The Religious Right wants God (or some similar authority) to give them the America they want by fiat; unfortunately, the gods of democracy help those who help themselves.

1:52 PM

Four for Four

As of May 8th, 2015, our household contains 100% college graduates. This was accomplished through several methods, one via addition, one via subtraction. The addition method culminating in a trip to Richmond to watch Dixon take his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theater Performance* from Virginia Commonwealth University--a method which apparently caused him a bit of existential terror:

DSC02624.JPGThe subtractive method, of course, has involved reducing the number of people in the household by watching him leave it, on a basis which may not be total, but which will likely be permanent. He'll be in Richmond for a few more months, living in his own apartment while he and his roommates finish their production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but on top of that, his household is vanishing, too. Along with his parents, his brother, and his Special Lady Friend, he spent the last weekend rooting through our house trying to make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.** Whatever else happens, we can be fairly sure that our four nuclear family members have spent the last night they will ever spend together in this house.

That's a little stressful to think about, particularly as Kelly and I have not found a place of our own in Richmond yet, and I still have a few more classes to teach, and oh yeah exams are next week, but at least we've been able to weed a significant number of books, as well as a number of clothes and a few items of furniture. It's a process we'll be continuing over the next four weeks or so.

But for the moment, rather than focusing on the way the additional college degrees have resulted in a net subtraction from the household, I'd rather focus on the fact that Dixon is now armed with a sheepskin and thoroughly prepared for whatever curves the spitball-happy world of theater is likely to throw at him. With his eyes currently on the theater and stand-up comedy scenes in Chicago, I judged it an appropriate time to give him some stylish footwear for the Midway area: my ancient, broken-down, original Air Jordans. Because I believe he can fly.

DSC02654.JPG*or, as he puts it, "I majored in Pretend."
**including giving stuff to our local Goodwill store.

5:03 PM

What May Come

As my final May at Woodberry ticks down, I must say that I've been especially aware of the need to get outside and see it up close one last time. It helps that getting outside is actually part of my job, what with my status as a faculty supervisor of the Rapidan program, which teaches students about rock-climbing, kayaking, hiking, and various other aspects of outdoor education. This spring those aspects have included skiing (EARLY in the season), geocacheing, and yes, birding. I've taken the guys out with binoculars and helped them spot everything from the locally common birds (starlings, grackles, robins) to the less common locals (Bald Eagle, PIleated Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher) to newly-arrived migrants (Eastern Meadowlark, Spotted Sandpiper, Eastern Kingbird) and even a few true oddities (Horned Grebe).

Even when we haven't been birding as a group, I've certainly been birding myself. When Rapidan took a hike up White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park, I made sure my binoculars came with me, and man am I glad I did. I spotted the year's first American Redstarts, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Red-eyed Vireos, for one thing. Better still, I was able to spot the distinctive caramel-and-olive coloration (and head stripes) of a pair of Worm-eating Warblers--only the second time I'd ever laid eyes on the species. And last Saturday, when I was assigned to walk along the river to make sure students were not doing Inappropriate Things, I found a far larger population of birds than students, and their behavior was entirely appropriate. The trip began with the unmistakeable "queerp?" of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and in the course of my circuit I was treated to a number of other delights: the startlingly visible white "pocket-handkerchief" mark of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, the brilliant orange of the male Baltimore Oriole, and along the edge of the pasture of Brampton Farm, a chunky bird hopping from limb to limb and firing off vireo-like calls.

There was a reason for that: it was a Yellow-throated Vireo. My first ever.

Needless to say, that only encouraged me to grab my binoculars and hit the trails around the campus at every opportunity. And when I woke up for no good reason at 2:30 this morning, I decided that I should do the one thing I hadn't done yet this spring: bird during the Dawn Chorus. Birds are active all day, but the best time to see them is early in the morning, often before the sun has officially hit the sky, when they're usually awake, moving, feeding, and calling. When the sun rose at 6:09, I was out in the morning mist, walking trails still a little damp from last night's rains. Everything with feathers was making noise, I believe, most notably the main spring migrant I was still hoping to see: the Wood Thrush, whose fluting call is one of the most welcome signs of winter's end. Sure enough, I could both hear them in the trees and see a couple of them walking rapidly away from me on the path. The light was dim enough that I needed them to cooperate a bit, which they did periodically by turning back toward me and exposing their black-spotted white bellies, then spinning back around to show the rufous tops of their heads.

That color was essentially the same one as the river water; the Rapidan was high and fast, completely opaque and well out of the safe-to-kayak range, but the birds on its banks were unfazed. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Tufted Titmice were everywhere, taking acrobatic turns on the thinnest branches to get at the insects there. The black mask of the year's first Common Yellowthroat popped up, and soon after I was treated to a call-and-response session involving its "witchety witchety witchety" and the "teakettle teakettle teakettle" of a Carolina Wren up the path. A burred call from above led me to look into the highest branches, where I was treated to the sight of one of my favorite birds: the male Scarlet Tanager, a perfect combination of brilliant red body and jet-black wings. American Redstarts darted through the branches of a hackberry tree, and a pair of male Indigo Buntings set up a loud argument over which side of the path belonged to whom. It was an all but perfect morning.

Why not perfect? Well, I'm picky about my birding. I don't put a species down on my list for the year until I've actually laid eyes on it. That's partly a side effect of my less-than-accomplished skills with bird calls, but it's also just a prejudice: I don't feel as though I've really experienced a bird's presence when I've only heard it. In other words, if I want to log the Eastern Wood-pewee I heard calling its name, or the Acadian Flycatcher whose distinctive hiccup accompanied me along much of the trail, I'm going to have to see one.

Darn. I guess that means I have to pick up my binoculars and go out again. To that briar patch.

8:47 AM


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