Feb 042016

It’s tempting to emit political noises these days, isn’t it? But I’ll leave the mire of narcissism to others. Too easy to get stuck in that quick sand.
Recently, on my weekly trawl though the local library for my granddaughter’s dozen, I picked up a curious collection of early stories by G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades. I guess that, these days, Unique Trades might be a better title. To the best of my knowledge, which is considerable but not exhaustive, this is a pioneer of the “club tales” genre. It was first published as a collection in 1906 – I’m guessing (but do no know) that the stories were first published in magazines or newspapers.
The “club tale” is an amusing, and, I suspect, rather technically difficult genre. Lord Dunsany is often credited with its invention, but his Jorkens stories began in the 1920s. Wodehouse’s Mulliner stories first appeared at about the same time. The “club tale” has been very popular in science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart are amusing and influential. There are a lot more.
The developed club tale format seems simple but is not. The author’s point of view is first person, but usually passively records the stories told, again in the first person, by another. The story is told in a comfortable place, a pub or club. The teller, Mr. Mulliner or Brigadier Ffellowes or Henry Purvis,  takes over a minor character’s remark, complaint, or observation, and tops it with a far more elaborate story of his own, so elaborate and odd that it is indistinguishable from fable or tall tale – but the story teller claims a degree of special knowledge and experience that gives the story credit. Chesterton does not do that here; his narrator (amusingly named Swinburne – droll, that) is a full participant in the stories. The principal actor, however, is Swinburne’s friend, Basil Grant, an eccentric retired judge, aided by his impulsive but omnicompetant brother. The conceit that the stories share is that there is an actual club whose criterion of membership is that members be the inventors of their trade. These, I won’t tabulate – they are inventive and sometimes startling, and would probably be regulated out of existence today. To our loss. I can imagine, and could use, a firm that one might employ to intercept wasters of time. Or innocently distract power seeking politicians.
There’s far more action than in the later form of the club tale, often involving chases on foot or by cab through London and its suburbs, melees, madness and eccentricity, dens of thieves, and purblind vicars. The retired judge may or may not be the only sane man in the group but he is probably the most rational.
It’s interesting to see Chesterton’s Chestertonian voice nearly completely developed here, early in his career. And I’m strangely prompted to consider a club tale in which both the authorial narrator and the story teller are unreliable narrators, each fibbing, misleading, or deliberately omitting vital pieces of the story. Hm.

 Posted by at 10:37 am
Jan 182016

I’ve been playing with bread.  It’s winter, after all.  Can’t garden.  This one is pretty good, so if you dabble in making your own, it’s pretty simple and it turned out well.

First, start with King Arthur Flour’s Buttercrust recipe, here, down at the bottom.  It’s pretty good itself, but I wanted a loaf that was a tad healthier, and would make enough for two smaller loaves.  I modified the flour to:  1 cup fed sourdough starter, 1 cup King Arthur all-purpose flour, 1.25 cups white wheat flour, and .75 cups millet flour.  I modified other ingredients proportionally, and gave the dough a long first rise.  Then divide, gashed, and let rise in the pans.  The resulting loaf was tasty, firm enough for sandwiches and toast, and lasted pretty well.  The millet gives the loaf a slightly golden color.  I haven’t tried it as french toast bread, but it’s probably good for that, too.


 Posted by at 9:00 am
Jan 152016

So long as you progress fast enough it seems a matter of indifference to him whether you are progressing to the stars or the devil.

G. K. Chesterton wrote those words sometime before 1905, still a young man, but an accurate enough description of the leadership of The Episcopal Church for the last 40 or 50 years.  Now that leadership has been sent to sit in the corner for three years to ponder its behavior.

A summary of Episcopal Church misbehavior, especially over the last dozen years or so, would fill a largish book, so I won’t rehearse it here.  Its behavior to its conservatives has been rude, its theology muddled, its ethics invisible.  So maybe a time out is overdue.

Will it do any good? We won’t know for a while, actually.  The time out restricts TEC participation and vote in a number of international Anglican committees and fora.  It  lets TEC blather on as much as it wants.  There’s no hint about what might happen when the time out expires.  It seems there’s to be a committee to keep an eye on TEC responses (all together now:  ”Nobody expects the Anglican Inquisition!”  Someone -CJ?-should run a pool on the first TEC lefty to shout “Inquisition!”)

Is it a good thing?  I’m usually a half-full sort, so I’ll guess, yeah, if it’s a beginning not an end.  It gives the Canadian Anglicans a chance to step back from their own brink, and it gives the Archbishop of Canterbury a tool to restrain his own impetuous lefties.  It also gives the other Anglican entity in the US, the Anglican Church in North America, some time to put its own house in order.  It’s still a work in progress.  Lots to do.

Jan 112016

Wheaton College, that Evangelical dynamo, has gotten itself in trouble with the Opinionifiers by talking about firing Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins became famous for 1) wearing a headscarf “in solidarity with Muslims,” and 2) saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. #2 is of the greater weight with her employer, #1 with those Engines of Publick Ignorance, the Mass and Social Media. I have some minor sympathy for the position of the College: boundaries are important, as the miserable condition of my birth denomination, The Episcopal Church, shows. It fell into the hands of professional obfuscators who have made it difficult to describe what an Episcopalian believes, if anything. So it’s nice to see some sort of boundary defense. The #2 issue is interesting but maybe not determinable. For many Christians, the uniqueness of Jesus is foundational, and the common opinion, spread around for years by many, that Allah and Yahweh are sort of the same, strikes at that uniqueness. So it’s not trivial.

Watching the firestorm, it struck me that it might be amusing to revive an old technique: the Publick Debate. Let the Professor (pro) and the President of Wheaton (con) argue formally the question: Resolved, that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are one and the same. Some ground rules would have to be worked out: perhaps the source material should be limited to the Scripture of the two faiths alone, and no appeal to other authority or hermeneutic allowed. Some sort of boundary, anyway. A jury (the number 11 comes to mind somehow) would determine the winner. The jury perhaps could be made up of Wheaties Wheaton graduates now on the theological or philosophical faculties of other schools. How would they be selected? Would a bare majority be sufficient for a decision, or a supermajority? Details, details. And then there’s the question of a debate moderator: what fun there is to be had there. A neutral site might best be found, to minimize the risk of lightning strikes.  If Hawkins is found to make a reasonable, approximately scholarly, argument on behalf of her opinion, she gets to keep her job. If not, well, she needn’t worry. Someone will hire her. In any event, the issue would have been (we hope) capably aired, the National Press would have had to retire to their dictionaries and encyclopedias, and a jolly good time would have been had by the rest of us.

Jan 042016

Some weeks ago, I took my granddaughter to the ‘pumpkinfest’ thrown by her school’s PTA. No pumpkin chuckin’, alas, but they did hire a balloon twister. So what did the kids stand in line for? Swords and guns. The gym was soon full of balloon mayhem. Observing them whale away at each another, I thought, “The eschaton isn’t going to get immanetized tonight.” Yeah, I really did. Sorry about that.

The great Gene Wolfe had a novel out in October. A Borrowed Man is set in a near future North America. It’s a technologically proficient society. Environmental concerns have been mitigated – the sky is clear, the air and water pure, population drastically reduced, human cloning is common, and some sort of deep brain scan allows memories to be downloaded into clones. The narrator  is such a clone, a ‘copy’ of a writer of mysteries and science fiction from an earlier time. At a guess, the original lived maybe a century from our own time, and died maybe 50 years before the time of the story. This is the story of his adventures.

The air may be breathable, the water drinkable, yet the world is unpleasant. The police are brutal. The countryside is littered with wrecked towns inhabited by near-feral packs of poor people. These poor are not fed. The clones, although fully human, are considered property, and may be disposed of willy-nilly. “Library clones,” such as the narrator, maybe disposed of if they are not “checked out” often enough, and the disposal process is cruel. Though Wolfe doesn’t state it clearly, the behavior of the narrator, the actions he does not take, his ready assent to the rules of being a library clone, suggest that they are to some degree conditioned, their freedom of will shackled. This is dystopia. Technology masks the evil and patches the cracked surface, no more. The world of A Borrowed Man is similar to those of Home Fires and An Evil Guest. Human evil persists.

A Borrowed Man shares a bit of the background to William Gibson’s The Peripheral from last year. A catastrophe has nearly exterminated humankind, but high technology emerged that allowed just in time to allow “1 percenters” and wealthy nation-states to survive and accumulate immense power. The surviving 1 percenters are mostly horrible. Their horribleness is barely constrained by governments that are themselves complicit with these horrible people. Through yet another mysterious technological marvel (The Peripheral is full of McGuffins and Alien Space Bats), some of the more minimally decent people gain access to an alternate time line that exists just before the tipping point into catastrophe (it should be pointed out that there are multiple such time lines, most of them kept as private playgrounds by very bad people). They place high technology into the hands of ordinary but clever people who may be able to prevent or divert the catastrophe. It’s deus ex machina stuff. Gibson asks us to believe that a technologically enabled underclass can bring about a better outcome; a bit Marxist, that. I think that the human record is that our normative state is to seek the unconstrained exercise of our will, so I doubt things would actually work out so happily. Gibson tends to work in loosely-bound trilogies, so we will have to await the eventual outcome of the alternate time line until Gibson himself observes it.

Gibson builds up his world through detailed descriptions of things and people and their relationships. In his later style, Wolfe hints, but does not tell. Anything may become significant, even a color, and maybe not until a fourth or fifth reading.

I find it intriguing that, in The Peripheral, much of the action of the protagonists in the earlier, alternate, timeline, is directed to making room for family life: this is a bit similar to the efforts of the protagonist-characters in his previous group, beginning with Pattern Recognition. Similarly, the clone narrator of A Borrowed Man makes arrangements that he hopes will prolong his existence a bit, and make his life bearable.

One could go on. Utopias and dystopias are staples of fiction. We write them and read them out of a sense of human bent-ness. It’s all around us, visible and stark, but we tend to close our eyes, or concentrate on only a part of it. Wolfe’s dystopia seems somewhat more dire: both give us depopulated worlds. Gibson’s is the result of a concatenation of errors, some preventable. I fear that Wolfe’s depopulation was a  deliberate, a Stalinist,  act.  Humankind has shown itself capable of all varieties of horrors; technology seems to magnify but not improve our natures.

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Dec 102015

Christians are reminded, maybe not often enough, that we are all made in the Image of God; equally, we have all sinned and fallen short of that Glory that made the heavens and the earth. Even politicians are made in God’s own Image. Even Donald Trump. Even Hillary Clinton.

So when we are obliged, as we are in a democracy, to consider the merits and demerits of those who present themselves for public office, we must consider the policies they advocate and what we can guess of their character, but do so without animus. “That is a terrible idea” isn’t the same as “You are a terrible person.” We are all terrible people, in some way. Of course, an aspiring office holder may by the ideas they advocate, by their manner of life, by behavior, demonstrate that they do not meet the Minimal Decency Rule.

Donald Trump, who is a bully and an oaf, for some reason decided to run for the Presidency, and as a Republican.* A bit of a mystery, that. The Eeyore party is too delighted by his candidacy to be puzzled by it; he distracts them from the appalling candidates they’ve thrown up. The Heffalumps are finally noticing that he’s a center for disaffection. A fair chunk of the public thinks that our institutions are failing us, that substantial action is needed to reverse the trend toward mandarin government and its bumbling intrusion into daily life. Of course, Trump is just such a mandarin himself. I doubt that a Trump administration will see a revival of the Federal ideal, a restoration of fiscal stability, and a penetrating and effective foreign and military policy in the heritage of George Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Scoop Jackson, and Sam Nunn. Not at all.

Of course, no one has actually voted for Mr. Trump. The numerous polls are, it seems to me, likely wrong, and are more intended to shape “public opinion” than to reveal it.

*Since all politicians trim and lie, how do you tell genuine Heffalumps from genuine Eeyores? Heffalumps by and large (it’s complicated) at least pay lip service to the Constitution and at least say they place primacy on the individual’s liberties. By his contempt for the Constitution and obvious thirst for self-aggrandizement, I decline to call Mr. Trump a Heffalump. Of course, in our strange society, one is what one identifies oneself as, so . . . Contrawise, Eeyores are more or less frank in their contempt of the Constitution, from Woody Wilson onwards, and emphasize notional social issues over individual liberties. Both tend to be in the pocket of one form or another of economy-strangling Crony Capitalists.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Nov 302015

November ends with a stretch of grey skies that have been anything but boring.  Here’s an example of layered sky from a couple of days ago:

layered sky

The “grey” can be anything from the bluest slate blue to the faintest pearl, with buff and cream and other white tones.  The busy winds up there sculpt the thin clouds, bending, shredding, and stretching.  Some clouds drop a scanty little rain.  Others scoot along eastward.  The long cloudy winter of the central states can get boring, but the start can be very beautiful if you’ll look.

December comes in tomorrow, which brings an altogether different emotional weather.

 Posted by at 3:27 pm
Oct 192015

I am, for Gene Wolfe’s novel available tomorrow.

I’m rereading Castleview, one of Wolfe’s more complexly indirect fictions, in preparation.  Like batting practice, I suppose.  Here’s a small example of his subtlety, in which a bit of dialog tells us all we need to know about the character of one of the cast.  A woman’s husband has died suddenly, on the eve of a promotion that would have required them to sell their home.  It’s listed for sale, and a man has come to make an offer.  There are a number of Wolfe-y clues to him, but this exchange tells us a lot.  In her own home, she offers him coffee or tea.  The weather is foul, and getting colder.

“Tea, please.  My cigarette doesn’t offend you?  If it does I can open a window.”

This is an exquisite example of how every word matters .

From the advance description, this novel shares a bit of the setting of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, from just about a year ago.  This will be fascinating.

 Posted by at 1:20 pm
Oct 152015

Probably the last of the year, Rose “Pristine.” A classic hybrid tea, lightly scented, very delicately colored.  Big glossy leaves, fairly disease resistant.  Farewell until next June.


 Posted by at 9:00 am
Oct 142015

Ben Carson has been getting heat about ill-advised comments about Jews, Nazis, and self-defense. I like Dr. Ben, but I don’t think he’s the right guy to scrub up the mess that the next president will inherit. But I’m a lousy picker anyway, so we’ll leave that alone. For some reasoned and well informed critique of Carson’s comments (wait. Carson’s Comments would be a great magazine title) from the right, you might look here and here. I’m more interested in what we may as well call the presuppositions that I find behind his comments.
(1) One strand of modern American feeling raises the status of victim to a position of privilege, to such an extent that some folks seek out the status, or find it in the most trivial circumstances. Carson upholds another strand – you don’t have to be a victim. Or if you must, you can go down fighting.
(2) His comments should lead us to ask what a citizen’s rights are when their government does not provide effective police and protective services. How far do our rights to self defense go?
(3) Cutting deeper, what are the citizen’s rights if the government becomes an active agent of injustice, as happened in Nazi Germany? I recall – and am happy to be corrected – a suggestion that the Founders considered an armed populace to be the final check against government oppression. We do not, at this time, think much about the moral limits


of government action. Perhaps we should.

Much of the professional commentariat seems incapable of recognizing this sort of background, and in any event the progressive faction doesn’t want the issue of the individual’s response when the polity imposes its will.  There’s a little inclination to strive for “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”


 Posted by at 9:00 am