Notes for Thursday, April 9

I picked up groceries at Kroger this morning, and although the attendant handed me a receipt for $29, rather than the $42 worth I had ordered, when I got home I found that nearly everything I had ordered was there. So we ended up with more than ten dollars in free groceries.

If it were a smaller, simpler transaction I might try to make amends, but since this one is so complex and involved I’ll just chalk it up to part of Kroger’s debugging process. If they can figure out how to charge me properly, I’m glad to pay. If they overcharge me, I’m glad to complain. If they undercharge me … well, hoepfully they can figure out what went wrong and do a better job next time.

Heck, even if they called me and said they’d figured it out I’d be glad to pay them the difference. It should be possible. But I don’t expect it to happen.

Binge-worthy. I’ve heard nearly all the episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History now, forty or so, and I’ll recommend it with a major caveat: if you can’t stand Gladwell, the series is likely to reinforce that dislike rather than bringing you around.

When I started I liked his books and New Yorker articles pretty well but was unsure of the man himself. But I’ve come around to liking him, while still noting that the main criticisms leveled against him are accurate, just off the point — his critics expect and even want him to be something else, but if you understand what he’s actually engaged in, you can like it or not, but you can’t say he’s doing a bad or disingenuous job of it.

Notes for Wednesday, April 8

During what little driving I do these days I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast — occasionally thought-provoking, always entertaining. One of the episodes was about Randy Newman’s album Good Old Boys, but really just two of the songs, “Rednecks” and “Marie”. I’ll leave the first song for another time, or maybe never — great and important, but nearly undiscussable in these times, perhaps rightfully so — and say that “Marie” is one of my favorite songs, lushly orchestrated in that Kurt Weill fashion that Newman loves so much, yet spare, and one of the saddest melodies I know.

Newman almost always writes in character, by which I mean that you can’t identify him with the words he’s singing — he may or may not like the person, there’s no way to tell. This particular fellow is Johnny Cutler, a 30-year-old steelworker in early 1970s Birmingham, though the backstory isn’t in the lyrics. He’s also singing this to his sleeping wife, something else not in the lyrics.

You looked like a princess the night we met
With your hair piled up high
I will never forget
I’m drunk right now baby
But I’ve got to be
Or I never could tell you
What you mean to me

At this point you might sympathize with Johnny, who can only speak his love while drunk and his wife can’t hear him.

I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie
I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie

You’re the song that the trees sing when the wind blows
You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow

A bit of poetry from the steelworker? Maybe. But I’m also reminded of the scene in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty’s not-too-bright McCabe, frustrated by his unrequited love for Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller, mutters (drunkenly? I forget) to himself, “Well, I’ll tell you something. I’ve got poetry in me. I do, I got poetry in me. I ain’t gonna put it down on paper. I ain’t no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it.” Sad to say, McCabe has no poetry in him, and he’d be much better off if he was aware of that.

Johnny Cutler goes on:

Sometimes I’m crazy
But I guess you know
And I’m weak and I’m lazy
And I’ve hurt you so
And I don’t listen to a word you say
When you’re in trouble I just turn away

OK — drunk, crazy, weak, lazy, hurtful, self-absorbed, and unsupportive. This is not love. But Johnny feels something — who knows what exactly? — and like the rest of the world is happy to label it “love”, maybe because it relieves him of the responsibilities that come with actual love.

But I love you and I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie
I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie

Nope. Not love.

Binge-worthy. Actually, there is a stretch of Randy Newman’s career that is binge-worthy. Although the songs are great, I didn’t care for his first album when I eventually heard it. The first album I heard was Randy Newman Live, originally just a radio promo, fourteen songs over 26 minutes, just Newman and his rudimentary piano playing — and yet astonishing to me. The album that preceded it, 12 Songs, and the three that followed — Sail Away, Good Old Boys, and (to a lesser extent) Little Criminals — contain some of the finest songs recorded in the 1970s. I bought the next few albums but didn’t enjoy them nearly as much — I guess the 70s were over.

Newman went on to a second, extremely successful career writing movie sountracks — no surprise, since he came from movie soundtrack royalty, having as uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil Newman. You’ve surely heard his music in the Toy Story movies, but he also scored Ragtime and The Natural and even last year’s Marriage Story. But my bingeing recommendation is Newman’s second through sixth albums mentioned above.

Note for Tuesday, April 7

I know I missed yesterday, and will only write a short note tonight. I actually had a longer post planned out for yesterday. But the weather was good and the forecast not so great, and I was running low on roasted coffee, so I took 90 minutes in the afternoon to do a double batch, then worked until early evening.

And about the time I might have turned back to writing, Chris and I decided to try and track down a networking problem at Earth Tools, which required him to be there in case the system needed to be physically reset. So I joined him around 7:45pm, and we both sat in the parking lot in our cars, with our Chromebooks connected over wi-fi. It took a couple of hours, with Chris having to venture in a couple of times, masked and gloved. And we didn’t fix the problem, but we came away with a key bit of understanding about what was going on.

Since Chris has more than enough office-manager stuff on his plate, I took on the task of studying up on the networking hardware, then poking around the current configuration to discover exactly what about it was mistaken. Found it! No need to explain the details, but the result is that our new satellite internet link, which should have been giving us 50-100mb download speed, had only been giving us 1/100th of that — painful! But as of an hour or so ago it is working properly. I have a bit more investigation to do to make sure I understand exactly which change I made was responsible for the fix, and what was causing the trouble in the first place. But all that is a done deal now.

Back tomorrow (probably) to our regular programming.

Notes for Sunday, April 5

I had an early morning pickup slot for groceries today, so I thought I’d drive up to the homestead this morning and drop off Chris and Mary’s share. I don’t always see them when I do that — there’s a table in the walk-in basement with a cardboard sign that says “Here ->”, and paper towels and alcohol for a wipedown — but this time Chris popped down to say hi, and because the day was quiet and peaceful and warm and quite lovely, we chatted in the driveway, for what turned out to be over two hours.

In pre-pandemic times Chris and I would get our conversation in odd moments, when he stopped by while running errands in town, or I dropped Elizabeth off at Earth Tools for the day’s work, or the occasional family gathering. But since those don’t happen regularly right now, I guess we had a bunch of topics stored up, and it ended up a very pleasant way to spend the morning.

I do feel more and more that I’ve shifted into debrief mode — topics come up and I’m compelled to tell (certain) people how I think about them — not with the intention of telling them what to do, or even swaying their own thinking, but just for their consideration. I do this a lot with Chris because I’d like him to have the benefit of any useful experience I’ve accumulated. And I do it far more with him than others because I can trust him to take it exactly in the spirit I offer it, merely for his consideration. And since a lot of the observations fall into the “I wish someone had told me about this” category, I don’t think I’d be doing him any favors by holding my tongue.

I’m slowly working my way through John Barry’s The Great Influenza. It’s still early on in the book. Last night I read a relatively brief section about Woodrow Wilson and the leadup to America’s entry into WWI, and the mood of the country at that point. — basically, widespread jingoism. I only know the bare outline of that part of American history, and twenty years ago (even ten) I would have wanted to take a deep dive into it. But lately I’ve gotten better — more realistic, anyway — about how much that sort of effort would repay itself for me or for others, especially since there are plenty of other more pressing, more profitable, more manageable things to achieve in this final stretch.

Binge-worthy. Maybe the first show I ever binged was the BBC production of I, Claudius. It was the 1970s, I was in grad school, and occasionally the Amherst (MA) PBS station would run late-night marathons of quirky programs — it’s how I watched Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, four- or five-hour blocks late on Friday night. I, Claudius has twelve hour-long episodes, so it was probably spread over three late-night sessions (maybe two!).

I loved it at the time. Recently I watched it again, and although I was more sensitive this time around to the lack of production values — contemporary shows weren’t often much better, though — I was more pleased than ever at the borderline campiness of it all. Great actors, very sharp dialog, a ripping tale, all set in the early days of the Roman emperors — Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero.

The book (two volumes) is excellent, but much more of a commitment. I think the series stays true to the book while stripping it down to a very entertaining skeleton.

Notes for Saturday, April 4

Just placed my weekly grocery order with Walmart. The orders are shrinking, partly because half the household has relocated, partly because we’ve filled most of the gaps in our larder. Still tough to find spaghetti noodles, though! And it was nice to discover that they’ve expanded their pickup hours to early morning, so I’ll be able to get ours at 8am tomorrow.

Things we can’t talk about. I’ve seen more than a few Christians online wonder how the church might respond to the current crisis in ways that would attract the attention of unbelievers. Rodney Stark observed that early Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world, going from a few hundred believers to thirty million in just three hundred years, primarily because of the lives that believers lived before a watching world. A Dallas Morning News op-ed gives some details:

Historically, there is a strong tradition of faith communities responding to medical needs and crises. In his Pulitzer-nominated book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, sociologist Rodney Stark shows that the dramatic growth of Christianity was partly because pagan leaders did not have adequate answers or responses to why a devastating epidemic (probably smallpox) swept through the Roman Empire in the year 165, taking the lives of roughly one-fourth of the population.

Fewer than 100 years later, another equally lethal epidemic (probably measles) again ravaged the empire. Christianity offered a more satisfactory account of why these epidemics happened. It also projected a hopeful and optimistic picture of the future. Christian values of love and charity were translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. Care for widows and orphans became an essential part of the rise of Christianity. As Stark documents, Christians were able to better cope with the epidemics than other religious groups, which resulted in higher rates of survival. As a result, even pagans were increasingly influenced by Christian social support networks, fostering the rapid growth of early Christianity.

This op-ed tries to make the case that it is happening — “COVID-19 has also demonstrated how profoundly America and the world depend upon the quiet work of ministries and congregations in times of crisis” — but the examples given are, uh, less than heroic. “Who will run to the store for you, if someone in your family is diagnosed with the virus? An obvious option for many people is someone in their congregation.” “When schools abruptly close, the USDA allows school lunches to be delivered at alternate sites, including churches.” And that’s about it.

I don’t mean to ridicule churches for their weak response, but rather point out that in a sense they have completed their mission to introduce a new kind of love to the world — and are now bit players in a drama where most of the players have absorbed that ethic, if not the faith it sprang from. This is the point of Dominion by Tom Holland, a book — beautifully written, by the way — by an unbeliever whose studies persuaded him that “all Western moral and social norms are the product of the Christian revolution.”

Well, if true, then Christianity really did remake the world — into a world that was no longer its antithesis, but one which the church was more willing and able to conform itself to. And now it finds its mercy ministries counted among a vast number of other NGOs also addressing the needs of the needy.

Binge-worthy. Today I’ll recommend not a show but a source — HBO has just made a good chunk of quality content available for free, for a limited time. No indication of what the limit will be, but there are some good shows on the list.

Notes for Friday, April 3

Things we can’t talk about. If there were no such things as ventilators, I assume there would be no ICU crisis. Or, put another way, the crisis is a result of our insistence on intervening if at all possible. It was bad enough when I learned that this was forcing doctors in hot spots to perform triage. Worse when I learned that intubation was a major source of infection for health care workers. Worse yet to find out that weeks in ICU on a ventilator can do lasting damage to one’s body.

Worst of all, though, was when I read this today: “Most coronavirus patients who end up on ventilators go on to die, according to several small studies from the U.S., China and Europe.” (Another such article here. And the Washington Post describes the after-effects of ventilation, but doesn’t mention the survival rate for coronavirus sufferers.) The governor of New York said the survival rate so far in his state is 15%.

The question we can’t ask now, and should have asked in calmer times: is that particular intervention worth the price? But anyone who asked it then would have been branded as heartless. Ask it today and you’re a monster.

I agree that the question shouldn’t be asked today, at least in terms of guiding public policy. Society made a decision as to how to proceed in times like these — maybe not intentionally, but choosing not to think through the implications is to decide — and there is no sensible way to address the question in mid-crisis. But I’m not yet personally in crisis, and in my calm pre-potential-crisis period I am thinking hard about this question. Well, not really, I made the general policy decision long ago. But the above data have pushed me to make the general specific — weather out any coronavirus infection at home, or not at all. I would have inclined that way already on principle, but the new data make it easy to be comfortable with that decision — the alternatives are just not that attractive.

Binge-worthy. It’s release day for Casa de Papel on Netflix, folks, so I know how I’ll be spending my discretionary video time for awhile. However long it takes!

Notes for Thursday, April 2

I’m really liking this Readwise app, which takes my saved higlights (mostly from Kindle books, plus a few other places) and presents me with five of them a day in an email. I have some good highlights! Here’s one from this morning:

The Victorian writer John Ruskin wrote, “The more I think of it I find this conclusion more impressed upon me—that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”

David Brooks, The Road to Charater

Over the past ten years I’ve come to understand that I don’t really see what is right in front of me, but rather what I expect to see. I’ve been so quick to take the barest hints of an observation and slap it into one category or another, rather than taking the time to simply look and consider, and look again. But I’m slowly learning to look and keep looking until I begin to see. Perhaps this is what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

I’m running out of time and so I don’t know if I’ll ever get to it, but one of my remaining fancies is that I could do a study of what the Bible, both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament, has to say about beholding. I first stumbled across this notion when in my readings about silence I discovered Maggie Ross, who talks much about beholding, and saw so many parallels with what I’d learned about the dharma. I suspect that beholding is at the core, or at least very close to it. Strange to think of that as a modern, since it sounds so passive — that’s what we’re here for, just to sit and watch? In a way, yes—but you don’t need to be sitting in order to watch, you can be a full participant.

Binge-worthy. I started watching The Good Place when there were three seasons on Netflix, and liked it so much I figured out how to watch the fourth and final season as it played on broadcast TV. It’s a sitcom, so each episode runs about 22 minutes without commercials, a nice sized that fit into gaps in my schedule.

It was very unusual for a network show in seriously tackling the question of what makes for a good life, and/or a good person, and examining some honest-to-goodness philosophical takes on the question. I liked that part a lot. I also liked how genuinely attractive the cast members were, warm and friendly and obviously fond of one another, both as characters and as the people playing them. And I thought the finale stuck the landing, not only satisfying and heartbreaking but also giving the right answer to the question they started with.

What I didn’t like: the sitcom-iness of the whole thing. I haven’t watched network TV for about 30 years now, and the few TV comedies I’ve seen in that time were way outside the norm. But I had watched plenty before 1990, and The Good Place had plenty of reminders of what I despised about sitcoms — the timing, the all-too-predictable punchlines, the joky cultural references, the sentimentality. This show often transcended those limitations, but it was definitely adhering to them and I found it jarring each time one of those standard ploys happened. So anyway, better than most, with a good measure of unusual pleasures mixed into the standard issue dross, and some genuine thought-provokingness … but it’s still a network sitcom.