Thursday, March 31, 2016

Back to the Blossoms

In a A Time To Be Born, set in New York about 1940, Dawn Powell mentions in passing the sudden importance of Washington, previously thought of only in connection with cherry blossoms and deadly state dinners. Nobody has ever invited me to a state dinner, but I do keep an eye out for the cherry blossoms.

Every year, some of us at my office try to walk around the Tidal Basin at least once while the cherry blossoms are at their best. This year, the peak was probably about Easter. I missed the days before, for I was out of town until Thursday, and the office was closed Friday. I did run down as far as Independence Avenue on Saturday, but to run around the Tidal Basin through the dense crowds would have been rude even if possible, and would have added a mile and some to a run at about the limit of what I can do these days.

Today a couple of us took the walk. Most of the blossoms were past their peak, most branches about half in blossom and half in leaf; a decent arborist could tell you which kinds of cherry they were.  But about a fifth of the trees were in full blossom, and all were beautiful. The crowds were thinner, so that we could walk without jostling, and with less care not to intrude on photographs.

We did dodge photographs, but five or ten rather than dozens. Of the photographs I saw in progress, two caught my attention: a young woman, sitting on the slope, tossing a handful of petals to be caught by the picture; another young woman, with a floral wreath on her head and a full purple skirt, who apparently was about to dance to some recorded music.

I took some pictures to prove that I was there, and here are two:

And on Friday, they were at about their peak in Mount Pleasant:

I believe that the blossoms appeared a couple of weeks earlier this year than last.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Is That Postmodern?

Last week we sat in a rooftop bar in Los Angeles, with a good view of the crowd. What struck me was the collection of clothing styles, in many cases with elements from years past. There was the man in a black hat, denim jacket, and printed tee shirt: it was a mid-1970s look, though maybe the jeans were a bit snug at the ankles. There were a couple of men in white tee shirts, straight-legged jeans, and sneakers: they could have come from a casting call for a movie set in the 1950s.  Several had a look that was from the 1980s. At least one woman had the shape of skirt, above the knees in front, below the calf in back, that I don't remember seeing before about ten years ago. Is this arbitrary mix of styles postmodern? I don't know.

It is more striking in Los Angeles, in that there one finds very old cars in decent condition, along with the very newest. There are 1970s GTOs in which the fellow with the hat would look at home. There is what we took to be a Studebaker station wagon to suit the men in white tee shirts. Along the block where we are staying are a Ford Falcon and a Dodge Sportsman van, both right around 50 years old.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Bumper Crop

Last spring, while in Los Angeles for a visit, we were reluctant to use our son's car, which had the check-engine light on. We asked the rental agency for a mid-sized car, the agency offered us a Jeep Cherokee, and we settled on a Prius. While backing up to turn around on a dark street, I backed into the bumper of a parked car, a sports ute of some sort, and discovered how far Toyota had gone in optimizing for a low weight:

The sports ute was not scratched.

Before this visit, our son took his car to the dealership, so we did not expect any reason to rent a car. On Thursday, having picked up the car at his office, we pulled over to the curb about one door down from the place we are staying, and were about to move up, when a sports utility vehicle sideswiped us, at low speed but enough to do damage:

This sports ute was a Toyota, I suppose a Highlander [correction: 4Runner], and in its case Toyota did not optimize for weight. I did not see any damage to the car that struck ours, though admittedly I was distracted. Our son will drop his car at the body shop today, and rent something to drive until it is repaired.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reading Pelikan

Having started in the middle of them, I have just read the first of the five volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Christian Doctrine, namely The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). For a week or two, I will be able to distinguish Marcionites from Donatists from Nestorians.

It is a work of astonishing erudition, "based on the study of the primary sources in the original languages--Greek, Syriac, and Latin", though he had "of course, consulted the sources in translation as well." The secondary sources he lists are in English, French, German, (modern) Greek, Russian, and Swedish. One, I noticed, was by the future pope Joseph Ratzinger, on "the noninstitutional aspects of Augustine's ecclesiology."

The erudition apart, Pelikan offers a readable account of his subject, the development of Christian doctrine, "what the church believes, teaches, and confesses." I imagine that he was correct in writing in the preface that "By using the index and by working his way through the narrative, even someone who knows no church history and no theology should be able to follow the plot and watch its movement."  My own knowledge of church history and theology was not wholly lacking, but measured against this book it was and is exiguous.

At some point, I will need to go back and reread this volume. That will wait on many things, and perhaps on the fourth and fifth volumes.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Early in Wright Morris's memoir A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life, he writes
From our friend Schindelin I heard the startling news that California was not the best place for a writer. There was too much easy living, too much light and heat. There was too much driving to the sea and the mountains, and too much running around on the highways. The life of the mind suffered. The young had no curiosity. They were like young gods in their sunny, open natures, but she felt in them a troubling blandness. They would never write Death in Venice. They would probably never read the Duino Elegies. The reading of Thomas Mann's Joseph in Egypt had led her to reflect about such matters. The life of the mind, of the arts, should experience the nurturing cycle of the seasons! She urged us to consider a new life in the East, where among other things, I would find my readers. The California people she had met browsed in a book, but they did not read it. Why, indeed, should they? It was hot in the study and the library. Outside, the light sparkled, and the sea washed the beaches. Thomas Mann knew all about it , and saw this life of the body as intoxicating. The sun lulled the mind and the spirit into a languor. If I would forgive her for speaking so frankly, she saw it in the way I was fighting the sunlight. Look how I drew the cracked blinds and sat brooding in the dark! Look how I suffered from eyestrain, a sore back and headaches! This was no place for a truly creative person. It was too much of the outdoors and the outer life, of the desert and the sun.
"But what about the Greeks?" said I, and read her some great lines from Pindar, but a lot of good it did me. What she said  was after needling her brows, "You are not a Greek."
My first encounter with such an opinion was probably before I set foot in California, when I read in The Caine Mutiny of the eastern reservist telling the westerner that Californians were among the last primitive people on earth for anthropologists to study, a tribe of tennis-playing aborigines. Some of S.J. Perelman's finest pieces play off Californian indifference to anything outside the state. One probably hears more of this about California than the rest of the west because there are more things to draw easterners to California than to other regions in the west, for one thing. I wonder whether, for another, there isn't a confident indifference about California that the easterners find maddening, and that urges them on to better abuse.