Friday, February 24, 2017

A Very Warm February

We have mostly had a warm February in Washington, DC. This morning I noticed someone carrying balloons to the house across the street, and was briefly confused: surely the boy's birthday was in late winter. Then I remembered that by the calendar it is late winter.

Yesterday I took some photographs as I walked down 16th St. NW to work:

(Meridian Hill Park, opposite Kalorama Road)

(About Swann St.)

(Just north of S St., across from the Masonic Temple)

(Immediately south of Scott Circle)

Today I took a couple more photographs on Taylor St. NW:


I would have preferred the cold weather to stay longer. At this point, though, my chief wish is for rain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Schoenhof's Is Closing

This evening, I clicked on the "Promotions" folder in GMail, thinking that perhaps there might be something from Schoenhof's. There was, but it was not what I wanted to see. The gist of it runs
It is with some sadness that we announce our retail store in Harvard Square will be opening its doors for the last time on March 25, 2017. However, we will continue to be available to you 24/7 at The cost of rent in Harvard Square coupled with online competition has forced us to make this decision.
Now, having been to Schoenhof's exactly once, almost four years ago, and having purchased only a couple of books from them since, I can't claim to have done much to keep it going. And I suppose that it is impressive that the store held on so long in so expensive a neighborhood: Larry McMurtry pulled Booked Up out of Georgetown a good twenty years ago. But I find this disheartening.

From February 22 until the store locks its doors for the last time on March 25, there will be a closing sale starting with 50% off domestic titles and 60% off foreign titles.
So I suppose I will stock on some reading that I won't get to for a while.

Monday, February 20, 2017

No Explanation

I am not sure what brought this to mind, but a bit out of the Prologue of George Kennan's The Decision to Intervene: Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920, Volume II did come to mind this afternoon:
For [the educated upper class], the war posed a difficult problem. American society had no tradition that could help it to accept a foreign war with calmness and maturity. Its political philosophy--optimistic, idealistic, impregnated with the belief that an invincible progress had set in with the founding of the American state--had no comfortable place for mass killing and destruction as an end of American policy. There was no explanation for America's involvement in the war which fitted with the basic assumptions of the American outlook and at the same time permitted the adoption of a realistic image of the enemy and recognition of the war as integral part of the process of history. It could not, in the American view, be anything generic to human nature that had produced this confusion. Only a purely external force--demonic, inexplicable, evil to the point of inhumanity--could have put America in this position, could have brought her to an undertaking so unnatural, so out of character, so little the product of her deliberate choice.
  ... There was a sort of mass running for cover; and "cover" was an impressive show of noble indignation against the external enemy, coupled with the most unmeasured idealization of the American society whose philosophic foundation had been thus challenged. This was, somehow, the only wholly safe stance, the only one that gave protection against being drawn into dangerous depths of speculation where one would be quite alone, in moral isolation, and where there would be no stopping point, no terra firma.
  The result was an hysteria, a bombast, an orgy of self-admiration and breast-beating indignation, that defies description. In one degree or another it took possession of press, pulpit, school, advertising, lecture platform, and political arena. The President's official statements were, whatever the merits of the political philosophy underlying them, restrained, moderate, and statesmanlike. But the same could not have been said of private discussion. Never, surely, has America been exposed to so much oratory--or to oratory more strained, more empty, more defensive, more remote from reality. The humorous magazines suddenly acquired the abysmal humorlessness that enters in when the effort is made to base humor on wrath. In the eminently respectable Outlook, editor-emeritus Lyman Abbott, himself a clergyman, denied the application of Christian charity to Germans.... America, it might be said, had little or nothing to be ashamed of in the substance of her war effort; but in the public discussion of it at home, in the interpretation it was given, and in the reflection it found in civic behavior, this was not America's finest hour.
One of my grandmothers, being from a comparatively well-off family, was in high school at time the US declared war on Germany. She had studied German for all or most of three years of high school, but did not get to study a fourth year, for some ardent patriot broke into the high school and burned the German texts. At least that was an individual act of vandalism, without state sanction: the state of Nebraska passed a law, the war having ended, to forbid instruction in foreign languages. That law, the Siman Act, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

But one cannot say that America was unusual in that regard. The press and public opinion in most of the combatants were not particularly rational. Karl Kraus gave a devastating picture of the public mood of Austria; one could multiply examples from England, Germany, and France.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

You Could Do That Then, Part II

Some time ago I wrote of things one could do once but no longer, and mentioned among them the simultaneous holding of drivers licenses from multiple states and the quick replacement of a lost license. I never held or wished to hold multiple licenses, but I thought it an example of a certain freedom now lost that one could once do so, and certainly the quick replacement made my life much simpler once.

This past week, during an ESL class, we reached an exercise in which the participant describes himself: clothing, accessories, eye color, hair color. When I look in the mirror it is generally to shave, so I don't make much eye contact with myself. It seemed to me that my eyes are green and brown, though. It struck me that my driver's license might note this, and I took it from my wallet. The license does not give my eye color, or for that matter my hair cover. It does give height and weight. It also gives its expiration date: my most recent birthday, some months ago.

Friday, we went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Georgetown. At the entrance we found that I had failed to mention, and my wife had failed to notice, the requirement that she provide an official document showing her Social Security number. She will have to find a W-2 and go back: fortunately she has several months in which to do this, for her license is not yet expired. We filled out forms, we presented documents. I left with perforations punched in my current drivers license, and a printed form stating that I have a "Real ID" license in the works. The form has my picture, my height and weight, but does not mention hair or eye color.

The new license will arrive in the mail. This seems to me to contradict the whole "Real ID" premise of improved security, for mail does not always arrive where it should. Our neighborhood's letter carrier is reliable, but like anyone might fall ill or take a vacation. We receive now and then neighbors' mail and know that mail sent us hasn't arrived. So it is possible that the new license, to get which I proffered an old license, a current passport, my Social Security card, a mortgage statement, and a telephone bill, will be delivered to somebody who has never met me. In that case, the best outcome would be that the recipient leaves it with us; second-best that the recipient throws it into the trash; and worse and unlikely but still possible, that the recipient reserves the license for occasions on which he is caught speeding or running red lights.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Last week at Kramerbooks, I noticed on the shelves Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, by James Schall, S.J., and bought it. The Jesuits, I thought, have put some thought into the conditions of teaching and learning, and here is one who has something to say about them. Having read the book through, I don't regret the purchase, though I suspect that Schall has written better books.

Many of the essays in Docilitas were delivered as lectures, and therein lies some of the weakness of the book. Lectures, to be taken in by ear, must be more repetitive and diffuse than essays written to be read. One notices some of that in the various chapters.They are also delivered to a particular audience, gathered in one place at one time. Some of the lectures were delivered in New England, some in the Midwest, others on the West Coast, and all over a range of a dozen years or so. In print, they run to not quite 200 pages, and the reader thinks, Yes, you said that a few pages ago.

Lectures may also come to be transcribed more or less accurately. I don't know how these came to be written down, whether from stenographers' transcripts or from Schall's own copies, but omitted words and confusing formulations occasionally suggest the former. In any case, it is a distraction when one reads a sentence a couple of times, and finally concludes that a pronoun has been omitted. This happens now and then, and if I re-read the book, I will mark such places.

There are other signs of carelessness. A passage from Johnson is ascribed to Boswell. The date of an utterance of Johnson's becomes the date of The Life of Johnson. "The Sound of Silence" is a song by the Beatles. There are typographical errors in English and Latin. (One might say in Spanish, too, for the last page of the book gives the author's city of residence as "Los Gator", California.)

Schall writes well, though. To take a trivial example, I have been in the habit of cringing when a homilist introduces a quotation from Peanuts, but Schall usually makes his quotations from Peanuts apposite and effective. (Perhaps the ability to quote Peanuts effectively is distinctly Jesuit, for I remember from forty years ago an essay in America that proposed the following challenge for those aspiring to practice hermeneutics: explain a Peanuts strip to a German.) He is as deft with quotations from Aristotle, St. Augustine, or Goethe as he is with those from Charles Schultz.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was running through the McKenney Hills neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland, when I heard a voice that seemed to come from below my feet. I saw an uncovered manhole, the cover beside it, and I leaned down to call, Who's down there? A boy of ten or twelve came in to view. He and a couple of friends were down there, he said. "There" clearly was "in the storm sewers". I said that I didn't think it safe to be down there. Oh, he said, it was safe. They came down and explored all the time. They had been as far as the middle school. (Sligo Middle School, that was, about a mile east of this manhole.)

There wasn't much I could do. I couldn't descend and catch them, and if I could have caught them, I couldn't have retrieved them. Not knowing their names, I couldn't speak to their parents. There was no neighborhood listserv, or at least I wasn't on it,  so I couldn't alarm the neighborhood by posting an account. In any case the sky suggested no imminent rain that might endanger them. I did what I could, which was to mind my own business and continue my run.

I still don't think it was a good idea for the boys to explore the storm sewers. (Though at ten or twelve I might have thought it a fine idea.) But it speaks to a level of enterprise and freedom that some suggest has been bred out of the middle class children of today. Are the children of McKenney Hills still exploring? I don't know; I seldom get out that way now, and would be unlikely to know in any case. But I wouldn't be surprised.

(A piece on the sewers of Paris over at Book Haven brought this story to mind.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017


We went to the movies yesterday evening. The movie was fine, but while the trailers ran I spent most of the time with my fingers in my ears. The trailer for the coming movie about Dunkirk was not louder at peak volume than the trailer for domestic, and as far as I could tell non-violent dramas. Why? Why should a domestic drama have a trailer with bass notes at the volume of a freight train at twenty yards, or of a jet airplane heard from a house under the approach to the runway?

Do the studios wish to advertise their sound effects? Do they think that we lapse into a daze while advertisements and trailers run, and must be awakened to notice the name of the movie? It hardly matters. I'm too old to worry about how I look covering my ears in a darkened theater.