• Christmas music

    Christmas music

    Earlier this fall I sent off three of my grandfather’s magnetic audio reels to South Tree for conversion to digital format. Pop recorded these in the early 1960s, and until last fall they had been sitting in a basement. I frankly wasn’t sure if any of the audio had survived when I sent them off. It turned out that the audio had survived in great condition for its age.

    These magnetic reels were essentially an earlier version of a mixtape, recorded with a device with a small microphone. Pop recorded the kids (my mother and aunts and uncles) in some of them, he recorded Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech on one of them, and he recorded Christmas music on them. These magnetic reels are large, roughly 9×9″ for perspective.

    I’m not sure where the audio I’m sharing below came from. This reel has Mitch Miller on Side 1, but Side 2’s audio is totally different character and not at all like commercial music. You can hear my grandfather introducing the recording, recorded Christmas Eve 1962. He was about 35, and within two years would move with my grandmother from Philadelphia to Bucks County where he taught history at Central Bucks West.

    • Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, etc. Christmas choral music
    • A Child Will Come, choir music
    • Sleigh Ride
    • Greensleeves (Orchestral)
    • It’s Time for  Mistletoe and Holly
    • Little Italian Girl’s Christmas
  • Dia de los muertos

    Fr. Chris Walsh shared this on Facebook this morning:

    Today is All Souls Day. The Masses of today are offered for the souls of those who died and are not yet saints because at the time of their death they were still attached to the things of this world (things, sin, self). They are experiencing a purgation until they are fully free thru the grace of Christ (unlike the souls who fully rejected this grace and are now in hell). Pray for your family and friends who may be In purgatory so that they in turn will pray for you when they are saints in glory!

    It’s the Day of the Dead. I want to visit Mexico City or another Latin American country at some point in the years to come for their Dia de los Muertos” parades and celebrations. It seems like a truer, more honest form of remembrance than a more Western, perhaps abstract “All Souls Day” remembrance. Fr. Walsh’s post for instance describes All Souls Day in a more direct way than the name implies.

    In a similar vein, from Alan Jacob’s Original Sin: A Cultural History (which I just ordered):

    The feast of All Souls became a way for simple and quite unsaintly Christians to reciprocate, to participate in the economy of prayer not just as receivers but as givers.

    This is what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy meant when he claimed that the creation of All Souls’ marked “the first universal democracy in the world.” The saints have special access to God, they are our patrons and friends, but then we too may befriend those departed who in their suffering are very far from God….

    The Cluniac vision of all Christians joined in a vast circle of the prayerful, loving and interceding for one another, is a powerful one, especially since, just as there are saints whose spiritual power and even existence are unknown to us, so too there are poor suffering souls in a place of torment whose names equally unknown and who are therefore in particularly dire straits. Thus in the Sarum Primer — a vastly influential collection of liturgical prayers developed at Sarum, near modern Salisbury, in England — there is a poignant “prayer to God for them that be departed, having none to pray for them.” Such poor souls, “either by negligence of them that be living, or long process of time, are forgotten of their friends and posterity”; thus they “have neither hope nor comfort in their torments.”

    In societies which place a great emphasis on familial duty, a phrase in that Sarum prayer can be stinging: “by negligence of them that be living.” Thus an anthropologist named Andrew Orta has recently reported on the way All Souls’ Day is practiced among the Aymara people in the Bolivian highlands: they build household altars and pray for all the ancestors whose names they know, and then, when memory fails, they pray for all the unknown ancestors as laqa achachilas — dust grandparents.

    This excerpt from Jacobs’ caught my eye not only because it’s beautiful and true, but because I started reading Edward Rutherford’s Sarum: A Novel of England last month in Phoenix. It traces a 10,000 year history of the people of Sarum, near Salisbury. I read someplace that, which I might have referenced previously, that researchers are exploring the possibility that our DNA contains not only the basic information for our genetic reproduction, but also that the actual memory of our ancestors might in some way be passed along through our genes. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a fact that providing hope to the hopeless is always a worthwhile cause, and can be a path toward a meaningful prayer life.

  • Leaving Diyarbakir

    It’s 1957. You’re an American geologist in Turkey. I won’t be born for another 30 years, and you’re my grandfather.

    It’s nearly evening near a border crossing, after leaving Diyarbakir earlier in that day. (It was in near Diyarbakir that you took the photo above, of some goat skin rafts.) You’re with your friend and coworker, looking to travel and explore while on an extended work break.

    You’ve sailed across the Pacific by this point in your life. You’ve come to the Middle East to work, and traveled a lot by the time you mark your 30th birthday.

    You’re waiting at the border crossing for what seems like too long a period of time. You’ve explained your plans to the border guards, and they’ve walked off a bit to talk amongst themselves—maybe about the fee for crossing, you think. Your friend edges a bit more toward them, having heard a few of their words. They don’t know he understands their dialect. What are they arguing about?

    After a few moments, he shuffles toward you with a glint in his eye.

    “Don’t run,” your friend instructs, as he grabs your arm. “But walk back toward the jeep as quickly as possible without attracting their attention.”

    You make it to the jeep and hop in, the border guards now having turned their attention directly back to you. You fire up the engine, reverse the jeep and speed away—back to Diyarbakir. As you make it far enough to safety, slowing down, you ask:

    “Well what the hell was that about?”

    “They were trying to decide whether God would bless them for killing two Westerners, traveling alone, probably Christian, wearing beards.”

    The rest of the trip, silence.

  • Sententiae Antiquae, an online commonplace book, translates Lucretius, De Rerum Natura:

    Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
    the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
    Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
    That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
    He freely offered his own head to his end.
    Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
    He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
    The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
    And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?

    The translator writes: “It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.”

    A friend of mine has joked that the proof of Christianity lies in its absurdity. Another way to say that might be that the proof of Christianity lies in life’s absurdity without Christ.

    The triumphs, the glories, the tragedies, the grief—what cause do we have for any of it?

  • A better start

    Blended learning can mean real sleep for students:

    One small district in Alabama has found a way to allow students to sleep in without changing the school schedule or reducing learning time. Piedmont City School District, located in a community with fewer than 5,000 residents about 90 miles from Birmingham, has created a virtual first period for 10th-12th grade students who maintain a B average. These students can complete the assignments for their first period class, which must include online coursework, anytime they want, allowing them to sleep in during the week.

    First, this is exactly what our federal system—with states-as-laboratories-of-democracy—is designed for. It’s gratifying to learn of experiments like this.

    That said, why are we calling the experience these students are having a “virtual start” every morning. It’s perhaps a more authentic start to their day than they’ve ever had in school, particularly if it’s true that so many show signs of being practically unconscious so early in the morning after waking up, rushing out the door, being carted in on a bus in dark and frigid morning weather, etc.

    Get a real start, in the warmth of the home and with a mom or dad-cooked breakfast, then get into the school building later for other classes.

  • Homes v. cocoons

    Michael Baggot, writing on the difference between virtual and sacramental reality:

    millennial recently bragged to my friend that he no longer has much reason to leave the comfort of his basement office. There, he enjoys a tri-screen computer setup and can simultaneously manage his business, view porn, and compete in online gaming tournaments from a single cushioned reclining chair. Money to the left of me, sex to the right, and the victor’s glory ahead, he might wax lyrically. Real-world financial, romantic, and combative endeavours cannot seduce him from his cocoon. Our technologically contented contemporaries find it rather difficult to muster a sentiment of existential dependence upon anything greater than the devices that surround them.

    Long before the phenomenon of techno-seclusion, Blaise Pascal claimed that the “sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Pascal envisioned the home as an oasis from distraction, where a man could converse with the wisdom of the ancients and listen to the voice of God in his conscience. Today’s digital possibilities make the home attractive for reasons very different from Pascal’s. Breadwinning through online ventures and entrepreneurial self-employment eliminate the inconveniences of early rising, commuter traffic, and office personality clashes. There are no nine-to-five constraints on money-making potential. There are no coworkers to distract from the goal at hand.

    I love the sentence I bolded above on Pascal’s vision of home life—conversing with the ancients and considering your own soulfulness. This seems right and just to me,

    Something that Baggot gets at in his lamentation/observation, I think, is that our home life deserves to be intentionally constructed. Our electronic technology is now cheap enough to be pervasive, and this means it can seep into the pores of our home life without realizing it. It gets to the point where our parents and children and relatives living or visiting might as well be on FaceTime, so removed as they might be from real encounter or engagement with their fellow family members.

    This is to say nothing of the idea of them setting up three screens in the living room during Thanksgiving dinner—hopefully not watching porn while checking the sports scores.

  • Peter J. Leithart writes on the connectedness of family and community life:

    In a 1977 Daedalus article on “The Family and the City,” French historian Philippe Aries argued that “the real roots of the present domestic crisis lie not in our families, but in our cities.” As cities “deteriorated” and urban culture weakened, ”the omnipotent, omnipresent family took upon itself the task of trying to satisfy all the emotional and social needs of its members.” The stress on modern families, Aries says, is a result of overextension, an effort to compensate for the failure of cities: “People are demanding that the family do everything that the outside world in its indifference or hostility refuses to do. But we should now ask ourselves why people have come to expect the family to satisfy all their needs, as if it had some kind of omnipotent power.”

    Leithart dives much farther into Aries’s analysis on family and community life, and I think illustrates an important way in which the segregation of city/community life into distinct zones (commercial/residential/educational/leisure/etc.) also resulted in the segregation of individual and family life into zones that were less than the sum of their parts.

    Some of this is being rolled back in the return to what we’re now calling “mixed use development,” but even with the still-distant promise of a more physically distributed workforce through the internet, there’s the discouraging reality that for way too many people, their lives are worse off for having a home, a family, and a career that are too physically, intellectually, emotionally, and functionally separate.

  • A tribute to my grandfather

    John Shakely, my grandfather, died in December 2001 after a multi-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I was barely a teenager at the time of his death, but his life, his adventurousness, his western Pennsylvania humility, and his presence haven’t ever really left me even if my experiences with him were only a child’s experiences. He’s one of those figures in your life that grows larger with time and distance, rather than smaller.

    A connection we share is Penn State and Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, where he went after serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps. When I first found out that Michael Pilato’s Inspiration Mural was raising money for conservation a few years ago, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my grandfather there. The Nittany Valley Heritage Walk is creating a beautiful brick pathway surrounding the landmark mural, and I’m thrilled to be able to leave a little sign of my grandfather, of Pop, in a place where he spent time.


    I saw my grandfather’s paver stone in person for the first time in December 2013. We had cremated my grandfather, and until recently there was no grave or site to visit. Because of this, this marker has been all the more meaningful to me. His marker is one of the set of five in the foreground of the above photo, roughly front and center.

    He majored in Geology at Penn State and worked for many years as a geologist in the Middle East and elsewhere. Eventually he came home, earned his master’s degree, and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to raise a family. He taught high school history at Central Bucks West for nearly three decades.

    I hope this marker can become something special far into the future for new generations of our family to make an increasingly distant ancestor feel a bit closer to reality.


    A member of Penn State’s Class of 1950, he graduated the same year Joe Paterno arrived in State College. In this respect, it’s appropriate that his marker has ended up directly in front of Joe Paterno’s mural visage.

    While I’m reminiscing about him (as I did somewhat in Conserving Mount Nittany), two other things:

    In a very direct way, I’m thinking I might owe Penn State my life. When Pop joined Sigma Phi Alpha he cemented a friendship with fraternity brothers. Three of these brothers were heading from State College to Philadelphia one night for a group blind date with sorority sisters at the University of Pennsylvania. Pop ended up coming along because they needed a ride, and he had a car. He met the woman who would become my grandmother that night.

    And finally: another fraternity brother named Paul Linvilla (who would later take over Linvilla Orchards in Delaware County) became his first mate when Pop bought Skoal, his 30 foot Tahiti ketch sailboat. They sailed from Miami across the Pacific and chronicled some of their journey in a surprisingly vivid way for two young 1950s adventurers.

    These are some of the memories of both personal experience and history that come to mind when thinking of my grandfather, and now each time I return to the Nittany Valley and see his marker.

  • Why kids may learn more from tales of fantasy than realism:

    One ongoing study is finding that children learn new facts about animals better from fantastical stories than from realistic ones. … [meanwhile] infants are more prepared to accept new information when they are surprised, thus violating their assumptions about the physical world.

    What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.

    A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

    “A different, and richer, possibility” is that academics forget the fantastical character that is our reality, period. None of this objectively “makes sense,” though we acclimate to the universe as it is, describe the laws that we understand appear to govern it, and more or less succeed in making life tolerable in our corner of the place.

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso’s speaking about retaining a child’s instinct for creativity. But the point is that children have talents adults lose. Christ, of course, challenged his disciples to make themselves “childlike” in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

    There’s something there…

  • Lines of foam

    Before the mind’s eye, whether in sleep or waking, came images that one was to discover presently in some book one had never read, and after looking in vain for explanation to the current theory of forgotten personal memory, I came to believe in a great memory passing on from generation to generation. … Our daily thought was certainly but the line of foam at the shallow edge of a vast luminous sea.

    —W. B. Yeats, Mythologies, 346 (1917)

    This beautiful thinking came to me from Ben Novak, who read it here, where there is a further meditation on its meaning:

    Yeats called this ‘great memory’ anima mundi; but these images are phenomena of the human world, the world of the human imagination, passing on from generation to generation of humans. When they are meaningful, they are iconic signs occurring in various contexts and occupying human meaning spaces. Who knows what they would mean to other imaginations, to other animals? Yet we can’t help believing that they arise from much deeper in the bottomless lake of consciousness than the ephemeral chatter of ‘our daily thought’ – perhaps even from the deeper-than-human.

    This reminds me of something I read not long ago: the suspicion that our genetics may be passing along, in some way, bits of the actual memory of our genetic ancestors.