My Freewrite and Me

[This piece first appeared four years ago. I love my Freewrite (and the Traveler) even more than I did then.]

As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  Professionally. 

Much of this desire came from my mom (an extremely well-read and gifted person, now age 80), but it also came from several different authors who inspired me.  Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien.  These three moved me beyond–ironically–mere words. 

It wasn’t until I read some political and social criticism in 9th grade, however, that I realized that as much as I liked writing fiction, I absolutely loved writing non-fiction.  As early as fifth grade, I had actually begged my teacher to let me write a research paper.  I don’t remember a year of my life after that (up to my current age, 49) during which I didn’t write a research paper or papers or the equivalent.  Weird, I know.

I forced myself to learn typing on my maternal grandfather’s typewriter sometime in the eighth grade.  Then, when in high school, I took typing.  Weirdly enough, this might have been the single most important class I took prior to college!  Almost immediately after learning how to type on manual and electric typewriters, I learned how to type on my Commodore 64 and, then, in 1984, on my Mac.

A month or so ago–after agonizing over the price–I decided to take the plunge and order the Astrohaus FREEWRITE.

I had read all the reviews I could find on the internet, and, while generally positive, a few were downright hostile and mocking.  According to one review, I might actually be a “hipster” for purchasing the FREEWRITE.  If a hipster can have 7 kids, go to Sunday Mass, obsess over progressive rock, and have grey hair, then I’m a hipster.

For those of you who have yet to see a picture of the FREEWRITE, it is a thing of intense beauty.  From its weight to its feel to its lines to its keyboard to its screen to its off/on switch, this is simply a piece of humane and perfectly crafted technology.

The great German-Italian philosopher and man of letters, Romano Guardini, argued that technology could always be judged by one question and one standard.  Does the technology make us more or make us less human?

After using the FREEWRITE for a month, I can state that it makes us more human and grandly so.  I actually look forward to using it.  Not only does it feel great, but I can type much faster on it than I can with my Mac keyboard and, even my specialized DAS KEYBOARD.

For those of you who have yet to see it, the FREEWRITE is only a keyboard and screen.  It has internet capabilities, but only to send things to the cloud, not to receive them.  Thus, it’s 100% distraction free.  The company calls it a “smart typewriter,” and this seems to me more than good marketing.  It seems quite accurate.  There’s no Facebook, no twitter, no anger, no hatred, no politics, no trolls, and no spewing of the spleen–just a human (in this case, the 49-year old variety), a keyboard, and a screen.

Imagination, fly, be free!

I only have one complaint with my FREEWRITE, and it’s a minor complaint.  When I hit the space bar, there’s a strange echo and reverb as if a spring is about to give.  Should this actually happen in the realm beyond the realm of sound, I assume that Astrohaus will fix it.  The keyboard itself isn’t quiet, but the space key has its own unique and weird sound, quite different from the other keys.  Overall, though, I love the keyboard–its feel as well as its sound.  It’s not quiet, but it is satisfying. 

Very satisfying.

I realize that for many writers out there, the ca. $500 price tag will serve as a preventative.  Let me assure you, though, given the quality of the FREEWRITE as well as the distraction-free aspects of it, it’s more than worth the price.  Far more than worth it.  I was able to recoup my costs in just a few weeks of blog submissions.  Granted, I could’ve spent that money in other ways, but I can’t think of any other ways that would’ve increased both my creativity and my (much) freer imagination than the FREEWRITE.

Unfold the Future by The Flower Kings

Highest Prog Fantasy: Unfold The Future by the Flower Kings

[Originally published in 2017]

A review The Flower Kings, UNFOLD THE FUTURE (2002; remastered and reissued, 2017). Tracks: The Truth Will Set You Free; Monkey Business; Black and White; Christianopel; Silent Inferno; The Navigator; Vox Humana; Genie in a Bottle; Fast Lane; Grand Old World; Soul Vortex; Rollin’ the Dice; The Devil’s Schooldance; Man Overboard; Solitary Shell; Devil’s Playground; and Too Late for Tomatos

Grade: A+.  Glorious.  Full.  Enchanting.  Mesmerizing.

The Flower Kings released its first boxset, A KINGDOM OF COLOURS (Insideout Music), in very late 2017.  Granted, we’re more than a bit late coming to the news, and I (Brad) only realized that the boxset had come out when seeing an advertisement for the forthcoming second boxset.

This set—a gorgeously packaged one at that—is part 1 of 2, re-releasing the band’s first official seven studio albums.  Missing are any b-sides, extra tracks, live releases, and the album that started it all, Stolt’s 1994 solo album, THE FLOWER KING.  But, these absences are certainly fine, as the boxset is what it is.  The next set, according to Insideout, will have three full disks of new or previously unreleased material.  Additionally and spectacularly, of those original albums re-released for A KINGDOM OF COLOURS, the final one, 2002’s UNFOLD THE FUTURE, has been completely remastered by the Flower King himself, Mr. Roine Stolt.

Despite being a life-long prog fan, I didn’t come to The Flower Kings until the band released its 1999 album, FLOWER POWER.  When it came out, one of my best students (now, amazingly enough, a beloved colleague) lent it to me, knowing my love of all things prog.  Not only did FLOWER POWER floor me, but I had to purchase it and everything the band had done to that point.  To say I became a MASSIVE fan of the band in 1999 would be pure understatement.  My love of the music produced by Stolt and co. was tangible, and I simply couldn’t get enough.  Of those first seven studio albums, my favorite—to this day—is SPACE REVOLVER (2000).  Yet, there’s nothing the band has done that I don’t love. 

When UNFOLD THE FUTURE came out in November, 2002, I was just completely my first book (on Tolkien) and starting my second (on Christopher Dawson).  It was a heady time in my professional life, and The Flower Kings served as a thrilling and inspirational soundtrack.  To me, the band was making not just prog, but mythic prog.  Not just prog, but actual high fantasy.  Indeed, unlike almost any other band in rock, The Flower Kings alone were defining and making albums as manifestations of fantastic moods or states of being.  BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES was explorative; RETROPOLIS was playful; STARDUST WE ARE was redemptive.  Of those first seven studio albums, though, the seventh, UNFOLD THE FUTURE, was boldly confident and righteous.  Not pretentious, but definitely righteous.

Even more than the previous releases, the band embraced every form of musical expression for UNFOLD THE FUTURE: everything from Genesis-like symphonic prog to Metheny and Brubeck-like jazz to tiddly-winks and novelty music.  It was all there.  All there.  Everything.  Nothing absent.  Yet, it all came together in some appreciative whirligig of cohesive and thunderous reality. 

Additionally, while the themes of earlier albums, such as FLOWER POWER, were overtly pagan, the themes of UNFOLD THE FUTURE are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) Christian.  But, they’re mythically Christian rather than pietistically Christian.  At center stage in the drama of UNFOLD THE FUTURE stand two mighty figures: the devil and the Holy Mother.  Whether Stolt means the Holy Mother to be the white goddess who appeared to Socrates, the White Buffalo woman who appeared to the original Sioux, the Lady of the Lake who appeared to Arthur, or the Virgin Mary, it probably matters not.  She’s the Holy Mother, and she hates the devil.

The three central tracks of the album are 1) The Truth Will Set You Free; 5) Silent Inferno; and 16) Devil’s Playground.

The opening track, “The Truth Will Set Us Free,” not surprisingly, takes us to the beginning—allowing us to imagine the first rainfall on the earth and the incomprehensibly huge heart and grace that allowed it all to come into being.  The second main track, “Silent Inferno,” is tenebrous, and the world slides easily into the twilight realm of existence, a haunting and foreboding hovering over all humanity.  The final track, though, “Devil’s Playground,” pits the two giants against one another, the force of Hell and the Holy Mother.  Though the song ends on a nebulous note, it’s hard not to believe that the Holy Mother has not emerged victorious.  After all, how could the album—or the band—ever promote the transcendence of the human person (as seen on the cover of the album) without a victory against the forces of evil.

Well, maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  Still, let me just state: I’ve been listening to UNFOLD THE FUTURE for sixteen years now, and it never gets old.  That Stolt has remastered the entire album is just an added blessing and grace.  Perfecting that which is already perfect. 

At least perfect as understood in this world of sorrows.

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. 

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted.  “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[11]  High praise, indeed.

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion.  The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.  While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly.  All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.

There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this.  First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted.  Second, it should also give each person hope.  We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do.  What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope.  Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.


[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)

[8] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[9] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.

[10] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.

[11] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.

[12] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

[14] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[15] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

[17] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

Podcast: The Return of the King

Our three-part series on The Lord of the Rings comes, sadly, to an end. A huge thanks to John J. Miller for bringing me onto his excellent show and allowing me to talk and talk and talk about some of the things I love most in this crazy whirligig of a world. A true and meaningful honor.

Here is part III:

https://www.nationalreview.com/podcasts/the-great-books/episode-163-the-return-of-the-king-by-j-r-r-tolkien/

The Gay-Conservative Conspiracy of the 1950s

Russell Amos Kirk, 1950s

That most overrated academic fop of the twentieth-century, Peter Gay, spent a considerable amount of time and vitriol in the 1950s taking swipes at Russell Kirk, believing the duke of Mecosta a superficial romantic, stuck in the past, fighting for the most worthless and transient of causes. In 1961, he finally wrote something of substance (if poorly argued) against Kirk, replacing the one liners of the previous decade. Taking the efforts of Kirk and his allies into account, Gay lamented. “But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative,” he wrote in the prestigious Yale Review, a journal for which a number of prominent conservatives wrote as well. 

“The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” So much for all of the work of Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Robert Nisbet. 

“Hogwash” Gay might as well have cried in his obvious frustration. 

“Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ A bill of these things suggest that the assault of Whig clichés has laid us open to an assault by counter-clichés.” It should be noted here that both Friedrich Hayek and Kirk understood well the word, “Whig,” and they employed it properly, in ways that Gay simply failed to understand. Others, such as Caroline Robbins Douglass Adair, though not allied with the Kirks and Hayeks of the world, would have understood it as had Kirk and Hayek. “In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”

There are probably many proper critics that could be leveled at Kirk, but superficiality and lack of wisdom would not spring to the mind of any sane critic. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Kirk’s close friend, Peter Stanlis, wrote a letter of unadulterated glee and mischief after reading Gay’s piece in the Yale Review. They had successfully gotten under the Columbia’s historian’s skin. 

Yet, it is well worth considering Gay’s critique, no matter how false it was. Though Gay failed to articulate his position well, he clearly “felt” some kind of upheaval in the history profession. Not being a part of the cause of that upheaval, the priggish Gay chose to lash out at Kirk and his fellow conservatives in an anti-quasi conspiratorial way.

Had Gay lost his mind, or, in his muddled confusion, was he on to something vital in the conservative movement?

Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Strauss—along with Eric Voegelin and Peter Stanlis and others—had changed the debate. They had each—though to varying degrees—understood how important Burke and Tocqueville were as symbols in a way to bolster the West’s understanding of itself as it had defeated German fascism and Japanese imperialism, but now confronted Soviet and Chinese communism. With much effort, the great non-leftist academics had spent the decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II doing everything possible to promote the newly discovered figures of Burke and Tocqueville as the quintessential thinkers of the modern era to combat modernity. Not only had they networked with one another in person, they had professionally and quietly encouraged this or that scholar to debate this or that opponent of Burke and Tocqueville, whether in mass media, or in journals or periodicals, or at conferences. Often the defenses and attacks were open and direct, but, just as often, the conservatives and libertarians promoting Burke and Tocqueville came from the side or even the rear. 

In one telling example, Kirk attacked the well-recognized and most important 20-century scholar of Samuel Johnson, Donald Greene, using his review of the man’s book to promote the excellence of brilliance of Leo Strauss. If only Greene would read Strauss, Kirk suggested, he might be able to overcome his “logical positivism” and “latter-day liberalism.” Indeed, Kirk suggested that readers should merely pity Greene for being so uneducated. Once he read Strauss, Kirk continued, Greene would not only see the errors of his ways, but he would become a member of the “Great Tradition” of the western great books, thus seeing Johnson and Burke properly.

Not long after Kirk’s death in 1994, Peter Stanlis revealed just how detailed and intimate their concerted plan of attack had been. Because of the rise of Strauss and Nisbet, the two men believed that the western world had come to a “Burkean moment.” As much as each man loved and respect Edmund Burke, they clearly loved him for real and actual self as much as they loved him as a symbol. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More could each be found in the thought of Burke, thus allowing the Anglo-Irish statesman to become a stand-in for all of the greats of western civilization. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis revealed in his 1994 talk about his secret alliance with Kirk. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. That is, they could not only critique what was liberal and progressive and wrong in the modern world, they could also, perhaps more importantly, defend something positive from the past, a conserving of the true, the good, and the beautiful. And, they could do so in a gay and willing pride.

From Venus to Virgin

“Lustrous among the cloudbanks,” the goddess Venus descended into the grove of oak trees, telling her son, Aeneas, that her gifts were of divine origin, forged by the fires of her husband, Vulcan. Venus embraced Aeneas as she offered him the weaponry and armor. He, amazed, looks each piece over, one by one, unsure whether to be more shocked that his mother was a goddess or that she had defied her own father to aid him.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire

the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.

Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

No words can tell its power.

For there, upon the shield, was the entire story of Rome, its past, its present, and its future, for Vulcan possessed the power of the seer, and directed by his wife, he had written it all.

Armed by his mother’s confidence and gifts, the half-god Aeneas of the destroyed city of Troy conquered his Latin foes, creating a new people that would rule the Mediterranean for over a millennium.

As Socrates awaited his execution by the hands and vote of the Athenian people in 399BC, a “woman in white” appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that in three days, he would spend eternity with his people and the gods in the land of Phthia. Socrates found more comfort in this dream, than in all of his own logic or the reassurances of his best friend, Crito.

When two Lakota warriors—the first representatives of their people—traveled onto the Great Plains of North America, they encountered a vision of the Great Buffalo Woman, a being shrouded in white light. One of the Lakota could not see passed her beauty and immediately felt lust in his heart. The other, though, saw her for what she really was, the lawgiver. The Great Buffalo Woman destroyed the lustful one, but she rewarded the other with the laws to govern his people, the laws by which all good Lakota would live.

At the moment a young Celtic man needed a tangible sign to unify his warring peoples, the Lady of the Lake emerged to offer him the sword, Excalibur, to unite and lead his people into virtuous victory. So armed, Arthur created a brotherhood the ushered in a Kingdom of Summer. . . for a while.

At Princeton, an eager and enthusiastic young student asked T.S. Eliot just why were there three leopards in his poem of conversion, Ash Wednesday, and who was the lady?

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. 

To which, Eliot replied, is it not enough that the lady honors the Virgin? Pagan or not, does she not point to the Blessed Mother of God, and, thus, to God? It is more than enough, Eliot assured his audience.

When another frustrated king, an Anglo-Saxon who would one day be known as Alfred the Great, begged of God aid in his battle against the heathen Danes, not God, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to him.  As Chesterton recorded it:

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,

More than the doors of doom,

I call the muster of Wessex men

From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,

To break and be broken, God knows when,

But I have seen for whom.

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God

Like a little word come I;

For I go gathering Christian men

From sunken paving and ford and fen,

To die in a battle, God knows when,

By God, but I know why.

And, yet, like most of us, Alfred craved sureity.  If he put his faith in Mary and in God, would he be rewarded.

And this is the word of Mary,

The word of the world’s desire

No more of comfort shall yet get,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

Then silence sank.

Venus might promise victory, but Mary, rightly, only offers hope.  Yet, it is a hope that breaks the bounds of the world, and shows us eternity.

Placing a Transatlantic Call

In the latest Spirit of Cecilia dialogue, Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert exchange thoughts on the massive set of new releases from progrock’s supergroup, Transatlantic. There are several different versions of The Absolute Universe (you can check them out here), and each one has its own charms.

Brad: Tad, I just finished watching the Transatlantic Roine Stolt interview (available on Youtube as a part of a series), and I couldn’t help but think of you.  I also couldn’t help but think–yet again–what a grand gentleman Stolt is. So interesting and intelligent. Prog musicians are articulate in general, to be sure, but Stolt is exceptional even among exceptional people. Does my soul good. He is, truly, The Flower King. 

I know that you like the new album(s), The Absolute Universe, from Transatlantic, and I very much do as well.  Indeed, I’m rather in love with the extended edition, and I’m growing very fond of the abridged version as well.  The more I listen to each, the more I realize how different (and yet so complementary) each is to the other.

What’s interesting to me is that from the opening minute, you know it’s a Transatlantic album.  There’s something about the instruments, the voices, and, especially, the energy that is uniquely Transatlantic.

As I’ve been devouring the new album(s) and anticipating the massive box set on its way in three or so weeks I’ve been waxing nostalgic.  I bought the first Transatlantic album, SMPTe, shortly after it came out.  A student (now a colleague in the philosophy department) had lent it–along with Flower Power by the Flower Kings–to me, and I was immediately taken with both.  Since then, I’ve bought every Transatlantic album–studio and live–as they’ve come out.  In many ways, my last twenty years have, in some way, been shaped by Transatlantic.

Then, of course, there’s the distinctive Transatlantic art.  The great Transatlantic ship is wonderful, and the band has, probably, the best font for any band since Yes’s classic signature.

Tad: Brad, you and I are on the same wavelength. I have been immersing myself in both versions of The Absolute Universe (How’s that for a provocatively countercultural title?), and I am increasingly drawn to the extended version. It turns out that Roine is the main mastermind behind that set, while Neal Morse is the one who put together the abridged version. 

I have not seen the Stolt interview, but Morse has begun his own podcast and his first guest is none other than Mike Portnoy! It is also on YouTube, and it is such a pleasure to watch and listen to two very close friends discuss all kinds of topics. I highly recommend you check it out.

I also grabbed my copy of SMPTe to listen to again, and it holds up incredibly well. I think it has stood the test of time – has it really been 21 years since it first came out? – and it can now be considered a progressive rock classic. Those first chords of All Of The Above are so stirring to me; I almost get emotional listening to them now. And as you mentioned, from the opening notes of Overture from The Absolute Universe, you know you’re listening to a Transatlantic album! When Portnoy’s drums kick in gear and start propelling the entire band – that is a very satisfying listening experience for me. Also, Morse’s organ playing the opening melody of Heart Like A Whirlwind (extended version)/Reaching For The Sky (abridged version) is a special moment.

I think you would agree with me that Morse dominated the first two Transatlantic albums (and probably the third) but on this one I get the sense that all the members had relatively equal input. I am especially pleased to hear Pete Trewavas stepping up and singing more lead vocals. His songwriting contributions are more accessible – in other words, poppier – than Stolt’s and Morse’s, which keeps things grounded. Hopefully this album will greatly expand their audience.

Brad: Excellent responses, Tad.  I didn’t know about the divided duties regarding two different versions of The Absolute Universe. I must admit, while I love both versions, I’m still much more taken with the extended version.  For two reasons, really.  First, I love all of Stolt’s guitar and vocal parts.  And, second, because my favorite track–”The World We Used to Know”–is only on the extended version.  “The World We Used to Know” is the quintessential Transatlantic song, blending the old so perfectly with the new. It’s clear that the band is honoring Yes and Rush in the song, but the song remains completely a Transatlantic track, despite its influences.

If I were forced to rank Transatlantic’s first four albums, I would rank them: SMPTe; The Whirlwind; Bridge Across Forever; and Kaleidoscope, recognizing that each is great.  That is, there’s not a huge difference between No. 1 and No. 4 in terms of quality.  I have to give the first place to SMPTe, mostly because of the memories associated with my first listen to it, twenty-one years ago.  Those opening chords still ring in my soul and play in my mind.  It’s such a classic.

Now, after having given The Absolute Universe several spins, I would place it in the No. 2 spot.  It might, in some ways, be better than No. 1, but I’m still too taken with SMPTe–even after 21 years–to rank it anything other than No. 1. Regardless, The Absolute Universe is truly special, and life is better because it exists.

Tad, what version did you end up buying?  At first, I ordered individual copies of the abridged and the extended, along with the blu-ray.  I quickly changed my mind, however, cancelled that order, and then ordered the deluxe package from Radiant Records.  I was a bit hesitant at first to do this, given the money involved, but now that I’ve heard and devoured The Absolute Universe, I regret nothing!

One thing that strikes me as interesting.  There’s definitely an overlap of style when one considers the Neal Morse Band, The Flower Kings, and Transatlantic, and these three bands have so critically defined Third-wave prog.  Yet, they have hardly any imitators.  It’s impossible to imagine the current prog movement without, for example, Steven Wilson and all of his imitators.  Why isn’t the same true of Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, and Trewavas?

Tad: Good question, Brad, and one that had not occurred to me until you asked it. My first answer is because they are all such incredibly talented artists that any attempts at imitation would pale in comparison! But I also think Portnoy doesn’t get enough credit for his role as arranger and producer in Transtlantic, and he is simply inimitable in the music world. WIthout his energy and guidance, TA would not be near the artistic force they are. 

Like you, the more I listen to both versions, the more I prefer the extended one, Forevermore. I go into greater detail why in my earlier post on this album.

My ranking is the same as yours, except I would place Bridge Across Forever ahead of The Whirlwind. I think the melodies are stronger on BAF. Also, I always get a kick out of Suite Charlotte Pike, because Charlotte Pike is a road near my home that I often drive on!

As far as what edition(s) I ordered, I went with both the extended and abridged versions, but I am very tempted to go for the big box like you did. I imagine some people might consider the release of so many different versions a crass commercial move, but it’s really not. Every version is a separate work that stands on its own, and I am grateful to Morse, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas for bestowing so much music on us.

I Want My MTV Mixtape

I don’t think I’m alone in finding music in the streaming era frustrating. As a musician, even though it is easier and less expensive than ever to make your music available, it very difficult to get your music heard. When I was growing up, if you made it on to MTV – you made it. If you made it onto mixtapes, you were at least cool. I’ve resolved to make an extra effort to look for other artists making high quality music and help to bring them some attention. I learned about the first three bands on Time Hinely’s Dagger Zine.

Also, consider this a mix tape from a friend. A short mix tape because who has 60 or 90 minutes anymore? If you like it, there will be more.

Swansea Sound – Corporate Indie Band If Swansea Sound reminds you of something you heard on college radio in the late 80s or early 90s, you are correct. It could have very well been one of Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey’s early bands Talulah Gosh or Heavenly.

The Bats – Beneath The Visor From New Zealand, they have been around since 1982. (Hey Mark, Don’t these guys remind you of The Vulgar Boatmen? Yes. I can’t help myself.)

Louis Philippe & The Night Mail – Living On Borrowed Time Just check out the walking bass line. (I’ve listened to this song five times in a row writing this post.)

To the Music World Unknown – The Mixus Brothers A band from Pittsburgh that is much, much artier than it may appear on the surface, as this video shows.

The Deep Roots – Over Our Heads Rather than shameless self-promotion, I’d like to consider this as a credibility check. It also fits with the theme.

Mark Sullivan is the guitarist in The Deep Roots

Hitchcock’s The Birds

The Idyllic Torn Asunder: Hitchcock’s The Birds

“I am neither poor nor innocent”—Melanie Daniels, protagonist of Hitchcock’s The Birds

Cinema as Art

From the time I was thirteen or so, I had fallen deep in love with movies.  I didn’t actually grow up watching a lot of TV shows, but I certainly loved renting movies and enjoying them in the comfort of my house, especially when my parents were out playing Bridge or doing something similar with their friends. 

For me—then and now—the more intense the movie, the better, though I also loved stupid, slapstick comedies.  Several of my high school friends appreciated and understood the actual art of cinema far more than I did, and I learned a great deal from them about directors, cuts, camera angles, actors, lighting.  Even to this day, I can’t watch anything other than comedy without analyzing every aspect of the film.

College didn’t give me much time for movies, but two events in graduate school not only re-awoke my passion but increased it exponentially.  The first, and less important of the two, was the attending of a film studies class on the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Everything my friends in high school had taught me sharped to a finely and intellectually honed blade of finest steel as the professor explained how to study a film—similar to a novel, but with a different kind of depth—walking through the film, scene by scene.  I was, to put it crudely, rather blown away. 

Hitchcock, His Women, and Me

Additionally, while in graduate school, two friends really shaped my view on films.  The first was Craig, an apartmentmate as well as office buddy.  As it turned out, Craig knew British film really well.  I’d never appreciated it or PBS before, but he gave me that love of both.  Second, I found out that another close friend was also a Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) fanatic.  Tamzen (my great friend to this day) and I spent many hours watching and analyzing Hitchcock.  These moments with Craig and Tamzen are ones I still treasure.

Like Tamzen, I considered myself a Hitchcock fanatic as well, preferring a Hitchcock film even to a science fiction one.  I especially loved, in order, Rope, Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.  I never fell for Kim Novak or Vivian Leigh, but I have always thought Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren two of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.  Phew.  I still do, though, of course, Kelly played attractive characters while Hendren played repulsive ones.  To my mind (that is, in the world of celebrities), only Morena Baccarin rivals Kelly.

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WHAT CARE FOR THE ELDERLY REALLY COSTS US

In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”

This, Nouwen diagnoses, is the true cost to caring for the elderly – that we embrace the vulnerability of our own aging selves.

Are we prepared to dispense with “the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared”?

Care for the elderly, insists Nouwen, does not only consist in practical acts of service that, in fact, “are often offered in order to keep distance rather than to allow closeness.” Instead, caring costs us our entire aging selves.

“Only as we enter into solidarity with the aging and speak out of common experience, can we help others to discover the freedom of old age,” says Nouwen.

Only by awakening to the realization that we are all aging can we begin to shift our culture from one of segregation to one of solidarity.

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