Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tocqueville, Meritocracy & the American Dream

‭The "American Dream." This vague term instantly conjures up hopes of unlimited opportunity. So long as you work hard enough and are smart enough (which you are, of course), you will find success. Moreover, it is these hard-working, gifted individuals who form America's elite. In other words, meritocracy should make everyone happy, both individually and as a member of society.

‎Or, so the legend goes. One of the dangers of trying to put meritocracy into practice, however, is the tremendous mental strain it places on individuals who, after working hard to distinguish themselves from others, still fail. For their entire lives, they have told themselves that they are the only obstacle to their success, so in the end all they can do is blame themselves. This leads to frustration and even intense self-loathing. This is the dark side of the American dream.

‎Here is how Alexis de Tocqueville put it, in Democracy in America (Vol. II, Part II, Ch. XIII, "Why the Americans are often so restless in the midst of their prosperity"):
‎“‏When all prerogatives of birth and fortune are abolished,‭ ‬when all professions are open to all and a man’s own energies may bring him to the top of any of them,‭ ‬an ambitious man may think it easy to launch on a great career and feel that he is called to no common destiny.‭ ‬But that is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.‭ ‬The same equality which allows each man to entertain vast hopes makes each man by himself weak.‭ ‬His power is limited on every side,‭ ‬though his longings may wander where they will‭…

“This constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind‎…

“That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance,‎ ‏and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances‭…

“In France we are worried about the increasing rate of suicides‎; ‏in America suicide is rare,‭ ‬but I am told that madness is commoner than anywhere else.‭”

Monday, May 25, 2009

On Gobbledygook

I recently stumbled upon this passage in Edward Fischer's The Chancy War. If you have ever had to read a military document, you know he tells the truth. Sadly, I think his conclusions are probably true of most bureaucratic writing, and probably far too much of academia as well.

In the Infantry School at Fort Benning, I had spent a year writing Army field manuals.... During basic training at Camp Croft, South Carolina, and while studying in the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, I had groped through enough field manuals to know how riddled they were with gobbledygook. If everyone was to understand the material in those manuals, so that we might hurry up and win the war, it seemed sensible that the prose be clear and concise.

My first manual came bouncing back from the review board in Washington. Nothing was omitted, the board said, and there were no errors in fact; it just didn't sound like a field manual. The colonel who headed the writing project lacked interest in simplicity and clarity; all he wanted was the approval of the Pentagon. He said just that as he tossed the manuscript to me and stomped into his office, where the grapes of wrath were stored.

The only way I could write military prose was to burlesque it. So I made some rules for myself:
  • Never write a simple sentence if you can stretch and torture it into a compound-complex sentence.
  • Never use a one-syllable word if you can entice a five-syllable word into doing the same job.
  • Never use the active voice, if you can back the idea around into a passive construction.
  • Always substitute utilization for use, subsequent for after, and initial for first.
  • Use frequently the words supersede, implement, and impracticable.
  • Ignore the advice Horace gave: "More ought to be scratched out than left." Instead, keep adding to what is there; federal prose is not written, it accumulates.
So put the idea into a simple declarative sentence and spend the morning building it. Enlarge each word, nail on more phrases, synonyms, and redundancies; twist the sentence structure until scarcely a tag-end of the meaning sticks out.

As a final test, read aloud what has been translated from English to gobbledygook. If it sounds like an excited turkey going, "Gobbledy, gobbledy, gobbledy," the translation has been successful. (Perhaps Congressman Maury Maverick had the sound of an excited gobbler in mind when he coined the word gobbledygook to label government jargon.)

The rules that I complied worked well. My manuscript was long and wordy and as dull as a butter knife. Reading it was like slogging through a swamp under full field pack.

But the Pentagon liked it! The book was printed in five languages. I often wonder how that gobbledygook sounded in Chinese.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life: Imagine the Potential - Take Two

The good folks at CatholicVote.org have produced another great video: clear, to the point and aesthetically pleasing:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Cremation of Sam McGee, Annotated

by Robert W. Service (1874-1958)

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

(Johnny Cash will read it to you)

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Modern Icon

Last week I shared a rather whimsical (if ultimately serious) painting by James C. Christensen. But this week I would like to consider some of his artwork of a different style.

Among the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church as well as the Orthodox, icons have long been a major part of devotional life. In the West, there is not such a fully formed concept of icons, artistically or theologically, but there are certainly parallels.

To what extent do icons have a place in modern devotion? And what should they look like? Some would suggest that there is no need to update icons at all; the ancient form and content of this religious art should remain the same as it always has. Others have experimented with a mixture of the old and new, with regards to both style and subject. Still others would claim that icons have no place in the modern world.

But Christensen's artwork poses a clear challenge to this third position. Though neither Catholic nor Orthodox, Christensen has incorporated elements of traditional devotional artwork into some of his own works. 'Saint with White Sleeves' (left) is done in the style of an obscure Flemish painter known as The Master of the Enoch Altarpiece. Though she does not represent any particular saint, Christensen has clearly concluded that earlier styles speak to the modern age. I thought her clothing particularly interesting, being of an amorphous style that could belong to any time from the 16th century to the American frontier or the present day.

'Cecelia' (right) is named after the artist's granddaughter, and not necessarily after the patron saint of music. Indeed, theological rectitude would require that a saint not be depicted with the wings of an angel. Nevertheless, the religious influence is clear, drawing on the sort of Neo-Byzantine style popular a century ago, and seen, for example, in the National Shrine and St. Matthew's Cathedral. (I am no art historian, but it seems Christensen is drawing on the same kind of medieval interests that drove the Pre-Raphaelistes and elements of the Arts & Craft Movement in this era. But I digress.) As has been asked of these earlier revivalists, has Christensen simply appropriated religious images for secular art? Or is he trying to make a comment about the function of artwork generally, or about the nature of the spiritual life? Put another way: what is the connection between form and matter? Does use of religious styles necessarily imply religious content and commentary? Can you innovate upon a religious style without raising theological questions?

'Faith, Hope and Charity' (below) returns to more of an Americana style, but retains clear religious elements: halos, wings, and the names of the three figures in Greek.

I would suggest that Christensen's work points to the ongoing resonance of religious themes and styles, in the midst of an often secular age; man's heart longs for the God Who created him and calls to him each day.

For those intrigued by The Master of the Enoch Altarpiece mentioned above, I thought you might find this video of Christensen interesting. I just love this kind of background information!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Truth Will Set You Free

Truth is a strange thing. In spite of using the word all the time, it is easy to forget just what it is, or that it exists at all. Too often, when we talk about truth we mean something provisional or superficial, something that is not really capable of inconveniencing us, and something that is easily observed.

But while reading an unfinished homily by Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, I was reminded just how transcendent and profound the truth really is. I was also reminded how much I miss hearing Fr. Philip's preaching. So turn off your music, put away the distractions and click on the link above.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

But Does Anyone Notice?

I recently came upon this work by James C. Christensen, titled "Michael the Archangel Battles the Dragon While Almost Nobody Pays Any Attention." The title speaks for itself.

According to an unsourced passage in his Wikipedia biography, "Christensen lives in a house he designed filled with secret passages and sculptures inspired by his paintings." To which I say, "Awesome!"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

California Missions: Centers of Community

Admittedly, I've been remiss in my lack of posts. Juggling a job and further graduate studies has been a bit strenous. However, I would like to share with you another extracurricular pursuit. I recently have become very interested in the idea of traveling writing, but with a particular twist.

Instead of writing: (a) travel logs with lots of exciting pictures and tips or (b) a Catholic reflection on how to express piety at a particular site, I've decided to try a different version of Catholic travel writing. I think it is very important for everyone not simply to focus on Catholicism in their travels, but also to see the world in the eyes of a Catholic. We live in a world that has been profoundly affected by Faith and I hope to reflect that in my writing.

If you are interested, please read my first published travel article (also in print) Centers of Community, an article about the integral role of missions in California society.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mothers' Day with Nietzsche

Yesterday I had to take an exam rather early in the morning, so I decided to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks near school. After I finished drinking the coffee, I looked at the cup and found this rather Nietzschean “inspirational” message, evidently left over from Mothers’ Day:

“Mother-love is not inevitable. The good mother is a great artist ever creating beauty out of chaos.” --Alice Randall, Novelist, The Wind Done Gone, and first black woman to write a No. 1 country song.
Now, I know I’m not supposed to take inspirational messages on coffee cups too seriously, so I just laughed at first. But the cup left me with a few questions: Would Nietzsche have approved of Mothers’ Day? Can there really be such a thing as a black-feminist-Nietzschean? And if so, would Nietzsche have approved of them writing country songs?

I'm still laughing trying to imagine Nietzsche listening to country music.

Monday, May 11, 2009

You Are the Problem!

It is a rare day that I am ashamed of America, but today is such a day. Britain's Financial Times called America's educational system "third rate" and the numbers bear them out. The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) finds that America's slide down the educational ladder of industrialized nations continues. Moreover, our consistently poor scores are not simply relative; in absolute terms as well, American students are getting dumber. A few years ago, when I heard about such numbers I was disinclined to believe them. Now that I work at a major state university, and see the products of Texas high schools, I find it all too believable.

Social and cultural factors doubtless play a big role in all this. Schools alone are not to blame. But the evidence is clear that what happens in the classroom matters, and that underperforming schools are contributing hugely to the problem.

The Financial Times clearly articulated the two things American education needs: "accountability and competition." What does accountability demand? "Firing the worst teachers and shutting the worst schools." And competition? "School vouchers if you want to be radical, or the faster expansion of self-governing charter schools if you do not." The answers are obvious enough.

But will it happen? Don't count on it. "Teachers' unions have a death grip on the system and are having none of it." Let me be more specific: the National Education Association, with its 3.2 million members and $300 million annual lobbying budget is the single biggest obstacle to good schools in America. Members of the NEA: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. Abandon your union and the job security of your failing colleagues and try actually putting the interests of America's children first.

And lest you think that this is just my right-wing, small-government, anti-union rant, let me point out that the poor and minorities suffer most in America's schools. Al Sharpton - who recently called school reform "the civil rights challenge of our time" - agrees with me on this one.

And I will now step down from my soapbox...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cinema as it Ought to Be

I am not particularly interested in the new Star Trek film, but this interview of the director, J. J. Abrams, is just fantastic. I found his vision for what a film ought to be, and how it ought to work quite exciting. Who knows, I might actually see it. Or take up watching Lost, Abrams' other project.

(You are welcome to ignore, or watch, the second half of the video, with James Carville, as you will.)

Special thanks to Nick over at The Trifector, for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Critical Thinking & Diversity

Apropos of our recent discussions regarding diversity, dialogue, and academia, I recommend to you an interesting article by R.R. Reno at First Things about the search for truth in academia. Reno contrasts two views of the objective of "critical thinking." The first view can be found in Plato's dialogues and St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae. Critical thinking exists in order to lead to the truth--after a struggle. The idea is that

[students] must delay the impulse to rush to a direct and unopposed affirmation of truth—and they do so in order to sharpen and heighten their perception of what makes the correct view the true view.
The second, more modern view of "critical thinking," on the other hand, degenerates into unending suspicion about ulterior motives because it only aims at unmasking any truth claim as serving one's will to power.

[I]t does not clear the way forward to deeper convictions. Instead, the moment of seeing falsehood has become the goal and summit of the intellectual life. One does not so much aspire to critical thinking as critical theory.
I recommend this article because it points quite clearly to the differences between the good and bad types of diversity. The good type of diversity is concerned with learning to think critically and come to the truth, after considering the arguments on every side. Diversity among students, in this case, makes us hesitate before accepting something as true, and makes us less dogmatic, though no less concerned with finding truth. The bad type of diversity simply leads us to relativism, whether by way of accepting everything as valid, or rejecting everything as a mask for some suspect motive. Diversity, here, makes us not discerning, but merely apathetic about the truth.

Diversity, then, is not a value in itself, but only insofar as it forces us to confront other views of truth and grapple with them. It is this grappling which makes acceptance of the truth fruitful. Finally, we must guard against the temptation to equate simply dismissing all truth and grappling with the truth.

Picture credit: Rembrandt's 1659 painting, "Jacob's Struggle with the Angel" (Gn. 32:23-33).

Monday, May 4, 2009

On the Difficulties of Building Diversity

The other day I started crafting a great post about how to make affirmative action more effective. For the record, I happen to oppose affirmative action, but diversity is one of those things that all large state universities - yes, even Texas A&M - talk about. Well, I got to work devising an amazing system which would not only account for race and gender, but also country or state of origin, political and religious views, prospective major, all kinds of things... I was going to get as close to ensuring diversity of thought and experience - and the accompanying intellectual vigor - as any government scheme could get.

But then several problems cropped up. First, most states only want diversity within narrow bounds. Arizona has very low out-of-state tuition, which has been pulling talent to the state for decades; however, this is more the exception than the rule. In Texas, there is a keen sense that Texas schools are for Texans only. This attitude, coupled with the state's clandestine affirmative action program, means that only 4% of students at Texas A&M are from outside the state.* There are days you can feel the intellectual insularity in the classroom when you are teaching undergraduates. Students would benefit greatly from having classmates from across the country - I definitely did - but that is not a viable option. Instead, those trying to promote diversity are implicitly asked, "Could you please build diversity without so many outsiders?" Talk about mixed messages.

A second practical problem is that all my brilliant factors about religion, political views and values would hinge on self-identification. The problem there is that people could game the system, marking themselves down as whatever persuasion would get them extra points on the admissions application. But this eventually leads to a bigger question: How do you get dissimilar people to associate with one another?

Typically, when prospective students are visiting a school, they are looking for a "good fit." This does not necessarily mean a place that is in intellectual lock-step with themselves, but at least somewhere where they will "feel at home". Or maybe they are looking for an institution which will teach them the skills they want to learn. Whatever the case, there is almost always an implicit search for same-ness, on some level. Why would anyone ever choose diversity? Even someone who says, "I want to go to a school which will challenge my views," is likely to have implied limits: "I want my views on politics or literature or society challenged. But not my view of existence itself." Or maybe just the opposite: "I want my views of intangible philosophic ideas to change in exciting and radical ways. But don't ask me to actually live differently." I have even known people of strong religious faith to say they want to go to a school where their faith will be challenged. But the idea behind that plan is to see their faith strengthened, not undermined.

Little wonder, then, that government schemes to improve diversity usually come up shorthanded. Even when the racial or gender composition of an institution changes, bringing about a real diversity of thought, the kind that breads an vigorous intellectual life, is not so easy. Birds of a feather will instinctively flock together.

How then, can we accomplish true diversity? In my time there, I found the University of Dallas a rather diverse place. Some people would find this surprising, since the school is overwhelmingly white, mostly Catholic, politically conservative and solidly middle class. But in spite of all of that uniformity, the intellectual discourse was fantastically exciting. We had Platonists and Aristotelians, supporters of the Achaeans and supporters of the Trojans. The Thomists would debate the Lockeans, and the Heideggerians would reject them both. Classicists rubbed elbows with biology students, and Politics majors traveled the Mediterranean with physicists. Students from Drama and English would argue about who was the true keeper of Shakespeare's legacy and charismatics would ponder Scripture in the company of Opus Dei. Never, before or since, have I seen such a consistently rich and diverse intellectual life.

How did it happen? Oddly enough, uniformity was part of the process. We all had to take the same classes in the Core Curriculum. We were not allowed to hide within our own disciplines and opportunities to opt out of particular courses were few. Not only did we become better people for having studied such a broad curriculum, but our discussions were also enriched by having such a wide range of colleagues in our classes.

Moreover, a common set of Core courses gave us a shared vocabulary of terms and examples. To some minds, this would suggest a narrowing of views, a lack of diversity. But in practice it meant just the opposite: we were having real discussions, actually engaging ideas, rather than misunderstanding one another and the texts we were reading and superficially arguing about terms.

Finally, we went after big issues. "What is justice" the Republic demanded of us in our first semester. We could have debated the justice of particular events: Wounded Knee, Dresden, Hiroshima. But the Founders of UD, in their wisdom, saw that these would only be examples of larger issues. A disagreement about Hiroshima, however fierce, might only be over the implementation of policy; conversely, agreement about the end result of Hiroshima might paper over a more fundamental disagreement about the nature of justice. By constantly asking questions about first principles, we avoided the false comfort of hasty consensus, and learned a great deal about critical thinking as well.

* This is the result of the so-called "Ten Percent Rule," which stipulates that any student in Texas who graduates in the top ten percent of his or her high school class is guaranteed admission to any state university in Texas. This was put in place when affirmative action was ended, as a means of keeping minorities (specifically blacks and Hispanics) who would not otherwise account for a significant portion of the enrollment of Texan higher education. However, the Ten Percent Rule has also meant that Texas schools have had almost all of their seats promised to in-state students, and are therefore unable to recruit meaningful numbers of out-of-state students. Admissions departments have quietly told highly-qualified out-of-state applicants that their chances of admittance, which would have been good before the Ten Percent Rule, are slim. Academic scuttlebutt has it that the university presidents hate the Ten Percent Rule, because it imposes this geographic insularity - and along with it a mental insularity - but the gurus of political correctness in Austin are unlikely to dismantle the Ten Percent Rule any time soon.

PS I was scrounging around trying to find a picture which might be relevant to this post. Brownie points - or Guild Points? - to anyone who can explain what the picture depicts and how it is relevant.

Internal Exile

In my last post (“Dante in Exile”) I discussed the crisis of identity provoked by exile. In that post I focused on exile in the strictest sense of the word: when a man is expelled from his native country for a political offense. Today, though, I want to discuss something to which Aaron alluded in his comment: internal exiles.
An internal exile is someone who is not forced to leave his country, but rather voluntarily withdraws from public life while remaining at home. There are many possible motives for such a retreat, but I think they can be reduced to three basic categories.

First, many an internal exile is no doubt driven primarily by fear. Lurking behind this fear, I suspect in many cases, is a complete disillusionment with public affairs. The internal exile begins his life intensely interested in public life, though he is perhaps a bit naïve. He has good ideals, but once he runs into resistance in his attempt to achieve those goals, he easily loses hope; he never learns the virtue of persistence. Not being humble enough to realize that he never could save the world, he gives the world up for lost. This first type of internal exile is essentially a quietist.

Second, some internal exiles are merely taking cover while they wait for the storm to blow over. They are much more reluctant than the first group to withdraw from public life. However, they ultimately decide that it would be more prudent to retreat for a while and do good later, rather than face near certain death now. If the pressure which forces them to withdraw from public life is like a storm, their position is that there’s no good to be gained from challenging the lightning to a duel. They foresee the end of the storm, and so they wait it out, trusting that they will be able to undo the damage. They gather their strength in exile, and are eager to put that strength to the test at the first opportunity.

Third, the rarest type of internal exile retreats from public life, but out of a pure affirmation of life. The prototype of this last exile, as Aaron suggested, is the hermit. Few are called to such a vocation, but for those who are solitude is the environment in which they come ever closer to the source of life. They devote themselves to contemplation, but they are also zealous in handing on the knowledge and love they acquire in contemplation (contemplata aliis tradere, as the Dominicans say). These exiles are the people to whom other exiles turn when they need the strength to persist, and that is the proof of their love for life.

The important thing about the second and third categories of internal exile, and what preserves them from the danger of quietism, is their love of life (which is perfectly compatible with asceticism). The impatient man of action who must wait to act, and the genuine contemplative—both renounce the world, but they do so in affirmation of the goodness with which God endowed it. I wish I could explain this more, but I’m already in over my head.

Photo credit: Albrecht Dürer’s 1495 painting, St. Jerome in the Wilderness

Friday, May 1, 2009

Of Archaeology and the Lakes of Canada

Have you ever been out in the midst of the wilds of nature and - in a moment of insight - seen it? The vastness, the stillness, the wonder of it all... There is a kind of clarity that can set in; one begins to see the cosmos as it truly is. And from there thoughts often turn to introspection. We start to see ourselves in a clearer light, somehow.

I spent a couple weeks of the summer of 2005 working on a dig of the Arizona Archaeological Society, north of the Mogollon Rim. I can keenly remember the experience of crawling out of my tent in the early morning, when temperatures were just above freezing. I hate the cold, and I'm not going to pretend that I enjoyed it, but it was one of those experiences of clarity. On those chilly mornings, alone in the woods but for a few fellow archaeologists, far beyond any cell phone coverage or paved roads, I experienced flashes of that kind of clarity.

A few days ago I discovered a husband and wife duo who have apparently had the same experience. In 1999 Karen and Don Peris, otherwise known as The Innocence Mission, released Birds of My Neighborhood, which included "The Lakes of Canada". It's a song that perfectly captures that experience of solitude and wonder and the clarity of spirit that it brings. Economy of words, clean instrumentation and Karen's beautiful voice nail the experience:

There's a sudden joy that's like
a fish, a moving light;
I thought I saw it
rowing on the lakes of Canada...

Walking in the circle of a flashlight
someone starts to sing, to join in.
Talk of loneliness in quiet voices
I am shy but you can reach me.
Rowing on the lakes of Canada...

There's something in her voice that just sounds like vast expanses of water, and evergreen shores and crisp air. You really have to hear it for yourself.

If you have ever looked for a song on YouTube, you know that there are a lot of cheesy slide shows which are not really videos at all, but a sequence of (usually low resolution) pictures, with the kind of transitions that were cool in middle school. I hate to say it, but the first video below is just such a thing. However, it includes the full cut of "The Lakes of Canada," as recorded by The Innocence Mission. (So just minimize the window or otherwise ignore the pictures and listen to the music.) The second video below is actually a real video, of Sufjan Stevens performing a cover.

(In point of fact, I think I saw the Sufjan cover some months ago, but though he does it well, it doesn't quite have the mesmerizing quality of the original, and it didn't stick with me in the same way.)

"The Lakes of Canada" was also released on a five-song EP of the same name in 1999. Since then, The Innocence Mission has released three more albums and another EP. Don Peris also produced friend Dension Witmer's latest album, Are You a Dreamer?. Karen and Don have employed lyrics from Gerard Manley Hopkins and have donated proceeds from one of their albums to the Catholic Relief Fund.