Not a University

Just north of San Luis Obispo we passed the California Men’s Institution. This is their Level II unit, a medium-security facility with open dorms.

Something I have long wondered about California prisons nestled in picturesque settings is the degree to which the setting itself is a form of punishment. To be incarcerated amid beauty that you can see but cannot enjoy makes me wonder if it is harsher to be here, or in a facility in the Mojave desert like USP Victorville.

As we pass by, entrained in comfort, I hear the Man in Black singing in my head.

I hear that train a comin’
Rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone

I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
In a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
And smokin’ big cigars
But I know I had it comin’
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me

 

 

Songwriter: Johnny R. Cash
Folsom Prison Blues lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

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Sabbatical Day 7: Waiting for the Starlight

Standing on the platform of Oxnard Station on a cold January day, waiting for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to carry me to Portland.

I look up at Topa Topa and there is snow even on our local mountaintops. The Amtrak stationmaster, following my gaze and knowing the course of my journey, nods. “You will see plenty of snow on this trip,” she said.

“I know,” I replied with a smile. “Especially between Portland and Chicago.”

I can look at snow all day long if I am seeing it from out of a window of my warm train.

Sabbatical Day 2-5: Garage

The last four days have been spent building steel shelving, going to my local Home Depot often enough to get to know the staff, cleaning out five years of accumulated junk in the garage, putting away all of our camping and sports gear, and shelving 2,500 books.

The good news: no email, no conference calls, and I didn’t have to go to CES in Las Vegas.

So even though I managed to get only a couple of things on my list taken care of, on the balance I’d have to say it was a pretty good week.

Sabbatical Reading: Talking About a Revolution

Finishing Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was a bit of a personal triumph for me, so bear with some short musings as catch my literary breath for a moment.

Despite a predilection for complex sentence structures and multi-page paragraphs, Burke is brilliant. At the very least, I walked away with an new appreciation of the French Revolution that contrasted with the neo-Jeffersonian interpretation of events.

Histories I had read emphasize the excesses of the Reign of Terror. Burke acknowledges and decries the atrocities but does not use them to weave a polemic. Instead he focuses on the fundamental shortcomings of the revolutionary government itself. He does not embark on the kind of ideological screed that fills political tracts today as much as he delivers a cogent practical critique of the revolution, and by extension all scorched-earth paroxysms of change. Progress is essential, Burke emphasizes, but change is not the same as progress. and while for true progress to take place there must be change, that change must be modest and incremental.

The phrase that hung above my head as I watched Burke dissect the National Assembly was “consequences unintended, unforeseen but not unforeseeable.” No doubt I will return to his work in the future, but other exponents of the matured values upon which Burke expounded, like Russell Kirk, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Irving Babbit, now call for my attention.

A final note: I find it fascinating that Burke, who stands at the center of the Anglo-American conservative pantheon, sounds less like a right-wing icon than he does a moderate conservative, and someone who might well be dubbed a RINO.