Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tragedy, Comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy

MrsDarwin and I got a chance to go see Guardians of the Galaxy on Mothers Day afternoon. In what increasingly seems our standard model for blockbusters, the eldest three kids had already seen it, and we were getting the second shift a week later.

I enjoyed the movie. It had a lot of the elements I enjoyed from the original, and Baby Groot is as cute as promised. In some ways, the story was tighter and more compelling than in the original. And yet, with the writing success, there was something a little darker to it as well that I've been trying to think through. Joseph Moore had a interesting take that I'm mostly in agreement with (contains spoilers) over at Yard Sale of the Mind.

Here's what I've come to in a spoiler-free take. There was a lot that was enjoyable about the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It grabbed me right from the first scene, where Chris Pratt's Peter Quill puts on his headphones and dances his way across an alien cave (at point point picking up a reptilian rat-like creature and singing into it as a microphone) on his way to steal a mysterious ancient alien artifact from a ruined city. It was a great scene, and it followed by a confrontation with some minor bad guys who have never heard of Quill's self-assigned galactic criminal nickname "Star Lord" give us a feel for the great music, the fantastic settings, and the likable loser of the main character who we follow through the rest of the movie.

While the plot eventually brings us a pair of bloodthirsty warlords as villains and an ancient relic powerful enough to maintain or destroy the universe, the characters we follow are mostly comic and have a certain kind of small scale which often goes with a comic character. In the action scene which introduces us to Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot, we have a comic fight scene masterpiece in which despite the variety of swords and ray guns being used, no one ends up much hurt. None of the characters have a principled aversion to violence. Gamora's rap sheet includes working as an assassin, and Rocket Raccoon is a thief with a fondness for huge energy weapons. But rather than epic heroes fighting massive battles, our characters are small time criminals who stumble into a situation where they end up saving the galaxy.

Odysseus takes revenge on the suitors

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot

In this sense, they're well suited to a comedy in the classical sense. The ancient Greeks (and to a fair extent the Romans who followed their example) wrote tragedies and epics about great warriors and rulers, and comedies about ordinary small scale people. While Greek Old Comedy (typified by Aristophanes) focused on cultural and political satire, though still dealing mostly with people of small scale rather than great figures, Greek New Comedy (and the Roman Comedy written in its image) focuses on the quibbles of ordinary people: jealous wives, philandering husbands, lovesick youths, wily slaves, etc. make up the stock characters of the New Comedy world. By contrast, tragedies (like the epics whose mythological characters they use) focused on the doings of the great, and their deeds which at times were terrible. So, for instance, we have Oedipus, the son of a king and queen who on hearing a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, have baby Oedipus's ankles pierced and tied together (so he can't crawl) and the baby exposed on the hillside to die. Oedipus is, however, rescued and eventually raised by another king and queen, before hearing as an adult the same prophesy. In an attempt to run away from the prophesy, he ends up killing his real father, marrying his real mother, and when all this comes out his mother hangs herself and he gouges out his eyes. So we see the elements: Oedipus is of noble birth. Terrible deeds are done.

While it's not the same, epic in some ways shares these elements. The heroes of the Iliad rack up massive body counts which struggling with powerful emotions (jealousy, revenge, love) and they are all royal or noble. The Odyssey spends much of its time on recounting a journey, but the action set piece is when Odysseus returns home and exacts revenge against the suitors of his wife and the maids in the household who have consorted with them, revenge so bloody that Athena herself has to intervene at the end to keep Ithaca from spiraling down into total war as the victims' families seek revenge against Odysseus. There are humorous bits in the Odyssey -- such as Odysseus blinding the cyclopes and telling him that his name is "Nemo" (no one) with the result that the wounded cyclopes runs about telling everyone "No one is attacking me!" but it's still kind of dark and violent humor.

This is part of what strikes me about Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, and it's why even though I enjoyed it I found myself wondering if it's heading in directions I'm not going to like in the end. Rather than being comic criminals, the Guardians are now, well, 'The Guardians of the Galaxy'. They have a stature. And even though they're still the wise cracking characters we like, they're no going around hiring themselves out to do big galaxy saving work. As heroes go, these aren't people with quiet ordinary lives who are sometimes pulled aside to do big things, like the hobbits of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. They're more like a comic, for-hire version of Homer's epic warriors: larger than life, skilled in battle, and possibly descended in part from gods.

There's a scene, a really well filmed scene with great music, in which characters who have been wronged (and wronged badly) go on a revenge spree which is close to being a space fantasy version of Odysseus's clean up in the banquet hall. It's a satisfying scene. It's an epic scene. It's a scene in which scores of people are killed because they had it coming. But it's not exactly light hearted.

This familiarity with violence is part of what gives this movie a less light tone. In the original movie, as the Guardians are escaping from a prison space station, Quill is tasked to take the prosthetic leg of another inmate as part of the materials needed for the escape. Even as a big fight with guard robots is going on, he ends up transferring a large sum to the inmate to buy the leg from him, rather than simply taking it from him. Repeatedly in that movie Quill tries to talk, bargain, dance, or pay his way out of dangerous situations -- it's part of the small time crook charm about him that he's always looking for ways to wiggle out of situations short of pulling out a laser gun and blasting away. This is part of what makes him seem more a comic character (one engaged in the small time finagling of life) rather than an epic hero bent on making hundreds die in Homeric fashion with the taste of cold bronze between their teeth. And that's what has changed in the second movie. Now are characters are all Homeric scale killing machines. They still have wise cracks, and they actually have a deeper and more compelling set of human attachments than they did in the first movie. But they are no longer the small characters of comedy but the big characters of epic. And in so they fight big battles, exact terrible revenge, and deal with dark fatherhood issues.

I still enjoyed the movie. It's a well made and fun movie, and it has more of a heart in many ways than the original. But it seems to me that it's also edging away from comedy and towards being the same kind of big epic full of world bestriding heroes that we see in the other Marvel franchises. And even though I enjoyed the movie, I'm a bit sorry to see that happen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Others

Ian McEwan's celebrated novel Atonement tells the story of a young girl named Briony Tallis who, fancying herself a writer and jumping to create narratives in her head, miscontrues a series of events between her sister and the young man who becomes her lover. Based on the story she's created in her head, she later concludes that she's witnessed the young man raping her cousin, despite being unable to see the perpetrator, and her false testimony sends the man to prison. Later in the novel, a repentant Briony encounters her sister and the man, and humbly accepts an oddly theatrical comeuppance and shaming. And still later, at the end of the book we discover that Briony has grown up to be a respected novelist, and has written the earlier section to atone for her deeds and to create a new, happier ending for the wronged pair.

A fascinating literary experiment, and McEwan is a skilled enough writer to make it almost plausible, but the problem is that now the reader doubts everything in the book. What is true? What is false? Is the whole novel a construct of Briony's imagination? Which pivotal details really did happen as presented? Does McEwan even know which parts of his story are real, and which are imagined?

And this is only fiction we're examining.



There's been a lot of discussion of Alex Tizon's April cover article in the Atlantic about Lola, the woman who lived with his family and raised him, and whom he came to realize was not simply a live-in helper and maid, but a slave. The article is well worth reading: beautifully written, soul-searching, and all the more poignant for the fact that Tizon died suddenly in March.
Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding. 
To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said “please” and “thank you.” We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be. 
After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
Tizon passed away in March, just as the Atlantic had decided to run Lola's story. We can't turn to him for more details of Lola's life, or why, even acknowledging the complex web of obligations to his mother and the cultural differences between the Philippines and America, he didn't do more to emancipate Lola from a life of abuse and humiliations. (His parents maltreated her emotionally and physically, in front of the children. The family didn't even give her a place to sleep.) We hear very little about his four siblings, despite his account that his brother, eight years older, was outraged at Lola's treatment. In this article, Tizon seems to be trying to atone for his family's moral culpability for Lola's slavery, and to give an honorable, fair account of both this meek, gracious woman and of his complex, contradictory mother.

It turns out that this was not Tizon's first eulogy for Lola. In 2011, the year of Lola's death, he contacted the Seattle Times, his employer, about running an obituary for Lola. Susan Kelleher, the reporter assigned to the piece, spoke with Tizon and, based on his account of her life and his anecdotes, wrote a moving account of Lola's life and devotion to the Tizon family. This week, Kelleher wrote a horrified correction and apology after reading Tizon's Atlantic article with the salient details he didn't choose to reveal to her in 2011.

Tizon was a career journalist, so writing was hardly foreign to him. It sounds as if he wrestled for years with how to tell Lola's story, how to do justice to her and grapple with his own complicity and responsibilities to her and to his family and to the truth. And yet in the end, each attempt to acknowledge Lola ended up revealing more about Tizon himself than about a woman who, ultimately, never was given the opportunity to tell her own story. His atonement is as layered and convoluted as Briony Tallis's attempts to reconstruct her own complicity in a crime she didn't commit, and as contradictory as her literary versions of atonement.

But this isn't fiction.

It is a rare person, a rare writer, who, in trying to recount or account for another person, can truly tell that person's story. Often when we speak of other people, we are speaking of ourselves, viewing that person's life through the lens of our own experience and emotions, baggage and convictions. Tizon's Atlantic article suggests an honest grappling with his family's history and legacy, but read in the light of the initial obituary for Lola (for which he alone contributed all the biographical information), it seems like another draft of Atonement. In the obituary, Lola's many virtues and beautiful devotion are made much of -- even the time that Lola took a beating from the mother's father for the mother's misdeed! -- without the critical information about the slavery that formed her character and compelled that devotion under threat of punishment. Tizon's guilt impels him to mold and remold the clay of Lola's life, but the stories are ultimately constructed in his own image. He writes of his surprise at reading his mother's journals:
Before she died, she gave me her journals, two steamer trunks’ full. Leafing through them as she slept a few feet away, I glimpsed slices of her life that I’d refused to see for years. She’d gone to medical school when not many women did. She’d come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She’d worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institution for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together—shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another’s homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Lola leaves no personal account of her life, being unable to read and write until the last years of her life. All we know is what Tizon tells us. And Tizon himself wrote movingly about the underdog, as the Atlantic note about his death tells us:
The Pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon built an exemplary career by listening to certain types of people—forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never before been asked for their stories. Alex’s wife, Melissa Tizon, told me recently that her husband was always impatient with small talk, because he believed that all people had within them an epic story, and he wanted to hear those epic stories—and then help tell them to the world. “Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story,” he liked to say. 
But in trying to tell the truth of Lola's story, he reveals more about himself than her -- not just because their lives are intertwined, but because he is both grappling with and trying to excuse his own part in it.

"Blessed are the pure of heart," Jesus says in the Beatitudes, "for they shall see God."  The pure of heart, who see Truth, are perhaps the only people who can speak the truth of other people. Everyone else sees facets of that truth through the lens of their own biases. In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan tells Shasta, "I tell no one any story but his own.” It seems that we can tell no story other than our own, no matter how hard we try.

If you know someone in similar circumstances to Lola, or suspect that someone may be living in forced servitude, please contact the National Human Trafficking Referral Directory, or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Poison Ivy, Again

Looking back through the blog archives, I see that I chronicled the 2011 bout of poison ivy, and the 2012 one, but not the 2015 round that left my daughter and me with faces and eyes so puffy we eventually had to go to the doctor and get a prescription for steroids. We walked around with our faces blotched pink with calamine, and people shrank from us in horror in the grocery store. Here, a memory:

This looks a lot more photogenic than it actually was.
2017 brings its own case, though again with the same two protagonists. My 11yo and I were out trimming weedy branches off of the trees along the side of the driveway to make the property line look neater. The neighbors recently suffered a death in the family, and we wanted to clean up and do a bit of the yardwork they might not feel up to in the days of grief. And in the course of this good deed, as we were cutting down the brush and shoving it into big brown bags, I came across a dead vine with sprigs of three shriveled leaves. Immediately we backed away from the project, cast the vine (held by the shears) into a distant corner of the lawn where some hidden poison ivy still lurks, went inside, lathered up, and scrubbed hands, faces, shears, everything.

Too late. 

My poor 11yo has it on her face, though not as badly as in 2015. She had to powder over it for her dance recital on Saturday, a tender procedure as one of the properties of the poison ivy rash is to be very sensitive to even the slightest touch. My face is untouched, but I have a large patch of coarse, densely packed blisters on my left forearm, which puff and ooze and look generally scabrous. Poison ivy developing as it does, slighter patches are still erupting. I have a single large blister on my left palm which is almost pretty in its bubble-like perfection. Also, I have it on the backs of my ears. Why? How? Who knows?

The other day some child and I were watching an icky video featuring makeup jobs that approximated the great sicknesses of yesteryear: smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculous, and something else that looked disgusting. We don't see many buboes or smallpox blisters these days, and cosmetics have gone a long way toward evening out the effects of various kinds of ugly scars. However, sometimes there's nothing for it but to go out of the house with a suppurating wound, and endure the looks. In the grand scheme of things, we have it pretty well. Our poison ivy will clear up and leave no trace, and the pain is not too bad. And now we have something minor but substantial to offer for our neighbors' true agony.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

An Illustrated Guide to Getting Off the Couch

Sure, you could go see Guardians of the Galaxy this week if you need laughs and drama, but it's going to be a lot cheaper to come to my house and watch me try to get off the couch from a supine position.

Someone who never has any trouble getting up off the couch.

First, I have to get close enough to the edge to get my legs over it. This might mean rolling over, a stop-motion form of animation in which I maneuver by degrees to my side. Bystanders start to titter nervously, and someone asks if I need a hand.

"No, I'm good," I say as I grab the edge of the couch and jerk myself over.

Once I can get a leg over, I need to get vertical. Sometimes this is accomplished by utilizing the aforementioned hand, but sometimes I like to do things the hard way, or there's no one around to haul me up. Then I tip myself slowly off the couch until the force of gravity acts on my belly and pulls my feet to the ground. Once feet are on the floor, I can continue rolling and slowly, slo-o-o-wly straighten up. If I go too fast... haha, just kidding! I don't go fast anymore.

When I'm vertical, I need to reset my pelvis before I can walk. This process can be compared to bellydancing, minus the seductive allure.

Not this.

You see, in this stage of pregnancy one's joints loosen up. Not loosen up as in "limber, like a Russian gymnast". No, the sensation is more like, "I'm not sure if my leg is still attached, except that it hurts to move." (Come to that, it probably hurts to move if your leg is not still attached.) Once the pelvis is shaken about and quasi-realigned, I can stagger around, gradually working up to an agile shuffle.You can't really blame me. Baby does weigh almost four pounds.


What a 32-week baby looks like

What a 32-week baby feels like

Friday, May 12, 2017

Some Number of Takes

Tossed off in the moments before we have to leave for the dance recital rehearsal.

1. Need to feel good about your weight? Find out how many cheetahs you weigh! Or what percentage of an elephant you are, or how many raccoons with bowling balls in a trench coat it would take to equal you. My Animal Weight gives you all this pressing information, and many more options.

2. If you follow the new genre of live musicals on TV, you'll be interested to learn that NBC's next production will be Jesus Christ Superstar, airing on Easter Sunday 2018. Now, I confess that I listened to JCS plenty in my teens because I loved Judas's opener, but the theology of it is sketchy enough that I think it's a rather questionable homage to the holy day. Not that I think the finer points of theology really concern the bigwigs at NBC, of course.

3. If you had told me thirty years ago, back when I was, oh, eight, that one day I would just order pizza for dinner because I didn't feel like cooking, I would have been flabbergasted. Those were the days when, if you wanted pizza, it was an occasion. You got your shoes on, and you drove down to Pizza Hut, and you sat at a table under a pseudo-Tiffany fixture hanging on a chain, and drank soda out of tall red plastic cups. Pizza was delivered to your table in a metal pan. You ate pizza maybe once a year, maybe more often if you finished your Book-It program at school.

Now, I look at the empty fridge and think about sitting for two hours in a high school auditorium watching the dances I'm just going to watch again tomorrow, and I think, "Yeah, Dominos." Served from the box onto paper plates, and maybe I'll break down and order a two-liter too, all off the Dominos app on my phone. Truly, I have come up in the world. When I was a kid, we just would have eaten box mac 'n cheese with hotdogs cut up into it, and we would have liked it, gosh darn it.

4. Speaking of things that happened a long time ago, my oldest turned 15 on Wednesday.

We got married seven weeks after graduating from college, and got pregnant a month later. Most of my friends my age have oldest kids several years younger, due to marrying later or waiting to have kids or whatnot, a fact my oldest children always reflect on when we go to visit people and there are no kids their age. I guess I'm a fairly young mom of a 15-year-old, but I don't really feel it these days with the aches of being 32 weeks pregnant. Perhaps when I'm 40 with a 17-year-old and a 2-year-old, I'll be positively spry.

5. Someone made the tactical error of putting stage makeup on the 6-year-old before brushing her hair. Now the eyeliner is all over the place, and we'll have to start again.

6. We have to walk out the door right now.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 3-1

We return to Natalie in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. The installment is a bit longer than usual (which in part explains why it took a while to get done) but I hope people will find it worth the wait.



Near Tarnow, Galicia. March 26th, 1915. For most of the Russian Third Army, the fourth week of March, 1915 was remembered because on the twenty-second the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemyśl finally surrendered. Situated in the Habsburg half of Poland, the stronghold on the River San had been completely surrounded by Russian forces since October, yet its garrison of a hundred and twenty-five thousand men had held out all through the winter. A symbol of the tenacity and disfunction of the empire it defended, the garrison had withstood artillery bombardment and increasing starvation while issuing its daily orders in fifteen different languages: Poles, Austrians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs, and Jews united only in their willingness to resist the Tsar’s army. And yet at last, supplies had run out and the hundred thousand surviving defenders had been led into captivity. Before the Russian army, the way was open to march south across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary, or West into the heart of German Silesia towards Breslau and Dresden.

At the seventh field hospital’s first unit, however, that week was recalled as the week during which Doctor Sokoloff collapsed with pneumonia and after several days of feverous delirium was sent home on the next hospital train to recover his health. This left the field hospital to be run by four certified nurses, including Natalie as the newcomer; the staff of orderlies, nurses’ aides, and housekeeping sisters who did much of the work but provided little of the medical expertise in the hospital; and one surgeon: Doctor Sergeyev.

Sokoloff had always been the more reclusive of the two doctors, deferring to the eminence of Sergeyev’s Moscow training and retreating to his room with one of his small collection of books whenever he was not on duty. And yet the mere fact of the second surgeon had been enough to provide balance.

“I’ve done with him,” announced Sister Travkin. She poured herself a cup of tea from the samovar. The field hospital had remained in the same place for more than five months now -- a result of the winter weather and the lack of success achieved by either side’s winter offensives -- and during that time all that could be made comfortable had been. The nobleman’s hunting lodge which had been requisitioned for their use had been well furnished, yet there was no place for upholstered chairs and Persian rugs in operating theaters and ward rooms that must be scrubbed clean with carbolic solution every day.

The women’s dormitory had originally been a stable for the owner’s thoroughbreds. Its floor planks were now scoured as clean as any kitchen floor, and the common sitting area was made comfortable with rugs, chairs, and tables taken from the house.

“What’s wrong?” asked Natalie.

“He must go to bed. There’s nothing more to be done about the wards. We are quite capable of seeing to the patients for the rest of the night and there are no more expected. But he’s prowling around like an angry cat finding fault with everything, and I’ve simply done with him. He’s had more than enough out of that medicine flask of his and it’s making him more surly by the hour.”


Continue reading

Monday, May 08, 2017

Darwiniana, Big and Small and Big

We had a lovely day for a lovely girl's confirmation.

Julia Thérèse Josephine Bakhita

Three lovely big girls.

Julia and her aged parents
The oldest of the three big girls is turning 15 on Wednesday. The youngest Darwin is also pictured, although like the Holy Spirit, you know him not through seeing him, but by his effects: the bulging maternal midsection, the softening of face and swelling of hips and veins in the wrist.

I will say, in honesty, that for all the ills of pregnancy, there are some compensations. I'm at that stage one hits in late second/early third trimester where my hair is happy every day and my skin glows. And baby kicks with great vigor and regularity, which is lots of fun except when he decides to rotate a shoulder right above my pelvis, or brace his feet and stretch himself out, or tickle.

I am starting to have weird dreams. The other night I dreamed I had to drive myself to the hospital in labor, during rush hour, in my big van, and that I had to give birth in the van with my kids delivering the baby. I woke up wondering why I just didn't plan to have a homebirth again. I don't actually think that's likely to happen. Still, this is why I've stopped reading stories now about how other women give birth. If I start to think about labor and delivery, I have a stress reaction, kind of like how the guy in the dungeon doesn't think much about his coping strategy for the next time the guards drag him off to be racked. Just get through it when it happens, and at least there's a baby at the end.

I want to write more. I want to read more. I want to be more creative. But I keep falling asleep, because all my energy is going to growing this pup, who will one day be as tall as his big sisters and engage in his own creative endeavors (hopefully after potty training, of course). Meanwhile, I expand in every direction but intellectually. My outlook for the future centers on delivering the live weight before I can drop the dead weight.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Be Sealed With The Holy Spirit

Today Julia, age 13, will be confirmed. She's taking Josephine Bakhita for her confirmation saint. 


Julia first heard about St. Josephine last year at our parish's Vacation Bible School, when I had to write up a small bio of her as our Saint of the Day:

I was born in the Sudan, in Africa, around the year 1869. I had a happy childhood, but when I was nine I was kidnapped and forced into slavery. This was a terrible time for me. I was treated so badly by my captors that I forgot my own name. I was given the nickname “Bakhita”, which means “lucky”. I didn’t feel lucky! I was beaten daily and treated so cruelly that I wanted to die. 
When I was fourteen, I was sold to an Italian man in Africa, who treated me kindly. He gave me as a gift to a family who took me to Italy and made me the nanny to their daughter. The little girl and I went to stay for a time at the convent of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. For the first time, I learned about the love of God. I loved the life of the sisters, and I wanted to learn more about Jesus, who died the death of a slave. When my owners tried to take me from the convent, I said no! The sisters helped me take my case to an Italian court. The judges ruled that since slavery was illegal in Italy, I was free!
How did I use my freedom? I wanted to become Catholic and join the sisters. In 1890 I was baptized with the name Josephine, and I received communion and confirmation from Archbishop Sarto, who later became Pope Pius X. 
I was a sister for 42 years. During that time, I was known for my gentleness, my cheerfulness, and my strength in suffering. During World War II, the people of my Italian town counted on my prayers and courage to help them when bombs fell. Not one person died. 
I died on February 8, 1947. On October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II declared me a saint. I’m the patron saint of my homeland, the Sudan, and of all people suffering in slavery.
For a more detailed account, including how she got the terrible scars of her slavery, you can read more here.

Please pray for Julia on her Confirmation, and pray for me as well, because God keeps putting it on my heart (a cliché, but accurate) that I should teach Confirmation class next year.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Record of my Copious Spare Time

Some days I wonder why I'm always tired, and why my brain doesn't seem to function, and why I don't read like I used to. Here, for future reference, is a record of the second half of this past week.

Wednesday

Still seven months pregnant. I haven't seen my right anklebone for several weeks, but it could be worse.

Morning -- Schoolwork
2:30 -- hastily scheduled doctor's appointment for a child having strange back/abdominal pains (diagnosis: musculoskeletal, heat and tylenol. Why do I even take my kids to the doctor?)
5:30 -- The actress eats and is driven to dress rehearsal at parish school.
6:15 -- The family eats and gets ready for German.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives home and eats.
7:00-8:30 -- German. The actress is dropped off at 8:00
8:30-10:00 -- Hearing about rehearsal, settling everyone, lots of chatter, sisters arguing, bedtime routines, prayers.
10:00 -- Parents are exhausted.

Thursday

9:00-11:30 -- Piano
Schoolwork
4:00 -- Feed babysitters; they walk to their job.
5:00 -- Feed actress; drop her at dress rehearsal; small kids in the car since the babysitters are gone. Bathe younger two who have gotten so disgustingly dusty outside that they look gray.
6:00 -- Feed three kids at home, get bathed dancer ready for ballet.
6:20 -- Darwin arrives home, grabs dancer and runs her to her class.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives home again, eats.
7:15 -- Ballet class over.
9:00 -- Darwin goes down to wait at dress rehearsal, which will certainly not be over at 9:00. I chase down three youngest and get them ready for bed. Babysitters arrive home.
10:30 -- Darwin and actress arrive home after running to the store for several things, none of which is the paper towels.
10:30-11:15 -- rehearsal recap and post-mortem.
11:15 -- Big girls to bed; parents exhausted.

Friday

Morning -- schoolwork
11:00 -- run actress and spot operator down to school performance; leave four at home.
11:10-2:30 -- plant seeds in plastic cups and a pot and in one corner of the planter; make a growth chart, each child places seed cup in a different window so we can track growth. Wash the grubby child.
2:30 -- pick up thespians. Due to technical difficulties, the show didn't get started until quite late, so it ended suddenly on a cliffhanger so the buses could leave on time, and the thespians will need to go back Monday afternoon to finish the last act. Note to self: email voice teacher and tell her that the girls might be late for lessons Monday afternoon. Darwin is home early. We do not do useful stuff in our time together, but sit around talking and checking the internet.
5:00 -- Dinner.
5:30 -- Run actress and spot operator down for call. Set up concessions; realize I have enough work that I might as well just run home now and get the third girl to help me. Make a quick sign on the computer with ticket prices.
6:00 -- Back to school. Set up concessions booth. Price all snacks using insider knowledge based on living with a pricing analyst. Give some makeup advice on how contouring for the stage is different from street makeup.
6:30  -- Cash box arrives; concession sales start.
7:00 -- Show. A great performance, and the new sound system makes it all better.
7:45 -- Intermission. Run concession sales.
8:30 -- Show over. Darwin takes younger ones home. More concession sales; clean-up; cash out concessions and ticket boxes; sweep; finally drag actress away from chatting with friends. It's pouring outside.
10:30 -- Home. Show post-mortem.
11:15 -- Pack excited girls up to bed. Parents exhausted.

Saturday

9:00 -- Darwin to shooting competition.
10:20 -- Drop three girls off at dance studio for Picture Day. Dance costumes, makeup, and frou-frou will be taken care of there by 13yo. Thank God for older children.
11:20 -- Drop off oldest at dance studio, leave two boys (8 and 3) at home for five minutes watching Phineas and Ferb.
11:25 -- Boys are alive and have not budged from in front of the screen.
12:00 -- Darwin's competition was eventually thundered out, but he went to the store and came home with various things, including the paper towels.
12:10 -- Girls call and say they're done with Picture Day. I run over, but two want to stay there and chat with friends, who will bring them home.
Afternoon -- We ought to get work done, but it's still pouring, and anyway, I'm finally motivated to write that post riffing on The Handmaid's Tale. It takes a long time because there is a lot of stuff going on in the house -- friends in and out, marshmallows being made in the already messy kitchen, Darwin and I developing ideas, cranky 3yo.
4:30 -- Darwin works on a German translation while I make a dish for the German Round Table potluck.
5:00 -- Darwin to German Round Table, I feel kids.
5:30 -- Down to school for call. I set up concessions, set up ticket table, sweep entry hall, assemble programs with the kids, spend a long time trying to clear out the jammed stapler. 3yo is bored and gets passed from sibling to sibling.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives.
7:00 -- Show. Even better than last night.
8:30 -- Final bows, closing night speeches, cash out concessions and ticket boxes. All leftover snacks over to the cast party.
9:30-11:00 -- Cast Party. About 20 wound-up middle graders eat pizza, drink soda, reenact favorite scenes and dances. Chaperones guard the food table and ensure that this year there is no food fight.
11:15 -- Home. More post-mortem.
11:45 -- Pack big girls up to bed. Parents exhausted.

Sunday

10:00 -- Breakfast.
11:00 -- Get ready for church. Where are 3yo's pants?
12:15 Mass.
3:00 -- Darwin to church with 13yo for Confirmation rehearsal.
3:20 -- I head to church with PSR kids for religion class, plus 3yo so that oldest can get in her word count for last day of NaNoWriMo.
3:45-5:15 -- PSR classes. 3yo comes with me because my 6-7th graders are watching a movie today. Keep 3yo from gorging on fruit snacks, eventually let him write on the whiteboard because the movie isn't holding his attention.
5:30 -- finish clean-up, head to playground to chat with a friend.
5:40 -- remember that 8yo has to build a cubmobile at 6:00.
5:45 -- home for cold pizza left over from cast party; Darwin and 8yo leave.
Evening -- kids fuss to watch a movie while I stare into space for a long time.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Surrogate's Tale

About five years into the program, the dormitories were built. It was a natural offshoot of the work, and a work of charity as well -- more and more women in need were applying to be part of the program. Homeless women, jobless women, divorced women finding it hard to make ends meet (but without children of their own -- that wasn't allowed any more, because those women should be taking care of the children they already had). College students had long been a mainstay of the program, because it was getting harder to be hired into a good job right out of school, and people weren't getting married early anymore. And of course no one was obliged or compelled to be a Benefactor -- the requirements were clearly spelled out, and there were counseling requirements to be met before a woman was accepted into the program.

Terminology was set in the early stages. The clients were called "Sponsors". Advocacy groups pushed for the term 'parents', but the language of parenthood was fraught in cases where there were anywhere between two and five parties involved in the development of the fetus, and the directors thought it best avoided. And using the term Sponsor deftly sidestepped any judgment of the client, whether it was an infertile couple, or a pair of gay men, or a career woman who couldn't afford the setback of pregnancy, or an actress who relied on a body unblemished. The term for the surrogates had gone through many evolutions. "Surrogate" itself was considered too clinical, "Carrier" was too demeaning, and "Mother" was, off course, right out. Eventually a cadre of outside consultants settled upon "Benefactor" as striking just the right note -- women helping others, giving the precious gift of parenthood to others.

The dormitories were part of the aesthetic of benefaction. The initial Benefactors were cultured women from elite colleges, attractive, healthy, saddled with debt. These coveted genes commanded good money, but there had been problems with administration -- missed doctor's appointments, substandard diets, substandard housing, lifestyle choices that might harm the fetuses. Apparently a single pregnant woman needed more of a network than a monthly check and a monthly check-in. The dormitories offered concierge living -- in-house doctors, a cafeteria, live-in monitors who exercised motherly care over the Benefactors. The Monitors helped ensure that the Benefactors were making good choices with their pregnancies. Sometimes, left to themselves, the Benefactors might engage in unprotected sex or eat less-than-healthy foods. Sometimes, they might take unapproved medicines that could harm the baby, like some unapproved anti-nausea remedies or Tylenol. The health of the fetuses was very important, and everyone needed to work together to ensure that a perfect baby was delivered to the Sponsors.

Again, the dormitories allowed for a wider range of Benefactors, and a wider range of prices. College-educated women with various positive physical specifications could command the highest compensation, but there were potential Sponsors who wanted babies without being able to afford Grade A rates, even with the upswing in insurance coverage. (The dormitories were key in getting insurance approval, in fact -- private surrogacy arrangements were increasingly seen as too risky to cover.) But there were other less-qualified women willing, even desperate, to participate in the surrogacy programs, desiring the security of dorm life and the paycheck, and so a new pricing structure was developed. Past drug use, homelessness, a lower IQ -- why should these preclude a woman from giving back to society? And if they were helping Sponsors with a lower income to get their desired baby while establishing a more stable life, who could complain? 

People did complain, of course. The program was controversial from the beginning, creating a new intersectionality between radical feminists and conservative Christians. The objections ranged from "dignity" to "the rights of the child" to "treating women as objects" to "institutional patriarchal oppression". But most people didn't think too hard about the programs, and the directors knew that there were plenty of professed feminists whose ideals could not resist the money offered to Benefactors, and plenty of professed Christians whose ideals didn't stand up to pain of their infertility. More and more people knew someone who'd been involved with the program, either as a Sponsor or Benefactor, and less and less people were being judgmental.

And there were success stories: The women who'd paid off their college educations, put aside a nest egg, made connections, and found good jobs based on their new network. The former drug addict who'd turned her life around, the homeless woman who'd found her purpose helping gay couples achieve their dream family. Particularly physically attractive Benefactors could receive placement help with pregnancy modeling agencies. Literary reputations were established. A significant number of alumni found fulfillment as counselors, social workers, and other altruistic careers. Past experience as a Benefactor wasn't even seen as a detriment in the marriage market -- it ensured that a woman knew what she was getting into with pregnancy, if she opted to go the route of bearing her own child, and anyway, only in the program could one expect to find a virgin, even at the premium prices that a clean sexual history could command. The mainstream societal vision of being a Benefactor fluctuated between an ideal, an obligation, and a vocational program.

The rules for residency were quite liberal -- Benefactors could maintain their jobs if they preferred, or could take classes to earn a GED or get college credit if necessary. Leaves to visit family or friends, or for vacations, were generally granted, assuming specific dietary and exercise obligations were maintained. Sexual contact was not prohibited, though Sponsors could select from a menu of preferred restrictions (and price options), ranging from "no preference" to "screened partners only" to "no genital contact". 

No good program was without its glitches, of course. Sponsors demanded more say into the details of the Benefactor's diets, medical care, exercise routines, and delivery plans. Some Sponsors wanted c-sections for more control over the process and timing; some wanted natural births with no interventions. Some wanted to be able to drop in for unannounced inspections. One memorable day, a Sponsor discovered that their Benefactor had been smoking. The upshot was that the Benefactor was released from the program, the Sponsor opting to start afresh with a new Benefactor and fetus.

The program offered six weeks of residential care, support, and a set number of medical follow-up visits and birth control counseling to provide for Benefactors who had successfully completed their term of service. These were free, included as natural and humane extension of the program. The program remained aloof from various controversies about the state of maternal leave in the United States, as of course the Benefactors were not burdened with the care and maintenance of a newborn. No objection was made if former Benefactors preferred to receive medical care and counseling from the many partisan organizations devoted to crisis pregnancies and support for traumatized women -- if a woman had regrets, she was better off with her own kind, and her own kind could bear the cost. Women who did not complete the follow-up care with the program also received a note in their file indicating unsuitability.

The Benefactors were not passive, of course. There were always attempts to unionize. Some women could not fit into the program. A pattern of miscarriages earned a Benefactor a polite dismissal from the program -- at no cost to her, of course. No woman was obliged to stay with the program if she really wanted to leave, but naturally there were contractual obligations to be met and expenses to be reimbursed. And there was always the issue of the fetuses. Obligatory monthly ultrasounds might reveal defects which needed to be dealt with. Most Sponsors preferred to terminate at that point (and no wonder at the cost of the program), but some Benefactors objected. If the Sponsors particular arrangement did not obligate him or her or zir to accept the fetus as-is, but the Benefactor refused to terminate, the Benefactor was released (with a note in her file indicating unsuitability for future benefacting). There were plenty of private programs to place the fetus or offer support to former Benefactors. The program, whose terms were clearly set forth, did not make provision for defaulters.

Stories did tend to circulate around the dorms, like the urban legend about the Benefactor who'd wanted out of the program after six months, but refused to terminate or give up the fetus. Supposedly, she'd been placed on house arrest, and then in confinement until the earliest point that the fetus could be safely removed and delivered to the Sponsors. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. If so, it was an extreme case. It was only natural to have some kind of bond with the fetus and even to be sad about the Sponsors claiming it at birth, but women had been giving up children since the beginning of history. Pregnancy, clearly consented to, chosen for the good of others, without the complications of sex, fairly compensated, medically optimized -- everything lived up to the mission of the program: "Service, society, autonomy -- building better families through science".


Friday, April 28, 2017

Serious Christianity Is Never Mainstream

Everyone else is taking their stab at the Benedict Option concept, so in the end I too have to get in on the action. Indeed, I just ordered a copy, which is something that I probably would not have done but for the odd phenomenon of Dreher's book being covered with surprising fairness by some venues like The New Yorker while being enthusiastically attacked by a lot of Christian writers, many of whom seem not to have actually read the book. I'll post a review in a couple weeks once I'm done with the book, but in the meantime I have to get in my own contribution to the "I haven't read the book yet but here's my reaction to the concept" genre.

Dreher has been writing about his Benedict Option concept for some years prior to the publication of this book. It's inspired by a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St. Benedict.
The New Yorker piece (which is a really good piece of journalism very much worth your time, providing a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of Dreher as person and author) summarizes the application of this concept to the current period of rapid cultural and moral consensus thus:
This March, Dreher published “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” which David Brooks, in the Times, has called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.

Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
...
“I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible,” Dreher said, at the National Press Club, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of priests and journalists. The election of Donald Trump, he said, proved that the country was in the midst of a profound moral and spiritual crisis; the fact that so many Christians voted for him suggested a weakness in their faith. American Christianity had been replaced with “a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-lite philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self,” he said. “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.”
I wrote earlier about some ways in which I think MacIntyre's and Dreher's take on the fall of the Roman Empire is overly simplistic from a historical point of view. Leaving that aside, however, I think that Dreher's basic assessment is wrong in its diagnoses of a unique modern moment of crisis between Christianity and the mainstream culture, yet right in its call for a certain type of withdrawal and mutual support for Christians.

Perhaps its worth starting out with the monastic impulse which led Saint Benedict and others to seek lives and prayer and stability away from the secular world. The impetus for the monastic movement was not primarily increasing political chaos in late antiquity. Monastic communities began to form well before the first sack of Rome, while Benedict founded Monte Cassino during the time of the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. Rather, the fathers of monasticism withdrew from the world because they believed that in order to devote oneself fully to the perfection of the Christian life, it was necessary to withdraw from the distractions which are part of pursing earthly success. And indeed, though I believe that I'm doing important work as a husband, father, and provider for a family, I can see that point very clearly. I spend a lot of time dealing with the material needs and wants of this world, and much less pursuing prayer and fasting.

Of course, not everyone is called to the religious life, and Dreher is not actually calling for people to withdraw into a family equivalent of monasteries. It's not a new idea to write about how devout Christians can live in the world without being totally of it. A key work that comes to my mind in this regard is St. Francis de Sales's book Introduction to the Devout Life. The interesting thing about de Sales' work is that it's written specifically with the devout layperson living in the world as its intended audience, and de Sales does not at all assume that the mainstream culture of 1609 is going to be particular reinforcing for Christian virtue.
EITHER to seek or to shun society is a fault in one striving to lead a devout life in the world, such as I am now speaking of. To shun society implies indifference and contempt for one’s neighbours; and to seek it savours of idleness and uselessness. We are told to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. In token that we love him, we must not avoid being with him, and the test of loving one’s self is to be happy when alone. “Think first on thyself,” says S. Bernard, “and then on other men.” So that, if nothing obliges you to mix in society either at home or abroad, retire within yourself, and hold converse with your own heart. But if friends come to you, or there is fitting cause for you to go forth into society, then, my daughter, by all means go, and meet your neighbour with a kindly glance and a kindly heart. (Chapter 24)
Elsewhere he has advice on dressing properly without being vain, attending amusements like dances without being overly frivolous, etc. The idea that you needed to think about whether your attachments to mainstream society were pulling you away from the Christian life is hardly new.

And this, to me, is a key point. de Sales was writing in 1609. Wasn't the mainstream culture Christian then? What about a time like today when the mainstream culture is aggressively contrary to Christian teaching?

It's true that in some other times and places the mainstream culture has given much more lip service to Christianity than it does today. But just because most people in a given time and place were nominally Christian does not mean that most people were devout. And indeed, in some ways, if a hollow version of Christianity is widely accepted, it's all the easier to be lulled into ignoring the ways in which conventional morality differs from actual Christian morality.

So I think that Dreher is very much right that serious Christians today will find themselves to some extent aliens within the mainstream culture. I think he's also right that it's thus important for Christians to realize that being a good Christian may make it hard or impossible for you to achieve some types of worldly success. And he's right that in order to help ourselves persevere in the face of an unfaithful culture, we as social creatures will find ourselves in need of finding community with others who share our determination to live out the faith seriously.

What I draw back from a bit is the idea that our time is unique or apocalyptic in this sense. In his Press Club speech Dreher talks about communities of believers being like arks riding upon the flood of modernity, as if a cataclysm is sweeping over us that we need to wait out so that we can re-populate the world after the chaos is gone. There are clear ways that the mainstream culture of 2017 draws people away from Christianity. That was also the case in 1917, in 1848, in 1788, in 1618, in 1517, in 1378, in 1209, etc. The forces and temptations are different, but those who are committed to living as serious Christians will always find themselves at odds with (and often rejected by) the mainstream culture. We humans are a fallen people, and the more we try to draw back to God and away from our fallen nature, the more we will find ourselves divided from many of our fellows.

The solution, I think, is right, but the crisis is both more universal and less urgent than Dreher at some times seems to imply. We will always be aliens in this world.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Truth, Untruth, And the Benedict Option

Rebecca Bratten Weiss has a piece up about truth, error, and how we encounter it. It ties together three loosely connected arguments under this theme, and there are different and interesting problems with each, so I'd like to work through all three.

First up, she tackles the recurring paroxysms surrounding reactionary (I hesitate to use the word 'conservative') speakers encountering violent reactions at university campuses. The most recent example was the student group which sought to have Ann Coulter give a talk as UC Berkeley. Threats of violence or disruption from organized protest groups objecting to the talk were so great that the university went through several iterations of rescheduling and re-locating the planned talk in an effort to assure security. Eventually, Coulter canceled her planned visit, since the attempts at assuring security mostly consisted of putting the talk at a place and time when not many students would be able to attend anyway.

Coulter claimed that the cancellation of her lecture was a dark day for free speech in America, but Bratten Weiss takes a different view:
My own argument is that part of the role of education is to allow us to claim our inheritance of an intellectual tradition that confers on us the right to determine what is or is not of intellectual, aesthetic, or moral value. This is entailed in the rejection of soft relativism, and consistent with the western liberal arts tradition.

To say that Ann Coulter – or Milo, for instance – is not of sufficient intellectual or moral value to merit a university platform is not to suppress their freedom of speech. No one is stopping them from writing inane books or going on Twitter rants. But that doesn’t mean they need to be paid to air their opinions.

It’s not suppression of free speech if I am not invited to speak on how I feel about neuroscience, because my feelings on neuroscience are professionally irrelevant, since I have not been trained in that field or deemed by peers to have a valuable perspective.
I agree fully that one of the purposes of an education is to learn what is and is not a speech that expresses truth. There's no great value in promoting the expression of that which is false -- a thing which the promoters of Banned Book Week fail to realize. I would also agree with her assessment that speakers such as Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos don't actually have much good to say. I think it would show good judgment on the part of a college or student group not to invite people like that to speak. I would indeed consider it a good sign if a group which had invited one of them to speak reconsidered and canceled the invitation after thinking more deeply about the sort of things those speakers actually stand for.

However, what Bratten Weiss seems to gloss over is that this is not what happened in this situation. Coulter's speech was not cancelled because more sensible heads realized that she wasn't actually someone who would say much that was true or wise. Rather, her speech was cancelled because people who didn't like the idea of her talking threatened to riot violently. While I would agree with Bratten Weiss that it is a good thing if people are wise enough not to invite people who are wrong or foolish to give speeches, I would hope that she would agree with me that it is not a good thing when people to threaten to smash things, burn down buildings, or injure or kill people as a result of their displeasure at whom others have invited to give a speech. If, for instance, the situation was that a left leaning secularist group had invited Peter Singer to give a talk -- I would think it very wrong if Christians who objected to Singer's views successfully got the talk cancelled by threatening to riot. I would think that even though I would consider it a good sign for our society if no one held or expressed Singer's views. The threat to free speech is not that Coulter is not speaking is Berkeley. There is no requirement for a civil and free society that Coulter speak at Berkeley. Rather, the threat to a free and civil society is that it was the threat of violence which stopped her talk, and indeed that a certain portion of citizens of our country are just fine with that. Myself, I would hold it a bad thing if people routinely prevent those they disagree with from speaking via threats of violence.

The second argument has to do with the idea of professors at Catholic universities taking an oath of fidelity to the magisterium. Bratten Weiss writes:
The other conversation was less good. The question prompting it – whether Catholic universities should require all faculty to take the oath of fidelity to the magisterium – was a valid one. My own view is that, beyond the theology department, this is not necessary. And even in the theology department, I believe the inclusion of experts on Jewish or on Orthodox theology would be of great benefit to a rich intellectual program. Ideally, a Catholic university would have a solid identity in fidelity to church tradition, as well as a genuinely small-c “catholic” willingness to engage with many different perspectives and traditions. Here, again, the goal is to balance principles with freedom.

Most of my interlocutors, however, were distressed by my view. “We don’t need to wallow in slime in order to understand it,” one individual wrote. What slime? I asked. Is everything outside the purlieus of Catholic orthodoxy “slime”? How about Homer and Virgil? How about Beowulf? How about Jewish philosophy? If I were a university administrator, I would consider anyone who made such a sweeping – and intellectually vacuous – condemnation of other traditions to be unfit to educate. On Catholic thought, or any thought.

My interlocutor – whose English usage was not of the best, I noticed, like the “elite” that I am – claimed to have been involved in Catholic higher education for over twenty years.

And this is worrying to me.
I have no knowledge of the specific interlocutor whom Bratten Weiss engaged with. There are a great many misguided people in the world, and some of them support the idea of Catholic professors taking oaths of fidelity to the Church, so it may well be that the specific person she was talking to was much off base. However, I am interested in addressing the topic more generally.  I'm familiar with it having graduated from a college whose theology faculty do indeed take the Mandatum (the oath of fidelity to the Church which the USCCB has helped to put together as a way for universities to bring themselves into line with the guidelines for Catholic education put forward by Saint John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae.)

In this general sense, I think that there is some serious misunderstanding of what the oath of fidelity is going on here. Here is the suggested text from the bishop's website linked above:
I hereby declare my role and responsibility as a professor of a Catholic theological discipline within the full communion of the Church.

As a professor of a Catholic theological discipline, therefore, I am committed to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium.
Note that this has to do specifically with the teaching of Catholic theology, not some broader sort of religious studies department. The example Bratten Weiss brings up of having a professor to teach a Jewish or Orthodox perspective is thus not in play here. The oath specifically has to do with not claiming to present Catholic teaching when in fact teaching something contrary to Catholic teaching. Thus, someone who was teaching, "This is what members of the Jewish faith believe" necessarily cannot be violating the oath, because he or she is not claiming to say what the Catholic Church teaches but rather what another faith teaches.

I think it's also important to note that one need not necessarily be something in order to teach about it. This is obviously the case with other disciplines. One of my good friends is a history professor specializing in ethnic cleansing. It goes without saying that he has never himself carried out ethnic cleansing. However even in regards to religion one can study a tradition from the inside or the outside. There are many professors who have made a study of Islam or of Judaism (or of Christianity) without themselves being members of that faith. Indeed, in some ways, an outside scholar may provide a more objective approach. An Islamic scholar (as in, an Ulama) will necessarily be trying to explain Islamic history and practice according to his particular view, just as either a Catholic or a Protestant theologian's view of ecclesiastical history will be heavily weighted by his view as to the nature of the Church, sacraments, etc.

But assuming that a Catholic college did decide it was best to hire a faithful Jew to teach classes about Jewish faith and history, I think we can assume safely that such a professor would not be presenting Judaism and claiming it was the Catholic faith, but rather presenting Judaism as Jewish. Thus, a Jewish professor teaching about Judaism would in no way fall afoul of an oath not to falsely represent the Catholic faith.

Now there are Catholic colleges which have all professors take an oath of fidelity to the Church. For instance, Thomas Aquinas College has all their tutors take the following oath:
I, (Name), in assuming the office of tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, promise that in my words and in my actions I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the duties incumbent on me toward the Church, both universal and particular, in which, according to the provisions of the law, I have been called to exercise my service.

In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish. I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.

So help me God, and God’s Holy Gospels on which I place my hand.
The idea here, I think, is that if a college sees it as part of its mission to teach truth, and holds that the Catholic faith is true, then it's necessary for those who teach there to be able to follow that mission honestly, that is, to actually hold that the Catholic faith is true. Is this the right mission for a Catholic college to have? Would it be better for a college to actively seek disparate and conflicting voices so that their students can learn both from those who hold the Catholic faith to be false and those who hold it to be true? I think there are probably good arguments to be made on both sides of that question. I can easily imagine someone arguing that there's no need for mathematics or engineering to be taught by a Catholic at a Catholic university. On the other hand, I can also imagine an argument that from a standpoint of modeling the Catholic intellectual and vocational life in its fullest, there is in fact a value in Catholic students seeing Catholic professors pursuing all manner of subjects to their fullest.

But what I don't think is a good argument is the one that Bratten Weiss makes, that it's necessary for the theology department to include non-Catholics in order to have experts on the thought and history of other religions.

In the third section of the post, Bratten Weiss lashes out against the "Benedict Option". She says:
TThere’s a lot of talk right now about the “illiberal liberals” who seek safe spaces and shun free speech. But this is by no means only a problem on the left. I would put it to my audience that it is a greater problem on the Right, and that this problem is exemplified in the so-called “Benedict option” – a studied and deliberate disengagement not only from ideas perceived as threatening but from, well, everything.
...
This leads me to my other big issue with the so-called Benedict Option. It leads to sloppy thought, poor philosophy, and bad art. If students are being proselytized and shielded from any alternative views, they will not acquire the ability to make their own moral judgments, but will continue to operate within a condition of heteronomy, simply repeating what they have been told – as long as it seems to work. The moment their mantras fail, so will their faith, because it was never grounded in anything solid. Refusal to engage with any new or innovative philosophical ideas does not mean protecting the tradition. It means, trying to stifle it. And when one is afraid, constantly, of what any outside influence will do to the imagination, one will turn away from any art that doesn’t just lull one into complacency. Pop propaganda, and aesthetic kitsch, are the result of this.
Honestly, in these circles, I doubt any of the Great Catholic Writers we like to bemoan the loss of would be very welcome. Graham Greene would definitely be disinvited. Once, Greene was regarded as scandalous; now that he’s received the mark of approval those who otherwise would disinvite him accept him. But this is not to their credit. It’s to the credit of those who, utilizing the tools of discernment, engaged, instead of retreating in fear. And, maybe, sometimes there is fear. It’s okay to acknowledge this. It’s okay to recognize that a book can be dangerous: look at the way even certain truly great books have been misread and misused. Look at some of the creepy criticism on Lolita (Nabokov overestimated his audience’s intelligence). And then there are the ideas that are dangerous because they are truly bad. Some ideas are bad, yes. Some speakers need to be disinvited. But we need to have a true discipline in an intellectual tradition in order to be able to articulate why.
And the Ben Op proponents largely lack this. This doesn’t mean that they’re oafish or ill-read. They may have read all the Great Books, and have opinions on them, but only because they are repeating what they were told they were supposed to think. Imagine if they had to confront the Great Books new minted. Think of the scandal of Dante, arguing for separation of church and civil authority, writing in the vernacular. Imagine if Socrates came wandering into one of their communities, grubby and pugnacious, asking impertinent questions, a non-Catholic in weird robes, of dubious sexual preference.
They’d probably want him to drink the hemlock.
I'm not a Dreher fan. His Crunchy Cons book annoyed me, his manner of leaving the Church earned my dislike, and I find some of his posts petty and overly combative. However, the number of clearly unfair attacks on his book are gradually bringing me around to the determination to read Benedict Option. So here I go again:

The Benedict Option does not, to my understanding, involve withdrawing totally into a bubble only of like-minded people. It also doesn't involve silencing all forms of dissenting opinion as the "illiberal liberals" are accused of doing.

Dreher's claim, indeed, is that orthodox Christians in the modern world will inevitably find themselves so completely surrounded by non-Christian and indeed anti-Christian opinion that they should stop trying to shut down non-Christian behavior and expression (abandon the Culture Wars) and instead focus on forming comunities of support who will aid them in living within a hostile world.

He points to examples like observant Jews, but its worth remembering that observant Jews in places like urban New York are not withdrawn from and innocent of the wider gentile culture. They have jobs and businesses within the wider world. They earn a living and raise a family while living in two worlds, the wider world that they are visibly not conforming too, and also the world of those who share their faith. Dreher advocates that people realize they cannot both be faithful Christians and be seen as conforming to the world's standards. The American-Catholic dream which flowered in the Camelot era --  that somehow you could be fully a mainstream American and also fully a faithful Catholic -- is, from the Benedict Option point of view, an illusion. Serious Christians are going to seem different from those who give themselves fully to the mainstream culture, and to persevere despite that they will need the support of their communities of similar believers.

It's interesting that Bratten Weiss specifically singles out authors like Graham Greene as being antithetical to the Benedict Option idea. Now, it's certainly true that in religious circles one can find a fair share of narrow minded people. (You can elsewhere as well, they're just narrow minded about different things.) But in the Anglosphere of Graham Greene's day, Catholics did very much live in a sub-culture. Think of Brideshead Revisited where Sebastian complains to Charles, "I wish I liked Catholics more." Charles asks what he means, saying that Catholics seem to be like anybody else. "My dear Charles, that's precisely what they're not."

At that time and place, mainstream culture was a mixture of Protestantism and secularism, but Catholics (and Jews and others) were very clearly aliens in it. The great Catholic novelists of the '30s through the '50s were very much members of a sub-culture, with their very own particular backgrounds and experiences, participating in the mainstream culture as semi-outsiders. I suppose in that sense, one could draw a parallel to the huge crop of Jewish novelists in America in the early post-war years. During the last era when being Jewish at all (as opposed to being an Orthodox Jew) clearly set one apart from the mainstream culture, with members of that sub-culture participating in the mainstream one as outsiders, that community produced perhaps its largest and most talented crop of writers.

Now, this certainly does not mean that all people who live in sub-cultures are artistic or have insightful outsider perspectives. Indeed, some of the outsider perspective of writers of the Catholic revival came from the fact that they felt doubly outsiders, estranged from the narrowness of the sub-culture and from the mundanity of the mainstream culture. But while being estranged from the mainstream culture is not guarantee of artistic merit and understanding, it most clearly also does not preclude it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"You aren't serious when you're seventeen"

In a desperate attempt to avoid facing our German class tonight, I'm joining Brandon in translating a French poem by Arthur Rimbaud.

I.

You aren't serious when you're seventeen.
-A fine night, no need of beer or lemonade,
The raucous cafes with such brilliant sheen!
-You stroll underneath the green lime tree's shade.

The lime trees smell sweet in the sweet nights of June!
The air softly perfumed, your eyes closed but clear;
The breeze charged with noise - the city it looms -
The scents of the vine and the scents of the beer...

II.

Suddenly you see a small scrap of deep blue,
Night sky framed with branches which drape like a pall,
Pricked by a cruel star which melts away to
the sweetest of shivers, cold, white, and small.

Night in June! Seventeen! Drink deep of bliss!
You've tapped the champagne and your head starts to spin...
You're crazy; that buzz on your lips is a kiss
which tingles and throbs like a gnat on your skin.

III.

Your heart's castaway on the shores of romance,
Then, in the pool of pale streetlamp aglow,
Passes a minx with an air that enchants,
Tucked 'neath her daddy's grim collar's shadow.

And, as she finds you just too-too naive,
As she trots past with the tap of a schoolgirlish boot
She turns, alert, lithe, alive -- a new Eve,
And she plucks the tune off of your lips like a fruit...

IV.

You're in love. Up until August you waste.
You're in love. Your sonnets she greets with a yawn.
Your friends are all bored with your terrible taste,
Then one night -- bright angel -- she deigns to respond!

That night -- you go back to the cafe's harsh sheen
You call for the beer and the lemonade.
You aren't serious when you're seventeen
And the green lime trees line the promenade.

Here's the original French.

The Fluffification of Science Programming

Contradicting the theory that there are no second acts in American life, mid-nineties kids show presenter Bill Nye of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" has been much in the news of late as a symbol of Science. He was one of the figureheads for the March for Science (which sought to do for science whatever it was that the Women's March did for women), and he has a new show being made by Netflix entitled "Bill Nye Saves The World" in which he tackles tough topics like overpopulation and the sexual orientation of ice cream cones via panel discussions and music videos.

His original show was on back when I was in high school, an older demographic than it was aimed at. I never saw it, though I think my dad watched a few episodes out of curiosity. Dad was a planetarium lecturer and dedicated his career to science education, both for kids and adults, so he had a strong interest in science popularizers and how they went about their work. As I recall, his reaction was that the Bill Nye show was pretty fluffy but with Nye so much in the news and my own lack of experience with the show, I thought I'd look up an episode and see what it was like. Here's the Bill Nye episode on simple machines. It starts out with a roller coaster, then goes on to discuss levers, wheels, ramps, and pulleys.



Watching this over lunch, it struck me that it encapsulates a lot of what annoyed me in the transformation of PBS edu-tainment programming in the 90s. We get a lot of the quick cutting, a lot of attention getting visuals, and it's heavier on the entertainment than the explanations. For instance, in talking about using machines to make motion easier, we have Bill Nye get rammed through the ceiling with a fork lift, but they don't actually take the opportunity to show that a forklift is actually powered by a pulley, even though that's one of the simple machines they're talking about. There's a skit about a brute force moving company which a couple of body builders who move everything straight from place to place by hand, versus a moving company run by kids using simple machines to lift things, but even though it would be really easy to show multiplication of force by demonstrating how a lever or pulley system could allow a kid to lift as much as a body builder. I guess if this got kids excited about science, that's good, but I found the content pretty thin.

To try to make a fair comparison, I looked up one of the shows that I remember watching back when I was a kid, the PBS show Newton's Apple. Whole not exclusively a show for kids, it aired on Saturday or Sunday mornings on our station, so I recall watching it pretty regularly. The format was that people would write in with a science question, and the host would then do a segment where he consulted with experts and showed how the thing in question worked. There aren't a ton of segments online, it seems, but here's one on roller coasters which gives the flavor pretty well.



Not super deep, but (perhaps because it's familiar) I found it less cringe inducing to watch, and it does include some basic "hey, let's measure this" elements like riding the roller coaster holding the accelerometer and seeing how many Gs you pull. It also sticks with a basic "let's talk to some experts who explain this and then try experiencing it ourselves" format, rather than all the visual gags and quick cuts.

Perhaps I'm in full aging "get off my lawn!" mode about the quick-cut, gag-filled edutainment style, but I tend to think that even a modern audience is willing to sit through pretty straight forward visual exposition when it provides actual content. Witness the enduring popularity of nature specials and also of shows like How It's Made, an addicting watch if there ever was one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Functional Eduction

Last night we did a post-Easter catch up session with the older kids to see how well we were tracking towards finishing school work on time. In general, the answer is: better than we were at the last check-up a month and a half ago, but not as well as we parents would like.

Some people take being checked up on different from others, so this also triggered some sobbing and some recriminations about how hard various subjects were, how boring the textbooks, etc.

"Why is it so boring? Why do I have to memorize all these terms? Why do I have to know the steps of mitosis? It's so hard to remember anything from that. It's not like watching one of those nature specials. I remember stuff from those, but this is all just confusing words and diagrams."

I'm actually not crazy about the science book in question. It is kind of dry, and I think it focuses heavily on justifying its rigor by insisting on a lot of memorization. I'm tempted to say, "Look, just read the chapters, stop worrying about the workbook and quizzes, and get through the book." But I'm hesitant to concede curriculum planning to a gripe session, so for now the orders are to keep plugging away.

However, this does touch on one of my vulnerable points as a homeschooling parent, as the kids get older. On the one hand, they're now starting to learn things which I can explain to them crop up in my everyday life. In helping one of the kids through graphing some equations, I explained how I use similar graphs (though in Excel) in order to predict the changes in customer demand when we change price on a product. However, they're also starting to cover things that I've forgotten through disuse. When the younger kids read about the solar system or the classification of life forms, I know the material they're covering right off. When it comes to cell mitosis, I'll admit, while I recall the basic outlines of the process, and the diagrams in the science book look basically familiar, I'd forgotten both the terminology and the details. For most people, knowing that cell division happens is perhaps a good piece of general knowledge, but the details gradually fade away after we pass our last biology exam.

Thinking about that can lead me one of several different ways.

If most people only retain a certain amount of general knowledge, is getting just the general sense enough? If even most well educated people will remember that cells divide and copy genetic material in the process, but don't remember the terms and details, is getting the student to the point where she too will possess this piece of general knowledge enough? Why teach detail which will almost certainly be forgotten if it's not used?

Ah, but that's the key: if it's not used. To some people, however, these things are used a great deal, people who actually deal with biological science. One of the reasons why we might insist on children learning a moderate degree of detail about a broad range of subjects is so that some particular area can catch their interest, and they will then have sufficient grounding to learn more about that subject.

And yet, is a dry couple pages in a Life Sciences textbook, in which the student is told in a few pages about cell division and then instructed to memorize the names of the steps and redraw from memory the diagrams, really the sort of thing likely to create that spark of interest that draws a child into a job or interest in the field? To hear my child rant, all it does is enforce the idea that science is a miserable topic that is too hard for her and boring to boot.

"Why can't we watch science specials and read books about science that Mom checks out from the library?" was the wail.

And yet, to judge by the results, no one was deeply fascinated then either, and there was then also question as to whether people were getting the sort of broad (if shallow) familiarity which comes from... reading dry books and memorizing the stages of mitosis.

Sigh.

The ideal, of course, is that the kid develops a fascination with a topic and actively wants to learn and retail knowledge. And yet, there has to be a certain amount of forcing the issue or else people's areas of academic specialty with be The Avengers and The Great British Baking Show. What I keep trying to figure out is how much and what type of force feeding builds basic literacy and background knowledge of topics, and how much simply builds antipathy.