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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing about Writing about Writing

Perhaps in your life, you've heard someone pray for a "secret intention" or request prayers in some way that sounds so mysterious that you're dying to know the cause. Some people have a tendency to amp up drama, of course, but it's often true that people find themselves in situations in which they need prayers, but can't reveal the details, or know that the details aren't theirs to reveal. Even mentioning the subject invites speculation, so much so that often it feels like the better option to keep a situation to oneself.

Darwin and I were talking recently about the things that we'd like to write about, but can't. Not because they're bad things; not because they're scandalous; not because they even have to do with us at all. Everyone has some topic they can't breach with the general public. Perhaps that's because one's take on a subject would be painful to someone who might read it, and with whom one does not wish to burn bridges. This is a tricky thing for us especially, who have been processing ideas in public for eleven years, and find it a strain not simply because we like to write and discuss, but because it goes against the goad not to be able to write openly and honestly.

And yet, people are more important. Is it better that I add one more viewpoint to an issue, however unique my insight and experience may be, or is the work of prudence that I remember that people I know and love may find my words painful? If I want to process something, should I do it at the expense of another? Is discretion really the better part of valor? All things will be revealed, the scripture tells us. But until then, we delete that angry post or that thinkpiece or the lyric autobiographical essay because cold prudence is better than hot righteousness.

How mysterious, how worrying this all sounds! So vague and dramatic, and it really isn't. But one simply doesn't get to talk about everything in life. Not everything needs to be aired or can be aired, and perhaps that's all for the best.

And no, there's nothing wrong here. But in this case it did seem better to write vaguely than not write at all, if only because this is something I've thought about for a long time. How clear we want everything in life to be! How cut-and-dried, how black-and-white! Only in heaven do we get total clarity and full understanding.

Prayers for you all today, without needing any reasons or explanations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time Tunnel Politics

Every so often I go back and check to see how this year's candidates are doing compared to how Romney and Obama were doing at the same time of year in 2012.

There's a narrative going around that Romney was a push-over candidate, a designated loser who didn't have the fire to go after actually winning the race. On Sept. 20, 2012 he was going through a rough period, trailing Obama by three points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.


The supposedly virile Donald Trump is reputed to have had a great couple weeks, harping on Hillary Clinton's health and exploiting stupid remarks she made about the 'irredeamable' people who are 'deplorables' that support her opponent. As a result, Trump is producing some of his best polling ever. His support only reached this high before during the week after the GOP convention.


And yet, it's worth noting that Trump (at 44% support) is actually polling 1.2% lower than Romney (45.2%) was at this time four years ago.  Trump has less support now than Romney did at virtually any time after getting the 2012 nomination.  The only reason why Trump looks remotely good is that Hillary is a full 3% less popular than Obama was at this time in 2012.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading High School

This is the beginning of the third week of high school for our oldest, and the question I ask her most evenings is, "How's your reading going?" She's working through a somewhat modified version of the approach my parents took when they homeschooled me, and so this year I'm in charge of curriculum for her. I started the year with a list and a spreadsheet. The list contains the reading assignments that I want her to get through for History/Literature during the course of the year, the spreadsheet contains some additional refinement, adds other subjects, and breaks everything up into weekly assignments.

So, for example, the first week of school was:

Humanities:
Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

Science:
Six Easy Pieces, Essentials of Physics Explained Intro and Chapter 1

Math (resuming with the series of books she was using last year):
Key to Algebra 4 page 4-18

Grammar:
Warriner's English Grammar & Comp (Complete Course) Ch1, Ex 5, Review Exercise

Religion:
Didache Introduction to Catholicism Chapter 1

German:
As assigned by tutor


For the first week I went and broke this up into daily assignments, telling her how many sections of the math book to cover each day and to spent three days reading the three chapters of ancient history and two days covering science. (She compressed the reading so she could take Friday off.) At the end of the week I asked if she needed me to deep doing the daily breakdowns and she said she was fine on her own, so now it's just one line of the spreadsheet every day.

I've got the first 18 weeks of the Humanities Program worked out into weekly assignments, and it runs as follows:

Week Assignment
1 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

2 History Begins at Sumer ch. 1, 2, 6, 7, 13, 16, 17, 25, 37, 39 (about 80 pages total)

3 Epic of Gilgamesh Tables 1-11 (pages 1-99)

4 Never to Die pp. 15-58, 63-96,101-165

5 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 4-7 (pages 75-160)

6 [break]

7 The Bible Genesis

8 The Bible Exodus 1-23, Joshua 1-10, Judges 1-16

9 The Bible 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel 1-10

10 The Bible 2 Samuel 11-24, 1 Kings 1-11

11 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapter 9-10 (pages 185-226)
The Iliad Books 1-4

12 The Iliad Books 5-12

13 The Iliad Books 13-20

14 The Iliad Books 21-24
The Odyssey Books 1-4

15 The Odyssey Books 5-12

16 The Odyssey Books 13-20

17 The Odyssey Books 21-24

18 [Break]

As we get closer to that roughly halfway mark, I'll assess how well we're staying on schedule and decide how to cover the rest of the Ancient Greek reading list.

Friday, September 16, 2016

You Shall Not Take The Name Of Jane Austen In Vain

new online role playing game called Ever, Jane is in the open beta phase of development, designed to appeal to Jane Austen fans who crave a world of tightly-wound irony and tightly-laced tension.
Ever, Jane is an online role-playing game set in the dramatic, romantic worlds of Jane Austen. It invites players to attend sophisticated dinner parties and fancy balls, share gossip, keep secrets, fall in love, get married and climb the ribbon-lined social ladder of Regency-era England. It is definitely not a sex game, though sometimes players get wrapped up in this universe of exquisite gowns and forbidden desire, and they simply can't help themselves. 
"Let's just say that we had to put in private chat," Ever, Jane creator Judy Tyrer says with a laugh. 
To be fair, it's difficult to produce an online role-playing game that doesn't foster sexual relationships and conversations. "It's in every MMO that's out there," Tyrer adds. "The erotica is just the name of the game." 
Even though Austen's novels never delve into the sensual details of intimate encounters, her worlds are rife with sexual tension. As Tyrer explains it, Austen's Regency era was a period of heady debauchery: The Prince Regent was notorious for hosting orgies, and women, once they produced an heir, were largely free to do as they wished. However, discretion was key. 
That's where private chat rooms come in to Ever, Jane. 
"We're not here to make a sex game. That's not our purpose. But we also don't want to ignore the reality," Tyrer says. 
Historical accuracy is paramount for Tyrer. She became a history buff while researching Austen's life and writing, and she's attempting to fill Ever, Jane with as many realistic rules and situations as possible. This means that players can have a private chat room, but they can't flaunt any promiscuity. If they do, they're sent to Botany Bay, a penal colony that's populated with other troublemakers and anyone hoping to play without any rules at all. Botany Bay isn't live yet, which means current players can be as naughty as they wish, but Tyrer and her team are working on it.
It is a strange form of homage, to go to such pains to recreate the generic shell of Jane Austen's historical milieu, to name this game specifically after her, without actually touching the particular moral content and ideas that were at the heart of her writings and thought. As an fannish gesture, it's touching, perhaps; at a moral level, it's a form of calumny against Jane Austen, the ethical philosopher, whose novels explore moral questions and examine how a life of virtue should be lived. Austen didn't chose the Regency era for her novels to be sexy or to amp up the tension. She wrote about it because that's the actual world she lived in. Her characters rebel or conform to the prevailing social order and expectations because that's the framework against which their moral life is lived. The characters most focused on the particulars of dress or social position or straining against social convention are the most ridiculous: Lady Catherine, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele and her sister, Anne Eliot's father. And the characters who most embody the Regency attitudes that so fascinate the Ever, Jane crowd are the characters Austen sees as most morally damaged: Henry and Mary Crawford, with their effortless charm and their banter and their instinctive grasp of courtesies, hierarchies, rules and mores, and their absence of any ethical foundation.

It's clear how the Crawfords, or Lydia Bennet and Wickham, or Willoughby, fit into the world of Ever, Jane. It's rather less clear how the virtual world of Ever, Jane reflects Jane Austen's world of virtue ethics. Playing around in Jane Austen's "world" is the shallowest way of appreciating her and her work, because the heart and soul of Austen is moral change through development of virtue. Ignore that, and you might as well call your MMORPG Fanny Hill.

***

Maybe, then, the best way of reappraising Austen is to transpose her novels into modern times, see how the stories hold up in a world of different social and sexual mores. Random House tried this with its recent series of Austen reboots. This week I came across "Emma: A Modern Retelling" on the library shelf and hate-read it in one sitting. This modernization doesn't make the mistake of assuming that sexual tension has anything to do with yearning, repressed virgins. Much time is devoted to explaining the sexual history of characters who are not currently having sex, so that we don't need to worry that, say, Mr. Knightley is abnormal because he is not living with anyone. My dears, even old Mr. Woodhouse is not spared the indignity of being matched up with someone at the end, because Emma is about matchmaking, and matchmaking is about sex. Marriage, and permanence, are afterthoughts. Emma's interest in Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax has nothing to do with the personal qualities those ladies exhibit, but rather her mild sexual attraction to each -- mild, because it keeps her from having sex with men, but burns off easily enough to allow her to pivot to Mr. Knightley when it's convenient for the story. What is the secret of Harriet Smith's parentage? Not simply that she is the natural daughter of someone who supports her anonymously, but that her father was "decent" enough (Knightley's words) to let the mother dose herself with his sperm, instead of insisting on having sex as other less principled men might have done.

The premise of these modern retellings, and this one in particular, is that people are so different now than in Austen's time that we need bigger, more scandalous things to make us understand the issues of an Austen novel. On the premise that there's no real character drama in being a rather sheltered young woman who learns that that it is possible to cause other people pain and grief with small thoughtless actions, Emma now pushes an uncomfortable Harriet to pose nude for her portrait, and manipulates Harriet's perception of Mr. Elton by lying about Mr. Elton trying to assault her.

Interestingly enough, the events that Austen considers pivotal to Emma's development -- her easy unkindness to Miss Bates, and her climactic character choice to listen in friendship to what she thinks will be Mr. Knightley's profession of love for someone else -- are mostly glossed over. The picnic at Box Hill, where Emma insults Miss Bates to her face, is a muted plot event because most of the characters are high on marijuana-laced cake. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The author never even allows Emma to make the decision to consider Knightley's feelings above her own, because Mr. Knightley is not allowed to make the difficult choice to tell Emma about his feelings. That office falls to Harriet Smith, who is matchmaking because matchmaking is what the book is about.

But the author seems to have read Austen and knows that moral awakening is important to her. And so, Emma is given some insight: "she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives: the ability to see, even for a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person. It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more than the pursuit of the goals of the unruly ego." Yes, empathy is the great moral good which is the end of all our moral striving, without which happiness cannot be achieved: "She realized that happiness is something that springs from the generous treatment of others and that until one makes that connection, happiness may prove elusive."

Unhappily, this book was unable to convince me, even for a brief moment, that the author could see the world through Jane Austen's eyes.

***

If sex is not the only matter of significance in the world -- if virtue, and a good character, and the ability to choose a good that exists independently of our desires and whims are things that have the significance that Jane Austen believed they did -- then maybe it's time to stop using her name as a brand to market projects which resemble hers only through the most superficial imitation of plot or style. "Austenesque" means something rather deeper than Empire dresses or irony or the early 19th century marriage market. It means moral clarity and virtue ethics and sexual standards based on a traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Stop taking the name of the Jane in vain.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

At Fault

It is my policy, generally, not to write in rage, so after composing and trashing several mental reams ranging from the furious to the maudlin, let me step back and tell you the very fine news that there is nothing wrong with me. I am in perfect health. My blood pressure, of a morning, is 120/80. Every lab a doctor runs at a checkup comes back just peachy. Even my teeth are good. My diet isn't a problem. I'm eating about as healthily as a modern American can without veering off into faddishness.

The reason I am tired and sluggish, the reason I'm not losing weight, seems to boil down to the fact that I'm too damn lazy.

The doctor didn't put it that way, of course. He asked about my level of daily activity, which ranges from "laundry" to "dying of heat on the couch". He looked at my chart and noted that four years ago I weighed forty pounds less than I do now. In those four years, I gained sixty pounds of pregnant, but that means that in 2.5 years since pregnancy I've only lost twenty, and almost ten of them were the baby himself. So now I'm to get 45 minutes of cardio a day -- "not Olympic level, just walking or something", because clearly I'm not even getting 45 minutes of walking around a day -- and take a multivitamin.

Is it the sixth baby? Four years ago I had a two year old as well. Is it getting older? Four years ago I was 33. Is it the move? But four years ago we were already in Ohio. Is the summer heat? Four years ago we didn't even have the a/c in the kitchen window.

So. I've had several days to stew this off. A week, in fact, in which I've discovered that I have a step counter on my phone, and in which I have boosted my daily count. A week in which Darwin and I have run 2.5 miles three times. A week in which I gave up sugar to support my sister giving up sugar. A week in which I did all these things and dropped not a single pound.

These things are not enough.

The fact that I can pick up running 2.5 miles after not running in ages, and that after a sedentary summer I could climb the toughest mountain in Virginia pretty handily, suggests that I am capable of a good deal more physical activity than I currently do, and that I need to do far more than I have any desire to do. My desire, to be honest, is to sit on my fat ass doing nothing, because I like to be comfortable, more than I like to be slim, or muscular, or be willing to have sex when I actually want it because my current weight makes the blood pressure risk of sixty extra pounds an okay prudential judgment...

I see that I'm violating my policy of not writing in rage.

Having to confront that a problem is My Fault is liberating, in a sense. I don't have to wait around any more hoping for a diagnosis that explains my weariness at some deeper level. I just have to get started on 45 minutes of cardio a day, or 10K steps, or improving my running distance. And these are concrete things. I can take one more step, as I tell myself when I'm running. I hate running, as it happens. I never feel light and easy. I feel every pound jouncing around on my frame. But I can do it, and without any more effort than getting up earlier than I want to and going out of the house when I don't feel like it. For the rest of my hopefully-not-goddamn life.

***

Looking back, I see I've been hating running for a good ten years.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

It's Not Conservative to Seek A Gotterdammerung

There's a rather poor case for Trump masquerading as an intellectual one at the Claremont Review of Books under the title "The Flight 93 Election". The author's conceit is that for conservatives, the country is like the hijacked Flight 93 on September 11th:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

As he builds his case, it's clear that this isn't just another hysterical case of a conservative trying to talk himself into supporting Trump because Hillary is so bad (which, of course, she is -- the problem is that Trump himself is little better and comes with a side helping of destroying the conservative movement and party), no the author believes that American culture has reached a point of collapse such that incremental changes are an insult to its problems. There needs to be a massive showdown in which conservative cultural principles either win or go down in the flames of the country's complete cultural and social destruction, because if we don't have the showdown Right Now, he believes that the country is going to self destruct anyway. Thus the Flight 93 analogy.

Not only, he argues, are conservatives wrong to try to stick to an incremental approach, if they don't support "fundamental change" in the country's cultural direction they aren't really serious in opposing the liberal agenda anyway.

But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.
...
Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the author is never all that clear on what exactly Trump would do to achieve fundamental change. He doesn't say what Trump will change or how he will change it, other than being rude in the face of political correctness and seeking to exclude Hispanic immigrants, whom the author blasts as "Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty".

There's a far more fundamental problem to address here. The author claims that if conservatives don't support a radical change to bring the culture back into line, then they are admitting that conservatism is wrong. I would go the opposite direction and say that the author's claims make it clear that he is no kind of conservative. Think of the kind of problems that he's pointing to in the piece: the breakdown of marriage and the family, crime, the collapse of education -- not just through schools not doing a good job but through a loss of a sense of what it is that we even want to teach our children. Serious types of cultural breakdown. And yet he argues that these cannot be addressed gradually. Instead, we need a strong leader who will reverse these problems all at once.

How do you address a problem such as the breakdown of marriage in the family during 4-8 years? Set aside the laughable idea that this could be accomplished by someone lauds adultery and trades in his wife for a new model every decade or two. That can't be accomplished by anyone. Culture does not turn on a dime. What happens, in this imagined future, to all the people who think that marriage is not important, that kids are only an option, or that having kids outside of marriage is a perfectly good idea? Do they all just suddenly change their minds? Are their experiences erased? Do they themselves vanish and get replaced by other people? How do the schools and universities get fixed? Do we simply hatch an entirely new set of teachers and professors out of pods and send the old ones back to the factory?

Conservatives do not promise to turn the culture on a dime because they are truthful, not because they are timid. Our culture does indeed have many and grave things wrong with it. (This makes it similar to cultures of many other times and places -- our problems are our own but our fallenness is universal.) But trying to correct those problems will be slow because it requires the conversion of hearts and minds, and the process of people learning to live another way. It took us a long time to get to where we are not, and creation is slower than destruction.

What this author proposes isn't conservatism, it's a right wing Great Leap Forward. Or perhaps is something all too familiar from recent history, the reactionary version of this:

I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

No, this author isn't not a leftist. The world that he imagines is different from the one Obama did eight years ago. But his idea that the world can be suddenly changed by the intervention of a strong leader is exactly the same. It's a belief which is profoundly un-conservative, and indeed that presumes that conservatism is wrong about human nature and human experience. It presumes that we can suddenly eliminate corruption and vice in some titanic win or lose struggle, a Gotterdammerung in which we risk all in order to win all. But if conservatism is right about how human nature and human culture works, this won't result in a new creation, just in destruction.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Readalong: Maria Chapdelaine

While we were on vacation, I picked up a slender Image book from a shelf, part of the very random collection of books scattered throughout the lodge. This book was called Maria Chapdelaine, a novel written in 1913 about a girl living in the wilds of French Canada, who has to decide between three suitors and the different lives they promise. The author is Louis Hémon, a Frenchman living in Quebec who drew from his recollections of life in Péribonka, a small town built where the Péribonka River flows into Lac Saint-Jean.

Hemon wrote in French tinged with the Quebec patois. The edition of which I read the first few pages was in English, but the language was simple and clear, and I thought that perhaps I could read it in French. And so I am, with a old library copy from the 20s. When I slant the pages in sunlight, the press of the letters casts shadows across the old rough paper. The book is, in its way, like the story: simple, old, plain.

Maria, as best I can tell past my basic decoding of the text, seems to be a bit shallow, her head turned by a recent sojourn across the lake to the town of Saint-Prime, where the houses are built close together and the forest has been cleared away so that the land is clear, free of the ubiquitous stumps. She regrets that her father has the drive of one who must clear the land, who gets the itch to move once a semblance of civilization takes root. She is a bit vain, but seems at root a good girl who knows that the life her family leads is one that will always involve isolation and grinding hard work. But the right man might promise a better life...

I don't understand every word of the French, but I find if I read a paragraph or a page and work it out from the context, I grasp the story about as well as if I look up every word I don't know.  There are some Quebecois constructions that don't make a lot of sense on a word-by-word basis but are decipherable as part of a paragraph. I am getting a good sense of the vastness of the Canadian forest, the bleakness of the northern winters, the sound of the ice melting on the river, les pionniers dans leur maisons de bois.

For example:

Alors ils se mirent tous à parler une fois de plus del la saison qui s'ourvrait et des travaux qui allaient devenir possibles. Mai amenait une alternance de pluies chaudes and de beaux jours ensoleillés qui triomphait peu à peu du gel accumulé du long hiver. Les souches basses et les racines émergeaient, bien que l'ombre des sapins et des cyprès serrés protégeât la longue agonie des plaques de neige; les chemins se transformaient en fondrières; là où la mousse brune se montrait, elle était toute gonflée d'eau et pareille à une éponge.

Roughly:

Then [the family] started to speak once more of the springtime which had begun, and the work that began to be possible. The month of May alternated between warm rain and beautiful sunny days which won out bit by bit over the accumulated ice of the long winter. The low stumps and (?) emerged, although the shadow of the various trees protected the long agony of the patches of snow; the roads transformed into mudpits; where the old brown foam of snow (la mousse brune, an elegant bit of description) piled up, it was like a sponge full of water.

I did look up gonflée, which I'd guessed as "pockmarked" but actually meant "inflated". Racines I passed over, as well as les sapins et des cypres serrés -- clearly some kind of trees (cypress, obviously, but I don't know serrés unless it's related to serrated, and perhaps sapins is saplings?).

***

I'm going to spend September working through Maria Chapdelaine, and I'd love to have company, in either French or English. (Project Gutenburg has the French online.)

UPDATE: Reader Catholic Bibilophagist notes that Amazon has a free Kindle version of Maria Chapdelaine in English.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Last-Minute Reading List, or How I Ditched the Reading Curriculum

Well, there's no way to tell this so I come out looking good, so I'll just say it: we're starting our schoolwork for the year tomorrow, and I didn't look at the reading comprehension books from our curriculum until today. We'd flipped through the history and the science and the lesson plans, but I'd passed over the reading comprehension books because, frankly, they seemed rather negligible. Slender paperbacks with saint stories -- not much for reading comprehension, I thought, but no matter. We would assign some actual literature, of course, I told myself, ignoring the red flag going up about a curriculum that doesn't assign any novels even at the seventh-grade level. And we were going to stick to the curriculum because I always run into organizational trouble when I go my own way. I know this. We would do the work.

So I paid no attention to the reading comprehension books until this morning, as I sat with my tea at the dining room table covered with piles of books sorted by grade. I wanted to get a handle on what each kid was doing the next day. Be ready, you know? And as the fifth grade pile was next to me, I consulted the lesson plan. Up for the first morning: a four-page story about Maria Goretti.

There are ways and there are ways to tell children the story of an eleven-year-old girl canonized for forgiving the man who murdered her in an attempt at a violent rape. We used to have a coloring book about Maria Goretti, part of a series by Mary Fabyan Windeatt, which did a good job not only of bringing out Maria's character as a pious, cheerful, sensible Italian farm girl living in poverty at the beginning of the last century, taking on work and burdens that a girl of her age should not have had to carry, but also built up in an appropriate way her increasing dread about the advances of Alessandro Serenelli. But there are other approaches to Maria's story as told for young people, approaches that build her up as a plaster saint, approaches which use weaselly roundabouts to tell what not actually a story for children. And if you combine the plaster saint approach with poorly structured story, badly written, you will have the story I read this morning.

My fifth-grader is not the world's absolute innocent, but we haven't had That Talk yet, and I'm not sure that I want That Talk to grow out of a discussion of what rape is. And I don't want a discussion of chastity to come from this particular version of Maria Goretti's life, because it makes chastity sound sickly sweet and precious.

I turned pages in disbelief, and then I fell to skimming because it pained me to read it. Then I paged through the rest of the book, threw it aside, and said, "Damn." Never will I teach "reading comprehension" with such sappy prose, such faulty style, such bad structure.

And so, the day before we start school, here is a beginning of our new and improved"reading comprehension program", pulled in a rage from our bookshelves this afternoon:

1st Grade:
Angel in the Waters, Regina Doman
Jamie and the Pooka, Tomie dePaola
A bunch of Beatrix Potter books
Mouse Tales, Arnold Lobel
Faith and Freedom readers from Catholic School, that my brother used when he was homeschooling
Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff
Little Bear, Else Holmelund Minarik
The surviving Bob Books
Grimm's Fairy Tales, in the edition I loved as a child
Bean and Ivy, Annie Barrows, a chapter book.

3rd Grade:
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Louis Sachar
Henry and Beezus, Beverly Cleary
The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
Looking at History: From Cavement to the Present, by R.J. Unstead
Growing up in Viking Times, by Dominic Tweddle
Danny Kaye's Around the World Story Book
Jenny Goes to Sea, Esther Averill
26 Fairmount Ave, and Here We All Are, Tomie dePaola
Book of Saints, by Fr. Lovasik
One Day in the Tropical Rain Forest, by Jean Craighead George
Sand to Sea: Marine Life of Hawaii, by Stephanie Feeney and Ann Fielding
George Washington Carver: Scientist and Teacher, by Carol Greene
Our Friends From Other Lands, by the Daughters of Saint Paul (old textbook with saint stories from around the world)
Heroes of God: Saints for Boys, by Daniel A. Lord, S.J.
Seabird, by Holling Clancy Holling
Faraway Home, by Jane Kurtz

5th Grade:
On This Long Journey, by Joseph Bruchac (Scholastic novel about the Trail of Tears)
Blazing West, Kathryn Lasky (Scholastic novel about Louis and Clark)
The White Stag, Kate Seredy
Misty of Chincoteague, and Stormy, Misty's Foal, Marguerite Henry
Snow Treasure, Marie McSwigan (Kids sneak gold on sleds past Nazis -- I loved it as a kid)
I, Juan de Pareja, Elisabeth Borton de Trevino
The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois
Father Damien and the Bells, Arthur and Elizabeth Odell Sheehan (Vision book)
Katie John, Mary Calhoun
Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge
All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor
Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Carl Sandburg's poetry in an edition for kids
The Trumpeter of Krakow, Eric P. Kelly
The Wright Brothers, and Dolly Madison (Landmark books)
George Washington's World, Genevieve Foster
The Stars, H.A. Rey
Junior Great Books, Series 4, Part 1 (and Part 2 if I can find it)
The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, Anne Terry White, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, Rachel Field

Seventh/Eighth Grade:
Fighting Prince of Donegal, Robert T. Reilly
My Friend Flicka, Mary O'Hara
Life in the Renaissance, Marzieh Gail (Landmark Giant book, with many color plates)
Lincoln: a Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
Mother Teresa, Maya Gold (DK biography)
Old Yeller, Fred Gipson

Ninth Grade: 
Mrs. Mike, by Nancy and Benedict Freedman
Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
(Already has a bunch of Humanities literature assigned, Ancients through Romans)

The short lists for the older grades are because so far, I've only gone through the kids' shelves downstairs.

So, there we are. We're sticking with the curriculum for other things, though -- until I grow insane from the beat-you-over-the-head Catholic content of every single subject. The notes for parents assure me that this is how we teach our kids eternal truths of the faith, that this is how we raise lifelong Catholics. I wonder, rather, if this is how we raise hothouse flowers whose beliefs wilt in the real world.


Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Strange Contradictions of Dehumanization

There's a piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal about novelist Ian McEwan's upcoming book, Nutshell.
The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel “Nutshell” first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. “We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,” he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

What unfolds is a short murder mystery in a grand, decrepit Georgian home in London, featuring a pregnant woman, her estranged husband and his brother—now the woman’s lover—told by the married couple’s unborn child. The mother-father-uncle love triangle, and the narrator’s paralysis and helplessness, evoke another famous work of British literature that served as an inspiration for Mr. McEwan.
Near the end of the interview, the interviewer asks the question which came first to my mind, and McEwan brushes it off rather derisively with a non-answer:
Given the charged debate over abortion, a preternaturally sentient unborn child could strike some readers as a pro-life argument. Is that your intention?

I only get this question from America. I’m not going to enter into the charged debate about this. I’m from a generation that largely took for granted a woman’s right to make a decision on this, provided that this is done early enough.

But in the whole of writing this book, the issue of pro-choice or pro-life didn’t even cross my mind. I don’t think it crossed the mind of any European who came near the book either.

There are, of course, various ways one could answer this question. They wouldn't necessarily need to be answers in line with Christian beliefs about the dignity of life. He could have said, "Well, look. One can write a novel based upon any conceit. Richard Adams wrote a novel from the viewpoint of rabbits, and for them exterminating their warren with poison gas had something of the magnitude of a war crime. But that's merely a function of imagining a point of view different from those that actually exist. To a rabbit, this might be a crime against humanity, but to us it's simply humane pest control. If a child in the womb had the sentience of the narrator in my book, perhaps it would be a crime to kill her, but of course we know that's only make believe."

A somewhat loathsome view, perhaps, but it would have a coherence to it. What's odd to me is the way in which McEwan refuses to even engage with the question which his novel should naturally bring up. Oh, it's something only an American would think of. Well, perhaps, but if so isn't that perhaps a problem?

One of the great things about literature is that it can provide the reader a window into the plight of someone very different. That could mean something as distant and time an place as putting yourself into the place of a peasant in Ancient China, or something as nearby as a boy reading a book written from the point of view of a girl his own age. In this sense, literature can be very humanistic, in that his humanizes people different from ourselves. Yet here we have an author saying of the main character of his book that it's not even a question of interest (except to those Americans) whether people like his main character are persons with human rights and all that goes with them. To not even have an interest in the question seem to show a serious lack of moral imagination.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Sympathetic People File Frivolous Lawsuit, Face Consequences

The first headline I was read something like "Survivors of Aurora Shooting Forced To Pay Cinemark $700k!" Of course, that kind of thing had me wondering, so I clicked around a bit and came across this account in the LA Times.

At root is the following basic problem: a crazy young man went into a movie theater and shot a lot of people. The shooter has been sentenced to life in prison. He is no longer a threat to the public. However, many of those injured in the shooting have suffered great hardship, trauma and expense. How are they to be repaid?

Apparently some of them concluded that since the person to actually perpetrated the crime was incapable of making restitution to them, the solution was to sue the movie theater chain on the theory that it had been negligent in not keeping them safe.

They were on the verge of losing the case, and the judge told them as much. He urged Cinemark and the plaintiffs to reach a settlement. The settlement offered would have left the 41 plaintiffs with $150k to split, and committed Cinemark to making some changes in their safety procedures, which would theoretically decrease the likelihood of such a mass shooting occurring in a Cinemark again. (To me, this seems like a reach, given that we're talking about such a profoundly infrequent and unpredictable occurrence in the first place.) Some of the plaintiffs decided not to take the settlement offer, and the judge proceeded to rule against them. Result? According to Colorado law, if you sue and lose, you are responsible for the legal costs of the person you sued. This leaves the plaintiffs on the hook for at least $700k in Cinemark's court costs.

No one wants to see people who have already suffered much be hit with even more suffering, but on the basic legal matter it seems very likely to me that this outcome is entirely just. I find it very hard to believe that Cinemark did anything negligent of a sort that could be expected to result in a catastrophe such s the Aurora shooting. To hold them liable for the victims would be unjust.

What it seems like people are struggling with is the fact that there's not some deep pocketed person to hold responsible for the crime so that people can receive recompense for their suffering. And yet given that the criminal is completely without means to make restitution to the people injured, what recourse is there really? None. The shooter was entirely capable of creating evils that he cannot remedy. The fact that he did so in a Cimemark movie theater does not make them at fault for it any more than a stranger bursting into my house and shooting my guests would make me at fault for his victim's injuries.

I think it is the case that to the extent that people have become incapacitated and unable to care for themselves as they had in the past, society has a duty to help take care of those people -- just as it would in a situation where someone was disabled through some more normal kind of injury. But they are not owed the kind of vast punitive damages that litigators so often seek. Terrible, terrible things sometimes happen in the world, and there is not necessarily someone who owes it to us to make them up to us. That is simply how the world is.

Moreover, being sued for frivolous reasons is itself a painful and destructive experience. Sure, Cinemark is large, but they are ruled by the same laws as those who are much less deep pocketed. The law requiring those who bring unsuccessful lawsuits against others to cover the legal costs of those they attempted to sue is actually a pretty good way of causing people to think twice before using the very process of law to punish those they don't like.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The All Clear

Darwin and I each received a letter from CPS, closing our case. We were thanked for allowing the caseworker to talk with us about our family, as if it were a social call. I suppose I should feel vindicated to have made a good impression:
After my visits with you, together we identified that your family has many strengths, including being a good, happy family and have a good marriage.
Huzzah for "have a good marriage"!

The letters arrived right after we got back from vacation, 2 1/2 weeks ago, but somehow I just didn't feel like writing about it -- my apologies to the people who've been praying for us so faithfully and waiting for news. When I think about it, I don't feel excited or relieved. As with so many things lately, I feel a great weariness. It just seems like one more thing in a long train of parenting events, a train that stretches on past my ability to see into the future.

But shaking myself from my lethargy: this is good news, and I'm glad that the episode is officially behind us. Now, on to starting schoolwork on Monday.

The Essential Back Burner of the Mind

Years ago my brother signed up for a program which made the background cycles of the family computer available to the SETI program. Computers have the same amount of processing power whenever they're turned on, but many of the tasks we put them to only use a small percentage of their full computer power. This program would download radio telescope data that needed to be processed and use the computer's spare cycle time to look for signals, turning what would otherwise be processor idle time into work time.

The mind doesn't have the same fixed capacity as a computer, but there is a certain similarity. In addition to whatever I'm paying attention to at the moment, there's always something which is cooking on the back burner. Sometimes it seems to be doing so without a whole lot of attention. I won't be consciously thinking about a problem, but at some moment a solution to a problem will bubble up from the background while I'm engaged in some other task.

I've been thinking about this lately because I'm trying to change what's cooking on the back burner. Although we're still desperately yearning for cool fall weather, the end of the calendar year is starting to seem very soon to me. That's when I hope to start writing and posting the second volume of the novel, and if I'm going to be ready I need to get to where it's novel planning that's simmering all the time.

When I was younger and more desperate to get ahead in my job, it was always work that was simmering behind the scenes. I'd come up with news ways to solve a problem at odd times and eagerly log in to see if they would work. For the last few years it was the novel. Once I finished volume one and went to take a break, I seemed to drift for a bit, and then the last four or five months I latched firmly on to one of my old and recurring hobbies and found myself thinking about that all the time.

It's been relaxing to have that background thought focused on something entirely recreational, but because it's fun, it's proved rather hard to shake. I enjoy working on the novel, and I want to get my planning and outlining done, but sifting the not-quite-conscious portion of my mind away from recreation and back to creative work feels a bit like trying to herd my youthful self back to school in the fall. I can sit down and put in active time on the project, and I've started blocking off little sections here and there in my day to work on revising or planning, but my unconscious mind doesn't yet seem to thinking that I'm serious, and as soon as I put my laptop or kindle away, it bolts off like a kid towards recess.

What I need to figure out, of course, it a way to spread myself over several things. To make writing the constant background theme but still be able to unplug and engage in recreation at times. I think probably the way to do that is to increase the amount of active time that I'm spending on what I want to be my background topic until it somehow takes hold. It has to become a habit, the thing that I naturally turn back to when my mind is otherwise idle. But as I try to get to that point, it's as if I'm pushing harder and harder on a model train, but have not yet managed to make it jump the track and move sideways.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins



Three fine performances, and a deeply unstable moral core. Meryl Streep is excellent as Florence Foster Jenkins, a lady with more money than talent, who lives for music. Hugh Grant is the husband, a former actor who carefully shields her from anything unpleasant, including his own cozy secret life with a pretty girlfriend. Simon Helberg plays Madame Florence's diffident accompanist with a charm that is not destroyed by the movie's determination to lure him out of the closet. Florence evokes affection in those closest to her, and no wonder -- she has been fighting valiantly for years against the ravages of syphilis, a legacy of her more conventionally unfaithful first husband.

The effects of syphilis famously include mental deterioration in the late stages. Florence, formerly a talented amateur pianist, is now under the mostly-harmless delusion that she can sing. Mostly harmless, I say, because her great wealth leads everyone around her to lie constantly to her about the extent of her ability. Everyone in this movie can be bought, and is bought explicitly, except for the character presented to us as the bad guy, a famous critic who has as much passion for music as Florence does, who rejects the ever increasing bribes offered him, and whose scathing, honest review of the concert -- the honesty that kills her, in a sense -- is fueled by the fact that the Carnegie Hall is supposed to be a standard of excellence, not a vanity venue.

The movie just isn't sure where it comes down. "The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer", proclaims the poster. "Inspiring" is an interesting adjective here. Inspired how? Inspired to do what? The problem is that Florence Foster Jenkins the movie, while entertaining for the most part, cannot decide what exactly it is about, due to a deeply unstable moral core which boils down to the message "Don't be mean". Perhaps it's about loyalty and faithfulness, virtues stressed by Florence's husband as he persuades the pianist to stand by Florence even as her concert venues become more grandiose -- except that the husband's faithfulness doesn't extend so far as to give Florence his undivided love. "Stay the night with me," she begs him as he prepares to head out to the brownstone apartment she rents for him. (Due to her syphilis, their marriage has always been sexless -- I won't describe it as celibate because he keeps his little establishment on the side to ensure that he doesn't have to be celibate.) Perhaps it's about the dignity of people and their dreams -- but Florence's concerts are not attended by well-wishers, but by paid sycophants and people whose eyes are bright not with joy but with suppressed hysterics. One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves a young lady who literally crawls out of a concert, gasping with laughter. Florence is not respected or beloved. People listen to her to laugh at her, and it breaks her when she realizes that. The movie softens the historical record -- Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso didn't attend her concerts from affection, but because she was an unwitting comic sensation.

I'm very curious to see another recent retelling of this story, the French movie Marguerite. It, apparently, is more alive to the inherent vanity of the main character (given her name, Marguerite Dumont) and the morally debilitating effects of enabling that vanity on everyone around her. Florence Foster Jenkins could have been a much stronger movie if the motivations of her husband had been more deeply examined. Here's a man who marries a rich woman at the long end of life expectancy for syphilis -- and then watches her live another twenty-five years. A lot could have been made of that. A lot wasn't.

But it is entertaining to hear Meryl Streep hit every mangled note just as Florence did.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Project Elrond

We are all back at home, finally, after a jaunt to New York to pick up the big girls from a two-week visit to their uncle. We stayed with Anne Kennedy, whose elegant house is more homey and tastefully appointed after six weeks of residence than mine is after six years.

But on Thursday night, I had no big girls and no Darwin (who was out on a business trip just miles from the girls without being able to bring them home in the corporate jet), so we blew off steam by watching The Martian. I gave a stern injunction about how we do not use the kind of language that an astronaut under stress on Mars might be tempted to use, and we skipped the scene of space surgery, but other than that, it's pretty much the ideal movie for a seven-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he could not fully appreciate my favorite scene:

Monday, August 22, 2016

Living In Training

Coincidence served to provide us a teaching example on Sunday. Our town was hosting a 70.3 Ironman race: 1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles bicycling, 13.1 miles running. (Looking up the precise length of each part revealed to me that the 70.3 is actually a half Ironman. The full version of the race involves doubling all these distances.)


The race had begun at 7:00am, so by the time we arrived at our parish for 12:15 mass the first people were completing the race and the "victory village" just down the street from the church was bustling. Then the gospel for the day was:

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.” (LK 13:22-30)

Of course, talk about attaining heaven while thinking about athletic training, and Paul's comparison will naturally come to mind:

All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:23-27)

The comparison seems apt to me, because last year, at the urging of my team at work, I trained for and ran a half marathon. Paul wasn't kidding. The athlete does need to exercise discipline in every way. Just to run my 13.1 miles, I had to stick to a strict schedule of running 3-4 days a week, with the week's long run an ever increasing distance. I had to go to bed earlier than I wanted at times, had to follow certain rules as to what and when I ate. And that was nothing compared to the dedication it must take to prepare for the race that was going on outside. I've known a few people who have done Ironman runs and it involves not just a huge time commitment but a willingness to remake one's life to center on the run to a certain extent.

This is rather different from the way in which many people think about salvation. It seems current at the moment to be horrified at the idea that anyone might not be saved. The assumption, I think, is that heaven is something everyone would want (or at least that hell is something no one would want) and thus that someone only fails to attain heaven if God selfishly withholds heaven from him.

It's true that salvation is a gift. It is not a prize which we 'earn' through our efforts. And yet for us to become one with God's perfect goodness surely requires training on our part. If we are to choose the ultimate good, we must build up our strength by choosing the good at every turn. If it's worthwhile to train the body through rigor of rest, eating and training in order to run a race, how much more worth while to train the spirit towards union with God? Surely this is in some sense what Paul has in mind with his comparison to athletic training.

In the ideal sense, it is the proper function of the human body to run the race. And yet, fallen as we are, sunk in inactivity or busy with other things, our bodies may not be ready to run a race well, or at all. We have to train and conform our lives to a discipline in order to have the ability to run a race reliably. In the same sense, our souls are meant, in the ideal, to embrace and conform to God's will. Yet without training we can too easily focus our lives on everything except God, and when the time comes to run our race, find ourselves unable.

Orphan Openings: Ivy

On the corner two blocks over sits an edifice of brick. It looks to be an entire apartment building, but is, as I've heard, inhabited by one elderly woman. I've never seen her, but sometimes the lights are on as I walk past, revealing coffered ceilings and wallpaper and stone fireplaces and inglenooks. The kitchen is bricked into a corner, and that light, too, is often on. I've never seen lights upstairs, but perhaps I walk by at the wrong time.

Ivy masses at the foundation, giving the house a comfortable, established air. The tendrils wind almost to the third story in that tenacious way that ivy has, sending rootlets into any available crevice. Indeed, it's crept into an upstairs window and hangs in a curtain of vines behind the glass. There are many windows set in the verdant walls, all dressed with half-curtains of eyelet, but no others have ivy inside. I study the house every time I walk past it in the evening, as I study all beautiful houses, but now I no longer try to peek into the kitchen or the luxurious front rooms. Instead, I always look at the dark window in the center of the house, where the ivy inside clings withered and dead.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Hard Work of Recapturing the Lightning Vision

Everything I want to write has been percolating in my head. Each day on vacation I had such lovely posts brewing. How we hiked 9.2 miles up and down Old Rag without realizing exactly what a "rock scramble" looked like on the ground, and survived with credit. (Fortunately, we knew enough to leave all but the oldest back at the lodge with the non-hikers.) How Darwin and I laid out on a picnic table at 2 AM like teenagers on a first date, and watched the Perseids in a brilliant Virginia starfield the likes of which I haven't seen since I lived in Virginia as a little girl learning the constellations from my father. How we went to Monticello and surveyed Jefferson's beautiful contribution to the great architecture of the world, the elegant house in which his children worked as slaves. On the pleasure of singing with your siblings, who know exactly where you're going and the perfect harmony to hit. And each evening, I did not write down the sentences taking form in my mind, and they slipped off into the oblivion of unchanneled creativity

The creativity of God is so potent that his thoughts immediately take on created form. Humans have to do a bit more work than that. Without taking the physical effort to convey our thoughts, in speech, in words, in images, we lose them. Even the intuitions that are a gift from God take a physical effort to be conveyed as a gift to others.
It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together: 
was die Welt
Im innersten zusammenhält. 
only for a moment, perhaps, and the lightning vision of his intuition has to be recaptured and rediscovered in hard work.
So says Josef Pieper in "Leisure the Basis of Culture", which, appropriately enough, was vacation reading for Darwin, and, now, for me. Pieper describes the opposite of leisure not as work but as acedia, or my old nemesis sloth. 
No, the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one's living; it is man's happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God -- which is to say love. Love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical 'worker'. 
Who would guess, unless he were expressly told so, that Aquinas regarded acedia as a sin against the third commandment? He was in fact so far from considering idleness as the opposite of the ethos of work that he simply interprets it as an offence against the commandment in which we are called upon to have 'the peace of the mind in God'.
***

I have had difficulty in being objective about myself and my motivation since we arrived home, because after the clarity of the fresh mountain air, my head been repollenated by Ohio's muggy atmosphere. I am tired and heavy, and everything seems hard, and I feel unvirtuous because I don't feel like doing the hard work. Isn't virtue found in doing what is difficult? But Pieper has something to say about that too, again by way of Aquinas:

In Kant's view, indeed, the fact that man's natural bent is contrary to the moral law, belongs to the concept of moral law. It is normal and essential, on this view, that the good should be difficult, and that the effort of will required in forcing oneself to perform some action should become the yardstick of the moral good: the more difficult a thing, the higher it is in the order of goodness. 
'Hard work is what is good' -- but in the Summa Theologica we find St. Thomas maintaining the diametrically opposite opinion: 'The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.' 'Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious; it must be more difficult in such a way that it is at the same time good in a yet higher way.' The Middle Ages also said something about virtue that is no longer so readily understood -- least of all by Kant's compatriots and disciples -- they held that virtue meant: 'mastering our natural bent'. No; that is what Kant would have said, and we all of us find it quite easy to understand; what Aquinas says is that virtue make us perfect by enabling us to follow our natural bend in the right way. The highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness -- because it springs from love.  
The tendency to overvalue hard work and the effort of doing something difficult is so deep-rooted that it even infects our notion of love. Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one's enemy as the most exalted form of love? Principally because it offers an example of a natural bend heroically curbed; the exceptional difficulty, the impossibility one might almost say, of loving one's enemy constitutes the greatness of the love. And what does Aquinas say? 'It is not the difficulty of loving one's enemy that matters when the essence of the merit of doing so is concerned, excepting in so far as the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty. And therefore, if love were to be so perfect that the difficulty vanished altogether -- it would be more meritorious still.' 
And in the same way, the essence of thought does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of 'difficulty', so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift -- the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble. On one occasion St. Thomas speaks of contemplation and play in the same breath; 'because of the leisure that goes with contemplation' the divine wisdom itself, Holy Scripture says, is 'always at play, playing through the whole world' (Proverbs viii, 30 f.)
First comes contemplation, and after that the hard work. The work without the contemplation is idle activity which exhausts mentally and spiritually as well as physically. 

***

I'm going on retreat this weekend. It seems strange to leave the family and go off by myself for 24 hours not a week after we've returned from vacation, but that's how the scheduling went. And perhaps it's no mistake. I rested myself physically and mentally on vacation, but I didn't contemplate. I didn't use my free time as leisure, for contemplation. Let me tell you about the day I had four books going from the rather random collection at the vacation house, and I didn't find any of them enjoyable. That's turning leisure time to a very poor account. That's the definition of idleness. 

This weekend I'm going to confession and adoration, and I'm going to have silent time for contemplation. I'm taking Pieper because he's functioning as spiritual reading for me. I'm taking my Bible, in which I'm currently reading through the liturgical requirements in Exodus. I'm taking my rosary because praying it is spiritual exercise for me: onerous at the time, but consistently annoying fruitful. And I'm taking a notebook and a pen, so that, through work, the "lightning vision" of my contemplation can mirror the created form of divine though.

Let me know if I can pray for anything specific for you.

After the hard work of climbing Old Rag.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Are Audiobooks 'Real Reading'?

Daniel Willingham writes about the question "Is listening to an Audio book 'cheating'?"
I've been asked this question a lot and I hate it. I’ll describe why in a bit, but for now I’ll just change it to “does your mind do more or less the same thing when you listening to an audio book and when you read print?”

The short answer is “mostly.”

An influential model of reading is the simple view (Gough & Tumner, 1986), which claims that two fundamental processes contribute to reading: decoding and language processing. “Decoding” obviously refers to figuring out words from print. “Language processing” refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language. Reading, as an evolutionary late-comer, must piggy-back on mental processes that already existed, and spoken communication does much of the lending.

So according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.

Is the simple view right?

Some predictions you’d derive from the simple view are supported. For example, You’d expect that a lot of the difference in reading proficiency in the early grades would be due to differences in decoding. In later grades, most children are pretty fluent decoders so differences in decoding would be more due to processes that support comprehension. That prediction seems to be true (e.g., Tilstra et al, 2009).

Especially relevant to the question of audiobooks, you’d also predict that for typical adults (who decode fluently) listening comprehension and reading comprehension would be mostly the same thing. And experiments show very high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in adults (Bell & Perfetti, 1994; Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust, 1990).
[Read the rest for some examples of types of reading which an audiobook might result in better or worse comprehension than reading hard copy.]

This is a topic I think about slightly guiltily at times because it's got to the point where the majority of the books I read each year are on audiobook. I still very much enjoy getting the chance to sit down with a physical book and read. One of the things I enjoyed very much about our vacation last week was that I was finally able to read two books that had been sitting on my "to read" pile for months if not years. But for various reasons, I have very little time to sit down with a book at this time in my life. What little time I do have is snatched from potential sleep time. Yet somehow, while sitting up till one or two in the morning writing and getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night worked for me while actively composing on the novel, if I try to sit up and read until a similar time I find my vision blurring and I eventually have to give up and go to bed. Typing kept me awake in a way that reading does not, even if I very much want to stay up late reading.

The way that I try to make up for this is with audiobooks. On the average day I spend an hour in the car driving to and from work. That now becomes potential reading time. So does time spent mowing the lawn and sometimes doing dishes or other housework.

In some ways the experience of listening to books differs from reading in print -- not necessarily better or worse, just different. Particularly good readers become imprinted on a book's voice. Even if I read in print, I hear any Patrick O'Brian novel in Patrick Tull's voice, and Dance to the Music of Time now will always flow for me in the cadence of Simon Vance's tones. Because I'm reading while doing activities, particular memories of books become tied to particular places or activities: Mowing a difficult spot under the playscape is closely connected with a letter that Churchill's wife wrote to him about how he should improve the way he dealt with subordinates, putting up storm windows in the guest room is forever connected with a passage in War & Peace in which Nickolai rescues a Polish girl and her father.  It's not just that these passages of the books now remind me of these activities, but that returning to a place or activity will suddenly bring up a snatch of prose that I heard in connection with it.

Yet there is a guilty, cultural feeling that this isn't "real" reading. Perhaps this ties back to the way that we learn how to read. In my family, there was a strong tradition of reading aloud. Some favorite books (such as The Hobbit and Watership Down) I heard read aloud by my father before I read them myself. Yet even so, I went to school, filled out my BookIt forms to get pizzas at Pizza Hut, and got stars next to my name for the books I read myself. Being read to by a parent didn't count.

This is doubtless for the reason that Willingham gives in his post: children in the early grades are still learning to decode text and mentally turn that into comprehensible words. However, most people have this pretty well nailed by fifth grade or so. When I listen to a book instead of reading a printed copy, it's not because I find reading printed words difficult and listening is some sort of easy way out. "Cheating" is an idea that suggests I am somehow getting a benefit that I don't deserve. But is the audio-reader really getting an undeserved benefit by listening rather than reading pages? Is he somehow failing to put in the "work" of reading?

Not really, but it's still hard to shake that grade-school feeling that you're getting away with something.  So while this formulation of decoding versus comprehension will even more than before give me a rational assurance that I am "really reading" a book that I listen to, I doubt I'll be able to completely shake the feeling that I am "cheating" somehow.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Which Peggy Noonan Drives Me Nuts

There's something about Peggy Noonan's 'here's the pulse of the times' style which can really rub me the wrong way at times. She writes:

Here is a truth of life. When you act as if you’re insane, people are liable to think you’re insane. That’s what happened this week. People started to become convinced he was nuts, a total flake.
...
This is what became obvious, probably fatally so: Mr. Trump is not going to get serious about running for president. He does not have a second act, there are no hidden depths, there will be no “pivot.”

This shouldn't be some new revelation. It was blindingly obvious a year ago that Trump was an entertaining nutter with a big mouth and a lot of money. Nothing more. Never going to grow into presidential material. Never going to step up his game. But Noonan first had to do some pious chin pulling during the last point when Trump could have been defeated in the primaries: Maybe he understood something about this moment. Maybe it was the elites' fault. Maybe this was the pulse of the times. Maybe conservatism betrayed it's supporters. O tempora, O mores!

And NOW she announces that the guy is a nutty vulgarian as if it's some kind of news? Why, oh why, could we not have gathered around a halfway decent candidate in a year when a bland, generic republican would have stood a very good chance of defeating the tremendously abrasive Hillary Clinton before she messes our country up more?

Monday, August 15, 2016

I'm Waiting For My Kiss

Ever since I was little, my dad has composed spontaneous ditties for his children. Some of them come and go in one sitting for whichever baby he was jostling to sleep, but others have entered family tunelore and been passed down to the next generation. Such a one is "I'm Waiting For My Kiss."

I'm waiting for my kiss,
I'm waiting for my kiss.
If I don't get it, then I will cry,
And I will be such a sorry guy.
I'm waiting for my kiss.

A small thing, and yet it has soothed many children in its day. Now, all the grandchildren in turn learn it; William can sing it a pro, when he's in the mood to perform. 

For dad's 60th birthday vacation, the siblings put on a chamber concert of Dad's favorite songs and hymns, and included was Variations on I'm Waiting For My Kiss. My sister recorded a snippet of all six of us improvising in rehearsal. 



Happy birthday to Dad, and may he never have to wait too long for his kiss.