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

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.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Work and Wages, Servile and Liberal

I brought Josef Pieper's Leisure The Basis of Culture along as a vacations read. It's one of those books which I'd always heard that I should read but had never got around to. My ideas of what it was about were a bit vague, and mostly inspired by the title, and so actually reading it has been interesting. In some ways, I strikes me as very much a work of a specific time. Pieper wrote it in post war Germany (it was originally published in 1952) and to a great extent he's writing it to argue against a Marxism which utterly materialistic, measuring the value of work and workers according to the economic output produced. Many were apparently trying to justify the existence of the intellectual life in a worker-based society by redefining philosophy, art, etc. as 'intellectual work' and thus those working in the liberal arts as proletarians of the intellect.

The distinctions between 'servile work' and the liberal arts, the need not to see everything as having value only to the extent of its industrial or economic 'value', seem just as important today, but the contexts in which these are argued are often very different. This makes some portions of the essay a bit odd going. Here, however, is one of the sections which struck me, in which he talks about a servile versus human approach to work and wage.

To take an example: the distinction between the liberal arts and the servile arts runs put parallel with the terms: honorarium and wage properly. Properly speaking, the liberal arts receive an honorarium, while servile work receives a wage. The existence of these words implies that in the first instance there exists some incommensurability between the performance and the reward and that the performance cannot, rightly speaking, be paid for. A 'wage', on the contrary (understood in the contradistinction to honorarium) implies payment for good work, and that the performance can be valued in terms of money: work and wage are not incommensurable. Furthermore honorarium means a contribution towards the cost of living, whereas a wage (in the above narrower sense) means payment for a particular piece of work, with no reference to the needs of the individual concerned. Now it is very significant that the extreme Marxist type of intelligence does not recognize the difference between honorarium and wage: all payment is in the form of a wage. In a sort of manifesto on the situation of the author in society today, in which literature is proclaimed a 'social function', Jean-Paul Sartre announces that the writer, who has in the past so seldom 'established a relation between his work and his material recompense', must learn to regard himself as 'a worker who receives the reward of his effort'. There, the incommensurability between the achievement and the reward, as it is implied and expressed in an 'honorarium', is declared non-existent even in the field of philosophy and poetry which are, on the contrary, simply 'intellectual work'. By contrast a social doctrine steeped in the tradition of Christian Europe would not only hold firm to the distinction between an honorarium and a wage, it would not only hesitate regard every reward as a wage; it would go further and would even maintain that there is no such thing as a recompense for a thing done which did not retain in some degree the character (whether much or little) of an honorarium, for even 'servile' work cannot be entirely equated with the material recompense because it is a 'human' action, so that it always retains something incommensurable with the recompense -- just like the liberal arts.

So it comes about, paradoxical though it may seem, that the proletarian dictator Stalin should say: 'The worker must be paid according to the work done and not according to his needs,' and that the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno which has for one of its principal aims the 'deproletarianizing' of the masses, should assert that 'in the first place the worker has the right to a wage sufficient to support himself and his family.' On the one hand, there is an attempt to restrict and even to extirpate the liberal arts: it is alleged that only useful 'paying' work makes sense; on the other hand, there is an attempt to extend the character of 'liberal art' deep down into every human action, even the humblest 'servile work'. The former aims at making all men into proletarians, the latter at 'deproletarianizing' the masses.
Leisure, the Basis of Culture, pages 41-42

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

Nope, it's MrsDarwin, despite the attribution. All the computers in the house hate me, it seems. I won't bore you with my electronic woes, but suffice it to say that the nice fellow at the Apple store said that repairing the keyboard of my laptop would cost $750. Thanks, William!

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

...and nothing else, because I'm not starting a new book until I've finished packing for vacation

2. What book did you just finish?

The Pauline Epistles in the new testament
Tristram Shandy! At last!
Winds of War, by Herman Wouk

3. What do you plan to read next?

I'm packing my bag, and I'm bringing:
War and Remembrance (both volumes), by Herman Wouk
The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper

After vacation (because our library branch does not have these books in hardcopy, what gives?):
The Dubliners, by James Joyce
The novels of Flann O'Brien
Exodus, picking up with the law chapters where I left off to finish the New Testament.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling as our read-aloud.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?


5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing hangs over me just at the moment. I'm probably in denial.
6. What is your current reading trend?

Let's be honest: Facebook. God help me, it's really hot in this house, and my brain has turned to mush.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- It's Just Not That Good

The latest Harry Potter book is not exactly by J. K. Rowling (she's one of three credited with the "original story" and Jack Thorne is credited as the playwright) and it's not a novel, but with nine years elapsed since the seventh and final Harry Potter novel, and fandom in no way abated, it's hardly surprising that the publication of a script for the two-part play going up in London of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" has turned into its own publishing event, complete with midnight release. Unfortunately, this work does not live up to the books on whose fame it draws. The spoiler free version is as follows:

The problems with Cursed Child begin with its structure. Written as two plays (parts I and II) each in two acts, it's really effectively one long play in four acts. Each act is 18-20 scenes long. One of these scenes is half a page long and consists of nothing but stage directions. The short, choppy style, heavy on spectacle (reviews of the theatrical products all rave about its special effects and sets) would serve well for a movie, but they seem a poor fit for a play. Yes, I'm sure it looks good on stage, as they spent a lot of money on setting and actors to achieve that, but well written plays actually read well on the page too. I've read and enjoyed some playscripts that I've never seen on stage. But this is not good enough to stand up well without its visuals.

One problem is the dialog. Rowling isn't a brilliant prose stylist, but her dialog is fun and snappy and fits the characters. This is mostly generic, and where's it ties to be funny or emotional it often comes off over-broad. The unfortunate Ron Weasley suffers the most from this. He is turned into an utter doofus in this play, many of whose lines are so cringe-worthy (and whose actions are so ephemeral to the plot) that the play would be better if he were just cut. There are a few lines that have a bit of a Rowling sizzle, but in general the dialog craft is very, very pedestrian.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the characterization. The play picks up with the same "Nineteen Year Later" scene which forms the afterward of the final Harry Potter novel, and in it we have a cast of characters made up of both our now middle-aged heroes from the original books, and several of their tween-aged children. However, the adults don't act much like adults. Indeed, there are a couple of deeply painful scenes in which they act distinctly like kids, most notably a ministry of magic meeting in which everyone acts eleven and one person asks if she should smack another in the mouth now. Perhaps in a children's book where the adults are alien creatures never fully rounded because they're perceived through the lens of childhood perception, this would be barely tolerable. But here the lumbering caricatures are characters we spent seven novels getting to know. And even beyond the non-adult-adult-behavior problem, some of the characters are made to do things which simply seem out of character with their established childhood personalities. Most especially, the plot -- a father-son estrangement/redemption arc drawn out of the generic kid's book plotting hat -- hinges upon Harry Potting slipping up and, in a moment of anger, saying something to his son which I find it hard to imagine many fathers, and particularly one of Harry's particular personality and history, ever saying to a son.

Its weakest moments are in the first half, which is heavy on exposition (though there are cringe-worthy character and dialog moments all the way through) while in the second half the plot gets moving at full speed and it more or less carries the reader's interest. For its conclusion it relies on some of the more emotional elements of the Potter canon, which also helps give the ending some weight. But really, nothing rescues this lumbering creature. I think that Rowling diluted her brand and betrayed her fans a bit by authorizing this piece.

Spoilers to follow below the break:

Monday, August 01, 2016

Go Ye and Click Likewise

Let's stop being so weepy here. Some clickage for your Monday.

1. All Star by Smashmouth, as sung by Disney characters. This is a college song for me -- egads, we even bought the album.

2. Auditions for the role of young Han Solo. I love Jeff Goldblum.

3. The physics of the "hardest move in ballet".

4. A series of posts by John Cuddeback on the use of architect Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language in making a living home. I love A Pattern Language and the way that it helps break down into discrete patterns the emotional reaction a person has to a space that seems to "feel alive".

5. Look, I'm creeping nearer to forty, and I'm not going to get back the body I had when I only had four children. It's time to embrace the me I am now. It's time for: the green Mom pants.

You wear green capris with a black top: instant authority. People treat me differently in my mom pants. They move aside. They see that I am doing Important Work for society. Young men hold the door for me. Young women see their future. My slender teenage daughters are appropriately appalled by being seen with me. If I'd wanted more authenticity, I would have gone with coral, but even I have my limits. I'll never be old enough to wear coral pants.

6. I am going to a wedding in October, and I want a dress. I've been browsing ModCloth, which is full of the most lovely creations. Some of them I can reject out of hand; I know what doesn't sit well on me. But many of them are so pretty to contemplate just at the level of being glad that they exist, even if they don't benefit me personally. (C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, calls this the first stage of Eros.)

7. Finally, I have finished Tristram Shandy, after two years of trying. Brandon has a review up that pinpoints why the same qualities that make this book important also make it so frustrating in places. Up from the comments, here's my assessment:
Back when I was in acting class, one of the things we discussed was the concept of art as life distilled. Art distills life in a lot of different ways, some far more comprehensible than others, and yet for all that, distillation is always there, as it must be. Even if, say, an author goes full scatological or pornographic, those element are distilled for the effects that will most appall or titillate, and that particular filtering removes the art even further from the reality it purports to describe. 
The greatness, and the tediousness, of Tristram Shandy is Sterne's project of distilling for the absurdity of trying to describe life in a linear, orderly, tightly controlled fashion. The chaos makes a certain amount of sense. As you say, how can you fully describe a person's life without understanding their parents, and what formed their parents, etc. And yet, it gets frustrating after a time -- all right, a fairly brief time -- because one of the things we expect someone writing a novel to do is to tell a story. And telling a story is the thing that Sterne stubbornly refuses to do. He diverts. He digresses. He doesn't allow his characters to finish stories. He breaks them up with short chapters of otherness. He interrupts stories with other stories, and then doesn't finish those. I suppose the frustration becomes one of more of his bawdy jokes. 
Sterne is by no means unskilled with the innuendo; I raised an eyebrow at the sheer salaciousness of the Jewish widow making sausage. But the bawdiness grows wearing, especially when it's not connected with a story. And sincerity kills it -- Corporal Trim can barely go on with the naughty tale he's telling about his brother Tom when Uncle Toby is so affected by the unessential plot detail of the poor slave girl. His devout concern takes a lot of the zest out of Trim's tale; bawdy jokes always depend on a certain swaggering attitude of mockery. 
We get so little of Tristram himself as a child that it becomes especially glaring in the section with the sadly faulty window. Other writers would have focused on the child's reactions, sensations, perceptions; Sterne takes the chance to philosophize and nudge nudge by sending us back to the adults. To my mind, it made the story less interesting, but again, it's not about the story. 
My favorite passages also had to do with writing. Volume VI, Ch. XL: the lines representing Tristram's progress through his volumes so far. Volume VIII, Ch. II: On beginning a book. Volume IX, Ch. XIII: on curing writer's block by shaving.
8. Last but definitely least: While walking by the local bookstore on Saturday night, we noticed that there was going to be a release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the next night.  We didn't have a lot of interest in reading it, but the big girls love to dress up, so they went down.

Sybil Trelawney reads the tea leaves.
And so we ended up acquiring a copy of this... this thing. Oh, friends. Sybil here started reading it aloud when she got home, and eventually we had to beg her to stop because the dialogue was unbearable. Google tells me that most of the reviews have been glowing. We differ. Watch this space for Darwin's review.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

This Week In Review: CPS Edition

It's been a week since our CPS visit. Fortunately for us, the system is working uneventfully, as it should: the case worker told me that CPS would be closing out our file. I suppose there was no danger that they would ever do otherwise; my brother, who works in Triage at an ER, says that the things that he, and CPS sees, every day are bad enough that a nice family with an escapee 2.5 year old is refreshingly simple. And from the CPS side, I'm sure he's right. Our case worker, as I've said, was extremely kind and solicitous, at great pains to put us at as much ease as we could be in.

At the moment of the investigation, unfortunately, that wasn't much ease. I had been fighting a rising lump of panic ever since I opened the door to the lady, and at the moment she said that she'd need to question all the children in the house, the moment that I internalized that unlike the police, she couldn't just dismiss the whole thing and walk away, I judged it permissible to let myself cry. I supposed I realized that we were not in great danger and that I had the leeway to be a bit emotional. If the situation had seemed desperate, I would have choked everything down at all costs. Probably I would have been right to do that in any case; once I started crying, I couldn't stop, and that probably frightened the kids more than anything.

Someone asked me this week how CPS could question a 2 year old, and what happened if kids talked about being spanked. My 6 and 7 year olds both said, in response to the question about how you were punished if you got in trouble, that sometimes they were spanked and sometimes they were put in time out. (My 6 year old said that sometimes she had to stand in a corner, which is a charming answer but inexplicable to me, as I'm trying to remember the last time I ever made anyone stand in a corner.) Those answers seemed entirely unobjectionable, as did any mention of homeschooling. I very much got the impression that CPS could only legally ask about and notice certain prescribed topics. I'm sure that's not everyone's experience, but that's how it went with us.

As to the 2 year old: William was never asked any questions. He's a great chats these days, but he talks about what's on his mind, and it's hard to direct his conversation. For the sake of experiment, I decided to put some questions to him this morning. Here's the results, with the caveat that he loves to repeat himself and cycle back, so just imagine him rolling his phrases around several times just for the fun of saying them.

(Scene: Mom's bed.)
MrsDarwin: William, what happens when you get in trouble? How are you punished?
William: Guess what? The other bird came out the other bird! (a reference to an Animaniacs episode he saw yesterday)
MrsD: But William, how are you punished when you get in trouble?
W: Guess what? I got my shoes on, and went outside and (here I expected a memory of someone bringing him to the door) it started SNOWING!
MrsD: (repeats the question)
W: No, I go get my shoes on now. Bye.
MrsD: No, Billy, take your sandals and not your socks and shoes.
W: All right.
MrsD: Wait, Bills, where are you going?
W: Get my shoes on.
MrsD: No! Get your sandals instead. And where are you going?
W: Downstairs. Bye!

(Scene: the kitchen)
MrsD: (tries the question again)
W: (eyeing a jug of water on the counter) This is water, okay? That's for kitties. You don't want it. (This answer thrills him, and he tries out variations of it for a while.)
MrsD: (to all) You just can't get a straight answer out of him.
Jack (7): I can! Let me try. (He gets down at William's level) Willie, did Obi-Wan and Yoda like each other?
W: Yes!
J: Did the Navy and the Confederates like each other?
W: Yes!
MrsD: (trying a new approach) William, do you know where your private parts are?
W: (stares at me, baffled) Eleanor's hat is in the living room. (conspiratorially) Eleanor has your phone and laptop. And Julia! And you! (cackles) Hey! That was a good one.
(Exit William, congratulating himself)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: absurdism.

Right now William is standing in the hall, pretending to throw up, because yesterday he threw up all morning and there were big reactions each time. On Friday he poured Julia's green ink all over his new clothes. Two weeks ago he spilled vinegar on my laptop and fried the keyboard so that every time the cursor is in a typing field it scrolls right brackets. None of these things are done with the slightest malice, with but a madcap indomitable cheerfulness. He is too legit to quit.

I am tired.


We did something new this week: testing.

I don't have a principled stand against testing. We've just never gotten around to it, partly because we can submit a portfolio and get a teacher's assessment for our homeschooling notification, and partly because of the vague fear I have as a parent educator that I'll find out that I'm failing my kids and that they don't actually know anything.

Some of that fear was realized. The scores followed age level. The oldest did quite well in everything, the next down was right at age level, and it got worse from there. There was a moment when the tester was explaining the scores of the youngest one tested, where I started to feel that lump of panic rising in my throat again, just as I had a few days before during the CPS visit. Then I thought, "No. I'm not doing this twice in a week," and tamped it down, and I was okay. But it's clear that the younger ones haven't been well served academically, in a way that reflects no credit on me as the parent of many.

Darwin, at home, put things in perspective. We were supposed to test right at the end of the school year, but due to conflicts on both sides, the tests were moved back to almost August. That's a hard time to pick up the academic knowledge one laid aside in May. One child who tested poorly on decoding phonemes sat later and read a me a vocabulary-rich story with nary a stumble. And interestingly enough, even the worst test-takers for spelling and reading scored years above age level on things like history, social studies, and science -- subjects we've barely even studied formally. These things are imbibed with our family culture, apparently.

When you have to face your fears, you have an opportunity to make changes. Already we'd been making plans to restructure our schooling so that the oldest ones will be more self-sufficient, giving me the time and energy to spend on shoring up the three Rs with the younger ones. Now I have some guidance on what particularly to focus on. For those who have an interest in boxed curriculum, we're going with the Catholic Heritage Curriculum this year -- partly because eventually you just have to pick something and go with it, and partly because it seemed more flexible in allowing me to focus just on the core subjects without having to include tons of extras that I either feel are less important or that I want to cover in some other way. (No, I don't need to buy your Gregorian Chant for Children course.) And if it doesn't work for us, next year we'll do something else.

We've made one other change. The oldest was going to take Freshman chorus at the high school this year, the class which started at 7:25 am. But we've found other local opportunities now for singing and for theater -- which will not include shifting the family to getting up at dark o'clock -- and we have some travel opportunities which we couldn't take if we were tied down to getting to school every day. Also, the oldest never seemed all that enthused about the idea. When we offered her the possibility of withdrawing from school, she jumped at it, especially as that means she can go visit her uncle in New Jersey and maybe get to see a show on Broadway. School, Broadway -- not that hard of a choice, right?


I keep reminding myself that this is just a season in my life. I keep trying to obey St. Paul's injunction to judge no one, not even yourself. Nor am I actually having all that hard a time. Day to day, life is mostly easy: I just finished a book that's been hanging over my head for two years; Darwin has replaced the toilet that cracked and overflowed through the living room ceiling; friends from Texas spent a fun, if sweaty, weekend at our house. The youngest man is not always destructive; the big girls are very helpful. We took a walk downtown last night and kept running into people we knew, neighbors and friends from church and new theater friends. The heat has broken. And next weekend we're headed for a big lodge in the Shenandoahs to spend a week with my dad and all my siblings and their families.

Here's to an easier week for everyone.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Shall the Fertile Inherit the Earth?

Dom Bettinelli has a brief post on this election cycle, in which the GOP has lost interest on social conservatism while the Democrats seem to think they're dancing on its grave, entitled Living the Long Defeat. The title refers to Tolkien, who wrote in one of his letters:
“Actually I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
I started this blog eleven years ago, and if you'd told me then that by 2016 same sex marriage would be legal in all fifty states or that the presidential administration would be threatening the funding of schools who didn't let boys who claimed they felt they were girls use the girls locker room and suing nuns who didn't provide their employees with free access to the morning after pill, I would have thought you were some kind of hysterical alarmist. The rate of cultural change has been staggering.

I think of this particularly in reference to when I started the blog, because going by to my first post I explained the name of the blog as follows:
Which brings me back to this blog's name: DarwinCatholic.

One of the things that really struck me was the cultural/demographic differences between my wife and me (and our friends from college) and most of the other people our age that we met through work.

My wife and I married a month and a half after graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville. (We had been going out for three and a half years.) Many of our friends also married within a year of graduation. Most of us also had our first child within a year of getting married, and our second within two years after the first. We got office jobs and middle class incomes. Some of our friends had degrees in majors, such as Computer Science, designed to win jobs. Others, like me (I majored in Classics), learned on the job and caught up fast. We bought houses before we were thirty. Several of us started businesses, with varying degrees of success. We became, in the buzzwords of David Brooks, exurban natalists.

Meanwhile, my co-workers (mostly several years older than I) dated, partied, and assumed that I must be over thirty. The idea of "settling down" in your early twenties was totally inconceivable to them, and when I mentioned that my wife and I hoped to have 5-7 children, everyone thought I was joking.
After several years, we moved to Texas, where we had a number of friends. Texas, even in the liberal Austin area, is certainly more family friendly than Southern California. However even here, hearing that someone has more than three children is almost a dead give away that they are religious and at least moderately conservative in their practice thereof.

Certain (admittedly tiny) subgroups present event more extreme examples. In the homeschooling circles that I knew during high school, families of 8-12 were not unusual.

Looking at all this, I can't help wondering: at what point does all this start to become statistically significant? My wife and I both know a lot of other alumni of the Catholic, large family, homeschooling environment, and most of them, like us, as still strong Catholics and look forward to having at least moderate size families. If this holds true for a couple generations, how will the Catholic and indeed the general American demographic landscape shift over the next 60-80 years? If liberals average 1.6 children (and based on European demographics that's pretty likely) and conservatives average 2.6 children, how long will it take the country as a whole to lurch to the right? Or will it?
Here I am, eleven years later, with six kids rather than two, and many of our friends who share our understanding of Christianity and human nature also have families well above the average. And when I meet someone with a large number of kids, it's almost invariably a sign that they're actively religious in some way: Catholic, Mormon or Evangelical. The reverse, of course, is not true. Not all people who are religious or even who follow the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage and sexuality are blessed with large families. But in what the pope calls a "throwaway culture", a culture in which a speaker at the DNC just received cheers for talking about how sometimes you just have to abort that child so that you can finish grad school more efficiently, it is being rooted in a set of beliefs that teaches that we have a purpose beyond our own personal fulfillment, beyond 'following our bliss' to achievements in this world, a set of beliefs that sees our reproductive powers as creatures as being a way in which we cooperate with God's creative power in creating the next generation of souls, that allows someone to place sufficient value in having children to have a large family if it is possible, despite living in a world in which having a child is always "a choice" rather than simply a natural consequence of being sexually active.

But if it's true that the willingness of serious Christians to reproduce will eventually result in a resurgence in traditional religion, it certainly isn't evident in my own generation or the one following. I feel, as with so many things, less certain now that such an effect will show up twenty or forty years hence either. Perhaps other mass movements, other self destructive tendencies will reshape our society in unpredictable ways long before the influence of different reproductive rates would work its slow change. It seems possible to me now that our next half century will be like Europe's late 19th and early 20th centuries, with mass movement reshaping society far faster than other slower forces can do. Perhaps our modern technology and the Gnostic tendencies that come with it are like a colonizing cancer and will take over new hosts faster than they can be produced, spreading through the culture until only a few dedicated believers remain.

Or perhaps I remain overly focused on the ways in which our modern society denies human nature. After all, earlier cultures in which the nature of our relation to sexuality and reproduction were not so broadly denied were not cultures without selfishness, exploitation and cruelty. That is the sense in which Tolkien's point about the long defeat comes into play more generally. Another aspect of human nature which will no more change that our relation to reproduction is our fallen-ness. We will always tend to do wrong to each other, and so there will be no earthly paradise. Wipe away our most trendy vices of the moment and they will be replaced with another set tailored to another time and place.

Yet this knowledge that we will not eradicate all wrong from society cannot lead to a quiescence in which we give up the struggle against the evils that dominate our day, simply because there will never be a day without evils. I don't expect an earthly paradise, but I continue to hope that in the day of my children or my children's children this Gnostic throw-away culture will wane and a better understanding of the human person will replace it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Proving Innocence

As MrsDarwin wrote earlier today, our little run in with Child Protective Services has doubtless gone as well as such a thing can. I took some time off work this afternoon to drive down to the county building in our town and be interviewed by the social worker handling our "case". As one of the parents, I have to be interviewed as well to fill out the case file which will then be reviewed by her supervisor in order to decide what happens next.

As with everything else in this process, "what happens next" is something that their rules do not allow them to tell us, lest something somehow change. Putting on my corporate speak, I emphasized that I knew she couldn't provide us with a commitment as to how things would resolve, but asked that she walk me through an example of what might happen next in a best case scenario of a case similar to ours. The answer: The supervisor decides that there is no danger in the situation and the case is closed. I then asked for the less good scenario: The supervisor provides a voluntary plan for things we should do in order to prevent a similar situation (a two and a half year old 'escaping' into his own yard for a few minutes) from occurring again.

So let me emphasize: this is about as good an interaction with CPS as one could possibly have. Even the "bad" scenario currently sounds like it would involve no more than being given some voluntary guidelines, which I would apparently be free to ignore without further consequences.

And yet so much about this set of laws and procedures is maddening.

It went well for us because our situation was so easily explicable, so much something that could happen to anyone. It was not tied to any structural aspect of how we run our family. Even the same complaint (a brief escape by a toddler) could have gone much worse if, say, it had happened during the school year while MrsDarwin was doing school work with the older kids. (Is it safe for you to be teaching your older children when your younger child might slip out of the house? Your choice to homeschool is causing neglect!) But no, he snuck out during the bustle of everyone returning from an activity outside, and would have been caught in moments should some busybody stranger not have taken it upon herself to pull her car over and insert herself anonymously into our lives. And of course, it went well for us also because by the luck of the draw we got a social worker who did not find large families or religious families or homeschooling families to be scary and suspicious all on their own.

Yet even so, even though I have no fault to find with the social worker we are dealing with, the circumstance itself makes me angry and is corrosive to civil society. It's almost more so because of the fact that there is not something inherently suspicious that was going on.

There was a point, some years ago, when I was pulled over for having my emissions sticker on my car out of date. I already knew pretty much why I was being pulled over, since MrsDarwin had been pulled over in the car and ticketed for not having an up-to-date inspection sticker a week before. I'd taken the car into the shop, had the necessary work done on it to pass inspection but been told that I needed to drive fifty miles so the car's emissions computer could reset before I could get the inspection. I was dutifully driving my fifty miles when I was pulled over. Knowing why I was pulled over, I wasn't upset about it, but I did know that I needed to proceed with caution, because another problem with my car was that it had automatic windows and they were broken. If I seemed to refuse to roll down by window to talk to the cop, and then opened my door while he was standing right there next to me, he might think I was preparing to attack him and I might get shot. All this went through my head as I pulled over with the red and blue light flashing behind me, and so the first thing that I did was to open my door, step out with my hands up, and tell the policeman that my automatic windows didn't work. What did he want me to do? He told me to get back in the car, leave my door open, put my license and registration on the dashboard, and keep my hands on the wheel at all times. I complied, and everything went fine. Given that I knew why I'd been pulled over and why I seemed threatening, I did not feel particularly worried or helpless. We were managing each other.

Here the feeling was distinctly different. This came to a point for me as the social worker was working down her list of standard questions that she's required to ask. One of them is: Do you feel able to protect your family?

"Ordinarily, yes. Except, you know, from investigations caused by the the frivolous accusations of strangers driving by."

The social worker and I both laughed, but it was a nervous laugh on both sides. Normally, yes, I believe that I can protect my family. But this threat from an unknown and untrackable source, someone I know only from my mother-in-law's description of a middle-aged heavyset woman who plucked our son from the front yard and marched him up to the door, then returned to her car. There are a lot of middle-aged heavyset women with cars in Ohio. I've been noticing them a lot the last few days. As I left the library with my two youngest children I saw a woman who fit that description, sitting in an idling car.  She fixed me with a sour expression. I looked back. Was she impatient, waiting for someone, and annoyed to see someone other than the person she wanted coming out the sliding doors? Or was this the person who'd reported us to the police and CPS as negligent? The supermarket. The park. There are people everywhere, and the only remedy is going to be to stop thinking about it. But right now I haven't quite managed to put the lurking enemy out of my mind yet.

And then, of course, there's the system itself. The system is designed to proactively protect children by looking into all aspects of child safety whenever any kind of compliant is made. But the result is that you don't just have to clear yourself of wrongdoing -- show that what you were reported for is not itself a dangerous situation in need of punishment or remedy. No. I need to prove that my family is a safe place for children to be.  I need to prove my innocence.

This has given me a deeper sympathy for the way in which people who are frequently profiled by the police develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general. This was essentially a stop and frisk of the whole family, the whole house, our whole lives. Virtually none of the questions I and other members of the family were asked had to do with the actual incident that triggered it. Within moments it was clear that we do not have a chronic problem with children playing dangerously or wandering the neighborhood. However, the law and state policy require the social worker to dig into everything: How do we handle arguments? How do we relax? Do I ever drink? How do we punish the kids? Where do the kids sleep? What do they eat? What chores do they do?

And of course, the fact that they are even asking these means that any one of these must have a "wrong" answer. They could come on a report of a kid seen outside and decide they needed to intervene because they don't like our answer on how we argue. (As it is, we don't argue. But do they believe me about that?)

It's wrong and corrosive to the social fabric to stop people at random on the streets to see if they have weapons or drugs. It's wrong to conduct deep searches of their cars and persons just to see if they might be doing something illegal. It's wrong to subject a family to this kind of scrutiny in ways that have no relation to the "offense" reported. I don't blame the people we dealt with, who were as nice and accommodating as their jobs allow them to be, but I do blame our laws and our society. We have bad laws and a society in which people think they're doing some kind of a good deed to call down the heavy hand of the law on each other over the tiniest thing. Even before this happened, when thinking about issues such as how old a kid has to be to ride his bike around the block or walk to the library, I've worried far more about busybodies and the civic mechanisms which our society has turned into their weapons than I have about the likelihood of some stranger hurting them directly.

For us, this is likely to end well. But that doesn't make the feelings of helplessness and violation at having to prove one's innocence, having to submit to open-ended search and questioning just in case there might be something wrong, mere inconveniences. Whatever benefits may come either from this kind of stop-and-frisk-for-families or from the kind of aggressively pro-active policing that subjects many people committing no obvious crime to having their persons or property searched, those benefits are not worth the cost in loss of faith in the law and its enforcers.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

I had a post of laments queued up, but I've consigned it to the virtual dustbin.

People have come out of the woodwork this weekend to tell me about their run-ins with CPS. Every story is worse than ours, because ours has the virtue, if you will, of being so easily, obviously explainable. There are a few horror stories in the comments of the CPS post. A friend whose children have hereditary dental issues told me of how a new hygienist at the orthodontist's office called CPS about the condition of her kids' teeth while my friend was at the office, working out payment plans for treatment. Someone else said that his son's school called CPS because his son would eat his packed lunch on the way to school and then complain about having no lunch. Some had stories of vindictive family members reporting them. All in all, we're very fortunate.

We've had a wonderful, busy summer. Our theater experience was marvelous, marred only by the fact that Darwin, who put in so many hours watching the little ones while we were at practice, barely got to see the show at all because of a certain 2 1/2 year-old boy who spent most of the performance chatting loudly in the lobby. But Darwin doesn't seem upset by it, so I won't be either.

We are getting ready to go on family vacation in the beautiful Shenandoahs with my dad and all my siblings and all the nieces and nephews. My family is a source of delight to me, so this is a long-anticipated treat.

We're getting ready to install a new toilet in the kids' bathroom, and new lighting in the princess bathroom. This sounds small, but it's actually YUGE, considering that I've had the lighting fixture sitting in a box for a year waiting for me to call the electrician.

I'm going to finish Tristram Shandy, which I've been trying to read for more than two years.

...And the kids are all yelling that the baby has just spilled a bottle of green ink all over himself (and his new shorts), right before we are to leave to go get tested for our homeschooling notification. God is good. God is always good. I need to keep telling myself that...

When CPS Investigates: A Primer

There are lots of things that might rank as a parent's worst nightmare, and fortunately I've never had to deal with any of those. I won't list them off; even if you don't have children, you know what they are. Then there are the things are below worst nightmare territory, but are still unhappy things you don't want to happen to you. High up in that order is having an anonymous busybody call Child Protective Services on your family. That is what happened to us this afternoon.

The actual incident was the most innocent thing one could be reported for. The older girls took my niece for a walk in the stroller, and the baby fell asleep. In the chaos of getting the stroller back into house without waking the sleeping baby, the screen door (an antique variety which does not latch itself) was not locked with the hook and eye, and my 2 1/2 year old son, who acts exactly like a 2 1/2 boy, took the opportunity to get out and go stand on the sidewalk. In the short time before he was missed, someone drove by and saw him, brought him up to the house, and then called both the police and CPS.
Added for your amusement: this is the shirt the guy was wearing when he got out.
I was in the shower when the incident happened, as seemed a safe thing to do with a grandmother and an aunt and two teenagers and two preteens in the house. The police officer, when he came, was satisfied with our explanation and said he would not file a report with CPS. Unfortunately, CPS had already been called, and once they are called, a case is filed, and once a case is filed it has to be investigated and signed off on before it can be closed out.

The case worker who knocked on our door was very nice and professional. I have no complaints to make about her. But a CPS investigation is not about the incident that triggered it -- an incident that could be explained in sixty seconds to the satisfaction of anyone in the world. (She even told us a story of how she got out of the house as a little girl, although it's not quite the same because no one called CPS on her mother.) CPS's investigation is about whether a particular home is a safe environment for children, and even if a complaint is manifestly false or unfounded, they still are required to assess whether the home environment is a safe place for a child to live.

This is just information in the abstract. In the particular, it's quite traumatic. You see, it doesn't matter whether it's completely obvious that we have a loving, close-knit family and that my baby is unharmed and well-adjusted. Questions must be asked as to whether my home -- my home -- is an adequate environment for a child to be raised. These questions are not about whether we cover our electrical outlets or have screens on our windows or have lead-based paint or uncovered wells on the property. Here are some of the questions CPS asks parents:
  • Do you have any criminal history?
  • Do you have a history of abuse as a child?
  • Do you have a history of drug abuse or alcoholism?
  • What is your relationship like with your spouse?
  • What does it look like when you and your spouse argue?
  • Has he ever hit you or threatened you?
  • Do you feel safe in your house?
  • How do you punish your children when they get in trouble?
  • What are your outlets when you feel stressed?
  • Where do you turn for emotional support?
CPS must also speak to every child who resides in the house, and ask them questions. Here are some of the questions CPS will ask your child:
  • How old are you?
  • Where do you go to school?
  • What grade are you in?
  • Have you ever seen your parents fight?
  • What happens when you get in trouble? How do your parents punish you?
  • Do you know where your private parts are? Can you point to them?
  • Has anyone ever touched your private parts?
  • Has anyone ever hurt you or hit you?
  • If someone hurt you, who would you tell?
  • Do you have chores?
  • Does anyone in your house use drugs or alcohol?
  • Does anything in your house scare you or make you feel afraid?
CPS will check if you qualify for financial aid programs based on the number of people living in your house. They will provide you with a brochure about the various kinds of social support to be found in your area. They will give you a paper explaining your rights as your case works through the system. They will ask to see where your children sleep. They will check to see that you have food in your house.

When these questions are all answered to the satisfaction of the case worker, the case is not closed. The other parent must be interviewed if they are not home. Then the case worker must meet with her supervisor. Then? I don't know. I don't know if it's closed at that point, or if CPS can drag it out for whatever reasons they see fit. I don't know when they decide that my home is a safe environment for children. I don't know what the steps are to being declared to meet the legal minimum for sufficient parenting. 

Doubtless our readers are not the sort of people who need to hear this, but: please, please don't call CPS as a form of feel-good slacktivism. Please don't treat calling CPS as the equivalent of hitting share on that outrageous story on Facebook as a way to show that you care. All actions have consequences, but some people bear the consequences more than others. May God forgive the lady who felt she needed to report us to both the police and CPS, and may no one ever do the same to her.

ADDENDUM: I must clarify that whoever called CPS was not one of my neighbors. My street is a wonderful place for kids to live, and we know everyone within several houses of us on either side. The neighbors would know who the baby was and just bring him back with no hoopla. Whoever drove by our house was someone unknown to us, who didn't stop long enough to hear an explanation or ask any questions. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Opening Night

Here we are, pals! If you're in Central Ohio, come see the central Ohio premiere of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring a lot of people and five Darwins.

Theater has a lot of superstitions and traditions, and one of them is that a bad tech makes for a good performance. Well, we've had our bad tech. Tuesday night was perhaps the nadir of my theatrical experience (excepting, perhaps, that one student show my freshman year where I was on stage wishing the ground would open and swallow the whole misbegotten production, and the director was called back to speak with the professors afterward, and I had a nervous breakdown, and the stage manager didn't arrive until after the show...).  Everything was slow, awkward, ugly. Lines were dropped by the score. The car was only half-built, and all the sound cues misfired. It was the first rehearsal with the full complement down in the pit, and that went as you'd expect. Things that worked wonderfully in blocking rehearsals fell flat. The dances were a mess. For myself, I flubbed every chorus entrance, though I did remember my lines. The show dragged miserably.

In short, if it could go wrong, it did. The director didn't even give notes. He just looked at us solemnly, and sent us home.

Last night was completely different. Everyone was on fire. Things that had been funny before were even funnier. The car was done, and it looked fine. The dancing improved greatly, and the chorus hit their entrances, and I didn't miss that one step that's been plaguing me. The children's chorus hit a cue that had been eluding them since the beginning. The costumes fit. The pit played together. If it could go right, it did. We enjoyed ourselves. The director smiled and laughed.

So! Good last night, better tonight! By Saturday night we should be ready for our Tony nomination. And if you've ever wanted to see me playing an insane inventor in a white curly wig, now's your big chance.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Kids Are All Right

Now is the time when all homeschoolers turn to thoughts of curriculum. My more organizationally minded friends have all their ducks in a row and are just waiting for the school supply sales. I know people who have thought ahead to college application requirements and have already structured their four high school years for maximum effectiveness.

Me? I haven't even taken my summer vacation yet. 

Look, I know how important an early training is. I know that planning is three-quarters of the battle, and that a good textbook does a lot of the work for you, and instruction in penmanship builds character, etc. I've been around the homeschooling world for 25 years, and I've heard all the discussions. And I just can't get exercised about it. My children's education is important to me, I promise, and yet right now I feel like the philosopher Alfred E. Newman: "What, me worry?"

Some of this has to do with the way we've spent our summer. Four kids and I have been in play rehearsals since June, with later and later evenings culminating in our performances this weekend. Nights have gotten later and later, and Darwin has had to change his schedule multiple times to accommodate us (this is what happens when a houseful of babysitters takes up a time-consuming hobby). We've had a fantastic amount of fun, and the rockiness of our final tech rehearsals this week offers a hopeful testimony to the proportional fabulousness of our opening night on Thursday. And, coincidentally, we've spent a great deal of down time with other kids and teens.

I don't have to take this opportunity to lay to rest the cherished canard about homeschoolers not socializing. We all know that's a crock, especially if you're a homeschooling parent trying to balance your children's rounds of co-ops and playgroups and religion classes with actually getting a little work done at home. So, we've been socializing this summer with a lot of new friends from various school and home backgrounds. Except that we haven't been socializing all that much, except for this week or two as rehearsals have gotten particularly intense and everyone's had to get off their phones.

Yes, I'm going to talk about phones. The chorus is not in every scene, so we've done a lot of sitting around in rehearsals. There are several places you can go with this. If you want to learn more about the craft of acting and directing, or if you're interested in seeing the progress of the play, or if you just want to laugh at the humor of the show, you watch the rehearsal. There's lot of educational potential there, and entertainment as well. Or, if you don't care as much about what goes on outside of your appearances, you can do something quiet without disrupting the action. You can read a book. You can close your eyes. 

Or you can sit for an hour at a time, taking selfies and sending them with the person sitting next to you, who is also taking selfies.

Now look, I know talk of kids and phones is controversial. So let me tell you where I'm coming from, and say: my kids don't have a phone, and I don't see a reason why they need to. Apparently this is a provocative opinion, although most of us were raised without having a phone, and have survived into adulthood. I told my kids the other day that when I was in college, hardly anyone had a cell phone, and then it was literally only used for emergencies because a) it was too expensive to fool around with wasting your minutes on idle chat, and b) they were dull phones in those days, and texting was a big pain. Darwin and I graduated from college in 2000, a year and change before 9/11, which might have had something to do with initiating the constant contact culture we have now, but that's speculation for another time.

So, many people get their kids phones for a variety of reasons, and with good intentions. But surely this is less controversial: if your kids have phones, they don't need entertainment or photo-sharing apps. Not everyone agrees; exhibit A is Pokemon Go. Everyone has some reason why their particular entertainment app is the exception that proves the rule. Well, it's a free country, and I've been wrong before.

But surely, surely we can all agree on this. When you are in a situation when your attention is required, when, even if you are not actively participating, you may be called up, or need to have stored up the information presented for later application; when you are in a situation where etiquette demands your quiet, attentive presence -- church, school, meetings, play rehearsals, band practice, dance class, you name it -- your phone should be out of your hands, put away, silenced. This is not controversial. This is not even being out of contact with the world. This is simply being in the moment you are required to be in, away from a constant stream of entertainment and virtual interaction. It is a matter of courtesy towards the person presenting to you or to others, and to the others trying to focus on that presentation. It is a matter of mental discipline, to train your mind to absorb information that may not be instantly amusing or applicable to you, because it is applicable to the whole project in which you play a small role. It is a good training in silence, not just in the physical silence required when someone else is speaking, but in the mental silence necessary for learning new material and growing as a person. When this mental silence is not cultivated, people and projects suffer, and the culture suffers. 

As I have watched my children this summer as we work on our show, I've seen that they can sit quietly and watch even when they are not called to action. I've seen that they can take direction and internalize it. I've seen them practice mental agility as they receive new and conflicting direction, and implement it without complaint or blankness. I've seen them pitch in and help before and after rehearsal, when their presence isn't compelled, without needing to be asked or given step-by-step commands. I've seen them being friendly without gossiping or being distracted from the task at hand. I have received what Jane Eyre calls "the meed teachers most covet; praise of their pupils' progress."


This year, we are making some educational changes. We're going to go with some packaged curriculum (unselected as of yet) for the older girls, because as much as I want to do things my own way, I am nurturing some young persons who crave a structure and a check-list culture that I don't naturally seem to provide. Our oldest is taking one 50-minute class at the high school this year -- freshman chorus, a class that would seem to be a fit for an afternoon slot but will instead require a family lifestyle shift to meet the starting time of 7:25 am. 

In past years, I might have felt roiled by these changes. Maybe I still will. But right now, they don't bother me because they don't actually touch what is important about our family and our educational culture. We can make changes and pivot without those changes affecting the core of who we are and how we learn in this house. With God's grace, the kids are, and will continue to be, all right.

Monday, July 18, 2016

VBS Core Dump

Spent the week teaching the Faith section for our Vacation Bible School. Theme: Cathletics. I thoroughly cemented my reputation as someone who makes it all up on the spur of the moment. There's a reason I never volunteer to organize anything.


All right, athletes, time to warm up! Today we're going to work, not our physical muscles, but our spiritual muscles. And we're going to do a warm-up devised by St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius was a Spanish soldier, a warrior. He'd trained his body well. But one day in battle, his leg was shattered by a cannon ball. And to make it worse, after it had healed, the doctors said it hadn't healed correctly, and so they had to break the bone again. Can you imagine that? So Ignatius, the athlete, was stuck in bed for a long time. He couldn't use his body. He read all the novels that were sitting around, and finally, he was so bored, he started reading books about the saints, and about Jesus. And he learned something: that although he'd trained his body, he hadn't trained his soul. All that work to be physically healthy, and he'd never even thought about his spiritual health! He began to work on that, to do exercises for his spirit as well as for his body. He went on to found a great religious order, the Jesuits.

We're going to do Ignatius's spiritual warm-up this week. It's called an Examen. When you go to school, you take exams, but this isn't exactly like that. It's more like the Examination of Conscience you do before you go to Confession. How many of you have made your first Confession already? Great! You can try this next time you go. When you're practicing sports, your coach has a whistle. Here, we're going to use a different sound: bells.

Through this warm-up, we're going to use the power of... silence. Did you know that silence is powerful? It is! And it's hard, too. Here's our challenge this morning: to be silent and hear God speak. (Ring bells)

First, we're going to close our eyes and get comfortable. Deep breath in through your mouth, out through your nose. That's a good way to calm yourself if you're excited or upset. Now I want you to think about God's goodness, and the good things that have happened to you. Let's just think about this morning; you don't have to look back over your whole life. How did you see God's love? Through your parents? Your brothers and sisters? Your pets? What about nature? Did you go outside this morning and think how beautiful it was? Did you see some beautiful bits of nature on your way here? All of these are God's gifts to you.

Now that we've strengthened our spirits by thinking of the Good, we're going to think about the bad. Did you commit any sins this morning? Disobey your mom; fight with your brothers and sisters, think angry thoughts? What did you do that might separate you from God? Did anything bad happen to you? Were you yelled at for no reason? What happened that made you unhappy? Let's sit silently for a minute.


Now, we're going to take all the bad, all our sins and all our unhappy feelings, and put them in a basket. Now take all the good things that God has given you, and put them in that basket as well. And we're going to offer that entire basket to God. We're giving him all of ourselves. And now that we've given God a gift, we're going to ask for something. We ask him for his strength to help us this day. We ask him for his forgiveness and his mercy for the sins we've committed. We ask him for comfort for our sorrows. We ask him for his love.

(Ring bell)

All right! Let's finish our warm-up with a prayer. First, the sign of the cross. Let's practice it. Hold up your right hand! Forehead, chest, reach across (always reach across!), and back to the other shoulder. Let's begin: In the name of the Father....


The Ten Commandments

(Bunch of preliminary remarks I can't remember now)

1. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me. This is pretty easy to remember. God is #1, above all else. But what does that mean? How can we put something above God? What are some examples of things that we might care about more than God? Statues? Well, that was a big problem at the time Moses received the ten commandments, but we don't see that so much now. Money? Friends? Sports and sports heroes? Your phone? Good! These are all great examples of things that we place above God. Your pet? Sure! What if you said, "I love my cat so much I'd rather be with him than go to church on Sunday." That would be an example of loving your cat more than God. None of these are bad things, but they can't take the highest place in our lives. We have to put God first, and everything else falls into its proper place.

2. Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Has anyone ever heard God's name used disrepectfully? Have you heard someone say, "Oh my... " -- well, you know what I mean! Or have you heard Jesus's name used disrepectfully? You wouldn't want someone to swear using your name. What if I stubbed my toe and and yelled, "Oh my Tyler, that hurt!" Or what if someone was talking trash about your mother? You'd want them to stop, right? We honor God's name because we honor God himself. We don't just love him for the things he gives us. We love him because he's good and worthy of love in himself, and we show that by honoring his name. And if you ever hear someone using the name Jesus disrepectfully, you can honor him in your heart and make reparation for the abuse of his name.

3. Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. This commandment is about where we are now -- our church! The commandment says the Sabbath. What's the Sabbath? It's the Jewish holy day. Do you know when it is? Saturday, because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. So why is Sunday our holy day? Right, because on Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. In the Bible there are several accounts of people being raised from the dead. Elijah raised a little boy; Jesus raised Lazarus. But no one raised Jesus from the dead. He raised himself, because he has power over death. When we come to church on Sunday, we aren't doing God a favor. It's a matter of justice. We owe him one day of our week to worship him, because he has given everything to us.

4. Honor your father and mother, that you may have long life in the land. The first three commandments are about how we can love God. The next seven are about how we love people. And we start with the most important people in our life: our mother and father. They give us our first idea of God as provider. We honor them for all the gifts they give us, and we pray for them. Do you pray for your parents? They pray for you!

5. You shall not kill. Well, here's a commandment that I know none of you have disobeyed, literally. You've never taken anyone else's life. But have you ever had anyone say something cruel to you? It hurts, doesn't it? It feels like your spirit dies a little bit. We're commanded not just to respect people's bodies, but their hearts as well. We watch the way we treat people so we don't injure their spirits by mean or careless words. No gossip!

6. You shall not commit adultery. This is a commandment about honoring marriage. None of you are married, so does this mean the commandment doesn't apply to you at all? Should we just throw it out the window? No, of course not! We're called to respect the bonds of family. We honor our parents' marriages by praying for them, by letting them have quiet time together, by not trying to butt between them when they're kissing in the kitchen... oh, is that just my house? And we honor the bonds of family. You have a family bond with your brothers and sisters, too. Love them and honor them! Those family ties are important.

7. You shall not steal. Okay, now we're back in "directly relevant" territory. Sure, you may not have robbed a bank -- put your hand down, wise guy -- but has anyone ever borrowed something from a brother or sister or friend and forgotten to give it back? Have you ever had something of yours taken? We respect others, and we respect the things that belong to them. Ask permission. Put things back. Confess when you've damaged someone else's property.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Who can tell me what false witness is? Yes, lying. And lying, specifically, in a way that damages someone else and destroys trust. If someone asks, "Who broke that vase?", and I confess, "I did", I'm bearing true witness. My word can be trusted. But if I say, "Kayla did it!" and the person believes me, then I've done two wrong things: I've damaged Kayla's reputation, and I'm creating a false situation of trust. When people lie, it creates a culture of suspicion. There has to be truthful witness for a society to function. False witness tears down the bonds of trust between people.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. Aha, you think. Another commandment that doesn't apply to me! Think again, buster. So, you don't have a wife, and the person sitting next to you doesn't either. But do you have friends? And do your friends have friends? Have you ever been jealous of someone else's friendship? So jealous that you try to break up that friendship by gossiping or causing trouble? Of course none of you would do something like that. But you know what? I can be friends with Annie, and Annie can be friends with Josie, and Annie and Josie's friendship doesn't hurt my friendship with either one of them. It may even make it stronger! We respect the bonds between other people, just as we want them to respect our bonds with other people.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods. So, what is coveting? It's jealousy. It's being so jealous that you steal something in your mind. Look at this great banner that belongs to Team Zebulon. If I picked it up and walked off with it, I'd be stealing, right? But say I didn't walk off with it. What if I just looked at it and thought, "That is such a cool banner. I wish it was mine. I wish Team Zebulon didn't have that nice banner. They don't deserve it. If I can't have it, I wish nobody had it!" I'd be stealing in my mind, even if I never touched it. These last two commandments are about sins that we commit with our minds. God doesn't just give us rules for our bodies, because he wants us to be healthy in both our bodies and our minds. We're not just bodies, are we? And not just minds, either? We're a whole, and God loves and protects our whole person. That's why he gives us commandments for our whole person.


The Beatitudes

Yesterday we talked about the Ten Commandments. They have a lot of "You shall not" in them. Today we're going to discuss "You shall". In the gospel of Matthew (who can name the four gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John!) in chapter 5, Jesus gathered people around him, just like you're sitting around me, and he gave them eight ways that they could receive blessings from God. These eight blessings are called the Beatitudes. Beatitude means blessing. It means, specifically, the happiness of heaven. Jesus shows us how to have heaven on earth through the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Does this mean that no rich person ever goes to heaven? No! The poor in spirit are people who are not proud, A proud person puts himself first. He wants to be number one. But remember the first commandment? God has to be number one. When we put him in the first place in our life, other things fall into their proper order. We are poor in spirit because we know that all our blessings don't come from anything we've done. Every good thing we have comes from God, and that's why the poor in spirit receive, not an earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. What is mourning? It's grief and sorrow, an emptiness. Has anyone ever lost a loved one, a grandparent or a friend? You mourn for them, and it feels like there's a hole in you, an emptiness, a space that only that person can fill. But sometimes, you can have lots of good things -- food, clothes, shelter, people who love you -- and still feel an emptiness. That's an emptiness that only God can fill. And when we fill that emptiness with God, instead of with more things or with human love, he gives us comfort.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. What did you have for snack today? Well, say I wanted some snack, and I shoved and elbowed my way to the front of the line, and I grabbed all the snack. Would that be the right way? Of course not! When we're meek, we wait to be given something instead of grabbing it for ourselves. That's because God can give us so much more than we can grab! Jesus tells about a man going to get grain in a sack. The grain is poured into the sack until it looks full, then the sack is shaken to settle the grain in the cracks, then more grain is poured in, then it's packed down and even more grain is poured in until the sack overflows! The man who brought the sack probably didn't know that so much grain could fit in it! That's how God gives to the meek. And what do they inherit? The earth, literally? Do they have farms? Not always, but since the earth is the Lord's, it's his to give to those who will receive his gifts meekly.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. You know what it feels like to be hungry. It eats you up! You can hunger for things that aren't food, though. Have you ever seen something wrong, maybe someone breaking the rules, and you're burning up to set things right? Sometimes people are troubled by the evil in the world, and they long to correct it, so much so that it's like a hunger in them. God sees that desire and honors it. And when our desire is not just for justice -- for the bad guys to be punished and the good guys rewarded -- but for righteousness, for God's solution to problems, then God satisfies that hunger.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. In Israel, there are two big bodies of water. There's the Dead Sea, which is just what its name says. It has water that flows into it, but there's no outlet, and so the water is so intensely salty that nothing can live in it. You can't fish, you can't drink it. All you can do is float in it. Now the Sea of Galilee has both water flowing into and water flowing out of it. As a result, it's living water, full of fish and good to drink, and many of the apostles made their living by fishing in that vibrant sea. God's mercy is like that. If we only receive God's mercy but never give mercy to other people, we become a mercy graveyard. That mercy comes to us to die. But when we give mercy as well, we're like conduits of God's mercy. It flows in and through us. The merciful give mercy as well as receiving it, and that giving brings more mercy flowing into us. The merciful obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Something that is pure is single. It's not mixed with lots of different things. If you have white, and you add red, is it still white? No, it's pink. If you add blue, is it still white? It's sky blue. What about black? Then you don't have white, but gray. It's not pure white anymore, because it's been mixed with other colors. Who wears glasses? If your glasses are dirty, can you see through them? Yes, but not very clearly. But what if you clean your glasses? If the glass is clean and pure, you can see truly through them. When our soul is stained and polluted by sin, we can still see God, because God is light, and far more powerful than sin. But when our soul is pure and spotless, we see God so much more clearly and sharply. The pure of heart will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Do you know anyone who likes drama? Maybe you know someone who's always causing trouble or trying to start a fight. A peacemaker is not someone who starts a fight. A peacemaker is someone who ends a fight, even at the cost of losing. A peacemaker refuses to hit back. A peacemaker doesn't return insult for insult. A peacemaker is someone who gives good for evil and breaks the cycle of anger that people seem to fall into when they're fighting. And sometimes a peacemaker can make people angry, which leads to our last beatitude...

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for their is the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes you get in trouble for something you did. You get punished, and you think, "Eh, I deserved it." But sometimes you try to do the right thing, or stand up for what is right, and you still find yourself in trouble. Maybe people resent you for loving Jesus and acting like he matters. You are being persecuted for doing something good. Then you are being just like our model, Jesus, who was completely sinless and yet died the death of a criminal. Jesus understands what it's like to suffer for righteousness' sake. And Jesus offers the kingdom of heaven to those who suffer for him, just as he promised it to the good thief on the cross next to him. When the good thief defended Jesus, Jesus told him, "This day you will be with me in paradise." And what is paradise? Heaven! To those who suffer like Jesus, Jesus gives his own happiness.


Saint bios

Some of our saint bios were already written in the program we used, but since we swapped in two saints of our own, I had to whip up some bios the night before those sessions. I have both of my original bios sitting so nicely on my laptop, but William spilled vinegar on the keyboard last week and now every time the cursor is in a typing field, it just scrolls brackets: [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[. So I'm going to make it up on the spot, as always.

St. Josephine Bahkita (fortitude)

I was born in the Sudan in 1869. I had a happy childhood, but when I was nine years old, I was captured by slave traders. This was an awful time for me. I was treated so badly, I didn't even remember my name. The slave traders called me by the nickname "Bakhita", which means "lucky". I didn't feel lucky! My masters were cruel and beat me daily. I even tried to escape, but was captured and resold.

When I was fourteen, I was sold to an Italian man living in North Africa. He was kind to me and never beat me. He gave me as a gift to a family who took me with them back to Italy. There, I became nanny to their little daughter. When the parents had to travel, the little girl and I went to live for a time at the convent of the Cannosian Sisters. There, for the first time, I heard about a loving God. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about this Jesus, who died the death of a slave.

When my masters came back and tried to make me leave, I said no. The sisters helped me take my case to the Italian courts. The judges ruled that since slavery was illegal in Italy, I was free! What did I do with my freedom? I wanted to join the Sisters and dedicate the rest of my life to serving God.

I lived with the sisters for 42 years. Soon I was known for my cheerfulness, my gentleness, and my fortitude in enduring suffering. During World War II, the people of my town counted on my prayers and my strength to protect them during the bombing. Not one person died.

I died in 1947 and was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 1, 2000. I'm the patron saint of my homeland, the Sudan, and of all people suffering in slavery.

St. Augustine (temperance)

I was born in 354 in North Africa. My mother was a devout Christian, but my father wasn't. I had a bright mind, but I didn't like school because my teachers were too strict. I wanted to have a good time and do what I wanted. Once I stole peaches from an orchard, not because I was hungry, but just for the fun of breaking the rules.

I didn't get better as I got older. My mother prayed night and day that I would turn away from my sinful life and use my brilliant mind to teach others about the faith. One day I was wandering in my garden, wondering what I should do with my life, when I heard a child outside the wall singing, "Take and read! Take and read!" I picked up the Bible that was near me and opened it to a verse about turning away from sins and putting on the life of Jesus. I became a Christian and was eventually ordained a priest and bishop. My mother's prayers were answered.

Because of my many books and writings defending and explaining the faith, I'm called a Doctor of the Church. I died in 430 and was proclaimed a saint almost immediately.