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

Monday, December 05, 2016

Notes on Confession for the Tween

Next week is the Advent retreat for our religious ed classes, so this week seemed like the right time to discuss confession with my 6th/7th graders. I know that most of these kids have gone to confession twice a year since 2nd grade because we have retreats twice a year in religious ed, but most of them can't tell why they should go to confession, or even what sin is. So, here are the notes I made prepping for the class, in basically the form I used for the kids.

When did you first learn about Confession? Second grade? How old were you? Have you changed a lot since you were seven or eight? You're smarter now; you know a lot more about the world; you understand more things. Today we're going to talk about Confession, and guess what: you ain't in second grade anymore. It's time to use all that wisdom you've accumulated since second grade, and take a deeper look at Confession.

But before you can confess your sins, you'd better know: what is sin? Doing something bad? Wrong things? Here's a definition: "an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure of genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods" (CCC 1849). Or here's another: "an utterance, deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law".  Sin is setting yourself against God, choosing to elevate your own will over God's will. We can sin in our actions, in our words, in our thoughts, even in what we don't do, if we avoid doing what's good. Sin clouds our soul from fulling receiving God's love and grace, just like a dirty, salty windshield in winter makes it difficult for a driver to see what's going on around him. Jesus says in the beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God." Confession heals our souls from the scars of sin. It wipes the glass clean so that the light of God's love can shine in us. God's love is always there, always shining on us, but if our souls are crusted with sin, that crust is a barrier against the light. We need the grace of confession to purify us and make us fully receptive to God.

The church helps us with two categories of sin. God hates all sin, and it's all equally evil in his eyes, but these categories are ways to guide us in making our confession. The first kind is mortal sin. Who knows what mortal means? Yes, someone who's going to die. Mortal means deadly in this case. Mortal sin kills grace in our souls. These are big, serious sins, of the kinds that children don't often commit. Murder, adultery, lies that destroy other people, theft -- sins that have serious effects in the world and on our souls. These sins must be confessed before we receive the Eucharist.

Mortal sin has three conditions: grave matter, full knowledge, deliberate consent.  Grave matter is something very serious and bad. Killing your mother is worse than breaking her vase. Stealing money from your job is worse than taking a stapler home. Full knowledge is understanding that something is wrong. If you know a lady is married and you decide to go on a date with her anyway, that's wrong -- for both you and her! Deliberate consent is freely choosing to sin. If I go to a store and turn around and knock a bracelet into my purse, it's stealing, but it's not the same as if I look around, see that no one's looking, and swipe the bracelet and sneak it into my purse. The first is an accident. The second is deliberate consent. (lots of discussion about each of these categories.)

The other category is venial sins. These are smaller sins, temporally speaking, and they don't kill God's grace in us, although they wound our souls. But left unconfessed, they build up and lead us to develop bad moral habits -- vices. Unchecked venial sins lead to mortal sins. They dull our moral sense. If we love God, we want to rid ourselves even of small sins that pull us from him.

We're going to use Jesus's own words to help us think about the steps of making a good Confession. Everyone take your Bible, and we're going to look up Luke 15:11-32. Where is Luke, the Old or the New Testament? In which half of the Bible will you find the New Testament? What kind of a book is Luke? Can you name the other Gospels? (varied success on all fronts)

This is a parable of Jesus's. You've heard it before -- The Prodigal Son. Let's read it and then go through it more carefully.

The first step of a good confession is to Examine Your Conscience. It's not going to be very easy to confess your sins if you don't even know what your sins are. Where do we see the son first taking a good hard look at his life? Try even before he says he'll go back to his father. Verse 17: "Coming to his senses..." This is where he looks at what his life is like and how he's messed up, and decides to take responsibility. He examines his conscience.

What's your conscience? (A couple of answers boiling down to a voice that tells you right from wrong.) Here are a few answers: "Man's most secret core" -- that's from the Catechism. (I didn't write down the reference, but the Catechism was quoting Gaudium et Spes 16.) Here's another definition: "the "judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of an act" (1796). Did you note the word "reason"? We don't judge right and wrong primarily by our feelings. Feelings can be strong, but they're not always a sure guide. Have you ever seen someone carried away by their feelings, overreacting, or someone who feels like they're always right and everyone else is always wrong? (lots of agreement.) God gives us our reason to distinguish what's right from what's wrong. Sometimes your feelings are also a good guide for you, but other times they aren't, and we need to train our reason and our conscience so that we're able to see past our feelings to what's true.

In order for our consciences to be good guides for us, we have to keep forming them all throughout our lives. What are some of the best ways to train our reason so we're able to know and choose what's right? (points are both from kid suggestions and my own notes)

  • the words of Jesus himself
  • parents
  • experience
  • friends
  • other people's experience
  • the teachings of the Church
  • the gifts of the Holy Spirit
Step two: A sincere sorrow for sins. Is the son sorry for what he's done? Let's talk about the two kinds of contrition, which is another way of saying "sorrow for sins". "Perfect contrition" is the best kind: when you're sorry for your sins for the love of God, because your sin is an offense against his commands and because it's a poor response to his overwhelming love for you. Is this the kind of contrition the son has? Hm. Well there's another kind of contrition, appropriately named: "Imperfect contrition". Anyone ever been sorry for doing something wrong because you knew you were going to get in trouble? Have you ever been sorry for something because you see the lousy consequences of your action? Let's look at the son's contrition. He's sorry because he's broke and living in a pigsty, and he's starving, and because if he'd stayed at home he'd have a better life, and because even his father's servants are doing better than he is. And you know what? God accepts our imperfect contrition in Confession! Even imperfect contrition is good if it moves us toward God, as it moved the son toward his father. The grace of Confession covers even our poor contrition and makes it acceptable to God.

Step three: Confess your sins. We're both body and soul. All the reasoning we do with our conscience, and the feeling sorry (or the intellectual knowledge that we should be sorry) isn't going to do much if we don't take physical action. The son does that. First, he actually gets up and goes to his father. How does the father respond? He's looking for the son. He runs out to meet him partway. All this before he's even said a word! Then the son makes his confession: "I have sinned against God and against you." 

What do you think would have happened if the son hadn't said he was sorry? What if he'd just sauntered back and said, "Hey guys, I'm home!" and wore the rings and fine garments and eaten the fatted calf? Would the father have had a hard time believing that the son was sorry? What about the people around him? What if you lied to your mom and never apologized? Would that trust between you be damaged? Confession -- in words -- was crucial to rebuilding the bonds of trust in the community. Our sin doesn't just hurt us. It always has repercussions for others, even when we think it's so secret no one will know. Hidden actions come out. Even sin in your thoughts affects how you treat other people. In Confession, we not only rebuild our relationship with God, but with his Church.

Step four: Resolve to amend your life. Do you know what "amend" means? If you mend a hole in your clothes, you fix the hole. If you amend something, you fix it and make it better. To amend your life means to turn away from your sins. Does the son have a firm purpose of amendment? I think he does: look how he's planning to tell his father that he deserves to be treated like a servant. He's ready to accept that work, maybe even to contribute to repairing his father's fortune. He knows that he has to change the way he's been living, in ways that don't include behavior that squanders fortunes or leaves him feeding pigs. Maybe he knows that his dad is going to throw a feast for him, and he figures that it won't matter if he makes the offer. But he has to make it, and he has to take the chance of it being accepted. 

God hates sin. He hates it so much that he came to suffer and die to defeat sin and to take the consequences for us. We resolve to amend our life, to move away from our sinful behavior, because we realize the consequences of continuing to sin.

Step five: Do the penance assigned. Here's a question: does the son do penance?  We don't know: the parable stops before we see that. We do know that the father doesn't assign the son the penance the son suggests: treating him like a servant. In confession Father may assign you three Hail Marys, or to pray for someone who you've hurt, or who's hurt you. Are three Hail Marys equal to Jesus's sacrifice on the cross? No, nothing is, or ever can be. We can't make up by our actions for our sins, but penance, accepted in obedience, can help us train our wills to God. When you receive your penance in confession, do it immediately! Kneel down as soon as you come out of confession and pray! Penance is a way of giving God our love and gratitude for his forgiveness, and of showing a firm purpose of amending our life. 

(Question about what happens if a murderer confesses his sin to a priest -- does he get away scot free?)

Well, look at the steps of confession. A priest can never reveal what's told him in confession, so he can't report the murder. But if the murderer is truly sorry, if he truly wants to amend his life, he'll obey if the priest tells him to turn himself in. And if he's not truly sorry, he can't be absolved. Contrition is a necessary part of confession, not just an afterthought. Penance is a necessary part of confession, not just an afterthought. God calls us to cooperate in his forgiveness. He doesn't force it on us, and he's given the priest the power to withhold absolution in some situations (John 20:23, Matthew 16:19).

After break:

So we've talked about the five steps of a good confession. Now let's talk about actually going to confession. And why should we go to confession? We know that only God can forgive sins. We know that he hears our prayers when we ask him for forgiveness. But he has chosen to directly forgive sins through the sacrament of Confession. He gives us a liturgy through which we can know we are forgiven and repair the damage our sin does to us and to the rest of his body, the Church. Don't ignore that. The sacraments are crucial to our life in Christ because they are direct conduits of his grace. Take advantage of that grace!

Do you remember what you did last time you went to confession? Are you nervous because you think you're going to get it wrong? Don't be? Remember that actors rehearse and rehearse so that they know exactly what they'll do on stage. God gives us rituals so that we know what's coming, and can focus on being prepared.

Examine your conscience! I've got an examination of conscience appropriate for your age group which we'll go through, but there are lots of ways to examine your conscience: the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, other guides. Use them!

After your examination of conscience, you're ready to go to confession. You can sit facing the priest, or you can do what I like to do, and go behind the screen where the priest can't see you. Either way is fine, so don't feel like you're obliged to do one or the other.

How should you start? Well, it's good to have some words to get started. One of the best ways is to use the words people have used for years: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." That's easy to remember, and it's to the point. Then tell how long it's been since your last confession. If you say it's been one week, Father will know that you're pretty experienced. If you say ten years, he'll know that you might need some help remembering what to do. It gives him a guideline for helping you.

Then you confess your sins. Remember, you're not talking just to Fr. Watson. Father won't even remember what you say to him, and thank goodness for that! You're speaking to Christ exercising his power through Father. Be honest. You don't hide sickness from the doctor if you want to be healed, and you don't hide sin from God if you want to be forgiven.

Now listen to Father. He may give you some good advice for how to lead a better life, or if he's pressed for time he may just assign you your penance. Remember what it is, so you can do it right away. He'll ask you to say an act of contrition. Does anyone have one memorized? (One hand goes up.) This is a great prayer to memorize, to say at nights, when you're thinking about your day. You memorize it so you don't feel nervous about what words to use. There are many versions of the act of contrition. I've given you the one I learned when I was young, but there are other forms. But you'll notice that this act of Contrition contains all the steps of making a good confession: sorrow, confession, purpose of amendment and penance. It's a microcosm of Confession itself. The Church loves these cycles. The Mass on Sunday is a microcosm of the week, in which we remember Jesus's death on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday, and that's a mirror of the liturgical year, which is a mirror of history itself. 

Now Father speaks the words of absolution: "Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."Make the sign of the cross, and thank Father! Then go out and do your penance right away. Don't walk out of church without doing what Father asked, unless he asks something that needs to be done later, like reading a Bible passage or talking to someone.

And there you have it, and I think after a day of moral theology we can end a little early. Let's say the act of contrition as a closing prayer.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

"The veteran with venison valeting him"

I'm not a fan of Christmas music before actual Christmas, but I'm going to make an exception for this a cappella Hamilton/Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer mashup, Hamildolph:


This is the best thing I've seen this week, and that's saying something in a week I saw the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tired of Democracy

I'm currently reading Ian Kershaw's To Hell And Back: Europe 1914-1949.

Something which I think people don't fully appreciate is that when Hitler and the Nazis campaigned for power in Germany's last mostly-free elections, they did so on an explicitly anti-democratic platform. Hitler promised to bring unity by abolishing the other political parties. In a speech in the summer of 1932, Hitler said, "We are intolerant. I have one aim, to clear the 30 [political] parties out of Germany." (p211)

A majority of Germans by the early '30s, wanted some kind of an end to democracy, it was simply a question of what kind of non-democratic government to replace Weimar's fragmenting democracy with. Kershaw writes:
"By 1932, only the fifth or so of voters who still supported the Social Democrats, together with the few remaining liberals and some adherents of the Catholic Centre Party, wanted to retain the democratic system. Democracy was dead. As to what should replace it, opinion differed considerably. About three-quarters of Germans wanted some form of authoritarian government, but there were various possibilities. A dictatorship of the proletariat, a military dictatorship, a Hitler dictatorship were among the variants." (p213)

We talk about the importance of guarding democracy, and it is important, but the first and most basic element of that is wanting democracy in the first place.

8 Weeks

So lots going on the in the world right now -- Fidel Castro dead, Ohio State students getting carved up, government in transition -- and I'm just surfacing to say I'm alive, and...

Wait, where have I used that formula about "just surfacing" before? Hm, don't know, could it be one of the five times I've been pregnant while writing this blog? Not all the times I've been pregnant, you understand; only five. There are women out there begging, pleading with God to let them have a baby, just once, and I'm throwing up through my nose for the seventh time. I asked God about this, but he replied in a small still voice I couldn't hear over my own gagging.

So: we don't always get what we want, but we get what we need. Physically, I didn't want or need to be pregnant; already my body is sustaining wear and tear that's going to take further years, if ever, to undo. Mentally? not what I was planning for, to be sure. So it's spiritually that I needed to be pregnant, except you can't just be spiritually pregnant. There has to be a physical component, the component of actually growing the baby in your body. Baby is growing, thriving probably, taking the nutrients he or she needs from me, and I give, will I or no: my time, my energy, my health. Mine, mine, mine, only not mine anymore.


There and Back Again: A Guide to Food the Second Time Around

Cottage Cheese: curdy, acidic. Not recommended.
Chicken Stir-Fry: chew well, lest you see chunks.
Popcorn: the worst, especially in your nose.
Waffles: a winner! Nice and soft, non-irritating.


I'm going to go to the doctor, eventually. I don't see the rush to go in and hear that I'm pregnant and Advanced Maternal Age, and would I like some extra tests? I haven't even decided whether I want to go with the midwife or with a doctor. There's no hurry. To be honest, I'm leaning toward a doctor and a hospital. I've had six unmedicated births, but I'd kind of like to be put completely under this time, maybe for the next seven months, and just have a baby handed to me at the end.

Let me be clear: I love babies. I love this baby, all 0.7 ounces of it. (A eight-week baby is the size of a peanut M&M, did you know?) But I hate hate being pregnant, and after six times I don't feel like a pro. I feel worn down with being constantly nauseous and tired, and with having a softening, thickening, atrophying body -- and that's not even taking into account the coming day of torture. I'm not even thinking that far ahead.

Yeah, I said all on the blog the last time around, and probably the three times before that, too. The world may be changing, but some things remain constant.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Winners: sister|sinjin

Apparently it's Small Business Saturday, so what better way to support independent musicians than by selecting the winners of our sister|sinjin giveaway!

The lucky pair are Rosebud and Spiritual Diabetes!

Send us an email at with your name and address, and we'll get that off to you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bad Historical Analogies: The US is Not Germany in 1932

I must have read it a dozen times on social media and opinion pieces since the election, so I imagine you've seen it too: people saying, "America today is where Germany was in when Hitler was elected."

Historical analogy is a powerful tool, and seeing echoes of the present in the past is one of the illuminating things about studying history. However, it's at least as important to understand the differences between the past and the present as it is to see the similarities, and I think that in this case the differences are so great as to make analogies invalid.

Let's start with the bare bones of the story: In 1932 Germany was in the grips of the Great Depression. Hitler ran for the position of President against the incumbent, WW1 hero General Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler came in second with 35% of the vote. However, in the parliamentary elections that year, no single party won a majority of seats, and so Hitler's NSDAP (Nazi) party which had the largest number of seats formed a coalition government with another party, and Hindenburg was persuaded to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. (Hindenburg himself did not belong to a political party and had run on his war record.) The next year, in 1933, the Reichstag Fire gave Hitler a pretext to crack down on his political opponents and seize dictatorial power.

Chancellor Hitler and President Hindenburg in 1933

There are certain similarities which people have made much of: Leader known for holding big rallies drawing on dissatisfaction with the economy and accused of scapegoating ethnic minorities comes in second in the popular vote but gains power anyway.

One particularly inventive approach to hysteria pointed to contemporary reports of less anti-Semitic violence occurring than was feared when the Nazis first seized power, and thus drew the argument-from-silence type conclusion that if the Trump administration doesn't appear to be violently repressing minorities, that's when we really need to worry he's bad!

I'm not here to argue that Trump is going to be a good president (I think he'll likely be a lousy one) nor that his campaign hasn't been a center for anti-immigrant and at times racist behavior. There were very good reasons to oppose Trump. However, there have been a lot of bad world leaders who were not Hitler, and what is not appreciated nearly enough when people talk about how Hitler's rise "could happen here" is how much the rise of Nazi Germany was a product of its own very specific place and time.

The first and most important thing to understand about the German Republic of which Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 is that it was a very new and unstable republic.

The German Empire, its ancestor state, had existed only for 47 years from 1871 to 1918. The Empire fell as Germany struggled to avoid a catastrophic loss at the end of World War One, a war in which the country suffered nearly two million soldiers killed and four million wounded. Many civilians suffered malnutrition as a result of the Allied naval blockade which slowly strangled Germany's food supplies during the four years of the war, and the Spanish Flu pandemic then killed nearly half a million -- many of them children and the elderly. When the Western Front collapsed, sending the German Army, which had occupied Belgium and northern France throughout the war, reeling back towards its homeland, and the Imperial Navy which had been bottled up in port since the Battle of Jutland mutinied, the German leadership sought an armistice to end the war before their country was invaded. The imperial government (which the allies had hinted should go in order to make peace) collapsed, Emperor Wilhelm II went into exile, and a parliamentary republic was put together under the leadership of SPD (Social Democratic Party) leader Friedrich Ebert.

Formed as the country collapsed, the German Republic (or Weimar Republic, named after the city of Weimar) was conceived in political violence that it never succeeded in escaping during its life of just fifteen years. Prior to the war, the social democrats were the largest single party in Germany's parliament. However, as the empire fell, the radical left elements of the social democrats split off and tried to stage a communist revolution on the model of the Russian Revolution. The government, led by the non-revolutionary half of the SPD, was forced to rely on the unofficial, paramilitary Freikorps organizations of nationalist former soldiers to put down this communist revolution.

Remember, Germany had not gone through an orderly de-mobilization such as happened in Allied countries. The government had collapsed while millions of soldiers were still serving on both the Western and Eastern fronts. In the East (where Soviet Russia had sought a separate peace with Germany) the German army had been governing much of Poland and Ukraine for the last year or more. Many soldiers made their way home still armed, providing a huge number of potential fighters available to both sides of the brewing revolution if they could be persuaded to join. Meanwhile, the peace imposed by the Allies, designed to keep Germany from being able to start another European war, left the government with a very weak army and police force with which to try to contain the explosive situation.

Freikorps in Berlin, 1919

The Freikorps successfully put down a series of socialist/communists revolts during late 1918 and 1919, in the process killing (without trial and largely without consequences) the leaders of the radical socialists. However, having used paramilitary violence to put down the revolutionaries who had genuinely threatened the fledgling state, the leaders of the Republic had little ability to put the genie of political violence back in its bottle. The Freikorps predated the state, and it was not possible to repress them and other similar unofficial military organizations.

Unlike our two party system, the German Republic has many political parties vying for seats in the legislature. Some parties did not acknowledge the government as legitimate, and both nationalist and communist parties had paramilitary wings which engaged in street fighting and intimidation. These were revolutionary parties, and the purpose of their paramilitary wings was to engage in revolutionary violence. Hitler and the then-tiny Nazi party attempted to stage a coup, the Beer Hall Putsch, in 1923 but they failed and Hitler ended up serving time in prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf. On release, Hitler pledged to abide by the democratic process rather than seizing power illegally (a necessary condition for the Nazis being allowed to participate in politics and for Hitler to be allowed to make speeches in public.) However, the Nazi party still maintained a paramilitary arm, the SA.

Just ten years into the turbulent existence of the German Republic, the global markets crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression, which hit Germany hard. Revolutionary parties, both nationalist and communist, gained power and the fragile majority government of the centrist parties fell apart. In the 1930 elections, the Nazis captured 18% of the vote and became the second largest party in the parliament. This was the background to Hitler's 1932 race for the presidency against President Hindenburg, and to his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 as leader of a coalition government after two elections failed to give any one party a majority. A month later, Hitler took advantage of a communist arsonist's destruction of the Reichstag building to use both the state police and his own paramilitary organization to attack and jail his communist political opponents, and win even more parliamentary seats in yet another parliamentary election in March 1933. (Another difference between parliamentary systems such as that of the German Republic and our own is that new elections of parliament could be called frequently in an effort to secure a parliamentary majority. The US with its two party system and regularly scheduled elections is not in danger of having three elections of increasingly fevered pitch in just nine months in an attempt to secure a stable government.)

Even so, however, Hitler didn't have a majority of parliament. He at last attained dictatorial powers by first having all the deputies representing the Communist Party arrested, then sending his paramilitary SA forces into the building where the parliament was meeting and, virtually at gunpoint, getting a vote for the Enabling Act, which gave him the ability to pass laws without the consent of the Reichstag for four years even if those laws violated the constitution. Needless to say, with Hitler now in absolute control, that power was never allowed to expire. Within the first few months other parties were outlawed and their leaders imprisoned or executed. Hitler then purged his own party leadership to centralize control, turned his party's paramilitary organization into an official state organization separate from the existing police and military, and consolidated absolute control. Hindenburg died in August, 1934 and the office of President was allowed to die with him. The German Republic no longer existed.

So let's run down the things which characterized the German Republic in 1932/1933 and Hitler's rise to power:

- The country itself was new and unstable.

- The country originated in catastrophic military defeat and its origins had normalized the use of large scale political violence (as in, barricades, machine guns and artillery in the streets -- not burning a few cars during a protest).

- Several significant political parties, both nationalist and communist, rejected the very existence of the state and endorsed revolutionary violence. This was perhaps one of the biggest factors in "normalizing" Hitler and his party in the German Republic: since multiple parties endorsed violence over abiding by free elections, many people felt they needed to side with one anti-democratic party in order to counter the other anti-democratic parties.

- A parliamentary system with many political parties led to frequent elections held in times of national emergency as no one party or coalition could hold a stable government together.

- Hitler's political party included a significant paramilitary wing which could be used to murder rivals and conduct street warfare against other parties.

- Having seized partial control of the government, Hitler used the state to outlaw a major rival party and jail a significant number of members of the parliament in order to tilt a vote in his favor.

- He then brought his own party's armed, paramilitary wing into the legislative session in order to force his will through at the point of a gun.

As I would hope this list makes clear, although we've just been through a divisive election and our president elect is someone whose wisdom and good will we have good reason to question, the situation in our country is pretty much nothing like that in Germany at the time of Hitler's rise to power. People need to stop saying that it is. They're needlessly scaring themselves and others, and they're also further corroding our already divisive politics by claiming that our situation is "just like" the rise of Nazi Germany.

Do we need to be vigilant and guard our freedoms? Yes, now more than ever. But please, understand the real historical circumstances which allowed someone like Hitler and a party like the Nazis to take total control of a state. Understand it, learn from it, and do not make panicky false analogies.

More Giveaway: sister|sinjin

I can't write much these days, but I can give you things. If you were disappointed that you didn't win a copy of The Noonday Devil, let me present you with something else:

Elizabeth Duffy, a longtime Friend of Darwins, has teamed up with some talented ladies to form sister|sinjin, and they've just recorded their first album. The two sample tracks are lovely enough that I've ordered it, and I'd like to to share it with you as well for your Advent meditations.

So, you know the drill. Leave a comment to enter, and on Saturday (or Sunday, depending on how I feel), I'll pull two names out of the hat to win the limited edition CD in a hand-stamped sleeve.

Happy listening, and good luck!

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Anti-Elite Election: An Election and Its Meaning, Part 2

As I said in my initial post, looking at some of the numbers behind the election results, I've been wrong about a lot this election season. I was wrong that Trump couldn't get the nomination. I was wrong that he would lose in the general election, even against a weak candidate like Hillary Clinton.

I don't think this was entirely because I strongly dislike Trump as a person and as a leader, though I do certainly dislike him. I based my belief that he couldn't win in part on the fact that we've never before elected a president who lacked a track record in political or military leadership. But even more so, I based my assessment on the polls, which had consistently showed him losing to Hillary throughout the last year.

I focused on those polls heavily because in 2012, although I didn't go in for the full "unweight the polls" foolishness, I did allow myself to think that Romney/Ryan had a low but real chance of beating Obama. When they got trounced in exactly the way the polling averages had predicted, I resolved to believe the polls next time. Well, this time the polls were wrong.

We don't really know why the polls were so consistently off this time. I don't think that it's because the media was trying to hurt Trump. There's way too much at stake for polling companies in getting things right. If there were a major polling organization which had nailed this result while everyone else got it wrong, they would be getting massive amounts of credit, and predictive modelers thrive on that kind of thing. However, statistical modeling is hard, and the more we talk about polls in our election media cycle, the more we probably add to effects that throw off the polls.  Given that many Trump supporters both distrusted the media and were being labeled as bigots by the media, it is perhaps unsurprising that they became more hesitant to talk to pollsters.  Additionally, one of the dynamics during this election is that the demographics of who showed up to vote changed.  Urban voters and minorities did not show up in as large numbers to vote for Hillary as they did for Obama, and rural and working class white voters showed up in greater numbers for Trump than they did for Romney or McCain.  The polling companies based their demographic modeling on past elections and thus got the demographics of this election wrong.

However, there's another culprit for my blindness about this election, aside from my dislike for Trump and the polls being worng, and that's that although the election was decided in my part of the country (with Trump taking Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) it was not necessarily decided by people like me. Take exit polls with a whole shaker of salt, given issues with polling this year, but the swings in support for the GOP presidential candidate this year as compared to 2012 are very interesting. Although Hillary got more votes than Trump among those making less than $50k/yr, the change in that level of support was huge. Trump did 16% better than Romney among those making less than $30k and 6% better among those making $30-50k. White college graduates swung 10% towards the Democrats versus 2012 (even though Trump still won them 49 to 45) and while white non-college graduates swung 15% further to the Republicans. Fewer Republican voted for the GOP nominee than in 2012, and more Democrats did. Married people swung 4% towards the Democrats versus 2012 (though married people still overall supported Trump by 53% to 43%) while unmarried people swung 10% back towards the GOP versus 2012, though a majority still voted for Hillary.)

So in my world, the world of college graduate, moderately high earning, registered Republican, married people, Trump had a pretty lousy year compared to Romney. And yet, in the wider world, the world that contains ALL of the people who actually vote in elections, Trump just surprised the people like me by winning.

It's not just that Trump won by racking up big margins with people who fall outside the 'elite' demographic, his election represents a rejection of the whole elite/professional paradigm in several ways. Think about the "how he won" pieces written about the Obama campaign eight years ago. Obama was credited with having come up with the political campaign of the future. He used social media. He hired a team of data analysts to build statistical models of where people likely to support him lived, send them advertising, contact them, and then call them to make sure they went out and voted. The age gap between McCain and Obama helped in painting the 2008 election as being between the past and the future of campaigning. The GOP tried to catch up, with Romney hiring a data team in 2012, but the Obama team continued to grow and innovate as well and once again their data prowess was credited with winning the 2012 election, despite the unpopularity of some of Obama's key accomplishments. In the world of political operatives, the story of the Obama administration was the story of the ultra-calm, professional candidate, "Mr. Cool", who ran a data driven campaign and thus could get the people to the polls when needed. Hillary Clinton inherited that campaign apparatus and took it even further, (though in the aftermath of her failure some are asking whether it may have misfired significantly.)

It wasn't just that Hillary inherited and expanded on Obama's data driven approach to campaigning. In many ways, Hillary Clinton epitomized the elite "meritocratic" illusion. She was a smart kid who went to the right schools, got her law degree, and was reputed among her intimates to be a hard worker eager to master all the facts about issues she cared about. And yet, Hillary, like many of the aspiring elites cranked out by top schools, does not actually have a very impressive set of personal accomplishments. It's Bill Clinton who was the "Man from Hope" able to win over crowds and convince voters to excuse his dishonesties. Bill won an election against a sitting president and brought the Baby Boomer generation to political power on his own political skills and personal magnetism. Hillary headed up the health care task force, but only because her husband appointed her to it. She held a Senate seat for New York, because her husband's political allies pulled every string to put her into a seat which is a complete shoo-in for whoever gets the Democratic nomination. She performed an undistinguished stint as Secretary of State, appointed to the post by the man who had comfortably defeated her in the Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination.

At the end of the day, Hillary's accomplishments are those shared by many in the 'meritocracy': she's smart and a hard worker, but even if her hard work is her own, the positions she has been given to do that hard work are more the result of her connections than of her own virtues.

But in the world of scientific campaigning, this was supposed to be enough. Hillary conquered her instinct throw fits and fire subordinates at signs of trouble and ran a no drama, Obama style operation. She hired all the best data analysts and ran a scientific campaign. The political pundit class all sagely opined that Trump would lose because he lacked the analytics to run a modern get-out-the-vote operation. I agreed with them. It seemed like Trump had learned none of the lessons of the last eight years.

What is more, Trump offended against another tenet of elite culture: expertise. He had never held a government position, and he showed none of the ability to study and grasp complex subjects which elites value in themselves. Clinton may have had bad policies, but she at least seemed to go about policy making the right way. We might not be able to count on her to make the right decision, but we could at least count on her to be wrong within normal parameters.

Frankly, I think that the elites are right on this, and it's one of the things that worries me hugely about the impending Trump administration. Clinton and her supporters made idiots of themselves running around claiming that she was "the most qualified qualified presidential candidate in history", as if spending eight years in the senate and four years as secretary of state is some kind of record breaking level of qualification. But she was at least somewhat qualified for the office and Trump is not.

This sort of argument plays well with professionals who are used to the idea that most people could not simply step in and do their jobs without lots of training. Most people would agree that being a doctor or an engineer requires some degree of training, but to distant eyes being a "boss" looks like it's pretty easy. Indeed, Dilbert, whose author became one of the more frustratingly vocal Trump boosters during the campaign, probably sums up pretty well what the average American thinks is involved in management. And yet, for those who actually work closely with upper executives (and I would surmise similarly politicians) there is a huge amount of skill involved in high level leadership. Not everyone can do it, and many who do do it do it badly. One of the several things that solidified me against Trump is that since I work with a number of high level executives in my company and others, I see many of Trump's personality and leadership traits as being those of the most unpredictable and frustrating type of executive.

However, most voters are not drawing on their personal experiences with upper management in evaluating presidential candidates. Trump told everyone he was a successful business owner, and after all, hadn't all of America seen him hiring and firing people on The Apprentice for over a decade? Obviously he had all sorts of leadership ability, and he wouldn't be like these dysfunctional Washington insiders who made all sorts of promises to the voters and then somehow failed to deliver on them once they arrived in DC. For voters who wanted to see things shaken up by a someone capable of getting things done, Trump looked like the ultimate candidate.

And why is it that the professional, expertise-based approach to leadership which is shared by policy and business elites with candidates like Clinton and Romney has so little appeal in the wider country? Perhaps because while the last twenty years have been very good for the professional elite, they have not been good for many middle class and lower middle class Americans. In a gradual shift which has passed some significant tipping points since the year 2000, automation and outsourcing have done away with a lot of "lower skill" jobs in the US. Professionals have continued to do the financial analysis, the marketing, the sales and the management, and they've done well in the process as companies have become flush with cash. But for those outside the growth industries and professions, the fact that consumer goods are cheaper and better than twenty years ago does not make up for the lowered career prospects.

In conditions such as this, to many voters "leave it to the experts" does not seem to be working very well, whichever party those experts belong to. Instead, people are looking for some kind of transformative change. Obama seemed to offer that, particularly to those who already leaned Democratic by reason of ethnic, family, or regional affinity. Sure, to other elites he may have looked like a cool and competent manager who used data in innovative ways. But perhaps that actually had little to do with why he won. Perhaps the vaunted data operation was not actually the key to his success. Perhaps the core reason that Obama won is that he deeply inspired ethnic minorities, and also gave hope to a lot of core Democratic voters, including working class voters who have traditionally leaned Democratic in their voting, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. That passion, rather than his data driven operation, brought Obama to the White House.

When Clinton tried to run the same operation, but with none of the passion, the votes did not turn out. Instead, Trump, with a message of "Make America Great Again" is the one who inspired passion. Some of that passion was in the same people who had voted for Obama. Union workers voted for Trump at higher rates than they had voted for any GOP candidate since 1988. After eight years during which it looked like politics was just another information age industry, something the smart kids could move into, master with data, and run as technocratic experts, perhaps it turns out that what matters is old fashioned inspiration. Reagan had it. Bill Clinton had it. 2000 was a toss up, but after 9-11, George W Bush had it. Obama had it. And this year, Trump had it. The appeal was only to certain classes and regions, while in other parts of the nation his election has instigated near panic, but it was there, and it was the reason why Trump ran instead of Clinton. As we move forward, the elites had better realize: expertise is not enough to win elections. Being smart, hard working, and checking all the right boxes along the career path will not hand you the keys to power. What makes or breaks a presidential campaign is the ability to deeply inspire a constituency to go out to the polls and vote. If neither side has a candidate like that, the best data operation may win. But if someone has "it", not matter how professional the other side is, the candidate with "it" is out ahead.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Noonday Devil: Winners!

I apologize for the day lateness of the drawing results. I was feeling pretty sick yesterday and didn't do anything except the bare minimum. (Even at this moment I am trying to type through the gagging.) But! The hat has spoken, and the winners are:

Agnes and TS!

Send us an email, and we'll get your prize off to you in the format of your choice.

I wish I could give you all a copy of The Noonday Devil, but I hope that if you think it will be helpful for you, that you'll drum one up somehow and read it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times

I thought I was going to write about Acedia, but instead I got pregnant. So, take and read yourself! I'm giving away two copies of The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Time.

I discussed this book in this post:

I know the signs and effects of acedia -- it's a subject I've written about a slew of times since 2007 -- but this was a more in-depth analysis than I'd read before. And it was good to be reminded of the five principal manifestations of acedia:
  • a certain interior instability
  • an exaggerated concern for one's health
  • aversion to manual work
  • neglect in observing the rule
  • general discouragement
and the five principal remedies:
  • tears
  • prayer and work
  • the antirrhêtic method, or contradicting temptation as Christ did in the desert
  • meditation on death, and 
  • perseverance
I may have checked off very few boxes on the depression and anxiety inventories, butmy funk in June is almost exactly described by the five indications above. There was a serious spiritual component, attack-level, if you will, to my weakness, such that I felt that I couldn't even ask for people's prayers because I didn't feel free to do so. And oddly enough, although The Noonday Devil has a chapter on acedia in the different states of life, few bits of the marriage section resonated at all with me, but the section on acedia in the monastic life was relevant in almost every particular. Perhaps as is fitting for a Benedictine abbot, Dom Nault writes about issues in marriage in a general vocational way (fidelity, sexual integrity, openness to life), but he writes about the challenges of the monastic life from a very day-to-day`operational perspective. My home is my cloister, and my temptations are those of the monk confined to his monastery, committed to a stable existence, and yet weary of the demands that stability puts on him. 

Leave a comment to enter, and I'll have the kids pull names from the hat on Saturday morning.

Sick and Tired, 6 Week Edition

Perhaps you are clicking around, looking for election hot takes. I'm sorry I haven't got anything for you; I did all my hot-taking on Facebook last Tuesday, and since then I've been watching the reactions. It's not very pretty. Lots of zealous people out there who feel that their obvious passion for righteousness exempts them from the burden of charity.

Also, I'm dead. The curse has come upon me, as the Lady of Shalott cried, only she wasn't in any danger of getting pregnant. I can eat, or I can sleep. Or I can gag. I'm not very interesting company. What I need to do is, I need to walk, but at any given moment it 's not the most appealing option. All this new life is killing me.

I was talking to my eight-year-old son about how he was going to be the middle child when baby comes, and I thought that back when I was pregnant with him, if you'd told me that I would be doing this three more times, I would have laughed with that little edge of hysteria. If you told me when I had my first that I would do this six more times (seven, counting the miscarriage, but I was never sick then), I would have turned my face to the wall and died. Death to self, indeed. I exist to serve this baby, to eat and sleep at its whims, to gag and mumble and assure myself, "I'm okay, I'm okay," so I can stave off the awful day of vomiting as long as possible.

But guess what doesn't bother me these days? Acedia! There's irony for you. Now I have a legitimate reason to not do anything. I don't hate the world, though people wear me out. Now I'm immersed in something bigger than myself (and believe me, soon there won't be many things bigger than I am). I don't feel wanderlust or dissatisfaction, or even the angst of having all my plans for the next year (or the next eighteen years) suddenly change on me. I'm in one of those stages where I can be pretty certain I'm doing God's will, even though there's not much active doing on my part. In my current existence, I'm doing God's will. Good to know.

Speaking of acedia, I'll put up a separate post to hold a drawing for two copies of The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times.

I'm about 6.5 weeks along. The internet tells me that baby is between the size of a lentil and a blueberry. By eight weeks, baby will be the size of a grape. That's a lot of growing, and it takes a lot of protein.

Grams of protein per serving:
Tuna: 7g
Beans: 7g
Block Cheddar: 7g
Block Swiss: 8g
Whole milk: 8g
Cottage cheese: 12 g

I eat a lot of cottage cheese lately.

I've gone mostly off sugar, because what I don't need right now are empty calories. I don't even want it. I have not snuck the Halloween candy, what's left of it. I turned down donuts. If it's not protein, don't even talk to me. In another age, I'd have gout.

I WANT TACOS, so badly. If we still lived in Texas, I would eat tacos every day, if someone would bring them to me. Tacos tacos tacos. Also, a hamburger. What keeps me from gorging myself is that it takes effort to go get food.

Lord, I'm so hungry.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

An Election and Its Meaning: Part 1, By The Numbers

[UPDATE: Several points in this analysis appear to be incorrect due to being based on preliminary vote tallies. In California and Washington especially, the counties can take several weeks to tally all of the mail in allots, and so several million ballots remain to be counted. 538 estimates that when all the ballots have been counted, the total number of votes in 2016 will be larger than in 2012, although the turnout percentage will be down. It is correct that Clinton got fewer votes than Obama, but in the final tally Trump will probably have received more votes than Romney.]

I've been wrong a lot during this election season. So have a lot of other people.

I was wrong when I thought that someone like Trump could never win the GOP nomination. I was wrong when I thought he could never win the general election. In this I had a fair amount of company. Nate Silver's 538 went into election night giving Trump just over a 30% chance of winning the election. That was a pretty fair estimation of the polling that was out there, and Silver actually took a lot of flack (and got into some profanity laced Twitter battles with other analysts) because venues like the Huffington Post were giving Clinton over a 90% chance of winning. The polls, however, were wrong, and Trump's victory arguably marks a reversal in polling-based expectations which is larger than the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" screw up, because that was a time of relatively few and relatively primitive polls.

So here we are, with a real estate mogul and former reality TV star as our president elect, a man with no governing experience who managed to win despite massive opposition from many leaders and intellectuals within his own party. The GOP, which people were looking to write off as a fractured, disintegrating party, will control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the majority of state governorships and legislatures. Trump will be able to replace Antonin Scalia with another conservative Supreme Court justice (assuming he bothers to nominate a conservative), thus leaving conservatives one Anthony Kennedy vote away from controlling the judiciary as well. The Democrats are left with a lot of thinking to do, though there remains a good deal of sorting out to do on the Republican side of the aisle as well. Will Trump's nationalist populism come to dominate the party, or will the fiscal and cultural conservatism of leaders like Paul Ryan keep the GOP on course?

Some thoughts follow under various sub-headers.

The Numbers
There's a lot being written about how Trump rode to victory on a wave of working class white anger at the state of the economy and the country. There's something to this. Trump achieved something impressive in winning key rust belt states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and probably Michigan (he's ahead by a small margin with all precincts reporting but the vote still has not been officially called.) I think there is a story out there to be told about how Trump connected with the white labor voting block in a way that the Democrats (despite their union ties) failed to. But it's also significant that in an election cycle dominated by vicious attacks on both sides, turnout was solidly down. Trump received fewer total votes than Mitt Romney or John McCain did. The reason that Hillary lost is that while GOP turnout dropped just over 1% in 2016 versus 2012, Democratic turnout dropped a whopping 8%.

The patterns vary a bit at the state level. Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan all had decreased overall turnout, but their GOP turnout was increased vs 2012. This means that either people who voted for the Democrats in 2012 voted for the GOP in 2016, or Democratic voters stayed home in large numbers while Republican leaning voters who hadn't voted in 2012 turned out. (I would assume it was in fact a mix of these, but deeper analysis would be required to see which dynamic predominated.) In Pennsylvania, overall turnout was up, with a huge increase in GOP votes and a slight decrease in Democratic votes.

(sources: 2016 and 2012)

Just to fill in the corners, I also compared data on the most populous states: California, Texas, and New York. None of these are swing states, but the varying dynamics are kind of interesting. In California turnout was down a whopping 19% with GOP votes down a lot more than Democratic ones. In Texas turnout was up 9%, but the GOP votes were only up slightly while 17% more votes were cast for Clinton in 2016 than for Obama in 2012. In New York (from which both candidates hale) the number of votes cast was up 11% with Trump getting 19% more votes than Romney did and Clinton getting 7% more than Obama did.

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this. Given the national changes in popular vote, it would be easy to say that this was a case of Clinton simply not being able to turn out the Obama coalition, and Trump actually not being any more enticing as a candidate than Romney. This would leave open the question of whether Clinton was a uniquely un-compelling candidate, or whether it took Obama's unique combination of personal eloquence, inspiration, and being a fairly young and attractive candidate for First Black President to get the massive youth and minority turnout which brought him to the White House twice.

Here's a longer term view of the popular vote totals.

As you can see, 2008 marked a historic high for the number of Democratic votes cast, and Clinton marks a continuing decline from that level. The highest number of GOP votes cast was in 2004, but the trend for the GOP has been relatively flat since then.

[Due to time constraints, this has become the first of several parts. Next part to come soon.]

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A Yuuuge! Announcement

Perhaps you're looking for good news today after being up far too late last night, so let me offer you some happy returns on the Darwin front:

And here's how I'm feeling these days.

Please keep me and my continued good health, and young Septimus, in your prayers.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Marriage Is Particular

I was struck by this piece of writing about marriage which I saw someone quote on Twitter the other day:

from Arie Hochschild's The Managed Heart

This may well be how some or many people think about what they perceive as the prevailing marriage style in a society, but I think that it's generally a destructive way, and I'd like to pick apart why.

At the root of this formulation is an idea of a spouse as a sort of exchangeable commodity.  For example: "The average wife does more housework than my wife, so my wife should feel herself lucky that I put up with her lower level of contribution to the household.  I could find a lot of women who would do more housework than she does, and she couldn't find many men who'd put up with her level of household work."

All of this, however, stems from the idea of the 'average wife' and the 'average husband'.  Yet we don't marry averages and generalities.  We marry people, particular people with their particular strengths and weaknesses.

If you start comparing your spouse to the average, particularly measuring her weaknesses against the average and thinking how much better off you would be with an 'average wife', you sow the seeds of unhappiness.  The 'average woman' is a figment of imagination, easily painted with the qualities you want unattached to the particularities of any real woman.

When I met MrsDarwin, I certainly didn't fall in love with her because she was the average woman.  I fell in love with her because of who she was as a person: the books we both loved, the modes of thought and feeling that we shared, the fact that we preferred to spend time together than with anyone else.  If I fell in love with her, with her particularly instead of someone else, because of the ways in which she was different from other women, I clearly have no desire to exchange her for 'the average woman' because of some one quality in which the 'average woman' is imagined to be better.

What does it matter if the 'average woman' is more desirable in terms of running errands or sweeping floors?  I married my wife because the particular person she is, all qualities taken together, was the person I wanted to spend my life with far more than any other woman that I'd met before (or since.)  I believe that I'm lucky to have found her.  It would be madness to then turn around and complain that she wasn't sufficiently average in some respect.

It's destructive enough, I'm sure, to be sitting around thinking what it might have been like to have married some other specific person instead of your spouse, but at least in considering a specific person one is compelled to think of that person in whole, the things that you might like along with the things that you would not.  The dangerous thing about sitting around comparing your spouse to an 'average' is that it's now possible to yearn for virtues in which you think your spouse deficient without having to pair those with any other specific characteristics.

People are not commodities.  There is no shelf of Spouses, Grade A to be selected at the marriage store.  In any given person we take the good with the bad, the delightful with the mildly frustrating.  It's best that we remember that, and remember why we married our spouses, not start comparing them to some tantalizing "average" set of virtues.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The Hamilton Mixtape

Coming out in December is The Hamilton Mixtape, an album of remixes and new interpretations of the songs from Hamilton. Two tracks have been released: My Shot (feat. Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz & Nate Ruess) (Rise Up Remix), and It's Quiet Uptown, sung by Kelly Clarkson.

Listen and compare.

And the original

The remix is less specific to Hamilton, and so perhaps more universal, and of course these are rappers of great technical skill (I have a fondness for Busta Rhymes dating back to the time I saw Whoo Ha! Got You All In Check on MTv) , but there's far less musical complexity (and musicality) than with Alex Lacamoire's orchestrations for the show. All through My Shot, Lacamoire builds drama through changing tempos and adding layers of harmony -- each iteration of the refrain "I am not throwing away my shot" has a different harmonic structure, and even within a single refrain, new voices amp up the intensity. And the remix doesn't even attempt anything like the intricacy of the My Shot's ending.

And the original

Again, in the cover, all specific references to Hamilton have been removed or altered, so it's more universal. But I miss the simplicity and purity of the original, and I don't prefer Clarkson's voice for this song. The bones of the song are strong enough, though, that even in the cover my breath still caught at "Forgiveness...".

Still, based on these snippets, when I'm going to relisten to songs from Hamilton, I'm going to reach for the cast recordings rather than this new album.

If you're fan of Hamilton -- or perhaps especially if you aren't -- read Melanie Bettinelli's analysis of Hamilton as an American tragedy:
In which I sketch out a few thoughts on Hamilton: An American Musical, the Broadway hit that reinvents the American revolution as a musical tragedy that some have said is Shakespearian in its vision and scope. The play is radically innovative, mingling rap and hip hop music with traditional Broadway show tunes and sounds from other popular genres. Its success has reached far beyond the usual scope for Broadway shows, drawing the attendance of no less than the president of the United States who in turn invited the cast for a command performance at the White House. This play has captured the hearts of audiences who hate musical theater and who despise rap. Why is this the Hamilton moment? I argue that it’s precisely because Hamilton’s tragedy is America’s tragedy.
...Perhaps one reason why Hamilton has been so wildly popular across all demographics and political affiliations is this cathartic effect of tragedy. Do we sense this regenerative energy as it confronts the deepest wound of the American psyche, the communal guilt of slavery? That doesn’t quite seem to work since there’s not a clear connection between Hamilton’s downfall and the problem of slavery. But there’s something here… in Hamilton’s confrontation with the problem of legacy, with what kinds of garden will spring up after you’ve planted the seeds. What seeds did the Revolution plant? Perhaps Hamilton the musical implies that we are still fighting to realize the vision of Revolution, that the war is incomplete and perhaps it is part of Hamilton’s tragedy that his fall kept him from becoming president, from achieving a political position where he could have implemented his abolitionist vision. Instead, his life was cut short too early, just like that of Laurens who never got to lead the first black battalion, and with his downfall America lost a visionary president who might have found a way to fulfill that revolutionary promise, that lost dream.
And this is where the metanarrative comes in. Because it’s Eliza who ultimately lives and tells Hamilton’s story and it’s Lin Manuel Miranda who tells the story. Just as Eliza puts herself into the narrative, so does Lin Manuel Miranda. He makes this a story about New York immigrants. He writes blacks and Latinos and Asians into the narrative. He makes it their story. The story of America then as told by America now. And it’s immigrants who get the job done, who break out of the endless cycle of violence, who cut through the black and white binary and envision a different narrative, one where the founding fathers are free to be flawed human beings at the same time that they are visionaries whose ideals are worth preserving. Perhaps their legacy can be redeemed, their sins forgiven, and their vision reclaimed from the dustbin of history?

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Ultimatum Game Election

I attended a conference with my team from work last week, going to talks and workshops dealing with pricing techniques and theory. One of these workshops was on behavioral economics as it relates to pricing, and the ice breaker at the beginning of the session was based on the Ultimatum Game.

The Ultimatum Game works as follows: The facilitator breaks the participants into groups of two. He then explains to each group, "I am giving one of you $100. You can have this money on the condition that the other person in your groups agrees to your proposal on how to split the money. No negotiation is allowed. You make one proposal on how to split the money such as, 'I will give you $50' and your partner responds yes or no. If he agrees, you get the money and split it. If he refuses, none of you get any money."

I proposed giving $40 while keeping $60 and got a yes. One person proposed a $65/$35 split. The rest of the group went $50/$50, except for one group which had a refusal when a man offered the woman he was paired with a $70/$30 split and she turned him down. One guy who was left without a partner announced that he had conducted an imaginary transaction at $99/$1.

The imaginary transaction is actually the solution to the problem at a logical level. It's free money, and you get nothing if you don't reach an agreement, so if you're at the person who receives the proposal you should say 'yes' to anything. If you could count on everyone being logical this way, the person who was in charge of making the offer should offer a $99/$1 split every time in the confidence it would be accepted.

But people aren't simply rational profit maximizers, and in experiments people routinely refuse offers of $30 or less. This means that as the person making the proposal, you need to take into account the sense of fairness of the person to whom you are making the proposal.

This tendency of Person A to offer a more generous split for fear of offending expectations of fairness shows that while an individual Person B may get nothing due to refusing a low-ball offer, the tendency of people to refuse such offers actually means that in general people in the Person B role will do much better than if people didn't enforce this societal expectation. Someone who refuses a low offer gets nothing, but in reinforcing the expectation that low offers will be refused, he benefits others who are in the same position. Refusing may be 'irrational' in the sense of not getting a sure immediate gain, however it results in overall long term gains for the group.

Sitting where we are, a week from the election, it struck me that some of the intra-conservative arguments about whether to support Trump boil down to the two approaches to analyzing the Ultimatum Game. One side argues that if Trump is any short term gain at all to be had in electing Trump president over Clinton (judicial appointments, etc.) then we should vote for him. Doing otherwise is 'irrational'. The other side (to which I adhere) holds that in accepting a candidate as bad as Trump, conservatives would signal to their party that such a low offer will nonetheless by accepted. By rejecting him, we form the expectation that only better candidates will get our support.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Haunted Elevator

For the three people in America who haven't seen this Halloween insta-classic from SNL, all I can say is, "Any questions?"

"The scariest thing to the mind is the unknown."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Maria Chapdelaine

I finished Maria Chapdelaine weeks ago, the book is drastically overdue at the library (and it's an interlibrary loan, too), and I enjoyed it greatly. Why then have I not written about it, especially when I made a point of asking people to read along with me? Perhaps Maria would understand better than anyone about the restlessness that keeps me looking for new things and amusements the moment I sit down and try to write or read something that requires good concentrated thought.

Maria Chapdelaine, written in 1913 by Louis Hemon, is a lovely little story of the hardworking, heartbreaking existence of upcountry Quebeçois, trying to eke out a living on farms (the French renders farm simply as "terre", earth) scratched out of the all-encompassing woods. The woods are almost a character in their own right, looming around Maria and reminding her of the dangers and loneliness of this life her parents have chosen. The frame of the story is a year on the farm, as each season brings fresh challenges, fresh joys, and fresh sorrows.

When I first started reading, in my concentration on translating from the French, I mistook Maria's character. I thought that she was flighty and a bit shallow. Maria, the oldest daughter of a large settler family, yearns for a life of more security and more society than the farm can offer, and she has good reason: the Canadian woods are a isolated, dangerous place to make a living. Far from friends, far from help, Maria has no romantic notions about "the north", especially as the deadly winters bring repeated tragedy to her family. But she does understand what it means to endure. The loveliest example of this endurance is the chapter in which Maria, a serious intention in her heart, makes a Christmas Eve offering of a thousand Aves to the Virgin, working her prayers in through all the preparations for the coming feast.

Three different men seek Maria's hand, and they hold the promise of three different kinds of Canadian life: the life of the woods, the life of the farm, and the life of the emigré working in an American city. There is not one clear choice: each man is good, each loves her truly, and each life holds a different good. Maria's decision hinges on how best to honor the close-knit family she loves while not dismissing the very real negative aspects of the life they live.

The writing is simple but reaches lyricism in the descriptions of the countryside and Maria's interior life. For such a short book, it takes no shortcuts with its characters, balancing faults and virtues in each. A friend said she'd been surprised, after reading Maria Chapdelaine, that someone had compared it to Anne of Green Gables. Except that they're both Canadian literature of roughly the same period, there's not much similarity. A better comparison would be to the literature of the American prairies, perhaps the later books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or maybe Willa Cather. But really, Hemon, a transplanted Parisian who based Maria Chapdelaine on his experiences working as a farm hand in the region around Lac Saint-Jean, is his own author. Maria Chapdelaine can be read as iconic Canadian literature, or as a psychological study, or as a narrative of the pioneer experience, but really, it should just be read because it is worth reading in itself.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Taking Counsel

I've been seeing a counselor.

There, I said it. That wasn't so bad, was it?

And yet it was terribly hard to do, to send the email asking for an appointment. I had to email, because I couldn't talk on the phone, because I couldn't stop crying. In September, a friend had asked me, "Do you think you might be suffering from depression?" and the idea made so desperately angry that I sat, locked in my bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably, and all the time thinking, "Something is wrong. This is not like me, ever." And I made a bargain with God, that if he would calm me down and make this crying stop and allow me to take my daughter shopping for pointe shoes that afternoon as I'd promised I'd do, that I would make an appointment with a counselor that very hour.

I googled "Catholic counselor Columbus", and the first link was a lady who saw clients at the next parish over. And I cried more as I sent the email, because I didn't want to be crazy, and I didn't want to have depression. God was faithful to his end of the bargain. My cloud lifted that morning (and, incidentally, has not returned since).

I grew up in a household in which psychological problems, not limited to depression, were allowed to fester to the extent of destroying a marriage, and I had always resolved that if I ever showed any signs of depression, I would seek help immediately and never put my family and my marriage through the chaos I grew up in. But it was humbling to have to make the choice, because I'd always prided myself on being the sanest person I knew, and here I was, weak and bleak and unable, through my own efforts, to reason myself out of my shakiness, either during my mental influenza in June or here in September.

Strangely enough, things started to sort themselves out after I made the appointment. Rather majorly, Darwin and I had a good honest conversation about -- oh God, let's just say it -- sex. Being married for fifteen years, you'd think we'd learned everything to we needed to know about what we needed to know and discussed everything that we needed to discuss (and sometimes it seemed that way), but the birth of the young fellow these 2 1/2 years ago set me back a good ways, and there never seemed to be a good time to talk about it. If there's one thing I've realized about myself, it's that any time I feel like I can't talk to Darwin is a bad time for me. I compounded that by being a martyr. Friends, don't be a martyr. God will send you martyrdom enough in his own good time.

My dears, I have the best and happiest marriage that I know. And yet, in the past years, the old saw "Marriage is hard work" has taken on a whole new meaning. I used to think it only applied to people who fought, or who were difficult or demanding, or who were dissimilar enough that they had to try to be interested in their spouse's interests. Maybe for people who were unable to treat each other with the common courtesy they'd show strangers or co-workers, marriage was hard work, but not for us. Perhaps we associated "hard" with "bad". Perhaps because we've always been able to talk about everything, and because we've never had a fight, nothing about our marriage had ever seemed hard. The instructive thing is that, in this case, "hard" never equated to "sinful". I needed to have a hard conversation with my husband, one which ate away at me because at every instance there was the possibility of giving great pain, and yet the more I tried to die to self, the more painful dying became. There was no sin on my part or on his part -- we'd done nothing wrong -- but there seemed to be no way to avoid hurting each other.

"As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.'" John 9:1-3

In my attempts to do everything through my own power, I'd forgotten the graces of marriage. I'd created several little fictions in which I examined every way I could avoid being hurtful, and yet in every story I failed. But, as I ought to know, real life is always more complex and interesting than fiction, because I don't control it. Once again, I had a conversation I feared would tear my husband down, and it only went right in every way. It opened the doors for healing and progress, without creating any bitterness or bad feeling where none existed.

All this, before my first appointment.

The counselor and I got on splendidly. God honored my prayers and directed me to a lady who was very compatible with me personally. As she asked me questions, I began to realize that whatever my problems were or had been, they didn't relate to the clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. I took a depression inventory in which the severest possible answer was 63; my answers totaled up to 6. I took an anxiety inventory and scored even lower. And I came to understand how it looks from the outside to be a Catholic homeschooling mother of six living in a house with virtually no air conditioning. It was valuable to hear someone say that there were legitimate stresses affiliated with many children of many ages, that it is not abnormal to be ground down at times by these stresses. That is is genuinely wearing to do the unacknowledged work of running a household, work which nobody notices and yet everyone notices when it's not done. That wishing for gratitude and appreciation was not a selfish desire.

The counselor recommended that I keep a mood journal, to try to chart what might be causing emotional distress. As it happened, I didn't have any moods to report. But I did look back and make notes on why I had been so agitated in September when I made my first appointment:

  • I had gotten three (unconsecutive) hours of sleep the night before (ALWAYS look to the sleep)
  • I was starting a nasty sinus attack (always look to the sinuses too)
  • I had gone to bed unhappy
  • I had just found out, the week before at my checkup, that I was in fine physical health, and so 
  • I was already fearful that I might have something like depression
  • And then a friend told me that I should consider the possibility of depression, the condition I abhored for its consequences on a family.
Doubtless there were other factors at play too. But these seemed to provide an explanation for an uncharacteristic emotional state.

Through journaling, I put into words some things I'd always known about myself but had never thought about clearly. For example, I hate emotional manipulation with a burning disdain. I hate feel-good memes and sappy photos. I can't stand coy or cutesy pregnancy or engagement announcements. I detest romantic and horror movies that want to mold audience reaction. I reject fake awesome! But also, I'm wary if Darwin as much as brings me flowers, because that feels to me like trying to buy me off for something (which he's never actually done). If you have been obviously crying, and I ask you, "How are you doing?" and you sigh and say, "Fiiiine, I guess", I will go on with my life, because if you wanted to tell me your problem you would. (True example from college days.) I do not follow up on hints and insinuations, because if really wanted to tell me your drama, you would. My best friendships are with people who are honest and communicative and do not allow emotion cloud their better judgment. My earliest memories are of coping with emotional instability around me, for myself and for the younger siblings I protected, and since those days I've been been blocking out emotional manipulation, as a survival mechanism and as a personal preference.

In discussing why I often feel so willfully reluctant to do what I know I need to be doing around the house, the counselor suggested that I schedule some time in which I could feel secure in the knowledge that no one would make any demands of me. "Go to an hour of Adoration a week," she recommended. I have been doing that, and when I'm there I sit in silence. I don't demand of myself that I pray the rosary, something I never do well. I don't demand of myself that I state all my petitions, or consciously bring to mind everyone who's asked for my prayers. I just do what Jesus is doing, which is to be. I close my eyes, or I don't. I kneel or I don't. I read the Bible or I don't. And it is enough.

Also, I read The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times, by Dom Jean-Charles Nault. This was another recommendation, and it was revelatory. I know the signs and effects of acedia -- it's a subject I've written about a slew of times since 2007 -- but this was a more in-depth analysis than I'd read before. And it was good to be reminded of the five principal manifestations of acedia:
  • a certain interior instability
  • an exaggerated concern for one's health
  • aversion to manual work
  • neglect in observing the rule
  • general discouragement
and the five principal remedies:
  • tears
  • prayer and work
  • the antirrhêtic method, or contradicting temptation as Christ did in the desert
  • meditation on death, and 
  • perseverance
I may have checked off very few boxes on the depression and anxiety inventories, but my funk in June is almost exactly described by the five indications above. There was a serious spiritual component, attack-level, if you will, to my weakness, such that I felt that I couldn't even ask for people's prayers because I didn't feel free to do so. And oddly enough, although The Noonday Devil has a chapter on acedia in the different states of life, few bits of the marriage section resonated at all with me, but the section on acedia in the monastic life was relevant in almost every particular. Perhaps as is fitting for a Benedictine abbot, Dom Nault writes about issues in marriage in a general vocational way (fidelity, sexual integrity, openness to life), but he writes about the challenges of the monastic life from a very day-to-day`operational perspective. My home is my cloister, and my temptations are those of the monk confined to his monastery, committed to a stable existence, and yet weary of the demands that stability puts on him. 

By the end of my first visit with the counselor we'd established that I didn't have clinical signs of depression. At my third visit, this past Wednesday, we agreed that there didn't seem any need for me to schedule again unless I found myself recognizing the kind of signs that led me into a downward spiral over the summer. Contrary to my expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed my time talking to the counselor. Perhaps I was anxious about the process because the one who needed clinical help in my family fought that help at every turn. But I love analysis and introspection, and therapy is a good place for those things. And I'm glad I went, because I won't be ashamed to go again if I need to. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Morals Are Not Just Religious Practices

"That's fine for you, but don't impose your personal religious views on me."

In our highly freedom-centered culture, you've probably heard this line, or variations on it, used when telling others to keep their moral beliefs to themselves. This formulation might make some basic sense if morals were strictly a ritual practice complied with in order to show obedience to divine command. Examples of such a ritual practice might be the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on penitential days, or the Jewish dietary laws. I abstain from eating meat on Fridays in order to make a sacrifice in union with Christ's suffering on Good Friday. To the extent that I believe it would be good for everyone to be Christian and to offer up sacrifices in union with Christ, I think it would be great if everyone did the same. However the extent to which I think that others would be better off following my practice is simply the extent to which I think they too should be Catholic. I don't hold that there is, in and of itself, a life-enriching aspect to abstaining from meat on Fridays. Indeed, to the extent that I think eating meat is a good and enjoyable thing in and of itself, I think that eating meat on Fridays would be good -- it's simply that offering up a sacrifice (in this case of not doing a good thing) is a greater good which I embrace.

However, most Christian moral beliefs about what it is to live rightly are not like this. When Catholics say that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage or to use artificial birth control to divorce sex from its reproductive aspects, we're making a claim about human nature and the nature of sexuality within it. This means that Catholics would necessarily believe that people would be better off, that they would live more completely and richly, if they complied with Catholic moral teachings on these topics regardless of whether those people are Catholic or not.

We're pretty comfortable with this kind of thinking coming from others so long as its not wrapped in the mantle of religion. We all have those couple friends who are very athletic, who eat well, and who eagerly share at every opportunity their beliefs about how exercise and healthy eating will help you feel more alert, be smarter, live longer, and develop will power. Those people have a set of beliefs about the human person which suggest that aspects of their lifestyle (exercise, healthy eating, etc.) would be beneficial to anyone who adopted them. We might well disagree with them, but it would be odd to describe their advocacy of the way of living which they believe to be best for all as "imposing their views on me".

When people advocate living a certain way based on some set of secular motivations, we are usually not surprised by their belief that these choices have universal applicability. Feminists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to treat women. Environmentalists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to use resources. Health advocates think everyone should follow their dietary and exercise advice. What secular people need to understand in return is that Christian's moral beliefs are no less universal. It is thus no more reasonable to tell a Catholic, "I understand you don't want to use birth control, but you should help me advocate that non-Christians use birth control because that will have effects that you like," than it would be to tell a feminist, "I know that you want to treat women equally, but I want to you to tell non-feminists to treat women unfairly because I think that unfairness will have some side effects that you will like."