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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent, Day 2: Links

Is there an easier way to get a post up than to share a few links? Yes, actually, because links involve going down a lot of rabbit holes and getting distracted, and the painters are going to be here any minute (but that's fodder for another day's post).

1. A new translation of the Iliad is turning heads
Caroline Alexander read one of the more modern translations, by Richmond Lattimore, at age 14. “I read a book a day [of the epic’s 24] after school, before swim practice, and was just utterly enthralled,” she said. This week, her translation of “The Iliad” is being published, and it’s already attracting attention among influential academics. Glen W. Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote in a blurb: “In my judgment, this new translation is far superior to the familiar and admired work of Lattimore, [Robert] Fitzgerald and [Robert] Fagles.” In an email interview, Prof. Bowersock said he is already recommending the Alexander translation. Ecco, the HarperCollins imprint publishing the Alexander translation, clearly has big ambitions for the book, signaled by its initial print run of 30,000 copies—a robust number for a literary classic more than 2,000 years old.
...“I know this sounds arrogant,” Ms. Alexander said, but she couldn’t imagine taking on the project “unless you believed you could do a better job.” She spent five years on her translation. Her goal is for her version to become the “translation of record.”
Ms. Alexander has a doctorate in classics from Columbia University and is the author of best sellers on an Antarctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton and on the mutiny on the Bounty. Classical scholars believe that her translation is the first published in English by a woman.
From the interview with Ms. Alexander:
Is there a passage that is particularly vexing for translators?
I know of no single work that has more world-class, hands-down, great scenes than “The Iliad”: the parting of Andromache and Hector, the Embassy to Achilles, the death of Patroclus, the entirety of Book 22 leading to the death of Hector, the meeting between Achilles and Priam—these passages are not great because over the centuries they have become iconographic, but because they still bring writers to their knees in admiration. So these were the passages that presented the greatest challenges for me. The temptation is to rev up the language, reach for the weightier word, pour in the emotion in order to live up to the Greek. I worked hard for restraint, and my mantra was “trust Homer, trust Homer.” I knew that if I could find the simple English word for his simple Greek, work for cadence—spoken cadence, not the cadence of “high” poetry—it would work. The most difficult passage, I think, was the parting of Hector and Andromache, because the scene is so tender, so different in tone from most of the epic, and I knew it could be easily bruised; so I doubled my efforts for restraint. 
Is there a passage that you always look at to see how others have handled?
I looked less as I went in deeper. At the beginning I was very careful to make sure I wasn’t going off the rails; these comparisons were best seen as security checks, perhaps. By Book 6, I was operating by informed instinct, and felt pretty confident; thus I began to enjoy the comparisons. The times I was most diligent about looking at other versions was when I felt I had really nailed a passage. 
What did you think of the casting of Brad Pitt as Achilles?
I didn’t watch the whole film. But I did see his first big kill in the opening 10 minutes. A stunning bit of stunt-work, very athletic and adroit, and totally un-Achillean. It implied that Achilles’ greatness as a warrior lay in his skill. Having just finished working on a documentary about tigers, I would venture that confronting Achilles would be more like coming face-to-face with a tiger than with a tricky swordsman.

As part of our Hamilton mania right now, I was delighted to find Alexander Hamilton: the Outsiderby Jean Fritz, who has written so many wonderful Revolutionary War books for children. The engravings at the head of each chapter are charming and add a lot of period flair to the book, and the story itself flows along at a captivating pace -- so crucial for biographies, which (my) children are apt to discard if they aren't immediately interesting. Fritz glosses almost too lightly over the Reynolds affair but does convey why it was so destructive to Hamilton's career without going into detail.


Speaking of Hamilton, you may recall that a few weeks ago I linked to an interview with the stage manager of the Broadway show. Here he is again, calling the light cues as the company performs The Ten Duel Commandments, a first act number in Hamilton et. al. describe the etiquette of duels as his friend John Laurens prepares to duel Gen. Charles Lee over Lee's insults to George Washington.

Then listen to the original here:


Advent, Day 1

Each weekday, I read the daily Mass readings with the kids. This has been our formal study of religion for the past two years -- no Faith and Life, no Baltimore Catechism, etc. We read the scriptures and discuss them and read a meditation on them, and then we practice praying. Everyone has to be quiet and sitting respectfully, and for perhaps twenty or thirty seconds we sit in silence and pray.

I call it "practice" because no one becomes good at anything without practicing. We practice handwriting, we practice saying the alphabet, we practice reading. Some things, like speaking, we practice without thinking much about it at all; some things, like math (at our house, anyway), we practice with much angst and volume. And prayer has to be practiced too -- I can't expect the kids to leave the house at 18 and have much of a prayer life if they've never practiced having a prayer life, and I can't expect them to develop the ability to pray without beginning in this small way. It's good for me, too, to practice praying as opposed to simply turning my thoughts toward God during the day, just as I although I can play piano well enough, I'd be a lot better at it if I consistently practiced every day.

I've let slip a lot of activities over the course of this school year, in an effort to maintain order education-wise. Writing is one of those things that's slipped, and I'm out of practice, such that although I have all these ideas bumping around in my head, the thought of sitting down and putting them into words becomes easier and easier to push away. Well, time to practice in small bites. I'm going to write a post a day for Advent, no matter how short. Already I'm failing -- as I typed the last sentence, the clock rolled over to midnight, and it's already the second day of Advent. It's okay. Time to pick myself up and start over again.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 15-2

I hope everyone is having a good Thanksgiving weekend. This installment was a lot of fun to write. Every so often a scene which starts off as a way to cover a plot point takes off on its own and becomes a character piece, and Pascal's scene did there here and became the centerpiece of the installment.

I'll be working to get the next installment (finishing Chapter 15) up as quickly as possible. It'll be up no later than this coming Friday, but hopefully sooner.

Chateau Ducloux, France. October 27th, 1914. Not every return to normality was welcome. During the second week of October, the local newspaper, The Lantern, had returned to publication. The typeface and masthead were the same. Eugene Thorel remained the publisher, setting type for its four sheets each afternoon in the workshop which adjoined his house. But the power of the press was closely supervised and this new Lantern shed only the light of German might. Each edition was read throughout the town, yet hated.

Any scrap of news was desperately desired, but this was news filtered through the German command. There was no news of the French army units, active duty and reserve, in which the town’s men served. There was no list of the honorable fallen for families to read with trepidation.

This day’s lead was typical of the last two weeks: “German Army Solidifies Gains Around Langemarck”

In desperate fighting along the Yser river, fresh German units beat the demoralized British and French troops into a defensive position around the nearly-surrounded city of Ypres. Casualties were heavy among the disorganized and demoralized Entente powers as they tried and failed to halt the valiant soldiers of the Imperial German Army.

The paragraphs stretched on but provided little additional news, other than the presence of the city names which indicated that the fighting now stretched all the way to the Belgian coast in Flanders.

“I shouldn’t read it,” said Grandpere in disgust, crumpling the paper. “If we had defeated them, they wouldn’t tell us. The first we’d know is when the shells started to fall on the town again and the Boche began to pull out.”

Philomene smiled at her father. “But you read it every morning.”

“Yes. Yes, I can’t help it.” He smoothed the paper out and began to read again. “Perhaps they’ll give something away. Perhaps what they don’t talk about will give me some clue as to what’s really going on.” He scanned down the page, muttering commentary at times.

Philomene half listened as she spread butter on a piece of the dark, gritty ration bread. No coffee. Black bread. How long was it since Henri has sat at this table, reading his copy of Le Temps and worrying about the unfolding crisis in the Balkans? Three months. Where was Henri now? Was he safe? Was he ever able to quietly read a paper while sipping a cup of coffee and eating a pastry, as they had done together on so many peaceful mornings?

They had bought pastries everyday then, fresh from Jeanpetit’s Patisserie. Now the patisserie made pastries almost exclusively for the German officers. They provided the white flour from their army stores; they received the small, flakey delicacies in return. For the village there was no white flour to be had.

“Can I have another piece of bread?” Pascal was standing in the doorway, his school satchel over his shoulder. It was still only a quarter after eight, but it was encouraging to see the boy so eager for his lessons.

Philomene looked at the large, dark loaf of bread, drying to estimate slices for each family member during the rest of the day. As other foods had become more scarce, the daily one kilo loaf of ration bread had become an essential part of each meal.

“You already had a thick slice this morning with butter and jam on it,” she said.

“But I’m hungry,” Pascal replied, with the trenchancy of a growing boy.

Philomene hesitated. She could always have less herself at dinner if they ran short.

“Let him have another good slice,” Grandpere said, looking up from his paper. “Don’t worry about dinner, Philomene. I have a surprise to show you later on.”

She cut the slice and Pascal bolted from the house with it as soon as he got it in his hand.

“Well?” Philomene asked.

Her father flashed a smiled but turned back to his reading. “You’ll see. Just a little something.” He turned over the paper to read the final sheet and let out a growled invocation, which was the closest he normally came to swearing.

“What?” Philomene leaned in to see what had raised his ire.

On the back page was the headline, “Notice of Requisition,” and underneath the paragraph:

By order of the town Commandant, the following materials are placed under military requisition:
100 winter thickness wool blankets
5 barrels of apples
100 kilograms of copper (cooking vessels, pipe, roofing, etc. are acceptable)
2000 6cm nails
6 draught horses
Collection will be organized by the civilian authorities. If the requisition is not fully gathered by Friday, October 30th, supply patrols will be sent out to collect directly from the population as needed.

“This is nothing but legalized robbery,” said Grandpere. “Not even that. Surely it’s against the law of nations for them to force Frenchmen to give them materials to be used to fight our fellow countrymen.”

Philomene remembered bringing meals to Madame Duval after little Baptiste had been shot by the invading soldiers. Could there be laws of nations when such things happened? Would men who shot on sight hesitate to steal?

“Perhaps in this war there are no laws.”

“Nonsense. We’re not savages. There are treaties. We have rights. And even without treaties, there are human decencies that apply at all times. They can’t steal from us. If Justin Perreau is to be worth anything as mayor, he’ll refuse to carry out these illegal demands.”

Her father showed no sign of calming, and since it was impossible to set town policy at the breakfast table, Philomene changed the subject instead. “You said you had a surprise?”

Grandpere seemed about to respond hotly, then checked himself. For a moment he sat, eyes closed, lips pressed into a line. Then he said, “You’re right of course. What does it accomplish to become angry? I’ll show you something better.”

He pushed aside the paper, got up, and left the room. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a canvas bag, which he opened to reveal potatoes, carrots and onions still dusted with the soft soil they had been grown in.

“I’d added another farmer to the back room market. He’ll send up produce once a week, and I’ll sell it out of the back room to trustworthy villagers. This is our commission for the first week. It should be plenty to give us a good dinner tonight.”

Philomene reached out to touch the smooth yellow skin of one of the potatoes. Yes, this could be simmered into a thick vegetable stew. No one would be hungry tonight.


As soon as Pascal reached the cobblestones of the street he set off at a run, the extra slice of bread clutched in one hand, and kept the pace up until he reached the next street, where Lucien Vazart stepped out from the shelter of a doorway to meet him.

[continue reading]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Music: Prayer to Jesus

Our warmest Thanksgiving wishes to all, as we sit here waiting for our dinner to digest sufficiently to allow us to approach the four pies. The fire is lit, Inspector Clouseau is detecting onscreen, and when it comes time for making music with my brother and sister and dad, here's what we'll sing:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Word by Word

Things have been exceedingly busy here, culminating in William (almost two) being walked around in the back of a theater, shouting at his older sister singing up on stage, "Julia! Sit down!" But now the play is over, and things are slowing down a bit, and it occurs to me that maybe I should have mentioned at some point that I was in a real published book last month.

Some time ago, Sarah Reinhard asked me if I'd contribute a post to her blog series meditating on every word of the Hail Mary. My word was "our", as in "now and at the hour of our death", and I wrote it up in about ten minutes based on a brief insight I'd had while saying bedtime Hail Marys with the kids.

Recently Sarah assembled all the Hail Mary posts and edited them into a book: Word by Word: Slowing Down with the Hail Mary. The essay remains unchanged from its original form, but there it is now in a book, proof that a small spurt of effort to help out a friend can lead to your name in an Amazon preview window.

As part of a series of interviews with the contributors to the book, Sarah asked me a few questions about my essay, in which ten more minutes of effort led to another first: my very own graphic.

Tolle et lege, if you're minded to!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 15-1

We return to Philomene, Pascal and Grandpere, living under German occupation. I'm striving mightily to pick up the pace, so expect the next installment within a week or less.

Chateau Ducloux, France. September 26th, 1914. The stench was terrible.

“How many do you have down here?” Philomene asked.

In the darkness she could hear the soft clucking of many birds, and their smell was overpowering. As her eyes began to adjust to the dim light, she could see birds moving in the shadows and occasional glimmers of birds’ eyes from the darkness.

“Four dozen,” said Hortense Chartier. “It was the most I thought I could hide when the Germans came to take their inventory. As it was, they asked why I had so few birds for such a large poultry barn, but I said that there’d been pestilence and I’d had to destroy several dozen sick birds.”

“How do they do without sunlight?”

Surely a root cellar was a terrible place to try to keep poultry. It seemed certain they would sicken. But perhaps if Madame Chartier were diligent with the cleaning they would be all right. Certainly, they would not be cold. The ground provided insulation, and the body hear of nearly fifty birds made the cellar almost uncomfortably warm.

“They do well enough,” the farmer’s wife assured. “I bring a lantern down for several hours each day at the same time in the afternoon, so that they will know how the days are passing and when to lay. Don’t mind the smell, it’s only because it’s close and warm down here. I clean the floor out every day.”

“I believe you, but it is rather close.”

Hortense led the way back up the ladder, into the shed beneath which the root cellar was dug. They closed the trapdoor and pushed the untidy pile of grain sacks, ropes and horse blankets which concealed the entrance back into place.

The farmwife wiped her hands on her apron, then exclaimed as she looked at Philomene. “Oh, your dress and your hat. I am sorry.”

She was able to help Philomene pick the stray feathers and bits of straw off the hat, but trying to brush at the dust and grime which had got on the skirts of her dress as they climbed in and out of the cellar only seemed to grind the stains further into the wool.

“Don’t let it worry you,” Philomene said, waving her away. “You told me that you needed help. What can I do?”

Hortense glanced around as if guilt inspired the fear she would be overheard. “I get three or four dozen eggs each day from them, and since the Germans don’t know about them I’m free to sell them. But I need feed for them. And--” She hesitated, lips pressed together, eyes down, ashamed of what came next. “I’ve been selling the eggs to other farms, but they have their own hidden livestock. I don’t get very much. I thought, if I could find a way to sell them in town, I could get a lot more for them. With Mathieu gone, and the Germans requisitioning my milk and the eggs from the chickens they know about, I have so little to live on. And surely people in town must be wanting fresh food.”

The thought of a reliable supply of fresh eggs was indeed a powerful temptation. During the first two weeks after the German occupation of the town, supplies had broken down. Panicked villages bought everything possible off the shelves, stocking up for the emergency of unknown duration, and German soldiers tired of their army rations had bought up the rest. Grandpere had hidden away a few cases of canned goods and other non-perishables, so there had been no danger that the family would starve, not soon at any rate, but the shelves were bare and the only fresh food was what came ripe in the kitchen garden.

Disgusted by this chaotic state of affairs, the German commandant had decided to organize the local economy. Records were taken of how many people lived in each household, and inventories were taken of all livestock and other food sources. Rather than going to market, food brought in from the outlying farms now went to the army post, where it was registered and most of it sent on to feed the occupying army. The rest was then passed on to the shopkeepers, along with instructions for how much per person each household could purchase. According to the new order, no one would starve, but they would be hungry in a very organized fashion.

Yet however appealing fresh eggs might be, how could she arrange something when Madame Chartier, used as she was to bringing goods to market, was unable to?

[continue reading]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refugees Are Dangerous

I don't know if we are doomed to repeat history, but we certainly are doomed to constantly hear simplistic historical arguments.

Some of these have been flying around lately in regards to whether the US should allow the immigration of refugees from Syria, in the wake of the Paris attacks in which there is some evidence that one of the attackers may have entered Europe via Greece as a refugee. (I think the fears in this regard are mostly ill founded. The majority of the terrorists in the Paris attacks were French or Belgian citizens, and past experience shows that it's much easier to get a terrorist into the US on a student, tourist or business visa than to go through the arduous multi-year process of being allowed to come in as a refugee.) However, these debates don't tend to happen calmly, and so we have on the one hand people making the analogy between Syrian refugees now and the Jewish refugees that the US turned away in the later 1930s, and on the other people arguing that Jewish refugees in the 1930s were nothing like the Middle Eastern refugees today. Here's a section from that latter piece:

The first, and most obvious, difference: There was no international conspiracy of German Jews in the 1930s attempting to carry out daily attacks on civilians on several continents. No self-identifying Jews in the early 20th century were randomly massacring European citizens in magazine offices and concert halls, and there was no “Jewish State” establishing sovereignty over tens of thousands of square miles of territory, and publicly slaughtering anyone who opposed its advance. Among Syrian Muslims, there is. The vast majority of Syrian Muslims are not party to these strains of radicalism and violence, but it would be dangerous to suggest that they do not exist, or that our refugee-resettlement program need not take account of them.

On a related note, the sympathies of Syrian Muslims are more diverse than those of Nazi-era German Jews. A recent Arab Opinion Index poll of 900 Syrian refugees found that one in eight hold a “to some extent”-positive view of the Islamic State (another 4 percent said that they did not know or refused to answer). A non-trivial minority of refugees who support a murderous, metastatic caliphate is a reason for serious concern. No 13 percent of Jews looked favorably upon the Nazi party.

I'm certainly not here to justify turning away Jewish refugees in the 1930s, but I'm not sure that that distinction is as clear cut as the author immediately imagines. From our current vantage point (and keeping in mind the actions we took later in the war) we tend to see World War II as a war in which fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan was pitted against the civilized world. Thus the suggestion that Jewish refugees in the 1930s presented no worries to Americans because there was not some percentage of them who supported the Nazis. However, the contemporary image in the 1930s (like our own situation in the Middle East) was arguably more muddled than that. Communism and fascism were the twin evils of the age, and it wasn't immediately clear which was preferable. Some people sided with one against the other, and others took a "pox on both their houses" approach and wanted the US to remain as isolated from Europe as possible. While for obvious reasons the number of Jewish refugees who were Nazi sympathizers was just about zero, there doubtless were communist sympathizers among the Jewish refugees, and playing up fears of communism was one of the not-obviously-anti-Semitic ways that people justified wanting to keep European refugees out of the US.

Why was it not unreasonable to suspect that there were communist sympathizers among potential Jewish refugees? Well, among other things communists and fascists had been fighting it out in Europe for the last decade, in street fighting, elections, the Spanish Civil War, and starting in 1941 they would do so in WW2 as well. If the Nazis hate you and want to kill you, it might make sense to sympathize with their most obvious ideological opponents, and in the late 1930s that looked like it would be the communists. (The brief alliance between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in order to divide up Poland was an ideological shock to both communist and Nazi true believers which took some time to digest, though it provided some brief clarity for conservatives who hated both, as we see with Guy Crouchback at the beginning of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor Trilogy.)

And indeed, some of the major communist spies who gave US secrets to the Soviet Union during the war would prove to be Jewish-Americans (including David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs.) Does this mean that Americans were right to oppose letting Jewish refugees into the US during the late 1930s? Of course not. However, at the time world politics looked a lot more complex than they do with our modern day historical hindsight. In addition to simple distaste for foreigners (of which there was doubtless some) people had actual reasons why they thought that political refugees from Europe would bring additional problems to America.

Similarly, refugees coming out of Syria are coming out of a civil war in which both the Assad regime and ISIS have inflicted horrific suffering on the civilian population. Given that at least some of them doubtless come from areas and ethnicities which have suffered much more from Assad's forces than from ISIS, it's not surprising that some of them have a "to some extent" positive view of the most famous group fighting Assad. Does that necessarily mean those holding somewhat positive views of ISIS are coming here to behead people and stage terrorist attacks? No. But it's worth understanding that being trapped in the middle of war which causes you to flee your home can end up giving you sympathies which we, from our vantage point, find very hard to forgive.

And yes, refugees and other poor immigrants are dangerous.

Why? There are two things that hold us back from misbehavior: our morals and our selfish unwillingness to lose the property and comfort that we have. Someone without property and comfort is now down one of two motivations for good behavior.

Does that mean that people who are wealthy and comfortable never support violent revolution or commit crimes? No. And we see cases of "jihad tourism" where people from comfortable families in the developed world become swept up in the idea of participating in violent jihad and eventually go off to participate. In other times and places, people from secular backgrounds would do this to fight for communism or some other ideology that seemed to give meaning to their lives.

But to have really government toppling chaos, you need not only a destructive ideology but a large number of young men who don't think they have good prospects in life otherwise. The ideology is key. Identifying that the young men fighting for communism, fascism or jihad are often poor men who have a sense of grievance doesn't mean that the ideology which defines their movement isn't key to it, even if the individual fighters may be pretty vague on the ideology itself. But if the ideology can be seen at the virus, the poor and oppressed population is the body weakened enough to succumb to that virus. Both are required to get a really good plague going.

This is why refugee populations, as long as they remain large groups of poor displaced persons, are dangerous. Losing your land, many of your belongings, and perhaps even many of your friends and family leaves you with considerably less to lose. And as such, refugee populations can make prime recruiting grounds for crime and for extremist movements.

The solution to this is not to keep people out, which just puts the problem somewhere else, but to re-root people in a new place where they can again have jobs, homes, friends and family. It's the rebuilding of a stable society which protects against the chaos which often comes with displaced populations. And that ought to be the goal of re-settling refugees: to find them new homes in which they can put down roots and become productive citizens.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 14-2

This took far longer than I expected, in part because it is fairly long, but it completes Chapter 14. Jozef enjoys a weekend of partridge shooting with his new found relatives and perhaps finds love.

I'm going to take a game try at finishing by the end of the calendar year. The total length is now 192,000 words. That leaves me another 40-50,000 to write over the next seven weeks. More to come soon! Next up, Philomene.

Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. October 6th, 1914. As Jozef rode away from his uncle’s country house, it had seemed clear that an epoch had passed in his life. Things would not be the same. He knew his mother now, in a way that he had not through all the years of living with her. And he knew himself: the son of a kept woman and an unknown father. And yet, for all that he had lost a hopeful vision of himself as an heir and nobleman, in Henrik and the baron he had a real family of a sort that he had never experienced before.

Yet the post at Veszprém and the training squadron within it went on exactly as before. Rittmeister Koell put them through riding exercises and on Wednesday night they rode out into the hills beyond the town and laid their blanket rolls beneath the stars, pickets standing watches throughout the night as if they were in danger of being attacked by enemy patrols.

One week slipped into another. The newspapers became vaguer and the rumors worse. Peter Kardos received word from home that his older brother, a leutnant in the 7th Hussars, had been wounded in Poland. Jozef received a cache of five letters from Friedrich, written throughout the latter half of August, which had somehow become tangled in the mails and arrived all at once.

Serbia was a hell hole, Friedrich told him. They had won a battle -- a skirmish really -- and driven the enemy cavalry into the hills. But even as the hussars patrolled and screened the infantry, finding no large units to fight, snipers picked off individual men. Wells were poisoned. The civilians spied for the army and killed soldiers when they could. They’d had to burn several villages to the ground and hang every Serb they could lay their hands on, man or woman, but even so the depredations continued. Now orders had come for them to entrain for Poland. The hussars hated to see the Slavs get away with their insolence, but at least the hussars would be escaping from this godforsaken country.

It was on the last day of September, with these and other hints trickling in of how the war effort was going, that the eight cadets had sat down together in the cafe after morning exercises and each written letters to the commission board asking to be placed in active duty regiments for the remainder of their training.

They walked down to the post together and sent the letters off, then betook themselves to the bar to seal their efforts with alcohol. They drank toasts to each other, to the war, to the army, to the emperor. Yet when the afternoon of patriotic carousing had passed, the routine seized hold of them again and they had to form up after dinner for another night sleeping on the uncomfortable ground. However similar the rocks and lumps beneath their bedrolls might be to those felt by men on active duty, that shared discomfort did not diminish their resentment at having to spend the evening in the chill open air rather than in their lodgings. It might be noble to suffer on the field of battle for the emperor, but to do so in training for Rittmeister Koell, even as he rode back to the ample arms of Madame Deák, was not to be borne.

The mails were running slow, both the chaos of war logistics and the vastly increased load of letters moving to and from the fronts taking their toll upon them, but the cadets estimated that at the longest it would take three days for their letters to reach Vienna and as long again for replies to come back. No doubt the staff was busy, but how could youthful ardor be ignored when the need for men was so great? Surely replies would come quickly with orders assigning them to active duty units.

Jozef’s heart surged when, on the sixth day, he asked the concierge if any letters had come for him and the old man said, “Yes, one did come for you. A military courier brought it down from the castle.”

Where would he be sent? To Poland? To Serbia? He hoped desperately for Poland. Against the Russians there was a chance of real battle, cavalry against cavalry. What were the Serbs but a pack of bandits hiding in the mountains?

“Here you go.” The concierge handed him a small blue envelope, and with a disappointment that gripped his stomach like a tightening fist Jozef immediately recognized it as addressed in his uncle’s precise hand.

He was invited to spend another weekend at the country house. The pheasants were in season, and if they were to put down enough birds for the winter, another shooter would be most welcome. Besides Magda had returned with the children, and she had brought with her a younger sister and another guest. Altogether it would be a lively party, and Jozef must come and meet more of the family.

Orders for the front would have been more welcome, but after that first disappointment Jozef found it impossible not to look forward eagerly to the chance to see his uncles again and meet more of his family. When he conveyed the baron’s compliments to Rittmeister Koell it was easy enough to get permission to attend, and he passed the two days until Friday in happy anticipation despite the continued lack of response to his petition for a posting to the front.

[Continue Reading]

Why Is My Nightstand So Crowded?

It's Friday, so it's time to play another round of Why Is My Nightstand So Crowded?

Yes, it doesn't look so crowded after I took my laptop off the nightstand.

Big book stack, top to bottom:
Madame Bovary
Elisabeth Leseur: Selected Writings
The Way: The Essential Classic of Opus Dei's Founder
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
North and South
The Secret Garden
A wrapped birthday book, not to be opened until Dec. 5

Small book stack, top to bottom:
The Liturgy of the Hours book my Dad gave me when I went to college
A photo album from which all the photos have been removed and replaced with index cards the girls have illustrated

A book of paint cards from Farrow and Ball

A single pearl earring, the remnant of a pair

Behind the paint book:
my nice rosary, in two pieces
a matchbox car
another pearl earring, from a different pair, now too bent to wear (I love pearl earrings and I have such bad luck with them)
a ponytail holder

This pile doesn't include the two books I'm actively reading, as opposed to storing on my nightstand:
Love and Responsibility
The Phantom of the Opera

I know it's often a conversation killer to directly ask people to play along, but I'd love to know what you're reading.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Guinea Pig, the Profanity, and the Phantom

A few months ago, we inherited a guinea pig from neighbors who were moving. Piggy, as we call her (because that's her name), is a good sweet little animal, devoid of malice or higher thought. She has an adorable trilling squeak, which she deploys when it looks like someone is about to put a pile of timothy hay into her cage. We like her and try to keep her as happy as we can, given our ignorance of guinea pig psychology.

However, lately she's gotten talky, and has started gnawing the bars of her cage and fussing. I call it fussing, but that's probably anthropomorphizing the small thing too much. She squeaks louder and faster than normal, is what. Well, I try to take care of the lesser creatures in my charge, so I Googled "Why does my guinea pig cry?" (Yes, I capitalize my Google searches. I also capitalize in texts.) And here's what I found on the first page I consulted:
If shes kept alone shes miserable. Keeping only one guinea pig is cruel and if she is housed alone youve failed as an owner and she has a miserable life. Guinea pigs MUST have a compainion, its obvious you did no research before you got her now. Give her to a responsible guinea pig owner or get another female pig
I... I feel like a single mother asking for pregnancy advice.


So you still haven't listened to Hamilton. I see I'm not working hard enough.  Here, watch the 60 Minutes segments with Lin-Manuel Miranda and catch some glimpses of the show. (Can't do anything about the Viagra ads; must have to do with 60 Minutes' current demographic.) We particularly enjoyed watching the Cast Album video -- people working their magic in a recording studio is like catnip to me.

Videos of Hamilton in performance are rationed out drip by drip, but here's a clip of Aaron Burr, realizing that what he really wants is to have the sort of power that puts him in the room where Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison effect a trade that gives Jefferson and Madison the capitol in D.C. in exchange for Congressional approval for Hamilton's financial systems.

A bit of Daveed Diggs's oily Thomas Jefferson:

Almost every line of the soundtrack is quotable, and we have almost every line memorized, yea, even the kids. Everyone handles lyrics with profanity differently, but here's how it works at our house, with this music: when we can, we hit mute for the most in-your-face instance, and otherwise the understanding is that there are some bad words which I expect never to hear out of the mouths of youngsters, on pain of losing their listening privileges. Darwin and I never use profanity ourselves, both as a stylistic choice and, by now, as second nature, so the kids already know it's not acceptable to drop swear words into a conversation. They handle it like we used to do as kids singing along with the Les Mis soundtrack -- either humming over the word, or skipping it, or changing it ("spit" pretty much always works as a substitute for "shit", contextually). That's how we do it at the Darwin household, for this particular music. Your parenting mileage may vary, and that's fine.


On the night before Darwin came home, the big girls and I had a movie night, and I decided it was time to try another big musical: The Phantom of the Opera. Not the movie version that came out a few years ago, with barely disfigured Gerard Butler singing the Phantom with a serious Scots accent, but the staged 25th anniversary performance in Royal Albert Hall.

Phantom is a show that has its problems -- The Music Of The Night is the world's longest song, for starters -- but the singing and the acting and the production values are top of the line here, and for me that covers a multitude of sins. I cut my musical teeth on the original cast album with Sarah Brightman, but the lovely Sierra Boggess here as Christine is much stronger, and Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom has a blow-you-out-of-the-water voice. And I'm happy to report that Carlotta is most excellently done here, because I always sang Carlotta in our family singalongs. John and Will switched back and forth between the Phantom and Raoul, Elizabeth was the two managers, and Anna, naturally, was Christine. (Nathanael was too young in those days to take a part, and then I went away to college, and sigh.) My dad used to say we were more entertaining than TV.

So: indulge my nostalgia! Go watch some Phantom of the Opera, for old time's sake.

Friday, November 06, 2015

On Marriage

Friends, friends. It is Friday, and I ought to have good stuff for you, but we've had a visitor this week, and now Darwin is out of town again. So, some disjointed thoughts on marriage.


There's been some interesting discussion on Facebook over whether dioceses ought to structure marriage prep around the issues that the annulment questionnaire deals with. My own parents were annulled when I was 21, and I think that they would agree that having to deal with the annulment process's directed exploration of family history and past traumas before marriage might have saved everyone a great deal of suffering later on. I also know that as it was, they both married anyway with misgivings.

My canon lawyer friend, who has worked with his diocesan tribunal, takes a rather different view of the issue than the author of the annulment article. Here are his comments on it, stitched together into a sort of guest post with his permission.
First of all, [the author of the article] has a very tenuous grasp on what the tribunal process actually does.

Second, she is naive if she thinks that engaged couples will have the same views on things as divorced couples: most would view it as another hoop to jump through and write down whatever they're "supposed" to.

Third, I think it's become fairly obvious that the only marriage prep that really matters is what happens in the family.

Fourth, I would be shocked if anyone actually told her that ignorance is the common cause of nullity. That's just something people say when they don't understand the function of the will, or the function of the tribunal. I'd guess that ignorance is a ground in less that 2% of nullity cases. It suggests to me that she didn't actually do any homework before writing these ideas down.

To be clear, there is not "an annulment questionaire." Some (most) tribunals use written questionaires, but they aren't technically part of the process, and they are done in place of what the law says should be done, which is to interview the parties. The scattershot approach of the questionnaire is not consistent with the way the process is actually designed in law. Also, the questions tribunals ask are asked in marriage prep -- and the most important ones are asked in the rite of marriage itself. But people have more to say when they want an annulment. I've never met a couple who took immediate marriage prep seriously.

Here are the most pertinent canons. In the next comment, I'll offer some reflections on them:

Can. 1096 §1. For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.

§2. This ignorance is not presumed after puberty.

Can. 1097 §1. Error concerning the person renders a marriage invalid.

§2. Error concerning a quality of the person does not render a marriage invalid even if it is the cause for the contract, unless this quality is directly and principally intended.

Can. 1098 A person contracts invalidly who enters into a marriage deceived by malice, perpetrated to obtain consent, concerning some quality of the other partner which by its very nature can gravely disturb the partnership of conjugal life.

Can. 1099 Error concerning the unity or indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage does not vitiate matrimonial consent provided that it does not determine the will.

Can. 1100 The knowledge or opinion of the nullity of a marriage does not necessarily exclude matrimonial consent.

Can. 1101 §1. The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words and signs used in celebrating the marriage.

In short: ignorance of the basic nature of marriage is a potential ground of nullity, but it must be positively proven -- the law of the Church presumes this knowledge in post-pubescent people, and I think, even in our society, proving its absence is a very difficult thing. And canon 1099 says that for error about indissolubility to be a ground, it must actively inform the will; i.e.; I must say to myself "I choose marriage precisely because it is not a permanent union."

With regard to indissolubility, what is often more common is a defect in the object of consent. Whatever I think of marriage intellectually, "I reserve to myself the right to end the marriage if I don't like it anymore," or "I reserve to myself the right to be unfaithful if I choose to." This is much more commonly proven, AND (this is important), I saw it as the case in many cases among people who definitely knew the Church's teaching, but chose something less, explicity or implicitly, at the time of attempted consent. No amount of teaching will help a person decide not to partially simulate his consent -- only forming people of integrity will do that.

Ignorance of a quality of the person can be a ground of nullity, but the quality must be directly and principally intended. If I say to myself "I wish to marry a Catholic, and therefore I marry Kate," and I later discover she is not a Catholic, the marriage might be invalid. But rarely can the direct and principal intention of one quality be positively proven.

The best marriage formation possible for your children will take place in your home. No short program the church can provide will overcome deficiencies there or undermine strength there. Of course we should do marriage prep. I just don't think we should do it the way she is suggesting and I don't think it's nearly as important as helping you to do your job for your children. Invalid marriages are usually a function of the will, not the intellect. Forming the will can't take place in an 8, or 12, or 52 week program very well. It has to take place over a lifetime. And I'm afraid that too much tinkering with the immediate marriage prep program will absolve the Church, at least in its own mind, from the MUCH harder task of forming families, and helping couples form children. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't think that facilitating an extra couple of discussions is going to do very much.

Also, one other thing that I think is very important is that people have a right to marry. People are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, and Catholics are only required to observe ecclesiastical form by virtue of merely ecclesiastical law.

I agree with the comment that couples don't take marriage prep seriously. In our case, and in the case of everyone I've talked to (anecdotal evidence, yes), the marriage classes were seen as an obstacle to be endured, not a positive source of wisdom and Church teaching. Darwin and I, who still have never had a fight, wrote notes to each other through a Pre-Cana class in which the teachers bragged about how often they argued and gifted us with the strategies they used to curb fighting. Our premarital counseling consisted of filling in 100 bubbles on a questionnaire about how compatible we were. Answer: 100%. The priest in charge asked if we'd cheated and said he'd never had a couple score as closely as we had.

Some of that was basic. Yes, we'd talked about finances. Yes, we'd discussed our families' marital histories and religious assumptions. We liked to talk to each other, and we tried to be as honest as possible and cover every subject that might matter to our future marriage, because the strength of that marriage mattered greatly to us. We both had strong examples of marriage at home: his positive; mine negative. But we'd also both been raised strongly Catholic, and in the same moral and behavioral framework, and that contribution from our parents was more important than the example of their own marriages, possibly.

All that is aside, though. Darwin and I are the kind of couple who could have been an arranged marriage and only met on our wedding day, and we still would have been happy together. That our personalities mesh well enough that we have very few disagreements on any topic is a matter of good fortune, not our own contrivance. Perhaps that makes it easier to grow in virtue together. It did, however, put off the inevitable realization that no matter how much you love another human, no matter how perfectly matched you are, no person can possibly satisfy every need and desire of someone else. The space between one heart and another can only be bridged by God. I will tell you that I could not have understood in marriage prep that human happiness can be as perfect as it can be, and still not be enough, because at that time it seemed like enough.

What we begin to understand, darkly, as through as glass, is that marriage is a path to God. It is not a path to another person. It is a sign and a precursor of the union we will all have with God in heaven, and, in that union with God, with all creation. No amount of hard work on earth, no amount of loving another person, can create a total union that can only exist in heaven. There will be voids and suffering in every marriage. I used to think that when spouses hurt each other, it was because they were trying to be unkind, or because they were doing something wrong. That's not so. Only God can fulfill every desire for love. Even my noblest strivings cannot fill every crevice of Darwin's heart. Even his most heartfelt efforts can not bring me total happiness. And that falling short is an invitation to turn to God, to unite my lack with his completeness, and to beg his grace to perfect my finite efforts.

I often think of absent friends and pray that God would bring those friendships to fruition in Heaven. I pray that now for my marriage. I have the happiest marriage that is earthly possible. But marriage ends with death, and I want my friendship with Darwin to continue for eternity. Our earthly compatibility doesn't have much significance without the spiritual unity that draws us not to each other, but together to God.


I often think I would be a bad marriage prep teacher, because marriage for me, in general, is the path that is easy and the burden that is light. I am the stereotypical "good kid". Darwin and I made good choices and have seen temporal rewards from following the law. But the reason to follow that law is not because it brings temporal blessings. For some people, following God's law only seems to bring heartbreak and suffering. And yet the longest psalm is Ps. 119, a lengthy paean to the beauty and lovability of the law. It seems unbelievable that anyone could wax eloquent for 179 verses about how precious the law, of all things, is. And yet, when we love someone we burn to do something for them, to learn what they want and then do that. The law is what God asks us to do. We beg God, in love "Show me what I can do for you! Give me some way to prove my love to you!" And there it is: his law, intensely practical, seemingly aspirational. The Orthodox Jews follow a very stringent version of the law, like a lover who begs for difficult, almost impossible tasks to prove his devotion. I have not, and do not, always feel that way about God's law, but I sometimes hover now around the realization of what it means to say:

How can the young keep his way without fault?
Only by observing your words.

With all my heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.

In my heart I treasure your promise,
that I may not sin against you.

Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.c

With my lips I recite
all the judgments you have spoken.

I find joy in the way of your testimonies
more than in all riches.

I will ponder your precepts
and consider your paths.

In your statutes I take delight;
I will never forget your word.

Ps. 119:9-16

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why Communion for the Divorced and Re-married is a Doctrinal Issue

I suppose lots of people have already written good basic pieces on this argument, but since I keep running into people saying, "All that we're suggesting is a change in practice: allow those who aren't married in the church to receive communion under certain circumstances. We're not suggesting any change in doctrine!" I thought I would go ahead and write my own brief piece on why this is pretty clearly a doctrinal matter.

1) It is a matter of doctrine (derived directly from the New Testament) that we must not receive the Eucharist when we are in a state of grave sin:

1385 To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself." [1 Cor 11:27-29] Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion. [from the Catechism]

2) Having sex with someone you are not married to is a grave sin.

3) The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble. It lasts as long as both spouses are alive. From the catechism:
1664 Unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage. Polygamy is incompatible with the unity of marriage; divorce separates what God has joined together; the refusal of fertility turns married life away from its "supreme gift," the child (GS 50 § 1).

1665 The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.

This was clearly seen as a tough teaching the moment it came out of Jesus's mouth.

"I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” [Matthew 19:9-10]

4) In the eyes of the Catholic Church, therefore, someone who gets married, divorces, and then goes through a civil or Protestant marriage ceremony with a second person is still considered to be married to the first spouse. An annulment process might find reasons to believe that first marriage was not valid, in which case a new (in the eyes of the Church, a first) marriage can be entered into. But first marriages are assumed valid until proven otherwise.

5) Thus, someone who has divorced and remarried is seen by the Church as being in an adulterous relationship.

6) If someone in that situation went to confession, confessed having sex with someone to whom he was not validly married, and had a firm intention of refraining from sex with his "second wife", he would be completely free to receive communion. (If he failed in his attention and went back to having sex with his second wife, he would be unable to receive communion again unless he again confessed with an intention of refraining.)

7) If a couple which is, in the eyes of the Church, not married, intends to continue living together in an active sexual relationship as if they were married, they are in the eyes of the Church in a state of grave sin.

8) If they are in a state of grave sin, they may not receive the Eucharist: see 1) above.

Given all of that, to say that a divorced and remarried couple (unless they have decided to live together celibately) may receive communion necessarily means that you disagree with one of the following teachings of the Church:

- That someone in grave sin may not receive the Eucharist
- That having sex outside of marriage is a grave sin
- That marriage is indissoluble

Thus, there is no room for "only a change in practice" here. Any change in practice would either imply a change in doctrine, or would mean advising people to do what Paul describes as itself being a grave sin: receiving the Eucharist unworthily.

Stage Managing, for fun and profit

Whether or not you're a theater junkie or a Hamilon buff, this WSJ article about the demands of stage managing a show like Hamilton is just fascinating.

As the nation’s founding fathers strut and fret upon the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, Jason Bassett plays an unseen role, perched on a snug triangular wooden platform about 10 feet above them.

While the cast of the smash-hit hip-hop musical “Hamilton” weaves through fast-paced raps and intricate wordplay, he follows them word for word, calling the show’s 856 lighting cues and 40 set cues with rapid-fire, split-second timing.

But overseeing the spectacle is just part of Mr. Bassett’s job as the musical’s production stage manager. Working six days a week, often 12 hours a day, he is responsible—with the help of two assistants—for managing the show’s behind-the-scenes aspects. That also includes organizing rehearsals, coordinating between creative and technical crews and solving problems, such as how to replace an ensemble member mid-show.


The nearly three-hour show brings particular challenges. In addition to two large turntables built into the set’s floor, which Mr. Bassett said involved “countless hours” of work to make level, the production includes 50 pieces of music and an ensemble that is onstage for most of the show.


Did you study to become a stage manager? 
I completely fell into it. I went to a couple of years of acting school, decided I wasn’t interesting in doing that, and then a friend asked if I wanted to stage manage a tiny production he was doing in Los Angeles. It was this little extra thing that I started doing to earn some extra cash.

But I was making it up. Unless you work at a [big] show like this, you’re the only stage manager and so there’s no real way to know unless you work for somebody else who knows how to do it.

This makes me sentimental. Once upon a time, I was a professional stage manager in Los Angeles. It was a long time ago, a brief shining moment in time...

Okay, not all that shining, and very, very brief -- one show, really, in Beverly Hills, for which I was paid an actual pittance, and some assistant stage manager credits while I was a intern whose pay was cut off halfway through the season because my $100/week hadn't been authorized at the highest level of budgetary authority. (That $100 formed a significant part of our own budget at the time.) And then, there was the crab cakes incident, which clarified for me that theater was not going to be my career.

(An aside: I am one of those people who can never remember to whom I've told a story, but an intensive search of the blog archives seems to indicate, to my astonishment, that I've never written about the pivotal moment in my theatrical history. If you've heard this one before, bear with me.)

So, I was stage managing this Christmas show (excuse me; "holiday" show), and it was nearing the end of its run. I'd stepped in as stage manager as an emergency sub, and was the only crew member during the run. Essentially, I called the show to myself, as I ran lights and sound, and the actors set their own props (union rules didn't apply in a venue this small, I guess). One of the fellows involved with the show was getting ready to direct a show in February, and he said he'd call me about stage managing it.

So he called in January. I was five months pregnant, and Darwin and I were just starting to grapple with the financial implications of losing my meager income when baby was born, so I was ready to jump at any job. Stage managing was hard, physically and mentally. The late nights and the demands of the work didn't always square with being pregnant, but we needed the money badly.  The director, having dinner at a restaurant, chatted about the show, and his vision of the show, and this and that, and all I wanted to hear about was the money. At last. The show paid some barely acceptable amount per the two weeks of performance. But there were also eight weeks of rehearsal.

"How much does it pay per rehearsal?" I asked.

"Oh, honey, this is 99-seat Equity," the director said. "You have do it for the love of it." He turned away from the phone and spoke to his dinner partner. "Are those crab cakes? Pass me the crab cakes."

It was at that moment that I realized that I didn't have the love for it, the hunger it takes to make it in theater. I wasn't prepared to work like a dog for free, for the love of it, when I already felt like a dog gestating a baby, for the love of it. I declined the position as politely as I could, and haven't worked professionally since.

Darwin, in reading the WSJ article, said, "Well, anyway, I'm glad you don't work twelve hours a day, six days a week."

"Excuse me," said I, stay-at-home mother of six children. "If you want to be all careerist about it."

Added bonus: after some Googling around, we finally were able to bring to light our Money Make-Over article in the L.A. Times, written a few months after the crab cakes conversation. We'd been disgusted week after week by the wealthy people featured in this column, who just didn't know how to manage their finances and still pay for the second house and the stables, while we lived with a $25-a-week food budget, so we wrote in and said, "Manage this." They decided, for whatever reason, to profile us. Shortly before the interview, Darwin had gotten a raise after steering at the wall by quitting, but we still didn't make enough for the LA Times to find us respectable. (For a week after the article ran in the paper, I found myself, at eight months pregnant, suddenly fielding a wave of phone calls from concerned LA Times readers who wanted to tell me personally what a mistake we'd made in marrying young, in getting pregnant, in me not working, in being poor-ish, etc. ) The financial planner clearly thought we were naive kids without a clue, but I think that maybe the years have vindicated the confidence our 23-year-old selves had in our prospects.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Living in Sin

In a National Catholic Reporter piece which seemed to sum up the building progressive frustration and anger at the direction of the synod as it neared its end, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote:
The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives.

I think this shows pretty well the way in which progressive Catholics seem to think about marriage, and why they think it should be no big deal to change Church practice in regards to couples in marriages which the Church does not consider valid receiving communion. In this reading, any sin involved in the break up of a marriage is a one time event. You should be able to repent of this sin, and then move on with your life and seek another, happier relationship. Of course, the problem with this view is that it assumes something contrary to Catholic teaching: that marriage is dissoluble. If instead we assume what the Church teaches, that marriage is a lasting bond which cannot be broken except by death, then living as a spouse with someone you're not married to is not a one time sin which you can repent of and then have blessed, it's an ongoing moral problem. Reese comments on this view, and any hope of Catholic parishes reaching out to those who are divorced, with bitter sarcasm:

Meanwhile, bishops are talking about pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics that does not include Communion. They are using words like “accompany,” “listen,” and “welcome.” This has been caricatured as “You are welcome to come into our house, but you can’t eat dinner with us.”

And how do you “accompany” people you believe are in such serious sin that they cannot go to Communion? What does “listen” mean if you have already decided that you will not change your mind no matter what you hear?

In any case, this is better than referring to such couples as “living in sin.” Perhaps the progressives believe that bishops will be changed by such ministry, while conservatives hope to give couples absolution on their death beds.

The phrase "living in sin" has a somewhat prudish, old fashioned cast to it at this point in our cultural and linguistic history, so I'm not surprised to hear Fr. Reese poo poo it so vociferously. And yet, it's actually a good term for capturing the moral ambiguities which seem to so easily confuse the modern mind.

For all that we moderns say that we believe in the "gray areas" and reject a black and white view of moral absolutes, a great many people these days seem to absolutely reject the idea of sin and virtue being mixed in our lives. A week or two ago I found myself in an argument with another Catholic about precisely these issues of divorce and remarriage and he presented the following argument:

Right, so the jerk who leaves his crippled and practically newlywed wife and child but maybe chooses to remain single afterwards is "not an adulterer", but the man who marries her, adopts her child, raises a loving family together with her for SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS *is* an "adulterer"? Sorry, I don't have an imagination big enough for that.

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

How can we account for that?

Because in this world of ours, sin and virtue often get mixed up. People do things that are wrong, and those wrong things get mixed up with things that are right. The fact that starting a relationship was wrong doesn't mean that those people never help each other, never love each other, never raise children together. Indeed, people often do all those things.

I remember being struck by this some years back when MrsDarwin and I watched the movie Walk The Line about singer Johnny Cash. In the movie, Cash treats his wife (with whom he had four children) badly: abusing drugs and alcohol, cheating on her, etc. He eventually abandons her for singer June Carter, with whom he'd been having an affair while both of them were married to other people. Watching this as a happily and newly married couple, it was pretty hard not to loathe the characters, and yet Cash and Carter (who divorced their spouses and married each other) went on to be together for 35 years, raise a child together, and loved and helped each other through many hard times (admittedly a lot of them self inflicted via substance abuse, etc.)

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who's to say it wasn't both?

Just as we humans have a natural capacity for sinning, for choosing our own will over God's, we also have a natural capacity for loving, for taking care of and helping others. It's not surprising that even in a relationship which should not have happened, which is sinful in nature, we often also find ways to love and help each other.  And if your primary family relationship is a sinful one, this means that ending the sin means possibly losing the main relationship which gives happiness and stability to your life.

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That's one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

This is also why the strange modern dualism -- the idea that if something is actually wrong it must be absolutely evil and repulsive in all its aspects, and on the flip side that if something is not utterly repulsive, if it seems to have good aspects or redeeming qualities, it must not be wrong -- is so problematic and ultimately morally incoherent: because virtually all sin ends up mixed with portions of apparent goodness. Instead people tell themselves that sin is something only done by "bad people", that goose stepping Nazi on the television, not by "nice people" like you and me. But, of course, sin is something that all of us "nice people" are quite capable of doing. That's why Jesus came preaching a gospel of repentance, not a gospel of "don't worry you're already a really great person and I sure hope God and the Church are good enough to deserve you."

Update: On Sharing Communion

I'm not sure exactly how this happened, by almost all of my post the other day about the "boy shares communion with his divorced parents" post got trimmed off. I've gone and added it back on to the original post but since the post is now several days in the past here's an update with my commentary that got cut. If it was there when you originally read it and got trimmed since, I'm sorry for the repetition:

The boy's action itself, I would assume, was fairly unstudied. A seven year old can pick up some pretty strong opinions on religious issues due to hearing about them from parents and other figures of authority, but while young age sometimes creates a willingness to act dramatically when adults would not do so, someone that age isn't likely to have the forethought to put together his own plan of liturgical protest. So I would assume that the origin of this was something along the lines of the boy having been told repeatedly that the priest wouldn't give his parents communion because they were married outside the Church, and so he decided to take things into his own hands. However, the fact that things went down this way suggests some incredibly bad formation of this child. His parents' exclusion from communion was clearly presented to him as an injustice in need of solution. It's not a surprise that a seven year old boy would try to right and injustice when he thought it was in his hands to do so, but this means that the Church's teachings about marriage here were presented to him completely wrong -- probably a result of his parents and/or others themselves not at all agreeing with Church teaching. Further, that this boy thought it was okay to break a consecrated host in half and give it to others shows that there was a huge lack in training about the reverence due to the Eucharist. One thing that was very successfully conveyed to us as kids in preparation for First Communion was the importance to treating the host with reverence: You don't take it back to your pew. You don't break it or do anything to it that would cause crumbs to break off. If you receive it in the hand, you put it straight into your mouth. The idea of breaking up and re-distributing a host outrages everything I learned at that very young age. That a bishop related the story with the boy held up as an example, and that others were deeply moved by it, seems to me to suggest all sorts of things wrong with how children are being prepared to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Shadle's piece takes a more intellectual tack, one which although it is based on the idea that we should observe the wisdom of "the little children" is not actually much like how children think. While he doesn't actually make an argument that it is wrong for the Church to say that those living in unconfessed mortal sin should not receive communion, he argues that what the boy senses is that our communion is incomplete when not everyone is united in receiving it.

This strikes me as a problematic understanding.

What, after all, is the Eucharist? In the mass we participate in the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and we experience the real presence of Christ, coming to us in the Eucharist. This is why there is real benefit in being present at mass, or present before the Eucharist, even when we are not receiving. Even if I am not able to receive communion because I haven't observed the fast or because of consciousness of sin, going to mass puts me in the presence of Christ. Similarly, going to Eucharistic adoration puts me in the presence of Christ even though it is not a time for receiving the Eucharist.

The communion which we experience in receiving the Eucharist is primarily a communion with God through receiving His body and blood. It is not primarily a communion with those around us in the church or the world. When I receive the Eucharist, my communion is not incomplete because others are not at that particular mass, receiving at that particular time. Nor is it incomplete because some people are in a state of disunion with the Body of Christ because of sin or because they do not recognize the Church or recognize Christ as necessary for their salvation.

This doesn't mean that our union with Christ is perfect in our reception of the Eucharist. Our union is imperfect because of attachments to sin, because of imperfect faith, because we are not in the beatific vision which can come only after this world. And yet these imperfections do not defeat the Eucharist and Christ's real presence to us in it. Christ's presence is not made less because some people are living in sin or living in unbelief. If the Eucharist is incomplete until everyone can receive, then it will always be incomplete. Until the end of this world there will always be people who are in sin or who are not in the faith. If their absence defeats Christ than Christ is defeated.

In a sense this line of thinking is similar to the idea that unless we believe that every soul will one day be united with God in heaven, then Christ's work of salvation is defeated. But although Christ's grace makes it possible for us to be saved, it is not rendered imperfect when some souls refuse to accept that freely offered salvation. Heaven will not be incomplete because not every human soul is in it, because heaven is complete in God.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Two Hundred Miles

A bit over a year ago, we had a re-org at work. One person working for me got laid off, and two others who had been with another related team were added to mine. I got a new boss and a lot less oversight and a larger team, though a bit more responsibility. Overall, it was a good, if difficult, transition. The new team fit together very well, in part because all three ladies now working for me were training for the city's marathon or half marathon in the fall. Since I was the non-runner on the team, they immediately set about converting me.

I'm one of these people who is always meaning to be more fit, but who seldom devotes the necessary time to make a lot of progress. For a couple years, I'd put some work into strength training (and in the process lowered my cholesterol and my weight a little) but we'd moved and become busy and I let it drop. The last time I'd run a race had been a 5k that I ran when I was perhaps eight or nine. (My uncle was an organizer and I heard there was a participation medal for being the youngest runner, but my six months younger cousin signed up too and beat me in that category.) When they started telling me to join them in the half marathon I took a look at the amount of training required to do it and quickly decided I didn't have time. But I did start running, and I ran a 10k last November.

This year the guilt trip worked. One of the women on the team had run the half marathon last year at fifteen weeks pregnant, and before heading out on maternity leave she signed up for the 2015 race when she would be six months postpartum. It was a little hard to respond, in the face of that, that I didn't have time to train for a race. So I signed up, and a week ago I ran 13.1 miles in temperatures hovering around freezing.

I'm enough of a writer that when I have some new experience I immediately start thinking about what I should write about it, yet so far running has eluded my pen. I keep feeling as if I should have some insight into what it's been like to develop this ability, but there's something very non-verbal about the minutes and then hours following the white line on the asphalt which marks the shoulder of our country roads. My body ran. My mind would get restless. I quickly took to listening to books on my iphone while running so that my mind wouldn't spend the whole time trying to come up with rationales for cutting that day's run short.

You can run maybe 5-6 miles on sidewalks here in town without repeating yourself, but if you want to go further, stretches of your run have to be out on the road. There's not much traffic, but what there is tends to be moving fast, so I try to be on the left side of the road. It's less disconcerting when you can see the car coming before it passes you.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the last 14 month process of becoming a runner was getting up to where I could reliably run 3-4 miles without dropping down to a walk at any point. There must be some part of your body which has to reformulate itself. At first, I'd go a mile or two and then breathing would become hard. I'd be gasping for breath and then have to drop down to a walk. Going slower helped a little, but more than that the process simply involved getting my body used to the idea. I'd try to run a quarter mile further each time. As I passed four it seemed to work a little better. Then I could increase by a half mile each week. In the end, I made my goal last year: I ran the 6.2 miles of a 10k without ever dropping out of a run.

I suppose some people run in the winter around here, using treadmills indoors or risking slips on ice, but I don't. In the spring I started running again in a desultory sort of way. I hadn't completely backslid. I could run three miles at a moderate pace (about nine and a half minutes per mile) without dropping out of a run, but going further than that took work -- work that I wasn't able to make myself do until I ran out of time and had to put myself on a training schedule so I wouldn't disgrace myself on the half marathon.

With fourteen weeks to go, in mid July I googled around until I found a training program I thought I could do: run four days a week. Two short runs (3-4 miles), one long run (started at 3.5 and worked up to a final long run of 12 miles) and one slow recovery run the day after the long run (another 2-3 miles.) I put together a spreadsheet and assigned every run to a day. If I had to miss a run, I moved it to another day.

There's something about tracking an activity. I'd been having difficulty finding time to run even once a week reliably. Once I started my self-directed program I knocked out my four runs a week reliably for two months. I hit the rocks when we went on a week long road trip. I skipped short runs, and did a ten miler on hills which left me with sore knees that never really went away. Worried I'd injured my knees, I pulled back on the training for the last month and ran a lot less miles, but I kept up a few practice runs a week and did my longest practice run at twelve miles.

So I ran my 13.1 miles. It was cold before we got moving. It was hot while we ran. It was cold again once I stopped moving. Other times I'd had the feeling that I could have done more, could have gone faster, could have gone further. I had nothing left after the half marathon. I'd run it in two hours, forty-four seconds and I don't know how I could have taken off even the forty-four seconds. Throughout the last mile, I kept arguing with myself over whether my time was good enough already that I could just drop down an walk for a minute. In the end, when I checked my times, I realized that the last mile was the fastest I'd run. I don't know how.

The runners I know at work -- there seem to be a lot of them -- have all been asking me if I'll do it again next year. "Now you know you can do it, and next time you can make a better time!" I'm not sure if I'll do it again. In some ways, I enjoyed discovering that I could do this. But writing a novel and training for a marathon are both major time commitments, and I'm not sure I can impose both of those on the family at once again.

You hear a lot about how exercise makes you feel great. In moderation it does, but as the miles pile up it seems that everyone gets hurt one way or another. Maybe not seriously hurt, but a gathering of runners in the company cafeteria sounds a bit like a gathering of senior citizens: "How was your knee this weekend?" "Well, I'm feeling it, but I'm still moving. I take the stairs slowly. How's your hip?" "It's hurting, but I can take it. Did you hear about Emily's shin splints?"

The week after the marathon I had my team in San Francisco for a conference. We had a car drop us off at the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge and then ran back to our hotel. Since they'd got me into it, it seemed like a good team building event to close out the running season.

Several of us were still sore from the race, hoping not to turn aches into injuries, so we took it slow. However, it added 8.2 miles to the total. I added those and the race into my training spreadsheet and see that since mid July I've run a total of 201.76 miles. That's a ways.

Friday, October 23, 2015


I'd not wanted to get out of bed, but at 1:30 I couldn't take the wailing in the attic anymore, and I went up to see the cat. She is boarding with us temporarily in the bedroom up there, right over my head, because she fights with the two permanent cats, and to keep the peace, we have to keep her shut in there or all hell breaks loose. But she gets lonely, and she cries, and she was being particularly fractious tonight.

I went up, with a bad will, and I nudged the door open and squeezed in so she wouldn't escape. She'd eaten all her dry food, so I poured her a little more, and I brushed her while she ate. She likes being brushed, which is good, because she's a hairy one. I sat on a little table in the room and talked to her a bit, and I looked around the room. It was a servant's bedroom, in the old days, an L-shaped room under the roof with a low window in a gable and a large window facing east and a high window in a corner that lets natural light into the upstairs hall. The 1929 renovations didn't make it to the attic, so the doorway still has Victorian rosettes on the corner, and the windows have removable screens that hook onto the frame. The walls are blue and the trim is cream and the ceiling is white. White, with little hairline cracks, and up near the high inside window, wide cracks opening up where a patch of ceiling swells out and wide into a bulge.

I stared up at the bulge, and after a moment was able to place the feeling rising up in me as a wave of hysteria. I have seen a bulge in a ceiling, developing slowing in one of the downstairs rooms I'm in every day. Weeks go by without my setting foot in the attic. How long has the ceiling been bulging? Will it collapse this time? The attic ceiling did collapse before, not in this room but in the big ballroom. Before we lived here, the whole ceiling of the ballroom caved in, and had to be rebuilt, and the room was wallpapered. Had the bedroom ceiling been strengthened then? Are we going to have to have yet another ceiling rebuilt, after the library ceiling nearly collapsed two years ago? And that on top of this year's house quota of painting, and the slate roof, and the shoring up of the back porch, and resurfacing the crumbling driveway. And this added to the cracked, stained ceiling in the back bedroom, and the bubbling, crumbling plaster in the kids' bathroom, and the eroding front porch, and the one toilet that won't stop running, and the one toilet that won't fill up...

I stared at the bulge, and I rocked back and forth a bit on the little table. After a time I got up and inspected the rest of the room. The ceiling didn't seem like it was going to fall on me tonight, anyway. And nothing seemed wrong in the hall. In the ballroom, I stood in the doorway and observed the uneven texture of the papered ceiling before gravitating to a thin brown line I'd never noticed up there before. In an angle of the wall, the new blue paper had been torn away, revealing a floral paper so ancient as to lose its ugliness. The many muntins of the window across from me were a grid of desiccated paint over desiccated wood in strange contrast to the gleaming victorian woodwork around it, the whole structure held closed three stories above the driveway by a hook and eye. Underneath, the vintage linoleum rippled from old water damage. The yellow light of the bare bulb was harsh at 2 am, and I wondered if any of the the neighbors were up and wondering about the sudden light at the top of the house. I wondered if the girls underneath me were frightened by unusual steps above their heads.

I flipped off the light switch set in the bannister at the top of the curving stair, and stepped carefully in the dark. Everyone slept undisturbed. I went back to bed to say Hail Marys and ignore the renewed crying of the cat.