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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Proving Innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When CPS Investigates: A Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Opening Night

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Kids Are All Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

VBS Core Dump

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

(Ring bell)

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


The Ten Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Beatitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saint bios

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

St. Josephine Bahkita (fortitude)

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

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

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

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

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

St. Augustine (temperance)

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This Week In Everything

Why no posts, Darwins? you ask.

Because this week is Vacation Bible School and Boy Scout Camp and the week before our play goes up, which means we're in rehearsals until 9:00 every night. There is precious little down time, and what there is is taken up with doing all the things that I normally do when I'm home -- laundry, cleaning, meals, stuff, all squeezed into about three hours in the afternoon, except when we have German or piano moved from their regular times. This is survivable for a week, but I feel like the house would crumble to dust if it went on much longer.

Used to be that when people would make a remark about family size or me being pregnant again, I'd say, "Oh, what's one more?" In a sense, that's true -- if you have a crowd, one more isn't going to make much difference. And yet one more person makes a lot of difference. When you have teenagers trying to talk to you about teenage problems while a ten-year-old and seven-year-old are sparring and a six-year-old has her own complaints and the two-year-old's new hobby is sitting inside the fridge, and they all want to tell you about it at one time, then one more is an awful lot. One more activity, one more drama -- it's a lot.

For years I used to scoff at the notion that marriage was work. But you know? It is work. Not bad work, but necessary work, if one isn't going to sink in a sea of daily fuss and busyness, and emerge on different life rafts, floating near each other but not quite together. To stay united is work. To maintain a family is work. Everything this side of heaven is work, the daily bread earned by the sweat of our brow.

These middle family years are happy, but strange. All these different personalities jostling up against each other, sometimes meshing, sometimes clashing, and each of them needs to be nurtured.

...And that's it. There's no more time this morning to write. I'm off to talk for two hours straight to groups of kids at VBS, which is easier (in my mind) than having to organize the VBS. Have fun this week, and for goodness's sake, wear your sunscreen at camp.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Mental Influenza

I was sick recently. It started off with with weariness and small aches and pains, which I kept trying to power through. Eventually I was almost incapacitated, overwhelmed with this one task I needed to do and wasn't able to. It ate away at me. When I thought about doing it, I was miserable; when I tried doing it, I kept missing the mark because I wasn't well enough to do anything well. As it was, I spent a few days feeling barely able to breathe. Finally, I started recovering, and once I was feeling better, I was able to accomplish what I needed to do, and that helped me recover even more, which helped me do better and better work. A vicious cycle turned into a virtuous cycle.

This is a standard pattern for sickness. You get a cold, you're down, you get over it. Same with the flu, although the recovery period takes longer. I followed this same pattern, but I didn't have a cold. I didn't even have a physical ailment. I had mental influenza.

People talk about mental health as if there's no gradation between utter normality and full-blown depression, but there are gradients mentally as in all kinds of health. You can be a generally healthy person and still come down with a raging cold, and then get over it and go on being generally healthy, and no one thinks much of it. It's a bit trickier to talk about being in a funk, or having a full-blown breakdown, without people wanting to give you advice about counseling or medication, but since I know that this isn't unique to me, the risk of internet diagnosis doesn't matter that much.

So. Something was gnawing at my mind, a discussion I needed to have with Darwin. And as I kept trying to grapple with it and it kept oppressing me, the daily work of parenting and running a house that can be mildly frustrating became increasingly heavier. I spent an afternoon in bed because I felt too exhausted to move. I felt edgy. I was worried about this discussion, and I didn't know how to start it. Perhaps you too are a storyteller, and you find yourself analyzing the way situations can go if you use this tactic versus that tactic. Much time I spent doing this, but I couldn't see any way out of my dilemma that didn't involve making a painful hole in my marriage. I knew that there must be grace out there, and I prayed and prayed, constantly, as it seemed. And yet I sunk deeper, so deep that I was on the verge of tears all day, and I almost couldn't bear to see Darwin, because I couldn't show the slightest bit of vulnerability without blowing myself apart. Once or twice I tried, but I wasn't capable of making myself understood. Darwin, of course, could tell something was wrong, but because I was holding myself together so tightly to keep from falling apart, he didn't know what. I began to wonder if I ought to find someone professional to tell my troubles to, except that I knew that the solution be the same one I saw myself -- that I needed to talk to Darwin.

And when I was able to, I wrote, as obliquely as I could.

And then, independent of all my efforts, I started to recover. I felt better. I felt more reasonable. I was finally able to find words to tell Darwin what was on my mind, and -- incredibly, and yet absolutely predictably -- he listened lovingly, and we had a wonderful discussion that kept on bearing good fruit for days and days. And the offshoots of that discussion, the many tangents that we kept talking about in all our spare time, sped me on to full recovery and helped me feel stronger than I did in the first place. The air was purified and sweetened. Iron sharpened iron.

There it is. I don't have any deep conclusions to draw from this for you. No neatly packaged moral with a pretty graphic so you can see I have life all figured out. Would I have avoided a collapse if I'd talked with Darwin before I let my trouble gnaw away at my mental energy? Perhaps. But even master athletes get colds. Indeed, what's more insufferable that someone who claims they never get sick? Not every malady is equal -- this was a far worse funk than I've ever been in, comparable only to the baby blues I had after Diana was born -- but you get sick, and you survive and go on washing your hands and taking your vitamin C in hopes that you won't have a relapse. May God keep us all in good health.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

It Takes More Than Arguments

A post called "10 Reasons Why Homosexuality is Not a Natural Law Issue" from the blog Catholic Authenticity started showing up in my feed over the long weekend, and since that seems a surprising claim, I went and read it. As it turns out, the post is somewhat mis-titled. It does not in fact present any reasons why the moral questions surrounding homosexuality should not be examined in terms of natural law. Rather, it presents a series of claims about how most people in today's society will not understand natural law based argument, and thus will not be persuaded by then. (The ten reasons trope is pretty clumsily applied too, but perhaps that's a stylistic necessity at Patheos.) The opening of the post more or less admits this:

Okay, so someone in a com-box responding to Steel Magnificat’s recent post asked for a serious essay about whether homosexuality is a religious issue, or a natural law issue. Dealing with this in terms of Catholic doctrine, and the way that we understand the natural law, is a fairly complex undertaking.Today, I want to do something altogether simpler.

Rather than defending a particular position vis a vis a traditional natural law analysis of homosexual acts, I’m going to take a step back and look at the situation in terms of discursive strategy. My argument is that trying to argue against homosexuality from a natural law point of view in contemporary discourse is about as prudent and effective as the charge of the Light Brigade – which, for those of you who don’t know either the history of the Crimean war, or the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, was basically a massive military blunder in which some light cavalry were accidentally ordered to make a frontal assault on a well-defended Russian artillery battery. With predictable results.

It then proceeds to list some of the pitfalls of talking about "natural law" with your typical modern secular (or, to be honest, often religious) interlocutor, starting with the confusion over what "natural" means anyway and going on from there. The post wraps up:

10. The Definition of Insanity Is To Keep Doing The Same Thing And Expect Different Result. Christians have been trying this natural law approach for decades. They have been steadily losing ground for decades. Arguing against homosexuality from natural law is demonstrably ineffectual. It produces no converts. It draws no souls to Christ. It doesn’t even convince people to oppose gay marriage. It’s a lame horse. Giving it another run will not alter the results. It has not worked, and it’s not going to work – for all of the reasons given above. It’s time to put this old argument out to pasture, and try a different approach.

The author promised to provide a post on how the question should addressed if not via natural law, and so I read that post too when it appeared: Beyond Nature: 10 Alternatives to Natural Law

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the first post didn't actually focus on problems with natural law arguments, but rather on how not all people are ready to be convinced by natural law arguments, this post is not actually about alternatives to natural law, but rather about how to get people to be prepared to listen to Church teaching on sexual ethics. For example:

Pro-Good Choice – There’s a great scene in The Walking Dead where one of the characters has been asked to procure abortifacients for a woman who is pregnant during the zombie apocalypse. He does as she asks…but he also brings her prenatal vitamins. In doing so, he gives concrete shape to the possibility of choosing life. Sidewalk counselors and crisis pregnancy centres often use similar approaches to help women in crisis pregnancies make the right decisions. At the moment, when it comes to homosexuality not only are we failing to offer positive realistic alternatives to gay relationships, but anyone who makes an attempt to figure out what those alternatives might look like can expect to do so under heavy fire – not from the LGBTQ community, but from fellow Christians who seem to just want gay people to disappear.

Perhaps I'm unfairly going after the author for awkward framing, but I think the important thing missing here is an understanding of what an argument is for. An argument's purpose is to lay out the truth in a way that can be understood by reason. To achieve this, an argument should be clear and logical. However, the fact that an argument does a good job of achieving its purpose, of laying out the truth in a way which can be understood does not necessarily mean that the person hearing the argument will agree with it.

There are many reasons why someone might not accept an argument. He might disagree with its assumptions. He might not like its implications. He might dislike or distrust the person making the argument. None of these would represent a problem with the argument itself.

As the author perceives, there are a lot of things which are not arguments which will nonetheless make someone far more inclined to listen to your moral beliefs than a clear argument. Rationally or not, people are often much more moved by things like "I like this person" or "this person seems to be happy" than by rational arguments.

Does this mean that we should stop making arguments and focus on being friends with people instead? No. The real answer is, of course, more complicated. We cannot expect arguments, however good, in and of themselves to persuade people right away. Sometimes they may. Some people are actively seeking truth, and when they encounter a good argument, they have the openness and grace to see the truth in it immediately and be changed. Others actively do not want to hear a given truth. No matter how good the argument for a teaching, they will not accept it until grace opens their minds. How does that happen? Many different ways.

Perhaps it's affection for a given person. Lots of real conversions have started with affection for a given person.

Perhaps it's some other area of belief. Someone becomes deeply convinced of one truth -- perhaps that Jesus was God made man, and that He founded a church for our salvation -- and only after accepting that comes around to accepting other areas of Christian teaching which before seemed unbelievable.

We need to understand that the purpose of an argument is to lay out the truth clear, but that simply laying out the truth clearly is not necessarily enough to have it accepted. Making a good argument is worthwhile for its own sake. But it is also not sufficient to cause someone's conversion. And indeed, on the flip side, people often convert without actually being presented with good arguments.

What a Party Re-Alignment Looks Like

538 is revving up their state level presidential polling, and in their first election update the results provide an interesting window into the party realignment effect that the Trump candidacy may have. There's been plenty of talk about how Trump's unique populist appeal might redraw the electoral map, and the state polling shows what some of that might look like.

Trump does currently poll higher than Romney's 2012 election performance in a number of blue states (11.3% better in Connecticut, 7.7% better in Maine, 6.7% better in New York) though he doesn't come very close to looking like winning in any of those states. Clinton currently polls only 6% above Trump in Connecticut, where Obama beat Romney by 17.3%, but given how entrenched the Democratic lead is in Connecticut, even that large swing isn't enough to bring it into Trump's column.

In swing states, Clinton is currently polling slightly better against Trump than Obama performed against Romney, but the effect is pretty small. The only potential flips indicated so far for the polling would be North Carolina going to Clinton when it went to Romney in 2012, while Nevada currently has Trump out-polling Clinton even though Obama won it by 6.7% in 2012.

The biggest swing is in red states, where Trump is currently polling 9.1% worse than Romney's 2012 performance, though even this isn't enough to flip any states other than a current freak result of Kansas going from a 21.6% Romney victory to a 2.6% Clinton lead in the polls over Trump. (I'd be kind of shocked if Kansas goes for Clinton, but as we keep saying: it's an unusual year.)

Overall what we're seeing right now is a lot of movement in the levels of support within specific states, showing how Trump is peeling off some working class White support in blue states while losing various factions of the conservative coalition in red states, but at the moment the forecasted result would actually be pretty close to the 2012 electoral map. If this is a party realignment in progress, it's not yet a massive shake up of the kind which nearly inverted the electoral map between 1960 and 2000.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Prayer for my Beloved

Today is our 15th anniversary. How incredible to write those words: 15th anniversary. It seems like forever; it seems like no time at all.

O Jesus, I ask you to grant my love every good gift. Give him grace, strength, and wisdom; give him fortitude and prudence and charity. Give him riches, spiritual riches that will last into eternity. Give him peace and purity and patience. Give him rest.

And choose me, Jesus. Choose me to be the one through whom he receives these gifts. Allow me to be your way of loving him on earth. Keep us always united in your love.

May our marriage on earth be a sign of the perfect love of heaven, and may we come, with our children, into eternal life with you.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Drafting Women Is A Bad Idea, But It Doesn't Really Matter

When the Senate passed its latest defense policy bill, it included a provision to require women as well as men to register for the draft. There are a whole mix of different reasons that different factions are for or against this idea. Some on the left support it for reasons of equality, or on the theory that this would make it less likely for the US to get into future major wars. Some on the right support it as a sort of, "You want equality? I'll give you equality!" retaliation, while others oppose it as an upending of traditional gender roles.

I think it's a bad policy on the merits. In terms of gender roles, I don't think that it's a good call, and even in countries such as Israel which, as a matter of resource necessity, have historically included women in conscription, it's generally been found that actual infantry combat units function best when all male.

However, I'd argue that it's an empty gesture either way, because it's unlikely that the draft will serve a purpose in any future American war.

From the total French mobilization of the Napoleonic Era through the World Wars, major powers fought wars of national mobilization. Even as technology and mechanization changed the face of war from 1800 to 1945, the ability to put large numbers of riflemen in the field remained a major factor in fighting and winning wars. This is why major powers established systems of conscription. In France and Germany, there was actual universal conscription. Even in peacetime, the majority of young men spend 2-3 years (usually starting at age 20) in uniform as full time soldiers. They drilled, received weapons training, and took part in full scale wargames -- all this designed to assure that at any time the country could mobilize a large number of men who had received several years of military training at some point withing the previous decade. The US and UK did not have conscription, and had only small professional armies, but both instituted a draft during each world war in order to fill the ranks of the army with the millions of young men needed to field a modern army.

Of these mass armies, a large percentage (larger in WW1, smaller in WW2) were riflemen. However, even as the major powers were fielding the largest armies in history during WW1 and WW2, technology was advancing in ways which would gradually take the emphasis away from battles between massed riflemen.

The famous aspect of this involves flashy big technology: modern artillery, tanks, airplanes, helicopters, etc. However, even among infantrymen themselves the degree of specialization had increased tremendously. For example, in 1914 a French infantry platoon consisted of 60 men: 1 lieutenant, seven non-commissioned officers, and 52 riflemen. All of those riflemen carried the same equipment and were trained to fight in the same way. By 1918, however, that platoon had been reduced in size to 30-40 men, and rather than being an undifferentiated mass of identically armed and trained men, they were organized into different combat groups with different weapons and purposes: machine gun group, rifle grenade group, bombing (hand grenade) group. A fully trained set of combat groups functions as its own small combined arms force.

In the hundred years since, the infantry platoon has become more differentiated, more mobile, and far more lethal. This is a result of both technology and the specialized training which the professionalization of the US Army since Vietnam has allowed. As the amount of firepower that a small group of soldiers can lay down has increased, the need for huge masses of men has decreased. A modern squad of nine infantrymen can lay down more fire than a platoon or perhaps a whole company of 200+ men a hundred years ago. And with a small number of men able to deploy such a huge amount of fire, having large masses of infantrymen is actually a battlefield liability: a bigger and denser target.

The fact that technology and training have overtaken numbers as the key factors in combat can be seen in recent wars that the US has fought. In the Gulf War, the number of soldiers deployed by the coalition was only slightly larger than the size of Iraq's army, and in the Iraq War, the number of US and allied soldiers in the initial invasion was actually, on paper, smaller than Hussein's army. In both cases, however, the US and it's allies won massive, lopsided victories. An army of conscripts equipped with cast of Eastern Bloc weaponry was nowhere near a match for the training and technology of the modern US Army.

The two wars against Iraq are easily portrayed as between a large power and a small one, and as we can see by the results Iraq was by no means a match for US military might. However, in terms of army size and equipment, there aren't a large number of powers in the world that have larger conventional military capacity than Iraq did. Setting aside nuclear weapons (as one certainly hopes any future war would) there simply isn't a potential future foe which the US would need to institute a draft to fight. Not only do we have a vastly larger military technology edge over any future foe than we did in past major wars, but we maintain a much larger peacetime army than we did during back when we tended towards disarmament between wars.

If we did become involved in a major war with another great power, we might need to massively increase our purchases of military technology, but the number of soldiers we'd need to recruit would be comparatively modest. Since our superiority as a military power relies so heavily on both technology and training, drafting large numbers of short term recruits would arguably be counter productive, failing to give us the kind of additional manpower we would need.

As such, it would make more sense to abolish the selective service system than to add women to it.

Monday, June 27, 2016


Ah, screw it. I have several posts brewing, and I've been sitting here for half an hour trying to write something, but you know what? I don't really feel like it. Let me tell you what I do feel like.

This past week I have been a seething mass of anger and discouragement. This is more than just a bad mood. This is damn-the-world, welling-up-behind-my-eyes fury, a fury that has no outlet because it has no objective correlative. The kids are not being other than usual, the house is not hotter than it was this time last year. I face no financial worries or existential terrors. I'm just worn out with running a family of eight, and dealing with a body approaching 40 which doesn't act like a body approaching 30. (Those with bodies approaching 50 may feel free to laugh.) I accept that that most people have far more difficult lives than me. My problems and struggles aren't major or dramatic or even all that externally interesting, and yet they exist, and they're what I happen to be struggling with.

Going to confession this weekend has taken the edge off of my irritation, but hasn't made my problems go away. Grace is an interesting thing. Sometimes it lifts you completely out of the bad. Sometimes it just helps you to survive, to not say that thing on the tip of your tongue, but it doesn't actually make you feel better about being virtuous. Sometimes it makes you feel worse, because you did the good thing and you weren't rewarded for it. I like to think that God doesn't have to pat me on the head for doing what's right, only to find out when I don't get it that I feel like I deserve to have my head patted.

We're trying to fix up our screened-in back porch right now, so we can sit out there on summer days when it's too hot to eat in the house. The floor is covered with several layers of old paint. In many places, it's coming off most satisfyingly. A couple swipes of the scraper will bring up big layered chips, leaving a clean swath of concrete. But the section we're working on now involves a lot of finicky scraping. When you look at the floor after an hour of flakework, it seems unchanged, or worse than when you started.  The only evidence of motion is the pile of debris building up in the way of progress. In the middle of the project, with no end in sight, it seems futile to keep chipping away. We chip anyway, because we're committed to getting this done, but knowing that the work will pay off in the future doesn't make it fun now.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

11th Blogoversary: The Most-Viewed Posts

It's like us, this year, to have missed our 11th blogoversary, not because something big is happening, but because everything little is happening. We are doing nothing other than living life with six kids in a high-maintenance house, and it's fairly absorbing. These are the golden years.

To commemorate eleven years, here's a roundup of our all-time most viewed posts -- not, in my opinion, our most interesting posts, but the ones that either went viral or have had a rich Google history:

1. So Baby Has A Skull Fracture: the saga of Pidge's soft squishy lump that turned out to be a skull fracture. Spoiler: everything ended happily, and Pidge turns six in a week or two, a big happy girl who sings and dances and loves to hang on Mama. We get numerous hits a week on this, even five years later. Children hitting their head you will always have with you. 2011, 15651 views.

2. How The Steamroller Will Hit The Church: A piece Darwin wrote a year ago about how the Church might be hit with marriage lawsuits. It was picked up by some Catholic news aggregator. 2015, 14452 views.

3. How Far Can We Go: my review of a book by the same title on premarital chastity. I liked it a great deal, and in fact need to get a new copy because I gave mine away. Not all commenters agreed with a prudential, individualized approach to handling premarital chastity, but it's the approach I'll recommend to my children. Also picked up by a Catholic news aggregator. 2012, 10079 views.

4. Fussing Like An Unweaned Child: Darwin meditates on walking the baby in the back of church. That baby is 10 now. Sigh. 2007, 6519 views.

5. How To Marry A Nice Girl: Oh Lord, Darwin mixed it up with the Manosphere. It ran to 95 comments worth of chestbeating. 2012, 3147 views.

6. African Rift Likely to Form New Ocean: This is a Google favorite of ours. 2010, 2248 views.

7. Is Capitalism Destroying the Family?: What messes up the family more, social policies or social norms? Again, picked up by a Catholic news aggregator; we can always tell because we get an influx of commenters who argue differently from our regulars. 2015, 2078 views.

8. Most People Have Tribes, Not Beliefs: Social media, Kim Davis, the pope. 2015, 1919 views.

9: Pope Benedict Baptizes Ex-Muslim Convert: 2008,1770 views.

10: Income Inequality: 1945 Edition: Darwin did some cost-of-living analysis after we watched The Best Years of our Lives. 2012, 1483 views.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Re-post: Cross-over Fiction

Every now and then we get to talking about something we've written here, only to realize how old the piece is. Tonight we were teasing our girls about the American Girl doll catalogue by recounting to them a story we'd made up about one of the dolls, and lo, turns out that post is from 2008. We revive it here:
You may know her as the bright-eyed Victorian beauty popularized by the American Girl series, but by 1912 Samantha Parkington was a seductive 18-year-old heiress traveling home from her European Grand Tour. Educated, liberated, and uninhibited, she had turned heads across the continent, but not until the voyage home did she meet her match in the capable arms of the son of the 15th Duke of Denver, 22-year-old Lord Peter Wimsey. (Peter, a recent Oxford graduate, has been sent to America by his uncle to forget the flighty but beautiful Barbara.) The ship on which their passions ignite? A vessel as immense as their desires, the majestic, unsinkable Titanic. 
Further development from the comments:
Lord Peter puts the ladies in a lifeboat, but Samantha gets out to rescue steerage passengers because she's a crusader and doesn't believe in steerage. (Samantha's aunt was also liberated; hence the lack of oversight.) Peter jumps off the ship and ends up standing on top of an upside down lifeboat (historically accurate: Collapsible B), while Samantha dies because I say so.
The girls were alternately fascinated and disgusted, which is probably most people's reaction to fan fiction.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Lessons of a Floundering Campaign

One of the interesting things about this year's presidential campaign is that extent to which it underlines something which one can otherwise miss: that a run for the presidency does not simply consist of a smart or inspiring would-be leader traveling the country and giving a lot of talks, but rather the creation and management of a whole start-up-type organization to both put out the campaigns message and turn out its voters. A successful campaign organization not only serves to get its candidate elected, but also provides the kernel from which the new administration grows.

Normally this goes on behind the scenes, but this year it's being thrown into the light because Donald Trump is completely failing to successfully create such an organization thus far, and it's beginning to show. The Washington Post writes:
While he could manage a stunning turnaround, at the moment Trump seems to have put together one of the worst presidential campaigns in history. Let’s take a look at all the major disadvantages Trump faces as we head toward the conventions:

A skeletal campaign staff. Trump succeeded in the primaries with a small staff whose job was to do little more than stage rallies. But running a national campaign is hugely more complex than barnstorming from one state to the next during primaries. While the Clinton campaign has built an infrastructure of hundreds of operatives performing the variety of tasks a modern presidential campaign requires, the Trump campaign “estimates it currently has about 30 paid staff on the ground across the country,” a comically small number.

Not enough money, and little inclination to raise it. Trump hasn’t raised much money yet, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do so; according to one report, after telling Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus that he’d call 20 large donors to make a pitch, he gave up after three. Fundraising is the least pleasant part of running for office, but unlike most candidates who suck it up and do what they have to, Trump may not be willing to spend the time dialing for dollars. Instead, he’s convinced that he can duplicate what he did in the primaries and run a low-budget campaign based on having rallies and doing TV interviews. As he told NBC’s Hallie Jackson, “I don’t think I need that money, frankly. I mean, look what we’re doing right now. This is like a commercial, right, except it’s tougher than a normal commercial.” It’s not like a commercial, because in interviews Trump gets challenged, and usually says something that makes him look foolish or dangerous. But he seems convinced that his ability to get limitless media coverage, no matter how critical that coverage is, will translate to an increase in support.

The Federal Election Commission filing which Trump's campaign just made for May shows how shockingly this lackadaisical approach is putting him behind the Democrats:

Despite raising $3.1 million and loaning himself another $2 million, Trump began this month with less than $1.3 million cash on hand.

Clinton, by comparison, raised $28 million and started off June with $42 million in cash. Bernie Sanders, with his campaign winding down, still brought in $15.6 million last month and had $9.2 million cash on hand.

And although Trump had claimed he might self fund his campaign, it sounds more like he's using his campaign to fund himself, making large payments from the campaign to his own companies, allegedly to pay for travel and hosting events:
Trump spent $6.7 million in May. That’s down from $9.4 million in April, but it’s actually a pretty stunning amount when you consider that he’s not advertising or building a serious field operation. So where did all the money go? Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy report that the campaign paid out more than $1 million to Trump-owned companies and to reimburse his own family for travel expenses. Here are some of the campaign's biggest expenditures:

  • Campaign swag and printing - $958,836: Hats, pens, T-shirts, mugs and stickers
  • Air charters - $838,774: “Nearly $350,000 of the money spent on private jets went to Trump's own TAG Air.”
  • Event staging and rentals - $830,482: This includes the fees for renting facilities such as the Anaheim Convention Center ($43,000) and the Fresno Convention Center ($24,715). But the biggest sum went to Trump's own Mar-A-Lago Club, which was paid $423,317. Meanwhile, the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, got $35,845, while the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fl., was paid $29,715. And Trump’s son Eric’s wine company received nearly $4,000.
This lack of organization on its own is going to hurt his campaign, reducing turnout in a GOP which already includes a lot of people (myself included) who loath the presumptive nominee. But it also provides another, subtler reason not to rally round the party banner. In normal times, a vote for the Republican nominee is a vote for the party. Sure, someone like McCain or Romney had significant weaknesses, but they at least followed the rule of having a large campaign organization full of the best among GOP policy makers and operatives. You weren't just voting for the guy at the top of the ticket, you were voting for the whole organization, many of the members of which agreed with a conservative Republican like me more than the actual nominee did.

Even now, if the party could somehow manage to sedate Trump, surround him with party operatives, and possess him with the re-animated spirit of Romney, I might be persuaded to vote for him -- so long as we could be sure that the brain of The Donald would not escape from whatever jar it was imprisoned in and come back like some rampaging alien to wreck chaos upon the government. But Trump's failure to build a credible campaign organization doesn't just mean that he'll have a much harder time making a half creditable run for the presidency. It also means that he lacks the apparatus through which the party might provide the assurance of continuity with the policies and demeanor which previously loyal GOP voters such as myself desire. Rather than getting to elect a basically solid party, headed by a not-to-exciting candidate, we're being asked to vote for a volatile loose cannon all on his own.

The Destruction of Sennacharib

 Today's first reading is 2 Kings 19:9-11, 14-21, 31-36. It tells the story of King Hezekiah, praying for deliverance against the arrogant Assyrians, whose King Sennacharib has declared that if the God of Israel says he will save his people from the Assyrians, he is lying. Hezekiah takes the letter and spreads it before God, praying for his assistance and mercy, and God answers with words of comfort. And not just words: in the night, the host of the Assyrians dies suddenly in their camp. Sennacharib must retreat back to Assyria, where he is struck down by his sons.

Lord Byron wrote a famous poem inspired by this event.

The Destruction of Sennacharib 

  The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Monday, June 20, 2016


A week or two ago, I spent an evening trying to navigate some of fatherhood's choppier waters: talking to a young teen in whom a mild correction had triggered a tearful crisis. The details in these matters do not bear repeating because the grievance is never about the actual words or actions which triggered the scene. "You warned me that joke was straying from sarcastic into rude," turns into, "You always criticize what I say. You do it in front of other people all the time. You do it just to make me look stupid."

While I don't remember specific grievances of my own, I have the feeling that I enacted similar scenes with my parents back in the day -- though given the differences in personality and sex my scenes involved storming rather than sobbing. It may in part be out of embarrassment that I've lost the details to memory over the years, that I remember the type of scene but no real details, but perhaps it's in keeping with the fact that these scenes are not really about the flash point, but rather about the difficulties of relating to those great archetypes in human form in our lives: mother and father.

What caused the tears was not that I had offered a correction, it was that in that mild correction loomed something able to cause strong feelings: Father's disapproval. Sure, maybe that teasing was taking things a bit far. She would have been willing enough to concede that. But not when it came with the idea that she was somehow being disapproved of or held up as imperfect by Father.

We gain a lot, as parents, from the mythical place that he hold in our children's lives. How else can we keep order among this fast moving, strong willed group of small people with few inhibitions that charge around our houses at breakneck pace, often outnumbering us, were it not for the fact that to them we are those massive all encompassing figures: Parents.

On that particular evening, as I sought to stem the flow of tears and make sure that the message which had started the tempest was not lost in its reconciliation, I was trying to set Father with his capital "F" aside for a moment and provide a little bit of low pressure advice: You're not in trouble. I'm not disciplining you. I simply want you to understand, as you move into adulthood, what will pass for polite behavior among adults and what won't. It can be a tricky thing, and I stumbled at it many times myself when I was your age. And when I stumbled I sometimes insulted people or made myself look foolish. So while I'm not blaming you, I want to tell you when you're treading off the path so that you can learn with as few mishaps as possible how to get along in the world you're emerging into.

But of course, even as I tried to explain this -- and how Mom and Dad won't always be looming figures in charge of every aspect of your life, but rather simply other adults who care about you and have history with you and have a lot of experience in the world because they're older than you -- I could feel that looming figure of Father making the conversation more fraught.

I think at some level I used to imagine that in the process of becoming a parent one would become truly different, that there would be a dividing line and having crossed it I'd feel at one with the outsize place I have as 'Dad' in my children's view of the world. After all, I'd been a kid, and I knew that Mom and Dad were huge, nearly all-knowing figures.

There is no satisfying dividing line, however, no sudden infusion of parental wisdom, just a lot of people who somehow go from little bundles that just want to eat and sleep to talky small persons (full of at times tempestuous emotions) who call me Dad.

The long term, nagging lack that death imposes is the fact we can no longer talk to our loved ones. As a Christian I believe that my father's soul lives on, and in the quiet after receiving communion I pray that his soul is freed from any remaining need of purgation and admitted into the light of the Beatific Vision.

But although I believe my father hasn't ceased to be, I can't talk to him, can't hear his reaction to my own experiences of the last ten years. When he died my oldest child was three. Being the father of a three year old is very different from being the father of an adolescent. As I experience what it is to be the father of older children, events from my own teens come into new focus. But because death separated us, I can no longer call up and ask what the other side of those experiences is like.

The result is that a father lost while still comparatively young remains in some sense that more archetypal figure of childhood. I talk with my mom fairly often about various adult topics: finances, jobs, cars, parenting. We've completed the transition to adults with a lot of history together. There's a level of mystery pealed back from our interactions when I was young, because we've not talked about them as fellow adults. But while Dad was in no way a distant or mysterious figure, my relation with him is still trapped in childhood and young adulthood, and it always will be. This is all the greater challenge as I try to follow his example with my own children. If it's hard to live up to the example of a good father, it's harder still to live up to the figure that one's father represented while young.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The AR-15 as an Open Source Success Story

Since the horrific mass shooting in Orlando over the weekend, the US has been convulsed with another of its recurring "conversations" about gun control. Invariably, this involves gun control advocates demanding to know why any sane person would want to own an "assault rifle" such as the AR-15 (one of the weapons used in the Orlando shooting was a rifle related to the AR, sharing some parts with it), while gun advocates reply that the "gun grabbers" don't know what they're talking about and AR-15 type rifles are the most popular in the US. To illustrate this divide, gun control advocates sometimes mistake the initials "AR" in the AR-15 designation to stand for "assault rifle", while the NRA loudly proclaimed they might as well stand for "America's rifle" because of its popularity. (In fact, "AR" stands for "Armalite rifle" after the manufacturer which originally designed the rifle adopted by the military as the M-16 rifle and more recently the M-4 carbine.

The question of why exactly AR-15s are so popular is doubtless complex, with different people being drawn for different reasons. With over ten million AR-15s in civilian hands (though given the number of owners I run into on gun boards who own 3+ this doubtless represents well under ten million Americans who actually own one) and the number of homicides committed nationwide using rifles of any kind in the hundreds, mayhem is clearly not the only motive.

One of the things which particularly upsets critics about the AR-15 as a rifle for civilians is its military origin. While the civilian AR lacks the fully automatic mode which military M-4 Carbines have (fully automatic mode allows the rifle to fire continuously as long as the trigger is pulled down -- at least for the three seconds or so it would take for the rifle to empty its standard thirty round magazine), it is a semi-automatic weapon and thus can fire as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger. Other less notorious semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols can of course do exactly the same thing (which gun advocates are quick to point out when proposals to ban "military style" weapons are put forward) but the AR-15 and its relatives are the ones which have the appearance and reputation to make them look particularly alarming to gun control advocates in this respect.

The same military pedigree is, of course, one of the attractions for many AR owners and shooters. As critics have pointed out at some length, many advertisements for these "tactical" types of guns make appeals to testosterone in one way:

Or another:

While "tacti-cool" looks are certainly a factor in the AR's popularity, as is the design's connection with America's military, I'd argue that there's also an interesting intellectual property and innovation explanation for the popularity of the AR platform.

The last phrase there, "AR platform" is the key, because the "AR-15" is not really just one model of gun. The trademark for the term "AR-15" is owned by Colt, which purchased the rights to the trademark from Armalite decades ago. However, the term is used far more generally to refer to any civilian rifle built around the specifications of the M-16/M-4 weapons system. Since the "mil spec" design is not protected by any patent, hundreds of manufacturers, large and small, have a standard platform for which they can built complete rifles or just specialized parts. The gun rack at a store might contain AR-15s ranging from $500 to $3000 in price. Some are light "tactical carbines" with military style 14.5" barrels made legal by a permanently attached flash hider or muzzle brake which takes the total barrel length out to 16", some are target rifles with heavy 20" or 24" competition barrels. Some have plastic molded handgrips, others have aluminum handguards with rails for mounting accessories.

Hobbyists often assemble their own rifles from parts (as, full disclosure, I am myself currently engaged in doing) and in doing so they can put together a "franken gun" with favorite (or most affordable) parts from a variety of manufacturers, and do so in the confidence that a lower receiver from one manufacturer, an upper receiver from another, a barrel from the third, and a handguard from yet another will all fit together perfectly and function as a whole, because they are all built to fit together according to the same basic military specifications that are available to all.

An AR-15 can be assembled using swappable parts from many manufacturers.

The standardization of this mil spec design allows guns very, very different from any military rifle to be made primarily with AR components. Swapping out the barrel and upper receiver can convert the rifle to shoot an entirely different cartridge from the military standard .223. Several manufacturers even produce parts which can replace a few parts to turn an AR into a precision bolt action rifle.

Guns are durable goods (my other four rifles are all over fifty years old and still function just fine) and one of the things which people consider in selecting a rifle is whether parts and ammunition for it will continue to be available in the future. In general, this has led to rifles having a fairly low rate of technical change and a fairly small number of major manufacturers. If you buy a rifle from Winchester, Remington, Marlin, or Ruger, it's a good bet that those same manufacturers, and often that very same model of rifle, will still be around in 20 or even 50 years. (Among top hunting rifles, the Winchester Model 70 bolt action was introduced in 1936 while the Remington Model 700 has been in production since 1962.) A shooter who purchases one of their rifles can expect to be able to get parts and service for it for decades to come. But what of some small startup company offering an innovative design? Will they even be around in ten years?

Perhaps due to such questions, for many years the top selling rifles were usually from the same big, old companies. The AR platform removes such worries, however. Buy an AR put out by some small start up with interesting new technology, and even if they aren't around in a few years there are dozens of other companies selling compatible parts. The result has been a boom in small companies making parts which AR hobbyists find exciting, and far more variety and innovation than is normally seen in the firearms industry.

It seems clear to me that a good share of the reason for this is that the "mil spec" guidelines for how an AR has to be designed, guidelines which make all mil spec parts compatible, created an environment in which innovation could thrive. And yet, the context for this innovation was a specification designed by a government agency: the department of defense in collaboration with manufacturers such as Armalite and Colt.

In the software world, this is the kind of situation that developers work hard to achieve. You want enough different people to work on a software platform that there are lots of programs that can work on the same platform and build on each other's strengths. If everyone builds their own proprietary platform, there's much less innovation. But getting the common platform takes a lot of work. There's a value to everyone in having the commonly shared technology for everyone to work off of, but getting there involves both getting people to share their work for free in some cases, and also keeping them from "branching" the project -- adding their own cool features which are not compatible with other aspects of the platform.

In this case, it's the set guidelines of the military specification and the tremendous prestige which the mil spec design has with gun buyers (the idea that the military design represents durability and effectiveness as well as the ability to fit together with other mil spec parts) which minimizes "branching" within the AR world. Manufacturers will innovate within a specific area (say a competition grade trigger assembly with a unique design or a chamber designed to make extraction of the spent shell more smooth and easy) but if they fail to produce parts that still work seamlessly with other mil spec parts, buyers tend to reject the design.

I'm not sure how this approach could be applied to other areas. This may be a case in which the prestige of the open design platform has a unique hold on customers which would be hard to reproduce elsewhere. But it does, I think, help explain the unique hold which the AR platform currently has on American gun hobbyists. The massive variety of rifles and customization options that have sprung up have simply made being an AR hobbyist far more interesting than focusing on virtually any other rifle. Indeed, the only platform which has even close to the amount of customization and variety which the AR does is a much older military design: the M 1911 .45 pistol.