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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Repost: π With Jesus

(A repost from last year, when Pi Day was at the beginning of Lent, and St. Patrick's Day on a Friday. This year, we're eating both cherry and pumpkin pies.)

It's the second week of Lent, which means that observance has lost its zest. I don't know about you, but I'm yearning for a bit of chocolate. Not a bright, hopeful yearning; a dry, intellectual, arid yearning, because I know I'm not going to eat chocolate anyway. I just want it because it's better than not-chocolate.

So we search for a reason to celebrate, and not the corny-beef celebration of St. Patrick's Day dispensations (which St. Patrick would have disdained) but something rounder, to bring us full circle. And lo! It is Pi Day, 3.14. But we cannot fudge on Pi Day without bringing it into some greater religious context. And not just the context of "God made it, and it is good," because God made chocolate too, and we're not eating that.

Of course, the key question is: would Jesus have known about Pi? Not known-known as God knows all things, but as a person growing up in a first-century Jewish culture, in the course of his human knowledge would he have been likely to encounter the concept of Pi?

Dr. Google offers us thoughts on "mathematics in ancient Israel pi", presenting The Secret Jewish History of Pi:
The relationship between a circle’s diameter — a line running straight through cutting it into two equal halves — and its circumference — the distance around the circle – was originally mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Kings in reference to a ritual pool in King Solomon’s Temple. The relevant verse (1 Kings 7:23) states that the diameter of the pool was ten cubits and the circumference 30 cubits. In other words, the Bible rounds off Pi to about three, as if to say that’s good enough for horseshoes and swimming pools. 
Later on, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who knew that the one-third ratio wasn’t completely accurate, had a field day with the Bible having played fast and loose with the facts, arguing in their characteristic manner that of course it depended on whether you measured the pool from the inside or the outside of the vessel’s wall. They also had fun with some of the Gematria – the numerical value – of the words in the original passage, which when you play around with them a bit indeed come a lot closer to the value of Pi, spelling it out to several decimal points.
"Secret" here might be a bit sensationalistic, seeing as 1Kings is not exactly an occult piece of literature. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture May 2006, V1(1) offers us a more scholarly explanation via Lawrence Mark Lesser's article "Book of Numbers: Exploring Jewish Mathematics and Culture at a Jewish High School":
A value of π can be obtained from I Kings 7:23: 
“He made the ‘sea’ of cast [metal] ten cubits from its one lip to its [other] lip, circular all around, five cubits its height; a thirty-cubit line could encircle it all around.” 
It appears the value of π implied here is simply 30/10 (an error of 4.5%) until a student asks if we need to consider the tank’s thickness -- given three verses later as one-handbreadth, so the inner diameter is 10 cubits minus 2 handbreadths. (Of course, this is also a chance to discuss issues of measurement!) Using the Talmudic value of 1/6 cubit for one handbreadth, the inner diameter becomes 9 2/3 cubits and dividing 30 by 9 2/3 yields more accuracy (error: 1.2%). Applying a more subtle and technical approach to I Kings 7:23 (see Posamentier & Lehmann 2004 or 20 Tsaban & Garber 1998), the ratio of gematrias for the written and spoken forms of a key Hebrew word (for “line”) in that verse is 111/106, which when multiplied by 3 yields a very refined approximation for π : 333/106 (error: 0.0026%). Very few words in the Torah have different oral and written forms. 
By Jewish Encyclopedia [Public domain or Public domain]

Jesus was well versed in the law and the prophets, and it is not a stretch to assume that the account of the building of Solomon's Temple and the fashioning of the great pillars and vessels of bronze was known to him. Could he have known about pi? Could he? Should we doubt his scriptural knowledge? Listen to this.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:46-50)
Do you not understand? Jesus, in the Temple itself, astounding the teachers with his knowledge and his answers, and talking of his Father's house -- the very house for which the bronze vessel was created*? Even his parents could not understand Pi, as happens with so many parents dealing with their children's math.

My friends. The Scriptures themselves proclaim Pi. Take and eat.

*Not actually the very house, since it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and not the very basin, since 2 Kings tells us that the Chaldeans destroyed it. But still.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: I Wonder

The kids were watching the movie Wonder, about a 10-year-old boy with severe facial deformities who is going to school for the first time. (Mother, played by Julia Roberts: "I can't keep homeschooling him!" Me: "Yes, you can.") Some of the kids at school are mean to him, openly mocking him with Star Wars-derived taunts such as "Barf Hideous". 

"Who would do that?" I said. "Nobody does that."

And then I thought about the boys in my confirmation class, and I had to backtrack, because just the other week I had to speak to several of them about making cruel remarks about people. They were under the impression that they were being very funny.

"Gentlemen," I said. "I can hear you. We do not speak about other people that way. It isn't befitting of their dignity as children of God, and it isn't befitting of you either. I'm not going to contact your parents this time, because I believe that you are old enough to correct yourselves, and that I won't hear anything else like this from you."

I think that the student offended against would have preferred me to make a more public example of the young men, but I explained that I followed the fine example of my father, who knew that a word in time was worth more than any amount of lecturing, and who trusted to the Holy Spirit to act upon the word that was planted.

The next week I wondered about this strategy. We were going to Confession as a class, and I challenged the class to sit in silence before the penance service began.

"How many of you have much silence in your lives?" I said. "Do you have what it takes to stop making noise, and listen to God?"

I've never had to separate so many people during a class period, and not only before the service but during it as well. The need to whisper, giggle, and poke each other carried through the confession lines and throughout the rows of kids doing their penances. I assume they comported themselves in the confessional, anyway.

This is not to say that all my kids are hooligans. In fact, there are quite a few who listen to me and seem to understand, and there is one young man who does quiet acts of service for me every week in a way that indicates that he's internalized the gospel and is living it out. But the majority do not seem to be moved by theological concepts, or interested in reading the Bible (or even capable of looking up a passage), or to realize that any part of the gospel message is directed at them, personally. There is no apathy like the apathy of the bored teenager.

I know that God loves these kids. I know that there is in each of them a spark of the divine, some aspect of God's creative love that is manifested uniquely in them. I've told them so, many times. But it's buried so deep in some people -- not just my kids in class, but in general. There are so many humans on this earth, and God loves each and every one of them personally. He delights in them. How can we uncover this delightfulness? How can we see what God sees? How can we help them see it for themselves? I've been reading through Exodus, and I feel a great affinity with Moses, interceding for a stiff-necked people, fickle, ungrateful, and unreflective.

Internet Catholics are not a homogenous lot, but we do have one thing in common: we care enough to read and write about the faith, and we have the ability to express ideas in words, in writing. I've been removed from the fever swamps of online discussion for the past few weeks -- hell, I've even been removed from the fertile valleys of discussion -- and, from laboring in the trenches with the Catholics who are my literal neighbors, I can say: whatever it is that the denizens of St. Blog's are e-debating, the people around me don't care. Your controversies are not their controversies. The battle lines drawn online mean nothing to the average Catholics in the pew. 

Not only that, but most people do not live the examined life. I know that having intellectual affinities doesn't make someone a better person -- I see smart jerks around, and intelligent people who have no moral sense. But at least in those cases you have the illusion that you can reason with such folk. I feel like the Holy Spirit has been putting me through a course in humility, so that I will realize that it is not my own erudition, personality, or presentation that will move my students. The battle belongs to the Lord.

 And the Holy Spirit's timeline is not my timeline. Most weeks my words seem ineffectual, and I have to trust that he will plant the seeds and nurture them, even if I never see a return. Likely I'll never know the future stories of the kids in my class, other than the few that I know personally, or whose parents I see around. 

In the meantime, unlike Julia Roberts, I'm fully prepared to keep homeschooling my own kids. I've had enough vicarious mean kids drama to last me a while.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The Hamilton Polka

Being off Facebook for Lent has had its many consolations, one of which is that I'm the last person to know anything. But my brother watches out for me, and has sent me the only thing of any import to happen in the past weeks, so you'll forgive me for indulging in one of my few fandoms. I give you: The Hamilton Polka by Weird Al Yankovic.

And here are Weird Al, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jimmy Fallon lip-syncing it.

I will now retire back into my obscurity, happy to know that such a thing exists.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Caplan and Bruenig on Capitalism vs Socialism

Sometimes a debate is an interesting way to see proponents of opposing views confront the roots of their disagreement, and sometimes it's more an exercise in rhetorical ships passing in the night. As far as I can tell from the text parts posted online (a recording of the debate itself is not available, at least as of yet) the debate at LibertyCon between libertarian Bryan Caplan (opening statement posted here) and Christian socialist Elizabeth Bruenig (opening statement here) seems to be more the latter kind of debate, but their pieces are both interesting, though frustrating at times in both their limitations. There's also a follow-up post where Caplan responds in writing to Bruenig's opening statement.

I clearly agree far more on economics with Caplan. However, the philosophy he roots his argument in is that 'capitalism' is good because it's based on utterly free choice:
What's so awesome about the capitalist ideal? It's a system based on individual freedom and voluntary consent. You're allowed to do what you want with your own body and your own stuff. If other people want to cooperate with you, they have to persuade you; if you want other people to cooperate with you, you have to persuade them. Can consent really be "voluntary" if some people have a lot more to offer than others? Absolutely. Some people are vastly more attractive than others, but that does nothing to undermine the voluntariness of dating. Under capitalism, how people use their freedom is up to them; they can try to get rich, they can relax, they can help the poor, all three, or none of the above.
The extreme individualism of his thought is shown by this example he uses:
Socialists like to compare their ideal society to a family. But in actual families, you don't have to support your siblings if you don't want to. Indeed, you don't even have to support your parents who gave you life. Why should your moral obligations to complete strangers be any stronger? The idea that the rich are morally obliged to give away everything they don't need until poverty is vanquished has some superficial appeal. But objectively speaking, almost all of us have vastly more than we need, especially if you remember the market value of all your free time. I loathe hyperbole, but if a socialist government enforced the obligation to give away all your surplus to the poor, you would literally be a slave.
I have moral disagreements with this. I think that we do indeed have obligations to help our siblings, our parents, our friends and neighbors in their times of need. Does this mean we have an enforced obligation to, as Caplan says "give away all your surplus to the poor"? No, not necessarily. I'm not sure that our moral obligation to others is quantified in terms of how much of our goods are "surplus" and how much of them we have to give away. However, I am certain that it's an immoral response to someone who comes to us in real need to say, "Too bad. I don't care."

Caplan seems to think of the ideal society primarily in terms of material goods. In his followup piece, he reacts with some scorn to Bruenig's citations of great Western thinkers and says:
I spent many years studying intellectual history. Still, my honest reaction: While these "luminaries" were smart, most were also profoundly ignorant and dogmatic - and apologists for the brutal societies in which they lived. Most had near-zero knowledge of what actually sustains the true and beautiful in our culture, namely: science, tolerance, and markets. They have far more to learn from us - both factually and morally - than we do from them.

That said, I suspect the large majority of these luminaries would look at us with amazement. Indeed, when they exited of the time machine, they'd wonder if they'd died and gone to heaven. After all, they'd witness amazingly well-fed, healthy people enjoying a cornucopia of technology and art beyond their wildest dreams. Then they'd learn about the abolition of slavery and serfdom, the amazing progress of women, and the peaceful co-existence of conflicting religions and philosophies. And hygiene. And Netflix.

Would any of the luminaries till have the nerve to call us "unfree"? Probably a few misanthropes and hate-mongers like Augustine and Marx, though perhaps even they could be shock-and-awed to their senses by our resplendent world.
I clearly hold figures like Augustine and Socrates in rather more regard than Caplan does, and I feel confident that if they encountered our modern society that while they would indeed be impressed by our clean water, our medicine, our fast transportation, and the leisure time which our technology allows us, that they would in no way confuse our modern world with heaven because they would recognize people themselves as being morally very much what they have been in the past. Now as in the 4th century BC or the fourth century AD, people are sometimes virtuous and sometimes wicked, sometimes generous and sometimes selfish, etc.

Given all this, one might expect me to be in more agreement with Bruenig's piece. And yet, if I often found Caplan's piece to be blind towards the moral aspects of society, I found Bruenig full of her own problems. She opens with a nice classical allusion:
It seems very fitting to me that we should discuss these matters at LibertyCon, as I do agree that we are currently facing a crisis of liberty. The great authors of the Western tradition, the ancients and the late antique and medieval luminaries who laid out the foundations for what remains true and beautiful in our culture, would look see us as profoundly unfree.

There is the first and greatest matter of interior unfreedom. In the Phaedrus, one of his Socratic dialogues, Plato had his mentor liken the human soul to a team of two winged horses led by their charioteer. “The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side,” Socrates says, “is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone.” Meanwhile, “the other horse is a companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears-deaf as a post-and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.” The bad horse, undisciplined and self-indulgent, is always dragging its poor yokemate and charioteer into pathetic and immoral behavior; it is unbridled lust and greed and ravenous want, and its domination of its team is the very definition of unfreedom. Nobody ruled by such mad appetites could be said to be truly free.

Then there is the matter of exterior freedom. In Politics, Aristotle considered the natural slave, “one who is,” in the words of Greek philosophy scholar Joseph Karbowski, “naturally suited for slavery…a human being who is by nature suited to be a piece of property that belongs to someone else and functions as a second-order tool for action.” Aristotle’s natural slaves are confined to pursuing the interests and purposes of others, he imagines, by a kind of moral and psychological weakness; so much less binds us to the same sort of existence, performing labor that only serves another person’s ends, selling off the possibility of living toward our own. And we are not short on masters: St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, warned the idle rich of his day: “Possessions are so called so that we may possess them, not so that they possess us. Why do you regard the master as a slave? Why do you invert the order?” No longer is this inversion an affliction strictly of the rich; it characterizes our entire social order.

It’s something of a shame now to see these greats peering down at us from the occasional courthouse pediment or Cathedral niche. What would they make of us now? We’re ruled by passions and owned by things; we have been taught that freedom is a vast blankness defined only by its featurelessness, and we spend our lives laboring at the behest of others, in hopes of surpassing those nearest to us instead of cooperating with them.

The story of how we got to where we are is the story of the rise of capitalism — a historical condition in which economic and political power are arrayed according to the interests of capital owners, who in turn dominate their social landscapes. Capitalism itself sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.
I quote this first block of argument at some length because it seems to lay out Bruenig's central thinking on the topic. The problem identified is, of course, a real one. Many people are ruled by appetite, weighed down by attachment to their material possessions, etc. However, I'm unclear that this is necessarily much different from other eras. Does the fact that our economy is market based rather than being hunter gatherer or feudal or socialist mean that people like their things more now than at other times? The timelessness of these vices (even though they do come out in different ways in different places and times) can be seen in the satirical power which Petronius's Satyricon or Apuleius's The Golden Ass retain to this day. If Caplan is wrong to think that ancients would have believed today's world to be heaven, Bruenig seems equally wrong to think that the ancients would recognize humanity as clearly worse today than in ancient Greece and Rome. We're different, and our vices take different shape, but the universality of humanity in both its virtues and vices is precisely what makes the insights of writers such as Augustine as applicable today as sixteen hundred years ago.

Bruenig wants to imagine that capitalism is uniquely bad in terms of appealing to people's worse instincts:
Capitalism fosters an obsessive focus on one’s interests, meaning one’s material well-being, and argues that the pursuit of such is an unqualified moral good; it renders sustained contemplation for no other purpose than to know the truth utterly useless and irrational, and largely impossible. It is preferable, for capitalists, that we do not spend any time shaping or educating our wills, and thus they’re simultaneously weak and tyrannical.
It seems to me that this means giving "capitalism" much more philosophical robustness than needs or deserves. I'd argue that a decent definition of a capitalist or market economy would be one in which the means of production are owned by people or people grouped together in corporations or associations and in which the prices of product and of labor are set by the market, in other words by the balance of what buyers are willing to pay and sellers are willing to accept.

Does the fact that I can sell goods or labor for what price I choose rather than a price set by some sort of state agency or semi-formal democratic process mean that I care about my income more than about my love and obligations for family, church, town, etc.? Does the fact that I spend many of my hours in the office doing analysis to determine the right price to set for various consumer products mean that I must at other times be a beast of pure consumption and buy whatever widget comes before me while refusing to think about God, about truth, about art? Certainly not. Indeed, it is to a great extent because of the leisure time and comfort I earn through my market employment that I in turn have the time and resources to support my church, to read books, to produce art. Few of the workers of Socrates' day or Augustine's had the leisure and material comfort that I do. And indeed, everyone (even the richest) lived much more in danger of want and illness than I do in our modern, capitalist society. Certainly, many people today use their free time and their resources to do things which are shallow or materialistic, but that, again, is a very universal human failing. And while, in general, people in the past had fewer material comforts than we do today, that does not mean that they were less attached to them than we are to ours. Indeed, at times, the very scarcity of material comforts is what drives people to be all the more attached to what they do have.

Bruenig expresses concern that capitalism presents the false appearance of freedom, and in fact people are coerced by necessity into doing work from which they feel alienated:
The basic fact of capitalism is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them. In these circumstances, per Hughes, “the goal of the [worker’s] activity is no longer immediately present in the action, nor even partially inherent in it, but rather utterly extrinsic to it, and often quite distant.” Workers sell their labor — which, as Hegel pointed out in his Philosophy of Right, means nothing less than “alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced,” thus “making into another’s property the substance of my being,…my personality” — and in return receive a wage, essentially protection money to pay off other rentiers and commodity dealers for the use of the world.
One hears this account of alienation in capitalistic societies often from their critics, and yet a struggle to understand how this is necessarily different from other societies. Socrates, for instance, was a stone mason. When he cut stones, did he do so with the full knowledge of where those stones would fit in the finished building and they the building was being built? Or did he cut stone for a living because that was the trade he had been taught as a youth and thus the way that he could put bread on the table? Was he, in this sense, any different from the modern person who stocks shelves at Walmart or shuffles TPS reports around the office or installs back seats in cars on the assembly line?

And does socialism provide any closer connection between the worker and the meaning of his work? There is the old cynical line from the Eastern Bloc, "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work," which hardly suggests a lack of alienation.

Here in the democratic West, many point to union work as how the whole economy ought to focus. And yet, whenever I have dealt with union work, the union mentality seems to be, "I don't care about the job or its object, I only care about following the maximal interpretation of the work rules and getting my breaks."

To my mind, work in a market economy is the least alienating work. Yes, modern economies are complex and companies can be bureaucratic despite their private ownership, but there is at least the basic human connection between the price of a thing and the value which someone else places upon it. If I want to earn more, I do it not by applying to the worker's committee or by seeking favor with the local lord, but by providing move value to others and thus by receiving more payment from them in return. This is the sense in which a market economy and its pricing mechanisms is a very human centered economy. What critics like to call the tyranny of the market can also be described as a system in which we earn money in proportion to how much we do things that are of value to others.

Bruenig talks about the goal of de-commodifying labor, saying:
education, for instance, is largely de-commodified; there is also a major grassroots movement to de-commodify healthcare. All this means is to protect certain domains from total domination by market-based forces. The de-commodification of labor, as my friend C.W. Strand has pointed out, leads to a circumstance in which “one’s livelihood — one’s survival, or economic reproduction — is no longer market-dependent.” Once labor is liberated from the pressures and caprices of the market, Strand also observed, “then the nature of the market itself changes: it ceases being a realm of imperatives, and instead becomes one of opportunities.” It returns a person’s creativity, agency, and time to them; it removes the penalty, or lowers the cost, if you like, of contemplation.
Of course, what is it that we see in some of the more de-commodified corners of education? Schools in which there are as many administrators as teachers and where the administrators are actually payed more than the teachers are. We critics of Bruenig's brand of socialism would point out this is rather what you would expect when an organization gets is money via politics and patronage rather than via providing actual value to those who benefit from it.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with the market driven approach. A market economy works rather as democracy is described: it gives the people what they want and gives it to them good and hard. This means that when people refuse to pay as much as they should for some good (say, childcare workers) they get in return some mix of not-very-good workers providing that need (people unable to find something more highly paid to do) and people whose desire to provide a needed and important service is too strong to be dissuaded by the low pay. It's not unreasonable to think of that latter category as being harmed by the unwillingness of the majority of people to pay more for that important service. I can understand why it is that some people think the solution is to have the government step in and mandate that said service be paid at a higher level. Yet what this misses is two problems. First off, if our problem is that the great swathe of people are trying to get away with paying too little for a service to attract good workers, having the question decided by vote rather than by market will not necessarily produce better results. Secondly, disconnecting the pay for a service from the willingness of those receiving it to pay for it often itself degrades the quality. We see this in the area of education, where districts with powerful union presences often see bad teachers protected by the union despite the fact they're clearly not doing a good job of providing education.

I do not make some Panglossian argument that a market economy will fix all ills. It will not, because it is merely a mechanism for conveying to sellers what buyers are willing to pay, and the buyers themselves are often not virtuous. And yet, imperfect though a market economy is, it seems in general to function better than the alternatives.

Monday, March 05, 2018

The AR-15 Is A Lot Like Other Rifles

Reading some of the pieces coming out from major venues such as the NY Times and The Atlantic over the weeks since the Parkland school shooting, it's struck me that we can see reporters at least trying to write factually accurate stories about the AR-15 type rifles which they clearly believe should be banned, yet not having the knowledge of the subject to allow them to put the facts they report into proper context.

For instance, a NY Times piece I saw the other day tries to make the case that AR-15 rifles are practically the same as the M-16 rifles and M-4 carbines used by the military. It provides the following image comparing an M-16 to models of AR-15 used in various mass shootings, one assumes in order to make the point that they look rather similar.

Then it admits the very significant feature which distinguishes military long arms from their civilian counterparts (selective fire: the existence of a mode in which the rifle can fire multiple shots while the trigger is held down) but argues that this feature is not very important:
The main functional difference between the military’s M16 and M4 rifles and a civilian AR-15 is the “burst” mode on many military models, which allow three rounds to be fired with one trigger pull. Some military versions of the rifles have a full automatic feature, which fires until the trigger is released or a magazine is empty of ammunition.

But in actual American combat these technical differences are less significant than they seem. For decades the American military has trained its conventional troops to fire their M4s and M16s in the semiautomatic mode — one bullet per trigger pull — instead of on “burst” or automatic in almost all shooting situations. The weapons are more accurate this way, and thus more lethal.
What all of this means is that the Parkland gunman, in practical terms, had the same rifle firepower as an American grunt using a standard infantry rifle in the standard way.
The article then attempts to lay out what the author believes are the important similarities between military rifles and AR-15 type civilian rifles:
Like the military’s M4s and M16s, civilian AR-15s are fed with box magazines — the standard magazine holds 30 rounds, or cartridges — that can be swapped out quickly, allowing a gunman to fire more than a hundred rounds in minutes. That is what the police described the Parkland gunman as having done. In many states, civilians can buy magazines that hold many more rounds, including 60- and 100-round versions.
The small-caliber, high-velocity rounds used in the military rifles are identical to those sold for the civilian weapons. They have been documented inflicting grievous bone and soft-tissue wounds. Both civilian and military models of the rifle are lightweight and have very little recoil.
Now, it's true that both the AR-15 and military rifles have detachable box magazines. However, that's a trait that AR-15 type rifles have in common with virtually all other semi-automatic rifles and even with a lot of bolt action rifles. Detachable magazines are hundred year old technology. It's easier to load a magazine when it's not attached to the rifle, and it's also easier to make sure that a gun is absolutely safe if you can simply take the magazine out and then work the action to be sure that's no round in the chamber.

It's also true that many AR-15s shoot the same .223 Remington/5.56 NATO round which is used by the US military. (Not all do. One of the reasons for the huge popularity of the AR-15 platform and its big brother that AR-10 is that they are incredibly modular designs which are available in a huge variety of calibers.) However, there are lots of rifles (including bolt action and single shot shot rifles) which use the popular .223 cartridge.

Some articles, most notably a piece in The Atlantic written by a radiologist who helped treat the Parkland victims, have pointed out that the .223 round fired by most AR-15s is far more destructive than the handgun rounds typically found in homicides and suicides. This is true. While rifles are only rarely used in crimes, they pack a much greater punch than pistols do, going through body armor and causing much worse wounds.

However, not only is the .223 not unique in this respect, it's actually one of the least powerful rifle cartridges. This is actually one of the reasons why the .223 is so popular: it's easy to shoot due to its low recoil and also cheap to buy because it has less material in it. A standard 55gr .223 bullet weighs only a third as much as a .30 caliber bullet such as might be used in a .308 or .30-06 round, and the size of the brass case and amount of powder used are also proportionally smaller. This is, interestingly, one of the reasons the US military adopted the diminutive .223: It's much lighter to carry and for infantry soldiers already carrying a lot of gear, weight matters.

Checking a handgun ballistics table, the popular 9mm Luger cartridge used in many popular pistols launches a bullet with 341 foot pounds of energy as it leaves the muzzle. Compare that to a rifle ballistics table and you can see why the radiologist writing in the Atlantic was shocked when she saw .223 wounds after having only dealt with handgun wounds in the past. The .223 bullet clears the muzzle with 1291 foot pounds of energy, almost four times the energy of the 9mm Luger. However, if you compare that to common hunting rifle cartridges, they are actually all significantly more powerful: .270 Winchester 2705 ft lbs, .308 Winchester 2649 ft lbs, .30-06 Springfield 2820 ft lbs

So although the .223 is about three times higher in energy than popular handgun rounds, many standard rifle rounds are actually twice as powerful as the .223. Indeed, many states ban the use of .223 when hunting deer on the theory that it is not lethal enough to cause a humanely quick death for the animal.

This is the major problem facing any attempt to reduce gun deaths by regulating particular gun features. While certain guns catch the imagination of the public as being more dangerous than others, the ones thus singled out function often very similarly to others in many important respects.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Book Review: My Opposition

In 1933 Friedrich Kellner seemed to be on wrong side of history. A forty-eight year old civil servant living in the German city of Mainz and a veteran who had fought for Imperial Germany in the First World War, Kellner was a Social Democrat who had been loud in his opposition to the Nazis as the party rose to power in the 1920s and 1930s. When the Nazis won control of the government in 1933, it was clear they would take no time in settling scores with their opponents. Rather than waiting for retribution, Kellner, accepted a new job as the administrative manager of the courthouse in the small town of Laubach and took his wife Pauline and seventeen-year-old son Fritz to live there.

In Laubach Kellner kept a lower profile, and although he was known to dislike the party his position with the court gave him some protection from harassment by party enthusiasts, of which the town had many. Their son Fritz fell in with a Nazi supporting crowd in Laubach, and as Kellner feared that a war was coming, he succeeded in arranging Fritz's emigration to New York in 1935. There, Fritz would continue his Nazi sympathies but also eventually marry a Jewish immigrant woman with whom he had three children (including the editor of Freidrich Kellner's diaries, Robert Scott Kellner) and join the American army in 1943.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Friedrich Kellner began to keep a secret diary, chronicling events and the opinions about the war expressed by coworkers, family, and neighbors. He also included clippings from many German newspapers and official statements. This diary is what has now been published as My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner, A German against the Third Reich, out last month from Cambridge University Press. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy, though due to time constraints I only finished the book this last week.

We often read in history books statements about what people knew and thought during historical events. What's particularly interesting reading an extensive diary account such as this is seeing precisely what a German man with his eyes open (ordinary in all senses other than being anti-Nazi) saw and thought as events unfolded. The following are some themed collections of bits that caught my attention.

On the actions of the Western powers in the lead up to the war:

"April 16, 1940: How much different it could have been in Europe if the cowardly North American people had shown themselves to be more heroic? How can a people be so shortsighted and tell themselves, 'I sit on an island, and do not concern myself with the rest of the world'? Did it really not come to mind Hitler would not be content with a poor Europe but intended -- no matter what -- to go where there was still something to rob and steal? Do the Americans really not see that?"

"May 11, 1940: Mr. Chamberlain finally resigned from office. With that, an unbelievably pathetic nincompoop has finally disappeared. Now the crackpot Nazis will be shown what it is like to become an enemy of the entire world. It will cost many victims until reason slowly awakens our memories to what was better in the past. This will be a harsh lesson for a generation that has become so crazy. If only they can be cured, then these victims will not have died without meaning."

"May 29, 1940: The carnage will eventually come to an end, but the Western powers will carry the historical guilt for not promptly providing the most intensive preventative measures against Germany's incessant politics of aggression. Possibilities existed, but no actions were taken. Spineless policies do not change the mind of a tyrant. The sharpest means would still be too mild. Where is the English fleet?"

Reactions to the invasion of Russia:
"June 23, 1941: The people's opinion! Such opinion does not come from within the individual. This is formed "from on high" and implanted in a person's brain. From now on I will record more of what is being said around here so I can be in a position later to offer a picture of the German people's state of mind.

Frauline Helga Elbe, 18 years old: 'It is completely fine with me that we attacked Russia, otherwise they would have attacked us. Two years ago they took territory we had conquered.'

Court Judge Dr. Hornef is depressed about the war spreading.

Court Bailiff Brunner: 'We will not have an easy task with Russia, and the war will no longer be ended this year.' Brunner has become a skeptic."

"June 28, 1941: A woman said: 'On Sunday (when the war began against Russia) I had some hesitation, but today things appear favorable. Unlike the former war, we now have allies, and so far everything has worked out well.
This war will end quickly when the Russians in the interior rebel.'

Thus spoke the lady with the Prussian accent. Always the same song. We have had good luck, so we can covet more. Without much ado, war will cover the entire world -- precisely because 'so far everything has worked out well.' Such is the German: not a single feeling for the fate of other people. The entire world can be demolished if only he -- the magnificent German -- can live on the debris.

Worthy contemporaries, how will it be if the page is turned and we stand against a singularly strong Russia, one the defends itself stubbornly? Then will I contemplate your stupid faces. Never in the entire history of mankind have a people been more deserving of punishment than the Germans -- for boundless arrogance."

Even in the fall 1941, almost a year before the building of the extermination centers such as Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, and while Auschwitz was still just a camp for Russian POWs, word of mass killings of Jews in the East was getting back to ordinary Germans.

In the following year, he also mentions the deportation and murder of local German Jews. People knew.

"October 28, 1941: A soldier on leave here said he personally witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied part of Poland. He watched as naked Jewish men and women were placed in front of a long deep ditch and, upon the order of the SS, were shot by Ukrainians in the back of their heads, and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled in as screams kept coming from it!!

These inhuman atrocities are so terrible that even the Ukrainians who were used for manual labor suffered nervous breakdowns. All soldiers who had knowledge of these bestial actions of these Nazi subhuman beings were of the same opinion that the German people should already be trembling in their shoes because of the coming retribution.

There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts. Of course, in the case of retribution the innocent will have to suffer along with them. Ninety-nine percent of the German people, directly or indirectly, carry the guilt of the present situation. Therefore we can only say this: Those who travel together, hang together."

"December 15, 1941: It is reported that in some areas Jews are being transported somewhere. They are permitted to take a little money and about 60 pounds of baggage. The Nazis are proud of their animal protection laws.  But the suffering they cause the Jews proves they treat Jews worse than animals. This cruel, despicable, and sadistic treatment of the Jews that has lasted now several years -- with its final goal of extermination -- is the biggest stain on the honor of Germany. They will never be able to erase these crimes."

"September 16, 1942: In the last few days the Jews from this region have been removed. The families Strauss and Heynemann were taken from Laubach. I heard from a reliable source all the Jews were taken to Poland and murdered by SS brigades.

This cruelty is horrible. Such atrocities will never be able to be erased from the book of humanity. Our murderous regime has for all times besmirched the name "Germany." It is unfathomable for a decent German that no one can stop the activities of these Hitler bandits."

On the entrance of the US into the war:
"December 9, 1941: A lady from Dusseldorf, quartered in Laubach with the Frey family, expressed her feelings about the war the Japanese have instigated in the Far East: 'Is it not wonderful, this new war?'

There are many examples of this brutal Aryan to be found in the warmongering Germany. They believe the war in the Pacific will take a load of Germany."

"December 12, 1941: Hitler and Mussolini have declared war on the USA! With my attitude it is not necessary to add a commentary to this. Whom God wants to destroy, he first strikes with blindness.

Any objective or normal person, even one favorable toward Germany, would have to conclude these declarations will prolong the war. In face the war can only end in the total defeat of the Axis members (Germany, Italy, and Japan). However, if anyone supposes the majority of the German public agrees with me on this, he is in for a disappointment."

As the war progresses and things begin to turn against Germany, Kellner writes repeatedly about about how the punishment of the guilty is necessary even at the expense of the innocent, and about how he hopes that Germany will be forced to utter and unconditional defeat in order to prevent people from inventing another "stab in the back" myth about how Germany could have won the war had they simply tried with all their vigor.
"August 13, 1942: English airplanes attacked Mainz in the night of August 11-12. ... We just received a registered letter and a telegram from Mainz. 'Everyone is well. Katie' At least the worry about relatives is over. Katie described what occurred in broad strokes. According to her, it must have been a horrible night. It is really sad the nice ones also have to suffer. But those who were happy about the air raids on England cannot be punished brutally enough. The German people have to feel firsthand what war means. Until now they could wreak havoc and bring death and destruction to foreign countries with impunity."

"September 17, 1942: ... How and where will Hitler come to an end? I do not want to be a prophet on this point. Hopefully Hitler remains alive up to the final destruction. The storytellers must be denied their material because it is clear they would use an early death as an excuse for the bad ending: 'If only Hitler had not been killed, we never would have lost this war.' That would be the leitmotiv of all the history falsifiers. 'With Hitler into the abyss.' that is what I wish for the German nation."

[In response to the failure of the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler] "July 27, 1944: By the way, I welcome the rescue of the Fuhrer because for tactical reasons he must remain alive to the bitter end. It must not be used as an excuse in the future. He must remain until there is no more way out, until Providence itself would not be able to come to his side to help him."

Sometimes, you can see the bitterness which eats at Kellner at what the Nazis have done turning his own reactions rather heartless. This helps show, I think, the ways in which evil can corrupt even those who oppose it.
"December 10, 1943: Sometimes a person is inclined to believe there is no prevailing heaven. But from time to time people see there is indeed revenge. The Party boss, Julius Weber, had to have a leg amputated in the First World War, but that was not enough of a warning for him -- he still could not be an enthusiastic lover of peace. So he dedicated himself to Adolf Hitler, although Weber knew the nation's seducer would do everything to start an even more tremendous world war. For his deeds, Weber has the single most fitting award: two sons killed in battle. But that is how the heaps of medals can be handed out at receptions. And there is the satisfaction of having provided actual sacrifices for the Fuhrer. Heil Hitler!"

This is a fascinating primary source document for those who want to get a view into life on the home front of Nazi Germany. Kellner is an astute observer, and if you have a basic knowledge of the war's chronology, his is so meticulous on reporting the news that you will have no difficulty knowing where you are in events. The other people in his town (particularly his anti-Nazi friends, including his wife Pauline, herself an anti-Nazi who is occasionally threatened by party enthusiasts) do not pop out that much in the narrative. In the introduction, the editor suggests that Kellner may have avoided saying too much about his friends for fear of the consequences that would fall upon them if his secret diaries were discovered. He repeatedly includes snippets from newspapers reporting the conviction and execution of men and women found guilty of listening to enemy broadcasts and making disparaging remarks about the Nazi government. These might almost serve as warnings to himself of the fate he would clearly face if his notebooks were discovered.

Being a diary, and not a history book or novel, there's not a big sum-up finale. The diaries trail off as American troops near Laubach. Kellner himself was sick at times, and at others was forced to spend many days traveling for his courthouse work. His few entries after the liberation of the town are happy with hints of grimness: many of the town's Nazis have not been sufficiently hounded from public life. Now everyone claims to have opposed Hitler, and we know from the prior 400 pages that this simply was not true. Kellner was mostly isolated in his opposition to the regime.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


It is 12:30, and baby has just cried himself to sleep in the crib for the first time. There was a titanic struggle of wills as I walked him and patted him and replaced his pacifier every time he spat it out, and then I got wise and shut myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes while he screamed himself into oblivion. When I came out he was flopped face down in the corner of the crib. I had to do some tender extraction work to get him to a nice breathable spot without waking him and starting the process all over again.

Babies are essentially selfish, says Augustine, and I tend to agree with him. The child would sleep in any odd position as long as I was holding him in such a way that I could get nothing at all done. But he is appalled at the chamber of horrors that is his crib, with its comfy pillow and soft comforter. "If thees is torture, chain me to the wall!" as the Chihuahua says in the preview for Oliver and Company, which used to run before some VHS movie we watched as kids.

Speaking of the kids, my oldest, 15 years and 9 months, just got her temps. The night before her test, she came bouncing into the living room, where I was pinned under the baby  and the four-year-old.

"Dad says I can help drive to Cincinnati next weekend!"

"I...," I said. "Oh my," I said. "I eeeeee. Aiiiiii. Nooooo. Ahahaha I oh my oh aaaaaaaah eeeeeeee nnng hahahaha oh my goodness." I expounded on this theme for sixty seconds.

"Mom, are you going to cry?" asked the 14-year-old.

"My life is just flashing before my eyes," I said, and indeed, my mortality has never seemed so real to me than at the moment I realized that I would be placing myself in a large hunk of metal going 65 mph with a brand new driver. Not that I don't trust my oldest. I do. She's a good girl with a good head on her shoulders. But aaaaaah ng hahaha. Oh Lord have mercy.

Speaking of having mercy, I made a rookie mistake on Friday by waking up the four-year-old to take him to Stations of the Cross. He made this penitential for all of us. I left him in the care of his sister in the cry room while I went to confession, and even through the soundproof plexiglass the whole church could hear him bawl, "I want to go to Confession too!"

You need it, kid, I thought. If only he had achieved the age of reason.

Speaking of the age of reason, a few of his older siblings are in that happy-go-lucky phase we like to call "cruising for a bruising". This involves selective hearing and the strange belief that Mom probably isn't serious the first five times she tells you to do something. Mother is serious, my child, as you will find to your detriment if I have to ask you to place your derriere in that chair again and finish the math problem, or if I have to tell you to turn off the show again, or if that table does not get set this instant.

"I can correct you, or you can correct yourself. Which will it be?"

"I'll correct myself," said the prime offender, slouching in his chair and fiddling with his pencil. But he is essentially unmalicious. His main issue is that he is nine-going-on-ten, and that is an age of cheerful callousness. If only he would apply the industry that informs his study of paper airplanes to the study of obedience!

Speaking of industry, my seven-year-old has set herself to learning a song, because she is ready to audition with the older siblings and mother for the community theater's summer production of Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler is a big, big deal here, especially to the member of the household who finds that her age and seven-child figure are, for once, an asset in trying for a leading role. So there has been consideration given to auditioning, and it's not too early for a little girl to think about her first song. And so this evening, as I was reading an important document online, I also refreshed this video ten times so the girl could study her song.

"Honey," I finally said, "the auditions are three months away. You don't have to learn the whole song tonight. I need to read this through."

"But Mom!" she wailed. "I get to the third line and I can't remember anything! Can you play it again?"

This Gordian Knot I cut by singing the song myself into the voice memo app on my phone and setting her up with earphones so she could listen and look at her music to her heart's content. Some day, several months from now, I will wonder what this file is and click on it and be very surprised to hear me exhorting myself to whistle a happy tune.

Speaking of the theater, the 14 year-old and the 11-year-old tumbled out of drama today full of self-important giggles, and declared that they'd made a pact that I was to know nothing of the casting of the play until the night of the performance.

"Oh, I'll find out somehow," I said airily. "Someone's mom will tell me, or I'll talk to the director. You could have the fun of telling me yourself."

"We'll tell them all not to tell you. You'll never know."

Twenty minutes later, at home, they were going over in detail who had received which role, and how it lined up with their own fantasy casting, and the minute occurrences of the entire two hours of rehearsal.

Speaking of rehearsal, this is the first night in a while without rehearsal or performance, since Twelve Angry Men closed on Sunday. Darwin put in an excellent turn as Juror No. 12, the self-important adman, looking natty in a summer suit which cost him a few bucks at Goodwill, and a few goodies to compensate the household seamstress (not me) for lengthening the trousers. But the show is over now, and Darwin had intended to spend an evening of great productivity and word count. Instead, he took the 15-year-old out for some night driving at the park, supervised a math lesson, worked on German homework, listened to the girls tell him about the casting of the play, walked the baby, scooped the cat box and took out the trash, and spent a long time trying to solve an electronics problem that turned out to be a dead power outlet. And when he came upstairs, he carefully rolled over the baby, who'd obstinately turned himself nosedown again. Perhaps baby is ready to go to the mat for his ideal sleep position, but like the rest of us, like it or not, he has to catch his breath.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: Gratitude Code

Every class, when written up, sounds a lot smoother than the class I actually presented. In reality, I jump around a lot in a disconnected way, and as I'm often actively trying to combat my audience's disinterest, class seems like a lot more of a slog than it may read here. Still! Confirmation is coming up, so the Holy Spirit is going to take everyone off of my hands.


Anyone watch National Treasure? Remember what it was about? Nic Cage hunting for treasure. "I'm going to steal the Declaration of Independence." And what did he spend most of his time doing? Yes, hunting for treasure, but for most of the movie he and his crack team were trying to break the code. People love code breaking.

Wait, can I digress? That movie was so historically inaccurate, it made my teeth hurt. Right at the beginning, we hear that the Knights Templar and the Freemasons were working together to hide the treasure. Guys, that is completely bogus. The Knights Templar were a crusading order who were suppressed in the 1300s because the King of France wanted their money. The Freemasons were founded around the time of the French Revolution, and they hated Catholics. So the Knights Templar and the Freemasons didn't exist at the same time, and they wouldn't have been working toward the same goal, or working together at all. End Rant.

Anyway, code. I've brought something in code for you today. Anyone understand this?


(I wrote this out on the board from memory, in what was probably the most impressive moment of my teaching career.)

What language is this? Not Arabic. Not Hebrew. Yes, it's Greek. Try writing it out yourself.

Let's break this code. εὐ means "well" or "good". χ is not "x"; it says "k", or as we'd write it, "ch". The fishy-looking α is "a", so that's not too hard. ρ is not "p", it's "r". ι is pretty easy, just like it looks. σ is "s" -- crazy, right? τ is... tau? That's right! How'd you know that? Get this: ή is not "n", but "e" that sounds like "a". And ς is a different way of writing "s" at the end of a word.

Eucharistesas. Want to take a crack at that?

Yes, eucharist, but in this case it's a verb. It means "having given thanks", and it's used 9 times in the New Testament.

In all but one case, it's used around food. In several cases, it's used when Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes: he took the break and having given thanks, gave it to the apostles to distribute. And in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it's the word used at the last supper when Jesus gives the bread that is his body. Look up Luke 22:18-19. Yes, you're right! We do hear those words at mass at the consecration. "Having given thanks" is important: Jesus has already given the perfect thanks to the Father, and in the mass, we're participating in his thanksgiving.

I read an article about gratitude in the paper this weekend that said that kids these days are ungrateful. What do you think of that? Of course, the article was written by an older person, so... Every generation thinks that the kids are less grateful now than they used to be. What do you have to be thankful for? Take a moment and write down a few things that you're grateful for. If you have clothes, if you have shelter, if you have a family that loves you... if your feet don't hurt, be grateful for that! Look, as you get older, you'll really appreciate it when parts of you don't hurt.

The Eucharist is our perfect prayer of gratitude, because all good gifts come from God. But we can show gratitude badly, can't we? Let's look at another instance of the verb eucharisto, from Luke 18:11: I give you thanks, Father, that I'm not like sinners, adulterers, cheats, or like that tax collector over there. Is the Pharisee expressing gratitude well? Oh, you think so? You think the proper way to thank God is to thank him that you're better than everyone else? We can express gratitude badly, and it can be harmful to our soul. We have to be careful about the attitude that we bring to the Eucharist, because we can cut ourselves off from God if we receive it poorly. That's why we have the penitential rite before we receive the Eucharist, and that's why we have the sacrament of Confession: to help us to approach God in a spirit of true gratitude.

Anyone feel like they're great at praying? Do you feel like you pray enough? Who can say, "I don't need to add any more prayer into my life"?

Now, who hates wasting time? (Girl: "I hate wasting time, but I always do it.") Who hates filling time with busy work? Do you like efficiency? You like to know that when you're doing something, it's effective, that it means something. The Mass is our most efficient prayer ever. It packs all the different ways we can pray into one total package, and it does so in words that have been carefully chosen to convey the deepest meaning. In one hour, the Mass has a more powerful, more efficient, more compact form of prayer than we can achieve by our own efforts. Let's go through the forms of prayer we'll find in the Mass. Write down on your page:


A is for adoration, the worship that we reserve for God alone. We don't adore any other person, even Mary the mother of God. Only God is worshipped, and the mass contains this form of prayer in the Gloria.

C is for contrition. Yes, it means sorrow, sorrow for sins and repentance. In the penitential rite, we confess that we are sinners and ask for pardon.

T is for thanksgiving, gratitude. Again: "having given thanks". We participate in Jesus's prayer of thanks to the Father, and we bring our thanks for all the blessings we've received, especially for the Eucharist.

S is for supplication. Yes, asking! We have a part of the mass for this, the Prayer of the Faithful. And we don't just ask God for spiritual things. We ask him for the physical things that we need as well: "give us this day our daily bread". We offer prayers for friends, for family, for the world, for ourselves. All good things come from God.

Let's review! What does Eucharist mean? Thanksgiving! What prayer is the "source and summit of our faith"? The Mass! Does National Treasure have anything to do with history? No! Alright, ten minutes in the gym: go!


It is fashionable in this day and age to write articles about how dress codes and talk of modesty impinge on females, and how girls feel demeaned by discussions of appropriate dress, and how the fashion industry is sexist and women are victims, and let's fight against demeaning standards of dress that put inordinate demands on girls.

My friends. Bosh. In discussing dress codes for Confirmation, the girls in my class were models of decorum and common sense. They all agreed that it was proper to cover one's shoulders in church, that cleavage was not appropriate, that they wanted to wear a dress long enough that when they bowed in front of the altar, their derriere was not exposed, that wobbling in stiletto heels made you look silly in front of everyone. They were eager for standards to help them find the right dress -- or pants; we're not drawing lines in the sand here.

But oh my stars and garters, try telling a bunch of teenage boys that they need to wear a suit and a tie, and a belt and dress shoes! Picture to yourself the moaning and agitation, the horror, that one cannot wear jeans or cargo shorts to a mass with the bishop to celebrate the reception of a sacrament! The bargaining, the groping for loopholes!

"Can I wear sneakers?"
"What about really nice Vans?"
"No, you need to wear dress shoes."
"That's not fair! What if I wear a jacket and cargo shorts?"
"Then that demonstrates that you don't really have a proper understanding of and attitude toward the sacrament of Confirmation, even after a year of classes, so you'll probably be asked to leave."
"Oh, snap!"
"You can rent a suit. You can borrow a suit. You can wear a dress jacket and slacks. But wearing appropriate clothes for an occasion is a signal that you understand the importance of the event and want to show your respect for the occasion and the people involved. And we want you to be confirmed! We don't want to kick you out. So if you come without a jacket, we'll find you a jacket. If you come without a tie, we'll find you a tie. If you come with bare shoulders, we'll find you a sweater. But it may not fit, and it may not look good. So avoid that situation by finding your own suitable outfit."

The girls nodded, the boys wept like babies. Oh, the unreasonable demands we place upon guys!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Praise of Bourgeois Art

I've had reason to think lately about how the making of art and the hum drum professional life intersect. This would normally be a busy time at work, but this year it is even more so, in part because I'm going through one of those gradual increases of responsibilities which may or may not eventually lead to a promotion and a new, busier status quo. This busyness at work intersects with my own self imposed busyness. This is also production weekend for our community theater production of Twelve Angry Men, so I've been down at the old courthouse for two-and-a-half hours a night for the last couple weeks, sitting at the jury table in dress rehearsals as self important adman Juror #12.

And on Monday night I finally finished the latest installment of the The Great War. This was a necessary first step to my commitment to get serious about the revise-and-submit part of being a novelist. Goal for the next month or two: revise and expand If You Can Get It so that Kristy and Katie can get a shot at having their day in print. (I'll probably de-publish all those posts when I send the novel out, so this represents a last call on the original version.)

At a certain point, thinking of all this writing, I was telling myself: What I need to do is get away from all this. Once the play is over, I should arrange to take a long weekend off, go away somewhere, and just write all day long. A writer's retreat. I could get so much writing and revising done. It would be like being a real writer for a couple days.

But of course, that's a false siren call. Not only would it be really jerky to stick MrsDarwin alone for a couple days due to a needless trip right after the time stresses of a show's production week, but the fact is that the life of a "real writer" is not some airy thing where one is free to spend all day at the keyboard in some picturesque locale far from the worries of cleaning the living room, reading bedtime stories, and justifying the sell in story for 2019 pricing. Being a real writer consists of writing while in the life one actually has. Sure, if I had a couple days and a good outline, I could probably write more than I do in my normal routine during a month or two of time stolen between ten at night and one in the morning. But fantasizing about writing in such unrealistic conditions is self defeating. The distraction free life is not mine, and I don't evenP really want it to be.

Perhaps due to its creative nature, the artistic life seems prey to more than the usual number of illusions, and some of these have to do with what it means to do art. There are images of what the artistic life should be like: The starving artist living on nothing in some exotic locale while devoting all time to art. The self destructive artist destroying relationships and splitting time between substance abuse and creating brilliant art.

Yes, some people have fit these molds, but many haven't, and none of them are necessary in order to produce good art. Indeed, when actually lived rather than watched in some costume drama, poverty or dysfunctional relationships or substance abuse are things which can eat up attention and keep someone from investing the time necessary to produce good art. Producing art requires just that, sitting down and producing it. Following some trope of 'the artistic life' is in no sense necessary to it.

I was struck by this recently when reading a piece which sought to contemplate to what extent it was possible to do art (in the case of the article, acting) in a "safe space" during the current moment of heightened awareness of harassment. The author argued that art couldn't really be safe, and that while it was important that those in the artistic world engage in abuses of power, that something as small scale as a community theater production must necessarily involve lots of drinking and despair and yelling and melodrama and hookups.

Nonsense. Not only does theater not require these things, but the more your theater group can focus on their job, putting on a play, and avoid bringing personal chaos into it, the better the art you will produce. Fighting and melodrama aren't essential to acting, they're detrimental to it. The audience doesn't come to see your artistic experience, they come to see a play that actually goes well, and for a play to go well requires organization and a cast and crew that are dedicated to working hard on the project at hand.

This is why I'm always inspired by hearing about artists, writers in my case, who produced good art while also holding down a solid job in an ordinary, middle class sort of way.

Anthony Trollope, in addition to being one of the great English novelists of the 19th century, put in a full career in the post office. Even his writing routine was orderly and professional: He'd sit down each day for a set amount of time and try hard to produce a set number of pages. If his time was up in the middle of a sentence, he'd leave off there and resume the next day. If he finished one novel during a day's writing time, he'd start the next one without skipping a beat.

Even the notably cutting edge poet T. S. Eliot simultaneously pursued a successful career as a banker at Loyd's Bank in London.
The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.”

I find it inspiring that our cast is made up, not of edgy personalities living 'artistic' lives, but of half a dozen lawyers and assorted other holders of mundane jobs (project manager, math teacher, pricing director, etc.) who show up every night to put the work to make a good show. And as a writer I try to remind myself often of the good writers, writers better than I will ever be, who held down solid jobs and were good at them. Being a writer, or any other kind of artist, does not require adherence to some edgy trope. It requires only one thing, that whoever we are, whatever our vocation and employment, we sit down and create works that help others see the world a little more truly through the lens of our creations.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Family That Stays Together

If you're free this weekend and find yourself in central Ohio, you can catch Darwin as Juror No. 12 (the jerk) in Twelve Angry Men, performed at the local courthouse. We're a theatrical household, and production week is a given in our house, but as I'm on the audience side of the show this time, I confess to breathing a sigh of relief that the long nights of rehearsals are coming to an end. Make no mistake: I support Darwin being in the show with my whole heart, and practically blackmailed him into auditioning since I couldn't do try out myself, what with the baby and all. Still, the intensive nature of rehearsal is a strain on the household, pushing the evening later and later as everyone waits up for Daddy to come home and tell us all the news from the night's run.

When, at age 18, we pictured our future married life, we had a very hazy image of what life would be like with our imaginary large family. We pictured children who were us in miniature, great family achievements, an exciting career path, and of course lots of sex. Somehow, we didn't factor in the petty distractions: a soft baby in bed next to us looking at us with big eyes just as things are heating up, someone pounding on the door demanding how to spell "juror", the cat throwing up on the floor, someone having a tantrum downstairs. And these are simply the happy, normal parts of family life that test us in small ways. There's nothing big or dramatic that happens to us -- all that is for the stage. Our marriage and our family is built on the minor happenings of everyday life. "The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones." (Lk. 16:10) Always look to the small matters first; the great ones are of almost no consequence.

Catholics love conversion stories, for the same reason everybody loves rom-coms. We get to watch somebody fall in love with the faith, overcome obstacles, and at last reach the altar -- and then we fade to black. The story stops right when it gets interesting; right when the hard part starts. 
The radio program This American Life made the point in their 2009 episode "Somewhere Out There". Ira Glass interviews an American man who went on a ridiculously romantic quest for a Chinese opera musician -- a woman he'd fallen for, thought he didn't even know her name. 
But the interview isn't really about that. It's about the rest of the story: They did marry, but as Glass explains, "it was really hard. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away... After going through those rough years when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important and they didn't talk about it as much. Now that have a different story." The husband, Eric Hayot, describes it as "the story of struggle and pain passed through, and fought through, and overcome. And that's a story that you don't tell in public because no one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?"
This blog, though it is a small thing, and not particularly about our marriage, is in fact an account of how we have stayed together over the years. Not that there's much drama about that; we never doubted that we would stay together, and "staying together" seems rather fraught language to describe our uneventful life and family. But we have here a nearly thirteen year account of how we've grown as individuals and as a couple and as a family, and how growth in one of those areas is truly growth in all of them. What strengthens me as a person strengthens our family, strengthens me as a mother and wife as well as an individual. In fact, I would question any experience which I felt made me stronger at the expense of being a wife and a mother, since those are not just elements of my personality but bound up with my vocation -- and therefore, my salvation. 

In this present instance, the theatrical vocation I thought I had for myself is coming to fruition in my family while I sit and watch and my baby sits and nurses. And this is only for a season. My turn is coming up with the summer musical, because God has so split his gifts among us that Darwin does not sing and so the musical is mine, all mine -- mine to share with the five older kids who can perform, anyway, and the baby who will probably be at all rehearsals. Baby always comes, because I'm faithful in small things. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 4-3

This section ends Chapter Four and our time with Jozef for now.

Prerau, Moravia. June 14th, 1915. “Major, I believe there’s something wrong with the tracking of the requisitions.”

The officers were milling about on Monday morning as the enlisted men from the Major’s detail got the civilians in order to begin the second day of the requisition fair.

“Eh? What’s the trouble, m’boy?” asked the major, puffing to get a new cigar lit.

“I went to the stables last night to look in on a particularly choice mount I’d requisitioned for the regiment. I remember them painting the requisition number on his flank. Yet when I found the horse with that number in the stables, it was a completely different horse. Perhaps some horses were double numbered, or the clerks are covering for some mistake, but this was definitely not the horse I had chosen.”

The major shrugged. “Easy to misremember a number, and hard to find one horse among a crowd. I wouldn’t let it trouble you. The men are very practiced in these fairs, and the horses will all arrive in the end. Best not to worry yourself and to concentrate upon finding more good horses to round out your quota today.”

Before Jozef could ask any more questions, the major turned away went to join another knot of officers. Jozef felt a moment’s wash of frustration as he watched his receding back in its crisp dress uniform which was little changed in the last fifty years since the wars against Napoleon III and Wilhelm I. It was natural enough this old man would not remember which was horse was which, would assume that everything could be smoothed over by the clerks who managed his books and thus his whole operation. Perhaps that was the explanation. Men with the poor wages of enlisted men had been given the power over hundreds of valuable horses because their commanding officer was too old to bother himself with details, and so of course the temptation might become too great to take the odd horse here or there, take his beautiful black hunter and substitute for it a common gray cart horse. Still, if the major could not be bothered to investigate the issue, there were surely others who could.

He was thus surprised that when he managed to draw Rittmeister Hofer aside during a pause in the morning’s fair, he got little more interest than from the major. “Doubtless you just confused the numbers, von Revay. A day full of horses followed up by good champagne is hardly a spur to precise memory. It’ll all sort out in the end.”

It wasn’t until lunch that Jozef found a ready audience for his concerns in Rittmeister Korzeniowski.

“How many horses do you believe are missing?”

“I don’t know. There was just the one that I was looking for. If it is indeed some scheme to make off with the better horses, we need to check more.”

The Polish officer drew a little notebook from the breast pocket of his uniform tunic. “There I think I can help you.” He turned a few pages and then held it out for Jozef’s inspection. Neatly listed out were all the horses that Korzeniowski had chosen, with a note of both the requisition number and the appearance of the animal. ‘263 Chestnut Mare, 281 Bay Gelding,’ and so forth. More than forty were listed, with a line drawn between Saturday’s choices and today’s. “The little stars mark particularly choice mounts,” Korzeniowski explained. “If there’s some sort of scheme afoot, those are the ones we should check first.”

And so after the requisition fair wound to its close for the day at three in the afternoon, while the rest of the officers returned to the hotel for some pre-dinner refreshment, Rittmeister Korzeniowski stayed behind with Jozef. The requisitioned horses now filled two of the long stable buildings.

Jozef led the way to the stable he had visited the night before, which contained the horses that had been requisitioned on the first day. It took time to find each horse listed in Korzeniowski’s book among the quietly milling herd of animals. It soon became clear that Jozef’s experience with his black hunter was by no means unique. Nine of the horses Korzeniowski had selected on the first day were gone, including all but one of the ones he had marked with a star, each replaced another horse that was older or heavier than he had chosen.

“This must truly be my lucky horse,” Korzeniowski said, rubbing the nose of the dappled mare which was the only remaining of his choice picks. “It was a farm lad leading her through. Perhaps that’s why the others didn’t give him a full look. Nothing grand about the owner, but the horse I could see was a very fine one. Even so I almost let him go. I could see the hope building in that farm boy’s eyes. He loved that horse, that much I could tell, and had seen its potential and given it every care.” He paused to drop a kiss on the horse’s forehead. “You won’t have nearly such a pleasant life in the cavalry, poor creature. But any trooper who gets you will love you. And Poland needs you.” He scratched the horse gently behind the ears and then turned it loose to mill among others. “Wretched, isn’t it, how war turns honorable men into thieves. And yet we honorable thieves must track down the common thief who is making off with the horses that we have lawfully taken.”

Continue Reading...

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Long Retreat

Over the course of my lifetime Lenten observance, I've tried all the tacks. 

The Standard -- when I was 14, I gave up soda, which led to better lifetime habits.
The Rigorous -- the year I gave up sugar, and didn't even eat a piece of the cake at my brother's surprise Leap Day birthday party.
The Basic -- years I've been pregnant and have just stuck with the meatless Fridays and Ash Wednesday observance.
The Habit-Breaker -- the year I tackled getting up early and being organized. It didn't stick.

There's nothing wrong with these sacrifices. They were done for love of God, and God sees all our sacrifices, small and large, and honors them. However, I feel like I've always made my Lenten observance about myself: my bad habits, my lifestyle, my self-improvement. 

When Jesus went into the desert for forty days, he wasn't trying to kick a bad habit. He didn't need spiritual self-improvement. The forty day sojourn in the desert was a time of preparation and deep communication with the Father before Jesus started his public ministry -- a retreat. I wish I could remember where I recently read that ministry to the public depleted Jesus's human nature, so that he needed to withdraw to pray. If Jesus needed that, how much more do we?

This year, I'm taking a Lenten retreat. I'm giving up Facebook -- not because I think it's bad, but because it's so full of noise and instant gratification that it consumes my mental and spiritual space. I want to spend time with the people, in my town and in my parish, that God has put into my life -- people whose very differences from me push me to smooth the edges of my personality that are rough and hone the edges that are dull. 

I'd like to use the space that giving up social media affords me to do more reading and writing. Reading is easy -- I spend a lot of time nursing the baby, enforced sitting, and it's time that can be turned to reading books without detracting from the rest of my day. Writing I need to choose more consciously. I'll keep writing here, of course, and I want to turn my mindless evening Facebook scrolls into editing time for my novel. And, inspired by this Dappled Things post about Why Should You Write?:
So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.
I'm going to put my new fountain pen to use by writing letters for Lent, and I'd be delighted to send one to any reader who will send name and address to me at (I suppose it goes without saying, but that information won't be passed on or used for any other purpose.) If you're a longtime commenter and I never seem to respond to anything you say, please let me send you a letter this Lent! If you read but never comment, let me write to you! If we're friends who never see each other, I'll send you a letter! If you live in my town and we run into each other every Sunday, I still want to write you a letter.

I haven't said much in all this about spiritual development or prayer for Lent. That's because I find that when I know it's Lent, I naturally pull back from indulging in foods, and I add in prayers like Stations of the Cross with the parish. For a discipline, I'm not going to be putting sugar in my tea, but that's so that I have something to be consistent about. I don't want to layer on the practices this Lent because I want to take it as a time to assess what God wants me to do where he's put me -- in this family, in this parish, with these gifts and these flaws. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hiding The Truth is not Pastoral

Mark Shea wades into the recent controversy about Cardinal Marx's suggestion that perhaps the Church may in certain individual cases come up with some sort of blessing to be applied to same sex unions. (There's some dispute as to what Cardinal Marx meant, with initial reports suggesting he proposed a standard approach to blessing such unions and clarification from his spokesmen suggesting that he was more ambiguous, but that ambiguity does not come into Shea's piece so I won't bring it up here further.)

Shea proposes nothing definite, but argues that the cardinal may be onto something because the presence of same sex marriages will be an established fact that the Church must deal with, and failure to do so will, he argues, result in rejection by many younger people who support same sex marriage in large numbers. It's a long post, but I'll try to quote the key sections below:

[H]ow do the people who are currently shouting denunciations at Cdl. Marx propose the Church proceed in a world where, like it or not, gay unions are here to stay? Put bluntly, if they do not want some kind of blessing on gay people, would they prefer the Church devise a curse for them?

My guess is no. Very well then, my question is this: what do we want to do, as Catholics committed to the evangelization of the entire world, including gay people? What concrete course of action do we propose for the Church to engage the here-to-stay, not going anywhere, immovable, staring-us-in-the-face sociological fact of a world which not only has gay unions, but has a rising generation of people, gay and straight, who have absolutely no problem with gay unions and who are increasingly alienated from a Church that does, in fact, appear to them to curse gay people? (We’re talking roughly 75% of Millennials here.)

If you say (as I suspect most of Cdl. Marx’s critics do) that the Church should simply do nothing, then at least be aware that “nothing” will, in fact, be read as rejection, not as nothing–by that 75% of Millennials. Mark you, I’m not talking about gay unions per se. I’m simply talking about the mere existence of gay people and the straight people who care about them.
If the message the Church is sending to every gay person on the planet–and to their straight Millennial friend–is “You are rejected” then it will be only the most extraordinary and motivated person who persists in seeking Jesus in the face of such rejection. And make no mistake, the most zealous and vocal Catholics are typically the ones sending just that message to gays and the straight people who love them. Indeed, they send it even to gay people who have committed to live in chastity and celibacy. I cannot count the number of times I have seen gay Catholics I know–faithful, chaste, celibate ones–spoken of as sinister fifth columnists within the Church and regarded with suspicion simply because they are open, frank, and honest that they are sexually attracted to people of the same sex.
I think the entire “burn heretics, not make converts” approach to the Catholic life is radically wrong and foreign to the mind of Christ. So I return to my question: what do we propose about evangelizing people in a world where gay unions–and an entire generation of people who do not even see a problem with them–are already an established sociological fact?
Jesus didn’t tell the centurion, “Get out of my sight, slaveowner!” He commended him for the progress in grace he had made. He didn’t tell the Samaritan woman to depart from him. He met her where she was and helped her take a step toward faith in him. At no point, does he order her to go home and break it off with her fifth husband.

I suspect something similar is where the Church will wind up with gay unions. Gay people, like everybody else, will come to the Church for spiritual help sooner or later because the Holy Spirit cannot be denied and gay humans, like all humans, hunger for God. And when they do, real shepherds are not going to slap their faces and send them away any more than Jesus slapped the centurion for daring to approach him while still owning other human beings. Shepherds are going to meet them where they are in all the complexity of their lives.

This will offend Puritans, whose first and last impulse is always to drive the impure away from Fortress Katolicus. But it seems to me that the Church is pretty much bound to take this route. It will not mean sacramentalizing gay unions. Rather, it will mean finding some way to help gay people take steps toward Jesus (who is the only one who can untangle the human heart) where they are.
[You can read the full post here.]
Now I think it's important to say that Mark is right that there is a faction within the Church which is so suspicious of people who are gay (in the sense of being consistently sexually attracted to those of the same sex, regardless of whether they act sexually on those attractions) that they do indeed attack even faithful gay Catholic writers who write about ways for people who are gay to live chastely according to the Church's teachings. This is a problem. Christ came to being salvation to all who are willing to follow Him, and that includes people who are gay. We must have a welcoming place within the Church for those who are living according to the Church's teachings under difficult circumstances: those who are gay, those who are divorced, those who are unwillingly single, those who struggle to follow the Church's teachings within their marriages.

However, there's another problem which Shea's 'will we bless them or curse them?' dichotomy fails to address. There are many within the Church who believe that while perhaps the Church's official, on paper teachings on issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and divorce cannot change, that the Church can route around those teachings in her practice. Cardinal Marx seems to some degree to be aligning himself with this allegedly pastoral approach, in which the Church loudly affirms the good aspects of such things while never mentioning that by the way they are against God's law. The proposal that the Church perhaps in some cases offer some sort of non-sacramental blessing for same sex unions must necessarily be seen as participating in this kind of "let's pretend the Church's teachings don't exist" exercise.

The Church's job is in fact more difficult that Shea seems to acknowledge. Yes, a large and increasing percentage of the culture are not only accepting of same sex marriage but ready to reject as a bigot anyone who does not accept it. The Church has a divine mission to reach everyone with Christ's message: gay or straight, pro or anti same sex marriage. And yet the Church also has a duty not to conceal and obfuscate God's law. The Church cannot offer a blessing ceremony for civil marriages that follow the breakup of a valid marriage, nor can it offer a blessing ceremony for same sex couples. There might be those who would argue the Church should offer a blessing ceremony of sorts for same sex couples who are committing to live together chastely, and indeed there is nothing immoral about sharing a roof with someone who you love but are not able to sleep with. But because of our current cultural moment it seems particularly imprudent to offer something that would look so very much like a winking approval for a sexual relationship. We must be honest with ourselves: Many of those who find proposals such as Cardinal Marx's appealing are indeed looking for a tacit approval of sexual relationships that the Church considers wrong. Under the guise of being pastoral, what is actually being sought here is a change in practice if not yet of doctrine.

Jesus does not just accompany us where we are. He also calls us to do hard things. To see this we need look no further than the story of the rich young man, the young man who said he followed all the commandments and on whom Jesus looked with love. What does Jesus do then? Ask the young man to do something even harder: sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. And when the young man goes away sad, Jesus lets him go. He doesn't hold a blessing ceremony for the young man's attachment to riches.

This is the thing which all factions within the Church can forget too often. Jesus asks us to do hard things. He asks us to love people who seem unlovable to us. He asks us to give up things we love. He asks us to abide by God's law even when it seems impossible. He asks us to give up much in order to follow him. And in return, he offers us God's love and eternal life. This is hard, hard stuff which should not leave anyone feeling self satisfied. If you feel you're a great Christian, you're probably doing it wrong. And this is what those who are so eager to label themselves "pastoral" these days need to remember. That Jesus was willing to talk to anyone, to eat with anyone, to love anyone, but that he also called us all to take up our cross and follow Him.