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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Orphan Opening: Dream Edition

Last night I dreamed that I was with a group going to visit a large abandoned book warehouse. We'd feared that everything would be damp and moldy, but the warehouse had been shut up tight and air conditioned. It was dry and cool, and filled with shelves stretching out as far as one could see in the dim space.

There were two staircases going down to the lower floors, and rumor swirled that there were rare books on the deepest level, a first edition of Jane Austen or so. A large contingent went down one staircase, but I went down the other with my three-year-old, holding his hand tight so he wouldn't get lost. The manager of the space was with me. On the lower level, we wandered a bit, always staying near the group, and then prepared to head down again. The manager took one last look around, shining his flashlight over the floor.

I saw a baby rocking in a swing.

"Stop!" I said. "There's a baby over there."

The manager played his light in the direction I pointed.

"I... don't see anything," he said.

The baby's blue eyes sparkled in the light.

We headed down behind the rest of the group.

Then I woke up, and it was a great relief.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Spelling Test

1. Banner
It's a fine life, carrying the Banner.

2. Fame
Fame, I'm gonna live forever.

3. Later
When a girl says later, she really means, "Not ever".

4. Hammer
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

5. Seven
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone.

6. Barrel
Perhaps your horse's name was Barrel.

7. Dollar
A day late, a dollar short.

8. Letters
She receives letters, Mrs. Bennet, because she writes letters.

9. Silent
Silent E is a ninja.

10. Wild
The wild things roared their terrible roars and showed their terrible claws and rolled their terrible eyes and gnashed their terrible teeth.

11. Swift
Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels.

12. Bottle
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

13. Pineapple
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

14. Traffic
Everything that traffic will allow.

15. Eleven
It goes to eleven.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Fr. Martin: Nihil or Obstat?

The current controversy over Fr. James Martin and his book (lengthily titled: Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity) seems odd to me. In rough outline:

Various loud (and honestly, mostly unpleasant) conservative groups have been waging a campaign to get Fr. Martin dis-invited from giving talks about his book at Catholic institutions, on the theory that since he scrupulously fails to discuss Church teaching in his book on the Church and the LGBT community, while calling for greater charity between the two, he must clearly be advocating a soft-pedaling of practice or change in teaching.

Fr. Martin has responded with some vigor that his book does not contradict Catholic teaching, and he has pointed to several Catholic authorities (the Jesuits, various bishops) who have stated as much.

Thus far, so good. But here is where I fail to understand: If Fr. Martin is in fact not suggesting any change in Catholic teaching, then his book is a flowery exercise in saying nothing much, a 150 page David Brooks column. The problem between the Church and the gay community is not one of schoolyard taunts which can be easily resolved by the kindergarten teacher telling everyone to play nicely. The Church's teaching on sexual morality is the substantive reason for the strife between the two groups. The Church says that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage can only be formed between one man and one woman, while most people in the gay community believe that this teaching is both wrong and hurtful. Civility is good, of course, but it comes nowhere close to dealing with the core of the issue.

If Fr. Martin is not in fact in favor of some kind of change in Catholic teaching, then there's really very little reason to ask him to speak about his book at all. He has nothing much of interest to say, and there are others who have already written much more interesting books actually tackling the question of how LBGT Catholics can live in tune with Church teaching and how the Church should change the way she speaks to and about them to recognize that they are indeed called by our doctrines to a difficult life requiring support and fellowship from the Church.

On the other hand, if Fr. Martin is in favor of some kind of distinct change in Church doctrine or practice, then it's hardly surprising that Catholics who believe that the Church's teachings on this matter are correct would object to him being brought in as a speaker. And if that's the case, dissembling about one's actual beliefs is a pretty poor tactic all around.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Could Trains Have Saved Irma Evacuees?


In the tenth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's satiric tapestry of mid-Twentieth Century British intellectual and artistic circles, several characters set up a left wing publishing house, yet are stymied by how to make a commercial success of a novel of socialist realism in translation which is near to the heart of one of the their patrons. That they are trying to make a commercial success of a piece of socialist realism is, of course, one of the understated sources of humor, as is the unwieldy title: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers (Eventually this is shortened to the more marketable title Engine Melodies.)

There's something about trains which seems to appeal to ideological and technological Utopians across ideological boundaries. Affection for trains is a staple of progressive thinking these days, and yet Ayn Rand also idolizes trains in her massive novel Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that someone over at the World Socialist Web Site wrote a piece asking: Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?

The author complains at people being forced to use cars and planes to leave Florida due to the "abysmal, anarchy-filled state of transportation in America."

Why haven’t passenger trains, which could carry a thousand people a time, been sent to Florida to help? Residents without money or the ability to travel by car or plane could be taken to designated points of shelter and food.

Prior to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, there was a small successful example of this, as some 2,000 residents of New Orleans were taken to Memphis, Tennessee on special trains. A worker who participated in the rail operation noted that “At least 50% of the passengers were elderly, many in wheelchairs, on walkers or canes and generally unable to move very well without some assistance.” On a return trip, many passengers brought more luggage, as they could buy essential supplies in Memphis that would have been out of stock or priced-gouged in New Orleans. With baggage cars and plenty of space, the train accommodated this for free—compared to an airline that would charge $50 per bag.

That operation was minimal compared to what could be done, and yet with Irma, nothing similar has been attempted, despite a far larger forced evacuation. If the state and federal government, FEMA, and corporations cared to, dozens of sets of passenger train equipment could have been sent south during the week and made several trips from South Florida to points farther North. This would require workers trained in advance to conduct the operation, and designated points of shelter established in places like Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; and other cities.

As one example, the commuter rail system of Chicago, Metra, has a daily ridership of 295,000 riders. If equipment on that scale were provided to a region at risk of a hurricane, an enormous number of people could be taken to safe shelter. Instead, all that has happened is that Amtrak ran its regular trains out of Florida up until Friday, which, of course, were sold out.

There are some pretty basic reasons why this wouldn't work, and they have to do with how trains as a mode of transportation work. Trains are good at moving predictable numbers of people over predictable routes. That's why commuter train systems such as the one in Chicago cited above are a moderately efficient means of moving people. You know that every work day basically predictable numbers of people will want to move from specific residential areas to specific business areas, and you build your tracks and schedule your trains accordingly. For this kind of highly predictable movement through dense areas, trains can indeed be more efficient than cars. While the train itself may get very full, the tracks do not get overloaded and backed up the way that a freeway does at rush hour, so the schedule can be somewhat more predictable, and a full train uses less fuel per passenger to move people over a given distance than having all those people take separate cars.

However, trains are only good at moving people over expected routes. Imagine that there was a sudden need to evacuate most of Chicago's residents to cities nearby cities like Peoria and Indianapolis. The commuter rail system vaunted above would be of no use at all, because the tracks don't go there. Trains are far less flexible than cars. You could use the same car you used to drive in to downtown Chicago to evacuate to Indiana, but you could not use the same train you took to downtown Chicago to evacuate the metro area instead.

This is something I encountered a good deal in doing research for the novel, in that a great deal of military planning done prior to World War One centered around trains. With the mass use of trucks and automobiles still in its infancy, mobilization plans made by the European powers centered around moving soldiers on trains. Even in the relatively dense confines of Western Europe, the standard rail system would not have remotely sufficed for Germany to move over a million soldiers to the French and Belgian borders during the course of a few days. They had to build massive redundancy into their rail network leading to the West, with extra sidings to allow trains to pass each other and rail heads with a dozen or more sidings where trains could stop and disgorge the soldiers who had just spend a couple days in cattle cars. All of this rail infrastructure was built just in case Germany went to war with France, and it allowed for only approach to doing so. The German high command did not have the option of choosing to attack in a different place than they had planned years in advance, because the rail lines had been built to support the planned route of attack.

If this was a massive undertaking to support moving a large number of people along one planned route of military attack, imagine trying to build a network capable of performing natural disaster evacuations. The sort of slightly increased high speed rail network which train enthusiasts suggest to replace Americans' habit of driving or flying when they want to go somewhere a few hundred miles away would not do. Such a network would be build to carry the normal number of people who wanted to travel in a given direction for business or pleasure at normal times. To be able to accommodate a significant portion of the population suddenly needing to evacuate elsewhere, you would need massively redundant rail lines in order to accommodate the sudden burst of travel in one direction. You would need to have this excess rail capacity in many places going many directions: Do you need to evacuate New Orleans toward Houston or Houston towards Dallas? Do you evacuate Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas, or the opposite direction? Not to mention that you'd also need contingency plans to actually get the needed trains to wherever it was you suddenly needed to evacuate so many people from.

Messy as it looks, the highway system and the use of cars, trucks, and buses is actually a much more efficient means of responding to unexpected surges of transportation needs. Yes, results in traffic jams and gas shortages, but despite the apparent chaos it's actually a much more flexible means of moving people around, because the same vehicle and roads which are normally used and be instantly repurposed to evacuation.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Immediate Book Meme

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

1. What book are you reading now?

The Weeping Time, by Anne C. Bailey
An advance reading copy of a book Darwin was sent to review, about the largest slave auction in American history. Very sobering, and makes the evil and corruption of slavery vivid.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons
subtitled: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection. To be honest, I picked up this book because as I walked by it on the library shelf, it looked too beautiful to pass up. These are tales from a manuscript discovered in a library in Istanbul and first translated in the 1930s. The aged manuscript, with a torn first page, is thought to be an earlier collection of some of the tales from the 1001 Nights. The book is as advertised: the tales are pretty marvelous and strange. We tried reading them aloud, but they're rather convoluted, not helped by the fact that some of the pages were too damaged to decipher. It's easier to read them myself than try to make sense of them to the kids.

1a. Readaloud

Victorian Cakes, by Caroline B. KingA delightful memoir about a Victorian girlhood in Chicago, framed through the cakes and other delectables baked in the family's ample kitchen. I tried to get a child to read this herself, but found it easier to read it aloud. The kids are fascinated, and indeed, there's been a spate of cake-baking in an attempt to recreate some of the recipes in the book.

2. What book did you just finish?


I was considering this for my readaloud to the kids, but it had been years since I'd read it myself. After consideration: no, this is not one for the kids. Wilde was one of the Decadents, a movement of writers and artists devoted to outré experiences and the pursuit of sensation without consequences, and there's a unsavory undercurrent to the book. Interestingly enough, Dorian Gray flirts with Catholicism because he's drawn to the aesthetic, sensual elements, but he has the idea of Sacrament directly backward: he believes that the elements of the Catholic sacraments are merely symbolic, though powerful in their symbolism, but that his other obsessions, such as perfume or gemstones, have some kind of sacramental power that effects what they symbolize. He thinks there can really be some magic or alchemy such that a topaz gives long life or a ruby can poison or an emerald enhance sexual pleasure. (I just made up these examples, but the actual text isn't much different.)

Anyway, The Hound of the Baskervilles would have the same feel but be a lot more acceptable for reading to children. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie
The girls just watched this on Netflix, so I wanted to read the book to see how Christie told the tale.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
I took this on vacation with me to copy quotes for my novena, and it hasn't made it out of my bag yet.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Darwin narrated this to us at the dinner table a few years ago when he was listening to it, and I've seen the Masterpiece Theater version, and I've bought a copy of the book, which sits on my shelf now. But I've never cracked the cover.

6. What is your current reading trend?

I don't know if I have one right now.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Twenty Years

September 5th, 1997, these twenty years ago, I put on a tie and bowler hat and went to the Courtyard Rock, a freshman mixer dance. With me were a few friends, similarly attired. We'd gone to some other, earlier dance wearing the same thing, being a bit odd as a youthful affectation and because none of us had anyone in particular to impress. This second dance was three weeks into the semester -- an eternity -- and was the end of the getting-to-know-you shindigs Steubenville threw on its own dime. After that, you had to meet people on your own.

As I say, this was the second dance we went to in our hats and ties, so we must have been recognizable. At least, someone had noticed us before, and as it happened, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. "You probably already know each other," she said. "You're both in Honors." We didn't know each other, not being in the same section, but we set about remedying that posthaste. We talked class. We talked hats. We talked I don't know whatall -- nothing of great import, really, except that everything he said was interesting. He was funny and easy to talk to. That's a freshman way to describe a freshman attraction, the sort of thing that a lot of students said about each other in those early days. But I say it because it's true. He was funny in the exactly the way I found most amusing, and easy to talk to in the way in exactly the way that appealed to me most. If there was an immediate click, it was the click of two pieces fitting together perfectly.

We danced together, and since swing was the style of the late 90s, we swung. I've never been a crack dancer, and he was less so than I was, so we spent more time laughing than getting the steps right. After a while the party shut down, but we weren't done talking. So we went to the student center -- the old JC, for those who were around before it was gentrified -- and sat in ugly corporate seating and talked, and talked, and talked. And then a friend I'd known before I came up to college passed through, and said hi, and asked about my boyfriend back at home.

Proving that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, my annoyance made me realize that I'd actually had no intention of mentioning that I had a boyfriend at home. We'd gotten together hastily and perhaps ill-advisedly before I left -- we'd shared some common life experiences and needed someone to talk to about them, proving that unhappy families are all unhappy in the same ways. That was not a reference he would have gotten. He was not a great reader, nor of an markedly intellectual bent, but a nice and gentle guy who deserved better than a girl who got together with him and then went off to college. I'd had plenty of time to meditate on this fact three weeks into the semester.

As it was, this revelation didn't change anything, because there was still plenty of conversation to be had. At 2 am we were kicked out of the student center and headed back toward the dorms. "The time has come," he said, "to talk of many things..."

"Of shoes and ships and sealing wax..."

"Of cabbages and kings..."

"And why the sea is boiling hot," we finished together, "and whether pigs have wings!"

I didn't know any guys who'd read Louis Carroll, and none of them would have admitted it if they had.

At his dorm we parted, but he had in his pocket a card with his dorm phone and mailbox number on it, and he gave it to me, and you can read the rest of the story here.

Steubenville was a small place, and Honors was a small set. We'd have met eventually, and the same sort of thing would have happened, but we happened to meet on September 5, twenty years ago.

Almost immediately after we got together, a week and a half later, I put things on hold. "I need to break up with my boyfriend," I said, "but I can't do it until Saturday." This won't make much sense to the youth of today, but those who had reached their majority by 1997 will remember the days of phone cards and reduced rates on the weekend. I couldn't afford to call long distance until the lower weekend rates. Saturday evening, I was sadder but wiser after discovering that breaking off a relationship even for many good and rational reasons is a wrenching thing to do.

"I asked him, " I said in a muffled voice, "if he could like reading and theater and all the things that I loved. And he said, 'I would if you wanted me to.'"

And he winced in sympathy, because he knew that that wasn't enough. I didn't want someone to love these things because I loved them. I wanted someone to love them because they were good things themselves, so that our shared loves could be a participation in something bigger than ourselves.

And for twenty years now our shared loves have grown and multiplied many times over, until we needed a huge house to contain all the little bodies that keep turning up. Tonight we went out and talked and talked again, only this time we had a sleeping, snorting baby with us, and we came home together to a passel of children talking as fast as their parents. In a few years our oldest is going off to college. Perhaps I'd better buy her a bowler hat.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Age of Faith, Age of Virtue?

I got into a discussion about the Middle Ages on Twitter last night, which is a bad idea because I seem to be too middle aged to succeed in doing anything with Twitter other than posting the occasional link or quip. So I'm going to be like the old fashioned creature that I am and write a blog post instead.

What initially caught my attention was this comment from a friend:



I should admit right off that a portion (perhaps the major portion) of what rubs me the wrong way on this is that I tend to distrust any speculation about who is and is not in heaven. There's an appealing sort of Catholic triumphalism about imagining the Middle Ages as a period when everyone was on our side, while in modernity we face a fractured Christendom and many people who aren't Christian at all, but I'm very leery of saying that the people 'on my side' are actually more likely to get to heaven than others. It smacks of a bit of presumption, and also it being 'my side' I'm in a good position to appreciate all those people's worst points.

However, the other thing which strikes me here is historical. The more time I spend on history, the more it strikes me that when we look at a past time and note that certain vices common in society now were less accepted then, what we often miss is that other vices sprang up instead to take their place. Human beings are a fallen bunch, and I can't see it that we're notably better in one era than another. This is something which has struck me a lot when doing novel research, admittedly dealing with the era only a hundred years ago. One frustration I have with a lot of modern historical writers is that they write their characters as if they were really exactly the same as now in their family and moral attitudes. A basic amount of primary source reading makes it clear that this was not the case. But it also makes it clear that while some of our chronic modern problems were not common then, there was a whole other set of problems in their place. People were neither better, nor worse, nor the same: they were different.

As Brandon expanded on his thesis, however, it proved to mostly center on closer connection with the sacraments and the graces which they provide:




To expand my comment above in non-Twitter language: I think that there are two questions to consider here.

The first is whether people were really as steeped in the sacraments and the life of the Church as we might like to imagine. It's certainly true that there was no distinction between the secular calendar and the liturgical calendar. Holidays were just that: Holy Days. Times of fast and penance also shaped the year, as did the cutting loose which preceded such sober times.

And yet, we also know that this did not necessarily look like the practice of people who devotedly live the liturgical year now. Reception of the sacraments was not necessarily all that frequent. When the Fourth Lateran Council made clear the necessity of going to confession and receiving communion at least once a year, that was because it was fairly common for people to receive the sacraments even less often. There were major problems with corruption and ignorance among the clergy, and thus in turn among the flock they were supposed to be guiding. It's late to be truly medieval (1500s) but Carlo Ginzburg's classic study The Cheese And The Worms about the inventive heresy developed more or less through ignorance by a small town miller in northern Italy (which eventually led to his burning at the stake) helps underscore that however pervasive the Church was as a structure, even somewhat educated people (the Miller could read) often knew startlingly little about their faith.

There was also the difficulty that the integration of the Church into everyday life could actually make people resent it. We think of anti-clericalism as something which broke loose in many traditionally Catholic countries in the modern era, but it's arguably that it was the toppling of old structures in modernity which allowed much older resentments to be expressed. When very poor people owed significant portions of their labor or the products of it to the local institutions of the Church, it's natural that the Church would become a target for economic resentment. We see some of that in the humorously derisive anti-clericalism in works like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. I think this history is also arguably why modern age revolutions in Catholic countries (France, Mexico, Spain, etc.) often involved repression of the Church and mass killing of priests and religious -- resentments against power and the rich inevitably ended up becoming tangled with resentments against the Church because the Church was seen as (and was) powerful and rich.

The second question is whether, granting that people were more deeply connected with the Church and her sacraments on a daily basis, that actually led to people being more virtuous.

This reminds me of questions I've struggled with in the past in regards to prayer: On the one hand, we believe that prayer does actually accomplish something. To pray for someone's healing or someone's conversion is actually to do something which has an effect on the other person. And yet, when we turn that around, I'm hesitant to make arguments like: "He didn't convert because not enough prayers were said for his conversion." or "She didn't recover from her illness because not enough people prayed for her healing." And yet, if we can't say "This person was healed because he was prayed for, and if he hadn't been prayed for he wouldn't have been healed" then what exactly do we mean by prayer having an effect? (I don't know the answer to this.)

Similarly, I believe that it is good for people to receive the graces of the sacraments and to know the teachings of the faith. And yet, we also know that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. I believe that it's a good thing that I go to mass every week and receive the Eucharist. But it seems a very dangerous presumption to say that because of this I'm more likely to go to heaven than my neighbor who doesn't. The Bible and the saints often speak of the great dangers faced by those who believe they are righteous. Does that mean that one is more likely to make it to heaven if one doesn't participate in the sacraments and the life of the Church? Certainly not. But I'm also hesitant to say that we know we're more likely to be saved if we're active in the Church.

Again, I think we see some of this in medieval history and literature. The Canterbury Tales are the story of a group of people setting off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a great saint. And yet, they're actually a fairly worldly bunch, and remain worldly on the journey. Perhaps it's still more of a force for virtue in their lives than if they were moderns embarking on an Alaskan cruise. Or perhaps not. I don't know.

I've spent much of my life around social groups defined by active participate in the life of the Church. I think there are benefits to living in that way. And yet I'm also very much aware of the resentments, pettiness, selfishness, and abuse of power which is fairly common in those groups, and sometimes seems to be all the more vicious because people believe they're doing it all for God.

I want to believe that it could be (and was) different. But I'm not sure that I do.