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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Jedi and the Drama of Failure

Emily Snyder has an interesting post up dealing with the ways in which characters in The Last Jedi face failure. (The linked post contains spoilers.)

I won't quote Emily's post, so that this post won't contain spoilers, but I'd strongly encourage reading it. While I thought there were arguably some structural issues with the length and timing of some of the sub plots, one thing that I did think was really interesting about those sub plots was the way that characters did fail in key ways and were forced to move on to the next step after those failures. By comparison, most Sci-Fi adventure movies do not allow their heroes to suffer any but the most temporary setbacks.

Though this post doesn't contain spoilers, comments are allowed to, so don't click through to the comments unless you're ready for anything!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Truth and Lies in Historical Fiction

Peggy Noonan has an interesting piece in the WSJ this week discussing truth and falsehood in historical fiction. This was of double interest to me, in that the ethics of historical fiction are something that I've often thought of and also because one of the key pieces she discusses is the Netflix series The Crown which a number of friends have been watching and talking about over the holidays.

There’s dramatic license, which is necessary or nothing’s fun, and historical truth, which is necessary or nothing’s understood. Ideally in any work they more or less coexist, however imperfectly. But in “The Crown” and “The Post” the balance is far off. A cheap historical mindlessness marks much of the first, and there’s a lie at the heart of the second.

I couldn’t help like “The Crown”: it was so beautiful to me. The acting, the stillness, all the money and thought that went into making the rooms look right, the period clothing, right down to the cuff links—in these matters the creators are deeply faithful to reality. In its treatment of history, however, there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.

Example: The treatment of future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is churlish and unknowing. He was not a sallow, furtive weasel of a man, which is how he is portrayed; he was a politician whose humanity, courage and wit even his adversaries acknowledged. He did not deviously scheme, during the Suez crisis, to unseat Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who did not throw a pen at him and call him a liar in a cabinet meeting.

As prime minister his weekly meetings with the queen were not testy, marked by condescension on his side and strained patience on hers. He respected and admired her; she became his confidante. In his diaries he called her “a great support because she is the one person you can talk to.” He would not have taunted her with the glamour and intelligence of her supposed rival, Jackie Kennedy. He would not have taunted her at all.
More absurd is the series’ treatment of President and Mrs. Kennedy. JFK was not, as “The Crown” asserts, enraged with his wife for dazzling Paris on their first state trip to Europe. He was thrilled at her success; it elevated him on the world stage. Suddenly he saw her as what she was, a political asset to be deployed. She transfixed Charles de Gaulle, that stern and starchy old man who was always mad at America, often with good reason. Biographer Richard Reeves quotes JFK to his wife: “ ‘Well,’ he told her, ‘I’m dazzled.’ ”

There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in “The Crown” that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife.

Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

[Note: Apparently JFK smoked cigars often but almost never cigarettes.]

Of course, many would say, everyone knows a show like that is just fiction. Yes, but fiction is a powerful tool which can make us feel like we know the characters we meet. When we portray real people or events in fiction, and do our job well, it's hard for people not to think about people and events through the lens of that portrayal. And as such, I think there is a fiction writers ethics which requires that we not give a consciously false portrayal. When not all facts are known, we might choose to fill in the blanks in a way that leans things one direction or another. There are also many ways in which an author might simplify or combine events while remaining true to their basic spirit. But to knowingly portray someone as something other than they are in important ways seems to me to a great disservice.

The most egregious examples of this sort of thing I'm sure most people would agree with. Holocaust denial, for instance, would not be excused on the theory that "it's just a movie, so everyone knows it's fictional." Portraying a real person as having committed some major crime they did not commit (say if a TV series portrayed Bobby Kennedy as plotting the assassination of his brother JFK) would also be widely rejected.

Those examples sound silly and obviously offensive, but here's one which is so well done that it's hard to dislike: Both Peter Shaffer's original play "Amadeus" and the movie based on it and bearing the same title deviate flagrantly and knowingly from the actual characters and events in the lives of Mozart and Salieri. They're good art, but they're terrible history. In some sense, that almost makes it worse. I know that Shaffer's Mozart bears little resemblance to the real composer, and yet the false Mozart is just so compelling as fiction that it's hard not to think of him when listening to the real Mozart's music. Shaffer wrote really well, he wrote compelling characters and a conveyed a compelling set of ideas. The problem is that he exercised those writing talents in intentionally misrepresenting real people.

Noonan points out that this is doubly problematic in an age where many viewers of these dramas don't know that they're peddling inaccurate portrayals.

Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.

When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

This strikes me in particular when you have shows which put huge amounts of work into historically accurate production design, but which then get historical characters or event glaringly wrong. If it's a matter of ignorance, then it's odd to have a production in which it's worth researching cars and costumes and tableware but not people. If it's intentional misrepresentation... Well, as I said, I think that at a certain level that simply become wrong. If we're going to use the names of real people and events, we should strive to do them justice with our fiction.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-2

The second Jozef installment, and the next hopefully very soon to follow.

Prerau, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. “There are two ways to go about the task,” Major von Brenner said, leaning so close to Jozef that he could smell the pomade with which the older officer’s mustache was styled into stiff upward curls. “Either look at the horse, or look at the owner. If you have a trained eye for horse flesh, you may do well enough with the former. But often enough you’ll miss some detail -- the older horse with unusually good teeth or the young firebrand that’s just a touch lame. Watch the owner, and you’ll never fail. You’ll never get a good horse off a farmer or a carter. They’ll have the big, slow beasts who eat more feed than they can carry, very good for pulling a plow but no use to the cavalry. For cart horses, look to the man of quality who has a set of good carriage horses. But for a riding horse, you need a young man, someone who invests in a racer or a hunter. And the richer the owner, the better the horse. Jews are the most reliable, of course. Always take a Jew’s horse. They have an unerring instinct for value.”

Jozef reflected on this advice as the horse requisition fair formally began. The officers all sat in a line. As the junior officer from the 7th Uhlans, Jozef was seated to the right of Rittmeister Hofer. On Jozef’s other side sat Rittmeister Korzeniowski, the lone representative of the Polish Legion wearing their distinctive square czapka hat embellished with a silver Polish eagle. The Pole was the second to last in the line of officers, the only one placed after him being a leutnant from the supply service there to requisition draft horses.

The non-commissioned officers under von Brenner’s command martialed the civilians and their horses at the other end of the enclosure, then sent them across one at a time leading their animals so that the officers could see the horses move. If they like the look of a horse, they called out, and the horse was numbered, the unit of the officer who had spoken for it noted down, and the horse was led into a holding pen. If no officer spoke up, the owner was issued a paper stating that his horse did not have military value and exempting it from requisition during the next twelve months.

It was indeed mostly the horses led across by well dressed men or uniformed servants that were called for. The shaggy plow horses led through by peasants were let pass, and their owners left the fairgrounds gratefully clutching their certificates of exemption. A few carters or shopkeepers had wagon horses that were well suited for draft work. And matched sets of carriage horses led by their drivers were quickly snapped up.

As the last in line, Jozef and Rittmeister Hofer did not at first get the best picks, but as the officers at the front of the line began to near their quotas they let more and more good animals pass. A black hunter that stepped impatiently behind a liveried groom caught Jozef’s eye in particular, and when it somehow escaped the notice of other officers Jozef spoke for it. The groom scowled to get so close to escape and then see the horse requisitioned, but he led it to the pen where a korporal put a number on its haunch in white paint and noted down the owner’s information.

Jozef was not among the officers rich enough to purchase his own horses privately, but perhaps having helped to pick out good horses for the regiment he would be able to take this one for his use. Jozef watched as the korporal took the halter off the horse which already he already thought of as his and handed it back to the groom. Then the black horse dashed off into the enclosure, tossing his head, until he slowed and approached another horse, nostrils whiffling in greeting.

[Continue reading]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Five Links of Christmas

My dear friends, over the past few days I've been given the best Christmas gift ever: the gift of energy. Whence this drive to get things done, and then the follow-through? Whence this desire to leave the house and go to the store? Whence this purpose? I dunno, but I'm taking it as a gift from God, and running with it.

Alas, this has been a "getting stuff done" energy, and not a writing drive.  And so although I've bought all my Christmas presents and taken all the kids on errands and finished up several projects I started and kept the house basically clean, I haven't written anything here for a week. And tomorrow we're having people over and it gets busy until Christmas...

Anyway, here's some edifying and educational linkage for you.

 The PNC Christmas Price Index. Those among who must educate younguns or who just enjoy coloring will like the printable coloring pages for each of the twelve gifts from the song.

Culinary Arts
Gingerbread Cuneiform Tablets. I've already made the dough, and today we're going to roll it out and impress upon it some Mesopotamian graffiti.

LATER: Hey it turned out well! I didn't put the crushed red pepper flakes in; instead, I substituted a couple good shakes of cayenne. They look ancient, but they taste fresh.


Will Smith in a cop movie, set in an LA with Orcs and Elves as minorities? Yes, I think so.

About the great locust swarm of 1875 that devastated Laura Ingalls Wilder's family.

The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history. It would become known as “Albert’s swarm”: in Nebraska, a meteorologist named Albert Child measured its flight for ten days in June, telegraphing for further information from east and west, noting wind speed and carefully calculating the extent of the cloud of insects. He startled himself with his conclusions: the swarm appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles, Child concluded, an area equal to the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. “This is utterly incredible,” he wrote, “yet how can we put it aside?” The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.

The swarms swept from Saskatchewan to Texas, devouring everything in their path. The grasshoppers savored the sweat-stained handles of farm implements, chewed the wool off sheep, ate the leaves off trees. After flying, settling, consuming, and laying eggs, they began marching across the country, millions massing to form pontoons across creeks and rivers. Hoppers were said to “eat everything but the mortgage.” Terrified, people reached for comparisons, likening the insectile clouds to other natural disasters: snow storms, hail storms, tornadoes, even wildfires. “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire . . . the low crackling and rasping,” read a report from the US Entomological Commission, created by Congress to address the crisis. Even modern scientists stretch for language to convey the swarm’s ferocity, calling it a “metabolic wildfire.” It consumed roughly a quarter of the country.

Excerpted from Prairie Fires: The American Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Sacred Music
O Magnum Mysterium.

Tomorrow we're having a sing at our house, and I hope this will be one of the pieces we work on.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part II

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part I 

In his new book To Light A Fire On The Earth, written with John Allen, Bishop Robert Barron talks several times about "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor", and describes her as one of Catholicism's Pivotal Players: "A twentieth-century Catholic writer who radically changed our idea of what religious fiction could be."

Q: Which Catholic publishers published the novels of "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor"?
A: Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: Okay, but what about notable Catholic author Walker Percy?
A: Alfred A. Knopf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: ...J.F. Powers?
A: Doubleday; Alfred A. Knopf

Doubleday may at least be a step toward Catholic publishing, since the Image imprint was formerly Doubleday Religion. Although some of the explicitly religious novels of Louis de Wohl were published by J.B. Lippincott Co., 1960's The Restless Heart (about St. Augustine) and 1962's The Quiet Light (about Thomas Aquinas) were published by Image. Image also published Maria Chapdelaine, the acclaimed Canadian novel by Louis Hémon, in 1956.

In 2017 Image carries eight fiction titles: two collections of Christmas stories, three sequels to the 1983 pop parable Joshua by Joseph F. Girzone, and three heartwarming novels by author Katherine Valentine.


Unlike Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that notable publisher of quality novels by Catholic authors, the Catholic presses nowadays carry a very small catalog of fiction, if they publish it at all.

Ignatius: By far the largest catalog, carrying 74 titles, many of which are reprints of older works or study editions of classics. By my count, however, it currently has listed original novels by 13 authors.

Sophia: Eight titles, three of which are reprints.

Loyola: Three fiction titles, two of which are reprints. (Not included in this count is the Loyola Classics line of fiction reprints, which are oddly categorized under Spirituality and Inspiration -- a very strange place to stick In This House of Brede.)

Ave Maria: no fiction.

Looking down the catalogs of these presses, with their strong showing of Catholic historicals or saint bios, I wonder: could O'Connor or Percy or Powers have been published by these presses? The only contender would seem to be Ignatius (to whom all praise must be given for their thoughtful cover design -- the only press to dignify their novels so), but even so it's hard to gauge the quality of many of their novels when their own authors are blurbing each other's books.

But the larger question is: should Catholic presses be publishing fiction at all? Can they provide the right mix of editorial quality and authorial freedom to allow world-class fiction to flourish? And will their core audience read the final product?


Then there's the issue of what constitutes "Catholic fiction". From Bishop Barron's book, here's his "personal list of all-time great Catholic books".

Brideshead Revisited
The Diary of a Country Priest
Divine Comedy
The Idiot
The Brothers Karamazov

(Incidentally, in discussing Brideshead, the book quotes from a 2013 column that Bp. Barron wrote about the role of beauty in Charles Ryder's conversion, citing the "beautiful" chapel as a motivating force. As I wrote at the time, this is mistaken: the chapel is specifically called out as a gaudy mess, and it's despite it's ugliness that Charles returns to pray there in the end. Waugh, like O'Connor, is an standard name to hand around if you want to sound knowledgeable about Catholic Literature. However, as illustrated by a reference I saw recently to "Julia Brideshead"-- "Brideshead" being the house, and the title inherited by the oldest son of the family, and not anyone's given name -- it's a good idea to check the text before using to make an intellectual point.)

On Bp. Barron's list, only The Diary of a Country Priest would qualify as slightly unknown. These are books drawn from the pantheon of Great Books. They're books with explicitly Catholic content. (Bp. Barron makes the point that although Dostoyevsky is writing from an Orthodox viewpoint, he shares in a Catholic sensibility.) But they draw in non-religious readers by the quality of their prose, the beauty of their imagery, the depth of their themes.

They are, in short, moral fiction. As I said in the last post:
fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through.
If we believe that Catholicism is not just a system or a culture, than Catholic literature must be more than books in which explicitly Catholic characters play out explicitly religious dramas. Catholic literature must be moral fiction, whether or not the characters are Catholic, whether or not it is didactic, whether or not the characters are good.

Indeed, in moral fiction, plenty of bad or ugly things can happen, because in the world people are confronted with moral choices in the midst of bad and ugly situations, and they don't always decide rightly. The weight of the human condition is something that fiction has always grappled with. Flannery O'Connor's works, held up as exemplars of an honest Catholic fiction, are full of the gritty kind of grace that stings and horrifies.

So here's what Catholic presses have to weigh in regards to fiction. Do they play it safe, bestowing a kind of non-magisterial imprimatur, so that a grandmother can pick a title from a fiction catalog with the certainty that it will be edifying and free of inappropriate content for her 12-year-old grandson? Or should they expand to provide a platform for excellent fiction with a Catholic sensibility, even when that fiction is challenging or deals with the darker, less pleasant side of human behavior? Can (or should) Eve Tushnet's Amends, with its plethora of profanity and its characters wrestling with sexual identity without finding neat answers and its essentially Catholic understanding, find a place in Ignatius's catalogue?


Between a fussy infant needing to be held all day, and a fussy toddler coming down complaining of ear pain, I've only been able to write this much by 2am (and this is more than I thought I could get done today). Part III soon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Guadalupana

I watch this every year on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, not so much for the father/son Me-the-can-o pop duo as for humble little Juan Diego staring up at Tepeyac Hill in wonder.

One of the beauties of posting the same thing on the same date every year is that it serves as time capsule. Last year I didn't post; morning sickness. The year before I was just worn out with everything. Another year I remember reading up a lot about the history of the vision before writing up a brief account of the apparition. My grandmother was a great scrapbooker and had rows of albums on the shelves in the attic, chronicling her children's lives and trips she'd taken. And here's my mother of Guadalupe, doing the same for me.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Moral fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part 1

"She was completely reliable in any Internet-based crisis." 

My mom sent me an Amazon gift card for my birthday, so I bought some books I'd been thinking about for a while. Bishop Barron's To Light a Fire on Earth, The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah (I'd been reading this in French on the Kindle, but I forget about Kindle books, and translating the text took up the mental energy I would otherwise have used to meditate on it). Everyman's Library editions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, to round out my set. And Eve Tushnet's novel Amends, which has been on my list for a while.

The Amends of the title is a rehab reality show, where six down-and-out alcoholics of varying cuts are trying to discover if they're capable of change, or if they even want it. Tushnet writes of what she knows -- there's nothing cute or airbrushed about her collection of drunks (or their epic hangovers), only sharply observed scenes with an eye for the telling detail. The prose sparks like a high tension wire, and the sparks leave scars. You can make some interesting comparisons here to the writing of Florence King, though I'd say that King was more unrelentingly savage. Tushnet likes her characters a lot more than King liked any of hers, and so is able to allow even the most outré actors in her story the possibility of redemption.

The novel isn't flawless. Several characters are underutilized or underexplained, and others are perhaps too eloquent for their state in life. (I questioned whether an 18-year-old hockey jock would have conjured up a snowclone from an H.P. Lovecraft quote, even as I nodded at the reference.) I would have liked a two-part structure to give equal weight to events after the end of the reality show, as chapter stacked on chapter gave the impression of a lot of falling action.

But this is nitpicking, because the book itself is a fine example of moral fiction: fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through. It is a Catholic world if you believe that the Church isn't just making up strictures but describing what is true about reality.

This leads to an interesting point. Amends is a novel with a Catholic sensibility, but it wasn't published by a Catholic press. It wasn't published by a press at all -- it's self-published. In a sense, I don't know how it could have been otherwise: the Catholic sensibility, particularly in sexual matters, is too pronounced to make it likely that a mainstream press would publish it, and the particular profane foibles, flaws, and inclinations of these characters make it almost inconceivable that a Catholic press, even one that had a fiction imprint, would touch it. (There's no sex in the book, if you're keeping tabs at home, and yet the characters have profane, messy lives that don't fit neatly into easy categories.)

I'm giving myself permission to write several short posts based around this idea, instead of putting off writing one long one, so tomorrow I want to reflect about Catholic publishing and fiction.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Have We Reached the Limits of the Classical Liberalism Bargain?

Jen Fitz had a post up pointing out the interestingly double standards which are used at times in adjudicating questions of religious liberty versus the moral sensibilities of the majority and minority in the country on touchy issues such as gay marriage.

From pp. 98-99 of the transcript:

MS. WAGGONER: . . . I have three brief points in rebuttal: First of all, the bias of the Commission is also evidenced in the unequal treatment of the cake designers, the three other cake designers who were on the squarely opposite sides of this issue. If — if the Court looks at the analysis that was provided by the Colorado court of appeals, line by line they take the opposite approach to Mr. Phillips that they do to those who are unwilling to criticize same-sex marriage

JUSTICE GINSBURG: And they say they wouldn’t — they would say no to anyone who came with that request?

MS. WAGGONER: No. The Colorado court of appeals said that they could have an offensiveness policy, and they said that those three cake designers were expressing their own message if they had to design that cake. In Mr. Phillips’s case, they said it wasn’t his message. It’s simply compliance with the law. In the other case, they said that the cake designers, because they served Christian customers in other contexts, that that was evidence it was a distinction based on the message, but in Mr. Phillips’s case, they ruled the opposite way.
Colorado found that if a baker who served Christians generally, but then declined to make a cake with a Biblical message because the baker found the message offensive, that baker was not discriminating. In contrast, a Christian baker who serves gay clients generally, but declines to accept an order for a specific event the baker finds offensive, does not receive conscience protection. (And note: The Christian baker in question was willing to sell an off-the-shelf cake to the gay clients.)

The Supreme Court argument she links to is here.

It should go without saying (but it may not in our current climate) that the issue of cake baking in and of itself is fairly trivial. What we're mostly seeing here is the result of opposite sides of culture war trolling each other to establish the limits of the law. However, the difficulties that the case outlines are real, and they point to the increasing difficulty of maintaining the principles of liberal democracy in an increasingly religiously and culturally fractured society.

The great compromise of classical liberalism is that we agree to give error rights. We allow some room for people to disagree with our deeply held beliefs without being punished with the full force of the law, while agreeing to enforce laws that provide all of us with basic common goods. Thus, for instance, we support laws punishing murder and theft, but we don't support laws punishing heresy. Sure, we might see that convincing someone to belong to some hair brained sect is damaging to that person, so there'd be an argument that it would be good for the government to protect its citizens from being the victims of wrong theology. But according to the compromise of liberalism we agree that the evils of stamping out error in some areas can be worse than the evils of allowing the error to exist and trying to use our own individual persuasion and influence to warn people way from error.

This works when there's some basic agreement in society about what's right and what's wrong. For instance, we agree enough that killing innocent people is wrong to ban murder even in cases some societies don't (dueling, honor killing, etc.) and yet we can tolerate dissent on other issues on which we disagree. Of course, even this example starts to show how our societal consensus is falling apart, as even the ban on murder is currently being argued about in cases such as euthanasia, infanticide, etc.

Tolerance of dissent worked so long as the issues dissented on were ones we were willing to leave up to people's individual discretion. What religion you belong to is not from a believer's point of view something trivial. It might be a point on which a person's salvation hinged. But there was at least some level at which we could argue it was something justly left to each person to decide. But as we come to disagree about more and more fundamental issues, the idea that we can leave issues up to individual conscience becomes more difficult to swallow. And as this tolerance according to the principles of classical liberalism becomes less attractive, the alternative will become more attractive: get control of the mean so power and then use that power to disenfranchise your opponents as much as possible so they never get the chance to turn the tables on you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

I Remember MrsDarwin: The 39 Steps

I thought I'd put up the last of my I Remember MrsDarwin lying liar birthday posts, but lo! Three years later, my pal Steven is back with a false memory, and not just a paragraph, but an entire glorious work of thrilling fiction harkening back to my recent call for casual fiction, only not so micro. In the spirit of the thing, I would just like to say that I totally did not go to college with Steven, nor was he ever a roommate of Darwin, nor did I help set up him and his wife. Nor did we once go on a "date" down to Damon's while Darwin had a night class, where we sat and counted down the minutes until Darwin was out of class. We actually didn't order the Blooming Onion, though; that thing was repulsive.

So here's a "memory" so long and repressed, you'll have to click through to read the whole thing.


 A Caper with Cate
by Steven Kinney

I hate writing the first line.

You have no idea how much pressure there is in writing that first line. How can I possibly compare with some of the great first lines out there: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” - that’s an instant classic right there. Seriously, nobody has read the rest of the book, it stands out as a mainstay of literature just for the first line. On the other hand, I can probably beat “Call me Ishmael”. That’s just lazy writing there.

If you didn’t realize it yet, I’m not a writer. I not all wordy like Hemingway and I don’t have a complex story to weave like Aesop, or a deeply philosophical message like Austen.

My story is simpler than that: I met a girl.

Okay, sorry I’ll be politically correct, ‘I met a woman’. It’s just that doesn’t sound as good as a one liner, you know?

Now, I have to tell you upfront, this isn’t a love story. If you want to read a love story, I recommend looking up S. Morgenstern. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cornered that market. This story is rather more of an adventure than anything else. It’s got fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunts, bad guys, good guys, beauty, spiders, pain, death (or at least mostly), bravery, cowardice, strength, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion, miracles. It’s really not too bad. Hopefully it won’t put you to sleep.

No, this isn’t a love story. I want to be very clear about this now, so you aren’t confused as I go on with it. Seriously, people today always assume you can’t just be friends!

It all started before we met.

See, now that would have been a good opening line! I should have used that one.

We met on a park bench outside a cafe.

Even that was a better opening line than what I used! I really need to work on this.

It started off with the usual pleasantries. From there moving into small talk, and eventually migrating into conversation. Before long we had a real, audible connection. As she spoke of her interests in arts and music, great books, even coffee, I’ll admit, I was attracted to her. Not physically, of course. I mean, sure, she’s build with all the right angles and pronouncements. There’s nothing wrong with noticing that, that’s just being observant. Nothing further occurred to me about it. Obviously her brown - gold hair, with just the right amount of curl to keep it interesting was hard to miss, aesthetically, I mean. I did notice the deep green in her eyes. From a genetic point of view, that’s an interesting quirk, that’s all. Yes, I suppose, if pressed into it, I would say that she was pretty. Beautify even. Not that I cared about that at all. I’m just completing the picture for you, that’s all.

Isn’t it funny how, these conversations strike up and you realize you’ve never introduced yourselves properly. I’ll tell you, it isn’t. It’s not funny at all. She got up from that park bench, said goodbye, and I realized that I didn’t even know her name. Don’t look at me that way, I told you that this isn’t a love story. It’s not. Of course I thought she was interesting, and I enjoyed our conversation, but I wasn’t going to go and spend days trying to find her just by listening for her alto voice passionate and earnest. It wasn’t like that.

I mean, I did happen to see her sipping a latte through the window of the cafe. It’s true, I had been by that cafe a couple times a day since we met… but it was close by, so it wasn’t really a big deal anyway. She waved me in to join her. She must have seen me as I walked up, because it wasn’t like I stopped and stared while working up courage or anything. That would be very out of character for me.

No need to be rude, she had invited me in, so in I went.

In point of fact I walked around the corner to the entrance and then back around to where she sat. By the time I arrived she had moved the other side of the table, facing me as I approached. She was comfortable, happy even. A book on the table beside, interrupted and waiting, I was graced with a smile that showed me her entire dental history, a clean and sanitary history, I might add.
I recall, distinctly, that the table wasn’t quite level, and the chair anything but comfortable. As I moved to sit, she introduced herself, “Cate!” as she held out her hand for mine. In fact, I’m quite sure that there was conversation that day. Clearly we must have spoken, but if I’m to be honest, I only recall that one word.

That’s how I met Cate.

* * * * *

You know you have a real friend when that friendship leads you to be the best yourself can be. That’s what real friends do. They learn about each other, and then try to become more of what the other needs in their life. That’s how I take care of Cate. For example, I know that Cate has brilliant things to say and it’s best not to keep them to herself. I encourage and challenge her to speak freely and I listen attentively. More than once I’ve been so entranced by her eloquence that I’ve receded into my mind, in a state of trance, pondering deeply, while my body goes limp.

Cate pushes me too. That’s how I came into this current situation I’m in. Most of the way through successful robbery, stuck waiting for her to rescue me. I’m really just sitting here thinking it all through, this is all backstory and flashback stuff.

Seriously, don’t look at me that way, I told you already this isn’t a love story, it’s an adventure.


Read on, if your faculty of suspension of disbelief is strong enough.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Confessions of Confirmation Catechist: The Examen

I recently read a book about building Confirmation programs, written by a catechist at a large suburban parish with an apparently unlimited fund of volunteers and money. In it, he advocated for a new kind of mentor program, where instead of having dry Confirmation classes, Confirmation prep involves one-on-one relationship-building meetings in cozy, comfortable settings. These meetings stress the personal relationship aspect of building Church membership. Volunteerism and ministry are actively encouraged, and personality profiles help the student understand where his or her gifts are best used. The doctrine can come later. Right now, the students need to learn that Church is people.

Or something like that. I'm simplifying inexcusably because I'm still tired from being the single Confirmation catechist, spending an hour and a half in a big barren school cafeteria each Sunday afternoon with ~40 eighth graders, trying to impart the doctrines of the Catholic church into which they're being confirmed. I want to be liked, I guess. But people come and go. Mentors move up or out, or change jobs, or lose their faith, or disappoint at the human level. The truths of the Church don't change whether or not Mrs. Darwin is someone you admire and think is really cool, or whether she made you put away your phone or switch seats so you'll stop snickering with the guy next to you.

Anyway, since I'm not running a megachurch retention program, this past Sunday we discussed the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. I didn't have any brilliant insights you can't find anywhere else on the web. Several people remembered that they'd heard the phrase "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" in the Nicene Creed, and they even remembered that we'd discussed the Nicene Creed a few classes back, which I consider a solid win. We made family trees to illustrate the idea of being able to trace back the apostolic roots of the church. I totally forgot to tie that in with our list of popes we've been memorizing, even though I made a note to bring it up.

But our main activity of the day was to prepare for Advent, and for next week's Confession service, by praying the Examen. I dearly want my students to pray. I want them to remember to turn to God sometimes. The best way to instill this is to pray with them, so that they have a model for prayer.

I wasn't entirely taken with any Examen templates I found online, so, guided by Leah Libresco's discussion of the Examen in her book Arriving at Amen, I put together an outline.


Daily Examen

1. Gratitude
Think about the good things God has given you, both overall and specifically for today. Thank him for the blessings and the opportunities he gives.

2. Grace

Ask God for clarity so that you can see your life not just from your own limited viewpoint, but with as he sees you.

3. Review

Look back. Today, how did I fall short of being who God wants me to be? Did I commit any sins? Did I fail in showing love? Was I absorbed in myself? 

4. Repent

Ask God to give you sorrow for your sins. Tell him you’re sorry, and ask for his forgiveness.

5. Resolve

Look forward. What changes can I make to love God better tomorrow? Think of one change you can practice tomorrow to help you grow closer to God and bring his love to others.

Our Father.


I made the students separate and find a private spot somewhere in the cafeteria, as long as they were within eyeshot of me. I broke up clusters so that people wouldn't be distracted by their friends, or feel too self-conscious to pray. I asked them to close their eyes as they prayed each step, so that they could shut out distractions, and not be a distraction to others.

We started with Gratitude. So many people think that being Catholic is all about feeling guilty, but here we start with giving thanks for the good things we've received, or the good things of the world in general. Every blessing, every gift and talent, all beauty comes from God, and by giving thanks we're able to get out of our own heads for a bit.

"Jean-Paul Sartre says that Hell is other people," I said, "but I think hell is being stuck in your own head."

Several people seemed to agree.

We took a moment of silence to pray. My default in these class moments is the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer, since only the Holy Spirit can move and work in the souls of anyone, let alone a group of teenagers who don't really want to be in class.

The next step was to ask for the gift of Grace, to be able to see our lives through a divine lens and not just from the narrow perspective of our own viewpoint. How often do we beat ourselves up for failing when any outside observer could point out the challenges we're facing? How often do we think, "Oh, I'm a good person," when others could point out some pretty bad ways we've behaved? We want to see ourselves honestly so we know where we need to change, and for that we need God's grace to shine a light into our souls.

A moment of prayer.

Review. It's time to look back. You don't have to take on the burden of going over your entire life, or the whole school year, or even the week, but just this present day. How have I failed today? Specifically, how have I sinned? How have I separated myself from God? And what haven't I done? There are sins of commission -- things you do that are actively wrong -- and there are sins of omission -- times when you should have acted but didn't. When did I fail to step up and show love?

A moment of prayer.

Repent. All of our examining consciences and dredging up sins won't do us any good if we don't immediately turn those sins over to God and ask for his forgiveness. And that's all we have to do. We don't have to beg or cower or plead for mercy -- God is waiting for us, like the Father with the prodigal son, who didn't even let his son finish his speech before he's calling for the fatted calf and throwing a banquet. But we do need to ask. God doesn't force his grace on us. Grace can shine in through the smallest opening, but we need to take the first, tiny step toward it. If you're not sorry for your sins -- "I told her to go to hell, and I don't really care!" -- ask God to grant you sorrow and contrition. Next week we're going to confession, and that's our opportunity to be fully restored to union with God. In absolution, God forgives and forgets. People may remember your sins and bring them up to you, but God doesn't. They're completely dissolved and obliterated in the ocean of his mercy.

A moment of prayer. By this point I'm watching the clock to see if we can eke out the process long enough so that I can have an early release. Come, Holy Spirit.

Resolve. We're bound by time, so unlike God, who sees everything as the present, we have to look back, and then look forward. This is where the rubber meets the road. Living the Christian life means turning toward God, trying to orient ourselves toward him. You've reviewed your day and identified some things that have kept you from God, some blocks you've put up. Can you think of one concrete change you could make tomorrow to move closer to him? One concrete way to show love? This isn't about making a huge resolution. The world offers us specific times to change -- on Monday morning, at the start of school, at New Year's. As Christians, we don't have to wait to make a New Year's resolution. We can make a new second resolution. "Now is the acceptable time!" says St. Paul in one of his epistles. And one of the last things Jesus says in the book of Revelation is, "Behold, I make all things new." You're not trapped by the past. Every instant offers a opportunity to turn anew toward God. But we also don't have to feel burdened by the weight of our entire future. Pick a change you can make right now, or an action you can do tomorrow, without needing to deal with the entire psychological weight of the rest of your life.

A moment of prayer.

We end with an Our Father -- a prayer that almost repeats the entire process we've just gone through. We thank God for his gifts, we acknowledge how far he is above us -- "who art in heaven", we acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, and talk about how we'll change and forgive others.

Glory be, it's 5:05! A few moments of wrapping up and cleaning up, and I can have them out well before 5:15. Amen.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Tax Plan Cometh

I'd seen some people discussing today how the Senate tax plan which was just passed would affect middle class families. The element which seems to cause the most concern is that the plan eliminates the per person exemption which currently allows a married couple with children to take $4,050 for each member of the couple plus for each dependent child off their taxable income. On the more positive side, the new plan also increases the child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child and increases the standard deduction from $12,700 to $24,000. For many families this might mean that the standard deduction is actually a better deal than the itemized deduction and result in a decrease in taxable income. (source on tax plan changes) Another major change not specific to families is that the deduction for property taxes is capped at $10,000 and state and local income taxes would no longer be deductible.

I Wasn't sure exactly how these different factors would balance out. I created a fairly basic model which dealt with just the major deductions and credits in question and applied the new rate table. I then ran three scenarios, families of four making $50k, $100k, and $200k per year. The last of these is the sketchiest as at that income level under the current tax regulations the child tax credits mostly phase out and the alternative minimum tax starts to phase in. According to the new Senate plan, both of those would happen at much higher income levels, so they would cease to be factors for the $200k family.

According to my estimate, the family making $50k would see a slight reduction in the amount of credit they get back, going from -$2,780 in tax to -$1,261.  In other words, they would be worse off by around $1,500 due to the expanded child tax credit not being refundable.

The family making $100k would see a reduction in the amount of tax they would pay, from $3,047 to $739.

The family making $200k would see a decrease in their tax burden from $24,353 to $22,349.

Families that would be most likely to be worse off as a result of the new bill would be families with a number of children who currently get back a net credit rather than paying federal income taxes.

Here are the scenarios:

While I've made a good faith effort here, I'm not a tax expert. If you see errors please point them out and cite sources, and I'll be happy to make corrections.