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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Relationship Time

We were traveling this last weekend, getting the chance both to attend the baptism of MrsDarwin's newest nephew and to spent some very enjoyable time with family and with old friends.

This also meant that we went to mass at my in-law's parish, where the pastor gave a sermon in which he talked about prayer and the importance of not just going to church and church activities but having a relationship with Christ. Quoting Sherry Weddell (of Forming Intentional Disciples, a book strongly recommended by dear friends which I really need to read some day) he told a story about a woman who was very active in her parish, sat on the pastoral council, etc. having a discussion with Weddell about prayer and discipleship. Weddell asks the woman about her relationship with Christ and the woman replies by saying that she goes to mass, gives money to the church, and participates in numerous parish activities. When asked again specifically about prayer and her relationship with God, she repeats this list of activities. Asked again, "But what about your relationship with Christ?" she eventually replies, "I guess I don't have one."

As a Catholic, this is the sort of thing which both convicts me and puts my back up a bit.

On the defensive side, the phrase "your relationship with Christ" is simply always going to sound Protestant to me. I recognize what it means, and I understand its importance, but it's not in my language. Further, since as Catholics we belong to an institutional Church, rather than pursuing individualistic relationships with Christ, I want to put in a good word for the sort of Catholic life which can be summed up to a great extent by, "I go to mass, I participate in many parish activities, I support the Church financially." It's true that there are a lot of people who have little actual belief who might say the same thing. For Catholics of a certain age or culture, the parish becomes the center of a ritual social club which an persist despite near complete lack of belief in Catholic doctrine.  But I'm not talking about that.

One can go a long way down the spiritual path as a Catholic by following the cycle of the parish: Going to mass, receiving the Eucharist, going to confession, going to Stations of the Cross, spending time in adoration, giving of one's time and money to the parish's charitable works. These are not nothings. Indeed, in our human relationships, simply putting in the time out of love to feed and clothe and drive and provide for all the day to day needs of others can make up a great deal of our relationships right there.

With MrsDarwin I always have something to say, and if anything I feel I have to guard at times against neglecting the relationship time I owe my children and others because I'd always like to just be with her and talk with her all the time.  But when it comes to God -- with whom I feel on much less equal footing -- I find myself usually at a loss for words beyond the usual lists of thanksgiving and petition. Nor have I ever felt that I hear God speak to me. Yet I don't because of this think God doesn't care for me, and I hope that my actions do not suggest to Him a lack of love on my part.

After all, some of the relationships in my life which I have treasured have been low on words. My grandfathers were both quiet men, men who might take you somewhere or make something for you, but were unlikely to string together more than a few sentences of conversation. And yet by these two gentle presences I never doubted that I was deeply loved. I often think the same way about God. He doesn't speak to me, nor do I often know what to say to Him, but I never doubt His presence and love for me.

And yet, perhaps more so in those kind of quiet relationships, there's the danger of letting things slip, of assuming but not showing up. I know God is there, and I try to live each day as He wants me to. But there are times which I could devote to Him -- to spending five minutes with the breviary or the rosary -- that I spend on sleeping in or pursuing some other distraction instead. In human terms, there are people I definitely have a relationship with, whom I deeply care about, and yet whom I don't call or write to or spend time with as often as I should. We can get complacent even in very real relationships, and in doing so we create a distance or a lack.

So I'd like to put a good word in for the Christian who just shows up, who goes to mass and participates in all the obvious ways. It's not that we don't have a relationship with God. We're that relative who is there at all the family events. We put in all the daily acts of service. But we're not sure what to say, or we forget to call. We have a relationship with God, but we need to remember to say so more often.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Reviews: Logan, and Beauty and the Beast

We are fortunate to live within walking distance of a charming old movie house. It's been in constant operation since 1916, which apparently makes it the tenth longest-running movie house in the whole country. Before the show, local businesses run ads, which means you might get to see the neighbor's house, or the neighbor's kids, up on screen. The ticket prices are just right, too, being, as I understand, heavily subsidized by the local college to provide in-town amusement for the students. So we feel it's our duty to catch movies, if we're going to watch them big screen, within the limited run window the three-screen theater provides.

In an unusually heavy week of media consumption, we saw two movies in the course of two days: Logan and Beauty and the Beast. Vastly different, in terms of theme, rating, audience, storytelling, and quality.

Logan

The first of the X-Men franchise to break the R-rating barrier (and this would be a good note to end the franchise on too, studio guys), Logan is violent, gritty, and amazingly well-done. Set in 2029 in a future in which mutations have been eliminated, it features an downmarket, seedy Logan (there's no point in calling him Wolverine, because there's no longer any X-Men to form a team) who is losing his ability to heal. Instead of cage-fighting, he makes his money driving a limo along the Mexican border. The money goes toward seizure control medicine for Professor Xavier, whose mental debilitation now has dangerous effects on the general public. Logan and Professor Xavier are the sole survivors of the mutant population -- a population which is now medically extinct, or so they think until a little girl named Laura is cast into their care by a Mexican nurse who begs them to take her to safety in Canada. Despite himself, Logan feels obligated to protect the girl, especially as she resembles him a number of startling ways.

The rating is absolutely essential to this movie. Most of the comic-book movies I've seen have been firmly entrenched in fake-awesome territory, too glossy for much emotional investment. The violence in this movie -- and it is bloody and brutal -- is the only realistic way to depict the effect of a character who can sprout six swords from his fists, and has some genuinely frightening bad guys to use them on. His actions have consequences, consequences which batter his soul as well as his body. And his aging, aching body is fearful indeed. The scars of his fights don't vanish anymore. His face is weathered and ravaged by this strange new mortality and the copious amounts of alcohol Logan consumes to deal with it.

Patrick Stewart gives a bravura performance as the decrepit Professor Xavier, suffering from what might be Alzheimer's. He is confused, angry, foul-mouthed as the elderly can be. His hectoring of Logan is Shakepearean, King Lear with the last child standing. But he is willing to give his life to protect and nurture Laura. The prickly relationship between Logan and Professor X is acutely, painfully on point to anyone who's ever been a primary caregiver.

I don't know if this is the sort of movie that wins awards, but if it's nominated for anything, it may be Best Supporting Actress for Dafne Keen, the young lady who plays Laura. The child is ferocious and intense and inscrutable. She dominates every scene she's in with her big dark eyes. Laura rivals Logan himself for sheer feral savagery, but she's beautifully vulnerable. Never once does she strike a false note.

And that's true of the whole. Its integrity is remarkable in a genre devoted more to style than substance. It builds no goofy mythologies. It refuses to prostitute itself with cross-promotion nudgery. It is complete in itself, a story which contains its beginning and its ending without packaging up everything neatly in a shiny metal suit. I admired it, which is something I can't say for any other product of the combined imaginations of Marvel and DC.

We took our 14-year-old daughter, an X-Men fan, to see Logan as her first R-rated movie. She's less squeamish than her mother in some ways, or at least she didn't watch a good portion of the movie through her fingers. We asked her afterwards what she thought.

"It was good," she said. "I'm glad it was only rated R for violence."

I can't say better than that for parental guidance.

Beauty and the Beast

If you're looking for blood, you won't find any here. It's not hard to find things to say about this movie -- I'm bursting over with them, too many for this review -- but let me start off with: if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. If you and your children bond and create family memories over the magic of Disney, then go ahead and take the family and agitate not yourself with critical analysis.

For everyone else: it's not that I hold Disney's original Beauty and the Beast to be the golden standard of the tale as old as time. I rather don't. But although I'm no fan of the original, I am a fan of Things Being Done Well, and this new production seemed almost militantly set on sabotaging itself in that regard. This pudding was desperately over-egged. Whatever could be bigger and more lavish was cranked up to 11 without regard for story or theme. Each musical orchestration swelled harder than the last, to the detriment of honest emotion and the little voices of the principals. Every moment had to be bigger than the cartoon equivalent, which is a dramatically risky approach to take to remaking a movie that won Best Picture in its first incarnation.

What's so frustrating is that it didn't have to be this way. There were the bones of a good movie buried here. Glimpses of originality broke through, new and even interesting takes on the story, which started to win over even a viewer predisposed to dislike the film (read: me). And then, just as it seemed that the movie might break out into something creative and original -- the decadent Louis Quatorzesque court of the young prince, some exchanges about Shakespeare that seemed a notch above the general Disney romantic tension -- it snapped shut like a clam and forced itself back into the musical template of the 1991 movie.  This production would have done well to model itself on the recent remake of Cinderella, stepping away entirely from the particular framework of the animated version to make fine dramatic sense of the live-action format, but it was hobbled at every turn by the superior cinematic musical potential afforded to animation. The resulting movie is a strange hybrid, a buck-raking piece of nostalgia with no excellence to recommend it. In ten years, when the charm of novelty has worn off, it will be a forgotten mid-tier product, without the heart or economy of the original, preferred only by those in whom it evokes memories of their first time at the movies with Grandma.

Let us speak of Emma Watson's oddly uninspired turn as Belle. She wears her costumes prettily enough, but her graceless movements seem to be patterned on the cartoon original, without the charm the medium provides. Hand-drawn Belle could seem dreamily absorbed in her book; Emma Watson seems absorbed in herself, wandering around the marketplace as if she has no idea how to navigate a two-street town, tramping gracelessly along the rim of a well regardless of the people sitting there washing laundry. The cinematography does her no favors, and neither does the auto-tuning of her wispy voice. We think of British actors as having the range to tackle any part, but not everyone is trained at the Royal Dramatic Academy, and no where was this more evident than when Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (who, though he did not play Hamlet at Cambridge, did play Macbeth there) start quoting Shakespeare together. No one denies that Miss Watson was a fine Hermione Granger. Perhaps modern roles, and modern dialogue, are her forte.

What's not her forte is singing. Disney seemed to realize this limitation and accommodate it by surrounding its star with a mostly untutored group of vocalists (Dan Stevens and Ewan MacGregor deserve a bit more praise than most; Luke Evans as Gaston does yeoman tenor's work on a baritone role; and Josh Gad as LeFou is a bona fide Broadway talent). This ensemble is supremely unbalanced by the inclusion of the glorious, powerfully melodious Audra McDonald as a talking wardrobe. The only memorable moment of the mercifully forgettable new songs was the moment when Audra McDonald and Emma Watson have a duet together. Why? Why would the powers that be want to humiliate their star so by contrasting her with a soprano of breathtaking artistry and ability?

And since everything about the iconic ballroom scene was amped up past all genuine emotional investment, why couldn't Disney have authentically amped up the title song by giving it to Audra McDonald instead of Emma Thompson as the understeeped Mrs. Potts?

You've heard the hullabaloo about LaFou being the first openly gay Disney character, and you've read the pearl-clutching about the "exclusively gay moment" director Bill Condon is proud to have inserted into the script. This, my friends, is a big nothingburger. The "gay" moments, when they can be deciphered from sheer buffoonery, are infinitesimal (and of infinitesimal duration), and more reminiscent of Elmer Fudd wearing Valkyrie braids than anything else. Disney has had its juicy controversy and reaped its social plaudits, while revealing an opinion of gay people as worthy of the vast dignity of being the comic butt of every joke.

Included too in the cast is the new character of a priest who lends Belle her supply of books. There's been some happy commentary about this in the Catholic blogsphere, but dramatically, the character is the gun that doesn't fire in the third act, fading strangely out of sight at a time when he could actually be effective to the plot and the characters. This is a weakness of the script writing more than anything, which lays down threads and single lines of exposition it never takes up again. Why does the character of the enchantress keep recurring, without any explanation? (Why couldn't Hattie Morahan have played Belle and Emma Watson traded places with her as the Enchantress?) Why does the village talk of "crazy old Maurice" when he seems perfectly normal and all his inventing prowess has been transferred to Belle? Why does the village hate literacy so when historically, France had a higher literacy rate than Britain or America of the same period? Why waste time with new songs that could have been used to develop some backstory or expand the characters?

Visually, the film is stunning, in every definition of the word. The design is striking, if you don't think much about how it all holds together. No money was spared on CGI and back-lot set building, and it shows.  The costuming is lavish (and, in the case of Belle's village dress, pleasingly detailed and charcter-specific). The exception is Belle's unmemorable ballgown, in the same cartoonish shade of yellow as the original.

Not that it matters. Disney's gonna make money hand over fist with this one, quality notwithstanding. One of the recurring conversations among artistic Christians is why we don't have more good Christian art in this day and age. This movie, friends, and the happy reception it has had, and will have, among good salt-of-the-earth believers, is why we can't have nice things. Most people don't want good Christian art. They want Disney nostalgia turned up to eleven. Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake," but her successor in lavishness, Disney, is cramming its sugar cake down willing throats.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dark Night of the Housekeeping

The Dark Night of the Soul is a condition experienced by the great mystics and holy souls. It consists of the withdrawal of feelings of consolation in prayer, and of dryness in the spiritual life. Saints who have gone through the Dark Night persist in their prayers and in their works because they know that God is real, that he loves them, and that their feelings are not representative of the objective truth of his goodness and his love. Their struggle is real, but they know it does not reflect reality.

Today it struck me: I've spent years in the Dark Night of the Housekeeping.

Perhaps you too once were excited to cook multi-ingredient meals for your family -- maybe you even checked cookbooks out at the library or had a subscription to a foodie magazine. Perhaps at one time there was a bit of happiness in pulling a broom across the floor, or changing the sheets, or wiping down the bathroom because the place looked nicer. Once, maybe, it was fun to rearrange the furniture because the family was expanding. These things brought some kind of joy because they brought order and peace to the home, even if each particular action was mundane.

Yeah. Do you know, it's been several years since I liked cooking? Time was when I actually wanted to chop vegetables for a stew or spend all day whipping up some delicacy. I even made my own tortillas a few times. I did these things because I wanted to -- it was a respite from the grind of having lots of small children around the place. I made plans for how we'd renovate the kitchen and the living room to eke a bit more space and order out of our dull suburban box. I painted. I refinished. I even sewed, believe it or not. And I did these things because I found them good.

Now cooking is a chore, done last-minute and mainly because I know the family needs to eat. The living room descends into chaos, and I just sigh in the doorway and, once again, sit on the kids while they straighten. Laundry... to be honest, Darwin has mainly taken over the laundry. These household tasks are the equivalent, to me, of the chain gang moving gravel from one pile to another. I do them because I have to, or because I can't get away with not doing them. But the joy of running a household is a thing of the past.

A thing of the future, too, I hope. I remember reading someone saying that God sends exactly the amount of grace you need in a given situation, so that having two grown kids left at home is about as hard as having three toddlers underfoot. Once I was overwhelmed with infants, but I kinda liked keeping the house. Now I have big kids who can help with things, and I don't have any desire at all to do more than the bare minimum. One day, I hope, I'll feel all gourmet again and start whipping up culinary delights for the fun of it. Maybe the challenge of a messy living room will invigorate me. Maybe food shopping will be the fun exercise it was when our budget was severely constrained, instead of the energy sink it is now that we don't have to watch the total.

Better the Dark Night of the Housekeeping than the Dark Night of the Soul, of course. Better to have work deprived of consolation than the life of the spirit turned arid and devoid of light. I don't know that I need to beg that God bring me back the joy of salvation, but if he would sustain a willing spirit in me in regards to mopping the floor and disinfecting the bathroom, that would be nice too.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ancient Doppelgänger, or, I Look Like Death

Simcha Fisher shares a link to a project at the Musee de la Civilisation in Quebec, which analyzes your photo and assigns you your Greco-Romano-Egyptian statuary doppelgänger based on a collection of 60 ancient images.

I submitted three photos:




And each time the result was the same:

Funerary mask of a woman
Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Inv. 13742
When I die, I want to be buried in this funerary mask.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Easter Rising for St. Patrick's Day

If you're yearning for some Irish tunes on this St. Patrick's Day, here are my brothers Will and Nathanael Egan and a smattering of their band Easter Rising playing on the Son Rise Morning Show this AM.


Vance Goes Home to Ohio


I was deeply impressed when I read J. D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy a few months back. It's been pitched heavily during the election and its aftermath as a window into Red State America, but it's honestly far more interesting as a memoir than as a piece of sociology or political writing. Vance takes you inside a culture which was alien to me, but he does it with an eye that is honest and sympathetic at the same time. We see both how his combative grandparents and drug-addicted mother cared about him and hurt him. And at the same time we see how even with the significant family issues he came from, the fact that his mother and grandparents pushed him to do well in school and to stay clean gave him advantages that many others in his town didn't have. I strongly recommend the book.

There's an interesting short piece in the NY Times yesterday in which Vance, who for the last couple years has been working in Silicon Valley, talks about his decision to move back to Ohio. Not to the rust belt Ohio of his youth, but to Columbus.

In recent months, I’ve frequently found myself in places hit hard by manufacturing job losses, speaking to people affected in various ways. Sometimes, the conversation turns to the conflict people feel between the love of their home and the desire to leave in search of better work.

It’s a conflict I know well: I left my home state, Ohio, for the Marine Corps when I was 19. And while I’ve returned home for months or even years at a time, job opportunities often pull me away.
...
As one of my college professors recently told me about higher education, “The sociological role we play is to suck talent out of small towns and redistribute it to big cities.” There have always been regional and class inequalities in our society, but the data tells us that we’re living through a unique period of segregation.
...
I’ve long worried whether I’ve become a part of this problem. For two years, I’d lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.

It wasn’t an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.

But there were practical reasons to move: I’m founding an organization to combat Ohio’s opioid epidemic. We chose Columbus because I travel a lot, and I need to be centrally located in the state and close to an airport. And the truth is that not every motivation is rational: Part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.

I recently asked a friend, Ami Vitori Kimener, how she thought about her own return home. A Georgetown graduate, Ami left a successful career in Washington to start new businesses in Middletown, Ohio. Middletown is in some ways a classic Midwestern city: Once thriving, it was hit hard by the decline of the region’s manufacturing base in recent decades. But the town is showing early signs of revitalization, thanks in part to the efforts of those like Ami.

Talking with Ami, I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.

This was of mild interest to me because I live in the Columbus area myself. and perhaps a bit more so because I'm a California native who has settled here in Ohio. Every so often this gives me cause to think about place and culture and what it means to us. There are things about the Los Angeles area that will always feel like home to me: the mountains always on the horizon, the dry heat of summer, the snaking freeways.

However, after leaving because housing prices were rising much faster than our income -- and I didn't mind leaving the state's politics behind even then -- I've found myself increasingly alienated from the culture and politics of my home state. This is true in general terms that feature often in national news, but also in ones that don't get as much play. For instance, I put a lot of value in belonging to a fairly solid Catholic diocese with faithful young priests coming out of a seminaries and churches built 100+ years ago that actually look like churches. It would be very hard to decide to move back into Los Angeles Archdiocese or San Francisco Archdiocese.

I don't function as any kind of a mouthpiece for what the blue state world is like. I hardly feel that I even know anymore. The streets of my native city are familiar, but the culture isn't anymore. I suppose moving "back home" would thus be a different thing than for Vance. Indeed, for this native Californian, Ohio may now be more "home" than the Golden State ever could be again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 2-1

This took longer than I'd expected, but I hope you'll enjoy it now it's here. We're with Henri, on the front lines.


7th Division Headquarters: Champagne , France. February 26th, 1915 The staff officer bore the same captain’s insignia as Henri, yet the difference in status between a captain on the divisional staff and a captain commanding an infantry company was clear. Captain Vasseur looked to be little more than thirty. His hair and mustache were carefully trimmed. His gold rimmed glasses would have looked just as appropriate in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. The uniform tunic he wore was new and of the pale Horizon Blue color which was only just being issued and had not yet made its way to the 104th Régiment d'Infanterie where the more muted colors might have actually helped the men blend into their surroundings better than the dark blue coats and red trousers of the old uniforms.

Vasseur shuffled the papers of Henri’s report. “I’ve read what you wrote, of course, but help me to understand it better. You took the German first trench with few casualties.”

“Yes. With only three men wounded and none killed.”

“And then after you had captured the trench, that is when the casualties came?”

“Yes.”

[continue reading]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

π with Jesus

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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Man Alone

Several people have been passing around a Boston Globe Magazine article about the tendency of middle aged men not to spend time with friends.

I’d been summoned to an editor’s office at the Globe Magazine with the old “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to con you into doing something you don’t want to do.

Here was the pitch: We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.

Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.

The editor told me there was all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.

I told the editor I’d think about it. This is how reporters talk when they’re trying to get out of something they don’t want to do. As I walked back to my desk in the newsroom — a distance of maybe 100 yards — I quickly took stock of my life to try to prove to myself that I was not, in fact, perfect for this story.

First of all, there was my buddy Mark. We went to high school together, and I still talk to him all the time, and we hang out all the . . . Wait, how often do we actually hang out? Maybe four or five times a year?

And then there was my other best friend from high school, Rory, and . . . I genuinely could not remember the last time I’d seen him. Had it already been a year? Entirely possible.

There were all those other good friends who feel as if they’re still in my lives because we keep tabs on one another via social media, but as I ran down the list of those I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few.

I can identify with some of this. A couple of cross country moves over the last sixteen years mean that I've got friends I no longer live near (and friends who in their turn have had to move away.) Even though we take a comparatively minimal approach to activities in our family, there's scouts on Monday nights, dance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, language lessons on Wednesdays. The only free nights are Friday through Saturday, and if we're not caught up then with weekend activities MrsDarwin and I are usually happy to spend some time at home with each other.

There are plenty of people I know at work, and so I'm certainly not starved for human contact. Indeed, another reason I'm hesitant to schedule time out of the house is that I know MrsDarwin is the one who's normally at home with only kids for company, so if there's someone who needs a chance to go enjoy some outside adult company, I figure that it's her.

In some ways I'd always thought of this as particularly the result of my particular religious attachments and intellectual interests. In this day and age, being an orthodox Christian gives you a different set of attachments and experiences than many other people have, and people who share my particular historical and literary interests and not always thick on the ground. But from the article I take it that it's a more general theme among men in our culture at this time.

Unlike the author, I don't know that I have any particular program for mitigating it. There simply isn't much time. I often feel that I don't even have much time alone with my wife, and while friends are important, given the choice I'd rather go out for dinner with MrsDarwin than head out to have a beer with the guys. But it does serve as a reminder that there's a whole network of connections that in the frenetic pace of middle aged family life with many children I'm leaving unaddressed. One of these days, given the time, I'll have to remember to work on rebuilding them.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Snaggletooth

The human body is weird, "normal" means little, and the course of thriving never did run straight. Current example: The Snaggletooth.


Let me explain what you're seeing here. The child (name and face hidden at her request, though she allowed me to take a picture) has two front teeth coming in, but the baby teeth have not, and will not, fall out. Also, the adult teeth are diagonal to each other: the one on the left in the photo is coming in behind the baby tooth, and the one on the right is coming in above and in front of the baby tooth. The baby tooth on the right has also not fallen out; it is almost horizontal, and wedged in so tightly that it doesn't wiggle. Look closely and you can see the root, right under the adult tooth.

Now this is all very visually startling. But I took her to the dentist -- not even a regular cleaning; I actually made a separate appointment -- and though he was rather taken aback and said he'd never seen anything like it, it's apparently okay for now. Pulling the tooth, at the price insurance would charge for it, is counterindicated (though if someone jostled it loose at home, that would be fine). Snaggletooth is understandably wary of people threatening to pull her tooth, especially her older sister who rubs her hands together with relish and talks longingly of the pliers.

(I don't let anyone tease her about pulling it; it's a tender topic with the youngster, naturally.)

The dentist says that the adult teeth are going to come in how they're going to come in, and the baby teeth won't affect that. All well and good. The bad news: now I have one more slated for the orthodontist. I hope he enjoys his luxury house and car that we've financed for him over the years.

The great excitement of the house was that Snaggletooth suddenly lost a tooth the other night. We all dared to hope... but no, it turned out to be that little gap you see in the bottom, a tooth no one knew was even loose. Ah, how tricky it is to be six!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Fall of Rome and the "Benedict Option"

The Fall of Rome is much in the news at the moment, not because the Visigoths are back sacking that most revered of cities, but rather because Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option is gaining wide discussion. (This piece in First Things is good, and this one from The Atlantic is also worth reading, if only because it's surprising to see The Atlantic even engaging with such a work.) Dreher's 'Benedict Option' concept is one that he's been writing about for ten years or more (since back when he was Catholic) and it's inspired in great part by a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St. Benedict.
This quote strikes me as interesting in its historical perspective, in that I'm not sure that it actually reflects how the people of Late Antiquity and the so called Dark Ages thought about Rome.


There are various points we can look to as the mileposts along the Fall of Rome: The Visigoth's sacked Rome in 410 AD, marking the first time the city was entered by a foreign, hostile army in almost eight hundred years, since the sack of the city by the Gauls in 387 BC. The Vandals looted the city in 455 AD, though due to a prior agreement with the pope they mostly avoiding burning buildings or killing people. In 476 AD, the last Western Roman Emperor, aged only about 16, was deposed by the Germanic general Flavius Odoacer in 476, after which Odoacer declared himself King of Italy. (If you want to place the original Benedict Option in relation to these events, Benedict was born around 480 AD and founded his monastery at Monte Cassino around 529 AD.

However, even this sixty-six year range from the first sack of Rome to the deposition of the last emperor doesn't really capture the period when in MacIntyre's words "men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium". The Roman emperors in the East continued to be actively interested in ruling the West. Justinian waged a series of wars for control of Italy from 535-554 AD. More locally, the Senate of Rome remained active as an institution within the city of Rome even after the last emperor was long gone, though it gradually dropped into obscurity. Its last recorded act as a body was to acclaim a pair of statues to the Eastern Emperor and Empress in 603 AD. In 630 AD, the senate building was turned into a church by Pope Honorius I, who had first got permission from Emperor Heraclius in Constantanople.

As the fact that Pope Honorius first consulted the emperor before taking over the senate building indicates, even at this very late date the Roman empire as a legal and governing authority had sway (even if its power did not effectively spread to the successor kingdoms of the West.) Nor did that cease. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, he wasn't just re-instituting an office of Western Emperor that had been vacant for three hundred years. The Roman Empire which was still in existence (and still seen as an overarching world authority) was in the midst of a succession crisis of sorts. Irene of Athens, who had been the wife of Emperor Leo IV, and was mother to Constantine VI in whose name she ruled for some years before having him killed after a coup attempt. Charlemagne had actually entered into negotiations to marry Irene and combine his own empire (which spanned Western Europe and included Italy, France, Germany, and a sliver of Spain) with the Eastern Empire, which at this point included Turkey, Greece, Sicily, and Sardinia. Crowning Charlemagne as Roman Emperor not only pointed to the fact that even in 800 AD Rome was still seen as the symbol of law and stability in Europe, but also that Irene (who had recently had her son the emperor killed) was seen as a semi-illegitimate ruler for the Roman Empire whom the pope might like to see replaced by his successful Frankish ally. Who was Roman Emperor still mattered in the West even though it had not been under effective Roman control for three centuries.

I think it's worth asking: If people had not yet fully turned aside from the idea of Rome by 800, does it make any sense to talk about the fall of Rome and the transformation of Western culture into the Christendom of the Middle Ages and beyond as a matter of people turning away from the idea of at all? Rather, in the way that contemporaries talked about the empire and its importance, Rome retained a relevance long after it was practically gone. The idea of the Benedict Option is that people should recognize that the mainstream culture is debased and turn away from it to form their own small communities, out of which seeds a new civilization might someday arise. However, this is not how people at the time of Benedict thought. Monastics went into the hills and secluded themselves as monasteries not in order to plant the seeds for the abbey towns of the Middle Ages, but because they wanted to seclude themselves in a life of prayer away from active involvement with the world. Yet when people considered politics and culture they considered Rome and the Empire to be relevant long after it had ceased to exist for practical purposes in the West. Rather than people turning away from Rome to build something else, the idea of Rome remained for centuries as a symbol of what people wanted to return to. Charlemagne took up the name of the Caesars. Roman law continued to be actively referred to both by civil and church authorities. Rather than people turning away from Rome, their ideas about Rome shaped the world which they gradually rebuilt after the periods of political, military, and economic chaos marked by the early barbarian kingdoms.

What does this tell us about how to live as Christians in our modern, increasing post-Christian world? I don't have a pat answer to that question, which is why I'm not hawking a book on the topic. But I do think that it's very much worth noting that the post-Renaissance and post-Enlightenment ideas of the 'Fall of Rome' are to a great extent the result of those eras rejecting the claims of direct descent from Rome which those in the Middle Ages still made. People did not give up on Rome. It withered away even as they continued to profess attachment to it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Changes, Changes

All good things must come to an end, and this week I forfeited my ability to milk sympathy for non-first world problems. Specifically: in a historic move, we've moved our house's technology 120 years forward by installing air conditioning.

You may recall that we have no ductwork, and that our casement windows make it impossible to run window units. The answer to this is a ductless mini-split -- air conditioning that runs directly to the outside. Welcome to the future!

I confess I did not sleep well last night with this box hanging over my head, but doubtless I'll get used to it.
We've had workmen in or around the house for a week, starting at 8am each day. They were professionals, and I barely had to see them, but I found myself exhausted each afternoon when they left. However, the necessity of getting up before 7am and having everybody presentable before 8am played into another change we'd had to make: the restructuring of our homeschooling schema.

Last week, on Monday, we had a great reckoning in which we summoned each child with appropriate schedule and schoolbooks and binder, and reviewed the year's work. Yes, February is rather a late time in the year to actually be looking at output, but the year so far has had some unexpected energy drains (cough*pregnancy*cough) and the long and short of it is that we left the older ones to follow their schedules, courtesy of Boxed Curriculum, while I focused my attentions on the younger ones who need more guidance. Well. Children wept as soon as the books were cracked, explaining why it was that in some subjects they were weeks or even months behind the schedule, how math took forever, how science was so hard to understand and the lab books were tedious, how the religion workbook didn't match up with the textbook, etc. Darwin and I listened gravely. I was not without sympathy for the children trying to navigate their way through schedules sometimes overpacked with busywork, but I also recognized something very familiar: the guilt of the child who has been caught out. I myself had times, in my homeschooling days, where I would have been very much in the same boat if I had been called out.

(I should note that each day I would ask, "Did you do your math? Did you do your science? Did you do your reading? Etc." and generally I was answered in the qualified affirmative.)

But something had to be done, and the first step was have every child bring every schoolbook downstairs and, for at least the first week, do their schoolwork in public, away from the lulling privacy of their bedrooms. The reason for this was two-fold. First, so that I could help right away if someone found something too difficult, so that work was not impeded simply for lack of understanding. Second, because there was an element of lost trust. Being able to do schoolwork privately, under one's own supervision instead of mom's, is a privilege that will need to be earned back with diligence.

This has worked fairly well. We're going another week with it, and will proceed a week at a time.

We also revamped the math plan. Saxon math is repetitive and can be a big time sink. To that end, we've established a two-lesson a day plan, working only the practice problems from the first lesson, and both the practice problems from the second lesson and only the odd-numbered review problems. This does take a quantity of time, but less time, perhaps, than it would without Mom's supervision.

The 9th grader has been assigned to help her sister with the 7th grade science book. This way the work is lightened by being shared with a sister, and both learn the information better by being able to quiz each other and do the lab work together. This week the 9th grader drew the grasshopper, and the 7th grader labeled each part, and both seemed content.

The religion workbooks, which I can really take or leave, have been set aside, and the ladies have been instructed simply to read the chapters and come discuss them with me.

I'm trying to be more diligent about pushing spelling, and the actual study of spelling words instead of just filling out the workbook pages. Same with handwriting -- those who slop it around the page have to go back and neaten up the work so that I can read it. (When I can't tell your a's and g's and u's apart, there's a problem.)

Also, for the first time in about a decade of homeschooling, I had a child today use an abacus. I was glad I never threw the thing out in a purge.

This all seems to be working fine, but it requires me to be on top of five children's work, instead of the usual two. That, along with the workmen and the early rising, has left me like the walking dead in the evenings. Everything extra that I usually do, like projects I've been asked to complete or German homework or writing a blog, has suffered.

Oh, did I mention I'm working on potty-training the three-year-old? He thinks his pirate pull-ups are dandy, and likes the idea of keeping the X treasure map dry, and will go if I make sure to sit him on his frog potty at regular intervals. Is he actually being trained? I dunno. I guess it's all progress. Check back with me over summer vacation when I'm sitting in air conditioned comfort with my new baby and underwear-clad three-year-old, and things will definitely be looking good.

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Cruel Mercy of Encouraging Illegal Immigration

The Trump administration has been making initial moves towards stepping up enforcement against the estimated eleven million immigrants who are in the United States illegally. This has caused a good deal of fear and anxiety, not only among those who are in the US illegally (or look like they might be from one of the countries from which many illegal immigrants come, and thus might be mistakenly targeted) and among those who advocate more open immigration policy. Among the latter category are many Catholic organizations and leaders, and so there's been a mix of efforts to help and virtue signalling coming from them as well. A key example has been Bishop Cupich of Chicago, who gained wide press attention for announcing that immigration enforcement officers should not be allowed onto Catholic church or school property unless they showed a proper warrant. (It's unclear whether this directive has any practical effect or is mostly a publicity stunt, given that the immigration enforcement agencies have internal policies against going after people as such locations.)

I'm strongly in favor of a more open set of immigration policies, but it strikes me that the tumult currently going on underscores the problem with the approach which both business interests and social justice advocates have taken in the last 20+ years of encouraging a de facto relaxation of immigration quotas and policies by simply not enforcing the laws currently on the books. People have worked to get states to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, to make sure that services (public school, etc.) are readily available to them, and to make sure that enforcement of minor crimes and legal issues are not used as an opportunity to check immigration status. That makes sense in the short term, if what you want to do is avoid the pain and disruption of people being deported, and to allow them to lead the lives in the US that immigration advocates believe they deserve. And yet, it also encourages people to exist in a sort of extended legal twilight. There are people who have been living in the US for decades but who are not actually legally allowed to be here, and as the current panic shows, if the government were to actually enforce the laws already on the books, that would mean disrupting lives in all sorts of ways.

Yes, we should have more open immigration policies, but isn't some of the pain of starting to enforce our immigration laws the result of those who have encourage people to act as if those laws didn't matter? Were we doing illegal immigrants any favors by making it seem as if living here illegally was a sustainable idea?

In some ways the combination of no actual legal reform and lax enforcement has created worse conditions now, because it's allowed a lot of people to build lives which depend on that lax enforcement continuing. We've created a whole class of people whose lives are dependent on the government not enforcing the laws that it claims to have.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
by T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

IV

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

V

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

VI

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.