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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


While I was on retreat, the priest hearing my confession gave thanks for my gift of a humble heart. This surprised me, because I couldn't see any humility in what I'd just said. Indeed, it reminded me of the time a few years ago when a priest complimented me on making a good confession, when all I'd done was apply some character analysis to a situation. Sure, I sounded incisive, but was I really humble?

Then, as part of my penance, I was asked to think of a specific grace I'd been given and to thank God for it. So I sat in Adoration and considered this cynical talent of character analysis. Is character analysis a grace? It's a gift, sure, as it's part of who I am and how I respond to the world. As such, it's given to me by God. But what's the grace that underlies that? Most of the time, when I'm analyzing character, it doesn't feel like humility. It feels like pride. 

When I write, when I look at life, I may not be lyrical, but I hope I'm honest. Is that humility? What is humility? Is it honesty? Is it a sense of the real, a truthful way of viewing the world? I don't think it can be meekness, or simply meekness. Humility, it seems to me, is everything in its place. But how can that feel like pride? Or perhaps it's that I need to pull myself out of my character analysis, so as to look at reality without feeling that my analysis reflects any glory on my own understanding. 

And relying not on my own understanding was what I specifically resolved to pray for while on retreat. 

Often in Adoration, I posture and arrange my prayer time to fit some preconceived notion. Pray a rosary, because that's what you're supposed to do. Try to feel something like adoration. Read the same devotional manual everyone else reading. Pray like others. And praying like others is fine for Mass, a liturgical and ritual form. But I'm not like others, and neither is anyone else, because "others" is just a collection of individuals. If I am specific, it's because God made me specific. He wants me to see and love all things in him, not to suppress the gifts he's given me. So if words and analysis are what I do well, why should I not pray that way? In the beginning was the Word. If that's how God has granted me to encounter reality, that's how he wants me to pray.

I'm not supposed to change myself, but offer myself.

So I sat in Adoration and studied the Blessed Sacrament intensely. If God is truth, then here he is, truthfully -- not symbolically, for us to draw tidy lessons from, but as he actually wants himself to be revealed: bread to be consumed. The humility is in the exposure. Nothing is hidden or held back. 

The humility lies in simply being. In the Eucharist, God doesn't use force or manipulation or any artifice to draw me closer to him. He simply is, on the altar. I can approach or not, as I please. As on the cross, he is fixed in place. I am the one who changes. 

He does not hide in the form of bread. He is revealing his true nature. He is to be consumed. He is to nourish. He is for others. He is still. He is.


Part of living and thinking in words is the enforced humility that comes when the words don't come. Being truly myself before God means having the honesty to admit that the words dry up frequently when it's time to work. It's so easy to write stories in my head, where I have total control. It's not so easy to be faithful and carry on without inspiration. When I look back later, it's hard to tell what was written in a dry spell and what was written in the blazing fire. Only the words remain.

The dry spell is me. The words are You. Make me faithful.


Recently I've had opportunities to peel back the scab of self-love. I had to finally admit -- in words, written, formal, that I was not going to be able to finish the textbook I said I would write. The opportunities for serious work were too few and far apart, in a house filled with children, and when I did have the opportunity, the words wouldn't come. It cut to the quick of my self-image as someone who can be professional, who can finish what she commits to, who is capable of working at an adult level. 

Even now, as I sit in my room, at the table and chair I dragged up to make a private writing space for myself, I have four children hanging over me, begging for computer time, for something to eat, trying to draw angry lines in my journal, trying to drive cars over my laptop screen. And I think of Jesus in Adoration, completely exposed, holding nothing back. I hold a lot back. I hoard my mental space, because my physical space is not my own. My room, my bathroom, even my body belongs to others who have a legitimate claim on it. I want something that is completely, unequivocally mine, something no one can make me share with anyone else. 

I want a space so private even God can't see it and make claims on me.

And there, if you like, is pride. There is idolatry. In this day and age, I don't violate the first commandment by making public idols and worshipping them communally. I am my own private idol and worship myself in cramped, grasping, solitary rites. Like the early vineyard workers in today's gospel, I want what rightfully belongs to me, by my own determination of rights.

In Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) quotes: 
Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est.
Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest -- that is divine.
We're used to the absurd question, "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?", but constantly, we live the notion that there is a thought, a sin, a mental corner so small that God won't know about it. Yet there is nothing so small that the core of it is not God himself. This is the essence of the Christian life: to let God shine through the smallest, most obscure actions, motions, thoughts. The big showy projects of Christian life are an afterthought, the least effective means of communicating his presence, and the most likely to fail. 

I don't know yet how to square this with my desire to maintain something that is distinctively my own, but I do know that I don't have to do that work myself. Rely not on my own understanding. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

College Jitters

For years I've talked and written about how a liberal arts education is worth having for its own sake, regardless of the practical and economic value of a four year college degree. This year our eldest is going into her senior year of high school. She's taken the SATs. We'll be making college visits in the next couple months. It's about to get real. And I confess, I'm suffering from some jitters.

Looking back at my own life, I have no doubts about the value to me of my college experience. There were costs to it, to be sure. Not just the clear cost of tuition, which 25 years ago I was convinced was already at unsustainably high levels. How innocent my shock at those figures looks now when they've about doubled during the intervening years. But I also paid a cost in lost earning for the first 5-7 years out of college. My friends who studied subjects like Information Technology came out and make $40k-$60k/yr. I came out and considered myself lucky to make $14/hr as an office temp. Classics degrees do not, in and of themselves, pay very well. But with sufficient drive and adaptation, I've since made it up. And what I could not have made up since is the chance to spend four years studying deeply on a subject that matters to me deeply: how the people of the past wrote and thought and acted.

And yet, one of the unsettling things about parenthood is that your children are not you. If I had a driven kid who was eager to go get a liberal arts degree and then find a way to earn a good living, I'd have no doubts. Instead I have a child who is different from me in many ways. Rather than the fierce, "I will get a liberal arts degree and then I will show the world I can make it," her response on the college question is more of a, "Yeah, I guess so."

My competitiveness has not always been one of my more likable characteristics, and I was distinctly frustrating as a teenager at times, so I count my blessings in not having a kid exactly like me. But it does leave one to ask: for the kid who would probably enjoy college but doesn't have very specific life plans, is investing the monumental cost of a modern college education worth it? Our own alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville is considered cheap for a four year private college, but the total "sticker price" is still over $30k/yr.

For now, my approach is to make it clear that we will support college for those who want to go (whatever the reason) while not pushing people to go who don't want to. We're also getting the two oldest kids started on taking some community college classes this year, allowing them to cover topics that might be best covered in a classroom setting (Chemistry and Statistics for our senior, Spanish for our sophomore) while at the same time getting college credit which should save them time and money at a four year college. I'm also trying my best to get them thinking more about what they want to do with their lives post college, and how going to college will or won't relate to that.

But many seventeen year olds don't have a very clear idea of what it is they want to do with the rest of their lives. Indeed, going to college is one of the formative experiences that often helps with forming such plans. So we're charting the course and hoping for the best, despite the jitters which the very rocky coastline of higher education brings to the heart of those preparing to land on it for the first time.

Understanding Rebellion

Ever since we came home from Texas, I have been immersed in paperwork and administrative details related to running a house and homeschooling children across a large age spectrum. Notably, I've been trying to get the two oldest girls enrolled at the local community college so that they can take a few supplemental courses. As with everything I've done lately (and my apologies to the many generous souls who've had to bear the brunt of this), it's been last-minute, skin-of-my-teeth work, squeaking in just under every deadline. 

Yesterday, I sat down to yet another morning of administra. I made some notes, looked up some details, starting sketching in schedules. And then I hit a wall of rebellion. I'd picked up a one-volume edition of Robertson Davies's Salterton trilogy, intending to flip through the first book, Tempest Tost, to refresh my memory on whether it would be an appropriate readaloud for the kids. And instead of putting it on the pile and moving on, I just sat down and read the other two books in the trilogy. And not really reading, either, but consuming -- skipping through the book to trace a particular story, following plot details, ignoring long lyric passages to find out what happened next. I was dogged, mostly ignoring my children, only attending in the most cursory manner to necessities such as feeding and changing the baby. From outside myself, I looked down and thought, "I really should put this book down and do something," and yet I carried out my own internal protest against all the tedious work of the week. 

It's not often that one gets an immediate answer to the question, "What's wrong with me?", and yet later in the day it became clear that my lassitude was of the hormonal/cyclical variety. The mundanity of that is both uninspiring and helpfully contextual. St Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he does not even pass judgment on himself, since the Lord will bring to light what is hidden in darkness. We think we understand ourselves or others, for good or for ill, and then we stumble on some obscure motivation which puts the situation in a new light. I'm not just lazy. She's not just malicious. He's not just a pushover. They're not just tactless. It's simply that I didn't understand. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," said the man of perfect understanding, in the most intolerable circumstances, giving the rest of us a model to follow.

I'm going on retreat this weekend, and something I'll be praying about is my tendency to rely on my own understanding*. My understanding is not so bad, in general, but it's incomplete. Recently I read that something that differentiates angels from humans is that angels are unchangeable because they have a complete understanding. They don't have to revise their understand as new knowledge comes in to fill in the details they didn't know. Sin as the angels and you sin by pride, they say --  Lucifer didn't reject God because he didn't understand his beauty or majesty or ineffable will. He knew all these things, and he understood them, and he didn't want them. 

By contrast, the Christian life is one act of humility after another, the constant admission that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do. Even the Confiteor in Mass is an act of humility -- say the words as loud as you like, and you still can't call attention to your own sinfulness because everyone else is saying them too. That seems to be the path of Christian life, though. The point isn't to single yourself out, either for praise or condemnation, but just to do the good thing you're supposed to be doing at that moment. It sure is helpful to know what's wrong with me, but it doesn't change the fact that I need to be acting in love at this present moment, according to my best understanding.

*Understanding is one of those gifts of the Spirit which it's hard to differentiate from Counsel, Wisdom, and Knowledge. I think it's ability to assimilate knowledge into a complete picture. Wisdom gives that picture divine nuance, which leads to the ability to give counsel.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sojourning in the Promised Land

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God.
--Hebrews 11:8-10
On Saturday night we returned from a sojourn to Texas. Many generous friends opened their homes to us, whether for a meal or for the night. The architecture of modern Texas developments is removed from our aged manse in Ohio -- for example, everyone's shower had pressure, and no one had a hole in their bathroom ceiling. And yet we were glad to get back to the cracked plaster and the woody smell of the auld pile. Our home, where we plan our projects and raise our family. Where we're settled. Ours.

And then Sunday's reading presented me with Abraham, who "sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country". Even in the land God had promised him, Abraham didn't live as if he had total control. He didn't try to reshape it according to his own desires and schemes. He didn't take the land by force. Indeed, the only part of it he ever owned was the small parcel where he buried Sarah.

On the trek back northward, Darwin and I talked through the long stretches, discussing our plans for this coming year and what work we wanted to do on the house. That's legitimate; it falls to the heads of the family to make plans and try to stave off entropy. These plans, however, are all contingent on everything going just right: job, money, family stability, health. We think we're able to manage all the various streams of our existence, but we're really just sojourning in the land we've been promised. We don't own anything that really matters. Our children, ourselves, even our house -- we're merely custodians of these things for a time. There are better and worse ways of being custodians, and we hope we've chosen the better part, but in the end everything must handed over to someone else.

This weekend is my annual Homeschooling Mothers' Retreat, held at a fine old retreat center built in the best tradition of 30s religious institutional style. Everything there focuses the mind toward what is good and eternal. But there will be a gaping hole this year. One of our local mothers, a gracious woman with seven children, died on Sunday from breast cancer. Her presence will be missed, as will be the presence of many others who will be attending her funeral on Saturday. The beautiful style of the retreat house can't compensate for the absence of each individual. Place is important, but it is the people who matter.

Of your kindness, please pray for the soul of Becky, and for her grieving family, and for the community which is rent by her loss.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Linky Links

St. Peter Damien's list of seven minor sins or defects, contrasted with the seven major sins, posted by Brandon:
As we know, there are seven principal vices from which all other infectious forms of vice derive, namely: pride, avarice, vainglory, anger, envy, lust, spiritual torpor. These, moreover, since they are the cause and origin of all evils, are known to have the same number of effects, namely, the seven mortal sins, that is, adultery, murder, theft, perjury, false witness, plunder, and blasphemy. in each of these the death of the soul is so clear and certain that if anyone should die guilty of any of them, he could not possibly avoid the sentence of eternal damnation. There are also seven slight or minor sins into which not only the sinner but also every upright man falls daily, even though he might appear to stand at the very peak of perfection. These, accordingly, are sins of thought, ignorance, inconstancy, necessity, infirmity, forgetfulness, surprise. Because of these, surely we always fail our everyday living, and so against the wounds of sin we need some daily remedy for their cure.
 (Emphasis added.)

I was trying to slot up the seven faults with the seven principal vices and the seven deadly sins, but Peter Damien doesn't seem to have adhered to an order here. Pride is the first vice on his list; adultery the first sin; thought the first fault. Now of course you can link pride to adultery, and both to faults of thought. You could link avarice to murder to ignorance, to use the second item in each set.

I could imagine a random fictional situation generator in which you had to make up a story based on some combination of these things. Here, I've picked out the first item in each list my eye landed on:

Principal vice: envy
Deadly sin: perjury
Fault: surprise

Surprise seems like a strange choice for a fault. Perhaps it means something like shock? Something that jolts your soul enough that you fall?

Perhaps Peter comes home from work one day to see neighbor Randy, a bland fellow who never does anything interesting, dancing with glee in his driveway. "Come see what I just bought!" Randy crows, and hauls Peter down the driveway. There, behind Randy's house, is a gleaming Ferrari. "I just got a promotion! The boss finally noticed my hard work!" says Randy.

Peter, totally unprepared for this bit of news from dull old Randy, can't help thinking, "Why him? Why not me? Why should boring Randy get a promotion and this great car while I'm stuck at the grindstone?" Peter begins to eye Randy's car morning and night as it comes and goes, wondering what it would be like to drive that beauty. He ought to have a car like that. He ought to have that car. Randy doesn't deserve it.

...And I'm not feeling clever enough right now to piece out the details that lead to Peter swearing something false against Randy in court, but someone inclined to legal drama could come up with a compelling story.

The point of this exercise is that sin A doesn't always spring directly from vice B. The heart has reasons of which reason knows not. One can commit adultery impelled by lust, but also by pride, vainglory, or anger. (The epic novel Kristin Lavransdatter contains a dramatic example of this last.)


NCR ran a frivolous article entitled "The priesthood is being crucified on the cross of celibacy". Father Fox fisks it here.
On July 15, Father Peter Daly, a retired pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, penned an article for the National Catholic Reporter (sic) with the astonishing headline, “The priesthood is being crucified on the cross of celibacy.” Well, that sounds just terrible, doesn't it? The priesthood being associated with the Cross! Wherever might the Church have gotten such an idea? Father Daly can't figure it out.

Upon reflection, I'm not surprised that Father Daly and his beloved N"C"R can't fathom a priesthood associated with the Cross; they find it scandalous for the life of any Christian to be cruciform, at least as pertains to sex and desire. Chastity? No contraception? Sex only in marriage -- once -- between a man and a woman? Horrors!

Father followed up his first effort with another column a week later, but it is more of the same fallacies, non-sequiturs and evidence-free assertions. What a mess! Let’s take a look at the first article.

NCR also features as a jumping off point for Amy Welborn's excellent essay about a failing of modern journalism -- the ability to write an article entirely from one's desk, using Google as your source, without interviewing anyone connected with the story or visiting the locale, and using catchphrases to signal to your audience how they should feel about a person or a situation.
Earlier this month, the National Catholic Reporter ran a series of article on EWTN, written by Heidi Schlumpf. It made a blip, generated some commentary and then was gone, like almost everything else that’s written and published these days. Truth be told, despite being three lengthy articles long, there was nothing new in it, mostly because Schlumpf didn’t actually come down here to poke around and do research, but simply pulled from the public record, watched TV, collated things everyone already knows, and packaged it a la Catholic Left – which is decorated with pearls for the reader to clutch in horror as she reads, which of course happen to be the same pearls a writer from the Catholic Right would flourish with pride.

It was, in a way, typical 21st century “reporting” – which less to do with ideology, and more to do with the ease of accessing a certain level of information through the internet, a level which gives the impression of depth, but really isn’t. In other words – anyone with a computer and a keyboard could have written these stories from anywhere.

A far more interesting story could be told from actually venturing down here to Scary Alabama, staying awhile, poking around, talking to employees and (probably more importantly) ex-employees and some of the hundred of Catholics living down here with connections of one sort or another to “the Network” as it’s referred to- or even reaching out across the country to people who’ve been involved with programming.

I’m not saying I “know anything” worth scooping on, because I don’t. I know a few people associated with EWTN, the chairman’s daughter was in my son’s high school graduating class, but honestly, I wouldn’t know the man if he crashed into me on the street. I just know that the history of EWTN is complex and more than a little fraught – because it’s a human organization, and that’s what human organizations are like. Fraught.

No, what I want to speak briefly to – besides the shallow reporting ironically enabled by the internet – is the issue of what we miss when we’re blinkered by ideology. Just two points.

Amy Welborn again, reading The Long Sunday, a memoir about an English man's religious upbringing. She notes that personal witness is often the crucial gateway to a child's religious conscience, though it can't be the totality. This is necessary reading for catechists as another year of classes approaches.
As you read The Long Sunday, it seems clear that Fletcher never reached a point of trying to evaluate the worth of the religious tradition in which he was raised based on any deep evaluation of its truth claims. His assessment of whether or not what he had been taught was “true” was based entirely (at least in his telling) on

Whether or not those who professed the faith behaved in ways consistent with the teachings
Whether or not those who professed the faith lived as if they actually believed it mattered and was as life-defining as they claimed
Whether or not certain claims related to human behavior seemed true to him – that is, were outsiders really “bad” or unhappy? Were the believers, who made him memorize Scripture verses about joy – joyful?
So it wasn’t – does God exist, did Jesus exist, what did Jesus teach, did Jesus rise from the dead, is the Wesleyan tradition faithful to what Jesus taught?

But you know – Fletcher’s youthful criteria – your behavior will tell me if this stuff is true, all right – are probably far more common than the second set of deeper questions. We all know it – we know how human failure and hypocrisy impacts spiritual witness.

Which is why a faith formation and experience built on the “power” of personal witness and the strength and vibrancy and enthusiasm of human beings and their communities is flawed and maybe even doomed.

Join us because we’re an awesome, vibrant community where you’ll find faith and joy and peace in our awesome, vibrant community!

It’s a conundrum, a complex dynamic, and even a dance of sorts. What does Acts tell us that people noticed about the early Christians? What got their attention? The preaching? Not really. It was more: See how these Christians love one another.

As Fletcher’s experience tells us – the witness matters, deeply. Who among us hasn’t been drawn closer to faith because of another person’s sacrifice, patience or joy?

But, as the broad and deep experience of two thousand years of Catholic living has also told us – human beings will fail. Human beings will let you down. Every saint, every wise spiritual writer works hard to diminish their own role in any spiritual endeavor, beginning with Paul himself: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

So a healthy, whole Christian tradition, based on solid ground, always reminds us of the objective reality – God and God’s Word – that our human actions only faintly echo and weakly point to.

Simcha Fisher on The Contraceptive Mentality, and what it's not:

Tellingly, in both cases, [Pope John Paul II is] contrasting the contraceptive mentality with obedience to Church teaching. He’s not using “contraceptive mentality” to mean “using NFP for less-than-dire reasons” or “using NFP selfishly.” That simply isn’t in the text. He’s not talking about NFP at all, or about people who are trying to follow Church teaching. He’s talking about people who are rejecting Church teaching with their behavior by literally using contraception.

He’s saying, “When we reject the Church’s teaching on contraception, i.e., by using contraception, bad things happen. The family is weakened. Marriages break up. We start killing babies.” And so on. That’s how he used the phrase that he invented.

The phrase “contraceptive mentality” also turns up in one more document, also in 1995, in The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality from the Pontifical Council on the Family. It’s in a passage warning parents to make sure that nobody teaches your kids to fear and despise virginity and babies, and it uses the phrase: “the contraceptive mentality, that is, the ‘anti-life’ mentality”

So that’s what the phrase means: it means the mentality which teaches you to use contraception, which also teaches you to be promiscuous, to not value love, marriage, family, and fidelity, and to have abortions. It means rejecting Church teaching and being anti-life. It’s not about your NFP attitude, it’s about literal contraception and the bad things that go along with literal contraception.

An article in the Guardian maintains that the greatest obstacle to women's creativity is a lack of time to themselves.
A few months ago, as I struggled to carve out time in my crowded days for writing, a colleague suggested I read a book about the daily rituals of great artists. But instead of offering me the inspiration I’d hoped for, what struck me most about these creative geniuses – mostly men – was not their schedules and daily routines, but those of the women in their lives.

Their wives protected them from interruptions; their housekeepers and maids brought them breakfast and coffee at odd hours; their nannies kept their children out of their hair. Martha Freud not only laid out Sigmund’s clothes every morning, she even put the toothpaste on his toothbrush. Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste, not only brought him his daily coffee, croissants, newspapers and mail on a silver tray, but was always on hand whenever he wanted to chat, sometimes for hours. Some women are mentioned only for what they put up with, like Karl Marx’s wife – unnamed in the book – who lived in squalor with the surviving three of their six children while he spent his days writing at the British Museum.

Gustav Mahler married a promising young composer named Alma, then forbade her from composing, saying there could be only one in the family. Instead, she was expected to keep the house utterly silent for him. After his midday swim, he’d whistle for Alma to join him on long, silent walks while he composed in his head. She’d sit for hours on a branch or in the grass, not daring to disturb him. “There’s such a struggle going on in me!” Alma wrote in her diary. “And a miserable longing for someone who thinks OF ME, who helps me to find MYSELF! I’ve sunk to the level of a housekeeper!”

Unlike the male artists, who moved through life as if unfettered time to themselves were a birthright, the days and life trajectories of the handful of female artists featured in the book were often limited by the expectations and duties of home and care. George Sand always worked late at night, a practice that started when she was a teenager and needed to take care of her grandmother. Starting out, Francine Prose’s writing day was defined by the departure and return of her children on the school bus. Alice Munro wrote in the “slivers” of time she could find between housekeeping and childrearing. And Maya Angelou got away from the pull of home by leaving it altogether, checking herself into an unadorned hotel room to think, read and write.

Even Anthony Trollope, who famously wrote 2,000 words before 8am every morning, most likely learned the habit from his mother, who began writing at age 53 to support her sick husband and their six children. She rose at 4am and finished work in time to serve the family breakfast.
Darwin responds with a counterpart from the male creative perspective:
One of the things that strikes me about the specific male artists that the author provides the most description of, such as Mahler, is that his described behavior isn't just taking advantage of gender roles, it's being an incredibly lousy human being.

Having an equitable division of spousal tasks isn't going to get someone the kind of time Mahler got here. Even not having children or a spouse is not going to provide that much time. You'd need the combination of: 
1) Being independently wealthy
2) Having servants
3) Being willing to treat your loved ones like trash 
And honestly is art worth that? And even if it is: Would most people, even granted such indulgence, produce anything as good as Mahler did? 
So yeah, to the extent people are the victims of unfair divisions of labor, that's worth fixing in its own right. But it seems to me that even given that, there is not the time on hand for non-wealthy, non-jerk people to have the kind of total indulgence described here, and so the question is more how to produce art in scraps of time than how to get imagined great swaths of it that someone else must be getting.
Related: Carol Goodman examines how Jane Austen found the time to write. (h/t Brandon)
But where and when did she manage to do this writing—in a corner at a tiny table in between household chores as her nephew has claimed? As Claire Tomalin has pointed out, it would have been difficult for Jane to have physically managed the revision of an entire manuscript at such a little table (Tomalin 218-9). Nor would such acrobatic maneuverings have been necessary. At Chawton, Jane’s household chores were restricted to making the morning tea and toast and keeping the key to the wine cupboard, certainly not onerous chores and ones—with their access to caffeine and alcohol—any writer might choose.

It was also part of Jane’s routine to rise early and go downstairs to practice her piano. Perhaps like many a writer with a 9 to 5 job, she used those morning hours before the house had risen to write. Claire Tomalin writes that Jane was “privileged with a general exemption from domestic chores … almost as a man was privileged” (Tomalin 213). Or as a writer is privileged. Surely Jane would have been sensible of the encouragement and confidence that such privilege implied.

So what does one need to write?

A stable environment with space and time allotted to the task, freedom from onerous responsibilities and financial worries, and a few people who believe in and encourage you.

Perhaps most importantly, the writer herself needs to believe that her writing deserves a place in the world outside the corners and margins of the drawing room.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Politics of Outrage

We live in an age in which expressing "thoughts and prayers" after a mass shooting is something that the left side of the political spectrum preemptively mocks as an example of callousness. If you're not doing something the theory goes (by which is meant, angrily advocating for gun control) it's a sign that you actively want people to be murdered. Indeed, among some people, there seems to be a contest for who can express the most extreme outrage on social media and the most complete contempt for those in disagreement.  Often the first way that I hear the news about a tragic event is that I see people in my social media feed viciously laying into their political opponents for not wanting to bother to prevent such crimes.

This gets me down rather more than perhaps it should.

Contrary to what such people might like to imagine, it's not because I think deep down in places I don't talk about at parties that they're right. Indeed, there's little as reassuring to one's convictions as the complete ignorance about guns and gun crime of many of the people who are most loudly in favor of gun control.

Rather, what's depressing about it is that it shows how intractable our political divide is. Increasingly, people want to believe that those on the other side of an issue don't just differ because they have different ideas of what will achieve the common good. People want instead to believe that the other side actively wants evil. The other side wants people to die, and they want it because they're nihilistic sickos who just get a kick out of that kind of thing.

Needless to say, it's impossible to work with people on crafting policy when they think your primary motivation is that people be senselessly killed. Why would you work with a psycho who wants to see people murdered, or compromise with him, or listen to anything he says about the topic. The only thing to do against that kind of evil opposition is hope for their total defeat, and to work for that total defeat by screaming loudly about the issue as much as possible.

One would hope that personal ties would allow people to bridge the ideological gap, to see that the people on the other side are humans not monsters. But of course, it is precisely this ability to bridge the gap which the "other side are monsters" way of thinking seems to attack.

And that's why the loud proclamations of outrage get me down. Never much of an outrage peddler, the experience of getting to know people of many different viewpoints over the years I've been writing here has tended to make me more and more hesitant to lash out at the other side of the ideological divide as if it were made up of faceless people meaning mischief. Indeed, aside from just being busy, and my general despair over the state of US politics and culture, one of the reasons that I write a lot less than I used to is that I am much less inclined than I was fourteen years ago to think that the other side is just one solid argument away from caving. Most people believe what they believe for reasons of disposition or experience which they are deeply attached to, and thus unlikely to change. That's why increasingly I only try to understand why people who disagree with me think the way that they do, and don't really attempt to change their minds, except perhaps to make explain why people might think differently.  I think that this change has been good for me, and I wish it was the common approach that people took. But to be honest, there's not even much interest in hearing that these days.

Fruits and Roots

This morning five-year-old William poked his head into the washing machine and said, "Mom, the bag's done!"

"Oh, I'd forgotten about the bag," I said.

"You forgot about the Mystery of the Flies?" he asked, shocked as a five-year-old may well be that anyone should forget such a thing.

We've been battling flies lately. Flies are Darwin's bête noir. He is always on the prowl with a swatter, ready to slay like the brave tailor, and yet as soon as one would go down two more would take its place. We took out the garbage, we threw away the fruit, and yet.

Yesterday afternoon we were rushing around getting ready for a lightning run down to Cincinnati, and for this I wanted to take the mostly disused diaper bag. I opened it to put a fresh stash of diapers in, and lo, there was a shirt of baby's in there with something on it. Something brown and chunky which stank of vinegar. I examined it. Not poop, but certainly something that had been solid, with lots of little white seeds? And then one of the seeds moved.

"Maggots!" I cried, and dumped the shirt in the garbage. Then I turned the whole bag upside down and dumped the contents in the garbage. Among the diapers and swim diapers and old onesies was a desiccated banana peel, put there, as best we sleuths could determine, during VBS week, the last time we used the diaper bag, two weeks ago. The bag must have contained the stench, as it was enough to wake the dead. Into the wash the bag went, into the outdoor trash the garbage went, into the van we went, and in the fun of the quick trip and seeing a play and old friends, I didn't remember this morning the disgusting but totally family thing that was a ten-minutes' wonder last night.

There's not really a moral or great life lesson to draw from this story. I only type it up because it's amusing, and because I haven't written here for an embarrassing amount of time. Life rushes on apace, and I forget in the evening things that were of great moment in the morning. Things keep coming, one after the other, and people keep needing things of me. And they're all good things, but I wish I could do them one at a time.

That's a silly thing to say, really, because at any given moment, I am doing one thing at a time. In confession recently, Father told me to practice being intentional, to choose to do something and then try to do it well. He was talking about prayer, about which I surely do need to be more intentional, but advice maintains across all my fields of activity.

One of my gifts is to be low-key, to be able to improvise in the moment, to not worry about what I am to say until I am to say it, and then to trust that through my particular talents and gifts and trainings that I can carry off whatever I'm doing. It's not a terrible way to operate, and in general it's a fairly easy-going way to live. But in some areas, this plan-as-you-go approach is preventing me from having the framework to be able to work most efficaciously. In the field of writing, for example, which I'm doing at this moment in drips and drabs between other things, this lack of structure is strangling me. In the field of prayer -- well, our entire lives should be prayers, and it's true that often during the day I turn my thoughts toward God and try to live for him, but without that structured framework of dedicated prayer time, my spiritual life, as one would expect, gets scattered.

Friday's gospel was the parable of the sower, from Matthew. Between the two extremes of the seed sown on the path, already barren, and the seed sown in good ground, which bears a harvest of thirty- or sixty- or a hundred-fold, there is the seed sown on rocky ground and the seed sown among thorns. The seed sown on rocky ground shoots up quickly, bears fast fruit, looks immediately effective. But the seed puts down no deep roots. Maybe it has a broad shallow network of roots right there on the surface, glorying in the easy nourishment of the warm rock and the little pools of surface water. Then, as soon as the sun grows intense, the plant is withering away under the onslaught. There's no root reaching down into the cool rich soil to allow the plant to bear up under the pressure. Sure, it flourished quickly, but just as quickly it goes.

The seed sown among thorns puts down deep silent roots. It spends its energy internally, privately, in quiet reflection. It may be tenacious. It may maintain under pressure. But it produces no fruit for anyone, no visible indication that the root system is doing any good. It may hold on under adverse conditions. It may stand up to the intensity of the sun. But if the farmer is looking for fruit and sees none, he'll clear away the fruitless thorns, sweeping the fruitless seed with deep roots. The fruit isn't frivolous or showy; it's an indicator of life. The deep, flourishing, solipsistic downward roots are no guarantee of ultimate fruitfulness. Fruit is the guarantee of fruitfulness.

I'd always felt more resonance with the seed sown among thorns, but recently it's been striking me that in some areas, I tend more toward the easy shallow rocky soil, doing things fast and quick and well until I can't. Then I set the activity aside "until I have a little time", "in a few weeks when the schedule eases up", "maybe over the summer". And here's summer more than halfway over, and I haven't put down my roots. Conversely, where my roots run deep, I'm not producing fruit -- meditating over a scripture passage or a meaty bit of spiritual reading without ever sharing the reflections for the good of others or to be refined as iron sharpens iron.

Perhaps it's matter of clearing away the rocks or the thorns from my soil, but you know, it's the farmer that does that, not the seed. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send us workers!

In the meantime, my diaper bag is drying out in the strong summer sun, and the flies are gone, and as I sit here writing the morning passes by.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Driving People To The Extremes

A few weeks ago, it seemed like the Democrats were going to go to bat against their photogenic radical wing, with Nancy Pelosi taking "The Squad" to the rhetorical woodshed over their criticisms of less radical Democrats.
“I hope there will be some level of respect and sensitivity for our — each individual experience that we bring to this Caucus,” Pelosi said. “You make me the target, but don’t make our Blue Dogs and our New Dems the target in all of this because we have important fish to fry,” Pelosi said.

"It was a very stern and forceful speech," said a senior Democratic aide in the room.

Pelosi also told the assembled Democrats that if they, or a member of their staff, had thoughts to attack another lawmaker on social media they should "think twice," according to the senior aide.

"Actually, don't think twice; think once," Pelosi said.
I was rooting for Pelosi a bit -- a phrase that I never thought I'd find myself saying. Having seen my own party destroyed by media savvy members of the fringe, I wanted to see the hard nosed old legislator win out and enforce some decorum.

It was not to last. Donald Trump, who becomes restive at any moment he isn't the center of attention, decided that the fight needed to be about him, so he pitched in to attack the four freshman congresswomen of "The Squad", telling them that they should "go back" where they came from if they don't like the United States -- a nonsensical demand given that all four are citizens and three of the four were born in the US.

This predictably ignited a firestorm which shows no sign of dying down as critics point out (rightly) that the only sense in which Trump's targets have anywhere to "go back" to is that they are less white than the average congressperson. While a few weeks ago it seemed like the Democratic Party was ready to tamp down its radical wing, they're now united behind that wing in order to defend it from Trump.

To some commentators, this is yet another example of Trump playing "four dimensional chess" (a phrase I could be happy never to hear again) in goading the Democrats into uniting behind ideas too radical to win in the national elections.  There's some decent evidence that as self described "democratic socialist" representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez succeed in becoming the public face of the Democrats in swing states, swing voters of the sort likely to decide the next election have a negative reaction to them, so it's not wholly irrational to think that making the freshman four the face of the Democratic Party would be a good move for Trump -- himself chronically unpopular and unlikely to be reelected unless he's able to define himself as the only alternative to something worse.

But there's a real risk to this kind of thinking too. While it's possible that making a small number of democratic socialists the face of the Democratic Party would succeed in turning voters against the Democrats, it's also possible that making it seem as if the only alternative to Trump is democratic socialism will make democratic socialism itself more popular. Certainly, I've watched as left leaning or even somewhat conservative friends have drifted into increasingly hard-left beliefs over the last three years, simply out of dislike for Trump.

Indeed, it's a standard tactic of factions at the extremes to try to create a conflict in which they seem the only alternative to some even worse enemy. This is, for instance, a standard tactic of small terrorist resistance movements seeking to spark "wars of liberation". In his masterful book A Savage War of Peace, about the struggle of Algerian nationalists against the French colonial authorities, Alistair Horne describes how the terrorist movement for liberation actively sought to commit atrocities so horrific that they would elicit massive responses from the French authorities. Such massive responses inevitably angered even Algerians who did not support the terrorist activities themselves. The end result was that the conflict increasingly drove Muslim Algerians into the arms of the terrorists forces of liberation, while French settlers were increasingly radicalized to support extreme repression.

Our conflicts are still, thankfully, mostly rhetorical rather than violent, but the dynamics are the same. The radical elements at both ends of our political spectrum repeatedly attempt to cause confrontations which will cause the other side to launch broad attacks against the other. In doing so, these extremists both seek to make themselves the standard bearers in a struggle with only to clear sides, creating a "if you're not with us, you're with them" dynamic. They also seek to cause confrontations which will drive those who are not exactly on their own side, but can be made to feel dislike the other side, into their arms.

I can see how this plays out gauging my own reactions at this particular tempest rages. I found Trump's original provocation disgraceful, yet as I see friends on the left posting piece after piece which not only attack Trump but take the opportunity to state that they always knew all of us conservatives were total racists and now this proves it, I do find myself tempted to think, "These people all hate me so much; I can't possibly support letting them win even if I don't like Trump."

The key, however, is to know this reaction for what it is. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. He's just your enemy's enemy. Most conflicts have more than two sides. Just ask the central Europeans who had the privilege of being dragged off into the woods and shot by both the forces of communism and of fascism in close succession. It may seem like an extreme example, but we ignore it at our peril -- as shown by the fact that while the right is trying to justify fully endorsing nationalism, we have America Magazine running an article trying to justify communism as a force for good on the theory that whatever evils it may have been responsible for, at least it's one of the longer lasting adversaries of capitalism.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Institutional Collapse at the Border

Politico had an extensive article on the problems besetting the US Customs and Border Protection agency (some of them organizational issues going back nearly 18 years, some of them situational ones resulting from the recent flood of migrants trying to cross the southern border, some in between.) There are a lot of different things one could take from this article. Because I'm spending my days at the moment dealing with the struggles of setting up a new department, the things that struck me most are the organizational issues.

According to the article, the issues at the Customs and Border Protection agency began back in 2001, when after 9/11 the agency sought to more than double the number of agents, hiring more than ten thousand new staff in order to more successfully police the borders and deal with cross-border drug and weapons smuggling.
DHS’ newly created CBP, created out of the merger of multiple other agencies from across government, was primarily made up of two distinct units: The blue-uniformed officers known as the Office of Field Operations, who police the nation’s legal ports of entry and border crossings, and the green-uniformed Border Patrol agents, who patrol areas in between legal crossings and conduct interior enforcement efforts within 100 miles of an international border or seacoast, an area in which two-thirds of the U.S. population resides. (Other smaller divisions of CBP focus on more specific tasks, like intelligence and the brown-uniformed Air and Marine Operations, which houses CBP’s helicopter and boat units.)

The money pouring into Ridge’s hands paid for a more than doubling of the Border Patrol, which surged from 9,200 agents in 2001 to more than 21,000 during its peak in the first term of the Obama administration, and similarly rapid expansion at CBP’s OFO, a rate of growth that completely outstripped CBP’s systems to manage its employees. When in 2014 I wrote the first comprehensive history of that ill-considered hiring surge, the rise of what CBP called “the Green Monster,” one DHS official told me, “[Congress’] view was, ‘We’re going to field a small army and make up for decades of neglect by previous administrations.’ Almost any body in the field was better than no body.”

CBP recruited that new army by lowering its hiring standards—already the lowest among top federal law enforcement agencies—and shoveling agents through the academy and into the field before even completing background checks. “We weren’t prepared,” one former training officer told me. Agents called it “No Trainee Left Behind.” Management structures and processes failed, oversight lessened and by the end of the Bush administration, more than half of the Border Patrol had been in the field for less than two years. Already at that point, agent misconduct and criminality were on the rise—the lax hiring standards and background checks had populated the new border army with the wrong sort of person. “We made some mistakes,” Bush’s CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham told me in 2014. “We found out later that we did, in fact, hire cartel members.”
It's common to think that in order to hire a bunch of people, you just need money. The fact is, people are not an unlimited resource. If you want to hire a large number of people, you need a large number of people who want to be do the job. And if such a large pool of people does not exist, you'll have to start doing things differently. The high (but slow) road is to work hard to inspire people to share your belief that the work is important to do. The shorter term solutions are to offer more money or to lower your standards. The CBP, in good old government fashion, seems to have gone for the latter.

Lowering your hiring standards doesn't just get you some bad employees; it also sends a message to your good ones that the organization doesn't care about quality or behavior. This means that bad employees have a double effect, they're not just bad themselves, they serve to make your good people worse by making them give up (or leave.) The CPB seems to have suffered from this problem. They had high attrition, and managing bad behavior by agents was a constant problem.

Corruption among CBP’s ranks got so bad that in Obama’s first year, CBP and DHS leadership ordered the agency to change its definition of “corruption” to downplay the number of total incidents; sexually assaulting detainees was no longer considered “corruption” worthy of reporting to Congress.

The situation continued to deteriorate as the Obama administration went on. A CATO Institute study found that from 2006 to 2016, CBP and the Border Patrol’s misconduct and disciplinary infractions outstripped all other federal law enforcement. Border Patrol agents were six times as likely as FBI agents to be fired for disciplinary infractions or poor performance and “12.9 times as likely as Secret Service agents.” Moreover, CATO found “it is virtually impossible to assess the extent of corruption or misconduct in U.S. Customs and Border Protection … because most publicly available information is incomplete or inconsistent.” As I totaled up in 2014, there were 2,170 misconduct arrests of CBP officers and agents—ranging from corruption to domestic violence from 2005 through 2012—meaning that one CBP officer or agent was arrested every single day for seven years.

There were so many examples of corruption that CBP created its own internal website, called “Trust Betrayed,” featuring the stories of turncoat CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, as a cautionary warning to others. Examples from the site, released to BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold earlier this year, include agents bribed by cartels to wave certain individuals through immigration lanes and provide documents to smugglers, and even smuggle undocumented immigrants themselves.

Addressing that epidemic of misconduct—and worse—proved all but bureaucratically impossible. CBP’s crime and corruption epidemic collided with the institutional trade-offs made to create DHS; obscure government job descriptions and law enforcement responsibilities, negotiated in the abstract when DHS was being created, meant that Congress didn’t grant CBP the ability or authority to investigate its own employees. Whereas any even moderately sized local police department has an internal affairs department, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency had to refer all misconduct allegations to either the DHS inspector general, the FBI or ICE—all of which soon found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of CBP problems.

Ronald Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who headed the bureau’s criminal division, told me that at one CBP meeting he attended in 2012, top agency officials estimated that perhaps as much as 20 percent of CBP’s agent and officer corps needed to be removed from the force. In response, the FBI declared border corruption—e.g., investigating another federal law enforcement agency—as its top priority in combating public corruption.

The flood continued, such that in 2013 the head of the DHS office investigating CBP misconduct in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley had fallen so far behind in investigating the rampant misconduct allegations that he began falsifying records—and ended up being indicted himself, along with another agent.

It's easy to think of this in terms of "the CBP had all bad people" but again, institutional culture is key here. They did doubtless have too many people who should not have been hired, but the way that an organization responds to people who behave badly is really important. A strong organization with a good culture clearly punishes wrongdoing and makes good employees feel that they'll be listened to if they report problems. This gives the good employees institutional strength and suppresses bad behavior. In the above quote, it's estimated that 20% of CBP agents and officers needed to be removed, and that's a large number. But think of the flip side: 80% were good. The problem is that those 80% were given every organizational signal that complaints about bad behavior would be ignored. That means that the 80% of good agents were discouraged by the organization's behavior, while the 20% of bad actors were given license. This set of factors made the behavior of the organization as a whole worse than just the 80/20 split of good and bad employees might have suggested.

These problems were made worse by a power vacuum.

Meanwhile, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano left CBP rudderless, with a revolving door of nonSenate confirmed, acting leaders. At one point, CBP’s top post was vacant, with various officials “acting” as commissioner, for 26 months.

Amid that leadership vacuum, CBP shootings and use-of-force complaints started to rise, too. From 2007 to 2012, more than 1,700 allegations of excessive force were leveled against CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, though the exact number is impossible to reconstruct because the agency’s record keeping is so poor. There were more than a hundred shootings, leaving dozens dead, and CBP’s standard operation procedure—unlike nearly every other law enforcement agency in the country—was to keep silent about any officer-involved shootings unless specifically asked about them by the media.

As a side note, the article does occasionally slip into rhetorical formulations that serve to make problems sound bigger. For instance, this paragraph on the frequency of agent arrests sounds pretty bad:

While most misconduct allegations dropped in fiscal year 2017, criminal allegations against CBP agents and officers actually jumped 7 percent according to the most recent statistics available. There were 245 CBP agents and officers arrested in fiscal year 2017—meaning that an agent or officer was arrested every 36 hours—including seven employees arrested twice and one employee arrested three times in that single year; as a sign of just how much CBP continues to struggle with the legacy left it by the Bush and Obama administrations, most of those arrested had been brought on during the hiring surge. (Ironically, one agent last year even pleaded guilty to being an undocumented immigrant.)

However, if one said instead that about 1% of agents had been arrested, that would sound much smaller. Given the large number of agents, saying that one is, on average, arrested every 36 hours takes advantage of the large total number to make that small minority sound larger.

Another key institutional problem is changing missions without changing people and culture. The article notes:

The years of poor management and leadership from DHS, three presidents and Congress itself have been only exacerbated by CBP’s unwillingness to reckon with its modern role. Its culture and duties seem part police force, part occupying army and part frontier cavalry. None of those pieces of institutional DNA have equipped agents and management for what has become the Border Patrol’s main role over the past five years: Humanitarian relief organization.

Back during the hiring surge, the recruiting campaign and CBP’s mission emphasized fighting terrorists and the all-American nature of its work—the Border Patrol sponsored a NASCAR team, and recruited at bull-riding competitions and country music concerts. CBP spent that first decade after 9/11 recruiting and equipping what it touted would be an elite counterterrorism force—the first line of defense against Islamic terrorists and drug cartels. But this only perpetuated a message and culture that has left the agency ill-suited to confront what it actually has to do in the second decade after 9/11: Provide humanitarian aid for women, children and families amid global instability that has strained border forces worldwide.

CBP went out and recruited Rambo, when it turned out the agency needed Mother Teresa.

There is little sign that DHS leadership, particularly under the Trump administration, is willing to consider the depth of agency realignment and reinvestment necessary to match CBP and the Border Patrol with what it finds its current mission to be—nor does there seem to be any appetite inside the Trump administration to address what officials would call the “whole of government” failure to meet the migrant crisis.

Even today, recruiting ads continue to make the Border Patrol look like an action movie, with stirring music and fancy toys, from helicopters to canines to ATVs, and lots and lots of weapons. On CBP’s website, “counterterrorism” is listed first under the agency’s mission—ahead of “customs” and “immigration,” and the first item on the agency’s own job description for officers states a “typical assignment” is “detecting and preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.” In its first sentence of the agency’s “About” listing, CBP says it “is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S.” Nowhere in its recruiting material does it list anything having to do with “providing humanitarian assistance,” “rescuing migrants,” or “aiding families and children fleeing drug violence,” the tasks that have over the past 10 years have consumed more and more of the Border Patrol’s time.

The photo last month of a drowned migrant father and daughter in the Rio Grande drew global attention to the human toll of the migrant surge, but to agents along the border such drama is a near-daily occurrence. Just days later, one of CBP’s Twitter accounts posted video of agents aboard a boat performing CPR on a teen pulled from the Rio Grande. In fact, today, its most elite unit, the agency’s equivalent of the SEALs or Delta Force, primarily is tasked with rescuing migrants in medical distress.

People typically do not like to be assigned to do things other than what they were hired to do. They like it even less when they are not given the training and the resources to adapt to the new job. Telling employees to do something significantly different from what they were recruited for will often result in loss of morale. In this case, it's easy to say that the work that needs to be done caring for refugees is good work and thus that any good person would want to do it. However, people tend to have a strong sense of mission and even if they have a sense that work is good, if it's significantly different from what they signed up for they will often be upset about having their job changed without notice. If they also haven't been given the training and resources to help them through the change, this just makes people more upset at the idea of the change being forced upon them. And this too can result in people checking out or becoming cynical, accepting the lack of resources or direction without trying to make things better, because the employees are just trying to get by from day to day.

This is useful context in that while there are some stories that are clearly accounts of agents doing actively bad things which should be the cause of disciplinary proceedings, what seems to be causing the most harm is more a result of inaction in the face of escalating circumstances.  A massive increase in the number of migrants, combined with a shift in the demographics of migrants (fewer young men looking for work, far more women and children looking for new places to live) would require significant shifts in how agents deal with detainees and how they run their facilities.  In an organization beset with leadership problems and in which agents have been implicitly given the message time and again (not just in the last couple years but for decades) by their organization's behavior that the government does not care and will not make things better, many agents seem to have accepted the situation fatalistically and simply continued doing the same things even as the conditions have shifted around them so that those same procedures result in neglect and near collapse. 

The article notes:
These looming problems were apparent even in 2016 to the hard-nosed leaders of the union. Sitting in his office in McAllen, Texas, local union leader Chris Cabrera told me then how many lives agents saved everyday. “You won’t find anyone who rescues more people, saves more aliens’ lives, aids more drowning victims or recovers more dead bodies than the Border Patrol,” Cabrera said. “If you look at the Border Patrol, we’re the largest humanitarian organization on the Southwest border.”

It was a remarkable statement then—coming amid Trump’s heated, racist anti-Mexico campaign rhetoric, as the Border Patrol union became the first union to endorse his candidacy, followed later by ICE’s union. Yet that statement today captures the myriad complexities and contradictions rolled into the Trump administration’s modern immigration policy.

On the one hand, surely the Border Patrol saves more lives of migrants crossing than any other organization—yet its own inability and failure of leadership and resources to respond to the flood of asylum-seekers means that migrants’ lives remain in deadly jeopardy even after crossing the border. At least 12 migrants have died in CBP custody since September, including a Nicaraguan last week. In the decade before, not a single migrant died in CBP custody.
Near the end it offers a hint of the kind of organizational change which might provide the kind of change needed to meet current circumstances.
Kerlikowske, who led CBP through that UAC crisis in the Rio Grande Valley, says it’s worth considering a wholesale shift in CBP’s workforce—one that enlists a civilian workforce alongside the agents to aid and process migrants, leaving the armed law enforcement to focus on the Border Patrol’s mission of combating drugs and human trafficking—what patrol parlance calls the “runaways,” rather than the “give-ups.”

“Over these last number of years, it’s people turning themselves and looking for someone in a green uniform,” Kerlikowske says. “Is that something you need an armed, trained Border Patrol agent? Could you hire a civilian workforce to do the majority of that review and processing?
It's thinking like that which could serve to make things better in the long term.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Healed through the Intercession of Frances Cabrini

As I worked on writing up a brief bio of St. Frances Cabrini for Wednesday's VBS, I came across this gripping (and rather harrowing) account of the miracle that led to her beatification: the healing of baby Peter Smith.

May 14, 1921

Yawning openly on this gray afternoon, a young nurse makes a last round of her newborn charges in New York City’s Columbus Hospital Extension on 163rd Street. In the final moments of an unusually busy shift, the weary nurse’s thoughts are already far from babies as she bends over the whimpering Smith infant at whose midday birth she assisted two hours earlier.

Instantly wide awake, Mae Redmond gasps, “Oh God! Oh God!” for infant Smith’s face is like charred wood, cheeks and lips blackened and burnt. Pus exudes from both tiny nostrils. Worst, where eyes should be are only two grotesque edemic swellings.

Horrified, Mae must struggle not to pass out as her mind grasps for how this can be. No one has handled the newborn after his normal delivery since she herself weighed and measured him and put in the eye drops prescribed by law.

The drops! Suddenly her panic lunges in a definite direction. She staggers across the nursery and picks up the bottle of 1-percent silver-nitrate solution used in the newborn’s eyes. What she reads on the label makes her shriek hysterically again and again, “Doctor! Oh God! Get a doctor!”

Into infant Peter Smith’s eyes the rushed nurse has deftly dropped, carefully pulling back each lid to get it all in, not 1-percent silver-ni­trate solution, but 50-percent silver-nitrate solution. Even 5-percent to 25-percent solution is used only on unwanted human tissue — tumors, for instance — because it eats away flesh as effectively as electric cauter­izing tools. Fifty-percent solution will gradually bore a hole in a solid piece of wood. And it has already been at work on the soft human tissue of infant Peter’s eyes for two hours.

Read the rest.

Two-Minute Saint Monologues for Young Readers

Our VBS is this week, and we always have a saint of the day who introduces himself or herself to the kids. I write up these monologues, usually the night before. They have to be fairly simple, and tailored to our particular VBS (hence, St. Martin's final tagline). I post the first two of this week -- the only two I've written so far -- as evidence that we are still writing something here at Casa Darwin, even if our posting output is far down from years past.

And as I cut and paste these in, my daughter informs me that today is not St. Nicholas, but St. Thomas More, so I'll be writing another real quick.

St. Martin de Porres

Do you ever feel like your life is unfair? You might have it better than I did. I was born in Peru, South America, less than one hundred years after Christopher Columbus discovered America. My father was a Spanish nobleman and my mother was a freed slave. Although I longed to serve God in the religious life, I wasn’t allowed to, at first. It was illegal for people of mixed race to become a full member of a religious order. Do you think that’s fair?

God gave me a great gift of humility, though. I volunteered to serve at the monastery and do all the dirty work no one else wanted to do. I swept the floor, served the sick, cleaned the kitchen, and did the laundry. Some other brothers didn’t like having me around because I was descended from slaves. Do you think that’s fair?

I also did some very unusual things, like healing the sick, floating in the air while I prayed, and being in two different places at once. I loved animals, and they loved to be around me. Once I convinced a dog, a cat, and a mouse to all eat from the same bowl!

Finally I was allowed to take vows and become a full brother in the Dominican order. For 25 years I served the sick in the infirmary. I went through the streets to find sick and dying people, and brought them into the monastery. Sometimes I put them in my own bed! Some people thought I was crazy, but many others begged me to pray for them.

After I died, people wrote letters to the pope telling him how holy I had been. There’s even a painting of me made during my lifetime. Even though I died almost 400 years ago, you can see what I looked like. And if you want to know how I lived my life, all you have to remember is that…

When life is unfair… GOD IS GOOD!

St. Nicholas

Maybe you think you already know all about me because you’ve heard me called Santa Claus. I’m curious to find out if you really know about my life!

Did you know I was born less than 300 years after Jesus? I lived in the country of Turkey. My parents were wealthy, but they died when I was a child. I gave all their wealth to the poor and became a priest.

Do you know that I really put presents down a chimney? A legend says that I tossed three bags of gold into the chimney of a poor family to save their daughters from being sold into slavery. I dropped the gold down the chimney because I didn’t want anyone to know that it was from me. 

There are lots of legends about me! Some say that I raised three boys from the dead. Some say that I stopped a violent storm at sea. Some say that I even slapped a heretic at the great Council of Nicaea! People have been telling stories about me for centuries because I was so loved by everyone.

I am the patron saint of children. Because I gave many gifts, I became a symbol of Christmas giving. The Dutch people called me Sinter Klaas. If you say that fast, you can hear St. Nicholas. Try it! 

My feast day is December 6, right before Christmas.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

In Defense of E. B. White's Talking Animals

Simcha Fisher has up an interesting post in which she takes on, as the title puts it "The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White", crepuscular being a word which a boy character in The Trumpet of the Swan notes down to look up at the end of the book. The word refers to animals which come out in twilight, and Simcha finds it an apt metaphor for the dark world implied by White's classic children's books.

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.
It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine.

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?
A number of Simcha's additional criticisms have specifically to do with The Trumpet of the Swan, and I'm hampered in addressing them by the fact that although I've read Charlotte's Web several times and Stuart Little many time, I've never read The Trumpet of the Swan. As such, consider this more a general defense of White's oeuvre than a point by point argument with Simcha.

The talking animal is a staple of stories as far back as we have stories, perhaps because we humans are so clearly animal in our bodies, and so to our reason it seem natural to wonder what it would be like if other animals had some degree of reason as well. Since animals do not, in fact, talk, authors have wide latitude in how talking animals are portrayed. C. S. Lewis in some sense takes the easy road, in that his talking animals in Narnia are themselves totally set apart in kind from "dumb beasts". In Narnia there are both talking deer and non-talking deer. You may hunt and eat a non-talking deer, but to hunt and eat a talking deer is considered as wrong as to hunt and eat a human. Lewis's talking animals basically are humans in animal costume. His animals are clearly different from those in our world, and our thinking about them bears no relation to how we think about animals in our own.

What White does is, I think, more interesting and more realistic (if one can speak of realism when dealing with talking animals.) His talking animals are animals and fill the place in the world that animals fill in our own. Wilbur is a pig. He is, thus, potentially food. He's even potentially waste. Fern's father is originally planning to go out and kill him because he's the runt. Fern demands to know whether he would kill her because she was small. He wouldn't, of course, because Fern is a human. We don't kill humans because they might not thrive. We do sometimes kill animals for that reason. Fern is given the pig to care for, not because it's fundamentally wrong to kill a pig, but because Fern (as small children often do) forms an instant empathy towards a creature which may not be fully deserving of it.

Don't get me wrong. Wilbur is Some Pig. But he's still a pig. It would not have been fundamentally wrong to kill Wilbur as a runt any more than it would be fundamentally wrong to put down a sick pet.

Children, however, are still figuring out what should be related to empathetically and how much. I remember an occasion, many years ago, when my sister (probably then around six or seven) named a cockroach we found in the backyard Antigone and wanted to care for and nurture it. I disliked cockroaches intensely (remembering our old apartment building which had been assailed by them) and so I did the natural older-person thing and stepped on Antigone lest it perpetuate its kind. (I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether such experiences of older brotherly behavior may have contributed to my sister's distinguished career of writing YA Fantasy which involves its share of bloody maiming, particularly of kin.) My sister angrily remonstrated with me, describing in detail the moment of terror and pain that Antigone must have suffered as I stepped on her. My reply was prosaic: It's a cockroach. It's meant to be stepped on.

And this is what I find interesting about the world of E. B. White's animals. They communicate and have feelings and motivations, and yet they also clearly belong in their animal place in the world. In Stuart Little, which is my own favorite, we see this made particularly clearly because the main character, Stuart, is a mouse born into a human family. Stuart, having been born to humans, seems to be "a person" in ways that the other animals (many of which talk and think in their own animal ways) do not. The family cat, Snowbell, would not really mind killing Stuart if the chance arises. This is not because Snowbell is evil. It's because Snowbell is a cat, and that's simply what cats do. They try to kill small animals.

This animal-ness of the animal characters is perhaps most clear when we look at the relationship between Stuart and the small bird he falls in love with, Margalo. Stuart falls in love with Margalo from the first time they meet -- on a cold winter day when Stuart is sick in bed and Margalo is found on the windowsill by Mrs Little and brought inside to warm up. Margalo, however, though she saves Stuart's life at a key point, never really seems to relate to him in the same way that he relates to her. He wants to be with her always, but one day, with the threat of the cat looming over her, she feels the urge to fly north, and she does so without a word to him.

Stuart's love for her, which eventually leads him to leave his family and set off on a great American journey, is almost like that of Thurber's moth for the star -- he admires her and yearns for her, but there is not truly a mutual relationship between them. Indeed, when he goes on a date with a woman just his size named Harriet -- a date on which all plans seem to go awry -- she shows more concern for his feelings than Margalo did in their significantly longer time around each other. Harriet relates to Stuart like a human, Margalo like a bird.

Perhaps having animals that talk and think and yet are clearly animals, who eat each other or end up on zoos or may be eaten, is a strange and ambiguous thing, but if so I think it to an extent brings sense to the strange and ambiguous world which as children we create in our heads. Children are still sorting out the fact that they may feel great empathy for a cat, and very little for an annoying neighbor, and yet the cat may be put down if it's sick while the neighbor may not. White brings to life the kind of world that children are already creating in their imaginations, but brings to it also the reality that animals are animals and humans are humans, and each have their places and limits in the world. This is, I think, why Fern naturally grows away from the world of Wilbur, and why the book doesn't see this as any kind of betrayal. Fern must inevitably grow up and take her place in the strictly human world, the possibility of talking animals abandoned. As, in the end, must we all.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Μαγική σφαίρα

Years ago, I was walking down the toy aisle in the grocery store, when my eye was caught by a Magic 8 Ball. Now I'm a sucker for a Magic 8 Ball, so I picked it up, shook it, and asked some question.

The answer was in Greek.

I don't remember whether or not the packaging was in English, but all the answers on the polygonal die were in Greek characters. I shook it several times, sounding out the answers. And then, and then, I put it down and I didn't buy it.

Why? That question has haunted me for years. Why on earth did I walk away from the Greek Magic 8 Ball? Did I feel that predictions in Greek were a bridge too far, too much like fortune telling for comfort? Did I balk at the minor cost? Did I feel it was silly to buy another toy I already owned? Whatever the reason, I've regretted it since that day, but no matter how I prowl the toy aisle at Kroger, I've never seen another Greek Magic 8 Ball surface.

Our current Magic 8 Ball is popular with the children. (My 5yo can recite most of the answers if you ask him a yes or no question.) It gets rolled about, thrown on the floor, stepped on. This morning when I picked it, I notice that the die had broken apart into two halves, both of which kept trying to surface at the same time. No matter how you shook it around, the answer most of the time was "Signs Point to No" (the 8 Ball's commentary, perhaps, on the way it gets treated.) And so I wondered: could I find the Greek Magic 8 Ball? Ναί or όχι?

τα σημεία υποδηλώνουν όχι, as it turns out. Lord Google does not deign to admit that a Greek Magic 8 Ball exists. Even Greek toy sites, if they carry a Μαγική σφαίρα, have English versions. But I know they exist, because I saw one, once, in a grocery store in Delaware, OH. Where did it come from? How did it end up there? Why didn't I buy it?

I'd ask the Magic 8 Ball, but it only answers yes or no questions.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Border Crisis

I was doing some reading around to better understand the problems at the southern border. This page of statistics is particularly interesting.

Fiscal year to date (Oct thru May) the number of border apprehensions of either unaccompanied children or family units with at least one child went up from ~90,000 during that period last year to ~390,000 people this year. That incremental 300,000 people is like the entire population of Pittsburgh suddenly showing up with no houses, no facilities, etc.

None of this goes to excuse actively bad behavior being allegedly committed by some members of the border patrol and by leadership intent on making an example of illegal immigrants for political reasons. However, it's also easy to see how even if everyone were acting in good faith suddenly having to deal with four times the number of people that were dealt with last year would cause all sorts of logistical and housing problems. Most of us were experience problems if we suddenly had to feed and house four times the usual number of people that we were responsible for last year.

This migration pattern also represents a significant change in the types of people crossing the border. Although the number of people apprehended who are either children alone or families with children has gone up by 4x, the number of single adult apprehensions is up only 27% from ~160,000 to ~200,000. For whatever reason, the increase in people crossing the border is almost entirely an increase in family and child crossings.

Meanwhile, PRI reports that while the number of people requesting asylum each month has been relatively constant about about 4,200 per month, that's only because the US has persuaded Mexico to keep a lot of the asylum seekers on their side of the border, where there is a 18,000 asylum seeker backlog. Even so, the roughly 40,000 people who have either applied for asylum or are waiting to do so are only one tenth the number of people who have been picked up crossing the border during the current fiscal year. While there are a swelling number of asylum seekers, there's a much bigger problem with people just crossing, and the US then having to figure out what to do with them. And that number of people is large enough to completely fill a new mid-size US city just with border crossers from the last eight months.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Darwiniana, 18 Year Edition

As Darwin noted, yesterday was our 18th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, the big girls broke out my wedding dress for the first time in 18 years. (It wasn't packed away anywhere archival; in fact, it was still crammed into the David's Bridal bag it came in. Maybe when we hit a round 20 years I'll have it cleaned and put in a box.)

I'll do about anything for theater, so in October I dyed my hair auburn in order to play a character 20 years younger. That's growing out now, and I'm going back to my natural state of near-whiteness. "Dad looks ten years younger than he is, and Mom looks ten years older," my 15yo pronounced with the callow honesty of one who hasn't borne seven children in 15 years. Thanks, hon.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Eighteen Years

Eighteen years ago today, we got married. In one of the standard story arcs, that is the end of a story. Perhaps in one sense it was. If drama is built around conflict, our few periods of conflict, looking back, were mostly prior to getting married, the rest of the tensions of a long engagement plus the faltering early steps of a very young couple still trying to get used to living out the rules for avoiding strife that we knew but had not internalized.

But looking back it seems clear that there is much more story, much more change, if very little conflict, in the eighteen years since our marriage than the nearly four years we'd known each other prior to it.

Indeed, there's been change enough that looking back over those eighteen years the couple that got married that June day in Los Angeles, they seem a slightly foreign pair whose motivations can be a little hard to remember.

If there were something I could reach back and urge that young couple to do differently, it would be not to worry so much about proving that we were our own independent entity. The young are often urgent to prove their independence, and looking back this caused us to do things that were unnecessary. Our plans for our own wedding were over-influenced by a desire to be different from other people's weddings. And as we settled into early married life, although we lived very near my parents we saw less of them than we could have: My mother who had experienced a somewhat suffocating mother-in-law was determined not to force the family on us, and we were equally determined to show that we could live our own independent lives. Of course we could, but if I had known how little time I had left with my father alive, I would have acted differently.

Something that I'm very grateful for from those early days is that several older couples we made friends with in the first years of our marriage managed to take us seriously despite our youthful brashness. It's very helpful to interact with couples who have been married longer, and looking back I particularly value those friendships even though miles and years have come between us.

Eighteen years is something of an inflection point. Next year, our eldest child will be legally an adult. In another five or six years, we may have our own children contemplating embarking upon marriage. In four years, we'll reach the point where we'll have been married half our lives.

It's been a very good eighteen years, and we're deeply grateful for them. We hope that there are many more yet to come.