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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Trolleyology for Turkeys

For all my trolleyologists out there. Hope your family holidays are peaceful, as you eye your relatives, trying to determine who will be the fattest after turkey and pie.

And if you're looking for ways to stuff yourself as well as the bird, I repost my mother's cornbread dressing. (Dressing because I've always served it on the side.)

Amy's Cornbread Dressing

  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano

Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.

Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.

Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.

If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.

Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.

Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thanksgiving Rerun: The Wonder Game

It's almost Thanksgiving, so time to re-run this piece. You will no longer find the Thanksgiving post excerpted below hosted at the link, but enough of it is shared here for you to get a sense of the original.


I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and I was surprised to find myself unmoved. Surprised because Gilead is beloved by many friends whose literary tastes are trustworthy. Surprised because Robinson is a good writer and Gilead is well-written. But it did not grab me. I could not surrender to it. It is a book of much spirituality, perhaps not surprising because the main character is a preacher and has fifty years' worth of sermons to draw on when the narration needs a little religious boost. Our narrator, John Ames, is an old man hastening toward death, writing his testament to his seven-year-old son. Impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, we are told, and the book is suffused -- no, drenched -- with wonder. We are, to be sure, as Fanny Price says, a miracle every way, but the wonder of it began to wear on me long before the end of the book. 

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that, in my corner of the Catholic internet, there are many fine writers who are able to find the grace of the everyday, so that Robinson's reflections are not as novel as they might be to a reader who encounters no other medium through which to examine the manifestations of the next world in this one. I am used to reading the fine writing of Elizabeth Duffy, for example, and Robinson's writing reminded me of Elizabeth's, only Elizabeth is rather more hard-hitting than the mild John Ames, casting a clear eye on rinse/lather/repeat efforts to find grace in the mundane and often unflattering details of life.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally crossed the finish line on all fours.
It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I’d start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back–because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it’s not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory–and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance–that there’s a point between fatigue and falling down that’s quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I’ve felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.
This weekend we put in the garden. I’ve abandoned a large garden way out back that’s so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we dug out sod, turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards. I’ve felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working–like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.
Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, “I want to give glory to God without fear.” I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I’ve looked at it here and again, I can’t think of anything with which to chase it. It’s still a concern of mine, but it’s more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.
In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.

Another reason for my less-than-perfect engagement with Gilead is the grace vs. wonder divide. I didn't find the book so much full of grace as full of wonder,  the gentle wonder of a old man seeing life through the lens of death. So much goodness, so much beauty, if only everyone knew how beautiful they were. All very good things. But I've heard Robinson accused of having universalist tendencies, and I can see that in several instances. There is some ugliness in the book, some bad blood, but none of it manifests in the main character needing to make a moral choice right now, this moment, to rely on grace. In fact, what seemed like a crucial situation, in which John Ames fears that he might be leaving his wife and son to the predations of a malicious character, just melts away into a distant topical problem related to the 1950s setting. Ames does not, in the end, have to confront the necessity of depending on the grace of God to protect his family when he cannot. He has written reams of spiritual guidance and explication over the years, and yet when he appealed to as a preacher for counsel, he repeatedly wiggles out of having to give any concrete testimony to his beliefs. No one's really all that bad, it seems, and the malicious impulses of the heart, sin and evil, go, in my opinion, mostly unexamined, and we settle back into the predictable wonder of every day being the last day.

Robinson is, as I have said, a fine writer, and her wonder-ful images are memorable -- a young couple walking down the street, shaking raindrops off trees; a father and son neatening an abandoned, unloveable graveyard; the image, much dwelt on, of Ames's sooty father giving him a biscuit in the lull of helping to pull down a fire-struck church, an image that seems to resonate more with Robinson that with me because bread of affliction, communion actually has a literal meaning to me.  But again, it's wonder, rather than grace, that jumps out at me. Taking a book's cover blurb as any kind of meaningful analysis is an iffy proposition, yet in retrospect, this sentence sums up the book well:
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation.
The lack of the corporeal vision of God is a problem because the main wonder of creation is that God became his own creation in a corporeal way. The body becomes a literal, not a metaphorical, conduit of grace. A vision of life as a wondrously strange creation without a corporeal vision of God tends to descend into treacle and nostalgia and soft soap.

Robinson is, of course, a gifted writer, skilled enough to keep her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from straying into the romantic and the purely picturesque. And then, and then, there's the wonder of Ann Voskamp:
Mama can kick leaves in the woods like she’s tearing back the crumpled paper wrapped over the surface of things. 
She walks with a stick. 
She dragged it out from under some maple saplings. And then she pins that trail under her right down. 
Like there’s no loud and flippant way she’s letting anything make her miss the now right under her, no way that that now could just up and slip out from under her. 
You could be a sophisticated cynic and miss your whole life that way. 
You walk a bold, amazed way when you know the destination is right here.
There is, apparently, a variety of wonder-drenched writing which drifts into a precious and almost unintelligible aestheticism, the sort of writing someone described to me as "'the tea-kettle's all dancy on the stove' shit".
What had Mary Oliver defiantly scratched down with an inked stick of her own? 
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.” 
Everyone’s wild to stop feeling overwhelmed – but nobody ever wants everything to stop and be over. 
Mama walks like that through the woods. Like she knows it’s going to be over someday… all over. That your face will come tight right up to it and there’s no stick you can fine anywhere to fight time off. 
And then there’ll be that stark moment when you turn and see what you were married to. You can live your life as the bride married to Hurry, having affairs with Not Enough, Always Stress, and Easy Cynicism. Yeah, I guess we all get to choose our own bedfellows. 
Mama always said it and she didn’t care what anyone thought of it: God was her husband. And that ain’t just some metaphor to get the Pharisees all in a prudish knot – it’s brazen Scripture. Take it or go ahead and leave it. We all get to choose our own bedfellows – and who we’ll give our soul to, who or what will get our life. 
Mama’s standing there, already decided. 
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, vowed to Awe Himself, covenanted to Christ –and I took the whole of everything He gave in this gloried world into my open arms with thanks. 
Because really? Yeah, I guess so — Anybody can be a cynic. Cynicism is laziness in every way. 
The real heroes are the ones who never stop looking for the possibility of joy. 
“Here is good. I think we should do it right here.” Mama taps the ground of the trail with her stick, holding here down. Here always has some good if you look at it long enough. 
“Good light.” Mama looks up. 
So that’s where Levi and I drag the tables to. Haul in stumps to stand in as legs for plank benches. Throw old quilts down as tablcloths and lay out the plates. 
“Are we crazy?” I tug at the end of one of the quilts. Mama raises her one eyebrow — “I mean, not in a general, yes, obviously-we-are-crazy sense — but in a specifically in a trying- to- have- a- Thanksgiving-dinner in- the- woods- sense?” 
Mama grins. Winks. Knowingly. 
Yeah – she doesn’t have to say it. 
Wherever you are – Thanksgiving is always for those crazy enough to see grace for the trees.
Thanksgiving is always for the courageous and Grace is always for the risky
We lay out the table and string up the banners and make up our Thanksgiving Tree  —- 
And it’s all ridiculous enough to be meant to be —
This is the sort of lush wonder that never requires one to develop it in a whole paragraph, the kind of cray-cray-crazy abandonment! that's so adorably luminous that to examine it with any kind of critical eye and ask, "What does this even mean?" makes one the laziest of cynics. It's the sort of Pinterest-ready spirituality that makes a brand of turning grace into a species of wonder, a packaged Christianity that makes you feel that maybe your life could achieve the pretty standard set by the author if only you buy her NY Times best-selling gratitude journal and accompanying devotional.

Robinson is better than this. Her wonder actually stands up to cynicism. But for once, for once, I actually yearn for the gritty ugly grace of Flannery O'Connor, because she dares to strip away the coatings and the veneers and the prettiness to show grace in all its raw and destroying beauty. The grace that sanctifies the tedious without stripping it of its penitential reality is a good deal more potent and enduring than the dreamy wonder of a "radically subversive" picture-perfect Thanksgiving table in the woods. The grace that stands in the face of evil and declares that it shall not triumph is more heart-wrenching than the broad and easy path of universalism. Wonder, yes. Enchantment, sure. But only as ancillary to grace, not as its totality.

Friday, November 16, 2018

St. Margaret of Scotland

Today is the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland, who is also my confirmation saint. Brandon had a good biographical sketch of her in his most recent All Saints Day roundup:
Margaret of Scotland 
Margaret was born to the exiled English prince, Edward Ætheling, while he was in Hungary, so she grew up in the Hungarian court of King Andrew I. She returned to England when her father was recalled in 1057; she would have been somewhere around 12 years old at the time. Her father died almost immediately after his arrival, but the family stayed in the English court for a while until, after the Battle of Hastings, Edgar was declared King of England by the Witengamot. Alas, he was never crowned; William the Conqueror invaded and the nobles of England just handed Edgar over. Margaret and the rest of her family had to flee northward to Northumbria. They would eventually end up in Scotland. The story is that they had decided to return to the continent, but their ship was blown off course to a place that is today called St. Margaret's Hope, near North Queensferry. There they met King Malcolm III Canmore (the same Malcolm who is fictionalized in Shakespeare's Macbeth), a widower with two sons; Malcolm was intrigued by Margaret. That she was one of the last surviving members of an English dynasty was probably one of the reasons, although it may not have been the only one. They married in 1070. It was not the kind of marriage one would expect to be successful -- Malcolm was a very rough man and seems not to have had a religious bone in his body -- but they actually thrived together. He seems to have liked the polish she brought to the court and actively encouraged her to do whatever religious work she deemed appropriate. He did not participate in her regular prayer and religious devotions, but he did not at all stand in the way of them. He seems to have particularly liked having a literate wife (he himself could not read); despite his lack of interest in religion, he often had her read Bible stories to him, and he had gold and silver covers made for her devotional books. In order to facilitate pilgrimage to Dunfermline Abbey, Margaret established a ferry across the Firth of Forth, which gives the towns of South Queensferry and North Queensferry their names. She also did extensive charitable work for the poor. Malcolm died at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093; St. Margaret died on November 16 of the same year, just a few days after having received word of his death. She was canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV; her feast day is November 16. 
The curious thing about confirmation saints is that sometimes they find you, and in my case it was after my confirmation.

As the time approached for me to settle on a confirmation saint, I was in a quandary, being unilluminated by any clear saintly vision. I didn't have a great devotion to anyone in particular at age 14, and I didn't even know which qualities I wanted to select for. At the time my mother was reading aloud to us a biography of St. Margaret of Castello. Poor Margaret had a difficult life, being small, deformed, imprisoned, abandoned, and finally a kind of anchoress. Her personal virtue was admirable, but I didn't feel particularly drawn to her. However, I had to pick a confirmation name, and as my mother's middle name is Margaret, I chose that in compliment to her and for the poor unloved Margaret of Castello, whom I felt ashamed of not honoring more.

Several years later I first heard of St. Margaret of Scotland, and felt that here was the Margaret I'd been waiting for. An educated woman, a mother and queen with a Shakespearian connection! As I'd been confirmed "Margaret" with no identifiers, I assumed the mantle of Margaret of Scotland.

I don't know the legitimacy of switching out Confirmation saints, but I believe that good Margaret of Castello, humble as always, was kind enough to lend her name and hold St. Margaret of Scotland's place until I found her.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

All I Ask

We are in the midst of the crazy season here, which means theater. I just finished my turn as Peggy Grant in our community theater's production of The Front Page, and this weekend my three oldest are participating in the local parochial school's night of scenes. Friday is a two-show day, which is its own form of chaos, and I've compounded that by accepting a request to sing at a wedding on Friday afternoon.

Now, wedding singing is not actually stressful. You cantor the psalm and the alleluia, you sing hymns chosen by the bride and groom, an Ave Maria if they want to light a candle to Mary. And you get to watch a wedding which has no emotional involvement for you, to admire the dresses freely, and to mist up at the vows simply because marriage is a beautiful thing. And all of this from the peace and remove of the choir loft. All in all, I enjoy it.

And yet. Here is a hymn selected for this Friday's wedding, freely chosen, I assume, by the bride and groom.
Refrain: All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you. 
V1. Deep the joy of being together in one heart and for me, that's just where it is. 
V2. As we make our way through all the joys and pain, can we sense our younger, truer selves? 
V3. Someone will be calling you to be there for a while. Can you hear their cry from deep within? 
V4. Laughter, joy, and presence: the only gifts you are! Have you time? I'd like to be with you. 
V5. Persons come into the fiber of our lives and then their shadows fade and disappear. But...
 This, a musical commemoration of the Last Supper, is "All I Ask of You" by Gregory Norbet, OSB, and the monks of Weston Priory, not to be confused with the infinitely more tuneful and emotionally compelling song of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Webber, OBE. The Right Honourable The Lord Lloyd-Webber, Kt, however, not having chosen a vocation that compels him to the service of God, makes no pretense about crafting music suitable for use in the liturgy of the Mass. Mr. Norbet, a Benedictine at the time of the writing of this song, must be held to a higher standard.

The guidelines for wedding music at our parish are: "With all due respect to other styles of musical expression, only liturgically appropriate music may be used at weddings. Popular and secular music, such as Broadway, film music, top 40 songs, and taped music (previously recorded music) are not appropriate for liturgical use in Church during the wedding ceremony." What then, makes this particular song liturgically appropriate? The tune is not distinguished, and the lyrics cross the line from banal to "bad Google translate from Japanese anime theme song".  And yet: it is printed in a missalette compiled by Oregon Catholic Press, an accepted source in our diocese for worship aids.

So we must search for responsibility higher up. What editor at OCP listened to this hymn, read the words, and thought, "This is a shoe-in for Catholic worship! Parishes will certainly benefit from having this hymn in our collection, and the words express an accurate and suitable expression of our Catholic beliefs"? Last year's editor, apparently; All I Ask of You is not included in the 2019 Breaking Bread missalette, soon to be found in the pews of our parish. However, our bride and groom are getting married before Advent, when the old missalette is still in force. And All I Ask of You is #490 in the 2017-2018 Breaking Bread. Perhaps OCP has turned over their music editor, and may the tenure of the new tastemaker of Catholic liturgy be orthodox and appropriate.

To drill down to the level of personal responsibility: why am I, the person on the spot from whose throat the lyrics will be issuing, singing this dreck? To be succinct: because I'm being paid to do it. The song is not openly heretical and has been approved, I assume, by our music director and our priest. The bride and groom must like it at some level, and it won't invalidate their marriage. I will register a protest to our music minister that this song should be on our list of acceptable wedding hymns. All I can do otherwise is to offer it as a sacrifice for the bride and groom and to ask God that their marital love will not be limited to the confines of their "younger, truer selves".

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Nov. 11th, 1918, The Guns Went Silent

The timing of the US federal holiday of Veterans Day is based on the celebration of Armistice Day, the day that the fighting was halted in World War One, on November 11th, 1918. The armistice had been signed early on the morning of the 11th, and 11:00AM Paris Time was chosen as the hour at which hostilities would end, so that word could get to all units on both sides of the Western Front.

This restored recording from the Imperial War Museum records the sounds of war going silent on that eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918. A moment later, a birdsong can be heard.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018


One type of creativity cancels out another, so they say (actually, I just made that up, but it feels truthy), so in this month of ramped-up theatrical activity, I've done almost no writing. The resulting atrophy makes it difficult when something happens which I want to write about, such as the fact that on Monday the family doctor sent my 4yo to the emergency room down at Children's Hospital for a spinal tap to check for meningitis, but the Children's doctors diagnosed him as actually having a strained neck muscle and sent us home untapped.

How shall I write this up? As an inspirational tale of gratitude and relief ? But I don't feel all that grateful, and I was never all that worried about the possibility of meningitis in the first place. As a snarky account of sitting in the waiting room assaulted by an hour and a half of godforsaken Disney channel sound-stage sitcoms? That was pretty bad, actually, and I have all sorts of thoughts about the infantilization of the mind of the American child and the decay of dramatic and literary sense inspired by three episodes of Bunk'd. But I am already crabby (thank you, American political scene, and yes, I did vote), and this is not a subject upon which it would be too easy to wax sarcastic without the slightest leavening of charity, and in the glut of electioneering I do not need any more incentives to set charity aside.

Perhaps I can turn this into a wry post about how after 16 years of parenting I'd be chagrined to find that I can't tell a strained neck muscle from meningitis, except that apparently the family doctor can't either (a line I honed on Facebook, except that I was tired and added a year to my parenting count). Perhaps I can craft a rant about what if we didn't have the insurance to cover a what-if trip to the ER, except that we already wrote that post when the now 8yo was sent to the same ER for a skull fracture. (Note: I have very distinct memories of Darwin writing this post, but it appears nowhere in the archives. Maybe we only talked about it? Maybe it languishes in draft somewhere?)

As the 4yo finally made it back into triage, the nurse looked at him and said, "Oh, he is favoring one side of his neck." And as I noticed that too, I felt the first swellings of panic. What if there actually was something wrong, and I really couldn't tell? What if we were heading into some long ordeal with my poor little fellow? But both my head and my gut told me that he was going to be fine, and after a few hours, we were walking out with a heating pad and a negative strep test. Because yes, another sibling has strep -- that's why we were all at the doctor's office in the first place.

As I lay in bed Monday night, staring at the spot where my little Bible normally sits on my nightstand, I realized that I hadn't learned anything. Even though the day had been eventful, I was ending it almost exactly the same way as every other evening, with no sense of this day having been a particular gift, or having been spared the worst. Indeed, I wasn't even reaching for my Bible to read my nightly chapter, because I'd put my Bible in my purse when I wasn't sure how long I'd be at the ER. I contemplated how ungrateful I was that my general feeling that nothing serious was wrong with my son was confirmed, and how, in a world where people suffered for the Word of God, I couldn't even bring myself to walk downstairs to get my Bible. And then I rolled over and went to bed.

And God had mercy and did not call me to judgment in the middle of the night, but allowed me another day and another chance to recognize my many blessings and make a sacrifice of praise.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Why I Am Still Conservative in Trump's America

Tuesday is election day, and marks two years since an election which did not go at all the way that I expected. I didn't vote for Trump (or Hillary) and I went into the evening feeling sure that Trump would lose. He didn't, and if American politics had been toxic and divisive before, it's been even more so since.

I remain opposed to Trump and to those others cut from his mold who have come to increasing prominence in the GOP over the last two years. Some friends (both progressives and those who were of the right but now consider themselves sufficiently anti-Trump that they think it is necessary to vote in Democrats at all levels in order to purge the party of him) have asked me at times why I would continue to describe myself as a conservative in these times. Some have described the remaining GOP coalition as being made up entirely of "people who think abortion is the only issue to vote on and out-and-out racists".

Abortion and euthanasia are important issues to me, as are other "values voter" issues such as opposing redefinition of gender and family, protecting freedom of religion, etc. However, I'd like to set those aside for a moment and talk about why even setting aside those issues I'd find the Democratic party as it exists now to run mostly contrary to my preferences. The exercise of setting aside some of my most strong political preferences may seem odd, but one of the arguments that I hear often is that it's either impossible to make progress on these issues as this time or else that these life/moral issues would be better served by a "whole life" approach of getting people better jobs and benefits, thus removing their motive to make use of abortion, euthanasia, etc.

The Economy

To my mind one of the more moronic political slogans is "it's the economy, stupid". It may be true that a key swing segment of voters will vote for the party currently holding the presidency if the economy is going well, or the opposing one if it's going badly, but I don't think that the president has much sway over the business cycle. I don't think Bush deserved blame for the 2008 crash, nor Obama blame for the low employment during his presidency. I don't think Trump deserves credit for the record lows in unemployment we're currently experiencing. And if the Democrats get the White House in 2020 and the economy tanks again shortly afterwards, I won't consider it their fault either. I think that when people try to do "analysis" where they look at levels of unemployment or poverty by presidential administration over the last fifty years, they're mostly showing their analytical bankruptcy.

However, I do think that overall economic policies can be more or less conducive to a strong economy and the way that the human person works. If I look at the economic policies most popular among the bright young up-and-comers on the left side of the political spectrum, they are:

- Guaranteed employment or else universal income guarantee separate from employment
- Free college for all
- Tax the rich / eliminate inheritance
- More and stronger unions
- More regulation of companies, busting of monopolies, crack down on banking, etc.

I'm not going to go through each of these individually, as it would take at least one lengthy post to discuss each, but I will attempt to address what I would see as the general themes which these policies exemplify and why I disagree with them.

The first theme is a belief that people will flourish more without having to make choices with the necessity of survival in mind. You shouldn't have to take a lousy job just to make sure you have food on the table. You shouldn't have to think about how you will pay for college before deciding whether to go or what to study. Wages should be collectively negotiated, not based on the market value of the work or the performance of the individual worker but rather on the collective agreement (which to reliably benefit all members of the group the most typically means seniority and jumping through administrative/training hoops.)

I think that this misses a basic aspect of human nature. Our natural tendency is to be self involved, and to seek what seems like the least work and most pleasure in the short term. If people are guaranteed an income separate from doing work that others find valuable enough to pay for, a lot of people will choose not to do the hard work which even in a highly technological society is necessary to make our food, build our cities, manufacture our goods, etc. Even if, at some level, we know that all of this work needs to be done and done well, when the living that we know we need to earn is not dependent on it, we don't tend to work that hard or that well. We see this in the communist regimes of the last centuries. About half the agricultural product of the USSR was produced by the tiny portion of cultivated land which was under private control, while the massive collective farms which were allegedly the full time job of the collectivized peasants were far less productive.

The second theme is the conviction that democratic and regulatory processes are able to administer many areas of the economy much better than market processes. According to this way of thinking, it's fairly easy for people in general or regulators in particular to judge when the market is being over-greedy or wasteful. I think often these urges to regulate result from over simplification, and the proposed fixes are ineffective or actually destructive to the common good.

Self Defense

Another area in which the left tends to prioritize collective action over individual is in defending oneself against threats to life, limb, or property. To this way of thinking, allowing wide access to the weapons that people could use to defend themselves makes it too easy for people who want to hurt others or themselves to get hold of weapons. Thus, it's better to restrict access to weapons to law enforcement, and for people to rely on law enforcement to provide them with any protection they may need. We see the logical extreme of this in countries like Great Britain, where people have on occasion been prosecuted for defending themselves against an intruder in their own homes with something as otherwise inoffensive as a kitchen knife.

I recognize that allowing people the access to such weapons also allows them the choice to misuse them to hurt themselves or others, and that a world in which no firearms were in private hands would be a world in which there were fewer people murdered, but at a basic philosophical level, given the choice between allowing self defense and giving exclusive power of defense to the state, I'd still pick allowing self defense despite these risks.

Town over City

As "the big sort" increasingly results in densely packed urban areas that vote for the left versus more rural areas that vote for the right, the left has increasingly accreted policies that favor dense urban areas and the groups associated with them: renters over owners, urban professionals over families with children, etc. Having grown up in Los Angeles and eventually found my way to semi-small town Ohio, I have the expatriate's dislike for a lot of the urban fixations, including rent control, restrictive zoning, and the massive infrastructure boondoggles needed to get even more people into the dense urban cores of a half dozen cities. To the extent that one of the axes of modern US politics is regional, I favor the "flyover country" axis over the the urban hub axis.

Foreign Policy

In some ways, the US seems caught in the foreign policy contradictions of the late Roman Republic: we're one of the few global powers capable of enforcing order, yet we quickly become discouraged and resentful when it turns out that showing up in some country peripheral to our sphere, knocking over the regime there, and setting up  favored rulers doesn't automatically result in peace and order. The left has been reflexively against our imperial entanglements since the Vietnam war. Originally this was through a mix of wanting to help the Soviet sphere and more idealistic feelings (often somewhat accurate) that the US was stomping on smaller polities. These days it's basically all the latter, mixed with a sort of holdover anti-US sentiment that perhaps results from the former. However, the right has also become increasingly frustrated with our "foreign entanglements" as a new isolationism has taken hold.

The US is certainly not always on the side of the angels in the international sphere, but overall I think it has done more good than bad as a global power, and I think that a US retrenchment would be more likely to result in increased regional wars than in a reduction in them.

Law & Order

There's blame to spread around here, and I almost didn't include it because right now there is deeply rooted in much of the right a reflexive willingness to argue that any police officer that uses deadly force was right regardless of circumstances. I don't agree with this tendency. However, I do still have a much more conservative approach to law and order than a progressive one in the following sense: I deeply believe that we cannot have a thriving polity unless it is a polity of laws. Those laws will at times have to be enforced using force. The laws will have to be enforced even if the people breaking them are mostly disadvantaged in various socio-economic ways.

I think the difference in mentality here is well captured by the point during the Ferguson riots when several of the bright young writers of the left were writing pieces about how rioting was a reasonable reaction to the oppression of the Black community, about how this was a way to strike back against the economic and political elites, because they didn't care about peaceful demonstrations. "What is the optimal level of rioting?" asked Matt Bruenig, writing at Gawker.

I'll never consider burning down people's businesses, cars, or homes to be an acceptable means of agitating for change. Perhaps it's that I'll always be a child of Los Angeles, but I'll always see the forces of spontaneous social order as the Korean immigrant shopkeepers who armed themselves and protected their stores from being looted and burned, while I'll always see the madness of crowds as the mob that pulled innocent truck driver Reginald Denny from his big rig and smashed his head with bricks on live TV.

Economics, self defense, foreign policy, regional priorities, law & order.  All of these issues put me on the right rather than on the left. 

I do in some ways find myself more in agreement with the left (or the center) on immigration.  And I find Trump repulsive in multiple ways.  And yet, given my overall political beliefs, there little to make me want to vote in Democrats either, since almost everything they would do would move the country further from how I think it should work rather than closer. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter and the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Over the last month I've been participating in an online group that's reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrud Undset, a massive historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, but it reads to me more as one) set in 14th century Norway. Unset wrote Kristin in the early 1920, and was received into the Catholic Church shortly afterwards in 1924, something that shows in the knowledge and realism with which religious matters are discussed in the book. However, it wasn't a niche-only success at the time. Indeed, Undset won the Novel Price for Literature in 1928. In more recent years, Undset's fame has perhaps waned a bit, but it's arguably on the upswing now, as suggested by this piece in Slate from last year about Kristin Lavransdatter.

In recent years, however, there have been signs that Kristin Lavransdatter is beginning to build up an international following to rival her domestic one. Her rescue from literary obscurity started in 1997, with the release of the first volume of Tiina Nunnally’s new translation into English from the Norwegian. Nunnally’s elegant interpretation strips the text of the leaden medieval-isms (“methought,” “belike”) favored by the previous English version. These days, Undset encomia are a staple on Catholic-interest websites, and certain corners of literary Twitter flog the series relentlessly. In 2015, William T. Vollmann told the New York Times that Kristin was his favorite fictional character, noting correctly that the trilogy “bears many rereadings.”

Kristin Lavransdatter’s three volumes total more than 1,000 pages, which follow the daughter of a wealthy farmer from age 7 through her dramatic death. (I won’t spoil major plot twists here, but if you’re worried, stop reading this and just go buy the books already.) In The Wreath, Kristin meets the great love of her life, who is not the man her parents chose for her. (The also-ran isn’t an awful guy; she could tolerate him “especially when he was talking to the others and did not touch her or speak to her.”) In the second book, The Wife, she gives birth to many sons and deals with the fallout of her husband’s rash meddling in royal politics. And in the final volume, The Cross, Kristin watches her sons grow up and, oh, by the way, reckons with the future of her immortal soul.
If HBO is looking for its next miniseries, it should give Kristin Lavransdatter the proper adaptation it deserves. (A Scandinavian film version directed by Liv Ullmann in 1995 was plagued with production problems and received middling reviews.) Rereading the trilogy this fall, I kept thinking of Olive Kitteridge, another powerful novel about a prickly mother turned into a worthy HBO miniseries. This trilogy includes illicit sex, affairs, a church fire, an attempted rape, ocean voyages, rebellious virgins cooped up in a convent, predatory priests, an attempted human sacrifice, floods, fights, murders, violent suicide, a gay king, drunken revelry, the Bubonic Plague, deathbed confessions, and sex that makes its heroine ache “with astonishment—that this was the iniquity that all the songs were about.” And yet all the outward drama is deployed in service of a story about an ordinary woman’s quietly shifting interior life. Another tempting comparison is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, whose huge commercial success suggests there is a market for series in translation about fierce, complicated women navigating their culturally conservative European milieu.

To sell the Kristin Lavransdatter novels as “hot” in terms of either content or buzziness somewhat misses the point, though. “Listing the strengths of Kristin Lavransdatter will not make the novel fashionable,” the scholar Otto Reinert wrote in 1999. “It is unexciting labor to claim merit for the conventional.” He was referring to both the books’ style and their moral tenor. It would be criminally simplistic to describe the series as “conservative,” but there’s a reason it appeals so powerfully to a certain kind of bookish Christian reader. As flawed as Kristin is—she is proud, lustful, brooding, and fails to live up to her own moral standards—she is a devout believer, and the books are intimately concerned with her relationship with God. Undset was a Catholic convert, and one of the most remarkable things about the trilogy is that it’s a rare literary depiction of religious people that is both empathetic and unsentimental.
It definitely seems to me that Undset deserves to be remembered and read as one of the better writers of historical fiction out there. Her portrayal of medieval Norway is seamless and utterly convincing. Not only do you find yourself believing that this is how people lived and thought and acted in a time and place very alien from our own, but she does such a good job of putting us into that world that we understand within the context of the novel why these people acted and thought the way that they did, even while realizing how alien their world was in some ways.

This got me thinking a bit about what the purpose of historical fiction is. Why should we come to understand how people lived and felt and made moral choices in a world far away in time and place.

One reason is simple curiosity. Fiction can be a powerful and involving way to help us understand what people experienced in other times. In this way, a novel may actually serve as a better introduction to understanding some era or event than reading a history book about it. Years ago, a friend whom I had asked for a recommendation on a book about the Spanish Civil War recommended Jose Maria Gironella's massive historical novel The Cypresses Believe In God rather than a history book, and it is indeed a great way to understand the divisions and suffering in pre-war Spanish society and how they spiraled into actual war. On a smaller canvas, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is probably the most accessible way to get a grasp of the Battle of Gettysburg, because of rather than in spite of the fact that it's a novel rather than a history book.

However, I think there's also a human and moral reason for reading historical fiction which goes beyond curiosity about other times. We are often very deeply embedded within cultural and moral assumptions of our times. These become unthought-of-axioms for us, underlying our thinking without being much examined. One way in which we can be drawn to look at and question our beliefs is to see the universal human experiences and situations we face through the different lens of another time and culture. With what's familiar stripped away, we're forced to think more deeply about what is actually a virtuous or wrong way to behave. And once we've been forced to think that through about another culture, understanding how human interactions and moral choices play out in that world, we can look back at our own world through eyes which are now partially those of a stranger, a person from another place or time, and see things more for what they are rather than what we assume them to be.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Let Halloween be Halloween

A Small Totoro

One of the advantages of having older kids is that we're able to hit Halloween in waves. First Shackleton, Thing 1, and and a Skunk went off with a group of friends. Then Eliza Schuyler headed off with a friend. And at last Angelica Schuyler and a Swashbuckler in Black headed off with another group of friends, leaving me and a little Totoro to hand out candy.

What we didn't have any of is saints costumes.

On a few occasions, they've participated in homeschooler or parish All Saints Day parties where kids dress up as saints, but even in those years they've also had a Halloween costumer for trick-or-treating.

There's no harm in kids dressing up as saints, of course. My objection is not to that. But it does bother me when Catholic groups feel that they need to do holy counter-programming to Halloween. There is, at root, nothing wrong with kids dressing up as something fun or scary and going from door to door collecting candy.

No, it's not satanic. It's not superstitious. And there's no reason why good Catholic kids can't dress up in fun costumes and go door to door like everyone else.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More Unengaged Voters Is Not A Good Thing

With mid-term elections looming, every venue seems to be blaring with encouragement to vote. News venues; signs in the neighborhoods; the banners of social media sites like Facebook; all have been filled with encouragement first to register to vote, then to go out and cast your vote.

I'm all for people becoming more involved in understanding the issues and candidates and casting a well considered ballot, but I'd like to voice a note of contradiction in all this. We have a tendency to romanticize democracy. Surely the voice of the people is right and deserves to be heard! Not necessarily. In the words of Men In Black's Agent Kay: "People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."

It is the delusion of many people that most others secretly agree with them, so perhaps they urge everyone to vote on the theory that if only everyone voted, even those lazy, disengaged voters who stayed at home and watched reality TV rather than going to the polls, then the candidates believe should have won would have.

And yet, it's the least engaged citizens, the citizens who don't read newspapers, don't watch debates, don't have a clear sense of what the parties are about, and tell interviewers that they voted for the candidate they "wanted to have a beer with" who are arguably most likely to be swayed by big money spent on campaign ads, by the panic of the moment, and by unformed impressions of which candidate is "strong" or "good" or "understands people like me".

As a republic governed by the people, for the people, we should not have legal or procedural barriers that seek to screen out voters based on some measure of how educated or involved in politics they are. If someone wants to cast an uninformed ballot, or even check boxes randomly, I support his right to do so. One person, one vote. But let's not romanticize the uninformed voter. If someone has so little regard for our government that he can't be bothered to show up on election day or in a near month long period of early voting and absentee voting leading up to it, chances are his grasp of the candidates and issues involved is tenuous at best. We don't need one more voter casting his ballot based on celebrity or impulse or what ads he happened to see.

What we need is more involved citizens, not just more voters. And if people aren't going to be involved and educated in their civic choices, it's not great loss if they don't vote either.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Being Rescued By One True Love Is Not A Bad Thing

I read an interview the other day, in which some highly successful woman talked about how she didn't let daughter hear fairy tales because it was terrible for a little girl to grow up thinking all she could do was wait for a man to come rescue her.

The message, as I take it, is: Don't just sit around waiting for someone else to change your life. Be independent. Have dreams. Achieve them yourself. Live your best life. And if love comes along, sure, fine, embrace that too. But don't wait for it to rescue you.

That's not unwise advice, at some level. One should not actively refuse to live and to better oneself out of hopes that somehow love will come descending like a cherub and transform your life.

And yet, to voice that objection to fairy tales strikes me as misunderstanding fairy tales. Cinderella is not passing up job offers or scholarships to clean house, waiting mousily for love to come and rescue her. She is, like many of the young people in fairy tales, dealt a very poor hand: her mother dead, her father remarried to a cruel woman, then her father dead. Trapped in a dead end job, she does the best that she can by being as virtuous as she can, by returning good for evil.

That a fairy godmother sends her to the ball where she attracts the attention of the prince is in some sense simply an externalization of a basically moral point: even in a bad situation, it is more rewarding to be good than succumb to evil.

None of us will be given the chance to marry royalty, perhaps, and swept away a life of wealth and ease. Yet if we do find someone to love, and who loves us, it can be one of the brighter points in life.

Indeed, it's even worth giving up a fair amount of that dream chasing in order to be with the person you love and provide for the chance for your love to be fruitful.

One of the first things I did when we decided to get married was drop all the ideas I'd talked about concerning a creating career and get a job that paid bills. I don't regret that a bit. The dreams I'd toyed with, of trying to be a professional novelist or breaking into film, were nothing compared to a life with my wife and our children.

And even within that more practical way of life, one makes choices for family rather than ambition or dreams. I turned down a job prospect this week, a prospect that would have meant a raise and a company that put a lot more emphasis on the kind of analytical work that I do, but would have meant moving our family to another city, tearing up roots and moving away from friends. There's a slight wistfulness to such decisions, but it's not something I regret. The fact is, my career does not consist of following my dreams. I work my career in order to pay for the welfare of my family. And that love -- of spouse, of children -- is a far greater thing than all the self striving I could ever do.

Why shouldn't fairy tales end with finding love? My beloved is, after all, the best thing that has ever happened to me. What better happy ending will we find?

Friday, October 26, 2018

St. Crispin's Day

A day late, alas, but old women forget:

We only watch this once a year, but it warms my heart that the kids know a great many of the lines and can recite along with Ken.

So get your friends together and get inspired to do... something.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Cancer in the Clergy

This struck me as a fairly perceptive article dealing with the crisis of clerical abuse and vow-breaking, and all the more surprisingly so given that the source is Commonweal, a magazine not necessarily known for its fanatical devotion to Church teaching on sexual morality.

Among those issues is one that no one in the Catholic hierarchy seems eager to investigate: the extent to which there are gay networks operating within the American priesthood, its seminaries and chanceries, and within the Vatican itself. And to what ends? Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs. But it wasn’t just clericalism that allowed McCarrick to abuse seminarians and young priests for decades, even though his behavior was widely known within clerical circles. And it wasn’t just his ecclesiastical clout that provided him protection. It was networks, too.

By networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.

During the nearly four decades I spent writing about religion for Newsweek, I heard numerous tales of “lavender lobbies” in certain seminaries and chanceries, told mostly by straight men who had abandoned their priestly vocations after encountering them. At one time or another, the whispering centered on networks in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, among other dioceses. One of the few priests to complain in public was the late Andrew Greeley, who spoke of gay circles operating in the administration of Chicago’s Joseph Bernardin, a cherished friend of his. As far back as 1968, I heard similar rumors about priests serving in the Roman Curia, mostly from Italians, who are generally more relaxed about homosexuality than Americans and unsurprised when those leading double lives are outed. What concerns me, though, is not simply personal hypocrisy, but whether there are gay networks that protect members who are sexually active.

To use the phrase "cancer" may seem to some unnecessarily inflammatory, but I chose it with a certain consideration. What, after all, is cancer? It is a disease in which cells threaten by the body because they have the ability to reproduce much faster than other cells around them, thus causing abnormal growths which threaten the body. It strikes me that in some sense, the presence within the all male priesthood of networks of clerics who are sexually active with each other acts a bit like a cancer. It's not just that these men are violating the sacred vows they have taken before God and the Church, though that in itself is of course very bad. But the fact that these are networks of somewhat promiscuous male-on-male sexuality acting secretly within the all-male priesthood creates a network of extraordinary closeness seemingly tailor made to take over points of power within the Church. A figure like McCarrick must have had dozens of men also in leadership positions within the clergy who had a history of intimacy with him or about whose own transgressions he had knowledge. Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved, and the nature of McCarrick's network must have mixed the two: men with whom he had sexual history and also men who knew that he could reveal their own transgressions.

A priest with a mistress or a history of abusing female parishioners might have the same openness to being blackmailed, but because his former lovers would all necessarily be outside the clergy, he would not have the same network within the clerical hierarchy which combined former lovers and people whose secrets he held.

And so all male sexual networks would have a particular ability to take over an all male, theoretically celibate clerical group which no other type of sexual sin could command in quite the same way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

With A Cherry On Top

It's been a long couple days, but I don't want to let yet another day slide by without a post, so here's a relaxing drink post.

My go-to drink these days is either a straight Bourbon or rye, or a Manhattan. My constant for a number of years has been that while there are plenty of good options for the rye that goes into a Manhattan, the key thing is to use really good vermouth, namely Compano Antica Formula. I don't particularly recommend the (rī)1 rye whiskey mentioned in the post. It's over priced these days. Any decent rye will do. I'm currently working through a bottle of Knob Creek Rye which is quite good for Manhattans. I love Michter's rye to drink straight, but it's almost not robust enough in flavor to make a good mixed drink. Just drink it straight.

Recently, however, I've made two innovations in my Manhattan game, at the recommendation of old friends, and both changes have proved very welcome discoveries.

I'd long dropped putting cherries into my Manhattans. The classic livid red maraschino cherry is a pretty noxious thing, and as I've mixed my Manhattans lighter on the vermouth and heavier on the whiskey over the years, I've not enjoyed the sweetness that comes with those candied fruits. However, a friend insisted that I must try Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries. Simply put, they're wonderful. A bit sweet, but in a dark, rich sort of way, not at all cloying. They're not at all cheap, but a jar of them will keep you going a long time. Worth the add.

My other new ingredient is using Cocchi Vermouth di Torino sweet vermouth. I'd run into my previous favorite, Campano Antica Formula, via the WSJ How's Your Drink column ten plus years ago. It's an outstanding vermouth, and if you've only ever had the likes of Martini & Rossi you absolutely have to try a quality vermouth. It's world changing when it comes to making a quality drink.

As with other sweet vermouths, this is a fortified, sweetened, red wine which has been infused with aromatic herbs. Cocchi is milder in overall taste (less sweet and less herbal) than Compano Antica Formula, indeed it can be interesting drunk straight. By the glass would be way too much, but a small amount to sip as a flavor is actually quite nice. I find myself adding a bit more of Cocchi to a Manhattan than I had been using of Compano, because the taste is milder. But it's definitely a refined, quality sweet vermouth worth picking up and mixing some drinks with. It's even slightly cheaper than Compano, at least here in Ohio.


Friday, October 19, 2018

The Rich Young Man and Ignored Vocations

I was particularly struck by the gospel last Sunday, in which we heard the story of the rich young man:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
We normally think of this in a straight forward way, in reference to the way that wealth makes it easy to be attached to the things of this world above God. This is, after all, what Jesus emphasizes to his disciples "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"

But what I thought of this time in particular is that it's interesting, particularly at our particular moment in the church, to think about the specific way in which the rich young man refuses Jesus's call. By his own account, the young man is already living what we might think of as a devout religious life. What is it that Jesus asks him to do at which the young man balks?

"Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

In other words, Jesus asks him to give up his place in society, his family, his home, and come do God's work full time. What is this in modern terms? To give up one's job and the opportunity to have a family. Take vows of poverty and chastity and take up a religious vocation.

It's not simply the fact that the young man is rich that is the issue. It's that the material and family comforts he has are important enough to him that he rejects Jesus's call to pursue a religious vocation.

Perhaps it's too easy to read this story as simply about the evils of being rich. In modern America in particular it is our particular quirk that in the most wealthy country in the world, virtually no one admits to being "rich". But Jesus is, I think, asking a harder question here. Are you called to follow him entirely in pursuing a religious vocation? Are you prepared to give up the ordinary comforts of the world in order to do that?

As we contemplate the shortage of vocations in the developed world, how many "rich young men" are going away sad from Christ's call?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Christianity in the Modern Age

A friend posted this piece entitled "Elephants in Rooms" from The Catholic Thing and asked people's thoughts on it, and since I needed a post for the day I figured I'd write them up here.

It summarized the economic changes from a largely agrarian world which it describes as one in which families worked together as a whole to a world in which adults work outside the home while retreating to the home for some degree of time together as a family (though that itself is much interrupted by the entertainment and digital world.) This economic change, it posits, is the elephant in the room which has disrupted the traditional mores of Christianity. The conclusion:

We are all “trans” today. Men and women are treated as interchangeable, and since the development of public education, all the traditional functions of family have been farmed out. The family exists today as a unit only of consumption; if that, in light of fast food and fast everything.

The Christian religion (as all other religions) is predicated upon basic, universal, pre-modern social arrangements. These no longer exist, unless they are voluntarily adopted. But they cannot be adopted without comprehensive interference by the vast agencies of government and business which have by now assumed ALL the ancient patriarchal functions.

One might say, as some feminists do, that this makes men unnecessary. It also makes women and children unnecessary, except to generate a labor force, itself increasingly unnecessary due to advances in production techniques. The abortion mills thus make perfect sense: first to free women from distractions to employment, and then to phase out men and women entirely.

This, to my mind, is the elephant in our room. We do all in our power to accommodate it. Perhaps we should work on re-accommodating Christianity, instead.

A couple reactions occur to me.

Firstly, while I think there's a good argument to made that changes in economics and technology have had a major impact on the extent to which 'traditional morality' is re-enforced by cultural circumstances, think it's important to recall that neither traditional morals nor traditional social structures are the central aspects of Christianity. Rather, the central aspect of Christianity is the fact that God became man, suffered for our sins, rose from the dead, and provides the sacraments to us as channels of grace so that we may some day spent the rest of eternity in the beatific vision of Him. I assume that the author of the piece is well aware of this, but it's worth reiterating because too often these days moral practice is seen as the central aspect of religion. Certainly, if we believe that Christ is God, we should desire very much to follow His moral laws. And we often find ourselves expending considerable energy in insisting the God's laws remain immutable. But if God's laws are immutable, then they are in substance no less for this moment than they were for 33 A.D.

Second, it's worth recalling that the past was not always as conducive to moral behavior as we might think. The image that we often hear of is of a society in which people married and stayed married, lived in rural cottages, and worked together while rearing their children. This did, of course, happen. But these same traditional societies featured younger sons who were expected never to marry because they didn't have enough money to support a family; women who didn't find or couldn't afford a husband and so became single domestic staff to their own families, 'fallen women' who had few other options than to live by prostitution (thus providing an outlet for the men who would never be able to afford marriage), etc. Traditional societies had their own strong tendencies to vice, it's just that they were different tendencies to different vices than those in our highly fluid economy and individualistic society in which people are told they should value personal fulfillment above all things.

So yes, the modern economy (and perhaps even more so, modern contraceptive technology) have removed many of the incentives which we recall in cultural memory as belonging to the time just before the modern era. As we Christians think about how to live morally within the modern era, we must in part think about the particular ways in which modern society has embedded in it assumptions and incentives towards immoral choices. And yet, all eras present their own tendencies to vice. Our need to find ways to live counter-culturally in seeking virtue is not unique. The culture is different, but it's imperfection is not.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Men" Is Not A Group Capable of Taking Action

As a child, I recall suffering from the delusion that all adults were in league against me and in constant communication. If my mom asked me "How was school today?" it was doubtless because she already knew about the difficulty I had had with my teacher that afternoon. If my teacher asked, "Did anyone have trouble with the homework assignment?" it seemed obvious that she somehow knew about the fuss I'd kicked in front of my parents over doing it.

One of the problems with the "identity group" approach to politics and thinking is that it engages in a similar kind of thinking, but applied at an even unlikelier grand scale.

A prime example of this was a Washington Post editorial from a few days ago, in which the author opens with an account of yelling at her husband about the misdeeds of men:
I yelled at my husband last night. Not pick-up-your-socks yell. Not how-could-you-ignore-that-red-light yell. This was real yelling. This was 30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling. Triggered by a small, thoughtless, dismissive, annoyed, patronizing comment. Really small. A micro-wave that triggered a hurricane. I blew. Hard and fast. And it terrified me. I’m still terrified by what I felt and what I said. I am almost 70 years old. I am a grandmother. Yet in that roiling moment, screaming at my husband as if he represented every clueless male on the planet (and I every angry woman of 2018), I announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead. If one of my grandchildren yelled something that ridiculous, I’d have to stifle a laugh.

My husband of 50 years did not have to stifle a laugh. He took it dead seriously. He did not defend his remark, he did not defend men. He sat, hunched and hurt, and he listened. For a moment, it occurred to me to be grateful that I’m married to a man who will listen to a woman. The winds calmed ever so slightly in that moment. And then the storm surge welled up in me as I realized the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women. As my rage rushed through the streets of my mind, toppling every memory of every good thing my husband has ever done (and there are scores of memories), I said the meanest thing I’ve ever said to him: Don’t you dare sit there and sympathetically promise to change. Don’t say you will stop yourself before you blurt out some impatient, annoyed, controlling remark. No, I said, you can’t change. You are unable to change. You don’t have the skills and you won’t do it. You, I said, are one of the good men. You respect women, you believe in women, you like women, you don’t hit women or rape women or in any way abuse women. You have applauded and funded feminism for a half-century. You are one of the good men. And you cannot change. You can listen all you want, but that will not create one iota of change.

In the centuries of feminist movements that have washed up and away, good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture. Not once. Bastards. Don’t listen to me. Listen to each other. Talk to each other. Earn your power for once.
Why have good men not taken the trouble to make other men stop treating women badly? Why do good Catholics not end the sexual abuse scandal? Why have good Muslims not made bad Muslims stop committing terrorism?

The fact is, these identity groups which are bandied about so freely are large. Larger, really, than we can conceive of. There are over 3.5 billion men in the world. How many have I met? And even of the people I have met, how great is my ability to bend people to my will, getting them to follow the moral laws that I believe in.

We each have a solemn duty to teach others and lead others towards leading a virtuous life. This duty is serious. Damned serious. Literally. When we sin against others or lead others into sin, we trifle with their and our damnation. And yet each choice is a battle in a war that we will not win this side of eternity. It is not a matter of just getting all men together at their secret clubhouse and getting them to resolve to behave morally. It can't be done. "Men" are not a group which it's possible to change in concrete fashion. We have a duty to teach and enjoin those we have influence over to behave virtuously, and yet even as we do that with all seriousness we must also realize that we will not in a day, a year, a century win the war against evil and be able to settle back in a world where it no longer occurs.

Meanwhile, it deserves to be said: If you find yourself yelling at individual people you know, not because of what they themselves do but because they belong to a vast group which you believe is acting badly in some sense, you are no longer treating the person in front of you as a person. You are treating them as a representative of a group that you resent as a group. And that is wrong.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Regulated Mediocrity

A brief tizzy of discussion moved through the online Catholic world today over reports from the Youth Synod that the English-language working group had recorded some seemingly critical notes on home schooling:
USA has many home schoolers – bishops in USA are not united, as homeschooling can have an ideological basis – kids may have special needs

are parents qualified to homeschool them?
It's hard to discern what sort of discussion was had from such quick jottings, but if Catholic home schoolers jumped to the conclusion that they were being critiqued, it surely was not without having experienced slights at the hands of local churches. Around the time we moved away from Texas there was a good deal of upset in the Austin diocese when the diocesan offices told a large Catholic homeschooling group that the new bishop would not be able to participate in their annual home schooling mass anymore because it would be inappropriate for him to in any way encourage people not to attend Catholic schools. Within our own parish here, we've had the pastor deny groups of home schoolers permission to meet in parish buildings, even though the home schooling families are active in the parish (including teaching Sunday school.) Again, the explicit rationale is that since the parish has a school, he can't give any aid and comfort to those who choose to pursue other schooling options.

It's tempting to see this as about money. Catholic schools are expensive to maintain, and they in many cases rely primarily on tuition paid by the families sending children there to meet those expenses. Parents who choose to school their kids some other way are thus seen as taking needed money away from the schools.

I expect this is the case to some extent. However, I think another perhaps larger motive can be seen in the concern that "homeschooling can have an ideological basis" and the question "are parents qualified to homeschool them?"

Catholicism is the most institutional of institutional religions, and our bishops often think in a very institutional fashion. As such, one of the tendencies I've noticed is that bishops often prefer mediocrity that they control to more varied performance that they can't.

For example, some years ago when I was helping to teach RCIA classes, an edict came down from the diocese that several "sensitive topics" (mostly relating to sex) should only be talked about by people who had gone through diocesan approved graduate theological training. If your parish happened not to have a volunteer catechist who had gone through the diocesan graduate program in theology, you could show a video which was on the list of approved catechetical materials.

These video materials were not particularly good. And indeed, some of the people who'd gone through the diocesan grad program weren't that doctrinally sound, or particularly good speakers. But this did give the diocese an appearance of control.

I've seen similar dynamics play out with marriage prep, youth catechesis, etc. There's a strong tendency to try to put in place means of greater institutional control, even if the result does not much increase the quality of the teaching or actively stifles it.

For institutions with this mentality, homeschooling must seem like the ultimate wild card. Sure, the diocesan schools often don't do that great a job at teaching the faith. And their quality of teaching may not be much different from the local public schools. (Indeed, in our own diocese the Catholic schools make a selling point of using exactly the same curriculum as the local public schools, the only difference is that they teach religion as well.) But diocesan schools are at least under clear institutional control.

Home schooling families, by contrast, are under no institutional control at all. They can pick the curriculum they want, teach in the style they want, and there is no way for a diocesan office to intervene. To an institutionally-minded bishop, this must seem dangerously anarchic. And so even though homeschooled Catholic students provide a disproportionate percentage of the young men entering the priesthood in the US these days, there is in the minds of many church men a cloud of suspicion hanging over them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Teaching Boys Morality Is Enough

There's a genre of piece these days in which parents are solemnly advised how to teach their boys not to be rapists. I read one this morning. The suggestions were to teach boys 1) not to bottle up their emotions and then explode into rage when they couldn't take it anymore, 2) to observe basic personal boundaries of the "don't touch people like that" and "don't burst in on family members when they're naked" variety, and 3) to behave respectfully towards others (not hitting, insulting, beating up, etc.)

It's not that any of these are bad ideas. They're good ideas. These are essential elements of raising a boy (or a girl) to be a decent human being. I was raised this way, and I raise my children this way.

If the current consciousness of the dangers of rape and sexual abuse are a good hook to use to remind people that they have a moral obligation to teach their children to behave towards others with basic human respect, all the better, I suppose. I would hope that parents think of the idea of teaching their sons to treat others well even before they read an article about the issue of the moment, but if not, I'm glad that this prompt finally gets through to them.

Why then do I even bring it up, if I agree with the suggestions given?

It often seems as if there is an underlying assumption in the "let's teach boys not to rape" rhetoric that this is a new idea, one which the "old" moral principles do not cover. When Christians attempt to use the concerns of the moment to say it would solve these problems if people obeyed God's law in regard to sexuality, the response is often: "Rape and sexual abuse was pretty common in 'traditional' societies. We can do better."

There's a truth to this which some apologists too quickly dismiss. The past was not a golden age in which people did not sin. Those who cast a rose-tinted gaze on the era before the Sexual Revolution often forget this. Yes, there was abuse and rape in traditional societies. There was also theft and murder and adultery even though these are against Christian moral principles as well. The fact that there was not the same formal challenge to 'traditional morality' that there is now does not mean that people did not sin. Sometimes people's knowledge of morality was twisted by their cultural assumptions. Other times they knew the moral laws but violated them anyway, just as today we hear often enough about "woke" advocates who are revealed nonetheless to have abused the women in their own lives.

However, on the other side there is another fallacy, that because people who are identified as being "religious" are often seen to sin in these ways, that somehow a whole new morality is required in order to teach that get across the idea that rape, abuse, and harassment are wrong. Even some religious writers have caved to this idea, arguing that it's not enough to teach traditional Catholic sexual ethics, but that we must also teach the "everything is okay so long as both parties consent" ethics of the secular sexual morality which is slowly being constructed in its place, so that people will have a backup ethics to follow if they decide to violate Catholic morals.

When ostensibly "religious people" sin in these ways, the problem is not that Christian sexual ethics are unable to convey to people that it is wrong to abuse and harass. The problem is this that people do not always obey the moral codes to which they give outward assent. This is the case whether the code in question is Catholic moral teaching or the secular code of consent at all times.

If men follow the Church's teaching on sexuality, if they treat women with the dignity they deserve as people made in the image of God, they will not rape, abuse, or harass them. If they treat women in those ways, they are not following the Church's moral teaching. We do not need a new moral teaching, a new understanding of human decency, we need to teach and follow the one we have.

Test Strategy

Yesterday afternoon my 16yo took the sample SAT test included in her prep book, and in the evening we sat down together to score it.

I'm not a demanding or pushy parent by any stretch, but I have to admit that my heart was sinking as we totted up the number of questions that were either left blank or were wrong. There wasn't any point in flustering her, but I did start to question my entire schooling ethic. Had I been so lax that we'd learned nothing? Maybe I was failing my children academically? Maybe the final score wouldn't even be college-material -- not a moral failing, of course, but not indicative of the abilities of a bright child. She too could see how things were trending, and her shoulders drooped the further we went. By the time we finished marking all the answers, we were both rather puzzled and distressed.

The score didn't actually make a lot of sense, so we hunted around on the SAT website until we found the metric for calculating what the equivalent final score would be for the raw answers we'd turned out for the PSAT. You had to look up the raw number of correct scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and the total of both Math sections. Those translated into a number that was close to the raw score, but not quite the same. Then you added the adjusted Reading and the Writing scores together and multiplied by 10. The adjusted Math score was to be multiplied by twenty. All this jiggering finally resulted in a number that was recognizable as an SAT score. In our case, it turned out to be a quite respectable number, and we sighed in relief -- and in triumph, because our detecting and calculating had been to good effect and had cheered us considerably.

As we analyzed our data, we realized that the test is not necessarily designed with the idea that every question will even be answered. In fact, you can get a perfect numerical score without answering every question, or if some of the answers are wrong. So, with one more day left to study, we built a test-taking strategy.

1. Go through quickly and answer every question that she can answer easily. That will take care of missing some shoe-in questions at the end of the test sections. For the math section with calculator, that means answering all the graph and word problems first, because those are much easier for her than the equations.
2. Go back and spend time on the lit and writing questions she knows she can solve but needs more time to answer. Work the basic equations.
3. Work through the hardest questions, if possible.
4. Since there's no penalty for wrong answers, guess on the ones she can't answer. Leave nothing unanswered!

As all the questions she missed on the sample test were the harder ones, this strategy will almost automatically guarantee her a higher score on the actual PSAT than on the sample one. And that's something that can build confidence right there.

This morning she went through the sections she hadn't completed in the test time yesterday, setting a time limit and answering questions according to this strategy. This garnered her some more correct answers, and a lucky guess in the math section. We'll see if all this strategy pays off tomorrow, but we're feeling cautiously optimistic right now.