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

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.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

I Must Decrease

Over the past week I have sung several funerals at our parish, each one different. A older wife, mother, and pillar of local society who died after a brief but difficult battle with cancer. A man, not quite middle-aged, who died of a drug overdose. And today, a 13-month-old boy who drowned.

Today's funeral was the hardest. The devastated parents clung to each other. The reader could barely make it through the first reading. I myself could not look up from my music, lest I see the little half-sized coffin and choke.

As we were driving there, I talked to my 10yo son, who was going to serve the mass. "This is going to be a sad occasion, and many people may be overwhelmed. If you start to feel emotional, remember that we're here to serve the family. Our job is to help without calling attention to ourselves, or do anything to distract the people who are grieving more because they're closer to the situation."

One temptation that I've had to fight at funerals at which I don't know the deceased is to make it about myself: indulging in the luxury of imagining myself in the situation of the bereaved. What if it were my father, my husband, my child? How easy it is to build up a scenario full of pathos, secure in the knowledge that it's all in my head. And yet, how contrary to God's nature: "I AM". It is no part of God to spend the present moment (especially in church!) in fantasies and counterfactuals, whether sad or idealistic or glamorous or actively sinful. The present is meant to be lived, whether in active love and service and sorrow or in quiet waiting with those who are joyful or suffering. Even our imaginations are meant to be used in the service of God and others, not for our own private emotional wallowings.

The antidote to this behavior is to stay in the moment: to focus on the words of the prayers, the notes on the page, the physical details of breathing at the right places and standing straight while I sing. The sorrow and the emotion have to be channeled into prayer and service for the deceased and the grieving. Errant trains of thought that start out, "What if...?" have to be redirected back toward the people at the inmost circle of grief, the ones who are now living the "what if?".

I have not lived the "what if?". I have never lost father, mother, husband, sibling, or born child. Every funeral I've ever attended has been outside of me. I have not been the bereaved. God has been merciful to me, but with that mercy comes the responsibility to pray and sacrifice even more for those who are suffering, either in the first throes of grief or in the long dull ache of loss. "He must increase; I must decrease," said John the Baptist (John 3:30).

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Creativity is Work

As I'm getting into the swing of spending several hours each day working on my textbook again, I wanted to share something I've been chewing on lately in regards to doing creative work. This is by my friend John Herreid, cover designer for Ignatius Press, and proprietor of J.R.'s Art Place on Facebook, which I entreat everyone to follow for their daily dose of beauty. 

"Don't talk about it" is the rule that cuts to the quick for me, as I'm very much prone to hashing out projects in great detail and then never doing the grunt work to bring them to life.


self portraits, by John Herreid


I’m fortunate. Much of my day job includes creative work, including graphic design, illustration, and writing. So even when I don’t have time at the end of the day to work on personal projects, I usually still had some small bit of creative work to look back on. (The unfortunate part of this: it’s then easy for me to make excuses as to why I don’t really need to work on those personal projects!)

But having worked for quite a while in a creative field has taught me some of the hard, practical things about creativity. Trying to keep active with personal projects is also important, as doing things such as getting out there to sketch or paint often feeds my professional work, and ideas that percolate slowly when commuting or staring at a screen often flow more easily when holding a pad and pencil.

Here’s a list of rather obvious tips that I’ve picked up. Many of these are ones people told me about and I ignored at first because they seemed too obvious; I thought I needed more complex routines. But simple is almost always best.

CREATIVITY IS WORK. We’re sold a picture of creativity that is ecstatic and wondrous, where artists dance about slashing paint at a canvas with intensity and verve. And, truthfully, creativity can feel like that at times. But most of the time it’s work. You have to be willing to set aside the idea that seeking fun isn’t the same as seeking the creative kernel of an idea. You also have to discard the idea that creative sparks will fly if you just sit and wait for inspiration. Take the first step and start.

STARTING WORK IS THE HARDEST. And with distractions all around it is so, so easy to find something else to do, like check social media or e-mail. Take the first step simply by opening a new document or image file or taking up pad and pencil. Then just start working on your project, even if all you are doing is doodling or writing sentences and deleting them. If you keep at it and get the ball rolling, eventually you will begin to produce something.

SET REMINDERS AND SCHEDULE AHEAD. If you plan on taking three nights a week to work on a project, set a reminder or alarm on your phone or computer. Mention it to your spouse. Make it so that you don’t have the excuse that you forgot.

DON'T TALK ABOUT IT. Wait until you have something to show. One of the easiest things to do is talk with your friends about a project you really want to do instead of actually doing it. I think talking about your potential project can trick your brain into thinking that you actually accomplished something. Instead, wait until you have something to show—even if it’s just a small something—before you talk much about it. That way you’ll also get more feedback on your idea without the project fizzling into a woulda, coulda, shoulda daydream.

DON'T OVERESTIMATE YOUR ABILITY TO COMMIT. One of the best ways to end up not accomplishing anything is to set a wildly unrealistic goal. “I will spend three hours every evening working on this project.” If all you realistically have is an hour or even half an hour, make that your commitment. Otherwise you’ll fulfil your expectations once or twice and then abandon them.

FEED YOUR CREATIVITY. When I’m feeling burnt out creatively, the best remedy for me is watching a great film or heading to an art museum. For others it’s a concert, or a walk in nature. Whatever feeds you creatively, make a commitment to encounter with it fairly regularly. It’s not an indulgence.

FIND CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICS. At work I have the art director I work under, and for my art projects at home I try to send images to friends who can give me honest feedback. Don’t just rely on people who give you unconditional praise. You won’t grow unless you get some correction. And for goodness sake, develop a thick skin. There’s nothing worse than a beginner who refuses to listen to a wise critic.

LEARN FROM THE BEST. I regularly read book design blogs and follow artists I like online, making special effort to find out what their work process is like. In whatever creative field your interests lie, find a number of people to watch. You might even try dropping them a line or talk with them if they have a blog or social media presence. A lot of creative people are pretty generous about answering honest questions from those really wanting to learn.

Any other people have good tips for creativity? Let me know!

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Real Problem With Christianity

According to a certain line of thinking, there is not greater threat to the Christian message in our current day than to tie Christianity to a political movement which half the country considers obviously villainous.

It is quite possible that this is true. It is also possible that the greatest current threat to the Christian message is the idea that one's creed hardly matters beyond personal taste since anyone can be "a good person".

If we look to the previous century as an example (in which many Christians endorsed nationalism in the first world war and fascism in the second, all the while thinking that they were fighting the good fight against godless socialism, while those who successfully rejected nationalism and fascism all too often endorsed indifferentism and held that Christianity was only good, if it was good at all, when it served as a force to unite the poor against the powerful in a stricture secular struggle) it's pretty clear that both of these contentions are true in what they critique but blind in what they endorse.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Money Pit, part 23423

A week or two ago, I signed a contract to have our eroding sandstone porch (ca. 1929) hammered down and poured as cast concrete in August. It broke my heart to do away with the masonry, but having the stone replaced was prohibitively expensive, and the concrete will be molded and antiqued and sealed so that it looks like stone. More to the point, no one will be likely to injure themselves on ancient stones that have rotted away. Anyway, we had the money in savings.

Last night the Jack and Jill bathroom ceiling fell.

In the fresh morning light.
That particular bathroom, set in a corner and accessed through two kid bedrooms, has been in a bad way since we bought the house (and before, obviously). That window is set in the chimney -- in the chimney, I say, not beside it -- and somewhere up there is a leak we've been trying to fix for nine years. We've capped the chimney, we've tasked the roofers with examining the flashing where the roof meets the chimney, we've had the window worked on. And we thought that perhaps we had dealt with it, except that the past two weeks of non-stop rain have wreaked havoc on the ceiling. It started to crack, then to bulge, and then it collapsed.

A shot from a year or two ago, showing the wall damage.
We knew that one day we'd have to strip this bathroom down to the studs, but we always hoped that day could be pushed out and pushed out. The bathroom has been functional, and has the one really useful shower in the house. (There are four showers in the house. One has never been used due to a leak, one is in the attic in the cat bathroom and subprime, and the third is always draining slowly and has no water pressure and takes forever to get hot.) 

I guess we're all traipsing down the hall to the low-pressure, low-heat shower for a while.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Chanson d'automne

In June 1944, Radio London broadcast the first stanza of Paul Verlaine's Chanson d'Automne, to let the French Resistance know that D-Day was coming. The first three lines, sent on June 1, indicated that the invasion was to start within two weeks; the second three lines, sent June 5, gave 48 hours' notice. D-Day, of course, was June 6, 1944.

Here is Verlaine's poem, and my translation.

Chanson d’automne
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.


Autumn Song

The autumn song
of violins' long
dry drone
Wounds my heart
with langour's smart,

Breathless, wan,
all choking on
the hour's call,
Olden days
in memory's haze,
as tears fall.

Born aloft by,
carried off by
gusts of grief,
To and fro
as winds blow
a dead leaf.

(I find, doing further research, that my last lines are almost exactly the same as Arthur Symons's translation, but I came up with it myself, so I'm letting it stand.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Our community theater just performed Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel's interviews with Chicago laborers. (Hence the radio silence here on the blog during production week.) My two oldest girls and I were in the show, playing a variety of working-class joes. Wish you all could have seen it, but here are our selections.

I was an aging teacher, bitter about the changes that the years had wrought in my classroom. The lady who sings it here belts it out and is working hard on her American accent (this being from the London cast recording), but I played it lighter and a bit more dotty, based in part on the five-foot chemistry professor who trotted into Chem 101 at 9:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and chirped, "Who's excited about science?" to a bunch of sleepy freshmen.

Also, I wish you all could have seen my coke-bottle glasses, in which I was nearly blind, but which magnified my eyes to crazy-scientist levels.

This song was composed by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein). Listen for the Sound of Music nod in the very last line.

My oldest daughter, 17, was a delivery girl dreaming of a better life. The character is named Freddy Rodriguez in the script, but she used the name Delores Ramirez as a tribute to her great-grandmother. This song was added for the 2012 revival and was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

My second daughter, 15, played an immigrant nanny. "Minamahal kita" means "I love you" in Tagalog -- when she sang that, she signed "I love you". She was so pleased to have this song because it is reportedly Lin-Manuel Miranda's favorite song.

We'll miss the thrill of performing, but it is a relief to have our evenings back.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Return of Dr. Boli!

The world is a vale of tears, but sometimes a glimmer of light breaks through. Here's your glimmer for today: the estimable Dr. Boli is publishing again. This is the quality content which the internet was created to showcase. Here, a challenging word scramble:


UNSCRAMBLE THE LETTERS to find the secret word, and of course if you want to cheat you may use the clues provided.
1. Health resorts for the well-to-do.
SSAP = _ _ _ _
2. Hapless fools; usually preceded by “poor.”
SSAP = _ _ _ _
3. A gap between peaks, affording travelers a route through the mountains.
SSAP = _ _ _ _
4. Venomous snakes, of which Cleopatra was rather too fond.
SSAP = _ _ _ _

Friday, June 07, 2019

A Lived Model, not an Academic Model

Last week, when the Spirit was pouring words through me, I wrote to all our parish catechists asking for their support as I went to the parish offices to propose different model of religious education. PSR means "Parish School of Religion", the regional term for religious education classes.

Every one of us knows, and many of us have talked about it together, that no matter what we do in PSR, what is most important to children in learning to live the Catholic faith is their parents' example. We know that parents are the primary educators of their children. I would like to suggest a once-a-month family catechesis model for next year, a strong support system for helping parents live their faith and model it for their children so that children are actually immersed in Catholic life, instead of just hearing about it in a classroom once week. For our children, for our families, for our parish, this is crucial!

Our children will be better prepared for First Communion if they are living every day in a family that is making efforts to pray together, to attend mass every Sunday, and to take advantage of the sacrament of Confession. Our teens will be better prepared to receive the Spirit at Confirmation if they see their parents actively trying to use the gifts that they received at their own Confirmations.

I want a family catechesis program to be open to every single family in the parish, not just to "PSR families". We have a line of demarcation between school families and non-school families that is divisive, and I would like to heal that division and help our parish to be a true family. I'm sure that there are school parents who would love support in living their faith more deeply so that their children won't just shrug the Church off after graduating.

This is why I'm proposing a lived model, not an academic model. I believe deeply in knowing the history of the church and in understanding the doctrines and tenets of the faith, but all the Diocesan graded courses of study in the world cannot replace a family going to mass together each Sunday, or reading one bible verse together before supper. Children can tell what their parents really prioritize.

The kind of model I'm thinking of is a program like this: This is NOT in addition to our weekly classroom hours, making more work for catechists and putting our already strained resources to the task. This is INSTEAD of our current classroom model. The classroom model is failing our children -- not because our teachers aren't dedicated, because I've seen you all at work, week in and week out, pouring your hearts into your classes. But if parents are not living out the faith, not going to mass, then PSR is just a band-aid, a cosmetic check-the-box fix for a deep and festering wound in our parish life.

What I hope for with family catechesis, and what some parishes around the country do, is to work with parents to help them live the faith for their children. Instead of weekly classroom time where parents drop off children, family catechesis would involve once-a-month meetings with families to help support parents in becoming living examples of the Catholic faith for their children. Our classroom model simply isn't working as a means of passing on faith -- it just lumps religion in with other school subjects for kids. I'm suggesting transitioning away from the classroom almost entirely, even just as a one year experiment. I hope that a program like this would actually increase family participation, by cutting down on the "check the boxes" aspects of PSR which have little to do with the heart of Catholic life and practice.

This would reduce the time burden on families, and would put the emphasis not on the academic knowledge of Catholicism (which our students don't seem to be retaining anyway), but on putting the faith into practice. If we can increase family mass attendance, if we can bring families into going to confession more often, if we can support parents in modeling forgiveness, mercy, patience -- in making the real lifestyle changes that show their children that they believe that the faith is real and will make a difference in their lives -- we will have accomplished more for our parish than any classroom instruction we can give children.

Many parents want help and support. They're interested in having their children learn about Catholicism, but feel like it's something for experts or other people to teach. My point is that if we help families to realize that the main way to transmit the faith to their children is to live the basics -- to pick up a pin for the love of God, as St. Therese said -- we will have done more for our parish than years and years of PSR.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why To Leave A Job

Tomorrow is my last day at a company that I've worked at for seven years. Monday I start a new job at a new company.

I don't tend to do work blogging, but this struck me as a very perceptive post about why people leave jobs, in particular noting that the rational reasons we come up with for why we decide to move on are different for those triggering factors which cause one to first answer a recruiting call.

Resignations happen in a moment, and it’s not when you declare, “I’m resigning.” The moment happened a long time ago when you received a random email from a good friend who asked, “I know you’re really happy with your current gig because you’ve been raving about it for a year, but would you like to come visit Our Company? No commitment. Just coffee.”

Now, everyone involved in this conversation transaction is aware of what is going down. While there is certainly no commitment, there is a definitely an agenda. The reason they want you to visit The Company is because, of course, they want you there in the building because seeing a potential future is far more compelling than describing it.

Still, seeing it isn’t the moment of resignation. The moment happened the instant you decided, “What the hell? I haven’t seen Don in months and it’d be good to see him.”

Your shields are officially down.

Your shields drop the moment you let a glimpse of a potential different future into your mind. It seems like a unconsidered off-the-cuff thought sans consequence, but the thought opens you to possibilities that did not exist the moment before the thought existed.
As a leader of humans, I’ve watched sadly as valued co-workers have resigned. Each time I work to understand two things:

  • Why are they leaving?
  • When did their shields go down?

In most cases, the answers to Question #1 are rehearsed and clear. It’s the question they’ve been considering and asking themselves, so their answers are smooth.

  • I’m looking for a smaller company where I can have more impact.
  • I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens.
  • I want to work somewhere more established where I can dig my teeth into one hard problem.

These answers are fine, but they aren’t the complete reason why they are leaving. It’s the politically correct answer that is designed to easily answer the most obvious question. The real question, the real insight, comes from the answer to Question #2: When did their shields go down?

Their shields drop when, in the moment they are presented with the offer of potential future opportunity, they quickly evaluate their rubric and make an instant call: Is this job meeting my bar?

To find and understand this shields-down moment, I ask, “When did you start looking?” Often the answers are a vague, “It kind’a just happened. I wasn’t really looking. I’m really happy here.”


If I’m sitting here talking with you it means two things: I don’t want you to leave and, to the best of my knowledge, you didn’t want to leave either but here you are leaving. It didn’t just happen. You chose. Maybe you weren’t looking, but once your shields dropped, you started looking. Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.

The reason this reads cranky is because I, the leader of the humans, screwed up. Something in the construction of the team or the company nudged you at a critical moment. When that mail arrived gently asking you about coffee, you didn’t answer the way you answered the prior five similar mails with a brief, “Really happy here. Let’s get a drink some time!” You think you thought Hmmm… what the hell. It can’t hurt. What you actually thought or realized was:

  • You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here.
  • Getting yelled at two days ago still stings.
  • I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says.

Often you’ve forgotten this original thought in your subsequent intense job deliberations, but when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.
Thinking back over the last few months during which I explored and decided to take another opportunity despite having a team I liked at a company I mostly enjoyed, I can definitely identify with the experience of having got a call at a time when I was frustrated by a particular set of factors. Those factors were temporary, but they caused me to pick up the phone. As the interview process at the new company continued, the interest of finding out more (and my own personal tendency to need to 'win' at anything I try) impelled me to push on with the process. And when it seemed like there was a break in the factors that had caused my frustration, and even a chance to move on to some new and interesting challenges internally, I'd already got so far down the interview process that it seemed like I would be giving up too much and had already committed to the new job.

To be clear, it's not that I don't, in the end, think the new job is a good move, that I was impelled to take it as a process started out of temporary frustration gained momentum and became unstoppable. But eventually things came along which would have mitigated my frustrations at my old job and given me reasons to keep going. The process was: temporary frustrations -> listening to new opportunities -> finding one that really appealed -> making a measured examination of old versus new and decided to move on. But I never would have got to those stages of looking at outside opportunities and sitting down to decide if it was really better to go or stay if I hadn't been driven to it by a fairly momentary urge, a frustration springing from comparatively insignificant conversations and disappointments. I might have put in more years here if I hadn't been riled up by those couple things, and if an opportunity hadn't happened to seek me out just as I was riled. And while I think I'm better off leaving, I would doubtless have been mostly happy during those additional years, just as I've been mostly happy during the years that I've spent here.

I think this tendency holds true in other areas of life as well. It is not always big events that cause us to make big decisions. Even if we, in the end, identify big reasons why we should make some change (in a job, a relationship, where we live, our religion, our philosophy, our political alignment) the reason why we first start looking into those big reasons may be small, even petty. And this in turn means that it's important to remember that the ways we treat people in small matters may have very big results, for us and for them. Small pebbles can start an avalanche, and it can be seemingly minor acts of ours that turn out to have very large consequences.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Consuming Fire

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy grain without money,
wine and milk without cost!
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what does not satisfy?
Only listen to me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Pay attention and come to me;
listen, that you may have life.
Isaiah 55:1-3
All throughout last week I was consumed by a task that the Spirit laid upon me, regarding a new vision of what religious education could be in our parish. I was charged to go speak to my pastor and tell him that our current classroom structure was a failing model, that we should drastically reduce the cost and pull back to a once-a-month model that focused on parental formation, and that if we tried this for a year we would see Mass attendance skyrocket, confession times expand, and our weekly collections increase.
Were not our hearts burning within us...?
Luke 24:32
I use the word "consumed" advisedly. This mission burned within me. Everything spiritual thing that was not this task was scoured away: old resentments, current vices, and even bad habits. (Except, alas, biting my nails.) Until I delivered my message, I could not sleep or eat. At night, I lay awake, this vision driving out every other thought or plan. During the day, I had no desire to eat anything before I fulfilled this task. I'd been trying for months to fast regularly, but this week, I didn't have to try. The fasting was ancillary to the mission.
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke:
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
...Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:6,8
There are many ways of discerning whether a message is from God, and I tried them. One compelling factor was that of my own accord, I didn't want to do it. The thought of laying a crazy prophetic message before the powers that be made me feel sick and terrified. Excited, but terrified. And I wished God had chosen someone else to make waves. I emailed all the catechists of the parish to ask for their prayers and support, and received both. And so, impelled I went first to the religious education office to lay out this vision.

I am generally a person with a highly developed political sensibility, skilled at communication and able to play both social 4-D chess and the long game, but in retrospect, perhaps I was naive to expect that the person whose full-time job it is to choose curriculum and administer classes would be instantly excited by a plan that called for less curriculum and less classes. The more I talked, the less I seemed to make myself understood. Each time I tried a new tack -- excessive fees, teacher exhaustion, scheduling difficulties -- I found myself at an impasse. Reasoning that had been compelling to all the parents and teachers I had spoken with seemed to make no impact on administration.

Friends, I have not cried publicly for perhaps twenty years, but I found myself sobbing in this meeting. In the moment, I tried to brush it off with a number of lame excuses -- I'm sorry, this isn't like me; I'm tired; I'm hormonal -- but none of these was the full truth. I had been carrying this burden for a week, this message from God burning from within, and I couldn't seem to communicate its urgency. I didn't feel like a failure, because I had done what I was charged to do. Indeed, as I bawled afterwards in church, all I could say was, "I did what you told me to!"
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision;
Make it plain upon tablets,
so that the one who reads it may run.
For the vision is a witness for the appointed time,
a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint.
If it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
Habakkuk 2:2
The next day I met with our pastor. He was gracious and attentive. He asked questions to clarify what I was telling him. I believe we were on the same page as to the actual purpose of religious education, and how we were not meeting that right now. But as with the day before, I could not carry my point either on price or on structure. It didn't matter so much. I had done what I was told to do, and I remembered one of the key rules of negotiation: if you win major concessions right away, they will almost always be walked back. Never go for the instant win or the instant change, because people want to chew on ideas until they come around to them themselves.

In the very last moment, as I was saying goodbye, a chance remark opened the door to an entirely different conversation, in which, instead of me pushing for financial change from the catechist angle, Darwin joins finance council and works from that side. If that's the only thing that comes out of this whole ordeal, it's probably a pretty effective solution, at least to that side of the problem (although I did ask God why he couldn't have arranged this more directly and spared me the grief of the past week). I hope we will see great changes. I hope God chooses another messenger. I hope I don't gain back the weight I lost over the past few days.

But I did what God asked of me, and now it's out of my hands.
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:10-11

Monday, June 03, 2019


Took the younger kids to see Aladdin today, and here's a capsule review: My five-year-old son was bored stiff.

"Beeee yourself!" Robin Williams buzzes memorably to Aladdin, in the original animated movie about the big blue motor mouth and the street kid who rubs his lamp. Will Smith echoes this advice, if less buzzingly, in Disney's newest animation-to-live-action attempt, but alas, the movie itself cannot follow the sage advice. Time after time it tries to step out toward something original, only to sink helplessly back into the oversized footsteps of the animated movie. It's all so blandly pretty to look at, so very colorful that the eye can focus on nothing and eventually stops trying.

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine are likable enough as actors, but whenever a spark of chemistry appears, the script and pacing conspire to quench it before it can flame into anything original. If only they could be themselves, I thought. However, Marwan Kenzari is actually something different as a Jafar who also knows what it is to be a street rat. The one scene in the movie that made me sit up and pay attention is when Jafar entices Aladdin to enter the cave of wonders by using one of his streetwise tricks against him. Alas, this one moment of purely original, pitch perfect drama is all we see of the movie that could have been.

I am of the generation that might be called "Willenials", and remember the heady days of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Gettin' Jiggy With It, to say nothing of the back-to-back blockbuster summers of Independence Day and Men in Black. I watched Bright on Netflix last year because it featured Will Smith. Will Smith is Will Smith, and at his best, he's playing Will Smith, which is what we want to see because we all know and love Will Smith.

Which is pretty much what he's not allowed to do here. Oh, there's some silliness, and there are some flashes, but it's mostly Will Smith pulling his punches, trying not to make the role too much his own in deference to Robin Williams, without treading on Williams's late toes by imitating his most inimitable schtick. This is a tightrope act that will constrain any artist's performance, and it serves this movie ill. When I think of Will Smith as the genie, I want to see a 10,000-year-old Fresh Prince: relaxin', maxin', chillin', all cool. And we get that -- over the closing credits, as Smith cuts loose on a rapped-up version of Friend Like Me, the only moment in the theater when I saw people grooving in their seats. If the producers had had the cojones to put that into the movie proper, we might have had something that made us sit up and pay attention. Instead, we dutifully nodded to the homage to Robin Williams, whether by commission or omission. This is not how great movies are made.

In the tradition of padding live-action remakes with new songs in an attempt to freshen them up, Jasmine is given a ballad titled "Speechless", which is what she intends not to be. Unfortunately for us, the Broadway talent penning this new song is not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who proved his chops most lucratively for Disney with the compulsively singable "How Far I'll Go" in Moana, but Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind The Greatest Showman, a rather less musically distinguished outing. And unfortunately for Jasmine, this ditty is wedged into the worst possible moment of the movie, breaking up the dramatic tension and so irritatingly filmed as to lose all visual interest. When is that movie makers will remember that theater is not an art of close-ups, but of large-scale pictures?

This movie is a nostalgia-grab for Disney, and it will of course make a stack of dollars that will reach to the moon and back. Knowing this, perhaps Disney felt no need to bother with the minor issues of pacing, structure, or character development over which a studio less assured of success might labor. Myself, I might go back and watch the animated movie and marvel over how a few hand-drawn lines can convey so much genuine emotion and dramatic impact. And the original has never once bored a five-year-old stiff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Kids Are Alright

We're nearing the end of the homeschooling trail with our eldest child. She's heading into her senior year of high school, and will be taking the SAT in a week. Like a lot of things going on in life lately (turning forty, deciding after seven years it's time to move on to a new job, etc.) this lends itself to looking back and assessing how things have gone.

How have they gone?

We went into homeschooling thinking that we were pretty well prepared for it. MrsDarwin and I were both homeschooled through middle school and high school. We both did very well on the ACT and SAT respectively. We both did well in college. So when it came to homeschooling our own children we were very confident. We were going to be organized. We were going to build our own curriculum. We were going to start the kids reading early. They were all going to be brilliant.

The realities have been a lot more modest. This has been something we've adjusted to over the years -- indeed, adjusted to the point that hearing young parents talking about "I'm trying to decide what kind of curriculum to use for my child who is currently two" is rather painful. But I've had to firmly adjust my feelings again as we've entered into College/SAT prep season.

As a teen, I was very eager to go away to college. I loved my family and our family culture, but I was very independent minded and being at college was something which loomed large in my mind. I'd had good friends who got near perfect scores on the SAT and went on to go to top ten colleges. I got a score of 1510, which though not quite as high was still in the 99th percentile. And then... Well, although I was quite capable of getting high scores on tests, I wasn't always very diligent. I did a pretty lackluster job of filling out and following up on the application process for the one top tier college I applied to (not bothering to schedule an alumni interview, because I was embarrassed to call up a stranger and arrange an appointment) and thus landed on a wait list rather than being accepted. Then got scared off by the sex and drugs culture of the one secular college I went to visit. I ended up going to Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I'd had a marvelous time visiting, met the wonderful MrsDarwin, got married right out of college, and lived happily ever after.

Except, despite what should have been the clear lessons that high test scores and elite colleges aren't everything, I still had lurking at the back of my mind that sense that getting high test scores was some sort of seal of approval. We were both pretty studious kids who did well on tests. Surely we deserved to have our kids do the same.

So when our eldest got PSAT scores that suggested she'd score around 1100 on the SAT (basically average), my ego took something of a bruising, while she seemed pretty unphased by the experience.

The first thing I did is remind myself that her scores are just that: her scores. They're not a judgement on her as a person, on the education we gave her, or on us as parents. They're the result of how she did on this particular sort of test based on the experiences she's had to date and some choices that she's made, such as not always applying herself all that strong to subjects she finds tedious (such as math.)

Having determined to be calm about the whole thing, I sat down with her and said that I thought with some practice she could do better. We got on the Kahn Academy SAT Prep site and had her take a practice test. Another score in the 1100s. We went over the types of questions she'd got wrong and why. I made sure she was using basic good technique (write down the problem and manipulate the equations on paper -- don't just assume it's faster to do in your head because you'll make slips and fall for decoy answers.) We also talked about how taking the test strategically (do all the ones you know for sure first, then go back to harder ones) isn't cheating, it's just good tactics.

We've done a fair amount of work on SAT prep over the last two months. Indeed, I let her out of the last few sections of Algebra 2 in order to focus on the the math sections of the SAT prep. Given that she currently doesn't want to study anything math intensive in college, and may not be taking calculus next year, it seemed like the right choice to focus on what gets her into college rather than checking the box on the last few chapters.

So far her scores one practice tests are up about a hundred points, to the mid 1200s. That would get her to the 80th percentile. Not the sort of score that would get you into an elite college, but then she has no desire at all to go to an elite college. It would easily get her into the local college in our town, or into our alma mater a couple hours away, and those are probably about the speed we're looking at.

What I've focused on reminding myself throughout this process is that while getting decent scores is important in having a choice of colleges (and getting financial aid) they are not a measure of personal value, and that her scores and her college choice need to reflect her interests and priorities, not combating my old insecurities about scores and colleges.

Could we have turned out kids with top scores and stronger interests in tough academic subjects if we'd pushed harder all these years? Probably. I have little doubt that giving kids the motivation to excel in certain activities is well within the powers of parents. After all, our kids naturally want our approval pretty badly. But I haven't been willing to make family approval and happiness dependent on hitting a certain level of academic excellence. Right now our eldest spends her spare time (and a bit that maybe shouldn't be spare) reading genre fiction, filling notebooks with drawings of fantastic creatures while listening to epic-sounding music on hear headphones, and playing Pokemon games. This is not a set of activities off of which one can make a living, and we've talked about that.

But through all this the purpose of parenting (and of guiding the education of one's children) is to help them become virtuous and happy people, not to attain specific achievements, academic or otherwise. On that front, I think we've done a pretty good job. I'm sure we could have done better. (On any given thing, one could usually have done better.) But the kids are alright. We love them. They talk to us. And they seem pretty happy. That's not too bad.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Economy of Salvation

Our Religious Ed program has been undergoing some chaotic change in the past weeks, of a piece with some change in the parish. We are in the strange position of not planning to have a DRE next year due to financial constraints, and it seems that the same people who made that decision have also set the pricing for Religious Ed classes next year.

$200/child, with a $500 family cap.

A $500 family cap.

Perhaps there is some way that this made sense in committee, as people reviewed our dropping contributions and made desperate suggestions to bring the budget back into line. We need to bring in money somehow -- how 'bout making those Religious Ed families contribute their fair share? And surely people ought to be willing to pay for their child to have a religious education, because religious education is important, important enough to be worth paying for.*

In a purely human economics, raising prices does several things: reflect a more accurate cost structure; create scarcity, indicate desirability. I'm not sure how this price increase works on any of these levels. Since the full-time staffer was laid off due to financial constraints, surely these constraints have now been somewhat eased. Since most of the volunteers who actually teach the classes are parents, creating scarcity will drive families away to other parishes with less expensive religious ed programs, depleting our source of teachers. And instead of indicating that our Religious Ed program is so essential and high-quality that we can afford to charge top dollar, an extremely high price says that classes aren't really for everyone, but only for the rich people who can afford to fork out this much for a once-a-week class run by volunteers. The high cost, in fact, has the effect of making Religious Ed look optional, and making our parish look far wealthier than the weekly collection would seem to indicate.

The economy of salvation runs on a different price structure. "You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat," says the prophet (Is. 55:1). The grain is not worthless; indeed, it has a price and must be bought. But that price is paid not by the recipient, but by the seller, the only one who truly understands the work it took to bring forth the grain. The more valuable and essential something is in the economy of salvation, the less it costs. God's grace is freely bestowed for the asking. Not only is the message of salvation free, we who are Christians are tasked with evangelizing.

"If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel." (1 Cor. 9:16-18)

Our Religious Ed programs must not be tasked with breaking even, or paying for themselves. They are designed to deliver the gospel.

It is one of the precepts of the Church that Catholics are obliged to provide for the material needs of the Church, according to their means. Parishes have a reasonable expectation that parishioners and those who receive the benefit of parish life will contribute to the support of the parish, out of gratitude for the free gift of God. "How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?" (Ps. 116:12, my translation). But we don't charge admission to mass, despite the many expenses of keeping the building in good order, maintaining the vessels and books, repairing the organ, and compensating the priest for his essential work.

It's not unreasonable for a Religious Ed program to have a fee to cover the costs of materials, books,  and some operating costs (always assuming, of course, that a parish hasn't chosen an outrageously expensive curriculum). When a program is completely free, showing up can seem optional, since families don't have any skin in the game. But when a parish is trying to balance its budget on the back of the Religious Ed department, while requiring participation in Religious Ed classes in order to have access to sacramental prep, it is binding up heavy burdens on parents' shoulders without lifting a finger to lift them.

*These rationales are sheer conjecture, and I have no idea if they accurately reflect my parish's financial discernment process.