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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tears, Idle Tears

I haven't time to write a short post, so I'll write a short post anyway because I wish I had time to write a long post.

First, have a chart:


Several weeks ago a friend touched off a lot of discussion by sharing this image. As I looked at it, I realized that I myself was a perfect "Freeze", and had been so for much of my life. I bought and read the book this was based on: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving" by Pete Walker, about dealing with trauma that results from not just a single bad incident, but the trauma that is built up by children having to adapt to parental neglect or abuse.

More recently, I've been reading Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are, a book about women's sexuality. Do I recommend it? Yes, with caveats. It contains a lot of valuable, necessary, relationship-changing information about women's psychological approach to sex that is important for everyone to know. At the same time, the author has no use for sexual morality, particularly Judaeo-Christian morality (which is ridiculously misrepresented in the book). Her school of sexual morals is "Whatever floats your boat", and there's a dearth of acknowledgment about the reproductive repercussions of sex. That said, someone with a firm moral grounding who is able to sift through the chaff will find much here that can be of immediate application.

The result of all this is that over the past four weeks, I've cried more than I have in the past quarter-century (or longer).

This is a good thing, I guess. The books tell me, and I acknowledge that it's probably the truth, that it's necessary to complete a grieving cycle instead of packing everything inside. And grieving is going to hurt, and it's going to be raw, and tears are an effective way to accomplish that.

But here's the thing. I hate crying. I hate it not just because it's messy and draws attention to itself, but because what the authors would consider a real, cleansing cry -- and it's always an ugly-cry with me -- is so draining. It leaves me with a headache. I don't feel better. I feel drained and weary and almost deadened. Some people love tears. I hate 'em.

What to do with this? I don't know, in this space and time. I said I only had time for a short post, and this is it. Processing must happen, I suppose, and I have the perfect supportive environment and husband. If only there were more privacy! (She says on the internet.) If only when one felt like grieving, the external circumstances were perfect. If only, when one had peace and quiet, one could schedule in the emotion and the reaction.

So I make a gift to you of all these resources. Go forth and have your own ugly cry, and your own red eyes and splitting headache. I'll pray for you.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Morals of Classical Liberalism

In this moment where conservatives are trying to figure out what principles they might be about in a post-Trump world, the self described "illiberal" Catholic right has taken it upon themselves to argue that the entire idea of classical liberalism is itself morally bankrupt and must be abandoned. We must instead, it is argued, pursue a political philosophy more in line with the old throne-and-altar ideas of a century or more back.

I'm not among those who thinks that the order of the past was clearly wrong. To each time its own thing, and there are things to admire about the Catholic kingdoms and empires of the past. However, there are also things to admire about the classical liberalism of which I think the United States, in its better moments, is an example, and it for that classical liberalism that I would like to speak up.

In a piece defending Sohrab Ahmari's notions of government, Susannah Black writes against classical liberalism, saying that in an attempt to avoid sectarian strife, it preaches of gospel of privatized religion which is not to be allowed to touch the public square:
OG liberalism wanted privatized religion, tamed religion, in order to avoid a reprise of the 30 years’ war, where men died for public claims about God. To avoid this, OG liberalism privatized those claims, attempted to tame the love that men have for the good– which is a terrifying love.

The French political philosopher and architect of the European Union Alexandre Kojève wanted likewise to make a world that was safe. It would be a world, specifically, where no one ever loved anything as much as the Nazis had loved GermanyРand thus a world without eros or thumos, a tame world.

This is what the current right-liberal critics of postliberalism are worried about: the releasing of that energy back into public. But it can’t be kept out. That’s inhuman, and it simply doesn’t work. Men will love. The problem is what they love.

The problem with the Nazis was not that they loved, but that they were idolaters. The weapon against bad-illiberalism is not liberalism, but good-illiberalism. “Love God,” Christ says, “and your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s what postliberalism seeks to do, politically. “Do not love– at least not politically. That’s private. Hedge your bets. Be safe,” says liberalism– particularly right-liberalism; left-liberalism has some of the love of the public good that is in genuine leftism.
Bringing the Nazis into this seems to me an unforced error. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that the problem with the Nazis was that they loved Germany too much. The problem with the Nazis is both that they hated others too much and that the things they did could never be done rightly in support of any cause. To roundup, imprison, and murder millions of those whom the state decided to hate is something which no state should do, for any reason. These are actions that would taint any belief, even if it were a more right belief than the exhaltation of "Germanic" identity. But let's set aside that odd move and assess the accusation against classical liberalism.

Is the point of classical liberalism to privatize religion, the belief in the highest good, in order to tame the love that man has for the highest good and thus avoid the strife that could result from such love?

Perhaps a certain soulless kind of classical liberalism may think this way, but if the illiberal right is going to get to pick their favorite illiberalism, I think it's only fair that we who support classical liberalism from a Christian perspective may pick our best liberalism. And in that best Christian version of classical liberalism, I would say that the reason we hold the state should grant people freedom of religion and expression is not because religion is too unimportant to be regulated. Rather, we hold that man should be given the freedom to believe (rightly or wrongly) because we believe that it is against man's dignity to force him to attend a state church or to punish him for following some other creed.

The reason I do not want the state to insert itself into our choice of religion and our most basic moral actions is not because I think those actions are hedged off from the public square, too unimportant to be the subject of politics. Rather, it is because I think that our worship of God is too sacred to allow the state to dictate it. We are made in the image of God, and God calls upon us to worship Him. I do not believe that the state should insert itself into each person's seeking of the highest good. The state is too low a beast for that. Allow it to stick with determining the best tax structure. Let it pay for road and trains and determine what other states we should ally ourselves with. But it is no surprise that our religion is larger and crosses all the world's borders, for it is dealing with a truth larger than any nation can control. The state should step back and give room for each person to pursue the sacred, not because the sacred is too unimportant for the state, but because it is too important for such a mean tool to shape.

Porch, Altered

 Yesterday I had my first opportunity to speak to my contractor and mention that I wished the porch blocks had been sectioned differently, but I knew there was nothing that could be done about it now. And he said, "Do you want me to saw new lines?"

!!

So we marked off where I wanted to see the bigger blocks broken up, and I approved the lines, and that afternoon he came back with a saw and cut new sections.

The handrail has been set back in.


Dear readers, I feel much more satisfied, and I thank you for your forbearance with my drama. I feel like I've been a difficult person to live with this week. I've had to make my apologies to Darwin for brooding and moping and being self-absorbed.

I try to make it a practice, when something gets lost or broken or otherwise put out of commission, to react as I would have wanted to if the thing suddenly turned up or could be repaired. I don't feel like I followed my own internal rule this time. I didn't know that the porch could be altered, sure, but now that it has been, was my week of angst appropriate? How mortifying to be only human.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Happy Update on the Porch

So, after my dramatic porch lament:

My contractor stopped by, and I expressed my concerns about the shape of the blocks. He said that once the concrete cures, he can saw new grooves to break up the shapes, and together we marked where the cuts should go. The whole interaction went pleasantly, and I'm feeling much more at peace about everything.


Monday, September 09, 2019

The Amphibious Landing That Wasn't

I've been listening to James Holland's book The Battle of Britain for the last few weeks, and enjoying it very much. (Thanks to whoever recommended it -- sorry I can't remember who that was.)

I'm near the end, and thus hearing about the events taking place exactly 79 years ago, in early September 1940, as Hitler was making the decision whether or not to stage an amphibious invasion of Great Britain. One of the things that has really been striking me is that German planning at this point in the war involved the incredibly methodical Wehrmacht attempting to follow the directives of Hitler, who was a very improvisational leader.

As recently as the end of May, it had looked as if France and Britain could be knocked out of the war at the same time with the massive envelopment which trapped French and British armies in a pocket in Belgium and northern France, encircled by the Panzer force which had cut across the Ardennes. However, due to strife among German generals and Hitler meddling in command, the British were able to evacuate most of their army (and some of the French) from Dunkirk, albeit leaving most of their heavy weaponry behind. Even then, many prime ministers might have sought an accommodation, which Hitler apparently expected.  But Churchill was not many prime ministers, he was the leader who had been raring to fight Hitler for years. And so, in July 1940 Hitler ordered his high command to come up with a plan to make a massive amphibious and airborne attack against Britain in August or September. They not only planned the operation, code named Sea Lion, but pulled together over a thousand barges to transport troops and staged the invasion force in French port cities, ready to go at Hitler's command. The first wave of the invasion was to be approximately 125,000 men, only slightly smaller than the 150,000 men that the Allies would land in France almost four years later on D-Day.

The difference in planning was huge, however. The Allies spent a year planning the Operation Overlord landings, from 1943 to 1944. They developed landing boat technology specifically for the landings, built massive portable portable harbor facilities which could be towed into place and then used to land the supplies that would keep the beachhead fed and armed, and perpetrated a massive deception designed to fool the Germans into expecting the invasion to be in Calais rather than Normandy.

That accomplishing such a massive landing with so little preparation was such a gamble is perhaps proved by the fact that even Hitler, the ultimate military/political gambler, flinched at trying to pull it off. He allowed himself to believe that Britain could be bombed and starved into submission by the combination of the Luftwaffe and the u-boat wolf packs and instead turned to planning a land invasion of Russia, a massive land operation which was much more the style of operation the Germans were comfortable with than a huge seaborne invasion.

Still, it's fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Hitler had made the opposite decision. Making an amphibious attack across the English Channel on barges, against the opposition of the Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force which was not nearly as weakened as the Germans had convinced themselves, would have the potential for spectacular failure. Amphibious landings are hard even with meticulous planning and huge advantages. Hitler's claim that attacking across the channel would be no different from a river crossing on a broad front suggests a level of delusion comparable with his invasion of Russia the next summer. Had he gone forward, might the German Army (which contrary to popular belief was actually pretty worn down after fighting first Poland and then France) have failed in the cross-Channel attack and brought Hitler's string of victories to a sputtering end? It's a fascinating question. I'm not sure someone has done a clear-eyed alternate history about how things might have gone if the Germans had actually tried their hastily planned invasion, but it would be a great read if someone did.

Set in Concrete

Once upon a time there was an old house, harmonious in its elements. This house had a stone porch, with many steps and levels.


Once upon a time, the stone porch had been strong and elegant, devised and constructed by master masons. Now it languished. After ninety years of service, it eroded with each passing season. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful, if only in the eyes of its mistress. And it was still in harmony with the house.

But the day came for it to be replaced. With much sorrow, the mistress -- of comfortable means, but not as wealthy as the homeowners who made such grand renovation plans in the heady days before the Stock Market crashed --- opted to reconstruct the porch in concrete. Her one request of the contractor was the porch should look as much as possible as it used to be. Of all things, she begged, she wanted the porch to look like it was made of stone. Such things were possible. She had seen it done elsewhere, with molds. Of course, said the contractor. It would be done.

Two days before the porch was poured, the mistress eyed the wooden forms warily as the contractor explained how he would texture the porch in one all-over stone pattern. The mistress demurred. She wanted the porch to look like stone. Many stones. Just as it used to be. Of course, said the contractor. But to stamp the stone with molds would cost more than his original estimate. What he could do was to etch lines in the newly poured concrete to make it look like large blocks of stone. It had been done elsewhere. He showed her photos. With trepidation, she acquiesced.

And the porch was poured over the ancient stone.




And here, friends, is where we leave tedious fairytale diction for the realm of the now. I have a concrete porch, one that is competently constructed and poured and will stand attached to my house for the next ninety years, indestructible. Never again will I have the option to improve my dear old stone porch. And I do not love it.

You tell me -- you tell me! -- whether any mason in the world would shape stone this way, huge L-shaped blocks. You tell me whether any mason worth his salt would lay stone in such a pattern, unstaggered or so barely staggered that it's an insult to proportion. You tell me whether this looks like stone blocks, or like a middle-schooler's simulacrum of a Mondrian grid.

I ask this explicitly because I find, to my horror, that it seems I am the only person bothered by this. No one loved the old decaying porch but me.Visitors ooh and aah over the new construction, congratulating me on well it turned out. These sincere and well-meaning compliments ring in my ear like someone leaning over your loved one's casket, exclaiming, "They've really fixed her up! She never looked so good when she was alive!"

That's just the word, alive. The stone porch was in sad need of repair, but it was gracefully alive. The concrete porch is shiny, regular, and dead, a huge slab of McMansion slapped on to my elegant old home. And no one sees it but me. No one grieves it but me. Even my loving husband, seeking words to comfort me as I lay in bed, stiff and quivering with rage, said that he didn't think anyone else would be appalled by it or think that I had ruined the whole facade of the house. "But if it bothers you, of course we can have it altered."

My marriage has never been so sorely tested.

At first my anger was pure and righteous, devoted solely to the cause of aesthetic integrity. But anger never stays unalloyed. All things became causes of fury to me. I bit my tongue. I retreated to my room. Sometimes I wallowed in my anger willingly. Othertimes I was consumed by it, even when I longed to be free of the burden. I could not dismiss it at will. And I realized that if I wanted to receive communion on Sunday, I had to be relieved, because my heart had become as hard as the concrete. So I hied me to confession on Saturday afternoon.

And you know what? I didn't feel instantly better. But the workings of grace had begun. I no longer feel sick to my stomach. I can look at the porch without crying. But I still mourn the beautiful thing that is lost forever, and I grieve the soulless thing now in its place. I'm still trying to find the right words to tell the contractor that his work is sturdy and professional as far as concrete goes, but that I am not satisfied with the admittedly unalterable surface. Instead of judging 99% of my acquaintance to be aesthetic cretins, I'm trying to be gracious whenever someone pays the new porch a complement. I'm trying to get used to it, because I'm going to have to look at it every day for the rest of my tenure here.

And I imagine that ninety years in the future, as archeologists poke at the crumbling concrete, one will beckon the other over. "Stanley, look at this!" he'll say. "There was stone under this concrete. Stone! Can you imagine? What idiot would pour concrete over stone?"

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Problems on a Spectrum

I was driving to the airport last week, setting off on my first business trip to Europe, and as I did so I was mentally running through the list of things that I had meant to do before departing and trying to think if I had done everything. It was thus that I realized that while the other toiletries that I had needed to use one last time and then pack (toothbrush, deodorant) had made it into my bag, the hair gel had not. Oh well, I would find some while I was traveling. Then I began to think about pulling my final things together downstairs. I remembered putting my laptop on the table and then bustling off to grab some other things. Had I put it into my backpack? I couldn't recall, and if there was one thing that I couldn't get through the trip without, it was my laptop. Better to check while I was still only ten minutes from home. I pulled into a parking lot, checked the backpack (where the laptop was indeed safely stowed) and then continued on to the airport only two minutes to the worse.

Someone may be thinking, "that sounds pretty OCD". I have a close relative who has actual, diagnosed OCD. Having lived with the experience of that person's serious OCD, I can tell you that it's actually very different. Not totally different in feeling, perhaps, but very, very different in effect. My mind likes to run through lists of things that may have gone wrong or been forgotten, especially when I'm already under stress. It will throw up questions like "Did you forget to pack that?" But when those questions come up, I have the ability to answer them clearly in my mind, and decide whether it's worth the time to check them based on a quick cost-benefit analysis. For my relative with diagnosed OCD, that ability to control worries such as that is much less developed. He'll end up doing and checking things multiple times because he can't shut down the concern that he might not have done them, or done them right, or done them enough. Getting out the door can take an extra twenty minutes as everything is done and checked multiple times. It's close to paralyzing. So what is really being talked about is not just having a mind that constantly runs through details and asks, "Is this right?" it's lacking the ability to keep those questions in their place and prevent them from taking over your life.

I think this is probably the case with a lot of mental conditions. In some ways, it can make those conditions feel more familiar: Oh yeah, I have those feelings too! But in another sense it's very different from actually having the debilitating effects of one of those conditions.

Often the feelings or thoughts we might associate with a particular mental problem are common, if not to everyone, at least to a lot of people. But what makes that condition a problem is when one not only has those thoughts but also has a decreased ability to dispatch them. On the one hand, this can give us a sense of common sympathy for those who suffer debilitating effects from some particular mental condition. Often we can see in ourselves similar thoughts and think, "Yeah, I kind of suffer from that too." And yet, while there are genuine similarities, it's important to remember that it's the ability to control these thoughts and feelings that is often what turns a mode of thinking into an actual debilitating problem. If you haven't suffered the overpowering feeling that you must give in to OCD-type questions, checking something again and again, you may have felt the stimulus of worrying about some topic, but you haven't felt what it is that people with serious cases of OCD actually suffer from.

Of course, the ability to resist giving in to problematic feelings is itself something that exists on a spectrum. Some people simply find it takes a lot of energy to overcome some particular set of fears, thoughts, etc. Others find it nearly impossible. But I think recognizing both the urging and the ability to manage it as two separate aspects of a mental condition is key to understanding whether one has the condition oneself or simply shares a few tendencies that way.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Family Economy

I'm fortunate enough to have Labor Day off, which gives me time both to rest up after a week of business travel and put in some much needed last minute work on preparing the older kids' homeschool plans for the next few weeks. (One of the advantages of homeschooling is that within certain limits one sets the rules, and one of ours is that school doesn't start until September, with the day after Labor Day serving as the first day of school.) That also gave me the unusual chance to go to mass alone with MrsDarwin, slipping off to weekday mass in the morning, and to think a bit about what work means in the context of our household.

For a number of years now I've worked in the American corporate world. These kind of jobs are often idealized. I've heard earnest MBAs tell me how this is the kind of work that they've always wanted to do and that they're inspired to be "part of the team". And while people sometimes put in long hours or spend a lot of nights away from family while doing business travel, they do it in comfortable hotels, doing work that doesn't leave you physically aching at the end of the day. Sure, meetings and bureaucracy can be tiresome, especially if one doesn't learn how to navigate them, but in general it's mentally engaging work, and it's work that society tends to treat you as respectable for doing. And it pays well. So in just about every significant way, it's a good deal. I'm very fortunate in those respects.

And yet, it often throws me when coworkers tell me that they'd probably do this work whether they needed the money or not, because they need the sense of purpose and the mental challenge. I particularly hear this from female coworkers when they learn that MrsDarwin raises and teaches the kids at home full time. "God bless her. I couldn't stand to do that. I need to get out of the house and away from the kids and do something important and challenging or I'd go nuts."

I'm not here to tell people how to organize their families. Ten years ago when I thought I had a lot more figured out in life, this would have been a piece on the importance on the single income family and one parent devoting himself or herself to raising the kids full time. But from the older me, my point is more general: work has a purpose in our lives, and that purpose is to provide us with the necessities of life and if possible some reasonable amount of comforts as well.

If I didn't have to pay our family's bills, I would not be spending all those hours every week sitting in an office. I like my job, it's interesting and fulfilling as jobs go, but it's not my purpose in life.

When God described to Adam and Eve the fallen world in which they would have to make their way among the consequences of original sin, he told them that a living would now come at the cost of the sweat of the brow. We labor for our food, our shelter, our clothing, and our possessions. We labor to take care of the young, the old, and ourselves. We labor directly, preparing their food, changing their diapers, cleaning their messes. We labor indirectly, earning the money that will allow us to compensate others in return for the goods and service they give us which we in turn need.

In some sense, all the work we do is to give someone the things they need or want.

This can be very direct, as when I change the two-year-old's diaper. Or it can be very indirect, as when I work with the our segment manager for rotary cutters to come up with a pricing model which allows our company to charge a manufacturing plant a per-cut price rather than a several-hundred-thousand-dollar capital investment for a carbide-edged cutting roller machine which in turn is used to cut out diapers on a high speed production line, which allows someone to buy a box of inexpensive disposable diapers in a supermarket, which allows them to change their baby's diaper -- and my part in all of that allows me to earn the money to buy a package of diapers for my own offspring. In the end, whether I'm working in the office or around the house, my purpose is the same: to provide for the needs of myself and others. There are things I do for the enjoyment of them -- writing here among other things -- but going to the office is not among them.

Too often, I think, in our work-obsessed middle class culture, we think of a job (a compensated "professional" job) as inherently ennobling. Those who work directly to care for those who depend on us are seen as somehow not doing "real work". Yes, we nod and call them selfless, but in some sense it's often implied that what's selfless about their caring work is that they've chosen to do something less important, less rewarding, less worth while because someone has to do it. They've drawn the short straw and accepted their lot cheerfully.

But I think we should think of work in a more basic fashion. Work is how we provide for the needs of others. The work we do around the house provides the necessities and comforts for our families. The work we do "on the job" earns the money which allows us to pay others for the things we need -- and for them to acquire the things they need in their turn. Even the creative work which I might otherwise think of as recreation (for me, at least) such as working on the community theater production or writing this post, is intended at root to provide others with the relaxation, the insight, the enjoyment which they need. To speak of the economy is to speak of the unimaginably complex network of interactions through which millions of people make these exchanges with each other. This can ennoble seemingly tedious work, but it also cuts seemingly noble work down to size. At root, we work to provide for the needs of others, whether we work for money or just to get something done. And so within the family, where we need both money and the direct care of others (and need to decide at times whether in some cases we will provide direct care or pay someone else to do it for us) we should do so with not some over-reverence for paid work, but with an eye towards providing the best case as best we can for all involved.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Not the Dummy

My dears, I have reached the pinnacle of my theatrical career. In October, I shall tread the local boards in the footsteps of the most beautiful, most elegant, most self-possessed woman ever to grace stage or screen. I give you my comedic hero, the finest straight woman in the history of straight women:


Margaret Dumont. Doesn't the name alone make your heart thrill? She was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn, trained in theater and opera, and toured in America and in Europe. In 1910, at age 28, she married a sugar millionaire and retired from the stage.


Eight years later her husband died in the flu pandemic after World War I, and Dumont, childless, returned to the stage to play a new persona, the dowager.

After working on stage with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, she went on to make seven movies with the crew. Groucho, who was simply unable to turn it off in real life, played up the image of Dumont as being able to keep a straight face because she didn't get the jokes. Dumont, however, was a seasoned veteran, and knew exactly what she was doing when the gags were flying at her head. She explained her technique thusly:
"Scriptwriters build up to a laugh, but they don't allow any pause for it. That's where I come in. I ad lib—it doesn't matter what I say—just to kill a few seconds so you can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him."
And even Groucho, Jerk-In-Chief, hailed Dumont as "the fifth Marx Brother".

If you're in Central Ohio in October, come see Animal Crackers. Various Darwins will be representing: Eleanor as Zeppo, Julia as Mary, the sweet young thing, and moi as Mrs. Rittenhouse. But I'll really be playing Margaret Dumont.

***
On Dumont in Duck Soup:
Dumont was indeed formidable. The comedic duo of wise guy vs straight woman is almost necessarily imbalanced, the straight woman (or man) getting less attention than the jokester. But Dumont subtly upset that power balance with her generous acting style. She may have been the slightly more glamorous cousin of the battleaxe archetype, but she was also warm, charming, delightful, befuddled, naive and, most of all, humane. She feeds the Brothers straight lines, reacts to every syllable, sputters and sings and plays the fool, no questions asked, while still commanding attention and respect, affection, even desire — no mean feat for the only woman in a group of hyperactive manchildren willing to do anything for attention. She appeared in half of the Marx Bros. films, and in the other half, her absence always resulted in hundreds of letters to studios asking why she had been left out.

Darwiniana

Did you hear the one about Cleveland Jim's Irish grandmother, who got married so that she could go down to two in a bed?

I'm 'bout ready to get married, myself.


I slept, if that's what we're calling it, wedged in the space between the baby, who coughed and flopped and threw arms, and the girl, whose pillow fell off the bed so she used mine. The older boy has been in my bed for the past two nights with the cough and the sore throat and the intermittent fever. The girl is worried about nightmares. The baby is worried about his space and will defend it with all his limbs.

Sunday night (or rather, Monday morning), the boy had a coughing fit which lasted two hours. This woke up the baby, who flopped and giggled until I turned out the light again. Baby snuggled up against me and wrapped his arms around my neck. "Mama!" he said. "Mama mama mama mama mama!" Then he hit me in the eye, and I saw a perfect ring of brilliant white light.

At 4:30 the boys finally settled. At 4:40 the girl came in because she'd had a bad dream.

Last night I dosed the boy with the cough syrup that causes oblivion. The girl decided to start the night draped across the bottom of the bed, which was no inconvenience to the boy whose feet don't extend down that far. Baby nestled up into a position in which he could cough in my face all night. By 6am I'd had enough. I never thought of myself as a morning person, but perhaps the trick is being too uncomfortable to sleep.

***

On Monday morning, I was up bright and early to see off my 17yo for her first day of school ever.


She's taking Chem 1111 and Stats 1350, neither of which I am equipped to teach her, or even help her study.

***

Ballet also started on Monday for my second daughter, who turns 16 next week.




***
The concrete guys are coming this morning to start demolition work on the 90-year-old eroding sandstone porch.


They're going to make it all look very elegant, I'm sure, but I am sad to bid farewell to the original stone, even if it is a major liability. On the other hand, having all the steps be at a standard height will be novel.

***
Did we ever show you the hole in the bathroom ceiling? I feel sure we've written about this. Certainly I've told enough people about it. This isn't a great photo for scale, but I don't feel like getting up and taking another one.


That's the brick wall of the chimney, and the stud to which the plaster used to be attached. Also, a mystery pipe, though not, apparently, the cause of the leak. The brick, too, is mainly dry. We believe that water is coming in from a missing slate above the nails at the bottom of the picture -- at least, that's where we were getting dripping during the rains the other day.

***
Still, we all take showers in this bathroom because it's better than the other working shower, which has no pressure. The plumbers just sent me an estimate for that, which on the one hand makes me cringe after college fees and class registrations and the porch work, and on the other... Time is money, and we could really use two fully functional, up-to-code showers with modern plumbing. The pipes of 1929 have done their time.

Someone once told me that houses need renovations at 25, 50, and 100 years. We're approaching the 100-year mark for the bathrooms. (The 1929 renovations were at the 40-year mark for the house itself.)

***
Looking forward to seeing Darwin again on Friday night. The idea of two hearts thrilling in unison across the globe is romantic, but the reality is more of a humdrum loneliness for the other. I'm sure Sweden is nice, but does it have decaying porches and crumbling plaster and three kids in the bed? I think not.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Where There's A Will

Darwin is far from home this week, and by "far", I mean Stockholm, Sweden. This was a trip we knew he was likely to have to make ever since he started his new job in June, but it didn't feel very real until perhaps a week ago. And then I started thinking again about how we don't have a will.

For about a decade, I've made a resolution each New Year that this is the year that we will make wills. As you may have picked up with your excellent reading comprehension, I'm not very good at keeping that kind of resolution, and so, as the years roll by and the children rack up, we have gambled, mostly subconsciously, that the risk of both of us dying intestate is pretty low. As that's a bet we've won for many years now, the idea keeps getting shoved into the background as more immediate concerns will keep popping up.

But a transatlantic flight and a week's stay in a Nordic social democracy will get anyone thinking about mortality. It is time, I said, that we make a will, before you leave, I said. And I took action, too: I went down to the library and had them print off some official-looking will forms, and brought them home. And Darwin and I sat at the table and made wills, as one does, with our children sitting around kibbitzing, as they do. And let me say that some sibling of mine will be very surprised to they find they've inherited seven children.

But making the will is one thing, and making it official is another. Friday, before Darwin left, I was searching around for a notary who could witness our signatures, and striking out on front after another. Finally, after the close of business hours, I found an explanation: notaries are not necessary for Last Wills in Ohio. They can notarize the witnesses signing, but the Will itself is valid even without that.

Saturday morning Darwin had to leave the house at 10am, no later, to get down to his flight. At 10am, therefore, we were knocking at the neighbors' door on the odd errand of getting them to witness our wills, as one does at the neighbors' house on Saturday mornings.

The girl next door popped out her head and said that mom and dad were both out running errands. And Darwin had to take off immediately, and I was left standing with two unsigned wills and a husband gone to Sweden for a week.

Now this takes people different ways, I'm sure, but for me it had an unhappifying effect. And why? If it had been so all-fired important to get this thing done, I would have done it years ago. If it had been a matter of life and death, I would have made it a priority last week, not two days before the flight. Nor is it likely to matter, since the odds of Darwin dying in or en route from Sweden and my dying in Ohio in the same week are infinitesimal. And if only one of us dies intestate, the other is provided for already. Observe, as well, that in the 36 hours that Darwin has been gone, I have not rushed out and gotten my own will witnessed by amenable friends, which argues that my priority here was not simply legal protection.

People with severe medical issues, people who live on life's edges, people in precarious relationships -- they know that everything is balanced on a knife's edge, and that what is now may not be soon. Those of us who live in a more established fashion nurture the illusion that we control a great deal more than we do. No evening is guaranteed to end the way the morning promised. But when, day after day, most things do adhere to a semblance of order, it's easy to fall into the error that not just the order but the ordering is of our making. In this light, a will seems like a magical contract: sign this document, and because you are prepared for the bad thing, the bad thing will not happen.

But right now I have no will, and I'm also left with the unedifying revelation that what I fear is not my children becoming wards of the state. I fear being left alone with a family to provide for and no marketable skills, having just proven that when a paying project did come my way, I failed to apply myself sufficiently to complete it. I fear I have become comfortable and complacent, and that if disaster should strike, I would not be able to rise to the occasion.

It's always useful to write things out and look at them. In the cold light of my computer screen, these sentiments are silly and bathetic, and they're not even what I actually believe about myself and my competencies. But the feelings from which they were distilled are real. How mortifying, to admit that feelings have power! To be weak and vulnerable in such an unreasonable way! To crave self-sufficiency, and yet not be able to attain it! And this is the temptation of Eden, to be like God, not because one is God, but because of a trick, a stratagem advertised to ward off the ills of death.

And how remote all this will feel when Darwin comes back safely on Friday, and our unsigned wills sit patiently in the important papers file in the kitchen until my next New Year fit comes upon me. Until then, I call you all as witness that Darwin is my legal representative, and if we die at the same time or in such a way that no one knows who died first, his will is to supersede mine, even though it's exactly the same.*

*Hey, it's part of the will form, so it must have been an issue for somebody at some point.




Saturday, August 24, 2019

From What Foundation

The New York Times has been successfully generating talk with a series of articles they're calling The 1619 Project, referencing the bringing of the first African slaves into North America in 1619. Their stated purpose with the project is ambitious and goes well beyond simply documenting the many ways that slavery and its aftermath shaped the United States:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
You can read the entire 1619 Project edition of the NY Times Magazine in PDF format here. (Which is handy, since reading it piecemeal on the NY Times site would deplete one's free articles for the month.)

Thinking about it, and participating in several social media discussions of the series, it seems to me that there are broadly two aspects to the project. The first is to convey historical events, and in this sense it is doing a valuable job. For too long, the evils of slavery and their extensive reach through the world economy during that era was not widely conveyed in popular histories. The second aspect, however, is interpretive: an attempt to interpret the meaning of the US and its history. Here I think it is rather more problematic, and it's in that respect that I'd like to write a bit more here.

As their purpose statement explains, the goal of the editors is to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding", making the selling of enslaved Africans to the Jamestown colonists the true moment at which the US became the country it is today -- not the moment at which the US defined itself as independent from Britain in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, nor the moment in which it defined its systems of government in the US Constitution in 1787.

What does it mean to say that a country's founding is to be found in a particular event? Let's think about two countries which celebrate clear founding events. France celebrates Bastille Day, seeing the storming of the Bastille by an angry crowd as the moment at the modern sequence of republics with their values of democracy, secularism, etc. can be seen as marking their origin in contrast to the older monarchy they displaced. The United States celebrates the 4th of July as its origin, taking as its birth the point at which the Continental Congress voted as a representative body to endorse the Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy.

What seems to make these clear origin points for the nations that celebrate them is that they contain values which the countries to point to as their central values, and also that they represent an event which sets the country apart from other countries. The US does not consider the signing of the Magna Carta as its origin, because although that document might be seen as a more distant origin of the principles of government which it holds today, that origin point is not unique to the US but is shared to varying degrees with the entire Anglosphere: Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, etc. Similarly, France does not mark as its founding the coming of the Franks into Western Europe, because although some of the modern French could trace their ancestry to them the Franks were also the progenitors of many other modern countries with the Frankish empire near its peak encompassing modern France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, northern Italy, Switzerland, etc.

So, is the purchase of slaves by English colonists in 1619 something which distinguishes the US from other countries? Does it represent core values which the US identifies with to this day?

Both of these seem to me deserve a resounding "no".

Let's start with the first. Was this purchase of enslaved Africans something which set the Jamestown colonists apart from other peoples, making them clearly proto-Americans rather than Englishmen or more broadly Europeans? No. Indeed, the slaves purchased by the Virginia colonists were not the first slaves held in what is now the United States. The Spanish had long been exploiting slave labor in the Americas, both enslaved natives and imported enslaved Africans. Indeed, the slaves sold to the Virginia colonists by English pirates had in turn captured the slaves from a Portuguese ship which had been transporting them for their own uses. As a piece in the Federalist mentions, the Spanish had taken enslaved Africans with them to found a colony in what is now South Carolina in 1526 (some of which slaves proceeded to carry out the first slave rebellion in North America.) Slaves were also held by the Spanish in Georgia and Florida prior to 1619, and the British had slaves in their Caribbean colonies prior to 1619 as well. Indeed, far from the slavery in the colonies that would become the US being unique, it was all too usual. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British all used slaves in their New World colonies. Nor was their use of them peripheral to their economies. The French considered the slave-run plantations of the sugar islands of Guadeloupe to be so valuable that in the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years War in 1763, France ceded all of Canada to the British in return for keeping Guadeloupe because they considered Guadeloupe to be clearly more valuable. As a side note, reading about Guadeloupe, which is still a part of France to this day and thus a part of the EU despite being in the Americas, is fascinating. It went through multiple rounds of freedom, and re-enslavement as a result of the French Revolution until slavery was officially abolished in 1848. However, the French then brought in indentured labor from their colony of Pondicherry in India. The descendents of those Indians were not granted full citizenship and voting rights until 1923.

So it's incorrect to see the Jamestown colonists as acting in some unique way that sets them apart from other countries as being clearly American. They were not the first people to enslave Africans in the territory of what is now the United States, and in using slaves they acted exactly as many other Europeans of many nationalities were doing in the Americas from the 1500s to the 1800s.

But if they were not unique in having slaves, did the Jamestown colonists act in a way that points to the core values of the United States, acting in a way which modern Americans would point to and identify with? Clearly not. Indeed, the very point of the 1619 Project is to try to convince modern Americans that they should see their origin in this 1619 purchase of slaves by the Jamestown colonists despite the fact that this behavior is something that modern American loathe. It's significant that the two pivotal presidents in American iconography are George Washington, the first president who led the Continental Army in the fight for independence yet participated in the contradiction of fighting for liberty while owning slaves, and Abraham Lincoln, who led our country though the Civil War and abolished slavery.  In a real way we cannot see our national project as becoming the country we are today until the Civil War.

Indeed, choosing to see 1619 as the "true founding" of America would seem, at least to conservative eyes, as being a statement that the United States is an evil country which should be rejected or destroyed. In that sense, it seems like a confirmation that those on the left hate our country. That was certainly my own first reaction at first. Yet I'm not sure it's entirely accurate. After all, this idea is being pushed by progressives, who have in their way a salvific concept of politics. I expect that many who wrote for the 1619 project or who find themselves nodding as they read its mission statement would not in fact say that they hate the United States. Rather, they see themselves as offering salvation to the rest of us. If we endorse them and their "woke" views, we purify ourselves of the stain of racism with which all others are fouled from birth into "the system" which the 1619 Project tries hard to prove is tainted by slavery in every respect.

In the end, however, I think the whole interpretive framework simply fails. It's not correct to see 1619 as the founding of the United States. Rather, it's right to see the US like virtually all Western countries as having had deep historical and economic ties to slavery. What distinguishes the US from France or Britain is that rather than being able to wink at slavery as something they only did in their overseas colonies, which were either shed or became of far less importance as the slave economy was sidelined and replaced by the industrial economy, the US lives with the land and the peoples who were enmeshed in slavery, while European countries drew back to their own continent. Dealing with these echoes through our history is important, and in no way should we flinch from the facts about the role of slavery and repression in our history. But to see this as the uniquely American phenomenon which defines us as apart from all others is wrong.  Our founding was not in 1619.  It was in 1776, but arguably not complete until 1865.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

'Umble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, August 16, 2019

College Jitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sojourning in the Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Linky Links

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

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

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

Principal vice: envy
Deadly sin: perjury
Fault: surprise

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does one need to write?

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

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Politics of Outrage

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

This gets me down rather more than perhaps it should.

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

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

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

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

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