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

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Novel Interrupted

I was typing away fast half an hour ago when the power went off... Thankfully, I believe Scrivener has an autosave features, but there will have to be a longer post tomorrow night, none tonight.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Augustine's Confessions, for children

Yesterday being the feast of St. Monica, and today being the feast of St. Augustine, it seemed like a good time to break out Confessions and read about the childhoods of the saints.  Augustine writes so simply and clearly that he is not onerous for school-age children to listen to, or to read for themselves, but he's also very prolific. I found myself editing on the fly, skipping passages, and flipping around a great deal to find the sections that would be of most interest to the youngsters here.

I've gone through Books 1 and 2, which draw from Augustine's infancy and youth, and highlighted passages that I think will be most compelling for children to listen to, or read themselves. (Teenagers ought to be able to read more extensively on their own -- Confessions is definitely not an inaccessible or difficult book, stylistically.) Each section is short and concise -- certainly children reading at a fourth-grade level or above should have no difficulty reading a passage a day by themselves.

All of Book 1 is appropriate for children. The sections that I have not bolded are ones that can be skipped in the interests of time or flagging interest on the part of the youngsters, but I recommend them all.

Book 2 moves into Augustine's adolescence, and starts examining issues of lust and sexual incontinence that parents might want to avoid with pre-teens. Parents might want to preview the sections here that are not bolded before reading them aloud or assigning them to younger children.

My translation is by R.S. Pine-Coffin, from Penguin Classics.

Book 1.1: Introduction, "you made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you."
1.2, 3, 4, 5: Continuation of Augustine's questions to God about His existence, His creative love, His attentions to Augustine himself. These are interesting, I think, to children who are themselves so full of questions, but can be skipped.
1.6: Augustine's babyhood.
1.7: faults of infancy
1.8: early boyhood, learning to speak
1.9: trials of going to school
1.10: sports
1.11: Augustine is gravely ill, but recovers before his family feels the need to baptize him.
1,12: the paradoxes of study
1.13: the trials learning Greek and Latin
1.14: Homer vs. Virgil
1.15: short digression on using study for God's glory
1.16: teaching children to admire the false example of false gods
1.17: Augustine recites the speech of Juno
1.18: intellectual vanity vs. eternal concerns
1.19: Augustine's bad habits of childhood
1.20: Augustine's good qualities of childhood

Book 2.1: Augustine recounts his adolescence and sins, particularly lust, to which he was prone.
2.2: continued.
2.3: onset of lust, and his father's unwillingess to check him.
2.4: theft of the pears
2.5: reason informs all behaviors, virtuous or vicious
2.6: meditation on the theft
2.7: acknowledgement of sin
2.8: Augustine explores why he stole the pears
2.9: incitements to the theft
2.10: wandering from God

Augustine also recounts some of the life of his mother, St. Monica. We enjoyed reading these sections yesterday on her feast.

Book 9.8: Monica's childhood and early addiction to drinking wine
9.9: Monica's humility and careful dealings with her husband and mother-in-law (be prepared to discuss how it used to be acceptable for husbands to beat their wives!)
9.11: the death of Monica

I really feel that there is a niche for a beautifully illustrated children's book about the boyhood of St. Augustine, with text taken from Confessions. I would buy it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Did RomneyCare Reduce Abortion?

There's a claim being made that Obama's Affordable Care Act will significantly reduce abortions, despite the concerns voiced by the US Catholic Bishops about the ACA funding abortions, on the theory that providing people with a guarantee of contraception and pre-natal care will reduce the "need for abortion."  The original basis for this claim is, so far as I can tell, a 2010 article by Patrick Whelan, the president of the Catholic Democrats, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This article states:
The number of abortions in Massachusetts in 2006, the year before the new law was implemented, was 24,245, including 4024 among teenagers. I obtained data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for each of the two subsequent years.... In 2007, the first year of Commonwealth Care, the number of abortions fell to 24,128, and in 2008, it fell to 23,883 — a decline of 1.5% from the 2006 level. The number of abortions among teenagers in 2008 fell to 3726, a 7.4% decline from 2006. These decreases occurred during a period of rising birth rates, from 55.6 per 1000 women 15 to 44 years of age to 56.9 per 1000 in 2006 and 57.2 per 1000 in 2007 (the latest year for which data are available from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health), and an increase in overall population (in 2008, the Massachusetts population surpassed 6.5 million for the first time, and it was nearly 6.6 million in 2009, according to the Census Bureau). The abortion rate thus declined from 3.8 per 1000 population in 2006 to 3.6 per 1000 in 2008. Overall, since 2000, the number of abortions in Massachusetts has dropped by 12% (from 27,180 to 23,883) and by nearly 36% since 1991.
Now, as you can see from the quote, the claim here is already a little dubious. Dr. Whelan would like to attribute the last couple years drop in abortions to RomneyCare, but he of course has to admit that abortion had fallen much more in the years before, without the benefit of universal health care.

A couple days ago, Brian Fung of the Atlantic published a piece in which he appears to have updated Dr. Whelan's data using the same rough estimation methodology: getting the raw number of abortions per year from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and dividing it by the total Massachusetts population (men and woman of all ages). Based on this update, he reports that the raw abortion rate (number of abortions divided by total population) has further reduced to 3.14 in 2011, giving a total reduction in the raw abortion rate of 17%.

Commonweal reported on the Atlantic piece writing:
Writing for The Atlantic, Brian Fung reports, “As the number of insured has gone up in Massachusetts, new state data show a corresponding decline in the number of abortions performed there since 2006.” Since passage of “Romneycare”, Massachusetts’ abortion rate has dropped 17%.

Then Vox Nova writer Mornings Minion piles on, citing the Commonweal piece and writing:
With this in mind, I thought I would share the results of two interesting new studies.

The first shows that abortion rates in Massachusetts dropped by 17 percent after the introduction of Romney’s healthcare reform. Given that the Affordable Care Act is almost identical to the Romney plan, and has some explicit pro-life measures and protections that the Romney plan did not have, we might expect the same outcome at the national level in the years ahead.

The second study tries to estimate the impact on abortion rates from overturning Roe v. Wade. It finds that the most likely outcome is that 31 states ban abortion, and that the overall abortion rate falls by 15 percent. If only 17 states banned abortion, the rate would only fall by 6 percent. In the most optimistic scenario – all but four states banned abortion – the rate would still only fall by 29 percent. That’s basically the best we can hope for.

Is this claim remotely believable?

The obvious question is: Is the decline in abortions in Massachusetts sufficiently unique to suggest that it is Massachusetts's universal health care system which is responsible for the recent decline. Determining this is made difficult by the fact that rigorously calculated data on abortion rates is not available from reputable sources like the Center for Disease Control or the Guttmacher Institute for years past 2008. However, I took a look at the change in abortion rates for a number of states from 2005 to 2008 according to the Census Bureau (2006 was not reported). The results I got showed that Massachusetts had declined in real abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44) by 7.24% between 2005 and 2008. This was more than the US average, which was up by 0.86%. However, it was similar to the decreases in a number of other states:
-8.85% in Alaska
-8.96% in Mississippi
-7.15% in Maryland
-10.71% in Nebraska
-7.25% in North Carolina

Other states saw large increases:
+37.06% in Delaware
+15.37% in Kentucky
+36.59% in Louisiana
+22.22% in Pennsylvania

I picked one of the states that had performed similarly to Massachusetts from 2005 to 2008 that I was able to find data online from (Nebraska) and compared their change in raw abortion rate to that in Massachusetts. The result is very similar: Nebraska (not known for its universal health care coverage) saw a 22% reduction in its raw abortion rate from 2006 to 2011, and a 19% reduction in total abortions over those same years. The raw rate dropped from 1.66 per 1000 in population in 2006 to 1.29 in 2011.

Although each article in the above cited sequence offered stronger claims that 'researchers think' there's a link between Massachusetts's health care law and the reduction in abortions in that state, that belief seems to be based on no more than wishful thinking and interviews with low income Massachusetts residents who say they're "delighted" to have access to subsidized contraception. There certainly appears to be no evidence from the data cited to suggest that RomneyCare has reduced abortion in Massachusetts, nor is Massachusetts unique in its declining abortion rates. The claim that ObamaCare will somehow reduce abortion more than overturning Roe is, obviously, hard to prove one way or the other, since any model of what a post-Roe US would look like would be highly speculative. But at the very least, we can say that there is no real foundation for the belief.

More Talented People I Know

Austin friends: run, don't walk, to the Palace Theater in Georgetown to see their production of A Chorus Line. It's been given a rave review in Broadway World, but more importantly, it features another friend of mine:
As Maggie, Mary Katherine Kinney gets to showcase her beautiful soprano voice and subtle vulnerability during “At the Ballet”.
Ah, I used to direct Miss Kinney when she was a mere slip of a girl, and now she's hit the big time. You can see her sublimely gorgeous face at the Palace Theater, or featured in these photos of the production.

Anyone else ready to step out of my theatrical past to showcase the cool and amazing things they're doing in the biz? Feel free to mention them now -- you can find me at home in the kitchen, washing dishes while the kids throw pillows down the stairs. 

"Just a Moment in the Woods"

From the "Talented People I Know" file: here's my college pal Brooke Evans singing Sondheim at Circle in the Square in New York City. I remember back when Brooke and Darwin were playing courtiers in Twelfth Night, wearing those horrible tights.

Brooke always shone in college, but looking at how she's polished her skills and how her craft has matured over the past eleven, twelve years, I feel almost as proud as if it were one of my own children up on stage. What a gift to be connected, however tangentially, with someone so talented. And, for me, what a bittersweet look down the road not taken.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Abortion and the Rape Exception

Yeah, yeah, I should be writing. But procrastination is a powerful thing.

There's been a lot of talk lately, due to Rep. Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" and pregnancy, about the "rape exception" for a ban on abortion. Entropy makes, what i think is a very key point about this common "except" that people make:
What does a law look like that only allows abortion for rape, incest or the life of the mother?

Incest or the life of the mother can be confirmed by doctors but who confirms that the baby is the result of rape? Does the rape victim have to bring a positive rape kit into the abortion clinic? The conviction of the rapist? The word of the mother?

I'm not trying to be insensitive but I'm sure that I'm failing at that. It just seems like either it's ok to have abortions or it's not. And if it's not but we allow it in terrible situations, then it seems the victim will have also the burden of proof as well.

Another violation.
In a different corner of the internet, Razib pulls some data from the General Social Survey on who opposes abortion even in cases or rape:

A few commenters expressed surprise that women are significantly more likely than men to oppose abortion in cases of rape. This doesn't actually surprise me. I think that one reason people who are otherwise against abortion make the exception is because of a feeling of guilt: "I think abortion is wrong, but do I really have the right to impose that belief on someone who's in a truly horrible circumstance?"

It doesn't surprise me that men, in general, feel less willing to impose their moral views in a situation which doubles up two things which they are highly unlikely to experience (rape) or simply can't experience (pregnancy).

I also particularly enjoyed this exchange down in the comments:
14. Clark Says:
It’s quite surprising that those who believe Bible is fables still have such a high rate. Are these people who are very religious but simply not Christian?

15. Lance Says:
It could be that they are atheist, but still believe fetuses have a right to life. I actually held that position until a few years ago, when Freakonomics opened my eyes regarding the drop in crime rate legal abortion leads to. Now I’m pro-abortion as a social good.

16. Razib Khan Says:
#15, i have a book to sell you about how enslaving low productivity humans increases overall utility! you see, the lazy don’t respond to economic incentives, but they do respond to punitive slave drivers :-)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Search Engine Philosophizing

By some unimaginable injustice, we are the top link if you search Google for "Catholic philosophy blog". If searching cost money, I think people should ask for their money back. As it stands, I can only apologize to all the real Catholic philosophers.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Seven Quick Takes


The New York Times did a video shoot with 14 well-known actors, acting. It's interesting to watch these two-minute clips of action with no context and see how each actor has created a story, even if we don't know what the story is. I would not have guessed, for instance, that Tilda Swinton was playing Joan of Arc, and yet she is just riveting in her visionary state.


Speaking of actors, acting, here's Alan Rickman making tea:


The concept is fascinating, and Alan Rickman is one of those actors who could read the phone book with subtext, but I eventually found myself unwilling to suspend disbelief. I mean, he puts the tea bag in the water.  Everyone knows you're supposed to pour the water over the tea bag, and then leave it to steep, not stir it. Still, Alan Rickman.


 Speaking of tea.

One does, indeed.


Brandon introduced me to the Swingle Singers, and now I can't stop listening.


Yesterday I heard Piazzolla's Libertango on the radio, and lo and behold, the Swingle Singers cover that too.


I am so happy to have some excellent music to listen to, because what's driving me nuts is that I have Maroon 5 stuck in my head.

I can't stand this song, and yet I find myself in the kitchen wailing, "I've got the mooooooooves like Jagger!" What's worse, my girls can sing that bit with me. And don't even get me started on This Love (NSFW -- I mean it), which is just appalling, and yet the tune sticks in my head. It's just so stupidly catchy. And then I waste even more time trying to pick it out on the piano.


Speaking of piano music stuck in my head, here what I've been playing lately, though with nowhere near this speed and regularity.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When The Courtier's Reply is Worth a Response

Not being up on the latest terms in philosophical discourse, I had not heard of the Courtier's Reply, which is apparently now the name for the thing where someone tells you, when you're discussing, and likely disagreeing about, a topic, "You really need to read XYZ if you're going to have a sufficient enough grasp of this topic to be able to debate it with me (and by extension, anyone else of intelligence)." Calling this gambit "The Courtier's Reply" is the brainchild of P.Z. Myers, who draws a pretty flawed analogy to the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, imagining that someone who protested that the Emperor was naked would be answered disdainfully by a courtier informing him that until the protestor had read a multiplicity of works by learned men about the quality of imperial clothing, he has no standing to speak on whether the Emperor is naked.

Still, even if the name is stupid, most of us have run across, in person or on the internet, someone recommending further reading on a topic. I don't dismiss this at all -- not everyone can be an expert in every topic, and sometimes reinventing the intellectual wheel isn't the most productive use of time or words. However, it seems like one of the prerequisites for reading suggestions falling under the Courtier's umbrella is that they're made by someone with whom one is disagreeing, and whose suggestions one might be inclined to dismiss. Leah at Unequally Yoked has been examining the question of "Who Gets to Give the Courtier's Reply?", and I like this definition that one of her commenters gives on a different post:
It’s only a Courtier’s Reply if it’s an effort to shut down discussion, not improve it. “How dare you say that when you haven’t even read *this*!” is a Courtier’s Reply. “Hmm, it would be really helpful if you were to read *this* before the next time we discuss this” isn’t, I think; though I might sometimes decline.
Of course, there are a number of reasons for acceding to this rather arrogant demand; one is to know your opponent's positions in order to demolish them. Leah offers suggestions for when an intellectual antagonist's reading list is actually worth paying attention to
Even though their model is different, their predictions look a lot like yours....You’re in love with them...You both respond strongly to certain not-common aesthetics.

These are useful indicators, though I would add: You have to have some sense that your interlocutor is a person whose particular recommendations are trustworthy. This trust can be based on a number of factors: the "courtier", if you will, may be a respected member of his profession or acclaimed as an authority on the subject on which he's expounding. However, in most cases (especially in internet discussion) a person has to make a decision about the courtier's trustworthiness based solely on how the courtier represents himself in discussion. 

No subject exists in a void. A person's views on religion, politics, science, etc. shape his personality and his relationship to others, and his method of presenting those views to others can strongly predispose or prejudice his listeners as to the reliability of his testimony on behalf of those views. The courtier may feel that the very rightness of his views gives him the leeway to present them as aggressively or unpleasantly as possible or to demand that his opponent do extra research. Intellectual bullying and domination is a very different thing from arguing a position or persuading an opponent; the opponent's unwillingness to fight or inability to construct a counter-argument has more to do the opponent's abilities and interests than the essential soundness of the courtier's argument. A person who is able to argue his position with civility is going to attract more listeners to consider his positions, right or wrong. Anyone can insist that his opponents need to read certain books if they're even to be well-informed enough to continue the discussion; every reader is privileged, when deciding how to allocate precious reading time, to consider the following:

Do I trust this person to be informed and make good recommendations on this subject?

Someone who has given inaccurate information in the past, who tosses out reading lists because he can't summarize his own positions coherently, who is paranoid or ranting or incomprehensible is generally not someone who will inspire his opponent to take a reading list seriously.

Does the way this person presents himself indicate that the knowledge he claims to have is something that will make my life better, richer, and truer? 

A person may seem knowledgeable and authoritative on a subject, and yet state his case so angrily or offensively that readers draw the conclusion that although he knows his subject, the subject might not be worth knowing, or will contribute in no way to their own personal well-being and intellectual formation.

Am I actually interested in continuing a discussion with this person?

A person may be informed (and his opponent may concede that there is some truth in his position), but be so abrasive, demeaning, arrogant, or creepy that he closes off the possibility that his opponent will even want to further understand his positions, or follow his reading recommendations over those of more civil and gracious authorities.

These are subjective considerations, but very few people make decisions based on purely objective criteria. "Courtiers" ignore this at the risk of their own irrelevance. One might, of course, follow an obviously crazy person's reading demands in order to know what the crazies are reading now, 

This is especially cautionary for Christians, who believe that truth is not just an objective standard, but a person, and that our manner of speaking of what we believe to be true is just as crucial to the impression others take of that truth as is the way we speak of a person elemental to preserving or destroying that person's reputation. We can't destroy truth by speaking it badly, but we can damage another person's ability to receive truth by our own objectionable ways of presenting it. To borrow an admonition I once overheard: "You are responsible for the hearts you harden."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Akin's Idiocy

You'd have to try moderately hard to come up with a dumber and more insensitive comment than Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, made the other day. Asked why he opposed abortion even in cases or rape, he responded:
It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
As best as one can guess from Akin's statements (which he has apologized for since the firestorm they kicked up) his beliefs about the issue may have been inspired by studies showing that extreme emotional or physical stress can cause delayed ovulation. Thus a woman who was raped when she was otherwise about to ovulate might not ovulate on time, and thus not conceive.

The first big problem in Akin's thinking appears to have been the result of wishful thinking that is depressingly common. Having read that conception might be less likely after a sexual assault than after normal sexual intercourse, he seems to have wishfully extended this out to be virtually always the case. Akin, like other serious pro-lifers, opposes abortion even in cases of rape. However he seemingly does not want to deal with the fact that opposing one clear evil (killing an unborn child) may leave a woman who has already had her body assaulted by a rapist also unwillingly pregnant. Rather than dealing with the fact that doing the right thing often does not make us happy, he apparently wishes the problem away.

In the process, he adds insult to injury, since his words distinguish "legitimate rape" (from which he believes pregnancy virtually never results) from... Well, he doesn't say what, but the implication is clearly that he's distinguishing between a "real rape" and some sort of rape that the victim didn't actually mind all that much. Since he has magically turned less likely to almost never, the implication (one hopes unintentional) is that if a woman gets pregnant as a result of a rape, she probably didn't really mind being raped -- in other words, it wasn't really a rape.

It doesn't take any imagination to figure out why this is a very offensive implication.

When someone says something this dumb and offensive, its easy to pile on, but difficult to say anything constructive. Rebecca Kiessling provides some fairly calm and thoughtful analysis over at LifeNews. In addition tackling Akin's comments, she deals with some of the other misguidedly sunny attempts pro-lifers have made to address the issue:

The pro-life attorney says pro-life candidates need to be coached on how to answer the media’s inevitable question.

“Senator Rick Santorum, during his presidential campaign, said that he thinks that a child conceived in rape is “a gift from God,” and he was made fun of for that. Just Google images for “Santorum rape” and you’ll see all of the posters where he is mocked for this statement. While I believe it’s true that every child is a gift from God, including children conceived in rape, I don’t believe this was the best response for the interview,” she explained. “If it had been my birthmother sharing that she believes that I’m a blessing and a gift from God, she would not be mocked and ridiculed in the same way he was. And then Sharron Angle, during her Senate race in Nevada, said it’s a “lemonade situation,” which did not come across well at all. The problem is not with these candidates’ values. The problem is how they express them.”

Kiessling provides some somewhat better talking points for politicians to use, though they remain very much what they are: talking points.

My own thought is that we as Americans find these kinds of moral issues very difficult because we have no tragic sense: we labor under the illusion that doing the right thing means that bad things won't happen to you, or that if misfortune comes, doing the right thing will necessarily lessen our suffering right away. Often it doesn't.

The Homeschooling Post

It's been a while since we've written about homeschooling. There are several factors at play in this; the primary one is that we've finally grown out of the idea that we have any wisdom to offer. Somehow, in our early years, we labored under the misapprehension that being homeschooled ourselves, we had some unique purview into the education of children, and we made ourselves insufferable by offering vast opinions on what every 18-year-old should know.  (This last is the sort of thing that sends me to my knees in thanksgiving that the blogsphere was not in full swing when we were 18; if you think we were overblown at 27, imagine how it was when we were at the age to know everything and tell everyone about it. --And according to my time in the 5K the other weekend, I run a mile in 12 minutes.) Thanks, jerky 27-year-old Darwin.)

But! We're still slogging on, educating our children and educating ourselves. Since the local public starts today, it seems like a good time to take stock.

First of all, this article by Jennifer Fitz on Putting Together a Last-Minute Curriculum, although aimed at first-time homeschoolers, was helpful to me in assessing my planning priorities (especially since I do everything at the last minute). Her first point: before you do anything else, be legal. Here's what Ohio mandates that I teach:

a) language, reading, spelling, and writing;
b) geography, history of the United States and Ohio, and national, state, and local government;
c) mathematics
d) science;
e) health;
f) physical education;
g) fine arts, including music; and
h) first aid, safety, and fire prevention.

As Jennifer points out, religion and Latin are not on that list. This is not to say that those subjects are unimportant, but they're not the first topics I need to plan, nor do I need to consider them when getting our work ready for our yearly assessment (no problem on the Latin, because we haven't started that yet, but my brother is a Latin teacher and Darwin was a classics major, so I ought to have all the support I need when I need it -- we're having fun right now with Minimus: Starting out in Latin). We'll be using the Faith and Life books for religion, and doing some scripture memorization as well, and the girls are enrolled in classes down at church. And I just found out that I'm teaching the fifth grade class.

This year we're covering 5th, 4th, and 1st grades, and perhaps teaching letters and numbers to Young Master (depending on how much effort I have to put into it -- Baby will probably be a more willing pupil). For a list of grade-appropriate topics, I consult the Core Knowledge series: What your Fifth Grader Needs to Know, What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know, etc. These books don't constitute a full-fledged curriculum, and that's fine with me. Instead, I'm dividing up the topics by weeks, and covering the year's worth of history or science that way, give or take when we need to. Each section (Language and Literature, History and Geography, Music, Visual Arts, Math, Science) contains an overview of the year's study, broken into topics or brief chronological narratives. With that as our basis, we'll be supplementing with primary sources, stories, topical reading, biographies, histories, and textbooks if we find ones that we like.

We tend to read a lot of literature, out loud and individually. Some books I plan to read, some we pick up as inspiration strikes, and some we pull from the reading selections in What your X Grader Needs to Know. Not all of the suggested reading is new to us -- the current fourth grader heard some of the literature last year when the current fifth grader was studying it. The fifth grade book recommends selections from Little Women, but we read the first half out loud last year, and we'll finish it this year. Some of the material we'll expand upon -- the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, and an abridged version of The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle are suggested for fifth grade, but I'll have her read the original Sherlock Holmes story, and more of Tom Sawyer, if not all of it. (The issue being that I haven't even read all of Tom Sawyer myself, so I need to get cracking. Tom Sawyer: appropriate for a ten-year-old? Discuss.) I want to read more poetry this year, especially some of the longer poems of Longfellow. Maybe Hiawatha, maybe Evangeline, maybe both. Right now we're finishing Belles on Their Toes as summer reading. I read that when I was ten, and it's such a joy to me to see my ten-year-old laughing at the jokes and following the story.

Both the big girls followed the fourth grade history, which covered, in part, the Revolutionary War, but it won't hurt them to hear it again this year. And next year too, probably, if the answers I got when I asked recently about the thirteen colonies are any indication. The books cover various world history topics, in roughly chronological order, and I'm not worried about doing world history injustice. Do you know how little history I'd learned before I went to college? My kids are already doing better than I did.

Many homeschoolers like to follow some sort of program: Seton, Calvert, Abeka, K12, etc. That's fine if it works for you. Over the years I've learned that I do not do well trying to teach to someone else's educational schedule, and that if I try to do so, it ends in madness -- I like to compress, expand, speed up, slow down, as the spirit moves us. As I've cleared off my shelves in preparation for this school year, I've found that the first things to go are anything that smacks of curriculum: the spelling textbook someone gave me, the English program I never used, the kindergarten workbooks that we used to distract the baby when she wanted to climb on the table. There are a few exceptions. This year we're beta-testing a spelling program, and I'm already apprehensive at the idea of going at someone else's pace. This is where we start building good life skills.

We've used the Miquon books for math, which are really a collection of lab sheets instead of textbooks. And we supplement with the MCP math workbooks for practice. The big girls do math together. This seems to suit their abilities, in general. The younger has a stronger head for numbers. But every now and then we get some divergence, so I ease up on the younger and do some more in-depth work with the older, and that's borne good fruit.

I worried that we hadn't been doing enough writing, and was considering purchasing the Excellence in Writing program, but an experienced friend told me exactly what I wanted to hear: that if you're not confident in your own abilities as a writer, you'll find it helpful; if you are, and you feel like you can impart grammar and hone stylistic abilities on your own, you'll find it frustrating. Color me convinced! Anyway, the trick to doing more writing is to do more writing. So that's the plan.

Something we enjoyed a lot last year was doing a bit of logic, so that will continue this year. My aunt gave me a big anthology of Lewis Carroll's writings, and included were a selection of his logic games. I also took a lot of guidance from Brandon's post on teaching logic to children, which introduced us not only to a number of concepts, but to the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar (in which we learn that dead rats live in the basement). Another aunt gave us, over the summer, an assortment of logic puzzle books from Ivan Moscovich's Mastermind Collection. I find myself sorely out of my depth with most of these, especially when they tend toward the more mathematical, but the kids enjoy just paging through the books. I'm fine with that. I want them to have an introduction to this kind of thinking, and to find it enjoyable instead of onerous.

Phys. Ed.: everyone dances. Why dance? I don't know. The local arts center is a block and a half from our house, which means the kids can walk there, but after forking out the dough for this year's lessons and Company and recital costumes and extra pre-pointe class, I'm wondering why we just don't form our own basketball team. One child is gung-ho for archery, and Darwin is gung-ho to assist her with that. Also, this is the year we start piano lessons again. I mean it. And go to more art museums and plays. I mean it. I lead a children's schola on Fridays (music! Latin!), where none of my children pay me any mind because obviously it doesn't matter if you goof around if Mom is the one teaching the group, and she's not going to spank offenders in public. The Catholic school kids, meanwhile, are good as gold.

I don't know how we'll top last year's fire prevention lesson, in which we learned that smoke detectors in basements really do save lives, and that when your boiler combusts in November, it gets cold in the house. I hope that's a lesson we only need to learn once.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Frenzy

MrsDarwin is off on mothers' retreat for the night, and I have the kids and the novel to keep me busy. So here's some Squirrel Nut Zippers for your Friday Night:

Ships were made for sinking
whiskey made for drinking
if we were made of cellophane we'd all get stinking drunk much faster!

And in honor of our late nocturnal visitor of the other night:

I the Broadcaster avoid police
But the Bat was led into custody

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Future (or lack thereof) of Center-Left Catholicism

John Allen had a post the other day in which he discussed the plight of "center-left" Catholicism in the US and advised it to seek to find connections with the US hierarchy through "surprising support":
Ideological labels for the church are notoriously ill-fitting, but if we're going to use them, I prefer the European taxonomy of "left, center-left, center-right, and right" to the American convention of "liberals, moderates and conservatives." In my experience, most self-described moderates actually lean one way or the other, but their defining trait is a preference for consensus.

Applying the European frame to American Catholicism these days, you have to feel a little sorry for the center-left, meaning Catholics whose instincts run to the liberal side but who still believe in working within the system.

Looking around, everyone else seems to know what to do. The right is egging the bishops on in fights over religious freedom, while the left is howling over the latest perceived outrage -- above all, a Vatican-mandated overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is meeting this week in St. Louis. Center-right Catholics generally can find something appetizing on the official smorgasbord, such as the "new evangelization."

The center-left, however, sometimes seems adrift.

You can find these folks working in chanceries, ministering in parishes and teaching in Catholic schools, not to mention making up a good chunk of the rank-and-file. They don't like some of what they're seeing from Rome and the U.S. bishops, but they don't want to end up in opposition either. It's not always clear to them what the third option might be.

Here's one possibility, and it will be interesting to see if it gains traction in that crowd: The quest for confidence-building measures with the bishops one might describe as "surprising support."

By that, I mean areas where the resources and concerns of the center-left intersect with the emerging priorities of the bishops in surprising ways and thus have the potential to recalibrate perceptions on both sides of the relationship.

In addition to an ecclesiology of communion, "thinking with the church," or whatever spiritual motive one might advance, offering surprising support is also smart tactics. It means opening channels of conversation before a crisis erupts, and it would give the center-left more leverage to push back against trajectories they don't like. As a rule of thumb, it's generally easier to manage disagreements among friends than strangers.
The venue being National Catholic Reporter, I wasn't really surprised that the comments tended towards anti-hierarchy vitriol and denunciations of Allan's column.

What did surprise me a bit was when I got the dotCommonweal newsletter in my inbox today (why they put me their email list I really have no idea -- I've certainly never been a Commonweal subscriber) and found that J. Peter Nixon had written a response piece which took a significantly more discouraged view than Allen's:
Allen seems to be suggesting that, once-upon-a-time, conservatives were able to expand their influence among the bishops by “building relationships.” This is, to put it mildly, a curious reading of history. I think a more accurate assessment would be that conservatives expanded their influence by openly opposing “center-left” bishops where they could, going around those bishops to Rome where they could not, and doing everything they could to ensure that future bishops would be “center-right” if not simply “right.”
My point in recounting this history is less to criticize the center-right than to correct Allen’s misreading of recent ecclesiastical history. The uncomfortable truth is that no-holds-barred theological conflict is a recurrent feature of church history. Am I suggesting, then, that “center left” Catholics should adopt the bare-knuckled tactics of their conservative counterparts rather than the dialogue favored by Allen?

I am not, for the simple reason that I can’t imagine it being effective. Nor, however, can I imagine Allen’s approach yielding any substantive benefits for the center left. The truth is that, like the South after Gettysburg, the left has been defeated and little is left but to negotiate the terms of its surrender.

In the 1980s, center-left bishops had to listen to the center-right because they had the ear of Rome. The center-left has the ear of no one. They have nothing that the bishops really need and probably nothing that the bishops want. They have no leverage.

Allen suggests that “center left” probably describes the majority of American Catholics and perhaps a super-majority of those working in Catholic institutions, such as chancery offices, Catholic Charities, etc. This is true, but it is changing. We have had a fair amount of episcopal turnover in California in the last few years, and the trend is unmistakable. Older, largely “center-left” staff are retiring or leaving and being replaced by younger, more self-consciously “orthodox” Catholics.
For twenty years, at least, I've heard fellow "conservative" Catholics argue (with varying degrees of charity) that "liberal Catholicism" is dying out. This is, however, perhaps the first time that I've heard someone who considers himself a liberal Catholic do the same, and in Commonweal of all places.

UPDATE: FWIW, I think one issue with both of these articles that they conflate political conservatism with theological/liturgical orthodoxy/orthopraxy. In part due to the religious consumerism Nixon notes, and in part due to the simple unsustainability of belonging to a Church such as the Catholic Church while insisting that it isn't really what it claims to be, it seems to me that "liberal Catholicism" in the theological and liturgical sense is probably doomed to wither away in just the way that we have lately seen. This does not, however, necessarily mean that all Catholics will be "conservative" in political or cultural sense.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Catholic Goes to Backyard Bible Camp

Some new neighbors down the street were hosting Backyard Bible Camp, a truncated version of Vacation Bible School, and I sent the kids down last week. I went, as a youngster growing up in the Bible Belt, to VBS for several years, and still remember a few of the songs from the year the theme was "Joy Trek". ("Only one came back, only one came back, only one came back to say thank you to the Lord!") There was always the mildly strange element of being a Catholic kid in a predominantly Protestant group, but the strangeness was of the three-headed calf variety: more an oddity than a horror. And then there was the time my siblings and I were part of the cast of Kids Praise! 2, a musical featuring a big blue talking (and singing) Bible who put kids through their memorization paces. This is primarily memorable for me not for the theological content but because I first experienced the thrill of being in the theatrical clutch: one of the kids forgot a line which was necessary for moving the action forward; after an awkward pause, I stepped forward and delivered it, the show went on, and no one congratulated me for saving the day because from the audience it only looked like I had forgotten my own line and delivered it a beat too late.

So last week was full of songs, verse memorization, and games. Helping the kids memorize their verses was a cinch: I made it to Guards in AWANA back in the late '80s, so "God is my refuge and my strength; an ever-present help in time of trouble" (Ps. 46:1) rolled trippingly off my tongue as if I learned it yesterday. But the songs, oh, the songs! Christian faux-pop tarted up with the nasal stylings of auto-tuned teens wailing about how my God will meet all your needs. My girls, natural mimics all, had learned their verse after listening to their take-home CD the first day, but were also imitating the bad musicality of the singers. I don't care how catchy the songs are; I'm throwing the thing out because I can't stand much more of it. The message is good, true, and beautiful; the presentation? Killing me.

Watching Bible Camp from the outside was intriguing, as I watched most of the kids from the block file in each morning and recite (or not) their memory verses, urged on by the enthusiastic candy-wielding teenagers from my neighbor's Evangelical church. There are varying levels of religious observance on the street, and some children barely know what a bible is, let alone who Jesus is. Many of the parents were desperate for an hour and a half of daycare at the end of the summer. (I'm guilty as charged; I hadn't really considered sending the kids down to Bible Camp until I was so hard-up for quiet homeschool planning time that I would have let them beat each other with sticks outside if they would just leave me alone.) I wondered how effective an introduction to the Christian life it was to hand out isolated bible verses to those who have no basis for crediting anything the Bible says. I don't know; I'm not trying to be snide or dismissive of the clear and joyful effort put into the whole project. The parable of the sower and the seeds did become a running meditation for me all week: the soil must be prepared if the word is to be accepted and take root, and it seems to me that part of that preparation is that an appeal to the authority of the Bible must be grounded in the necessity of the search for God. The existence of the Bible, as a physical object, is incontrovertible, but its authority rests on establishing that God has indeed chosen this means of communicating Himself to man, something that gets circular when using the Bible to establish itself as such. The urge for God, or the search for meaning in life has resonance even to children, even outside of any established religious convention. Does this need to be explored, or even touched on, for scripture memorization to take on any significance other than a means to candy?

"He then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety." 
I know that the format of Catholic basic religious education for children has altered greatly since my days of atrocious catechesis in CCD. I can still remember the Silver Burdett books used for sacrament prep in second grade: banal and blithely content-free. From teaching second-grade classes at church when Eleanor was preparing for her first communion three years ago, I know that even the poorer textbooks under consideration made more of an effort to communicate a Catholic worldview, even if their paucity of vocabulary meant that the mass was described as a "celebration!" on every other page. I know that the catechism format of question-and-answer is having a bit of a revival, even if the questions are a bit simplistic. I celebrate this, if you will, because the catechism format gives a philosophical underpinning to the Catholic life. The traditional first question we ask children: "Why did God make me?" has several different answers, depending on the source consulted; the versions I memorized were "God made me to know, love, and serve him, and to be happy with him in heaven" and "God made me to show forth his goodness and to be happy with him in heaven". This kind of questioning, introducing children to the broader world of ideas and of an examined life (Why did God make me? Why did God make anything? What does the answer to this question say about the way that I should live my life?), starts to build an awareness of God and our life in him that is enhanced, transformed, and directed by the Bible; fed and enriched by the sacraments; encouraged and sustained by the Churches Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant.

I love this rich, multi-layered religion, and I love the the simple beginning. "Why did God make me?" isn't a just Catholic question, nor even a Christian one, but thanks to centuries of theological and philosophical tradition, and generations of systematic childhood catechesis, we OWN it.

But this isn't an infallible approach, if presented only as information. Generations of poorly-educated Catholics and Protestant converts can attest to that. So what's the answer? I don't know. All I can say is that I find more and more that I am Roman Catholic, not just by birth but by temperament as well as theological and philosophical inclination. The flatter spiritual approach of Protestantism is not for me, nor is it something I desire for my children, no matter how grateful I am for free babysitting. But I am grateful for it, and I hope that the zeal my neighbor shows bears fruit, and that the word so enthusiastically scattered will take root even in imperfectly tended soil.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Catholic Writers Conference

Jennifer Fitz (who writes at Riparians at the Gate) is, it seems, one of the organizers of the Catholic Writers Conference which will be taking place in Arlington, Texas in three weeks (Aug. 29-31) asked us to let readers know about the event in case they are interested in attending. Registration at the Catholic Writers Conference also gets you into the Catholic Marketing Network conference which is taking place at the same time and place and gets you a discount on registration for the Catholic New Media Conference.

For those who are in the Dallas area (or those interested in going there to mingle with other Catholic writer folk) this is your chance!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Tax Dishonesty

I've been listening to music via Pandora a lot recently (while writing) and the result is that although I've been hearing more than my usual share of political ads. (Since I don't watch television or listen to commercial radio, I'm normally exempt from these despite living in Ohio.)

One thing that particularly struck me is the rampant dishonesty in regards to tax policy that's going around, in part due to the both party's bad habit of making tax breaks look more affordable by enacting them only for short terms, thus necessitating frequent renewal.

The first bone of contention is the "Bush tax cuts". These tax cuts, which affected taxpayers all across the income spectrum, are estimated to have a "cost" of $3.3 Trillion over ten years (this "cost" is the combination of foregone theoretical tax revenues and the cost of servicing the debt resulting from federal spending not going down by a similar $3.3 Trillion.) Democrats like to refer to the "Bush tax cuts" as "tax cuts for the rich" and to quote the full "cost" of $3.3 Trillion as being the cost of those cuts. What this ignores is that two thirds of that $3.3T actually went to what President Obama refers to as the middle class (families making less than $250,000 per year.) So while it's true that the "Bush tax cuts" had a "cost" of "over three trillion dollars", the attacks against this ignore the fact that two thirds of that total is "tax cuts for the middle class" which Democrats support.

Just to make it even more confusing, Democrats like to call extending the Bush tax cuts "massive tax cuts for the rich", despite the fact it is simply an extension of tax rates which have already been in place for some time. Republicans, on the other hand, like to refer the potential expiration of the tax cuts as a "massive tax increase." This is accurate, to the extent that people would indeed experience their taxes going up, but it ignores the inconvenient fact that Republicans wrote the tax cut in such a way as to expire (in order to avoid having to make hard budget decisions to 'pay for' the tax cut.)

As if one set of expiring tax cuts that everyone talks about in different ways were not confusing enough, there's also the Obama payroll tax cut: a cut of 2% in the payroll tax that pays for Social Security. This was never meant to be a permanent tax cut, but rather a short term economic stimulus. Social Security has financial problems to begin with, it doesn't help to make a significant cut in its funding. (And that's ignoring the fiction that the money you put into Social Security is the money you're get out again.)

However, even though both parties have signaled that they're essentially willing to let the temporary payroll tax cut expire at the end of this year (though both parties hope to see this done as part of a broader overhaul of taxes suited to their own priorities) that hasn't stopped some commentators and advertisers from characterizing Republican support for letting the cut expire as "a tax increase on the middle class".


Here's my pretty new niece, Stella Kristen, born yesterday, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, at 9:44 pm, 6 lbs, 11 oz. I don't get to hold her for a month, but I'm going to make the time pass by contemplating her dimples.

I'm an aunt twice. My life's ambitions have been amply fulfilled.

Monday, August 06, 2012

People Don't Like Living in a Pluralistic Society

I tend to ignore virtually all boycott demands, so even if I hadn't been mad enough to be trying to write a novel in 31 days, I wouldn't have had much to say about the Great Chick-fil-A controversy. However, as the whole thing begins to die back down into the background radiation of the culture war, it strikes me that this fracas in particular provides a good example of how deeply uncomfortable people are with the idea of actually living in a pluralistic society.

Realistically speaking, when you go to buy a sandwich, the only belief of the sandwich purveyor you really count on is a belief in producing good sandwiches. However, we tend not to like to think that in buying a sandwich we're helping someone who holds beliefs which are odious to us. As last week's convulsions showed, this is very much the case even with those who claim that they like a pluralistic society. The same people who pride themselves on seeking out racially mixed neighborhoods and ethnic cuisines would not necessarily be pleased were they to know that those picturesque "others" actually hold beliefs that are, well, other. People may like the idea of a pluralistic society, but in reality they like to think that everyone they interact with agrees with them on the "important things".

I don't feel any differently. I also wish that I could mostly interact with other people who agreed with me on the issues that are important to me. However, I do feel that I have something of an outside view on the phenomenon in that I've always been aware that my views are sufficiently in the minority in the wider society that it's best to assume that virtually no one I interact with actually shares all my most deeply held religious and political convictions. Those who think of their views as being held by all sane and nice people seem far more likely to go into a tailspin when they find out that this is not actually the case.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Easy Listening

As we headed off on the first evening leg of last week's ten-hour trip to Wisconsin, we anticipated a ride eased by the dulcet tones of a British narrator reading about mayhem and bloodshed in rabbit warrens. Yes, Watership Down was on the menu: eleven cassettes promising enough listening hours to keep the back seat pacified for most of the drive.

And then I put in the first tape. The player whirred, clicked, and spit it out. I tried again. Same routine. I tried a different tape. I tried several different tapes. It was of no avail -- the tape player had gone on strike, perhaps permanently.  I rummaged around, but I'd cleaned the van so thoroughly before my brother's wedding that there were no random CDs on the floor or shoved into various compartments. The back seat was getting restive, waiting for their promised book. Faced with the onrushing prospect of the long haul with no trusty audio to soothe the riotous masses, I almost went tharn.

So we tracked radio stations all across the midwest. The oldies station has become very popular with the ladies, so we followed the Columbus station as long as we could follow the signal. Then we said the rosary, and no one went to sleep. Then we threatened. Then we got to Toledo and people were quiet, but we had to drive the beltway around the whole city because we missed our exit because I was reading to Darwin. We knew we were going the wrong way when we saw that the highway was headed to Detroit.

Day two was harder. We listened to The Globe across Northern Indiana, which was the sort of awesome eclectic station I wish I could find at home. My listening pleasure was impeded, however, by a certain someone attempting to hold the car hostage by throwing a huge screaming tantrum in which she repeatedly demanded that she be allowed to sit in the middle seat on the second half of the trip. You think someone would get bored yelling, "I want to sit in the middle seat of the car on the second half of the trip!" for an hour at a time, but the young have an intensity and staying power that eludes their elders.

Digression: I tell you what, my dad is a mild-mannered guy, but if he had ever had occasion to pull this car over and tell me that if I didn't stop it, there would be serious consequences, I would have listened and piped the heck down. All I can say is that it really is better to be feared than loved sometimes, and on this trip it felt like we the adults were neither.

It was time to take measures on the trip back. We stopped at Barnes and Noble in Madison, WI and fortified ourselves for the journey with 4.5 hours of dramatized Sherlock Holmes stories (Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson), 2 hours of Aesop's Fables, and the two-disc collection of Dr. Demento's Greatest Hits.

Dr. Demento, host of the novelty hit radio show! You all know his signature song: They're Coming To Take Me Away, by Napoleon XIV.

This very same Dr. Demento collection, which I listened to (on tape) fifteen years ago, features a song I first heard on a carefully preserved 45 lp of my dad's: Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, by Allan Sherman. The tantrummer listened, laughed, and pronounced it good.

One song which amused my children but was fairly inexplicable to them was Star Trekking (Across the Universe) by The Firm. I saw a lot of Star Trek in my time, but since we don't have broadcast TV, they've never had occasion to see old episodes while flipping through channels. Star Trek is rather a dying cultural phenomenon anyway, mostly remembered through parody.

One of the most weirdly catchy tunes on the album was Fish Heads by Barnes and Barnes, featured here in their own music video as seen on the Dr. Demento show on MTV. It's pretty delightfully demented.

Eat them up, yum!

And we rode peacefully all the way home. Thank you, Dr. Demento.