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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 30

Thanks to Melanie, our hostess.

I tried to take notes by the day, in my handy-dandy planner, and I made up until Thursday of last week, so I'm just going to attempt to summarize by subject.


We've been continuing our daily Mass readings, along with the meditation from One Bread, One Body, a Catholic devotional booklet with a teaching based on the day's readings.We happen to use this, instead of Magnificat or any other of the fine devotionals out there, because my dad is one of the editors of One Bread, One Body, and has been for many years, and often if it states at the bottom of the page that the teaching was submitted by a member of the editorial team, there's a pretty good chance that Dad wrote it. So we learn more about scripture, and we feel close to Grandpa on days when we're reading his reflection on scripture.

Some people in this house feel that they've moved beyond reading their religion books, because they already know everything in them; these people would be well advised, then, to know the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter when Mother quizzes them.

Religion classes at church started this week; I'm writing up my reflections on teaching 6th grade religion class (yes, I'm a catechist this year) elsewhere.


Still Khan Academy, but we had multiplication drill this week because come on, people.


Ah, my favorite. Jane Eyre is a big hit, and Mr. Brocklehurst a satisfying villain. The kids follow along well and are keen to spot the hypocrisy of the Misses Brocklehurst in their plumage and finery touring shabby Lowood. Jane is a great favorite with the girls -- Julia is ready to paint a Jane Eyre doll.

Reading it out loud causes me to pick up on new bits of the story I'd never noticed before, such as Mr. Brocklehurst forgetting the darning needles and then complaining a second later that the stockings are all in bad repair, or how young Jane exults in wild, romantic landscapes and the lonely howling of the wind -- the kind of atmosphere she will meet later, at Thornton.  Today we read the death of Helen, and I had to stop because I was all choked up. It's so simply and effectively done.


The girls finished independently reading Njall's Saga this week. (Eleanor's summary: "A bunch of people killed each other, and his wife didn't give him hair for a bow string.") On to William the Conqueror! I quote the driest bit of history from Alice in Wonderland all the time: "In 1066, William the Conqueror..." The kids really could care less. Perhaps we should do an in-depth study of the Bayeux Tapestry, since needle arts apparently have the ability to move where all other erudition fails. I even pulled out Alice in Wonderland to read about William the Conqueror there, and discovered that all these years, I've been quoting it wrong. "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favored by the Pope..." Where did I get the 1066? At least it's accurate, and if nothing else, the kids know the correct date.

Julia is on a painted peg doll kick, and I just bought her a bunch of blanks. A bright idea occured: "Julia, what if we painted dolls for history? You could make Charlemagne, and William the Conqueror, and we could research their clothes..."

"Would I still have to read the history?" she demanded.



This goes apace. People like spelling this year, a welcome change from the past I-don't-know-how-long. The girls are working hard and memorizing their words, and taking it as a challenge when they get one wrong, instead of an occasion to collapse in sobs or sulks. We're using an old Calvert spelling book that was my sister's; perhaps it has the right feeling of authority. Isabel is inspired by the older girls and is keeping a spelling notebook too.


I like this part too, where we learn about adverb phrases and complex sentences and how language fits together. (Also, I just learned -- just learned! -- that when you write the plural of a letter or a number, you use an apostrophe: A's, 3's. All these years I thought that was incorrect. The more you know!) I am noticing better sentences from the young pupils since I've sat with them every day over Voyages in English and made them answer every practice exercise orally and complete every writing prompt.


We joined the Drama Club at the local Catholic school! This warms the cockles of my drama-major heart so much. The girls love it. In the fall, Drama Club is basically acting class, with a number of exercises I remember from my own acting class days, culminating in scenes at the end of the semester, and in the spring they do a play. The group is 6th-8th graders, and the girls have friends in the group, and everything is awesome.


Organ starts this week. Cue whining about practicing in 3, 2, 1...

The thing is, I wish I had all this time to play music now. Ever since Betty Duffy and I made music, I've been itching to be musical again. I dusted off (literally) my copy of Rhapsody in Blue and am getting almost proficient on the first few pages, even when it gets to that fiddly series of runs on the third page. I didn't used to play piano! I do play piano! Even though I have no time to play the piano! I still can't jam to save my life, but I can do a few sweet Gershwin moves. Here's to the kids feeling the same way in 25 years.

Isabel, Jack, Diana

I worry that I give these guys short shrift, so let's write up the week and see.

Isabel has been journaling, and she has a knack for storytelling and for writing a good sentence. I am happy to spell any word she asks me for, within reason; how do you learn a word without hearing it first? Her handwriting is improving too, which makes me happy. Both she and Eleanor have started curling the tails of their y's and g's, and I like to see it -- I'm all for small beautifications of handwriting. She's reading Harry Potter 1 right now, pushing through it slowly but surely, and she's picking up other chapter books and moving through them much more quickly. I'd issue a ban the execrable, content-free Magic Tree House books, except that she's picking up on that herself.
"Mom, why does every book start with, "Jack wiped his glasses"?"
"Because these books are formulaic, honey."
"Oh. Okay."
I took the younger ones to the park while the big girls were in drama club, and we looked at the fish in the surprisingly clear lake, and the ducks doing their ducky thing (everyone could identify which were male and which were female, so I was pleased), and feathers were collected, and creeks were splashed in, and waterbugs observed. Even William cooed at the ducks and tracked the progress of an ant on a rail and sweated amiably in my arms.

Jack and Diana just rattle around the house all day, playing and living it up. I did get a bit alarmed at the thought of Jack going to his first grade religion class and not being able to write his name clearly, so we did some drill there and touched up his a's a bit. He asked for some copywork the other day, and suggested the phrase, "Amen, amen, I say to you," which he remembered from our Bible readings. We had a protracted spat about the best way to lay out his copywork, but finally I was given to understand that he wanted me to write out the line darkly in pencil, then he would erase it so that it was just an outline, and then he would trace it. Okay.

Here's a note from last Monday: "Jack, Diana -- book about the solar system; talked about life int eh universe and God's love." Yep, did that. It was one of those Magic School Bus books, which I could also live without. Any book about education that has Magic as the series gimmick, I'm about done with. Parse that sentence.

Also: could Thomas the Train Engine be any more creepy? I don't care if it gets him reading. I'd rather put up with crappy Star Wars prequels than Thomas.

Love and Marriage

If you haven't already, take a few minutes to read Clare Coffey's piece on love and relationship in marriage over at First Things. There are various pieces that I'm tempted to quote, but the flow of the essay is part of what's delightful about it, so instead I'll just say: go read it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"O Abyss of Mercy": Reading Catherine of Siena

I've been reading along with Brandon's fortnightly book: Catherine of Siena, by Sigrid Undset. Catherine is my name saint, and yet I've rarely felt any devotion to her -- probably, in part, because of the spun-sugar painting of her in the children's book of saints we had. Undset does not spin sugar. Her Catherine is so vividly alive that it hard indeed not to love her, as those who knew her found.  Catherine was consumed, almost literally in the end, by the love of God pouring from the wounded side of Jesus, and her life of extreme penitence and sacrifice was a burning away of all earthly loves that might hold her back from sinking fully into the depths of His profound mercy.

Her most famous earthly work of her brief life (1347-1380) was her tireless crusade to call the Pope, then living in Avignon, back to Rome, the seat of his spiritual authority. She was infallibly faithful to the Pope and to the Church, always working to unify and restore the Bride of Christ both for the sake of Christ and because of the immense witness of the true nature of the Church. Undset, describing Catherine's Dialogues, uses a lovely formulation: "if the Holy Church should regain the outward beauty which is an expression of its eternal inner beauty, the whole world would be saved, for it would draw all men to itself so irresistibly that it would lead to the conversion of all men, both Christians and heathens." She worked ceaselessly for peace, writing letters to personages great and small, urging them to seek spiritual good over earthly good, or spiritual loves over earthly loves, or in the case of the virtuous but severe Pope Urban VI, to embrace God's mercy over harshness as he tried to weed out vice in the clergy and laity of his day. She was called at a young age to begin preparing for this great labor of holiness -- her first vision was at age seven -- and her penances and fasts were so complete that from the time she was 23, she rarely consumed anything but the Eucharist, a fact attested to by many witnesses. Catherine's life and her revelations were so extraordinary that she has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for the way in which her theology brings fresh insight into the Christian life and the nature of God, who is love.

Catherine often passed into ecstasies in which she experienced the consolations of Divine love and joy, and Undset's accounts of these is so compelling that I, reading them, felt drawn into these mystical experiences and yearned to understand this kind of love. I know about love, of a human sort. I've loved as a friend and as a lover and a wife and a mother, and each of these loves deepens and broadens over time. But Catherine's divine love is different, so consuming and so personal that it almost feels alien. How can we understand this kind of love, of which all human loves are merely a facet and the slightest glimpse, without it being revealed to us?

And Catherine sought this love tirelessly through the kind of prayer and fasting and penances that I instinctively shrink from. God, of course, can reveal Himself to anyone at anytime, but can a person see His face and live without a rigorous spiritual life like Catherine's? And can someone live such an intense life of union with God without being prepared from a young age? Catherine seemed called specifically to this particularly demanding life, stripped of much human consolation and comfort, and her mortifications were not just the necessary preparation for this life, but a response to the overwhelming love of God revealed in and through her prayers.

In fact, her life is so extreme that it would be easy to dismiss as an example, because if we were all virgins and mystics and visionaries and sources of great social and ecclesiastical change, who would build the churches Catherine prayed in? Who would finance the hospitals Catherine worked in? Who would make the clothes she wore, or grow the fibers, or tend the ground? Who would bear and raise and instruct the children? Who would carve the furniture, and who would support the carpenter so that he could carve good furniture? But these are, of course, false dichotomies, because the only way to holiness is the way that God calls each person to, individually, so that someone living a vocation in the world, experiencing God's goodness reflected in His creation, stewarding the resources He provides, has as much potential to plunge deep into the ocean of heavenly love, to borrow a favorite image of Catherine's, as she did. The potential, of course, is not the same as the actuality; Catherine is a saint because she answered the call to the fullest of her being, in a way that few people throughout history have done. And yet she is not the only model of holiness for Christians. The calendar is full of saints who have, in divers ways, responded to God's call.

Catherine would approve of that. Self-knowledge was a constant theme of hers: knowledge of our sins, knowledge of our faults, knowledge of the need for conversion. "Knowledge must precede love," she said in her book of Dialogues, "and only when she has attained to love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth." Our whole spiritual journey is a process of coming to understand our life in God. Jesus told Catherine, "You must know that you are that which is not, but I am That Which Is." We are not, because we have no existence but in God, who is the totality of existence. We have no existence outside of God because He is existence itself: "In Him we live and move and have our being." He is the source of all goodness, being Goodness itself, and so sin, which is a rejection of God's goodness and love and mercy, is a nothingness, a rejection of being. Even in sin, though, God's mercy sustains us through the pull of our conscience. Every pang of guilt and desire for change, every dissatisfaction with our own inadequacy, is a sign of His grace drawing us back to Him and calling us to trust His mercy.

Catherine lived in turbulent times, the kind of turbulence which makes a mockery of those who wring their hands nowadays at potential schism in the church because every utterance of the Pope does not please. Undset has a word to say to about that in the last words of the book.
But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth -- on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: "The Son of Man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?" He did not tell us the answer.  
But these words should make those who talk of the bankruptcy of Christianity in our time a little more careful. We have never been given any promises of a world where all men and women willing accept the teaching of Christ as their way of life. They have not even done so in a period when there were very few who doubted that He was the lord of heaven and earth: they still tried to escape Him or deliberately refused to listen to Him. For every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.

Brandon has his review up; go read it. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I Don't Know Church Leaders

One of the things I haven't really written about at all lately is Pope Francis and his various statements and ecclesiastical appointments. I read coverage about it to a certain extent, but as reactions both for and against Francis have seemed to strengthen, I've found myself less and less inclined to say anything about such topics.

Part of the reason is that I feel like reactions to virtually anything in ecclesiastical politics and writing seem to have become ever more factional. The routine seems to go like this:

- Pope Francis says something or does something.

- Liberal Catholic pundits (yes, I know we're supposed to be oh-so-above such left and right labels as Catholics, but you know what, everyone knows what I mean even when they object to the terms) and the secular medial all announce "Another Setback For Conservatives As Pope Francis Stamps His Humble Boot In Their Face!!!"

- More or less simultaneously, one segment of conservative Catholics goes into full howl mode and announce that the Seventies are back, the Pope Benedict's "hermeneutic of continuity" is over, and the pope is probably a crypto heretic.

- The loyalty brigade (which consists mostly of another segment of generally conservative Catholic writers) gets started and declares that anyone upset by this doesn't understand that Pope Francis is behaving Just Like Jesus and that they are behaving like the prodigal son's older brother and all the worst of the Pharisees rolled into one.

Every single thing seems to go like this, and after a while the scripted nature of it all leaves me feeling disgusted.

This sense of distance, however, has helped me realize something I probably should have realized a long time ago: I really don't know much about Church leaders as leaders. Those of them who are writers, I can at least know as writers. As such, I really love Pope Benedict, who had the rare ability to write clearly and accessibly but also very deeply. He also has a profound intellectual, spiritual, and liturgical understanding of Christianity. As such, I was incredibly excited when he became pope.

However, I honestly have no idea how well he ran the Church in term of administrative matters. It seemed like he appointed some good bishops and did some needed things in relation to the abuse scandal. But no only do I not know how he ran things according to the criteria that his fellow bishops have -- I don't even know what those criteria are.

Similarly, while there are bishops whose public statements and actions I like more than others, I don't really know much about what makes a good or bad bishop in terms of actually running a diocese. I'm sure that some orthodox and pius bishops do bad jobs of administering their priests, planning projects, building vocations, and interacting with the numerous groups of faithful vying for their attention. I imagine that some bishops I would consider at root orthodox but honestly very squishy are actually pretty good at running their diocese. And I am pretty sure that I don't even know the criteria that would define these and other types in between.

I see a similar phenomenon at the company I work at. I currently work at a level where I see a certain amount of what the executives do. I interact with them and know what kind of questions they ask and how they make decisions. And although I'm not nearly as far into that world as the people a level above me, I am far enough in to start to realize that the popular impressions within a company of executives personalities, whether they're good at their jobs, and of the nature of their jobs, is often pretty far from the reality.

Knowing that about an organization I'm fairly familiar with, I become a lot more suspicious of my impressions of leaders of other organizations with the workings of which I'm less familiar: church leaders, politicians, etc.

That doesn't mean that no one knows. People who work in diocesan administration or in organizations that interact with diocese probably have a lot more of an idea about these issues. But for a lot of us, even people who pay far more attention to ecclesiastical politics and writings thatn I do, what we see is actually the publicity image of these figures: some combination of their writings and public actions, reactions to them by writers, and how they fit in the culture war paradigm.

These things aren't nothing. People learn from public images. They have to, since very few of us interact directly enough with leaders to have any clear sense of what they do in their actual jobs. But it does mean that there is probably a disconnect, perhaps often a large one, between the reasons why chuch leaders are actually chosen and how we perceive them. Indeed, bishops are probably perceived very, very differently by their fellow bishops than we perceive them based strictly on their writings, actions and media images.

All of which has led to me to have a lot less to say about all this. I'm curious about how it all works, and I care about what impact these decisions may have on the Church. I fear that some of the decisions being made probably aren't very good, but I also increasingly doubt my ability to know which decisions are good or bad except after the fact and in the most egregious or outstanding cases.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Land of Might Have Been: Is Alternate History a Waste of Time?

Cass Sunstein has an interesting piece at The New Republic reviewing a recent book on counterfactual histories by Richard Evans. Along the way, some interesting examples of the genre get mentioned:
An anthology that was published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War.
I'd never heard of this before, and haven't had a chance to real it myself yet, but this appears to be the text of Churchill's essay. I'll be curious to read it, though I'm skeptical of what is apparently one of its central conceits: Robert E. Lee successfully ends the Civil War by issuing a decree abolishing slavery, thus removing from the North its moral cause. This apparently results, eventually, in a union of English-speaking peoples uniting the United States and Confederate States to the British Empire. One can see how this would appeal to Churchill, but I find it a stretch at several levels.

Evans' book is apparently highly critical of the counterfactual endeavor, arguing that it's a waste of time and that the scenarios suggested are not well thought out. Certainly, it can be a bit of a waste of time, but I think Sunstein makes a good point that the evaluation of causes in history almost necessarily involves a certain amount of counterfactual thinking:
Yet the most fundamental problem is that Evans does not grapple sufficiently with the fact that historians do not only offer narratives; they also offer explanations. They say that some event—the rise of Nazism, the Vietnam war, the election of Ronald Reagan, the attacks of 9 / 11—had particular causes. It is not possible to take a stand on the existence of causes, or on their relative importance, without thinking about what the world would be like if one or another were removed. If we say that the Vietnam war or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “caused” by the Kennedy assassination, we must be imagining a world in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and hence making a claim about what would have happened in that alternative and historically unrealized world. And if so, we are engaging in counterfactual history. As Jon Elster puts it, historians “have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it.

Evans himself is no exception. In responding to Ferguson’s argument about the likely consequences of British neutrality in 1914, he offers some counterfactual history of his own. He suggests that if Britain had stayed out of the war, Germany would not have scaled back its war aims. And in responding to Charmley’s arguments about the potentially beneficial effects of appeasing Hitler, he suggests that Germany would have attacked Britain in any case, with a higher probability of victory. He appears to support Churchill’s suggestion that Britain could have become a “slave state.” True, his statements on these counts are qualified, but in explaining the rise of Nazism (an area in which he has great expertise), Evans writes more firmly, saying that the “key factor” was “the Nazi’s storm troopers’ escalating use of violence” —which is an unambiguous suggestion that in the absence of that violence, the Nazis might not have come to power. He even speculates that with “more skillful maneuvering by men like General Schleicher,” a representative of the army might have ended up running Germany, 
rather than Hitler.
He also provides a useful breakdown of three different types of problems with alternate history speculations:
It is important to distinguish among three quite different objections. Some counterfactual narratives are implausible, because they are inconsistent with what we know about the historical context. With respect to Germany, Evans offers precisely this objection to both Ferguson and Charmley. Or consider the speculation with which I began, to the effect that if Gore had become president in 2001, the United States would have ratified an international agreement to regulate greenhouse gases. The problem is that developing nations, including China, have long been unenthusiastic about such a treaty, and without their participation, it is highly doubtful that the U.S. Senate would ratify any agreement. Some counterfactual histories rest on an inadequate understanding of historical constraints.

Others suffer from a different problem. They are hopelessly speculative, because they depend on wildly elaborate causal chains that are best treated as the 
exercise of an active imagination. Some counterfactualists suggest that if some apparently trivial change had occurred, large consequences would follow (“the butterfly effect,” made famous by a short story by Ray Bradbury). As a matter of logic, it may not be possible to rule out such elaborate causal chains, but they require a large number of contingencies to come to fruition (and a large number of other contingencies not to do so). Much of Evans’s exasperation is reserved for narratives that fall into this category. As 
examples, consider Tuchman’s suggestion that if Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s, the wars in Korea and Vietnam might not have happened, or Parker’s claim that if the Spanish Armada had successfully landed in England in 1588, Philip II would have established Spanish rule in North America. OK, maybe—but who could possibly know?

Still other counterfactuals run into difficulties because they depend on a change that cannot logically be made without simultaneously introducing, or allowing for, other changes which the counterfactualist is attempting to bracket. Once we introduce some changes, all bets are off. Gloria Steinem offered a memorable counter-
factual: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But if men could get pregnant, they would not be men, at least not in the same sense, and in a world without men we cannot say much about the legal status of abortion. The most fantastic counterfactual narratives fall in this category. If Nazi Germany had cell phones, Hitler might have won the war—but if Nazi Germany had cell phones, the world would be so unrecognizably different that it is not clear that we can say anything at all. If horses were smarter than people, they might rule the Earth. As Ferguson writes, “No sensible person wishes to know what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings.” (Though come to think of it, that’s a pretty interesting question.)

That last does indeed sound like the premise of a potentially interesting absurdist novel.

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 21

Thanks to Melanie for hosting.

On Thursday afternoon, I was laying in bed with a sinus headache, trying to nurse the baby to sleep, when Julia came in with a little wooden doll she'd painted. What's real big right now are doing these exchanges where you paint umpteen dolls as a saint of your choosing, and then you exchange dolls among umpteen people, and then you end up with a collection of umpteen different wooden saints. The girls had been involved in one of these, but since there were three sisters participating, we ended up with three complete sets of saints. The doll Julia brought in now had been a blank left over from the saint exchange.

"Mom!" she said, pleased as could be. "Guess who this is!"
I tried to focus through the sinus tears in my eyes. "I can't see, honey. Who is it?"
"It's Catherine!"
"Catherine of Siena?"
"Catherine Morland!"

My friends, I tell you now, I thought my heart would burst, I was that proud. I feel this is my crowning triumph as a homeschooling parent, that my daughter is painting Jane Austen dolls of her own volition, and not Pride and Prejudice dolls, but Northanger Abbey dolls -- a full cast, too, because she went on to sand down some of the excess saints and paint Henry and Eleanor Tilney, Isabella and John Thorpe, and General Tilney with his greatcoat and his scowl. Who cares what we did for spelling (somehow a week behind)? For math ( -- a great success)? For history (dragging their feet through their Charlemagne book)? We played Northanger Abbey all weekend with little wooden dolls!

Left to Right: Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney, Eleanor Tilney, General Tilney, Frederick Tilney, Isabella Thorpe, John Thorpe, and Elizabeth Bennet thrown in for good measure.

What I really ought to be taking notes on is our morning bible study, because each morning I'm finding new food for meditation there. I've had quite a few ideas that I wish I'd written up into blog posts, but I didn't do it at the time, and those insights have slipped away, hopefully into the minds of the young students.

Someone asked me last week, "Mom, what was that story about the house, and the fortune teller comes in, but he won't tell the man's fortune, and then he's horrorstruck and can't speak?"
The answer to this turned out to be a story by Oscar Wilde, but it sounded enough like an episode from Jane Eyre that a lightbulb flickered on in my brain: we should read Jane Eyre! And so on Friday afternoon we read the first three chapters, to rapt attention from the three big girls. Isabel, age 8, was a particularly good narrator of the story when I asked what we'd just read, and the two older ones felt keenly Jane's injustices.

I think this one is going to be a winner, despite all the child abuse at the beginning. That, in fact, is one of the reasons I want to read it aloud. I want them to grapple with the problem of malicious adults -- malice in general -- in a safe place, with me, so that when they encounter evil in the world they'll have a framework for understanding it. I don't want them to be so sheltered that they never hear of child abuse. We read the first third of David Copperfield last year for just this reason. Not all adults are good; not everyone will treat a child kindly; some children meet with cruelty and live in terror. These are hard things for children to hear, and I want them to hear of them first with me, in the context of fiction.

I remember when I first read Jane Eyre. I was 13 and staying at my aunt's house, and Jane Eyre was the book on the bedside table. I went to bed early. I picked up the book. I read. It was midnight. It was 1:00. It was 2:00. I wiped away tears as Jane declared to Mr. Rochester that she was not an automaton. I read the whole thing in one glorious go, and I was hooked for life. I hope the girls love it as much I do; the early signs are encouraging. Julia is considering painting a Jane Eyre doll.

I'm hauling Jack through 100 Easy Lessons slowly but steadily. He's on lesson 60-odd, and he does fine when he's not flopping all over the couch or staring into space, reciting the alphabet to remember what the "y" says. Our lessons go something like this:
Jack: "A bug was standing on the side of a l..."
Me: L what?
Jack: "l...a..." little.
Me: Not "little", Jack. There's no i or t in that word.
Jack: Lap? Log?
Me: No, let's sound it out together. "A bug was standing on the side of a lllllll...." Say it with me, Jack. Jack, you're not even looking at the page.
Jack: Lllll.... log.
Jack: (flops around.)
Me: Son, sit up right here and eyes on the page. On the word. Right here, where my finger is. Let's start again. "A bug was standing on the side of the lllll..."
Jack: Llll aaa kkk....
Me: Silent e!
Jack: Lake. Can I read the rest of the story tomorrow?
Me: (thinking about it) Let's go to this next line, at least. Can you read this? I'll sound it out with you. Look at the page, son!

I do a lot of work keeping the older two on task, and I hope Isabel isn't falling through the cracks. I set her to journaling last week -- we went to the fair, and she wrote a nice entry about watching the goats run obstacle courses -- and she does handwriting and math regularly, and is reading Harry Potter and the A-Z Mysteries and generally floating through her day. She participates well in our Bible study, though, and is always the first one to summarize the reading or speculate on how the Psalm ties in to the first reading. She's also chugging through 3rd grade math on Khan Academy at a gratifying rate -- it's really just more fun to do math on the computer, though she, like everyone, needs to drill more with the memorization. We've been doing the Italics workbooks for handwriting, and I love the look, but I would like her to learn a more traditional cursive. Alas, the cursive workbooks I used for the girls seem to have gone out of print, so if anyone wants to recommend something, feel free.

I also worry that Diana gets lost in the shuffle. I can't think if I wrote about her and Jack playing War last time, but she's still content not to read her numbers yet. All the cuisinaire rods have been lost or vacuumed or eaten, so she doesn't have the benefit of those. She did show interest in writing her name last week, so I copied on a piece of lined paper and showed her how to make the letters. That's educational, right? She sits with us and hears the Bible and our books, and she sits with Jack when he helps me sound out those stupid Star Wars readers from the library, all about whiny Anakin and his non-canonical adventures. Was ever an origins story so boring? Whose bright idea was it to write a space opera all about politics? Who can get het up about the epic battles of the Separatists and the Trade Federation? Could the Jedi Council be any more boring? Yawn. And if I've told Diana once, I've told her fifty times that the girls have to wear more clothes than that when they fight, or they're going to get all bruised up. Look at all the padding Anakin wears, and then his Padawan apprentice with the face tattoos is in a miniskirt and a bandeau top. Think about that. So stupid. Even the evil assassin-ress has a strange outfit with odd cutouts, and it's just weird. No one wears this kind of stuff to fight. It's just not practical. Also, I haven't seen the Clone Wars series from Cartoon Network, but the easy reader books about the episodes make No Sense Whatsoever. And the character names, assembled from handfuls of scrabble letters tossed onto a table! I'll be so glad when the Star Wars phase of boyhood gives way to something else.

I spent my educational write-up beefing about Star Wars. But hey! Read the headline. It says NO GUILT.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Tragic Sense of History

A New York Review of Books piece from some years back, by Timothy Snyder, relates an event which gets at how difficult to untangle and judge historical events and resentments can be.
The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

“I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.
It's not hard to picture the ripples that went out from this event through the lives of those who experienced it. How did the Poles who had seen friends or family hanged by Jewish executioners that day react in the coming years when confronted with Jews who needed to be hidden from the Holocaust? Yet why did the Jewish man pulled from the ghetto and ordered to do the German's dirty work think he had hung "the right people" in doing the Nazis bidding? In part because some units in the Polish Resistance (of which the Home Army was the main non-communist group) did in fact kill Jews out of hand when they found them. And what was the reason that anti-Nazi resistance fighters were killing Jews? In part because some within the Jewish population had strongly supported the Soviets who invaded Poland just days after the Nazis did, and occupied the Eastern half of the country until June 1941 when Hitler turned on Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets had themselves engaged in mass killings of Polish officers and educated elites, but many Jews saw the communists as a far better bet than the Nazis (for obvious reasons) and aligned accordingly.

The other day I ran into a piece from the Jacobin Magazine taking strong exception to Snyder's brilliant (though incredibly dark) book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The charge? Snyder is unfair in portraying Stalin as nearly as bad as Hitler, and even more so Snyder is unfair to the communist partisans. Snyder writes repeatedly about how the violence of the communist partisans and the Nazi occupiers became a escalating cycle of violence.
When Soviet partisans sabotaged trains, they were in effect ensuring that the population near the site would be exterminated. When Soviet partisans laid mines, they knew that some would detonate under the bodies of Soviet citizens. The Germans swept mines by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields.

In general, such loss of human life was of little concern to the Soviet leadership. The people who died had been under German occupation, and were therefore suspect and perhaps even more expendable than the average Soviet citizen. German reprisals also ensured that the ranks of the partisans swelled, as survivors often had no home, no livelihood, and no family to which to return.
The Jacobin author answers with a historical anecdote:
[O]ne can only wonder what Snyder would have had Jews do instead. Faye Schulman was a nineteen-year-old girl living in a small town in eastern Poland when the Wehrmacht massacred her family along with the rest of the Jewish population in August 1941. Temporarily spared because of her skills as a professional photographer, she fled with the partisans at the first opportunity and, to her gratitude, was accepted into their ranks:
The fighting had ended. The partisans were returning to their bases, and I was with them and alive. It felt like a dream. I had been accepted into the Soviet partisans! I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me now, what kind of a life I would have. But I knew I was very lucky. I was now a partisan, no longer afraid of the Nazis. I tore off the yellow star of David. We started our journey into the woods.
“I resolved to volunteer for active combat operations, to fight for my people — for Jewish dignity and honor — and for an end to the Nazi killing machine,” Schulman added in her memoirs. Does this make her a criminal?
The question -- What would Snyder have had the Jews do instead? -- shows a mentality which I think is very common when people address a historical situation. Thinking in Hollywood terms, we ask, "Which side should she have joined?" As if history represents a sort of moral sporting match in which the primary question is whether one backs the right side. Reading within Faye Schulman's context, one understanding completely why why joined the partisans and was glad to do it. We might do the same if we had the courage. But this doesn't change Snyder's point that the actions of the partisans often brought down massively disproportionate retaliation from the Germans. And at a certain level, the Soviet leadership understood the cynical calculation that partisan activity both hurt the occupation forces directly, wiped out potentially disloyal "collaborators" when the Germans carried out reprisals, and provided a stream of new recruits to the partisans as Nazi retaliations left people with nothing but a desire to exact revenge against the Germans.

What we too often lack is a tragic sense: an understanding that people often do terrible things for understandable reasons. The actions are terrible -- understanding why they seemed reasonable to the perpetrator makes them no less so. But they were, at the same time, understandable. The perpetrator had reason to think the action justified.

To have a tragic sense it is necessary to set aside the idea of "good person" and "bad person", and instead think simply of persons. Persons who perform good actions and bad actions, for good reasons and bad reasons. Persons who do bad things yet not simply because they are "bad people" but rather because the bad things seem justified, perhaps even seem good, at the time.

This does not mean moral relativism or indifferentism. Sin is sin. A heinous act is a heinous act. A tragic sense of history is not indifference to its evils, or a willingness to see everyone as "basically good". Rather, it is addressing the past with pity and fear. Pit and fear are the feelings which the Ancient Greeks said that tragedy was mean to evoke. Reading about an event like the Wierzbnik hangings, a tragic sense causes us to feel both pity for those involved, for all involved, and also fear at how easily people no so unlike ourselves can be pulled into such a cycle of hatred and violence. Having a tragic sense allows us to identify with people on both sides of such a situation without making excuses for either. It also allows us to address both sides of a conflict as human beings, as creatures who share an essential nature with ourselves, rather than seeing one side as good and familiar and the other as wicked and other.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 16

Thanks to Melanie for hosting Guilt-Free Learning Notes!

Last week: we had Uncle D (whose name does not start with D) up all week, recuperating from back surgery, and Uncle D is an experienced watcher of Youtube videos, so we did some science:

It worked as advertised! After about 300 rubber bands later, the watermelon was visibly bulging. Then it cracked open. And then, after a few agonizing moments, it blew, just like that. Unfortunately, Isabel, who was filming, turned away the second before the explosion to say hi to the neighbor, so our exploding watermelon wasn't immortalized. It did, however, shoot a great rubber band ball at my brother.

We also finished Northanger Abbey. The kids really seemed to enjoy it, and were always able to describe the plot and the motivations. Julia in particular is turning into quite the Austen fan. She read Pride and Prejudice in the spring, and wants to be Elizabeth Bennet for Halloween. Isabel also followed closely, with great scorn for her name character, Isabella Thorpe. Any time things got romantic, Isabel was in the forefront of the action, cheering people on. I asked her what her favorite part of the movie was, after we'd watched that, and she said with gusto, "Catherine's daydreams!" Sigh.

Diana, 4, does not recognize many of her letters yet, so I thought we'd combine fun and games by teaching her and Jack War. They played avidly, and generally got the scoring right, but I don't feel like we made a lot of progress, as she generally just eyeballed the cards and guessed which one had the bigger number. Jack needs to work on writing numbers, so maybe Diana can get in on that.

A particular child has reached a crisis point with writing, and I'm going to have to stand over her every time she writes a sentence or a paragraph for the next week and nip any errors in the bud. Sometimes I feel like I'm handholding people through their educational process, but then I remember my parents standing over me, making me do everything right, and how I thought them severe taskmasters instead of soft touches who were giving me all the answers. Anyway, I'm not sure that letting her keep writing things incorrectly is the right way to instill grammar and craftsmanship. Practicing correctly is a good deal more helpful than practicing wrongly.

Speaking of practice, organ will be starting up again soon, and there's a review this Saturday. So this week is the time to catch up on all the playing we didn't do this summer. As I type, someone is practicing Christmas carols and show tunes from The Sound Of Music, which speaks to a catholic taste in music, if not what the teacher will be covering.

The big girls are very taken lately with a series of fairy tale retellings by Adam Gidwitz called A Tale Dark and Grimm, Through a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion. Each book links together a series of Grimm tales through brother/sister protagonists (Hansel/Gretel, Jack/Jill, Jorinda/Joringel) and all the gory bits from the originals are retained, with asides from the author begging you not to let little children read these horrible stories. Eleanor has been begging each night to be able to read them aloud to us, although she usually starts remembering at 9 pm as we're hustling everyone upstairs. The girls read them to each other in lieu of ghost stories. I thought that our next readaloud might be a good set of Grimms' Fairy Tales so that even the little ones have a good knowledge of the original tales, so that they have a basis for understanding all rejiggerings and spoofs and twists.

Today we went to the county fair, where we watched 4-H kids haul their goats through obstacle courses. That's my favorite part of the fair, and after that we explored the kids' favorite, all the crappy carnival rides. Then we toured the rabbit and poultry barn and soaked in the farmy goodness of it all, probably sounding like the worst city slickers to the polite kids tending their stock. At a different booth, Julia was entranced by the local Fred Astaire studio dancers performing a Latin Dance exhibition, and mentioned that she would like to try lessons there sometimes. I liked that idea. Ballroom dancing is more generally applicable in life than ballet, and the dancers were just better than anyone from our studio. I'd forgotten what a joy it was to watch good live dancing, but oh, could these people move! It made me wish for a moment that I were up there salsa-ing and merengue-ing, and I myself am only a wedding dancer and am not generally noted for my slick moves.

I feel like I really ought to be writing up notes every night, because I'm simply not remembering conversations we're having (unless they have to do with people begging not to have to read the rest of their book of very interesting tales about Charlemagne).


My brothers' band, which has kind of a driving rockabilly sound when they're not playing Irish music (and sometimes when they are), introduced me to The Band, and the couple of songs they cover regularly have become staples here. On my mind lately is Ophelia, to which I still don't know all the words but howl along with obligingly whenever it comes up on shuffle. It's so stuck in my head that I've even been trying to pick it out on the piano despite my undeveloped ability to improv. So here, I want you all to listen and groove along to the horns and the bass and Levon Helms on the drums.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Stay-At-Home Mothers Decided to Make Some Music. You Won't Believe What Happened Next.

...Actually, you will believe what happened, because it's not all strange.

We spent the weekend with Elizabeth Duffy and family and her brand-new gorgeous kitchen. Elizabeth's husband is a craftsman by avocation, and he and Darwin spent many productive hours out in his barn on Sunday working on a spur-of-the-moment project, a custom screen door to replace our barbarous aluminum thing in our kitchen, with gaps in the panels so large the cat escapes through them. Saturday night Darwin talked about the difficulties he'd had trying to find a replacement at Home Depot for our oddly-sized door, Joe said he had wood that size out in the barn, and on Sunday they set to work planing, routing, and dry-fitting poplar pieces into a frame that we'll finish at home. Darwin loves woodworking when he has a chance to do it, and it was a real pleasure for him to work with a friend who has such a mastery of his craft, not to mention an amazing complement of tools and machinery.

While the fellows were building in the barn and the kids were charging around playing baseball, Elizabeth and I sat on the patio with our nursing babies and our drinks and talked writing shop, and discussed how to revive the quality of the blogging community against the cheap controversy-mongering of the Facebook and Twitter, and delighted in our mutual discovery of Anne Kennedy, and sighed at how the big boys and girls are still on this side of childhood, unconscious of each other except as team mates and Monopoly adversaries. And we had our own spur-of-the-moment artistic moment: "Hey, let's play some music!"

Both of us had years of music lessons, Elizabeth on cello and me on piano, so we passed babies to the fathers, who were all sawdusty from the barn, and hitched up chairs and tuned instruments. And then, the music. It wasn't the heavenly choirs, but it was a moment of adult artistic collaboration. It was practice, and error, and "Let's take it from this measure," and "What if we played it this way?", and "Hey, do you know this piece?", heedless of the chaos swirling behind, and occasionally on top, of us. It was honing and trying it one more time to get it just right, and laughing when I inevitably played the major chord at the end instead of the minor.

ANd meanwhile, the life of the house when on. The kids were happy, and we were happy, even as we tried take after take to get a good recording. And in the end, none of them really took because either there was too much commotion in the background, or I played the wrong thing in the more complicated sections, or the sound was off, or the baby's head was in the way of Elizabeth's bow. Whenever we watched a take, we had to laugh at our desperate expressions as we focused on just hitting the notes in harmony, being amateurs out of practice. But oh, was it fun, and the Darwins ended up leaving about three hours later than we meant to because it seemed like the perfect take was just within our grasp. As we left, Elizabeth and I were wishing we could convene a regional mothers' chamber orchestra for everyone who still remembers the thrill of the ensemble.

Anyway, here's a snippet of us playing Handel's Sarabande. Cello, piano, chorus of howling children.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Herbert Hoover Slept Here

I swept my porch today. That doesn't sound very exciting, and it wasn't. It's only noteworthy because the porch is made of some soft stone -- sandstone, perhaps? -- that is eroding away piece by piece, and the pieces collect in the well of each eroding stone and become rather treacherous underfoot, and when you finally sweep them away you see just how badly pitted the whole surface is. We are going to have to Do Something sooner or later, probably sooner, but what something is a matter of debate. Do we try and pry up the worst stones from their concrete bed and replace them? Patch the bad areas with concrete, which would be cheap but would look terrible? Do we rip out the whole stone porch, installed in 1929 when someone renovated our house from Basic Victorian to Tudor Revival? Every time we confront this issue, we come to no conclusion except that whatever happens, it's going to be expensive.

This house. This old, beautiful, complicated money pit of a house. Did I ever tell you how we settled on it? We looked at the house across the street, a cute foursquare much smaller that this one, but so charmingly fixed up. It had only four bedrooms, none of which were quite big enough for bunkbeds, but the price was so right. So right, in fact, that the house was going under contract that day. As we stepped out, we noticed the big Tudor with the For Sale sign, from which workmen were hauling old carpet. "Look at that!" we said. "Why wasn't that one on our list?" we said. It was not on the list because it was out of our price range, but we looked at it like big suckers, and we fell in love with the confusing floor plan and the upstairs hall lined with eight glossy six-panel doors (four bedrooms, two closets, the attic, and what had been the back staircase). The price came down, due to a few factors like the crumbling asbestos we had to have removed before we moved in, and the fact that the house had been on the market for four months and the heirs didn't get anything until it was sold, and since they had to split the proceeds four ways it hurt each one less to come down on price -- but it was still a large financial step up from our suburban box in Texas, even for a family getting a raise. And that's okay -- someone has to live in these older houses, and someone has to pay for the upkeep, and we're glad to spend our money in a way that surrounds us with beauty while keeping the kids from getting too dependent on modern luxuries like air conditioning or three-prong outlets or bathrooms that are warm in the winter.

Every time we start making lists of future improvements, it's easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. How much is it going to cost to restore all 11 diamond-paned windows which have warped out of shape? Do we find out where the leak in our shower is, which will require us to rip up tile embedded in three inches of concrete and will pretty much necessitate the entire renovation of the room, or do we just keep schlepping down the hall to the princess bedroom bathroom to wash? How long do we watch that patch on the ceiling in the back bedroom before we have someone in about it? How many slates have to fall off the roof before we call the roofers again? How many go-rounds will it take before we can find the leak in the chimney so we can fix the crumbling plaster walls in the kids' bathroom? When can we renovate that bathroom so we can actually use the space efficiently? When should we refinish the floors downstairs, and can it wait another two years? But the paint on the trim outside can't go another winter without being touched up, or we'll start to lose wood underneath. What about the support wall under the back porch, which seems like it could be buckling? What about the peeling paper on the ceiling in the living room? The peeling paper in the hall? Do we buy curtains, which will necessitate getting curtain rods specially made for the bay in the living room, or do we paint the living room first? And then there's the porch, crumbling above and eroding below, and how much is that going to cost?

That's just the maintenance on the place, regardless of the family chaos. A few years ago we went on a tour of the local historical society, and when I asked the fellow if he had any old photos of our house and gave him our address, he said, "Oh, I'm coming to your place today to take a picture for our Presidential Delaware project." Turns out that when our house was owned by Arthur Flemming, the president of Ohio Wesleyan University in the 50's, Herbert Hoover came to give a speech on campus, and he stayed the night in the house, probably in the princess room where we put all our guests because it has its own bathroom.

This is Hoover and that is Flemming, but the building in the background is not our house.

(Arthur Flemming is most notable for his tenure as secretary of health under Eisenhower, during which he touched off the Great Cranberry Scare, which actually made a Cracked countdown. Of more consequence to us, he must have been the one who renovated the kitchen in 1948, which blueprints are still in the house and will be of material aid to us when we fix it back from the misbegotten 1990 remodel.)

At home after learning of our past brush with greatness, I stood in the stairwell and I surveyed the dust in the corners of the stairs and the big girls' room with clothes and toys dumped all over the place, and my bedroom with the baskets of laundry piled up, and the dents in the glossy doors from Jack pounding them with a tap shoe, and the fine tracing of spiders' webs on the hammered-iron chandelier, and I thought, "This cannot have been how the house looked when Herbert Hoover was here." Wikipedia tells me that Arthur Flemming had five children, and then so did I, so I couldn't use that as an excuse. Of course, at that time the house probably had servants, unless Flemming was the one who demolished the back staircase to put in that crappy pantry in the kitchen, and left the small hole in the dining room floor where the servants' bell used to sit near the foot of the lady of the house. There's still a servant's bedroom in the attic -- the boys will go up there when they're old enough -- and there's one end of a speaking tube in the attic stairwell, communicating to nothing anymore, and the old house telephone box is still in the back hall across from the attic door, though the kitchen end of it was taken out (I don't know whose renovation to blame for that). But we don't have servants, only kids, and we are not ready, at a tidiness level, to have the former leader of the free world lodge at our house for the evening.

We're not even ready to have the neighborhood walk up our front steps. Not last year but the year before, I was prevailed upon to put the house on the local Christmastime home tour, for which they sell tickets and all. I immediately regretted this outburst of hospitality, because although I'm willing to take anyone on a tour anytime, I can't, in all conscience, expect people to pay money for looking at a house that is so obviously big family, especially when the nice neighborhood association lady asked how much decorating we did for Christmas and dropped gentle hints about how some people on the tour liked to take the occasion to do some renovating and redecorating. A few weeks later, however, I was off the hook again -- the lady stopped by and was all apologetic, but wondered: did we think we would be having the porch repaired before the tour? Because there were many elderly people who looked at the old homes, but it might not be safe... We parted with mutual goodwill, she because I hadn't been offended, and me because I was off the hook with all the Joneses.

I thought about that today as I wielded my broom. Someone in 1929 had thought it was the cat's pajamas to lay sandstone instead of the fusty old wood and concrete the neighbors had, and here I am 85 years later sweeping up the crumbling stonework while the neighbors' walks and porches continue in reasonable repair and period charm. I wonder what renovations future owners will curse us for making? Will anyone complain because I painted the insanity green tileboard in the downstairs bathroom in a checkerboard pattern? Will someone be mad because we took out the ugly 40's-ish chandelier in the library and replaced it with a vintage fixture from 1925? Will someone one day be scraping the paint in the front bedroom to find the iron-hard layer of beige under the green and the blue and the awful yellow and the blue primer that we've had up for half a year in readiness for the top coat? Will people miss the wallpaper in the princess bedroom after it finally all peels off? We can't afford to put the kind of money into renovations that the 1929 owner did (and I wonder if they were glad they spend it before the October crash, or if they wished they'd held on to the cash), but I think we can maintain the old pile in a way that respects both the history of the place, and the very present reality of six children and their tap shoes making their marks for future generations to study.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Prodigal Son Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Elizabeth Scalia has a deeply misguided piece up today dealing with the mini controversy swirling around Cardinal Dolan agreeing to be Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade on the first year that it will include a homosexual advocacy group among the organizations marching in the parade.

Unlike some, I don't think this is a particularly big Catholic story. The St. Patrick Day parade long ago ceased to be any kind of religious procession, to the extent it ever was more a religious event than an ethnic celebration for a group which happens to be, in origin, mostly Catholic. The Grand Marshal role is a ceremonial one and has been extended to the Cardinal as a courtesy. I don't think that the Cardinal is obligated to turn down the honorary position because of this latest devolution in the parade, but I do agree with Msgr. Charles Pope's (since pulled but linked to here via Google cache) post saying that he ought to. The diocese's involvement with the parade at this point does nothing to raise the parade, and a certain amount to lower the diocese.

This isn't exactly unfamiliar territory. Read a bit about the history of the various festivals, plays and parades of the medieval church, and it seems like such things followed a cycle. First they served a real purpose, giving a faithful a way to celebrate and learn more about their faith. Then they simply became fun. Then they became actively debased and the clergy started trying to stamp them out again. Rinse and repeat. There seems to be a natural course of things which, on this event, we find ourselves at the end of.

Scalia, in her above linked post, seems to imagine that the Cardinal is performing some kind of evangelization. She links his actions with those of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a parable so constantly mis-used that it begins to seem that someone should draft one of these online laws of discourse in which you immediately lose when you cite it. She says:
Well, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has, at least in New York City, long been a trooping of the sinners, but let’s think for a moment about those muddy circumstances, again, and the story Jesus told, the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Recall, the wastrel son of a rich man asked for his inheritance, and then he squandered it so thoroughly that he was stuck feeding the pigs, and growing hungry. The son thought,
“How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
Reread the last two sentences. It didn’t matter why the son was seeking inclusion; the father did not know whether he was coming home repentant or full of swagger. Motivation did not matter. And the son was still a long way off. All the father knew was that the son had made a move toward home, and it was enough to send the father running out, to meet him.

I’m not sure a bishop has a choice but to run out to meet prodigals, regardless of motivating factors. The father wants everyone to come home and be with him. Once they’re at the doorstep, they may be encouraged to come in; once they’re inside, they can be talked with, nurtured, fed, encouraged, formed, and made whole. This cannot happen as long as they are off in the faraway places.

The key here, aside from the father running out to the prodigal son, is that he ran out while the son was still a long way off.
They key is actually that in the story of the prodigal son the son is returning. There's no indication of return, for any reason, in this situation and in many in which the parable is invoked.

Jesus could have told a parable in which the father went and ran after the prodigal son's party set shouting, "Hey guys! Hey guys! Can I come too? I'm a cool guy too!" and imagined that perhaps by coming along he would evangelize the party-ers -- using words only if necessary (to paraphrase the famous yet bogus St. Francis quote.) He could have told a parable in which the son comes back, unrepentant, and offers to throw a party at the father's house, making the father an honorary master of ceremonies. He could have told a parable in which the son comes back, the father rushes out to meet him, but the son turns out to only be returning to wash his laundry and borrow some more money.

However, these are not the parables that Jesus chose to tell, and it's kind of useless to speculate on how the parable might have gone and what the lesson might have been had He done so. The parable we actually have is a parable about repentance and how to respond to it. In that parable, the prodigal son comes home with the intention of repenting, and the father welcomes him extravagently, even though it offends his other more upright son. This is how we, as Christians, are called to act. Indeed, failure to thus welcome back the repentant is a sin. It may damn us.

Does this mean waiting until the repenting sinner is behaving just perfectly before letting him in the door -- whether the door to the church or the door to our community? No. Indeed, as a wise friend once pointed out, most converts are heretics for a while. In other words, real people don't go from disagreeing with the Church (in word or in action or both) to being fully faithful over night. They change through a process (whether fast or slow) of conversion. They may not be able to accept the whole truth at once, but even if they think they do, most people don't "get" the whole truth at once, and so even with the most sincere intention of now following the Church's lead, many new and in-process converts don't.

What converts do do, however, is want to follow Christ. What those who repent do do is want to turn away from sin.

Inviting a cardinal to be honorary chair of your event, while you run it exactly as you like, is neither an act of conversion nor repentance. It's just a case of asking a high profile figure to lend his name to your event. He's not required to go along with your request out of some Christian duty to do everything we're asked because that's what the father in the prodigal son did.

No, what the cardinal should do is prudently consider what the best action would be in this case and then do it. And I would submit that it would be prudent to pass up this particular honor on the theory that the St. Patrick's Day Parade long ago ceased to have much of anything to do with St. Patrick, and instead became a festival of green beer (most surely an abomination against God and man) and leprechauns. There's nothing which the Church can do to prevent those who run the parade these days from inviting gay advocacy groups to participate in the it. (Nor were they in the past able to prevent those involved in violent Irish nationalist groups from participating.) But there is certainly no evangelistic value to holding an honorary position of authority in the parade, and no reason to lend the diocese's stamp of approval to activities of which it should not approve.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Week of August 31

Melanie is starting a new link-up called Guilt-Free Learning Notes, so that all us slackers can get with the program and actually keep a record of what goes on. I need all the accountability I can get, so here goes.

This year we're trying out a new thing: having Darwin write up weekly school assignments for the big girls. This is going well. Julia, 11, likes to know what she has to do, and to get it done. Eleanor, 12, needs the list to help her keep on track for getting anything done. I like being able to tell them to go check the list, and no, you're not going to play outside with friends until your work is done. We start our day with the Morning Offering and the Prayer to the Holy Spirit (my go-to school prayer), then we read the Mass readings, a reflection from the One Bread, One Body booklet (edited by my dear dad), and a chapter of Northanger Abbey. Then it's assigned schoolwork while I help the younger children, then dance on some days.

So, this week. Monday was Labor Day, so no work. Monday night I stayed up all night finishing Stillwater, so Tuesday was not exactly a lost day, but a sloggy day. Eleanor did not finish all her work; the little ones floundered around. I had not much patience. We might have had a good conversation, but I can't remember it now.

This week in history the girls were reading about Islam. Darwin has picked some challenging reading selections for them from high-school and college textbooks. The girls are floundering a bit with these, so I'm trying to have good discussions with them about what they're reading. Mostly, they remember that Mohammed had a daughter named Fatima.

Math is It's a popular option, and everyone works hard without complaining anymore, but it's not hands-off for me. I often sit by each girl (and Jack) as they do math, answering questions, helping to demonstrate the concepts, aiding in problem solving... They work the problems in their math notebooks; we need to work on neatness and organization. Their problems are all over the page, probably something that would have been trained out of them in school where you have to turn papers in all the time. Jack needs to work on writing his numbers.

Watching the big girls with their schedules, I think I need to write a weekly schedule for Isabel, 8. I feel like she gets lost in the shuffle of big girls with harder subjects and the little ones who demand a lot of attention.

The little ones demand a lot of attention, and yet I feel that they're not getting a lot of productive attention. I do reading practice with Jack (100 Easy Lessons, fourth time around), but we're not doing as much story time and fun reading time together. Diana, 4, sits in, and I have noticed her picking up some concepts, but I can see I'm not going to be able to lump her schooling in with Jack's. Jack needs far more writing practice than he gets.

Everyone needs more writing practice than they get. Eleanor has a natural facility with storytelling, but Julia struggles a bit in the translation from thought to written word. I'm trying to be mindful of handwriting practice, too, because wow.

We haven't started any poetry memorization or copywork or science or art appreciation.

What I like best in the week, and what I feel has been an unqualified success, is our morning(ish) routine of Bible and read-alouds. We discuss the Mass readings and the saint of the day, work on reciting the books of the Bible, and then read and discuss a chapter of Northanger Abbey. The girls are really following along well and picking up on motivations and themes, and they're becoming very good storytellers with a quick ear for the patterns of the story they're hearing. NA seems particularly accessible to young ears, especially since I can tell them about the conventions of gothic novels. They like Catherine Morland a great deal and often beg for extra chapters. This coming week we're going to finish the story and then watch the new BBC adaptation. I'd not wanted to show it to them before reading the story, partly because the movie makes some changes that seem too easy to me, and also because of the little gothic fantasies that the movie Catherine indulges in. I have two girls on the verge of romantic fantasy territory, so I really wanted to work the book's discussion of how foolish these fantasies are before we saw the movie's imagery.

We started dance this week. Yeah, lots of dancing going on. Organ doesn't start until October, but we have to get back into piano practice soon.

I know that interesting things happened this week, but I can't remember them all now. We watched scenes from Master and Commander. We prepared the house for a week's visit from my youngest brother, who will be recuperating at our house from back surgery. We talked about Harry Potter, and the Fibonacci sequence. We had several necessary conversations about honesty. We went to First Friday mass and the playground. We discussed how writing the last paragraph of a narrative is like solving a mystery because you pick up the clues from the beginning and middle and wrap them all together.

My big revelation for the week: I spend most of my day trying to hide from my kids. After each interaction (establishing someone in her lessons, doing reading with Jack, ending a fight, etc.), I find myself seeking out quiet minutes of nursing, or standing in the kitchen with a cup of tea and the paper, or shutting myself in the bathroom, or simply sitting in the living room shutting out the noise. I guess I've always done this, but I never noticed how often I try to get away from them. This did occasion some reflection on whether I should put them in school, but I don't think that would actually solve anything.

Also, this isn't news to me, but: I hate leaving the house. Packing six kids in the car, hustling around wherever we need to hustle, maneuvering this van around, getting people and their stuff and groceries or library books or sweaters or the diaper bag back inside, and I'm wiped. It is hard for me to maintain a day of schooling when we have to go out. I am tired and I just want a break afterwards, and the baby wants to be held all the time and people won't stop appealing to me.

Fine, I'll say it: I'M AN INTROVERT. I have to recharge my energy after leaving the house or dealing with my children. I don't know when I turned into this person, and I'm trying to figure out how to not become a total recluse in the prime of life, especially because the kids like to get out of the house now and then. I'm still trying to discern how I should structure my day to make the best use of my strengths and keep myself from retreating too often and leaving the children to run feral.

A Booming Economy of Cruelty

Every so often one reads the someone saying that it's a tragedy so many people died in the American Civil War when slavery was an institution that would have died out on its own soon anyway. Given a progressive view of history in which bad old things naturally die out over time, this might seem somewhat credible, but in recent years scholars have increasingly done interesting work around the economics of American slavery which suggest that slavery has hardly on its last legs in the 1860s. A recent contribution to this area is Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told, reviewed interestingly by the WSJ here.
Slavery's defenders often portrayed the South's "peculiar institution" as the antithesis of money-grubbing Yankee capitalism, rooted in an idealized agrarian hierarchy of white master and enslaved African that had been ordained for all time by God and natural law. Indeed, they often insisted that it was a supremely charitable endeavor that saved the slave from his own innate barbarism, asserting, for example, that they had to provide for elderly, infirm and immature slaves whether they were productive or not, as if they were members of their own family—albeit of a very inferior sort. As the wealthy South Carolina planter and politician James H. Hammond condescendingly put it in 1845, in a truculent rebuttal to attacks on slavery made by a British abolitionist: "We must therefore content ourselves with our dear labor under the consoling reflection that what is lost to us is gained to humanity." Abolitionists were contemptuous of such self-serving nonsense, but they too tended to see slavery as an economically inefficient, and morally reprehensible, hangover from the premodern past.

In "The Half Has Never Been Told," Edward E. Baptist takes passionate issue with such assumptions. He asserts that slavery was neither inherently inefficient nor a counterpoint to capitalism. Rather, he says, it was woven inextricably into the transnational fabric of early 19th-century capitalism. Banks and financiers fed it with the investment it needed to continue expanding and were rewarded with handsome profits from the labor of enslaved millions. Although crashes, depressions and market fluctuations inevitably affected the slave-based economy, large-scale investors in slavery consistently earned handsome profits, at least in the rich cotton-growing regions of the Deep South.

The morality of slavery rarely if ever entered into the business equation. As the number of slaves in the U.S. swelled from just under one million at the dawn of the century to about four million at the time of the Civil War, investors consistently demonstrated their confidence in slavery's profitability. As the historian Walter Johnson has eloquently put it, slaves represented "a congealed form of the capital upon which the commercial development of the [Mississippi River] Valley depended. . . . The cords of credit and debt—of advance and obligation—that cinched the Atlantic economy together were anchored with the mutually defining values of land and slaves: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without slaves, land itself was valueless." The value of the dollar, Mr. Johnson adds, "as often as not . . . turned out to be backed by flesh rather than gold."

As early as the 1820s, says Mr. Baptist, slave owners commanded the biggest pool of collateral in the United States: two million slaves worth more than $1 billion. "Not only was that almost 20 percent of all the wealth owned by all US citizens," Mr. Baptist writes, "but it was the most liquid part of that wealth, thanks to the efficiency of markets manned by professional slave traders." Slaves were a uniquely flexible commodity: There was a ready market for them everywhere in the South; they could be either sold or leased; they could be moved from place to place under their own power; and unlike tools and buildings, they naturally reproduced, adding to the value of their master's investment.

Read the rest
The slave economy was also expansionist, with proponents supporting the acquisition of Cuba by the United States and a general southward expansion into more climes suited to the plantation model. It's hard to imagine that slavery would have remained economical to the present day. But there was clearly a lot of steam left in the engine as of 1861, had the Civil War not brought it to a violent close.

There's been an interesting sidebar to the issue in that The Economist ran a review (which they've since officially withdrawn) which sounded almost 19th century in its rationalizations of the "peculiar institution". Baptist has written a response to the review incident in Politico, in which he blames the review on "market fundamentalism".
In the last couple of decades, the Economist and its suspender-wearing core readers have usually been reliable allies of market fundamentalism—the idea that everything would be better if measured first and last by its efficiency at producing profit. I, on the other hand, argue in the book that U.S. cotton slavery created—and still taints—the modern capitalist economy which the Economist sometimes seems to prescribe as the cure for all ills. I’d like to think we all agree that slavery was evil. If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?

I hesitate to make the argument "nobody says that", because you can usually rely on someone to say almost anything, no matter how wrong, but it does at least strike me as very obviously wrong to assert that if something is profitable, it must be moral. Morals and economic efficiency seem to be clearly different worlds. Whether something is profitable and whether it is moral are two questions which have no bearing on each other.

For an in depth discussion of the economics of slavery, I'd also suggest this EconTalk from some years ago, in which Russ Roberts interviews Stanley Engerman, co-author of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery

With God, The World is Less Known but More Knowable

Kyle Cupp has a new blog over at Patheos, where he's had some interesting posts going up. One that I've been chewing over for the last week is entitled God Is Not An Explanation, and in it Kyle pushes back on the idea that a theistic universe is a more explicable one.
[I]t troubles me that I cannot explain God. I want, for example, to be able to give myself a rational explanation for why a loving God would reveal matters of eternal life and death through obscure and ambiguous speech, signs, and texts. I can’t. I throw my hands in the air, and not as a prayerful gesture. Put aside the problem of evil; the very idea of the bible vexes me! Has there been a book that’s received as many varying and conflicting interpretations as the bible? Another holy text, maybe? If God is the ultimate author of Sacred Scripture, he sure didn’t seem to be going for clarity.

Along with atheists, I actually think the universe makes more sense without God. A godless world, if it is a finite material world, is a world that can in theory be explained. Maybe. If God exists, however, then creation is insolubly problematic. Fundamentally so. You could say mysterious if my phrasing sounds too heterodox.
I'm not clear whether I disagree with Kyle here or not. There's a sense in which a strictly material world would make more sense, but only because there would simply be less to know. Picture, if you will, that it was revealed to you that Hamlet really had been written by an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of typewriters. In a sense, this would instantly clear up all the mysteries regarding what Hamlet is about and what its message is. It would the not be about anything and it would have no message. Any meaning we chose to find in a randomly generated Hamlet script would be entirely of our own creation, and so in a sense it really wouldn't matter what we decided it meant.

Similarly, if God does not exist and the universe is strictly material, a lot of questions that people have struggled with over the centuries get very simple answers: What does it all mean? Nothing. Why do we exist? No reason. What is our purpose? There is no such thing.

In one sense, this is all very explicable. In another, it is no explanation at all.

No matter how simple the monkey explanation of Hamlet is, it's profoundly unsatisfying as an explanation because Hamlet seems like it means something. Similarly, it morality seems to me like it means something. The afterlife seems like it means something. The absolute seems like it means something. Saying, "Nope, none of that exists," does certainly close off a lot of questions, but it doesn't necessarily seem to me like it does so in a way that suits the evidence -- the evidence being our sense of meaning, or morality, of the divine.

Now, I'm not sure that Kyle and I really disagree here, but I think it's worth being clear that while God is not a pat explanation in, God is indeed the answer to a great deal, even if in ways that leave us with questions because He is beyond our capacity to fully understand.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Nine Year Old and the Uzi

If you spend time on social media, it's been hard to miss over the last couple weeks the story about the nine-year-old girl whose parents took her to a shooting range outside Las Vegas where she was allowed to shoot an fully automatic Uzi machine pistol, which she then lost control of and accidentally shot (fatally) her instructor. Everyone seems sure this Says Something About America, and there've been endless articles, posts and tweets trying to get at exactly what that is.

Less exploitive than some is this piece from Time which seeks to compare this event to the appalling situation a while back in which a single mom was thrown in jail for allowing her similarly nine year old daughter to play at a public part while the mother was working her shift at McDonalds. However, less exploitive than some is a low bar in a media-wide outrage fest and at several levels the piece is rather ill conceived, starting with its opening:
You should be absolutely terrified that a 9-year-old’s constitutional right to fire an Uzi trumps your right to decide at what age your kids can play at the park unsupervised.
For starters: a nine year old does not have a constitutional right to fire an Uzi. Period. End of story.

A nine year old cannot legally buy any kind of gun or ammunition, and Uzis (at least, any one like this which is capable of fully automatic fire) are incredibly highly regulated. Owning a machine gun requires a special license which involves extra background checks and inspections of how you store the weapon. Very few are allowed onto the civilian market at all. That's why if people shoot them at all, they do so at supervised shooting ranges which have gone through all the legal hoops to license the weapons, and then allow you to try them for a steep rental fee.As a result, fully automatic weapons are virtually never found in use by criminals at this point in the US. They are an example of a class of weapons which has become virtually absent from the crime seen due to long term regulation (since the 1930s) and also the fact that they're impractical and expensive for civilians to shoot. So not only does a nine year old not have a right to fire an Uzi, but for eight years courts have upheld very severe legal restrictions on fully automatic guns in general, indicating that no one else really has a constitutional right to fire and Uzi either. This story has proved cathartic to some gun control advocates who simply love a story which reinforces their "guns are scary and evil!!!" instincts, but honestly, this is not a story that relates much to gun control one way or the other.

Another thing that struck me about the Time article is the redemptive power which people increasingly put, in our current society, in the idea of throwing someone in jail. It says:
Arizona police officials have said no charges will be filed or arrests made. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office concluded the incident was an “industrial accident,” and have contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate, according to published reports.

Let’s compare that to a story from earlier this summer, regarding a different 9-year-old, one in South Carolina.

Debra Harrell is a working mother who faces a common problem for parents when school lets out for the summer: finding affordable child care. The McDonald’s employee couldn’t afford to have someone watch her 9-year-old daughter, so the girl was playing on her laptop in the restaurant during her mother’s shifts. However, when that laptop was stolen from their home, Harrell armed her daughter with a cell phone in case of an emergency and let her go unsupervised to an area playground. Another parent noticed the girl there alone and contacted the police, at which point Harrell was arrested and charged with child neglect. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years behind bars.

I agree that we live in a crazy world when a majority of Americans believe it should be illegal to allow your nine year old to play outside unsupervised, and a scary number still say the same about twelve year olds. I don't think that mother in South Carolina should have been jailed. Indeed, I think one of the major problems in our society is that we make far too many things illegal. Which brings me back to the Time article, which seems to implicitly believe that someone should have gone to jail for the shooting accident with the Uzi in Arizona. Clearly, there were several people using very, very poor judgement which led to the accident. The shooting range had a minimum age of eight, and apparently didn't contemplate the fact that some of the guns they had available for tourists to shoot were much harder for a small person to control than others. The parents apparently assumed it was just fine for their nine year old to try shooting a machine pistol. The instructor (now dead) who should have known better if the parents didn't apparently also thought this was an okay idea.

In general, shooting ranges are very safe places. Your child is less likely to be injured (or injure someone) going to a shooting range than going to a swimming pool or playing some sport like soccer or football. However, in this case, several people who should have known better used bad judgement. One of them is now dead. Does it really make anything better if we as a society find someone to put in jail to make us feel better? Is there anyone here who acted with criminal intent? And yet there seems to be a deep sense in our society that if something bad happened someone ought to go to jail for it.

Do we need new laws in the wake of this shooting accident? I don't think that it would do any harm to restrict shooting ranges from allowing fully automatic weapons to be shot by anyone under some given age which tends to align with having a large enough physical structure to handle them. (14? 16?) However, it's important to realize that we're talking about an incredibly rare occurrence. If anything, this reminds me of the case which got a lot of discussion some years back where a seven-year-old girl died (along with her father and a flying instructor) while flying an airplane. Say what you will about whether letting a seven year old fly an airplane is a good idea, it's a sufficiently infrequent occurrence for there to be a desperate need to legislate about it. Similarly, shooting ranges honestly do not want to have their instructors accidentally shot. In general, they are very, very good at enforcing safety. One hopes that people will have learned a few lessons from this incident (if they're not too busy fending off attacks from anti-gunner on "our disturbingly warped gun culture") and will adjust accordingly. And in all likelihood, that's about all it will take.