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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In the Twinkling of an Eye

Darwin has covered our obligation to blog about current events.

Simcha Fisher examines the need to find someone to blame as a way of maintaining the illusion that good people are able to control their lives.

Bearing has the best response of all:
True or false:

It is irresponsible and negligent for a parent to take a picture of his or her small child in public, especially at a crowded, dangerous place like the zoo. Every photograph of grinning, sticky-faced siblings, posing in front of the aquarium or the cat house, is evidence of the crime of child endangerment.


Well, let's think about what has to happen for a parent to take a photo of her child in public. First the parent has to let go of the child. She needs both hands to manipulate the camera or the smart phone. Then she has to step a few feet away -- maybe a dozen feet or more, certainly out of arms' reach. She has to take her eyes off her charges for long enough to select the proper settings or apps before finally locating them in the viewfinder. Once the picture is taken, she may pause to stow the camera away before returning and once again securing the child in a firm grip.

She lets go. She steps several feet away. She looks elsewhere. It is long enough.


I think we can extrapolate from the evidence (many small children at zoos, the existence of preschool educational programs at zoos) that it is widely believed (whatever some folks may think) that a zoo is a good place to take small children for a fun family outing. So to go so far as to say "well, of course you don't take a 3-y-o to a zoo, that's for older children" is, shall we say, OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM of thinking.

The notion that no reasonable parent would ever enter a situation where a 3-year-old might escape her notice long enough to get into serious trouble is a little more understandable, given the low amount of experience that many people have with the wide variety of three-year-olds. Most people only ever parent zero to two of them.

Some commenters who take a position closer to my own have been focusing on "It's not possible to keep your eyes on a three-year-old 100% of the time so they can't escape." I'd like to point out that we don't really WANT mothers (it's always mothers, isn't it) to do what would be necessary to prevent three-year-olds from escaping. Because we would have to do more than just watch them all the time. We would have to grip them all the time. That is why I began by having you think about picture-taking, how it is an utterly normal thing for parents of children to do at zoos, take their child's picture; and how the act of taking a picture contains within it all the possibility that allows for an escaping child.

There's this strange thing about children: they want to explore the world around them. They will pull and actively try to escape you. The zoos, along with science museums and other places that attract children, incidentally, have this odd feature (often, not always) -- they have exhibits here and there that seem to encourage children to explore the environment. "Please touch," they will have signs up for the petting zoo, or they will have fish tanks that are down near the eye level of toddlers, or they will have buttons to push and things like that. It seems almost as if the zoos.... EXPECT there to be three-year-olds with their parents, three-year-olds who are not buckled into strollers! I think the last few times I've been to the zoo I've even seen groups of preschoolers on a field trip, not with their parents, but with teachers and chaperones!

Life is unpredictable, and pivots in an instant. A dear friend of ours dropped dead of a heart attack on Saturday while mowing his lawn. He was 63, a year older than my mother, and had been a surrogate father and grandfather for us while we lived in Austin. Last weekend, his family did not expect that within the week, they would be attending his funeral.

On Sunday, a dear friend and mentor of mine lost her husband, age 66, to cancer of the esophagus, two days after she'd buried her mother. He had suffered for many years and was extremely ill, but last weekend my friend could not have expected to lose her mother and her husband within four days of each other.

Last weekend we had almost nothing planned for this weekend. We did not expect that Darwin and the two big girls would be making a sudden run down to Austin to attend one funeral while I take everyone else to Cincinnati to attend another. One hears it said that we are not promised tomorrow, but we're not even promised today. In most cases, it is a gift to fall asleep in the same world you woke up in.

Of your courtesy, please pray for the souls of Tim and Frank, and for their grieving widows, and for the children and grandchildren and friends they leave behind.

Sometimes Bad Things Happen to Good People (and Gorillas)

Last Saturday, a four year old boy on a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo with his family somehow managed to get through a barrier and then fell fifteen feet into a gorilla enclosure. There he attracted the attention of a male gorilla named Harambe, who (perhaps in part agitated by the shouts of the frightened crowd) dragged the boy by his foot, back and forth across the enclosure. When zoo keepers were unable to lure the gorilla away from the boy, they made the decision to shoot and kill Harambe lest he kill the child before they were able to tranquilize the gorilla.

Needless to say, no one wanted things to end this way. The parents certainly did not want their child to fall fifteen feet and then be dragged around by a four hundred pound gorilla. The zoo did not want to have to kill one of their prized animals. Even the two non-rational actors in the situation -- the four-year-old and the gorilla -- surely didn't want things to go the way that they did.

However, we live in a time and place in which there is a particularly deep belief that bad things should not happen. Thus, if something bad does happen, it's because someone is to blame. Some say the zoo was negligent. And others, a seemingly increasingly vicious group, have concluded that it was obviously the fault of the child's parents.

The internet was already boiling with people sure that someone whose child slipped away and got into a gorilla enclosure must be a terrible parent when the mother involved made the mistake of trying to explain herself in a Facebook posting. By Monday the threats and harassment of the family had become so bad that the Cincinnati Police Department felt it necessary to step up protection and monitoring of the situation.

Some of this is, of course, simply the kind of internet mob mentality which seems to be a fixture of the modern social media world. People feel that they are "doing something" about an upsetting situation by venting online and engaging in online harassment of people they perceive as bad. But what's more significant, I think, is the need to see the parents as bad in the first place.

Perhaps one element in this is that people do not want to think that a bad thing could happen to them. "I'm a good parent." The thinking goes. "I watch over my kids. I do my best. I don't want to think that anything bad could ever happen to my children." And so, to keep that fear at bay, it's necessary to think that anyone to whom something bad does happen must somehow have asked for it.

Maybe these parents were negligent, and maybe they weren't. There's no way for the denizens of the internet to know. Whether the boy's parents could have kept a better eye on him or not, the fact is that no situation is foolproof. I doubt that any parent, no matter how conscientious has never had a child slip off for a moment or do some unexpected, dangerous thing. The thing is that these uncounted slips, these near misses, are usually just that: misses or very minor accidents.

Most of the time, these near miss events result in nothing, just like the other near misses in our lives: the knife which falls from the counter but just misses your foot, the car you see in your blind spot just a moment before you start to change lanes, the deer who hesitates on the side of the road but then doesn't jump out in front of you. Perhaps some perfect degree of care could have made each of these near misses less likely to happen or less likely to go badly. But it's usually not the degree of care or preparedness which is responsible for saving us, it's the fact that most bad things that could happen don't. There are constant openings for catastrophe which don't quite result in calamity. Often we learn from these to be more careful in some way, but even so, the near misses are made less frequent, not completely eliminated.

It's not primarily virtue or preparedness which determines whether a near miss turns into a real life catastrophe. It's mostly chance.

So yes, the zoo should look at their enclosure designs, and parents should be mindful of where their children are. If these things can make an incredibly unlikely accident even more unlikely, that's good. But at the same time, it's important to realize that sometimes fate just deals everyone a really bad hand. Unlikely bad outcomes are still just that: unlikely, not impossible. And it's really not possible to work every single possibility for catastrophe out of a situation.

Sometimes bad things happen, and it's not because someone is at fault. It's just because sometimes bad things happen.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

Before she wrote "The Six", Jane Austen penned Lady Susan, a slender epistolary novel of 41 letters and a brief Conclusion. Lady Susan is different from Austen's other heroines. In other novels Lady Susan's daughter Frederica might have been the main character; Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is the best example of what Austen could do when she chose to flesh out a girl in Frederica's situation. But in this, her first adult work, Austen chose to tell the story of the villain of the piece.

Lady Susan Vernon is a Bad Actor. Beautiful, persuasive, resourceful, unprincipled, she's an advanced practitioner of the art of "gaslighting". She has an explanation for every rumor about her behavior, any negative appearance, and she gives them so very charmingly and with such authority that it's hard to contradict her. Her main objective is to do what she likes, and she's willing to sacrifice the happiness of her daughter if she herself can be well taken care of. She never admits defeat. Her moral and tactical flexibility is astounding.

Lady Susan, a recent widow, comes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, having summarily left her last visiting situation after attracting all the men and alienating all the women. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, mistrusts her based not just on rumors but her own experience, and her fears grow as she sees her brother Reginald, formerly wary of Lady Susan's reputation, fall under her spell. Lady Susan intends for her young daughter Frederica to marry Sir James Martin, a fellow as idiotic as he is rich, despite the gentle Frederica's horror at the match. Lady Susan juggles an increasing number of balls to keep all her schemes afloat, aided by a friend in London, her faithful correspondent Mrs. Alicia Johnson, but eventually the besotted Reginald has evidence enough that the lady is not as blameless as she protests herself to be, and Lady Susan must retrench in such a way that finally frees her daughter to marry whom she pleases. Through it all Lady Susan remains essentially unchanged. She has no moment of moral awakening, no stand on principle against the opinion of the world; in fact, she delights in standing on unprinciple against the opinion of the world. She leaves unhappiness and discontent in her wake, but the combined force of a happy family renders her powers neutral at best. Where there are moral cracks, Susan is able to take hold like a vine; where there is a strong and united facade, she peels herself off and seeks looser soil.

Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress) has fleshed out the episodes of Lady Susan in his new movie Love and Friendship, which Darwin and I saw on Friday evening. It's exceedingly enjoyable. Whitman has an affinity for Austen and her sly observational humor, and he has a broad canvas to work with, since the novel itself consists more of the outlines of action than clearly delineated scenes. I think he did a quite creditable job. The story is told faithfully and with wit, other than a slight twist at the end which is not in Austen, but perhaps not out of keeping with the story and characters as Austen has presented them.

Kate Beckinsale is exquisite as Lady Susan. She never misses a beat, and she glides across the screen with the absolute poise of a lady of a certain age and experience. The wheels in her head are always turning, especially on the few occasions when she's being thwarted. Darwin would have preferred that she'd looked a bit older, like her friend and yes-woman Mrs. Johnson (played as an American by the underutilized Chloë Sevigny), but I was pleased to subscribe to the idea that a woman of 37 can be as flawless as all that. Lady Susan, unlike many of Austen's other villains, does not suffer the pangs of conscience because she barely has a conscience. (Her closest analog in this regard, is, I think, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, if Lady Catherine were charming and a sexual predator who had to fight for security.) Yet for all that, she is not particularly happy, and by the end she has lost the power to manipulate the people who know her for the liar she is.

Lady Susan is so memorable in her manipulation that we keep hearing her words in the mouths of other characters. Every other character in the movie is more religious than she is, and yet it is her Biblical allusions that others keep quoting, or misquoting. (I found it ironic that Lady Susan is the only one who knows the order of the commandments.) And as she is a master of words, her words take root even as they twist the truth. A scene involving Frederica consulting the parish curate about the correct interpretation of the commandment to honor one's father and mother is Stillman's, not Austen's, and yet I thought well done, and a fine character moment.

Several moments in the film were laugh-out-loud funny, mostly involving Sir James Martin and his pristine cluelessness. Sir James is the prototype of Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton, but he has almost no dialogue in the book. Stillman has penned some inspired silliness for Sir James, and actor Tom Bennett never lets it flag. Also marvelously done was a scene in which Catherine and Reginald's father reads a letter to their mother, not omitting the punctuation. (We see few enough happily married older couples in Austen that I found this moment rather poignant.)

In Austen, the main stumbling block to personal and romantic happiness is the moral obstacles in her characters' paths. Once those are cleared away, she assumes that two intelligent lovers of good will will be able to handle any other smaller impediments themselves without her having to draw all the lines for us. Here, as in any Austen novel, the main point of the story is not romantic resolution, but moral resolution. In Lady Susan, the main part of the action is finished once Lady Susan's character is finally exposed to young Reginald and he breaks with her, with the Conclusion pulling together the loose ends in a fairly cursory way. Stillman picks up on this, I think; we never even see a kiss from our young lovers. But as Virtue is practically the antepenultimate word, I think that he understands Austen's point better than most of her cinematic interpreters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Body of Evidence

I was standing by a mirror in the dressing rooms at Kohl's, glancing at my reflection, as I do sometimes, when I noticed an odd bulge in my foot. It was the big vein, puffing up at the end of the day, but only on my right foot. I raised it, wiggled it, rotated my ankle this way and that, but there I was, with one bulgy foot.

I was at Kohl's because I was taking teenage daughters to buy bras. They own bras, you understand, but there have been growth spurts. My heart twisted a bit as I picked out larger cup sizes for them to try and helped hook the bands and settle the straps over smooth young backs sprinkled with a few blemishes and pimples.

My ten-year-old has the body of a nymphet, lithe and willowy, just shy of the thicker curves her older sisters have developed. It's the body type Hollywood pushes, a prepubescent slenderness. Last week she was miserable because she was losing a molar the long way. The tooth wouldn't release, and it kept twisting and cutting her gums. Finally, it came out when she swallowed, and there it was, with two wicked sharp roots over the stout ivory chomper.

Bodies are weird. There's nothing permanent about them. St. Francis was right to call the body "Brother Ass" -- you mainly notice it when it's not doing the thing you want, which is often enough that you forget all the things it does right until those fail too. My body is full of oddnesses, mostly legacies of six pregnancies, but also hair in odd places, nonstandard toenails, a stubborn plantar's wart. I sometimes envy the angelic nature, how they can just be without being confined by the earthiness and frustrations of having a body.

But Christ suffered in the flesh. God himself provided the sacrifice: Himself. He drained himself to his last drop of blood. The body is meant to be immolated, completely offered up, in pregnancy or in works or in fasting or in sickness or paralysis or bedridden in a lingering old age. God himself has provided the sacrifice.

My oldest daughter and I have been working out together for almost a month, to a half-hour video six days a week. We are burning calories, the instructor tells us. Think about why we're working out -- for your significant other? To fit into that dress? These are lowest-common denominator reasons. Who doesn't want to look better? But why do I burn? It's a difficult act of trust, to keep exercising even though my body stubbornly refuses to show any change, to believe that it matters whether I burn even without any evidence. Even if my body should never recover its previous form, if it is simply part of me now to carry fifty more pounds than I did on my wedding day, surely it's better to move than not to move, to sweat than not to sweat, to give than not to give. Maybe the fruit is not borne in my body but in the body of the teen sweating next to me, or the baby who keeps trying to hang on my back while I attempt push ups.

Burn, baby, burn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Plot, or Why We Keep Turning Pages

There's an interesting piece at The Guardian on the pleasures of plot in novels (and in TV as well).

Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, “What will happen next?” as, “What has already happened?” The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.
Plot has lost its prestige. Only a few of those novelists who feature on Man Booker shortlists give us plot-reliant fiction. Those who do – such as Michael Frayn and Sarah Waters – are sometimes underrated for their skills. It is notable that Ian McEwan, a leading literary novelist who is deeply interested in plot, and in playing tricks with a reader’s expectations, has gone to spy novels for the machinery of two of his most carefully plotted novels, The Innocent and Sweet Tooth. His reader can feel confident that everything is part of a plan that pre-existed the novel. Yet this rare skill leads some critics to suspect him of chilly manipulativeness.

I strongly agree on the importance of plot in making a novel gripping and pleasurable to read. I may, however, have a slightly broader definition of plot than this author does. He uses as many of his key examples mystery-like plots -- both actual mystery novels and novels in which the presence of some mystery is gradually revealed and then solved. For instance, in Dickens' Bleakhouse, we have multiple mysteries: the identity of Nemo, the history of Lady Deadlock, the parentage of Esther, etc. We gradually realize these are mysteries, and then we realize they are connected, and at last we find the answers.

However, "solve the mystery" is not the only way in which plot moves forward. Indeed, one of the rather audacious elements of plot which I recall, was in an author this piece lists as relying little on plot, Anthony Trollope. In Barchester Towers, there's a point where the reader and the whole town are in suspense as to which of two suitors a pretty young widow will marry, and Trollope brazenly tips his hand to the reader, telling the reader in authorial voice that she will marry neither, and that if his readers are following only in order to find out some fact which could be ascertained by flipping ahead a few hundred pages, then he's failed. It's the process of seeing how events will move from the present point to the heroine's delivery that will provide the interest. And indeed, it does.

Even in a good thriller this is the case. The enjoyment of a good mystery novel is not ruined by knowing who the killer is. Good plotting is not just the careful planning of the mystery and the slow revelation of the clues up to the last moment when all comes into focus. It's also the manner of the journey.

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a "character driven" or "theme driven" novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is "the events which happened in this character's life", for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character's life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, "Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved." Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it's that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

Monday, May 23, 2016

We're In The Play!

This summer, we're in the play!

It has been a dog's age since I auditioned for anything, but the older four and I walked down last week and auditioned for the local community theater's production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All we knew about the show was Flying Car and Ian Fleming (and now, after watching the movie, we feel we still don't know much about it), but we went, and we sung and danced and read, and generally struck a blow for the dramatic honor of the Darwins.

We came pretty much unprepared. The audition notice was pretty minimal, so I wasn't sure if they were going to teach us something to sing. As it turned out, other people had brought music, so we just winged it acapella. Julia sang "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof, Eleanor did an awesome rendition of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, Isabel (who was coming down sick) opted out, and Jack sang, "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Blah Blah, happy birthday to you!" I mashed together a few verses of "No Way To Stop It" from The Sound of Music, and actually remembered the words. We learned a short dance to "Me Ol' Bamboo", and we read scenes with gusto. I don't know that we were the most talented people there, but we were the ones having the most fun.

Since they were casting everyone, we were all cast! Isabel and Jack are in the children's chorus, Eleanor and Julia are in the adult chorus and dancers (on account of the years of dance we've paid for) and I am adult chorus and Mrs. Phillips, the secretary who makes Caractacus Potts's life miserable at the Scrumptious Candy Factory. Darwin is the Gracious Kid Wrangler who makes this possible by watching the two small fry. Full steam fake English accents ahead!

Everyone block out your calendars and venture up to see us perform on the weekend of July 22-24.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Seven Quick Takes

Mitterer bans productions of the play from using Third Reich regalia. In his author’s note, he stipulates no swastika flags, no Nazi paraphernalia, and no Nazi uniforms. ­Jägerstätter’s non-compliance would seem too natural to us when set off against symbols that have become shorthand for evil. He’s more radical when his tempters (like the bishop who blesses the Catholics fighting for the Reich as “heroes” defending the homeland) aren’t decked out in Nazi apparel, but instead look and sound familiar to us. Mitterer does, however, invite a heavy-handed moralism when he asks that the play end with projected “scenes of recent wars and of cruelty.”
Photos of teenage Victorian girls
I spent a lot of time looking at these clear, gorgeous portraits, tracing various facial types that I recognize from modern faces. Yet few modern portraits are as appealing as these vintage photos. Is it simply because of the hairstyles and the clothing (which, though probably uncomfortable, is far more flattering than most of today's fashions), or was there something intrinsic to the process of getting one's photograph taken in the old days that granted faces a beauty that modern photos don't seem to reveal? Or is it just the lure of the unfamiliar?

Speaking of Victorian teens, here's The Toast, elucidating how thirteen-year-old Midwesterners deal with the French bits in Jane Eyre. As a member of the demographic of thirteen-year-old Midwesterners who read Jane Eyre, I vouch for the accuracy of this.

Related: French Class, 2241.

How to caramelize sugar without melting it (h/t Brandon). I don't even like caramel, but I find this intriguing.
However alluring the darkest shades of caramel are, I'm most excited by the lightest hues. A single hour of toasting won't develop any discernible caramel flavor, but it tames the intensity of marshmallows, angel food cake, and fudge—recipes that rely on sugar for structure, but have a reputation for tooth-aching sweetness. 
Lightly toasted sugar brings these desserts into balance without sacrificing structure or distracting from their classic flavor. It even cuts down on the need for salt—a real boon for those on sodium-restricted diets. Not only does toasted sugar taste less sweet, it has less sucrose, fewer calories, and a lower glycemic index than plain sugar. How much lower would depend on the extent of thermal decomposition, but it's a promising notion.
 More from The Toast (which is shutting down in July, so who's going to bring the literary humor now?): Great House Therapy: The Dashwoods' Casual and Tolerably Comfortable Cottage.
Name: Elinor Dashwood, responsible eldest sister, daughter, and heroine who demonstrates strength of understanding and coolness of judgment, even when people are real jerkwads 
Location: Devonshire, England 
Size: Comfortable and compact, with four bedrooms, two garrets, offices, unhandsome stairs, and two sixteen square-foot sitting rooms (too cramped for parties, obviously), which is all just another way of saying REALLY DISAPPOINTINGLY SMALL 
Years lived in: For several months, since leaving the family’s enormo Sussex estate of Norland Park, where for many generations the Dashwoods had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance (so that was nice of them); rented
Speaking of Jane Austen, Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman's new film based on Austen's last manuscript Lady Susan, is finally out in select cities. And one of those cities will be Columbus, next weekend, so Darwin and I have scheduled A Date. Find out if it's playing near you.

Immediate Book Meme: MrDarwin Edition

Normally, it's MrsDarwin who dusts this one off to go over her reading, but I wanted to jump in as well this time round, so here's my version of the rundown that she just did. Literacy-Chic also contributed. So has Joseph Moore. Feel free to do yourself!

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Brusilov Offensive about the Imperial Russian offensive in the summer of 1916 which pretty much ended the offensive capabilities of the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving them to be propped up by Germany for the remaining two years of the war. Timothy Dowling's book is readable specialist work and I'm finding it very helpful.

Master of the Senate
, the third volume in Robert Caro's monumental five volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson. The Paraphasic turned me on to this a while back, and it's really fascinating as a detailed examination of an utterly ruthless politician and our political system which he learned to manipulate to achieve his ambitions. Along the way, we meet a whole series of fascinating side characters, also sketched in some detail. This volume covers the period in the 1950s when LBJ served as the Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate, turning that into a much more powerful office than it had been before, and using it to try to achieve his driving ambition of becoming president. I've been listening to these on audiobook, and the recordings from Audible are quite good.

2. What book did you just finish?

Early Trench Tactics in the French Army: The Second Battle of Artois, May-June 1915 -- As the title indicates this is a bit of a specialist book (and no, I didn't pay $100+ to buy it, I borrowed it from the library) but it covers an interesting and little discussed period during which the French army was trying to figure out how to fight and win after the Western Front had settled into one massive fortress system. Contrary to one popular stereotype, all of the nations involved were working hard to figure out how to adapt tactics to the new situation, and this covers that innovation from a French perspective.

Means of Ascent
is the second volume of Caro's LBJ, covering his time in the House, his first unsuccessful run for the Senate, the beginning of his fortune drawn from radio and TV stations, and his eventually successful (through vote stealing) election to the Senate in 1948.

3. What do you plan to read next?

I'll definitely read the last currently published volume (four of the planned five) of Caro's LBJ biography, The Passage of Power, which covers Johnson's struggle against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, his relegation to the vice presidency in an administration that seemed intent on sidelining him, and his unexpected ascension to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination.

For my on-paper reading, I need to pick my next WW1 research read. On the docket are:

Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

German author Arnold Zweig's novel Outside Verdun

And French author Jules Romains novel about the same battle: Verdun

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 -- I'd picked this up cheap used, and then set it aside when my interlibrary loan requests for books too expensive to buy came in. This also deals with the evolution of infantry tactics in WW1, though it's period is a little more broad than the book on French tactics that I just finished.

Embarrassing to admit, but I've still not finished Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. I read the first half of it on a business trip (when I'm restricted to the couple square feet of an airline seat seems to be my most protracted quiet reading time these days) and although I really enjoyed it a lot I haven't got back to it since.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Leisure is the Basis of Culture has been on my reading list for a while. I bought a copy, determined to read it this year, but so far it's just sitting on my bedside table. I'm not sure why I still keep books there, since it's gotten to the point where I run on little enough sleep that I seldom read more than two or three pages in bed before falling asleep.

I'm also really eager to read Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings which both covers author Diana Glyer's research into the extent of creative influence that the Inklings' critique sessions had on the members' works, and also proposes ways in which authors might seek to imitate their creative collaboration.

6. What is your current reading trend?

World War One. And I guess, though this is mostly just a result of reading this one massive series, Lyndon Johnson.

Is Global Warming Like Eugenics?

Every so often, I run into variations of the following argument: They tell us that anthropocentric climate change (or 'global warming' if one prefers the less fancy terminology) is settled science, but the beliefs of 'settled science' can be horribly wrong. After all, in the 1920s eugenics was settled science.

I think that what's causing confusion here is the distinction between actual scientific theory and policy/moral beliefs relying on that theory which might be popular with scientists and science boosters/funders -- what one might call the "scientific establishment" in some political and cultural sense rather than in the sense of knowledge.

While the scientists involved in Eugenics work (as in, doctors and biologists who were theorizing about or conducting studies on the genetic basis of "undesirable" traits, and then formulating proposals for "racial health" initiatives) doubtless got various things wrong in terms of the exact genetic basis and probability of inheritance of certain traits, the basics of the science involved has not actually been discredited. And indeed, some of the things which population geneticists have to say are rather upsetting to politically correct sensibilities. (Something which a certain type of racist sometimes takes aid and comfort from.)

What did become wholly discredited was the idea that because someone had a higher probability than the general population of having "unfit" children, one was therefore acting morally in forcibly sterilizing that person. And even that realization didn't come so much on the merits as because it became clear how closely those people's ideology was tied in with that of the Nazis.

On climate change the science element (that global average temperatures are rising in a fashion which seems to be explainable primarily through the known greenhouse effects of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere) really is pretty well supported. Yes, there's always room for refinement and change as new information becomes available, and there could be some huge thing we don't know about, but people are overplaying it when they act as if this is much more sketchy than most areas of science that we rely on without much thought.

Once we get beyond the actual science question into what, if anything, we should actually do about it at this point, we're off into policy and moral questions, and that's not necessarily an area in which the scientists involved and their activist hangers-on can provide a whole lot more insight than others. So there's not necessarily any reason to follow the climate change movement in its proposed solutions. Indeed, many proposed solutions actually fail on scientific merits. (For example, some forms of "alternative energy" actually are more costly in terms of environmental destruction than just burning fossil fuels, if one looks at the actual effects of building all the pieces involved in the energy systems.) But attacking the climate science itself is arguably not the right way to go at disagreement.

(Note: Yes, I'm aware of the various data snafus and scandals surrounding climate science organizations. But although these are disturbing and probably point to mistakes that climate scientists have made as a result of being overly defensive, as best as I can tell critics are far overplaying their hands when they then conclude that there is simply nothing to climate change studies or that they are an elaborate fraud to get funding. My goal in this post is modest, to discuss the comparison of climate change theories to eugenics. It's not to try to resolve the entire validity to climate science via recourse to Dr. Google.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain
Twain being Twain. I can only take small doses, but he's worth it.

Arcadia, by Iain Pears
Starts off in the present tense, which puts my hackles up. Professor acquaintance of Tolkien and Lewis wants to create his own fantasy world, without having a story to tell about it. Girl gets into the world. Not really gripping, so far.

The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni


2. What book did you just finish?

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O'Connor
There was a interesting novel of moral choices buried here, obscured by pages of pretentious abstractions in which we hike literally through Jefferson's psyche, we witness Jefferson watching a movie about himself, we follow Jefferson and Hemings as they check out the Museum of Miscegenation, the author muses about colors, and we squirm through segments of self-righteous wish-fulfillment in which Jefferson is a prisoner being tortured by a sadistic guard for being evil. Perhaps the author doesn't realize, or perhaps he does, that he is creating his own Sally Hemings as much as he convicts Jefferson of doing. And all this, without mentioning the loathed present tense format of the more novelistic scenes. Egad. Special mention, though to the moving depictions of a slave auction and the death of beloved children.

Septimania, by Jonathan Levi
Ludicrous theological errors on page one made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief through a narrative that really needed suspension of disbelief. Also, I've read Umberto Eco, and you, sir, are no Umberto Eco

Plantation Parade, by Harnett Kane
The histories of several notable plantations along the Mississippi, with a keen sense of the wheel of time and fortune turning.

Ghosts Along the Mississippi, by Clarence John Laughlin
The purplest of prose, but the photos are gripping.

3. What do you plan to read next?

Ad Pyrrham, by Ronald Storrs

Scarpia, by Piers Paul Read

Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, by Amy and Leon Kass

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

John Adams, by David McCullough

The Iliad, translated by Caroline Alexander

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing making me feel guilty at the moment.

6. What is your current reading trend?

New fiction which is highly reviewed by the WSJ.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shooting Legacy

I'd made time to get out of work early on Friday and go to the rifle range.

This had been one of those weeks (indeed several of those weeks), most of the days back to back meetings with no break even for lunch, and most of the meetings heavy on negotiating the pricing for next year, something which puts me up against people a level or two above me. And the weekend was slated to be full of kid activities. And for several weeks I'd been itching to make it off by myself for a while to go shooting -- ever since I took the oldest boy a month ago. He had a great time, and I enjoyed taking him, but you can't settle down to do careful shooting when you're keeping on an eye on an excitable seven-year-old at the shooting range.

Friday afternoon proved to be the perfect time. The weather was temperate and partly cloudy, and there were only two other shooters on the rifle line. To the uninitiated, going to the shooting range might seem like a loud, if cathartic, activity. Particularly under these conditions, however, it's the opposite. Good target shooting means making every part of yourself still. Hold the rifle so that the sights don't appear to dance across the target. Make your breath steady and smooth. Squeeze the trigger gently so that the rifle doesn't move as you fire.

You put on your ear protection, and the world becomes quiet and a little distant. Calm is a necessity for shooting well.

I had got a new scope for my my dad's .22, and I wanted to sight it in. The windage on the new scope proved to be way off, so this was a process of taking a careful shot, finding the hole off to the left, adjusting the windage knob, and trying again as the shots gradually tracked in towards the center of the target.

As I was reloading, the ranger officer came by.

"Some people would say that's a nice rifle," he said. "That'd be wrong. It's a beautiful rifle."

I nodded. "It's my dad's."

"Take good care of it, and maybe someday it'll be yours," he said.

I hesitated a moment. The range officer is a personable guy, probably in his late sixties. About dad's age. Volunteer personal information or let it alone?

"Well..." The word hung in the air for a moment. "Unfortunately, it already is."

He put a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. That's a terrible way to get a gun."

"Thanks. That was ten years ago, but the rifle is... I think about fifty years old."

"Take good care of it. I've got a ninety year old Winchester for the same reason."

We talked for a few more minutes about the care of old guns and then he moved on.

It is a beautiful rifle, a Marlin Golden lever action .22 rifle. The model has been manufactured by Marlin for over a hundred years now with various minor changes along the way. The first version was put out in 1891. The latest change that I'm aware of was the addition of a safety button in the 1980s, which isn't there on mine, which Dad bought while he was in high school back in the mid sixties.

Shooting together was not a major part of my relationship with my father. The rifle dates from his high school days, when he and some friends used to drive out into the Mojave Desert east of Los Angeles to shoot. They went to different colleges, however, and the rifle went into storage in a closet at my grandparent's house.

My early connection with shooting was the result of a special issue of Boy's Life focused on shooting sports. It had an ad in it for a Daisy BB gun, and I begged and begged to have one for my tenth birthday. Eventually, my parents agreed, and I spent many hours target shooting in the back yard with it. Dad was sympathetic, having himself spent hours with a BB gun as a boy. When I first got the BB gun he taught me how to use it, firmly instilled ideas of gun safety in me, and shot it with me a bit, but shooting was always primarily a solitary activity for me.

When I was older, he eventually told me about the .22, and brought it home from his parent's house. I think we probably took it out to a range at most a half dozen times during my youth. Dad was far less interested in guns than I am. If it hadn't been for my abiding interest in shooting, the .22 probably would have remained at his parents' house indefinitely.

Still, among the things that draws me to shooting is the way in which it connects to history. A well taken care of gun remains usable for a very long time. My dad's .22 is fifty years old, but the steel is still its deep, oily blue and the walnut stock is still a beautiful piece of woodwork. With decent ammunition I can shoot one inch groups at fifty yards, and so long as its taken care of it will still do as well another fifty years from now. There aren't many things we buy these days designed to last and function for a hundred years. These can. If I'm given the time, I could teach not only my children but my grand children to shoot.

Noonan Dissembles for Trump

This weekend's column seems to encapsulate many of Peggy Noonan's worst tendencies as a columnist. Her theme is that conservatives need to take Trump and his supporters seriously. However, she'll get little hearing there when she engages in imputing motives she surely knows are not accurate:

"Mr. Trump’s victory was an endorsement of Mr. Trump but also a rebuke to professional Republicans in Washington. It was a rebuke to comprehensive immigration plans that somehow, mysteriously, are never quite intended to stop illegal immigration; a rebuke to the kind of thinking that goes, “I know, we’ll pass laws that leave Americans without work, which means they’ll be deprived of the financial and spiritual benefits of honest labor, then we’ll cut their entitlements, because if we don’t our country will go broke.” The voters backed Mr. Trump’s stands on these issues and more."

Does Noonan really believe that people formulate policy with the intention of leaving Americans without work? Many people believe others polices deprive people of work. For instance, it's a staple of Republican rhetoric (even including Trump's) that Obama's health care legislation is "job killing" policy. That represents their assessment of the likely effects of Obama's policy. But do we really think that Obama came up with his health care plan with the intention of depriving Americans of jobs? Similarly, it is the assessment of Trump and other populists that allowing free trade with other countries will result in American jobs being "stolen", leaving Americans without work. They may or may not be right on this (I think they're mostly wrong) but the people who advocate free trade policies do not do so thinking they will leave Americans without work, they do so thinking that these policies will grow the American economy and thus provide work.

Noonen then plays the outsider to the last twenty years of Republican history, writing:
"I confess I have lost patience with many of those declaring they cannot in good conscience support [Trump], not because reasons of conscience are not crucial—they are, and if they apply they should be declared. But some making these declarations managed in good conscience, indeed with the highest degree of self-regard, to back the immigration proposals of George W. Bush that contributed so much to the crisis that produced Mr. Trump. They invented Sarah Palin. They managed to support the global attitudes and structures that left the working class jobless. They dreamed up the Iraq war.

Sometimes I think their consciences are really not so delicate."

We all remember how Noonan opposed the Iraq War. We all remember how she poured populist disdain upon proposals for immigration reform which were designed to easy our country's at times Kafka-esque immigration procedures and provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and their children, who have in some cases been living in the US and paying taxes for decades already. We all remember how Noonan mocked the idea of shifting Republican policy towards more openness to immigration in an effort to woo Hispanic voters.

Oh wait. Noonan is not noted for any of these things. Rather, this column represents an attempt to be above-it-all in relation to positions she has herself held and written about in the past. And for what? To support the integration into the party of a would be strongman figure who surely any mature political writer must realize would be a disaster for the party.

This present flirtation does Noonan as little credit as her brief crush on Obama during the 2008 election.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

There Is No Time!

Let me just note down here what happens this weekend so that I don't schedule one more thing.

2:30 Schola practice for Pentecost sequence
4:30-5:30 Diana's class rehearses for dance recital
6:30-7:30 Eleanor and Isabel's class rehearses
7:30-8:30 Julia's class rehearses


1:00 First Dance Recital; big girls volunteering
4:00 Second Dance Recital; all girls dancing, family attending.
As soon as we can get down there after recital: Junior High Overnight Service Camp, Eleanor volunteering, Julia and Isabel attending


7:30 First Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel
8:30 Darwin picks up girls from Service Camp overnight; I go to church to rehearse the schola
9:00 Second Mass; children's schola sings sequence.
10:45 Third Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel.
12:15 Fourth Mass; I sing sequence; leave after Gospel unless we have to stay for this mass because people arrived too late for the 9:00
3:45-5:15 Last religion class of the year.

Thank God that all these things are good in themselves, happy and constructive events. No court dates, no doctor's visits, no terrors. But I'll still be glad when they're over and I can just read my library books and learn to write again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Your !@&%ing Language Makes Things Harder

The frequency with which profanity is used in the office, both in the hallways and in business meetings, seems to vary by industry, by company and by individual department. At my current company, it's pretty common, enough so that even the people who pretty clearly don't naturally use it in business conversation often seem to feel obliged to work 'fucking' into any particularly strong statement of affairs in order to show they're serious.

Of course, much of what we call profanity in our current culture is not actually "swearing" in the sense of taking oaths or invoking the sacred. While Shakespeare's Henry V exclaimed 'God's Blood!' when things seemed a bit much, today's leaders mostly invoke sex and the body's waste management systems. (I suppose one could argue this is a barometer of what we actually hold sacred in our culture.)

But I'm not actually here to discuss the morality of using 'bad language', but rather the effect it has on interactions. A meeting I was dealing with got testy the other day, and there were numerous exclamations of 'Are you fucking kidding me?' and 'What is this shit?' And as people vented their frustrations at each other, you could see people becoming more defensive and angry in their body language.

One of the things that we learned in acting class back in college was that you could develop an emotion on stage by putting yourself through the motions which a person experiencing that emotion might use. Motion can create emotion. Pound the table and shout, and you'll start to feel anger to carry you through the rest of the scene.

As a parent, I've learned the flip side of this lesson: let yourself use motions which express your anger or frustration, and you'll become angrier. If the children are misbehaving and I yell at them, if I'm scooping toys off the floor and I allow myself to throw the toys with that satisfying crash into the place where they should have been in the first place, those actions make feelings of anger roil up far more than they had before.

Even in a workplace where profanity is utterly common, having it used on you tends to make you angry. Though profanity has been voided of much of its underlying meaning, it still puts up automatic defensive feelings, just like being yelled at (another office habit which quickly turns interactions more hostile.) "What the fuck were you thinking?" gets a worse reaction than "I don't think your idea will work," even in a workplace where the use of 'fuck' is constant.

Not all swearing is equal in this sense. It's specifically swearing at people or their ideas which causes situations to escalate. But the way in which it ratchets up conflict and emotion makes it a good idea (any moral or aesthetic concerns aside) to cut out the swearing in situations where you're trying to persuade people to agree and get things done.

Monday, May 09, 2016

What Is A Political Party and How Do You Take One Back?

It goes without saying I've been doing a lot of tooth gnashing since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee last Tuesday, but I figured that there were enough posts out there venting high octane anger and disgust without adding my own piece to that genre. I won't be voting for Donald Trump in November. I think that Hillary Clinton would make an absolutely terrible president, but I still think she'd be less bad that Donald Trump is likely to be, so I'm not particularly worried about the possibility that my failure to vote for Trump would contribute to a Hillary victory. That said, I won't be voting for her either. I'll either cast my presidential vote for a third party candidate or leave the top of my ballot blank and only vote in the other races.

I'm hardly the only conservative disgusted with the Republican nominee. I've seen a number of friends announce that they are changing their party registration from Republican to unaffiliated. Others have talked about the need to find or start a third party for conservatives to support, providing a way to register their opposition to Trump and a new political home if the GOP turns into the party of Trump. On the other hand, there are those who, however much they dislike Trump, dislike Hillary more, and so are determined to rally to the GOP banner no matter who is holding it, and also those who argue that it's only those who show their loyalty to the party by getting in line behind the nominee who will have a voice in rebuilding the party when the Trump phenomenon finally burns itself out.

All this has left me thinking a fair amount about what a political party is, and thus what it means to try to teach it a lesson or win back control over it.

This isn't as simple as it might seem, because a political party is several different things, all of them mutable in different ways.

First off, a political party consists of the elected officials who were elected under that party's banner and the candidates who are nominated by the party. In that sense, Trump is now one of the leaders of the Republican party. Another way of talking about a political party is its "establishment", which includes not just elected officials but party staffers, activists, donors and other people involved on a volunteer or professional basis in a party's workings. Finally, a party consists of voters who are registered with the party and/or vote for its candidates most of the time. Of those voters, only a minority even cast ballots in the recent primaries. And of those ballots cast, roughly 11 million were for Trump while roughly 15 million were for other candidates.

Trump is clearly neither a social conservative nor a small government/constitutional conservative. His nomination represents a victory of other ideas (celebrity, anti-immigration, isolationism, tariffs, anti-PC, machismo) over a more traditional conservative set of political position.

The variable here is the voters. Voters may vote or not vote, they may support the Republican party or another one. Trump has both gathered the support of a number of Republicans who have supported various other Republican candidates during recent election cycles, and also brought in the support of independents and Democrats who find his personality and political positions appealing. Other candidates draw other sets of voters. Perhaps one of the difficulties this year is that there were a number of presidential aspirants who attracted some portion of the usual GOP set of primary voters, but it was only Trump who cornered a particularly enthusiastic portion of the base along with a faction of outsiders who do not normally vote for Republicans (or if they do, do so only with frustration and disgust.) The result is the Trump coalition of voters.

What remains to be seen is: has the Trump coalition chosen a candidate capable of attracting a winning percentage of voters in the general election?

If Trump wins, and particularly if he wins convincingly, that will begin a shift in the party in which people with views similar to Trump begin to take over the slots in the first two groups, the elected officials and the functionaries, while relying for their success on voters who like Trumpian candidates. Voters, officials and functionaries who find their views incompatible with Trump would go elsewhere -- to the Democrats, to some third party, or to the political no man's land of views not fitting into any of the parties. This would be fairly similar to the process whereby liberal Republicans vanished or became Democrats over the last forty years, and the opposite process through which conservative Democrats became Republicans.

There's been a lot of talk in the recent primary about the "Republican Establishment", with Trump and to an extent Cruz running against it, while others have plaintively asked why the Establishment has sat on its hands while Trump ran away with the nomination. There is a party establishment (its officials and functionaries) and it is at fault during this last election cycle for wasting a lot of resources on the hopeless Jeb Bush bid for the nomination and for ignoring Trump until it was too late to do anything about his insurgent candidacy. However, the establishment's power is determined by who shows up and votes.

There are two opposing dynamics a play for conservatives wanting to regain and rebuild the Republican Party. On the one hand, victory tends to cement the power of the winners within a party. It builds the loyalty of the voters who supported the victory, gives positions of power to elected officials and functionaries within the party, and it pushes away voters who dislike the people elected.

On the other hand, a party's power structure is determined by the people who show up, make donations, and cast votes. If only Trump supporters are showing up to during the next couple election cycles, while conservatives sit out, waiting for candidates they like better to be put forward, the party will end up looking more like Trump, not less, because it will be formed by the people who are active in it.

To regain control of the party, the difficult needle which conservatives will need to thread is to make sure that Trump loses, and that others like him fail to gain nominations for other offices, while at the same time remaining active in the party in order to further their own candidates and causes. If Trumpism is mostly driven by its celebrity banner-holder, then defeat should send his hard core of supporters off to wherever they came from. If there's a deep desire for his kind of politics among the Republican base, then a more protected power struggle is likely to ensue.

Either way, the method by which conservatives can wrest control of the party back from Trump and his followers is by showing that more people turn out and vote for conservative candidates than for candidates like Trump.

Friday, May 06, 2016

What the Cuss

It's been a tough week for you. You want to cuss someone out, but you just don't have the right words to pour out some high-quality invective on whoever's making your life miserable. Well, search no more, because history provides.

In 1676 the Zaporozhian Cossacks had had it up to here with Sultan Mehmed IV, who, despite having suffered a defeat, demanded an unconditional surrender:
Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks: 
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians - I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks. 
--Turkish sultan Mehmed IV
The Cossacks were having none of this. Although they were not literary men, they put their heads together and sat down to the painstaking work of composing a letter to convey their response in precisely the right words to compliment the Sultan's many titles.

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan! 
O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil's kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can't slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we've no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother. 
You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother! 
So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won't even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we'll conclude, for we don't know the date and don't own a calendar; the moon's in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day's the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse! 
- koshovyi otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.
History does not record the Sultan's response.

Thursday, May 05, 2016


The Ascension strikes me as a feast of grief. The apostles stand staring up at where they last saw Jesus because once they move away from where they last saw him, he's really gone. We watch the spot where we last saw a friend. Until the apostles move, there's still a sense of physical connection with Jesus, just as someone might sit beside a dead friend, or remain in church after a funeral, or linger at a graveside. There's a faint, wild hope that he will reappear, say it was a test or that that the Father sends him back because he knows how much they need him. When they move from the spot, the thread is snapped. 

The thread does snap, but in a way they least expect. An angel shows up. We think of angels as fantastic, ethereal creatures, but in the Bible, they're as no-nonsense as you get. The angel has no patience with humans associating a physical position with proximity. "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking into the sky?" Which is a strange question, seeing as the angel next says that Jesus will return exactly the same way they saw him go. Humanly speaking, if he's coming back that way, it makes sense to stand looking into the sky, what? But the angels know that Jesus just told the apostles that they would be his witnesses starting in Jerusalem. You can't witness in Jerusalem if you're staring up at the sky on Mount Olivet.

So they go back to Jerusalem to pray in the upper room. In the week and so before the Spirit comes on Pentecost (and they didn't know when the Spirit was coming, if they even exactly understood that the Spirit was coming), they do what makes human sense for an organization: they fill empty leadership slots. Out of 120 people (minus twelve for the disciples), they winnowed the field down to two men who fit the criteria of having been with the brethren throughout the whole of Jesus's ministry, Joseph and Matthias. Here the apostles show a first glimmer of wisdom. They don't have the fullness of the Spirit yet. Their prudential judgment has always left something to be desired. So instead of trusting to themselves, they prayed and then cast lots, leaving the choice to the Lord. And then everyone accepts the outcome, with no bickering -- these, the men who jostled for position, who asked Jesus if they could sit at his right hand, who walked right behind Jesus while debating who was the top dog. Now they're ready to receive the Spirit, and they receive the Spirit with such power because their hearts are now ready and open.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Free at Last!

Ever since I was old enough to vote, I've voted Republican. Not because I have any deep love for Republicans, but because the Democrats are so wedded to abortion as a platform necessity that my conscience doesn't allow me to vote for them. When I've said, in the past, "I vote Republican," I meant, "I vote pro-life."

But thanks to Trump virtually clinching the nomination by winning Indiana, I'm freed from the tyranny of the party. I don't have to identify as a Republican anymore. When someone asks me if I'm a Democrat or a Republican, I can say neither! And for the first time, I can vote for someone I like for president. Who gets my write-in vote? Which person do I actually think would be best suited to run the country? It's almost overwhelming.

Free, free, I'm free at last.

Monday, May 02, 2016

You Will Stretch Out Your Hands

"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  John 21:18

I am not master of my own destiny, but I have a lot of agency, at this time in my life. I make decisions for many people, including myself. I tell this one go, and she goes, etc. I am wealthy in many ways: health, family, friends, secure housing, and actual money.

And we all know how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. I get to act in a lot of ways that preserve my external, worldly dignity. I can drive myself around, I can speak for myself, I can eat what I will, when I will. Sure, I depend on other people, but not in ways that damage my image or my dignity.

But the path to salvation lays in stretching out my hands and being led where I do not want to go. Many people experience that overtly, here on earth, in tangible and uncomfortable ways. Some people do not have any control over their housing. Some have no control over their mobility. Some have no choice in what they eat or wear. And sometimes I am the one making these choices for other people: for my children, for my family, for friends who depend on me. And it's incumbent on me to remember that one day I'll likely be in the same position, being led where I do not want to go, and my experience of being treated with dignity may lie with other people.

But it's not a matter of tit for tat. Even if I dropped dead tomorrow, and so never suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, my role on earth is to treat others with dignity, whether I'm leading or being led. Often, leading others is itself a form of being led where you do not want to go, when the leading is difficult or involves sacrifice.

And in the end, we're all being led where we don't want to go by Jesus Himself, because he's leading us to holiness, and if it were easy to get there ourselves, we'd already be holy.

The Sacramental Life

As MrsDarwin mentioned, the last few weeks have been packed with events in the Darwin household, and several of those events have been sacramental. Eleanor, our eldest, had her confirmation the weekend before last, and Jack, received his first communion... well, it's a bit of a story.

Originally the Confirmation was set to be the week before the First Communion, meaning that my family (traveling out from the West Coast) could only make one. They'd decided to come for Jack's First Communion, since my brother is Jack's godfather. But we got mixed up in communicating the already confusing scheduling and had the family schedule to fly out for the Confirmation weekend rather than the First Communion weekend.

A brief panic ensued when we realized this, since everyone had already bought plane tickets. Then we went and secured permission from out pastor to allow Jack to quietly receive his first communion a week early, thus allowing family to be present for both events (but resulting in a packed, whirlwind weekend with lots of events and a house full of good company, not just my family but also old friends who were visiting for Eleanor's confirmation as the husband was her confirmation sponsor.) The mass at which Eleanor and the other eighth graders were confirmed by the bishop was at 1:30 on Saturday. Then we went home briefly, collected those for whom there had not been room at the packed confirmation mass, and returned for the 4:30 vigil mass for Jack to make his first communion.

It was as I was sitting in the pew before that vigil mass, trying to put aside the worries related to getting eighteen people to the mass in creditable condition and feeding nearly thirty refreshments back at the house afterwards and to focus instead on the sacrifice of the mass in which we were about to participate, that I wondered if we were somehow shortchanging both children. Often a first communion is built up into an royalty-for-a-day kind of event, with the boys in their suits and the girls in their white dresses and veils. Family heirlooms are bestowed on the children. Presents are given. Parties are thrown. The importance of the sacrament itself is underlined by all the trappings of Big Event which are arrayed around it.

The fact that we were focused on housing and feeding and transporting so many people had made it impossible to provide the kind of overwhelming "this is your day" focus which sometimes comes with parish celebrations of first communions or confirmations. Jack was sitting next to me, solemn in his suit, but earlier in the day he'd been just one of the kids tearing around while we got Eleanor ready for confirmation. And Eleanor -- changed out of her pretty confirmation dress into a blouse, slacks and cowboy boots ensemble of the sort that she prefers -- was it fair that as soon as her confirmation was over we were rushing to get ready for the next event, or would she feel that her confirmation had been forgotten in the bustle? In a sense it was a relief to be able to bring Jack up for his reception of the Holy Eucharist without that pageantry of several dozen children dressed up for their big day, but was it a bit shabby that this was happening so quietly that Jack would be receiving his first communion from someone who didn't even know it was his first time?

But then, perhaps it's the trappings of Big Event which sometimes obscure the nature of the sacrament. What, after all, is First Communion other than receiving communion for the first time. The suits and white dresses, the procession, the children lectoring and bringing up the gifts -- none of these are actually what is being celebrated. Rather, these are intended to underscore the importance of what is happening: these boys and girls are receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist for the first time.

It's good that we surround that first reception with such pomp. It's an important thing. Too often, these days, receiving communion is treated as just something everyone does when they go to mass, not something which requires serious thought or preparation.

Both approaches have their rationales, their advantages, but in this case, after all the hurry and the fuss, the mass and the reception of the sacrament itself would be exactly as it would be the next Sunday, and the one after, and the one after that. Sacraments and the graces they bestow are not found only in the big events which serve as milestones in our lives, but in the quiet participation every week, or every day, in the life of the Church.