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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Pennsylvania Avenue

I've been doing a lot of driving along Pennsylvania Avenue recently. It's the northernmost border of our neighborhood, and the old part of town. When I turn onto it, I go by the county fairgrounds, a development of shabby townhouses, a drive-thru mart, and, past the train tracks, the middle school and the orthodontist.

I don't drive past the orthodontist much, actually. It seems like I live there. Last week my 11-year-old started her second round of braces. Today my 7-year-old had spacers put in, to make room for the brackets in a week or so. God smiled upon us and finally allowed her snaggleteeth to fall out over this past weekend, which means that the money we save on having them extracted can be rolled right back into orthodontia. I feel we are minor royalty at the office, having contributed a fair amount to the salaries of everyone there.

But if I drive past the orthodontist, I make several turns and continue on a few miles to the YMCA, where our weekend play practices are held. Perhaps you are not aware that this post is written by an upstanding member of the chorus of Hairspray (also with a minor speaking role as the Gym Teacher). I sing, I act, I tap dance unwieldily, as befits one who was nine months pregnant 13 weeks ago. My oldest daughters are also in the cast, and audiences will take more aesthetic enjoyment from watching them trip the light fantastic. Fortunately Hairspray is a show that is based around teenagers dancing, so the oldsters like me can fade into the background and do what we love, which is singing harmony.

Coming to rehearsals with me is young Pog, who also came with me to auditions five months ago under the guise of my distended stomach. I wasn't planning to try out, because I didn't love Hairspray all that much, and anyway, I'm no great shakes at dancing most of the time, but especially not at seven months pregnant. But everyone was getting up on stage and singing out their auditions, and I started getting the itch that all theater people know: the urge to be up there in the thick of it, playing a role. Finally I could stand it no longer. I turned in my form, sang "Turn Back O Man" a cappella, and channeled my best Harvey Fierstein (not to be confused with Harvey Weinstein) in cold readings. And lo! I got a part, because community theater is the best that way.

As I say, Pog attends rehearsals. He is our mascot. Everyone loves him and takes turns holding him when I need to go on stage. Being the youngest of seven children, he's very mellow about being handed from person to person. He's such a good boy, and so considerate. Tonight he actually slept through the entire rehearsal, from 6:30 to 9:00. Of course, he was up smiling and cooing until 11:00 after that, but we have to make sacrifices for our art.

And I hope you will all come see our show, November 3, 4, and 5 in the Merchants' Building at the fairgrounds off Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Pennsylvania Avenue is on our way to rehearsal, we've been picking up the young actor who plays Seaweed Stubbs. He's a fellow with a golden voice and a smooth way of moving, and we recognized him immediately when we saw him walking along the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride to rehearsal. His bike tire had gone flat. We picked him up (and on the way home, retrieved the bike), and have been going it together ever since. He lives in the townhouses off of Pennsylvania Avenue, but it's easiest for us to pick him up in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart on the other side of the road. And that's what we were doing on Saturday, turning into that parking lot as he walked toward the car, when I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser pulling in behind me.

Our young black friend got in the car, sat very still, and, as the officer approached, held his hands in the air in plain sight.

The officer said he'd booked me going 37 in a 25 mph zone, which I had to take his word for, and asked how long it had been since I'd had a speeding ticket. I didn't know; years and years. If he checked and found that I had a clear record, he'd let me go with a written warning. As we waited, we chatted with our friend. He joked that he didn't know whether the policeman was coming for us or for him.

His hands were still in the air.

I got my written warning and we drove off.

"I'm sorry for putting you in that position," I said to Seaweed. "If he'd pulled me over before I pulled in here, you wouldn't have had to worry."

"Don't worry, it's cool," he said. But his hands had been in the air the whole time.

Later I got to wondering. I'd been driving Darwin's nice commuter car instead of the huge family van I usually take around. I wasn't the only one driving down Pennsylvania Avenue going an easy speed on a Sunday afternoon. But I was the one in a sleek silver car pulling over to pick up a black teenager in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart across the street from the shabby townhouses.

Next time we go to rehearsal at the YMCA, I'll take the two extra minutes to drive right to my friend's door and pick him up there. And I'll watch my speed. I don't ever want to be the cause again of a young man sitting rigid with his hands in air, wondering if today is the day.

This morning I drove home from the orthodontist with my 7-year-old daughter and my three sons, ages 9, 3, and three months. My boys are unlikely to ever feel that they need to keep their hands in the air when a policeman approaches the car. Like me, they'll probably be able to sigh and rummage for their license and registration, feeling no more than frustrated at the timing of it all. For them, flashing lights and sirens are merely fun. I listened to them chat as I drove down Pennsylvania Avenue past the fairgrounds at the speed of traffic. My speedometer told me that traffic was going 35. I slowed down.

Tonight we drove Seaweed home from rehearsal in the big van. We dropped him at his door and waited to make sure he got in safely. Safety first, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friday, October 13, 2017

NFP and Authority

Melinda Selmys writing at the blog Catholic Authenticity has a post up which she says will be the first of several laying out her thoughts on NFP and the Catholic Church's moral teachings dealing with contraception, thoughts she intends to turn into a book when they are fully formed.

In this initial post, the primary problems are not, actually, with her assessment of NFP per se, but rather with how she approaches Catholic teaching. She begins with what she says she originally thought to the justification for the Church's prohibition on birth control (and allowing of NFP.)

I’ve been promising forever to write a book about NFP. It got massively derailed a couple of months back, basically because I hit major stumbling block: one of my major theses had, up to that point, been that the burdens that Catholic couples are often called upon to bear as a result of the Church’s teaching were justified by a set of larger concerns. Basically, that we were being asked to shoulder a heavy cross because of the magnitude of the issues at stake. The breakdown of the family. The increasing vilification of children as a “burden on the planet.” Widespread abortion. The reality of eugenics, which would have been a very concrete and grave issue for Paul VI and other churchmen of his generation.

The argument, as it ran in my head, was that a strong statement needed to be made because otherwise it would be impossible to take an effective stand against these other problems. Frankly, I’m pretty well able to get my head around the idea that the involuntary sterilization of the disabled, the extermination of the Downs’ community in utero, and the impoverishment and isolation of women and children as a result of “sexual liberation,” are all much greater forms of suffering than struggling with NFP. And so long as I thought these were the issues at stake, I was okay with the idea of being told that I had to take my place on the front lines, and to hold my position for as long as was humanly possible.

The author intends this as a "here was the good reason I thought the Church had before I realized the real motivation" view, but I'd argue that this is actually hugely problematic. Think about what's being suggested here, that the Church taught that using contraception was wrong in order to send a symbolic message rejecting the various evils common in the culture relating to sexuality. This, however, would be a utilitarian rationale: We need to send a strong message about sexuality, so we're going to announce that using contraception is a sin as a symbolic gesture to make a point.

Now, many people have said that the Church's teaching is in fact a powerful symbol of opposition to the culture's degraded understanding of sexuality. That may be true. But that isn't the reason for the teaching. It is, if anything, a sort of side benefit.

Keep in mind, the Church does not tell us not to use contraception as a useful discipline. It is not like the command to do some penance (such as not eating meat) on Fridays. The Church says that using contraception is intrinsically evil, an action wrong in and of itself. (Other examples of intrinsic evils include lying, torture, rape, and abortion.) If the Church said this not because it believed that using contraception was wrong but rather to make a rhetorical point, the Church would be acting falsely and viciously. Indeed, if the Church were to do this while claiming to exercise her solemn teaching office, the Church would prove herself to be something other than what the Church claims to be. The Church would be false.

I don't think that Selmys has followed this line of reasoning through to that conclusion. After all, this is the explanation for the Church's teaching which she thought was reasonable. But as she charts her disillusion it's important to see the problems with the starting point and with a vision of the leaders of the Church sitting down and saying to themselves, "Hmm. We need to make some big gesture showing how everything is wrong with the modern world's approach to sexuality. I know! Let's say that using contraception is a sin!"

Selmys continues:

So, I wanted to get historical support for this thesis and naturally my research led me to the Papal Birth Control Commission.

And that’s when the I totally lost my shit.

Because the bottom line for the guys who seemed to be responsible for the decision to promulgate the teaching as it was promulgated wasn’t any of those important issues that I mentioned above. They got a mention, sure, but there were actually reasonably good arguments put forward on the other side to suggest that the Church’s ability to effectively combat the evils described above was actually going to be compromised by an overly absolutist approach to contraception.
They spelled out the reason quite explicitly in their minority report:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.

It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which Popes and Bishops have either condemned, or at least not approved.

In other words: if we admitted that we were wrong it would make us look bad, it would make the Protestants look good, and it would undermine our authority.

That was the bottom line. Not abortion. Not the casual and irresponsible use of women for men’s sexual gratification outside of marriage. Not eugenics. But the authority of men who do not ever have to bear the brunt of the teaching.

What we have here, I would argue, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church's function is in transmitting Christian doctrine. Selmys finds it shocking that those on the papal commission who wrote the minority report said the Church could not declare the use of contraception moral when the Church had previously taught it to be immoral. However, contrary to what many outside (and some inside) the Church seem to believe, the Church does not decide matters of doctrine. Rather, the Church was founded by Christ in order to preserve and pass on His teachings through all history. To aid in this, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would protect the Church from teaching error.

If the Church at one time taught that using contraception was immoral, and then later taught that it was moral, the Church would be directly contradicting itself. This is not like some human institution changing its policy on an issue. It's not a matter of those "in power" not wanting to end up with egg on their face and admit they were wrong. Given the Church's self understanding, if the Church were to directly contradict its past teaching, the Church would basically render itself void. Those tasked with the Church's teaching authority thus understand that part of the work that they are called to do in preserving and transmitting Christ's teaching to the world is, when examining some question, to determine whether the proposed teaching would contradict past teaching in some way or whether it would simply serve as a clearer application of what has always been taught.

When the papal commission on contraception examined the topic, both the majority (pro contraception) and minority (anti contraception) group realized this. The majority tried to argue that modern means of contraception and a modern understanding of sexuality and fertility in the context of a married couple's overall lifetime, was such that the Church could approve the use of contraception without contradicting past teaching. The minority argued that this was not the case. Paul VI evidently sided with the minority.

So when the minority argued that to approve contraception would contradict past teaching, it was not engaging in some sort of face-saving operation. It was doing what Christ commissioned the Church to do: preserving his teachings unchanged.

If we assert, as Selmys suggests, that "the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" we're basically asserting that the Catholic Church is not what it says it is, that it does not authentically transmit the true doctrines of Christ when it teaches on matters of faith and morals. Because, again, according to the Church's self understanding, it is not at liberty to simply make doctrines up. The Church is not a debating society in which people examine the available evidence, decide what is probably true, and promulgate that as a doctrine. The Church has the authority only to preserve and explicate the truth which was given to it by Christ.

This question of how the Church arrives upon an understanding of doctrine relates to another issue which upsets Selmys:
More distressingly, many of the proponents of the traditional teaching, at one time or another, openly admitted that the natural law arguments they were using didn’t actually hold up to rational scrutiny. And we have records of private correspondence showing that they were more than willing to engage in a certain amount of Machiavellian political maneuvering in order to get their agenda pushed through.

For me, this was extremely distressing.
One of the things that attracted me to the Catholic faith in the first place, and that solidified my Catholic identity in the period immediately after my conversion, was the constant claim of Catholic apologists that the faith was fundamentally rational. That if you were only willing to honestly follow the argument with good will, you would arrive at the conclusions put forward by the Church. The realization that the teaching on contraception had been promulgated and promoted by people who knew that the argumentation did not actually hold water meant that on a fundamental level this teaching did not result from a commitment to following an argument in good faith.

Now, supposedly that was okay because the Holy Spirit could guide the leaders of the Church to infallibly promulgate true conclusions out of faulty argumentation. Right out of the gate, that’s a bit of a swallow for me because it seems to undermine the claim that faith is reconcilable with reason. Reason will always reject a conclusion once the premises are found to be false. It may return to that conclusion later, should other evidence be found to substantiate it, but to simply barrel on through on the assumption that better proofs are sure to show up eventually is just a blatant exercise in the kind of irrational faith that atheists rightly complain about.

But again, the function of the Church is not to think its way to some exciting new doctrines based on really good arguments. The Church does not invent doctrines at all, its job is merely to preserve and clarify them. This can at times mean that the Church will find itself in the position of defending true doctrines with bad arguments. The Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from making bad arguments, just from teaching false doctrine. And because the Church is not the inventor of doctrine, the truth of the doctrine itself is not dependent of the ability of the Church to explain why a particular doctrine is true.

Think about other moral doctrines.  It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.  Polygamy is wrong.  Marrying someone of your own sex is wrong.  Are the arguments for these doctrines good and convincing?  Some people may believe that they are, some may believe they are not.  We do believe that these moral laws are available to human reason.  It is possible for someone, using natural reason, to come to an understanding of how marriage should properly be between only two people and only people of the opposite sex.  However, the fact that these truths are available to human reason does not necessarily mean that the path will be obvious to all people at all time.  And while the Church is promised the ability to preserve these true teachings, it is by no means assured that the very human people who are serving as the shepherds of God's flock at any given time will successfully identify and deploy the arguments which will be convincing to the great mass of people at any given time.

Is the faith fundamentally rational?  Yes, it is.  It is, first of all, not contrary to reason.  We do not assert mutually contradictory things as true.  The Church will not tell you to believe X and Not-X simultaneously.  (Indeed, it is precisely to avoid this sort of contradiction that the Church looks carefully to avoid contradicting itself, as the minority report did in the preparation of Humanae Vitae.)  However, the fact that the faith is rational does not necessarily mean that each and every person, with that person's biases and experiences, will find the necessary arguments to prove to himself the doctrines of the faith from first principles. 

I want to write a couple posts in collaboration with MrsDarwin addressing some of the actual points about NFP which were brought up in this post and others by Selmys and some of her circle.  However, with this post in particular, it seems to me that the biggest issue is not in fact NFP or contraception, but the very question of the Church's doctrinal authority. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Book Review: The Weeping Time

I don't have time to accept many book review requests, but I was glad that I got the chance to read The Weeping Time by Anne C. Bailey, coming out at the end of this month from Cambridge University Press. The book is a detailed study of the largest slave auction which is recorded in US history: 436 people (including some mothers with infants just a few weeks old) sold off on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859 in the process of liquidating much of the estate of Pierce Butler Jr. of the Butler Plantation.

To be sold at auction, and separated from family and community, was one of the many recurring cruelties of the slave regime in America, but this event stood particularly large in the histories of the people who were put up for auction on those two days because the Butler estate had prior to this been known for never selling its slaves. The same enslaved families had lived on the Georgia sea island estates for generations, and even spoke their own semi-separate dialect infused with words and structures from their native West Africa.

Bailey, a professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University SUNY, makes this history all the more fascinating by keeping her focus so close. We meet Jeffrey and Dorcas, a young couple in love. Jeffrey is sold for $1,310 on the first day and tries to persuade his new master to buy Dorcas so that they can stay together. He first makes a personal appeal (that they love each other, will be true servants, and will have many healthy children for him) which gets no traction, then takes another approach telling him of what a prime rice hand she is, easily worth $1,200. His buyer seems persuaded by this approach, but then at the last moment Dorcas is included with a family of four for a single price, and the buyer loses interest. As the auctioneer's hammer falls, separating Dorcas from him forever, Jeffrey pulls off his hat, drops to his knees, and weeps.

Another young couple, Dembo and Frances, aged twenty and nineteen, manage to pull off a coup: finding a minister among the buyers attending the auction they persuade him to marry them. They are then sold as a lot together, for $1,320 each, to a cotton planter from Alabama, separated from their extended families but able to remain together.

We have these details about the auction itself because Mortimer Thompson, a northern reporter, posed as a buyer at the auction and then wrote a detailed account for the New York Tribune. Coming as it did less than three years before the Civil War was to break out and four years before the emancipation proclamation, the story of the slaves put up for auction (some of whom would return to the area of the Butler Estate after the Civil War in order to find loved ones they had been separated from in the auction) is closely entangled with the escalating tensions over slavery in the United States. The sale itself was itself in some ways tied up with the debate over slavery. Pierce Butler Jr. lived in Philadelphia most of his life and lived of the proceeds of the slave plantations he inherited in Georgia. In Philadelphia he gambled and spent away his money, and also married British actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble was strongly anti-slavery and wrote about her visit to Butler's plantation. Her opposition to slavery was one of the several differences cited in their divorce, which was one step on the road to Butler's eventual financial collapse and the sale of his estate.

The Weeping Time provides a ground level view into slavery as it shaped the lives of the specific people on this estate, from their ancestry on the rice coast of Africa, to their generations of enslavement on the Butler estate, to the sudden disruption of their lives due to the financial misfortunes of an absentee owner. It's a fairly quick read at 175 pages, and does an important service of making this history about people rather than just "the peculiar institution" in some abstract sense.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Ideology is Blind to Truth

My friend Leah Libresco Sargeant is not a fan of guns and has never shot one. She's also a person who cares deeply about truth and understanding. And she helped with reporting for FiveThirtyEight's well done study on gun deaths in America a while back. (A new FiveThirtyEight piece today refers back to that study and talks about how mass killings are different from the vast majority of gun deaths in the US, and thus addressing one is not necessarily a way to address the other.)

For all these reasons I was stuck by this tweet from Leah yesterday:

Needless to say, as a gun aficionado I myself tend to find a lot of what gun control advocates say both unpersuasive and riddled with errors. But if someone like Leah who doesn't like guns feels that she was actively misled about the topic (while still not liking them and wishing people did not want to own them) that indicates a problem with a lot of what gun control advocates say.

This is not, however, a post about how gun control advocates are wrong. I think that would be a somewhat insensitive post to write at this particular moment, when a lot of the calls for immediate action are in fact calls of pain and emotion which should be treated as such. There is not much more aggravating than to express one's deeply felt emotions and have someone come back insensitively with a "Well, actually..." response.

What I'd like to think about here for a moment is why this is. Why is it that so many people who do indeed care deeply about reducing suffering and violence (and I honestly think they do -- I do not think that most gun control advocates are simply tyrannical gun grabbers out to take away people's freedom because they dislike it) say things about guns and gun laws that are factually untrue, and do so repeatedly when the answers are not even that hard to find?

I think the answer has to do with the tendency to distrust and discount the humanity of our opponents on highly contentious issues. Leah's husband Alexi Sargeant wrote a good piece for First Things a few months ago entitled "Pro-Life, Pro-Truth" where he talked about the importance of those in the pro-life movement not allowing themselves to make and repeat arguments based on claims that aren't true or are at the least exaggerated.

We must treat truth, like an unborn child, as an innocent under threat. If we persist in the metaphor of “culture war” to describe the fights over abortion and related issues, then we must wage it as a just culture war, in which virtue is as indispensable as valor, and compassion for our opponents more important than rallying our allies with rhetorical overkill.

I am not talking only about avoiding flagrant fibs. Our responsibility to truth includes a responsibility to use statistics in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading. Like any savvy debater using data, we should double-check statistics that seem too convenient for our cause, and triple-check any from a partisan source friendly to us.

Crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life women’s health care organizations do a lot of good work helping uninsured women get care. But they sometimes succumb to the temptation to overstate the statistical connection between abortion and clinical depression—rather than simply share stories of real women experiencing post-abortion grief, they exaggerate the pervasiveness of the condition beyond what mental health studies show.

Another example which occurred to me was Senator Kyle's famously "not a factual statement" that abortion is more than 90% of what Planned Parenthood does. Of course, people often throw around terms like "ninety percent" in a colloquial fashion, but it was particularly unfortunate to have such a high profile stumble on this topic because Planned Parenthood does indeed routinely misrepresent how large a portion of their services abortion represents.

I don't think that pro-lifers intentionally pass on misleading information. However, because we know that abortion is evil, when some study or quote comes along that seems to agree with our belief that abortion is evil we are inclined to believe it without checking much. Additionally, because we believe that abortion is evil, it's easy to see the people who support abortion as evil or dishonest, and so if rebuttals to a claim we see that reflects badly on abortion mostly come from people who are pro-abortion, we're not likely to take them as seriously. If they're evil people out to support evil actions, why should we listen to what they say?

Needless to say, this problem is hardly restricted to one side. Why is it that obvious untruths like the claim that an unborn baby is "just a clump of cells" rather than a separate living individual are so easily passed around on the pro-choice side? Again, because the claim is heard from people they trust and the opposite claims (when the heart begins to beat, when brain activity is detected, etc.) are most often heard in the political arena from those who are anti-abortion.

The gun debate, and likely many others if we sat down and thought up a list, is subject to these same dynamics. People who are in favor of gun control are often prey to simplistic and just plain wrong claims about how guns work, what the current law allows, or what sort of gun deaths could be prevented by various "common sense" gun measures that have been proposed. People who know and use guns can easily see through these claims, but so could people who don't like guns if they took the time to do basic research rather than repeating whatever sounds true. It's necessary for people to listen to the other side in these contentious debates and do basic research if they are to avoid undercutting their own beliefs by repeating obvious falsehoods.

UPDATE: Leah expanded on her thoughts in a WaPo opinion piece that just went up.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Linkety Links

The week's winding down and you've got some time to kill, maybe. Have a bit of linkage.

First off, in regards to the recent post about my 7yo's reading difficulties, the Dyslexie font. Dyslexie is free to download for personal use, so we're going to see if it makes any difference for her.

Today in history: The battle of Yorktown begins. Here's the cast of Hamilton performing The Battle of Yorktown, sans rifles, because remember a million crises ago when a man who swore allegiance to ISIL shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando the day of the Tony Awards. 

Conserving the Blue Boy, the famous Gainsborough painting at the Huntington:
With a master of science degree in art conservation from the University of Delaware, O’Connell is trained in chemistry as well as studio art and art history. In addition to a rigorous educational background, paintings conservators need what she calls “hand skills”: manual dexterity, steadiness, and artistic ability “to intricately reintegrate any damages so that the original brushwork of the artist can be seen and understood.” The Blue Boy’s issues that need fixing are “both structural and visual,” O’Connell says. The original canvas was lined a century or so ago, and the lining is beginning to separate. Paint is lifting and flaking in some areas, though it’s being held down by multiple layers of old varnish; as O’Connell removes yellowing topcoats and trapped dirt, she’ll deal with the deterioration beneath. The painting’s wooden stretcher is visible where the canvas has worn away at the edges; O’Connell hopes to confirm that it is the original, 18th-century support.  

How editing saved a manuscript and made it stronger
I spent the next five months, from mid-January to mid-June of 2016, redoing the whole book, rethinking it from top to bottom. 
I began by taking his letter and his marked-up version of the manuscript with me to Austin, Texas, where my wife and I were taking a break in February from the long Maine winter. (Austin is a great town for live music, food, and hiking—and its winter feels to me like Maine in the summer.) I sat in the backyard and read and reread Scott’s comments. I didn’t argue with them. Rather, I pondered them. If he thinks that, I would ask myself, how can I address the problem? I underlined sections. At one point he pleaded in a note scrawled in the margin, “If you would only defer to the narrative, you could get away with murder.” I liked that comment so much I typed it across the top of the first page of the second draft, so I would see it every morning as I began my day’s work.   

The elements in haiku

If Bostonians loved other institutions like they love their local sports organizations
— Hear that new one from the BSO? 
— Shit, yeah, that Brahms? That one knocked me square on my ass. Even more so than the Shostakovich. Pardon me, the Grammy Award-winning Shostakovich. 
(They toast.) 
— We should repeat. 
— We should but we won’t, because the Recording Academy hates Boston. Watch. Watch them give it to the frigging New York Phil, which is a fine orchestra if you like listening to a bunch of soulless prima donnas collect paychecks. 
(They nod, drink.) 
— Gotta respect Andris Nelsons. 
— The kid can conduct his ass off, in the bravura tradition of Seiji Ozawa. 
— Friend of mine down in Quincy just named his pit bull “Ozawa.”

Famed American author Shirley Jackson, writer and housewife:
The housewife role also provided Jackson with a form of camouflage. Bowing to stereotypes, she preferred to present herself to reporters and critics — virtually all of whom were men — as a women’s-magazine-certified happy homemaker who tossed off her stories during breaks from dusting. “I can’t persuade myself … that writing is honest work,” she said cheerily in an interview with Harvey Breit of The New York Times Book Review. “Fifty percent of my life is spent washing and dressing the children, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, and mending. After I get it all to bed, I turn around to my typewriter and try to — well, create concrete things again.” The pose sometimes worked too well. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan myopically criticized Jackson as part of “a new breed of women writers” who wrote about themselves as if they were “‘just housewives,’ reveling in a comic world of children’s pranks and eccentric washing machines and Parents’ Night at the PTA.”

This is how longform is done: Eccentric Culinary provides us with a deliciously detailed history of chicken and waffles, in two parts.
Part I
Part II

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Last Words

GeekLady has a poignant post on suffering which describes an incident which I've seen riling a number of NFP-using Catholic women that I know online. I'll quote her opening:

Today, I read something which demonstrates a fundamental failure within the pro-life movement. I read a FaceBook status by Abby Johnson stating that she had been told of a woman who was in the throes of an unexpected pregnancy who was ‘praying to miscarry.’ Abby proclaims,
“This is not normal. Does it happen? Do women sometimes have these fleeting thoughts? Yes. But these are unnatural thoughts that enter our mind because of the abortion culture we are living in. Life becomes cheap…so mothers (prolife mothers) wish for death of their children.

I understand traumatic pregnancies. I understand traumatic births. I get it. But it’s still not okay. And it makes for lasting guilt.”
I'm not here to say what a women in an unexpected pregnancy should or shouldn't feel. I haven't and can't experience that. But when I read the Abby Johnson quote, I remembered an incident from a long time ago.

Fourteen years ago, because of our own unexpected pregnancy and the financial and living space problems it created, MrsDarwin and I moved in with and became live in caretakers for my grandmother, who was ninety-two years old and frail. I say we, but although during the evenings we both shared the load of caretaking, much of the work fell upon MrsDarwin: caring for a toddler and a strong willed ninety-two year old while I did a fifty mile commute through heavy traffic twice a day to go to work.

This only got harder when, trying to hurry to the bathroom one day without using her walker, my grandmother tangled herself in her oxygen cords, fell, and broke her arm. That kind of shock to an already frail system can cause a sudden decline, and it did. Within not much more than a week she was nearly confined to bed, showing signs similar to dementia, and on heavy pain medication. We personally were at the end of our collective rope. Grandma's pain and confusion made her suspicious. She became convinced that I didn't go to work everyday, but rather that MrsDarwin hid me away from her out of spite. She started to refuse to take her medicines. This included her pain medications. Skipping those increased her discomfort. It also included her anti-depressants. Skipping those made her combative and scared. I remember a Friday morning, it would be her last, when she was yelling at MrsDarwin and refusing her meds. I went in to try to reason with her. Often she thought I was my father, and she would listen to my father. Sometimes.

That day she didn't listen. I was already late, and thinking of the traffic stacking up through Pasadena. My ninety minute morning commute was becoming two hours. I would be late, and I couldn't make her take her pills. I too got angry. Finally I had to go. I left MrsDarwin to deal with the situation, knowing that I was leaving her aggravation, and that the aggravation was my family's, aggravation visited upon her while she struggled with a child and another on the way and no friends nearby. I was angry at my grandmother and angry at myself.

I nurtured that anger all the way in to work. The traffic made it easy to hold on to, stop and go all the way. I got to the office late, and the receptionist who kept the time cards marked me as such. I went to the break room to get coffee. My boss saw me there.

"Sleep in this morning?" he asked in a jovial tone.

It was the match to my fuse and the frustration's I'd been harboring for the last two hours of heavy traffic boiled over into sharp, childish words such as could have been said on a playground. "I swear, if that old lady doesn't stop it I'm going to kill her."

He stopped, surprised to have drawn real emotion with his question. "Are you having trouble with your wife?"

It took me a moment to realize he thought I was using the phrase "old lady" to refer to MrsDarwin. It's a common enough usage for husbands talking to other men to refer to "the old woman" in that fashion, but it had never occurred to me in relation to her, nor has it since. When the words fell into place I went into slightly mad laughter. "No. No. It's my grandmother. The one we moved in with. She's being very hard to deal with. I'm sorry, it's been a rough morning." I laughed it off, and we went about our day.

This isn't the sort of exchange that I'd remember with clarity, right down to the appearance of the coffee maker in the dimly lit break room tucked into a corner of the warehouse, except that Grandma died that weekend. Peacefully. In her sleep. On Monday I called my boss to tell him that I wouldn't be in that day because my grandmother who we lived with had died and we had a lot of things to take care of. "She died?" he asked. "I thought she was doing well on Friday and causing all sorts of trouble?"

There aren't any other conversations of mine that I remember, word for word, from that week fourteen years ago. I don't remember the last words I exchanged with Grandma. I don't remember the words I used to tell my father, himself (I couldn't know then) with less than three years to live.

I remember some words I didn't mean, said in anger. "If that old lady doesn't stop it I'm going to kill her."

They were words said for effect. Words that were a cry of pain, a cry for help from a twenty-four-year-old way out of his depth in life: short of money, short of time, scared, seeing life into the world and seeing life out of it.

I know that I loved my grandmother. I know that she knew that -- at some essential part of herself that was confused and lost under the pain and hallucinations of an ebbing life. I know that my words did nothing to bring on her death. I don't feel guilty about them. Indeed, at some level, I suppose it's a relief that my frustrations boiled out into angry words far away from her, in the office, in a stupid, schoolyard expression. I'm glad I didn't say something like that to her.

But even so, even with all those protections from a phrase I didn't mean, I'm sad that they're the only words I remember, that I'll ever remember, from those last days. I remember them because the odd sort of prophesy they turned into. I remember them because they weren't true. They will always be with me.

A couple years later, in another state, expecting another baby, MrsDarwin miscarried. It had been a surprise pregnancy. It was not catastrophic. After a precarious couple years we had a house and full time job and health insurance. But baby was nonetheless a complete surprise, the sort of pregnancy which the NFP method suggested should not be able to happen. Perhaps there was always something precarious about baby. We had a few weeks to adjust to the idea, weeks in which it seemed all the harder to believe because MrsDarwin was not sick at all unlike the last two babies. And then baby was gone, leaving us with a sadness and emptiness that we couldn't have imagined before.

Why do these things come together in my mind? Because sometimes the words we say, words in said real pain, words we don't mean, become memorialized in ways we could not have expected by what comes after. Words are powerful things. Putting something into words is different from thinking it or wanting it. We forget, all too soon, the full force of how we felt. Yet words can be hooks for memories we don't want to have. Nothing would make me forget that those last days with Grandma were hard, and that I was frustrated with her at times. But I wish those weren't the words that I remember from that week.

And that's what strikes me about the idea of praying to miscarry. I don't think God would be shocked, He knows His children's suffering. I don't think it's a sign that life is cheap or of giving into an abortion mentality. I think it's something people in desperate circumstances have done throughout history. But put something into words and the words come true -- not because you said them but just because that was the way it was going to be. How will those words echo down through memory? Who knows. People think about things differently. People think about words differently. But the idea of thinking back on words like that scares me.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reader Madness

At the tender age of 4 or 5, I narrated the kindergarten play because I was able to read the script better than anyone else in my class. My mom tells me that on the night of the performance, she was surprised because she didn't know I could read so well. So I didn't learn how to read as a result of direct instruction from my parents, and I don't remember the steps of being taught. As far as I can remember, I've always known how to read, and it was always easy.

It's due to no merit of my own that I read early. I just had a knack for it, as some kids can draw or dance. But the upshot is that I don't remember the process of learning to read, and it's frustrating for me to work with a child struggling with reading. So far I've taught four children to read, and they've turned out all right. None of mine, so far, have been as voracious a reader as I was, but the older ones have all had their click and read independently and proficiently.

I'm hitting my Waterloo with my current reader-in-training.

My seven-year-old daughter is having a tricksy time with phonetics, to an extent I don't recall with the others. Her short-term memory for words and sometimes even letters is very scattershot -- she often won't remember a word she read in the sentence before, and doesn't always remember basic sounds like short e. The other day she couldn't remember the sound of "m", the very first letter sound she learned. She has a few sight words -- the, to, I, a -- but everything else she sounds out piecemeal, often as if she's processing each letter for the first time. She often reads predictively, guessing "can" for "cat". She adds sounds that aren't there, or will say some entirely different word after laboriously sounding out a word bit by bit. When asked to say the whole word she's just sounded out, she sometimes puts the ending sound first, and often doesn't remember the word so we have to start the process over again.

Rules such as silent e or "when two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking" don't seem to stick well, and although we've finally gotten the "th" sound down, other common blends such as "ar" or "sh" or "ch" require reminders. She consistently mixes up d, b, and p.

Some days are better than others, but her reading is very very slow. The eye doctor says her vision is fine and shouldn't be an impediment. She doesn't show any signs of having learning difficulty in other areas, though (as with all my children at this age) I usually have to sit on her to make her do her work. She isn't really interested in learning to read and doesn't do much independent sounding out of signs or books.

She can write her letters and spell at the basic level her phonics workbook requires. (I figured there wasn't much point in working on formal spelling until she could read a bit better.)

My sense, from years of parenthood, is that this is just going to take time and daily work and perseverance on my part. But if you have any encouragement or advice, throw it my way -- I could use it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Orphan Opening: Dream Edition

Last night I dreamed that I was with a group going to visit a large abandoned book warehouse. We'd feared that everything would be damp and moldy, but the warehouse had been shut up tight and air conditioned. It was dry and cool, and filled with shelves stretching out as far as one could see in the dim space.

There were two staircases going down to the lower floors, and rumor swirled that there were rare books on the deepest level, a first edition of Jane Austen or so. A large contingent went down one staircase, but I went down the other with my three-year-old, holding his hand tight so he wouldn't get lost. The manager of the space was with me. On the lower level, we wandered a bit, always staying near the group, and then prepared to head down again. The manager took one last look around, shining his flashlight over the floor.

I saw a baby rocking in a swing.

"Stop!" I said. "There's a baby over there."

The manager played his light in the direction I pointed.

"I... don't see anything," he said.

The baby's blue eyes sparkled in the light.

We headed down behind the rest of the group.

Then I woke up, and it was a great relief.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Spelling Test

1. Banner
It's a fine life, carrying the Banner.

2. Fame
Fame, I'm gonna live forever.

3. Later
When a girl says later, she really means, "Not ever".

4. Hammer
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

5. Seven
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone.

6. Barrel
Perhaps your horse's name was Barrel.

7. Dollar
A day late, a dollar short.

8. Letters
She receives letters, Mrs. Bennet, because she writes letters.

9. Silent
Silent E is a ninja.

10. Wild
The wild things roared their terrible roars and showed their terrible claws and rolled their terrible eyes and gnashed their terrible teeth.

11. Swift
Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels.

12. Bottle
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

13. Pineapple
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

14. Traffic
Everything that traffic will allow.

15. Eleven
It goes to eleven.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Fr. Martin: Nihil or Obstat?

The current controversy over Fr. James Martin and his book (lengthily titled: Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity) seems odd to me. In rough outline:

Various loud (and honestly, mostly unpleasant) conservative groups have been waging a campaign to get Fr. Martin dis-invited from giving talks about his book at Catholic institutions, on the theory that since he scrupulously fails to discuss Church teaching in his book on the Church and the LGBT community, while calling for greater charity between the two, he must clearly be advocating a soft-pedaling of practice or change in teaching.

Fr. Martin has responded with some vigor that his book does not contradict Catholic teaching, and he has pointed to several Catholic authorities (the Jesuits, various bishops) who have stated as much.

Thus far, so good. But here is where I fail to understand: If Fr. Martin is in fact not suggesting any change in Catholic teaching, then his book is a flowery exercise in saying nothing much, a 150 page David Brooks column. The problem between the Church and the gay community is not one of schoolyard taunts which can be easily resolved by the kindergarten teacher telling everyone to play nicely. The Church's teaching on sexual morality is the substantive reason for the strife between the two groups. The Church says that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage can only be formed between one man and one woman, while most people in the gay community believe that this teaching is both wrong and hurtful. Civility is good, of course, but it comes nowhere close to dealing with the core of the issue.

If Fr. Martin is not in fact in favor of some kind of change in Catholic teaching, then there's really very little reason to ask him to speak about his book at all. He has nothing much of interest to say, and there are others who have already written much more interesting books actually tackling the question of how LBGT Catholics can live in tune with Church teaching and how the Church should change the way she speaks to and about them to recognize that they are indeed called by our doctrines to a difficult life requiring support and fellowship from the Church.

On the other hand, if Fr. Martin is in favor of some kind of distinct change in Church doctrine or practice, then it's hardly surprising that Catholics who believe that the Church's teachings on this matter are correct would object to him being brought in as a speaker. And if that's the case, dissembling about one's actual beliefs is a pretty poor tactic all around.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Could Trains Have Saved Irma Evacuees?

In the tenth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's satiric tapestry of mid-Twentieth Century British intellectual and artistic circles, several characters set up a left wing publishing house, yet are stymied by how to make a commercial success of a novel of socialist realism in translation which is near to the heart of one of the their patrons. That they are trying to make a commercial success of a piece of socialist realism is, of course, one of the understated sources of humor, as is the unwieldy title: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers (Eventually this is shortened to the more marketable title Engine Melodies.)

There's something about trains which seems to appeal to ideological and technological Utopians across ideological boundaries. Affection for trains is a staple of progressive thinking these days, and yet Ayn Rand also idolizes trains in her massive novel Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that someone over at the World Socialist Web Site wrote a piece asking: Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?

The author complains at people being forced to use cars and planes to leave Florida due to the "abysmal, anarchy-filled state of transportation in America."

Why haven’t passenger trains, which could carry a thousand people a time, been sent to Florida to help? Residents without money or the ability to travel by car or plane could be taken to designated points of shelter and food.

Prior to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, there was a small successful example of this, as some 2,000 residents of New Orleans were taken to Memphis, Tennessee on special trains. A worker who participated in the rail operation noted that “At least 50% of the passengers were elderly, many in wheelchairs, on walkers or canes and generally unable to move very well without some assistance.” On a return trip, many passengers brought more luggage, as they could buy essential supplies in Memphis that would have been out of stock or priced-gouged in New Orleans. With baggage cars and plenty of space, the train accommodated this for free—compared to an airline that would charge $50 per bag.

That operation was minimal compared to what could be done, and yet with Irma, nothing similar has been attempted, despite a far larger forced evacuation. If the state and federal government, FEMA, and corporations cared to, dozens of sets of passenger train equipment could have been sent south during the week and made several trips from South Florida to points farther North. This would require workers trained in advance to conduct the operation, and designated points of shelter established in places like Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; and other cities.

As one example, the commuter rail system of Chicago, Metra, has a daily ridership of 295,000 riders. If equipment on that scale were provided to a region at risk of a hurricane, an enormous number of people could be taken to safe shelter. Instead, all that has happened is that Amtrak ran its regular trains out of Florida up until Friday, which, of course, were sold out.

There are some pretty basic reasons why this wouldn't work, and they have to do with how trains as a mode of transportation work. Trains are good at moving predictable numbers of people over predictable routes. That's why commuter train systems such as the one in Chicago cited above are a moderately efficient means of moving people. You know that every work day basically predictable numbers of people will want to move from specific residential areas to specific business areas, and you build your tracks and schedule your trains accordingly. For this kind of highly predictable movement through dense areas, trains can indeed be more efficient than cars. While the train itself may get very full, the tracks do not get overloaded and backed up the way that a freeway does at rush hour, so the schedule can be somewhat more predictable, and a full train uses less fuel per passenger to move people over a given distance than having all those people take separate cars.

However, trains are only good at moving people over expected routes. Imagine that there was a sudden need to evacuate most of Chicago's residents to cities nearby cities like Peoria and Indianapolis. The commuter rail system vaunted above would be of no use at all, because the tracks don't go there. Trains are far less flexible than cars. You could use the same car you used to drive in to downtown Chicago to evacuate to Indiana, but you could not use the same train you took to downtown Chicago to evacuate the metro area instead.

This is something I encountered a good deal in doing research for the novel, in that a great deal of military planning done prior to World War One centered around trains. With the mass use of trucks and automobiles still in its infancy, mobilization plans made by the European powers centered around moving soldiers on trains. Even in the relatively dense confines of Western Europe, the standard rail system would not have remotely sufficed for Germany to move over a million soldiers to the French and Belgian borders during the course of a few days. They had to build massive redundancy into their rail network leading to the West, with extra sidings to allow trains to pass each other and rail heads with a dozen or more sidings where trains could stop and disgorge the soldiers who had just spend a couple days in cattle cars. All of this rail infrastructure was built just in case Germany went to war with France, and it allowed for only approach to doing so. The German high command did not have the option of choosing to attack in a different place than they had planned years in advance, because the rail lines had been built to support the planned route of attack.

If this was a massive undertaking to support moving a large number of people along one planned route of military attack, imagine trying to build a network capable of performing natural disaster evacuations. The sort of slightly increased high speed rail network which train enthusiasts suggest to replace Americans' habit of driving or flying when they want to go somewhere a few hundred miles away would not do. Such a network would be build to carry the normal number of people who wanted to travel in a given direction for business or pleasure at normal times. To be able to accommodate a significant portion of the population suddenly needing to evacuate elsewhere, you would need massively redundant rail lines in order to accommodate the sudden burst of travel in one direction. You would need to have this excess rail capacity in many places going many directions: Do you need to evacuate New Orleans toward Houston or Houston towards Dallas? Do you evacuate Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas, or the opposite direction? Not to mention that you'd also need contingency plans to actually get the needed trains to wherever it was you suddenly needed to evacuate so many people from.

Messy as it looks, the highway system and the use of cars, trucks, and buses is actually a much more efficient means of responding to unexpected surges of transportation needs. Yes, results in traffic jams and gas shortages, but despite the apparent chaos it's actually a much more flexible means of moving people around, because the same vehicle and roads which are normally used and be instantly repurposed to evacuation.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

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?

The Weeping Time, by Anne C. Bailey
An advance reading copy of a book Darwin was sent to review, about the largest slave auction in American history. Very sobering, and makes the evil and corruption of slavery vivid.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons
subtitled: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection. To be honest, I picked up this book because as I walked by it on the library shelf, it looked too beautiful to pass up. These are tales from a manuscript discovered in a library in Istanbul and first translated in the 1930s. The aged manuscript, with a torn first page, is thought to be an earlier collection of some of the tales from the 1001 Nights. The book is as advertised: the tales are pretty marvelous and strange. We tried reading them aloud, but they're rather convoluted, not helped by the fact that some of the pages were too damaged to decipher. It's easier to read them myself than try to make sense of them to the kids.

1a. Readaloud

Victorian Cakes, by Caroline B. KingA delightful memoir about a Victorian girlhood in Chicago, framed through the cakes and other delectables baked in the family's ample kitchen. I tried to get a child to read this herself, but found it easier to read it aloud. The kids are fascinated, and indeed, there's been a spate of cake-baking in an attempt to recreate some of the recipes in the book.

2. What book did you just finish?

I was considering this for my readaloud to the kids, but it had been years since I'd read it myself. After consideration: no, this is not one for the kids. Wilde was one of the Decadents, a movement of writers and artists devoted to outré experiences and the pursuit of sensation without consequences, and there's a unsavory undercurrent to the book. Interestingly enough, Dorian Gray flirts with Catholicism because he's drawn to the aesthetic, sensual elements, but he has the idea of Sacrament directly backward: he believes that the elements of the Catholic sacraments are merely symbolic, though powerful in their symbolism, but that his other obsessions, such as perfume or gemstones, have some kind of sacramental power that effects what they symbolize. He thinks there can really be some magic or alchemy such that a topaz gives long life or a ruby can poison or an emerald enhance sexual pleasure. (I just made up these examples, but the actual text isn't much different.)

Anyway, The Hound of the Baskervilles would have the same feel but be a lot more acceptable for reading to children. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie
The girls just watched this on Netflix, so I wanted to read the book to see how Christie told the tale.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
I took this on vacation with me to copy quotes for my novena, and it hasn't made it out of my bag yet.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Darwin narrated this to us at the dinner table a few years ago when he was listening to it, and I've seen the Masterpiece Theater version, and I've bought a copy of the book, which sits on my shelf now. But I've never cracked the cover.

6. What is your current reading trend?

I don't know if I have one right now.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Twenty Years

September 5th, 1997, these twenty years ago, I put on a tie and bowler hat and went to the Courtyard Rock, a freshman mixer dance. With me were a few friends, similarly attired. We'd gone to some other, earlier dance wearing the same thing, being a bit odd as a youthful affectation and because none of us had anyone in particular to impress. This second dance was three weeks into the semester -- an eternity -- and was the end of the getting-to-know-you shindigs Steubenville threw on its own dime. After that, you had to meet people on your own.

As I say, this was the second dance we went to in our hats and ties, so we must have been recognizable. At least, someone had noticed us before, and as it happened, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. "You probably already know each other," she said. "You're both in Honors." We didn't know each other, not being in the same section, but we set about remedying that posthaste. We talked class. We talked hats. We talked I don't know whatall -- nothing of great import, really, except that everything he said was interesting. He was funny and easy to talk to. That's a freshman way to describe a freshman attraction, the sort of thing that a lot of students said about each other in those early days. But I say it because it's true. He was funny in the exactly the way I found most amusing, and easy to talk to in the way in exactly the way that appealed to me most. If there was an immediate click, it was the click of two pieces fitting together perfectly.

We danced together, and since swing was the style of the late 90s, we swung. I've never been a crack dancer, and he was less so than I was, so we spent more time laughing than getting the steps right. After a while the party shut down, but we weren't done talking. So we went to the student center -- the old JC, for those who were around before it was gentrified -- and sat in ugly corporate seating and talked, and talked, and talked. And then a friend I'd known before I came up to college passed through, and said hi, and asked about my boyfriend back at home.

Proving that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, my annoyance made me realize that I'd actually had no intention of mentioning that I had a boyfriend at home. We'd gotten together hastily and perhaps ill-advisedly before I left -- we'd shared some common life experiences and needed someone to talk to about them, proving that unhappy families are all unhappy in the same ways. That was not a reference he would have gotten. He was not a great reader, nor of an markedly intellectual bent, but a nice and gentle guy who deserved better than a girl who got together with him and then went off to college. I'd had plenty of time to meditate on this fact three weeks into the semester.

As it was, this revelation didn't change anything, because there was still plenty of conversation to be had. At 2 am we were kicked out of the student center and headed back toward the dorms. "The time has come," he said, "to talk of many things..."

"Of shoes and ships and sealing wax..."

"Of cabbages and kings..."

"And why the sea is boiling hot," we finished together, "and whether pigs have wings!"

I didn't know any guys who'd read Louis Carroll, and none of them would have admitted it if they had.

At his dorm we parted, but he had in his pocket a card with his dorm phone and mailbox number on it, and he gave it to me, and you can read the rest of the story here.

Steubenville was a small place, and Honors was a small set. We'd have met eventually, and the same sort of thing would have happened, but we happened to meet on September 5, twenty years ago.

Almost immediately after we got together, a week and a half later, I put things on hold. "I need to break up with my boyfriend," I said, "but I can't do it until Saturday." This won't make much sense to the youth of today, but those who had reached their majority by 1997 will remember the days of phone cards and reduced rates on the weekend. I couldn't afford to call long distance until the lower weekend rates. Saturday evening, I was sadder but wiser after discovering that breaking off a relationship even for many good and rational reasons is a wrenching thing to do.

"I asked him, " I said in a muffled voice, "if he could like reading and theater and all the things that I loved. And he said, 'I would if you wanted me to.'"

And he winced in sympathy, because he knew that that wasn't enough. I didn't want someone to love these things because I loved them. I wanted someone to love them because they were good things themselves, so that our shared loves could be a participation in something bigger than ourselves.

And for twenty years now our shared loves have grown and multiplied many times over, until we needed a huge house to contain all the little bodies that keep turning up. Tonight we went out and talked and talked again, only this time we had a sleeping, snorting baby with us, and we came home together to a passel of children talking as fast as their parents. In a few years our oldest is going off to college. Perhaps I'd better buy her a bowler hat.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Age of Faith, Age of Virtue?

I got into a discussion about the Middle Ages on Twitter last night, which is a bad idea because I seem to be too middle aged to succeed in doing anything with Twitter other than posting the occasional link or quip. So I'm going to be like the old fashioned creature that I am and write a blog post instead.

What initially caught my attention was this comment from a friend:

I should admit right off that a portion (perhaps the major portion) of what rubs me the wrong way on this is that I tend to distrust any speculation about who is and is not in heaven. There's an appealing sort of Catholic triumphalism about imagining the Middle Ages as a period when everyone was on our side, while in modernity we face a fractured Christendom and many people who aren't Christian at all, but I'm very leery of saying that the people 'on my side' are actually more likely to get to heaven than others. It smacks of a bit of presumption, and also it being 'my side' I'm in a good position to appreciate all those people's worst points.

However, the other thing which strikes me here is historical. The more time I spend on history, the more it strikes me that when we look at a past time and note that certain vices common in society now were less accepted then, what we often miss is that other vices sprang up instead to take their place. Human beings are a fallen bunch, and I can't see it that we're notably better in one era than another. This is something which has struck me a lot when doing novel research, admittedly dealing with the era only a hundred years ago. One frustration I have with a lot of modern historical writers is that they write their characters as if they were really exactly the same as now in their family and moral attitudes. A basic amount of primary source reading makes it clear that this was not the case. But it also makes it clear that while some of our chronic modern problems were not common then, there was a whole other set of problems in their place. People were neither better, nor worse, nor the same: they were different.

As Brandon expanded on his thesis, however, it proved to mostly center on closer connection with the sacraments and the graces which they provide:

To expand my comment above in non-Twitter language: I think that there are two questions to consider here.

The first is whether people were really as steeped in the sacraments and the life of the Church as we might like to imagine. It's certainly true that there was no distinction between the secular calendar and the liturgical calendar. Holidays were just that: Holy Days. Times of fast and penance also shaped the year, as did the cutting loose which preceded such sober times.

And yet, we also know that this did not necessarily look like the practice of people who devotedly live the liturgical year now. Reception of the sacraments was not necessarily all that frequent. When the Fourth Lateran Council made clear the necessity of going to confession and receiving communion at least once a year, that was because it was fairly common for people to receive the sacraments even less often. There were major problems with corruption and ignorance among the clergy, and thus in turn among the flock they were supposed to be guiding. It's late to be truly medieval (1500s) but Carlo Ginzburg's classic study The Cheese And The Worms about the inventive heresy developed more or less through ignorance by a small town miller in northern Italy (which eventually led to his burning at the stake) helps underscore that however pervasive the Church was as a structure, even somewhat educated people (the Miller could read) often knew startlingly little about their faith.

There was also the difficulty that the integration of the Church into everyday life could actually make people resent it. We think of anti-clericalism as something which broke loose in many traditionally Catholic countries in the modern era, but it's arguably that it was the toppling of old structures in modernity which allowed much older resentments to be expressed. When very poor people owed significant portions of their labor or the products of it to the local institutions of the Church, it's natural that the Church would become a target for economic resentment. We see some of that in the humorously derisive anti-clericalism in works like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. I think this history is also arguably why modern age revolutions in Catholic countries (France, Mexico, Spain, etc.) often involved repression of the Church and mass killing of priests and religious -- resentments against power and the rich inevitably ended up becoming tangled with resentments against the Church because the Church was seen as (and was) powerful and rich.

The second question is whether, granting that people were more deeply connected with the Church and her sacraments on a daily basis, that actually led to people being more virtuous.

This reminds me of questions I've struggled with in the past in regards to prayer: On the one hand, we believe that prayer does actually accomplish something. To pray for someone's healing or someone's conversion is actually to do something which has an effect on the other person. And yet, when we turn that around, I'm hesitant to make arguments like: "He didn't convert because not enough prayers were said for his conversion." or "She didn't recover from her illness because not enough people prayed for her healing." And yet, if we can't say "This person was healed because he was prayed for, and if he hadn't been prayed for he wouldn't have been healed" then what exactly do we mean by prayer having an effect? (I don't know the answer to this.)

Similarly, I believe that it is good for people to receive the graces of the sacraments and to know the teachings of the faith. And yet, we also know that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. I believe that it's a good thing that I go to mass every week and receive the Eucharist. But it seems a very dangerous presumption to say that because of this I'm more likely to go to heaven than my neighbor who doesn't. The Bible and the saints often speak of the great dangers faced by those who believe they are righteous. Does that mean that one is more likely to make it to heaven if one doesn't participate in the sacraments and the life of the Church? Certainly not. But I'm also hesitant to say that we know we're more likely to be saved if we're active in the Church.

Again, I think we see some of this in medieval history and literature. The Canterbury Tales are the story of a group of people setting off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a great saint. And yet, they're actually a fairly worldly bunch, and remain worldly on the journey. Perhaps it's still more of a force for virtue in their lives than if they were moderns embarking on an Alaskan cruise. Or perhaps not. I don't know.

I've spent much of my life around social groups defined by active participate in the life of the Church. I think there are benefits to living in that way. And yet I'm also very much aware of the resentments, pettiness, selfishness, and abuse of power which is fairly common in those groups, and sometimes seems to be all the more vicious because people believe they're doing it all for God.

I want to believe that it could be (and was) different. But I'm not sure that I do.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Eli, Eli

Not an Orphan Opening, exactly.

Out of the depths I call to you, Lord.
When the prayer chain began to light up -- baby drowned, heart stopped for almost half an hour -- Kaye sprung into action. Within moments she had alerted the support group, found a contact email for the mother, written a blog post, and created a hashtag: #prayingforbabysam. The first familiar pangs of panic and grief subsided beneath the flurry of making a difference. As long as she was doing something to make things better, she could look at the pictures of little Sam in his hospital bed and keep breathing.
Like water my life drains away.
The support group buzzed with prayers and sage counsel, wisdom dearly bought. Each person knew the pain the parents were feeling, knew it in their bones, had buried it in tiny plots in small hometowns or manicured city memorial parks. Kaye had brought them together. She monitored the prayer line, moderated the comments, posted the memes, wrote the columns about What Not To Say to a Grieving Parent or Five Ways to Support Your Bereaved Friend. Within private forums, she gave the good advice about allowing yourself to mourn, about celebrating the anniversary, about visiting the grave, about seeking help when the waves of agony pulled you underneath as you tried in vain to reach your baby.
Save me God,
For the waters have reached my neck,
I have sunk into the mire of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have gone down to the watery depths;
the flood overwhelms me.
Kaye understood.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents,
And all your waves and breakers sweep over me.
She had lived each step of the process. She knew everything that Sam's mother was going through. She knew the shock of discovery, the horror, the deadly hope, the helpless vigils over the small still body covered with tubes, the beeps and then the silence of the monitors. She knew the stresses that could tear a marriage and a family apart. And she knew how to rebuild, to channel her grief into something good and productive: a support network for parents like her, so that no one should have to go through the worst moments of their life alone. Eli's Miracle was named for her own son, the miracle being that life could go on after death. She couldn't save Eli, but in his name she did everything possible to save other parents. Time brought wisdom and solace. God's will was inscrutable, but now that Kaye was on the other side she could see how far she'd come. She was a #survivor.
He reached down from on high and seized me;
drew me out of the deep waters.
And now baby Sam's mother needed her. Kaye kept vigil with her, constantly monitoring for updates. In the middle of the night she checked her phone for fresh news to share with the support group. Sam's anguished mother was keeping in constant touch. Kaye knew too well not just her present sorrow, but the horrors of the coming days as the family would have to make decisions about removing life support. Nothing, nothing could prepare them for that awful moment, but Kaye would walk with them every step of the way, praying when they prayed, crying when they cried. And when they needed it, the GoFundMe account was there as well to cover the hospital bills. Kaye did not talk yet about the funeral expenses. The family was still choking on hope. It was wise to let them take the time they needed. After all, everyone was #prayingforbabysam, praying for that miracle.
I shall not die but live
and declare the deeds of the Lord.
Talitha koum, and Sam's eyes opened. He spoke. He ate. His brain activity was off the charts on the high side. "I'm not a religious man," Sam's doctor proclaimed, "but the only word for this is 'miraculous'." The hashtaggers, the memers, the prayer warriors on the other side of the screen watched the miracle unfold and proclaimed it #blessed.  His mother posted photo after teary photo of the child as each day some new wonder unfolded, and day after day Kaye shared them with all who were #prayingforbabySam.

But Kaye was not praying.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us,
the seething water would have drowned us.
She had sought for so little. Nothing unreasonable or extraordinary. The basic, common, decent process of healing for the shattered parents and sobbing siblings was all she requested of God. And God betrayed her, and betrayed Eli, by sending some other family a literal fucking obscene miracle. The years she'd spent in coming to terms and reaching peace and transmuting her suffering into ministry were a timeline of mockery. Everyone's suffering had been wasted. Baby Sam stirred in his bed, and walked, and talked, and said, "Mama", but her baby, her own sweet Eli for whom she prayed, was only in goddamn heaven.
Cast them into the watery pit never more to rise.
On the day that everyone posted the pictures of Sam toddling out of the hospital, Kaye went to Eli's grave. She smashed a vase of flowers against the small flat stone. She lay her body over the patch of earth that covered her son and begged God to give her baby back to her. No answer came but the prick and sting of shattered glass. As the blood trickled down her forehead, she lifted up her voice and cried, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

8th Grade American History: A Reading Course

Many wonderful people who provided book recommendations as I put together the reading list of our second eldest's eighth grade American History reading list, and so it seemed only fair to share out what I've put together.

The student in question professed herself bored by history, perhaps in part due to a poor textbook selection last year, and in part due to lack of desire to put in effort. Needless to say, this sort of statement puts pangs in my heart as someone who has history as a primary interest. My main goal this year was thus to put together a reading list of highly readable popular history books for adults (rather than a grade school or high school text book) and show the student that history can be involving. Because several of the books I've picked are very long, and I wanted to set the history reading quota at ~100 pages per week, this meant only covering a few major topics in American History. However, my hope was to make up for this by covering these with interesting enough books to make the student want to eventually go back and read more about other connecting topics.

I'm also trying to cover some gaps with my selections for reading/literature and for science. The student's main science course this year will be a video based astronomy course, but I'm also including some inventions/technology reading to cover elements of history that relate to science and technology.

History Books

Eyewitness to History (selections) I struggled with a number of options dealing with the Spanish discovery of the Americas and the following conquest, etc. However, I couldn't settle on something which looked interesting and balanced enough yet also wasn't hugely long, so we're going to start out with several short selections dealing with the discovery and conquest of the Americas from the collection of primary sources Eyewitness to History which I happened to have sitting around. It's a useful (though often British/European focused) collection of short primary source selections which I've turned to at times over the years.

One Small Candle: The Pilgrims' First Year in America by Thomas Fleming deals with the journey on the Mayflower and the first year in America in vivid narrative form. Fleming came highly recommended by Jay Anderson.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow The kids were all big fans of Hamilton the musical, and when she flamed out on her textbook last spring I had this student start reading Chernow's book, which although brick-like in length reads almost like a novel. She read the first part and said she liked it, though she dropped it over the summer, so I'm going to have her finish this to cover the American Revolution.

Selected Founding Sources: Declaration of Independence, Selected Federalist Papers, Preamble to the Constitution, Washington's Farewell Address

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson This is a fairly opinionated account of the civil war (and I actually haven't read all of it, though I'll be reading it along with the student to discuss it) but I picked it for two reasons: 1) It's only one volume, while Catton and Foote are three each. 2) Due to the nature of the course I needed a Civil War history which dealt in depth with slavery and racial issues as well.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes Again, a pretty opinionated history, but I wanted a history of the Great Depression which was heavy on anecdote and yet fairly sound on economics. This seemed to cover both.

Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War Two by Robert Leckie This was a tough one for me, because the world wars and their interpretation is a topic which I care a lot about. However, looking over a number of general histories of the war, this looked like the most readable one for someone who is not currently a history geek. Thanks to Rich Leonardi for this recommendation. I knew of Leckie but not of this book.

High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Krushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis by Max Frankel This was a bit of a coin toss. I was looking for a short (200-300 page) book on a post-WW2 topic: Cold War, Civil Rights, 60s Revolution, Vietnam, Nixon, Gulf War & Middle East, 9-11 I struggled to find something which was a short, contained work that did a good job with it's topic. This looked like it would fit the bill.


End of Track Autobiography of a man who lost a leg as a teen soldier in the civil war but went to a career as a work gang manager building the railroads across the west.

By the Shores of Silver Lake Of the Little House books, this one is set when Laura is the student's age (and she mostly has only read the early books) and also deals with railroads and the westward expansion.

The Last Days of Night I discovered this recent novel set in 1888 when looking for a biography of Westinghouse. It deals with the War of Currents; Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison; the industrial barons, and the boom in business and technology of the late 1800s. I found it an enjoyable read and surprisingly for a modern novel for adults there's nothing at all one would hesitate to put in front of an eighth grader in it.

My Antonia or One of Ours I'm still trying to decide whether to go for the famous Willa Cather novel or the one that also gets in World War One.

To Kill a Mockingbird Somehow I didn't read this classic till a couple years ago, but 8th grade seems like a traditional time for it.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March Since the Civil Right Movement didn't make it into the history list, this autobiographical work seemed like a good one to include. (Thanks to Mar Grady for suggesting this and also the next one.)

A Night Divided Okay, so this isn't about American history, but I was a sucker for the idea when Mar pointed me to a historical novel for the age group which was about the building of the Berlin Wall, especially since my recent kick has been histories of post-war Europe. And it's not a bad idea to get in a book dealing with communism as it actually existed.


The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers