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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Orphan Opening: Noir

As Helen unwrapped her solitary dinner from brown paper as greasy as the smile of the man who had taken her order the stale smell of half-cooled fish and fries filled the apartment. No welcome smells of home cooking, of mother's meatloaf and green bean casserole, for her. Not even the fresh sizzling smells of the corner tavern. But here at least she could eat in solitude, without the, "Looking for some company, sugar?" of the paunchy man in the gray suit she'd found sitting on her usual stool at the bar.

Pounding at the door. So much for solitude. She made sure the heavy chain was fastened. The old locksmith who had sunk long screws into door and frame had sworn that chain could hold a grown man, at least for the first few shoves. What recent stories might draw an unfriendly reaction? The teamster trial. The police captain whose suspect had beat and hanged himself. The city council elections. More pounding. What was the use? She undid the bolt and opened the door until the chain pulled tight.

There was a ghost on the doorstep. At least, there was Joe in a worn gray raincoat and dripping Homburg. The same Joe she had last heard from in '45, on a piece of war department stationary saying, "The Adjutant General of the Army has notified me that your husband, Cpl. Joseph F. Ward, died while on active duty with the Army. While I know that nothing I can say will lesson your loss..." It was in her file drawer now, along with the marriage certificate and the half completed paperwork for the divorce.

"They said you were dead."

"Lena. Please." The door chain went taught. His face was pale. He was leaning against the door, not trying to force it. "Please. I have to tell you."

She pushed the door closed enough to unlatch the chain, felt him stagger back, opened the door.

"All right. What do you want, Joe?"

He wavered for a moment on the threshold, then pitched forward onto the floor. The sound of his body hitting the floor was sickeningly dull, but she heard him give a long, ragged moan. She grabbed a shoulder and turned him over. He'd gained weight in the two years since the last time he'd died. His eyes were open and rolling. The smell of blood hit her first. When she pulled his coat open she saw the dark stain soaking his shirt.

"I came to tell you."

But then he didn't, even as she shook his shoulders and slapped his cheeks.

"Goddamnit, Joe." The words were unexpectedly thick in her throat. "It's like you to show up here and widow me a second time."

She went through his pockets before calling the police. Nothing. No wallet. No keys. Not so much as a laundry ticket. Someone else must have done the once over already, or he'd been concerned not to be traceable if picked up.

It was as she was on the phone with the police station she noticed the corner of white sticking out of one clenched fist. She pried his fingers open as she heard the sirens coming down the street. There was no time. They'd be at the apartment in a moment. Her purse sat on the little kitchen table, next to her cold dinner. She shoved the card between old pages of her reporters notebook and plunged it back into the purse. By the time the sergeant appeared in the doorway, stamping the wet and grime of the street off on the mat, Helen was back where a new widow belonged, next to the body.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reader Sanity

I didn't realize until I went back to look for it how long ago it was I wrote my Reader Madness post about my struggling reader, or how many excellent responses on that post that I never acknowledged. Thank you! Thank you! I read every one of them and found much helpful advice.

As a result of a number of suggestions, I went and read up about dyslexia on various sites. The symptoms there were a mixed bag. The reading processing difficulties did seem to line up with my daughter's struggle. But the attendant symptoms, unrelated to reading, didn't match her behavior. Still, I thought, whether or not she has dyslexia proper, since her reading problems match dyslexia symptoms, I'll use dyslexia solutions.

I googled something like "reading program dyslexia" or "learning to read dyslexia" and took tips from blogs. I watched videos of kids following specific routines for learning words. I showed them to my daughter, who thought she would like to try working with words that way. So I found a list of 100 most common starter words, made flashcards for the first twenty, and we began with those.

Perhaps you are wondering why I don't provide links for all these resources. The main reason is that it was a while ago, and I don't remember exactly what sites I used. But also, searching was my friend. No one link I found was worse than the others, and the systems were very similar everywhere. There was no magic bullet site, and so it helped me to read around a bit and see what was out there.

When we did our word work, my daughter would pick a flashcard. She'd read the word if she knew it, or if she didn't I'd sound it out for her and then tell her what it was. She read it. She spelled it as she tapped each letter, and then underlined it as she said the word. She patted down her arm as she spelled the word and said it. She traced the word with the back of a pencil or pen. She wrote the word on a fresh page of her word notebook, and then checked to see if she was correct. Usually, she was.

We were very diligent with this for a time, but it is ever my personality to streamline systems and trim away the busy work. Not all those repetitions seemed to be necessary on every word, and then, and then, I found a way to reinforce words that she absolutely loved.

Dick and Jane.

Yes, citizens of the 21st century, my daughter is learning to read with a whole-word system which has been long abandoned by the greater educational community. Our readers are the reprints of the ca. 1965 series which added African-American children to the mix; the children play so happily and equally that you'd never know that racial tensions were coming to a great historical point in that era. (There's a picture where a white shoe salesman kneels in front of the black mother to help her try on shoes as her twin daughters play in the store.) My daughter knows all the letter sounds, the basic consonant digraphs, silent e, and some of the basic vowel digraphs. She sounds out very slowly, though not as slowly as when we first started. But there is excellent word reinforcement in Dick and Jane. You have a setup like so:

See Dick
See Dick run.

The second line immediately reinforces the first. This pattern is repeated often, for more complex sentences, especially when new words are introduced. My daughter likes it because it's an instant triumph. She learns the words on one line and gets them again right on the very next line. Her sight word knowledge has improved, and she is sounding out more effectively. She is delighted that she can read 50 pages in no time at all.

We also have the David and Ann books, from the Catholic series Faith and Freedom, which she tolerates. But it's Dick and Jane (and Spot and Puff and Sally and Pam and Penny and Tom and Pete and Mike) that she wants to read to me every night in bed

I don't dislike them. The pictures, which take on the narrative burden the simple text can't convey, are charming and have some interesting anthropological costume and setting details. (The David and Ann readers are even better for this, to my mind.) And I don't mind hearing the stories, because I love that my daughter wants to read to me. If I have to spend the next six months listening to Dick and Jane, I don't mind. We have years ahead of us to build up more proficiency. Reading is a skill for a lifetime.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Orphan Opening: Award

Back at the apartment, the important people gathered to congratulate him.

"What a night for you, Gillespie," said Johnson from Marketing, who'd always hated him. "Lifetime Achievement Award. Quite the banquet they threw, better than last year's do for Matthews."

"Maybe next year it will be you," said Gillespie, and Johnson, who felt that it should have been him this year, smiled in his sardonic way. 

Jean was mingling with the guests, her expensive body as much a testament to his success as the engraved crystal pyramid at the center of the table. Her laugh floated over the conversation.

"Yes, that was his son," she said to Lewis's wife. "They like to have a family member give out the award. I thought they'd ask me, but apparently Dylan volunteered."

"He looked so nervous," said Lewis's wife. "I was worried for him at first. Is he here now?"

"Dylan?" Jean's perfect red lips flattened. "No, he and his sister left immediately after he gave the award."

"Maybe Sarah was sick," said Tammy Andrews from HR, who had emceed the awards banquet for ten years. "I saw her waiting for Dylan backstage with their coats. I shook her hand and it was cold as ice."

"Maybe she was having a nervous breakdown," said Jean. "Someone told me she was crying. She's always been high-strung. Her mother is like that."

She moved off to eclipse some other woman.

"We should have a speech," bellowed Davies. "That boy of yours doesn't take much after you, choking in front of an audience. He started reading his notes three times, and in the end he just crumpled them up and said about three boring words. I'd have thought your son could deliver something a little more inspiring."

Gillespie had been disappointed in Dylan's bumbling performance, but he didn't intend to let Davies know that. "Short and sweet. These banquets go on too long anyway."

"Not long enough for you, surely," said Johnson. "Was that the paper he gave you along with the award? How touching -- a son's tribute to his father, too tender for public consumption. Let's have it now."

Gillespie fished in his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled page. Immediately Jean, sensing a chance to perform again, was at his side. 

"I'll read it!" she called to the crowd. As people gathered around, ready to be entertained, Jean got into character. She adopted Dylan's slouch and warmed up the crowd by parodying his awkwardness at the microphone. She held up the paper and took a deep breath, then clutched at her neck as Dylan had clutched his tacky wooden crucifix. Gillespie's snicker signaled to the group that it was okay to laugh. Paper, crucifix. Paper, crucifix, each time broader until the audience roared their approval.

"Read it already," someone howled.

Jean finally opened up the paper and read in Dylan's nasal voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I present my father with your company's Lifetime Achievement Award, given only to those whose performance demands the highest acknowledgement. Usually a standard list of career accomplishments is read off, but tonight I give you my father's true legacy. As you may know..."

Jean's voice faded out as she read down the page, an ugly line appearing between her brow.

"This is stupid," she said, with a force laugh. "It's Dylan's pathetic little idea of a joke." 

She made as to tear the paper, but Johnson was there to lift it from her hand. 

"Let me," he said. Jean stalked out of the living room down the hall, and as she shut herself in her room Gillespie heard the lock click. A flat feeling of disorientation held him in his place as Johnson's dry voice continued the monologue.

"As you may know, my father started an office affair when I was ten. When I was thirteen, he divorced my mother and married that woman. After six years he was ready to trade up again to a younger model, and so his second marriage ended. The unhappiness he has caused can barely be calculated. Every time my father looks at this award, I hope that he will remember that it signifies not only the esteem of his colleagues, but the women he's failed and the children who hate him and every promise he's ever broken.  This is for you, dad. You deserve it."

People left quickly after that, avoiding Gillespie's eye as they muttered their excuses. At the door, Johnson handed him back the paper.

"See you Monday," he said, and left.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Black Bottle Man

I was provided with a review copy of Black Bottle Man, by Craig Russell (2010, Great Plains Teen Fiction.)

Perhaps you're familiar with the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Bottle Imp, about a devilish bottle that gives the owner whatsoever his heart desires, at the forfeit of his soul. The catch -- there's always a catch! -- is that if the owner dies without selling the bottle for less than he bought it for, he goes straight to hell. Those who take on the bottle for greed or for a joke end up spending most of their time trying to find someone who will take on the burden and release their soul from bondage.

"What profits it a man," the Gospels ask, "to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"  The fool who thinks that the ends justify the means soon realizes that in this case, the means are the ends. The devil, in an extravagant parody of generosity, gives anything a bargainer asks for, as long as a soul is on the line. Once the deal is struck, the poor fool soon realizes that nothing is worth the price he's already agreed to pay. Any champion who might confront the devil on his behalf must be willing to stake his soul on the outcome, but who can defeat the devil at his own game?

Stevenson gave his tale the flavor of the Hawaiian islands he loved. In his novel Black Bottle Man, Craig Russell transposes the story to the northern plains of Canada and America. On the eve of the Great Depression, three families are torn apart when two of the wives use a mysterious black bottle in a desperate attempt to have children. The resulting deal with the devil drives their ten-year-old nephew Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson to lead a hobo existence, condemned to pull up stakes every twelve days as they travel the West seeking a champion who will fight the Black Bottle Man for all their souls. And in the course of their traveling, they discover a folk magic that seems drawn straight from a Tim Powers fantasy -- hobo signs that effect what they signify, a sacrament of the road.

Both the signs and the narrative voice serve the deeper qualities of the novel, a book which is unstinting in its moral landscape. Good and evil, selfishness and sacrifice, matter in this story. Choices have serious consequences -- and complicated consequences, in the case of the innocent children bought by twisted magic. The story is told in a wonderfully plainspoken Midwestern voice, rich in the sounds and smells and the feel of the land that Rembrandt wanders throughout his lifetime. And there is love too -- the love of husbands for their wives, the love of the old for the young, and the new, electric love of a teenage boy who knows he can never stay near his girl long enough to form a family of his own.

A few quibbles: the story jumps back and forth in a time in a way that paces the narrative, but I do wish that the present-day arc had been allowed more development. The backstory of a character who becomes important was rushed to the point of obliqueness, and surely the easy length of the book could have stood the weight of a few pages more devoted to the climactic battle the reader has been waiting for.

Still, these are minor points that shouldn't deter anyone from seeking out Black Bottle Man, especially since it's received some high praise from Julie D. of Happy Catholic. It's marketed as teen fiction, and this is where categories serve readers poorly; it's good fiction that involves a character who is a teenager at one point.

Amazon sells the Kindle version; the paperback can be bought from the publisher.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Busy Time of Life

It's quiet around the house at the moment. It's also a few minutes before midnight. That's when it gets quiet, which makes it a perfect time to write, if you don't need much sleep.

We've been going through a busy time. A good time. A happy time on the whole. But a busy time.

Some of this is caused by work. I've been at my company for a bit over five years, and I seem to be edging up towards promotion. That's great, but it means that suddenly I'm being asked to take on a lot of extra tasks. When I started, it was a struggle to convince many people that they needed to consult with the pricing team about what they were doing. Now I seem to have won that battle, and everyone wants pricing input. It's very gratifying, but it takes a lot of time. It's also a good reminder that if promotion does come one of these days, it's a bit of a mixed blessing. I've often noted that the people who are a level above me spend much, much more time working, traveling, and thinking about the company's problems than I do. Now I'm getting a small taste of that life, and I'd better decide if I like that flavor before I make any decisions that make it permanent.

However, the reason why things don't quiet down until nearly midnight is not because of work. The last year seems to have put us into the position of having a child at nearly every stage of life short of adulthood. Baby is a cheerful, burblely fellow, but he expects never to be set down. The walker and the bouncy seat are anathema to him, and why not, I suppose, when he has eight people who love to him take turns holding him. I saw some study recently that the amount of personal contact a baby has affects his intelligence and social adjustment later in life. If that's true, this fellow will be the most well adjusted genius on the planet. (Though really, we're a fairly average bunch around here, so I question that. I was no prodigy, and we do not seem to be rearing any either.)

And then we have the four year old boy who is bouncy as only a four year old boy can be, the emotionally tempestuous seven year old girl, the nine year old boy who is old enough to have interests but young enough to at times be a victim of his own overflowing energy and distraction, and the three older girls.

I don't know what I expected it to be like to have teenagers (a category into which I will lump the soon-to-be-twelve-year-old as she certainly passes for it.) I suppose I imagined versions of my own teenaged self, which honestly might have been hard to take. That is one thing they are not.

The oldest is closing on sixteen but has shown no great hurry in studying to get her learner's permit and start driving. She loves Pokemon, reads through lots of light science fiction and fantasy novels but can't get into Lord of the Rings, is embarrassed by kissing in movies, but is delightfully un-tempestuous in her own emotional life. There is the fourteen year old, who is hard to interest in the American history books which I've been so enthusiastically trying to share with her in her school this year, who loves to watch murder mysteries (preferably BBC) but falls asleep while watching action movies with her Marvel movie loving older sister, who needs always to have some big craft project going to keep herself happy and who does not feel secure unless there is a schedule and it involves doing something. And the third, nearly twelve, who like her next older sister can be emotionally tempestuous at times but has a passion for organization and neatness which causes her to want to write all of the math problems for a day's lesson in one third of notebook page (only answers, no work, because writing out the work is messy) and also leads her to compulsively organize the pantry every time groceries are brought into the house.

Some will warn you that when children become teenagers they no longer want to talk to you. This is not the vice of our young ladies, however. These girls want to talk: about their day, about their friends, about the latest musical they are all singing, about the annoying behavior of their younger siblings, about anything that passes through their heads. Often when this talking urge comes on them I'm just wishing I could sit down to write, but I don't have the strength of will to send them off and sit down to write novel. There's something so precious and engaging about this time, these people from us and yet wholly separate and different, and the fact that they want so very much to spend time and talk with us.

Even as I feel frustrated with my inability to keep up so many things I want or need to be doing with my time at home, I tell myself and feel that these are the golden years. Even as we dealt tonight with a sobbing child angry because she had to share a treat she was unexpectedly given with her siblings. Even as the four year old confided that he had soiled his pants. Even as the nine year old literally bounced off walls and counters and the baby wept whenever he was not held. These are the days when people are happy and healthy and all spats aside all love each other. We don't know how many days like this we will be given, but we try to be thankful for them even though they are exhausting.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: MrsDarwin Agonistes

There are little gifts that God gives you, touches of humility that remind you that only his grace suffices. One of these, for me, is being the sole adult in charge of ~40 eighth-graders at Confirmation class. If I had six, or ten, or fifteen students, I might deceive myself that the level of engagement or any spiritual growth in my class was due to my words or the sheer force of my personality. But with such a large group, in the infelicitous setting of the school cafeteria (in which even a not insignificant carrying voice can be eaten by the space), the only effective operator is going to be the Holy Spirit. This, for a teacher, is a veritable Litany of Humility, because it sure would be nice to feel like I, myself, was engaging the class and enlightening the mind.

The other side of that coin is being content to put the off days on the Holy Spirit as well, but I haven’t hit that point either.

With Confirmation being only two months out, I planned to talk about the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I found a tree graphic that I could hand out, on which the kids could write the gifts at the roots and the fruits in the branches. I I flipped through Matthew and wrote down a large selection of passages that we could examine to see how Jesus embodied the gifts of the Spirit, counting on having students look them up themselves. I wrote up a note to send home for next week’s service project. I borrowed my kids’ joke books for a halftime dad joke competition.

I did this and I did that, and I started my class and realized, partway in, that it was going to be one of those days.

Maybe not on the student end. It was a class ‘most like any other class, in which MrsDarwin talks a lot and busts that one guy who thinks he’s funny and tells someone to put away his phone and asks the girls to please direct their attention up here. But I could tell I was floundering. I didn’t have a whiteboard I was counting on. There was only one crate of twelve Bibles for the entire class. I could not get many people to allow that their confirmation saint had used the gifts of the Spirit. I gauged the mood and decided to pass on Biblical examples. One thing the kids seem to enjoy less than talking in class is looking up anything in the Bible.

“Do you even know anyone, here, now, in this town, that has any of the gifts of the Spirit?”

Hands stayed resolutely down.

“Good thing you’re being Confirmed!” I said. “Clearly, your high school is going to need people who have these gifts.” 

We moved on to my ace up my sleeve, the dad joke competition. You’ve seen the YouTube videos. Two people face off, armed with a list of groan-inducing jokes (all clean — that’s part of the dad joke ethos). The first one to crack up loses. It’s good clean fun.

I could only field about ten volunteers. Everybody else was content to spectate. We had some skillful straight faces, but the kids weren’t reading their jokes loudly enough to reach the back row. The activity I’d counted on for a good fifteen minutes of cheerful engagement was running out of steam, and even pulling up a couple of guys from the peanut gallery wasn’t doing it. In retrospect, I figure that I should have just made everyone take a turn, but I know that some kids feel very sensitive about being in the spotlight, and I do try to respect that.

We discussed next week’s service project: a toilet paper drive for the local free store. We’ll wrap individual rolls in plastic bags so that the free store can distribute them conveniently. 

“Imagine,” I said, “not even being able to afford toilet paper.”

No, that was the wrong thing for a group of 13-year-olds to imagine. 

With half an hour left, I was actively watching the clock. I was able to buy some time by answering questions about service hours and forms and turning in envelopes — procedural matters that have nothing to do with the core of the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Look, guys,” I said, “my kids don’t go to school.” Heads raised at this. (I heard a muttered, “We know”.) “That means,” I forged on, “that I don’t like busy work. So if we can fill the next fifteen minutes, I’ll dismiss you early.” Bargaining with students is admitting weakness, but a feeling of desperation was settling upon me. “So I’m going to ask you about a service project you’ve done, and I want you to tell me what gift of the spirit you drew on, and what fruit you saw from it.”

There are about five people in my class able to speak loudly enough to fill the space, so I ended up going from table to table, sitting with each group of 5-8 kids. It had the potential to be a fruitful small group, with one minor problem. Small group discussion is best facilitated with a chaperone for each group, keeping the conversation alive and on track. As I talked with each group, I could feel the rest of the room slipping away. Kids were getting up, pulling out phones, goofing around, throwing paper airplanes — that really happens! It’s not just in the movies! Just as I felt I was making some progress with one group, I’d need to put my foot down in another part of the room or send someone off to sit away from friends.

We made it through to 5:00, and most of the kids even listened when I asked them to push in their chairs and take their papers home. As I say, a normal class — nothing bad or unusual. But I was drained and unhappy and ended up at home stress-eating chips and salsa and drinking a gin and tonic to clear the lump growing in my throat. It’s too early in the year to have a crack-up. But Holy Spirit, send me a sign that any of this is taking root.

Later in the evening, I saw this meditation from Brandon Watson:
At His Baptism, the Father acknowledges His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Father also acknowledges His Son. But on the Cross no acknowledgement comes, and the Son cries out in the anguish of it.
That’s exactly it. Even more so than the acknowledgment of the students, we long for acknowledgment from God, some sign that he is well pleased. How easy everything would be if at every moment we had the consolation of knowing that our work was prospering, or had prospered, or was going to prosper! It is, of course, a mercy to not be literally crucified at the instant of crying out for acknowledgment, and some comfort to remember that the Holy Spirit works as he wills, not as I will, but there’s no satisfaction of victory, of a job well done.

It’s an act of faith to start in again preparing for next week, this time with more crowd control built in. Eight more classes until we get a needed infusion of grace.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

No True Fallacy

A note on the "No True Scotsman" fallacy:

This fallacy consists of making an assertion about a group such as "No Scotsman would cheat at cards" and then defending the truth of the statement by reverse applying the claim to membership on the group. Thus:

"No Scotsman would cheat at cards!"
"On the contrary, Angus is a Scotsman and he was caught cheating at cards."
"In that case, Angus is No True Scotsman, for no true Scotsman would cheat at cards!"

It's important to realize that this is only a fallacious line of reasoning _if_ there is not logical between the original group and the claim made about it. For instance, there is no logical connection between being a Scotsman and refraining from cheating at cards.

However, if there is a logical connection between the group and the characteristic applied to it, no fallacy is incurred. For instance, "No good parents lock their child in a room and starve him for days." The phrase "good parent" does not identify some random demographic group, which might contain both some people who do imprison and starve their children and some who don't. Rather, 'good parent' is a group which definitionally would not contain such parents. If you imprison and starve your children, then you aren't a good parent.

Of course, at times the terms themselves will be in dispute. For instance, you'll often see the following exchange played out in the political realm:

"No devout Catholic can support abortion."

"But I'm a devout Catholic, and I support abortion!"

In a case such as this, what is at issue is the definition of "devout Catholic". It's not that the first person is indulging in the 'No True Scotsman' fallacy, but rather that the two people have different definitions of the term "devout Catholic". One person means "identifies as Catholic and feels strongly about it in some sense" while the other means "believe all the things that the Catholic Church teaches".

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and Truth

We wrote previously about NFP and Church Authority and also about NFP and Truth. In this final post in the series, we'd like to talk about sex: what it is and what it isn't.

There is some problematic thinking about sex which is common among a certain stripe of Catholic today, thinking which is in some ways a reaction to an equal and opposite set of errors that were common perhaps fifty years ago. What I mean by this is perhaps best summed up by a class on the Theology of the Body which MrsDarwin and I attended perhaps ten years ago. The speaker was an unmarried young woman who worked for the diocesan office of evangelization, and as she began the class she said: "There's no greater happiness that we'll ever experience, no greater love, than when we're united with God in heaven. And you know what thing on earth is the closest that we'll ever get to that perfect unity with God's love in heaven? When a husband and wife have sex. In fact, really, those of you who are married, I don't even know why you're here right now. You could be home having sex right now and experiencing God much more directly than you will here listening to me."

Let's give the young thing credit and assume that she knew not of what she spoke. MrsDarwin and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

I'm glad that there has been good theological thinking and writing done over the last few decades looking at how the act of spouses having sex is not merely an expression of controlled lust or a way to have children, but a means of husband and wife physically expressing their love for each other and openness to the children who may come to them. John Paul II's book Love & Responsibility is particularly good and readable in this regard. The Wednesday Audiences collected under the title Theology of the Body proceed to incorporate this thinking in a wider understanding of the human person and it place within salvation history, but if you strictly wanting to read about how spouses deal with each other and with sex virtuous, I think that Love & Responsibility is more focused and readable.

However, like any useful and exciting line of thinking, people quickly began to take it too far. This isn't a fault of John Paul II's thought, and I don't want this post to be seen as a wholesale rejection of theology of the body. However, treating any good as the greatest good is wrong even if the good itself is genuine, and this is what I think we begin to see when people attempt to give sex a significance and power beyond its nature.

This becomes an issue when people then face the possibility that even as a married couple they may need to voluntarily abstain for a time from sex in order to avoid having having for children for a time. I've heard it argued, by people who believe that Catholic couples should be given permission to use artificial contraception in such circumstances, that it's wrong to ask a married couple to abstain from sex for a time because sex is the highest expression of married love. The analogy put forth in this case was that asking a married couple to abstain from sex for a time would be like asking a priest to abstain from saying mass.

So let's take a honest look at sex. Under the title of "having sex" fall acts which are (or in some cases simulate in sensation) the human reproductive act. Biologically sex has an inherently reproductive character. (If it didn't, we wouldn't be having these angst-ridden conversations stemming from people are worried about getting pregnant but still want to have sex.) However, it is also an intensely pleasurable experience and it provides a feeling of closeness between the couple. Looking at the place of sex in the natural world, this also fits with the reproductive nature of sex, in that young humans take a long time to rear and so closeness between the parents (not just at the time of conception but for many years afterwards) if of great importance to all involved.

In Catholic terms, these two aspects of sex are called its procreative and unitive dimensions. And these two aspects, the unitive and procreative, are what make sex such a powerful metaphor. This is, after all, the somewhat amazing thing from a religious perspective, that the thing we as a couple want to do in order to express our love for each other, can in the process of the physical expression of that love result in the creation of a new and unique human being. Our love can, metaphorically, be given human form as a person capable of acting and loving and being united one day with God in heaven as befits a creature made in the image of God.

And yet, for all that this makes sex a great metaphor for God's creative love that generates the world and all of us, let's also have a little realism about what sex is actually like. For starters, men and women in general, and individual spouses in particular, do not usually advance towards climax at the same speed or in the same way. Indeed, one of the ways in which both spouses need to show some generosity and love for each other in the way that they have sex is by taking into account that the other is often not going to be advancing simultaneously.

This need to think of the other and have consideration for them is in fact often talked about enthusiastically by theology of the body popularizers. It's pointed to as a way in which spouses being virtuous (and thus generous to each other) in their approach to the act of having sex itself results in better sex. This is true, in the basic sense that the couple will often have more fulfilling sex if each is conscious of looking after the other's needs. And yet, this is often simplified optimistically to something approaching a magazine headline in the checkout aisle" "more virtuous sex is more amazing sex!". True to a point, but one must also keep in mind our all-too-imperfect human bodies.  The fact is, no matter how determined you are to to be generous to your spouse, you cannot make your spouse come by sheer force of will. There will be times when you are quite simply, physically, out of sync: where one of you is much more easily aroused than the other, when you're not in the same mood, when things aren't just working. This isn't because you lack generosity or virtue, it's because our bodies are imperfect and they don't always do what we want them to do.

Add to this that while sex absolutely has a strong unitive dimension, the experience of it (like any extremely strong bodily sensation) has an isolating aspect as well. Sex at and near its climax is so bodily that one's awareness of the other is heavily filtered through one's own sensation. The end result of having had sex is usually a sense of profound unity, but only after passing through stages in which the sensations of one's own body far outweigh the awareness of the other. After all, it is because the most intense aspects of sex are experienced oneself that sins such as pornography, masturbation, and prostitution have such a draw. While they may not offer the full experience of being united with another in passion, they do easily provide enough of the individual enjoyment of sex to be sought after.

What does this have to do with anything? My aim here is not to run sex down or suggest that it's not an important part of marriage. Indeed, the Church considers sex to be an important enough part of marriage that you cannot validly contract a Catholic marriage if you are physically incapable of having sex.

However, I do think it's important to have some realism about sex in order to develop a proper understanding of what it does and does not mean for a couple to have to be moderate at times in their sexuality. Sex is not the only way that a married couple can show love to each other. Indeed, at some times it is not even the best way to show love for each other. And while only a married couple can morally have sex, that does not mean that they must or can have unlimited sex without consideration for any other factor once they are married.

When we marry, we promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. That promise will almost certainly mean periods during which sex is not good, healthy, or perhaps even possible. People should keep this in mind before making arguments like, "NFP is an occasion of sin for some couples. Sometimes they just have to use contraception because otherwise the husband is going to end up using porn or being unfaithful." I was appalled some years ago when I read a piece about marital infidelity in which the author said a common time for a man to become unfaithful was right after his wife had had a baby. How could anyone do that? And yet that is a period during which the wife physically needs to heal for several weeks before being ready to have sex again, and at the same time has much of her attention taken up by an engaging little creature who is not her husband.

Virtue is a habit to the good. If a couple finds it impossible to abstain from sex for periods of time without falling into all sorts of vices in order to give release to their 'needs', it quite honestly sounds like their attachment to sex has become un-virtuous. This doesn't mean that it's a problem to like sex, or that it's sinful in and of itself to miss it and feel a certain frustration when you have to abstain for a time. But something which drives you to serious sin when you lack it is something you are enslaved to. And no matter how good a thing is, we are not meant to be enslaved to our pleasures. If we are at any risk at all of developing that sort of vicious attachment to sex, which should be an expression of love rather than of addiction, some conscious schooling in self denial and detachment is very much needed.

And this is where we see the problem with taking sex as symbol of God's creative love too literally. Is there symbolism? Yes. It is an act of love which is fruitful and brings for new life. But when we're enjoying sex, particularly in the way which leads people to say that it's impossible for them to abstain for a time when they desire not to conceive, we're not enjoying it as a reflection of God's love. We're enjoying it as a very intense bodily sensation. We're enjoying it for what it does for us.

None of our pleasures should own us. Although sex is absolutely a good for a married couple, it must not be allowed to become a god, and to avoid that we must treat it with the moderation with which we would treat all other goods.

MrsDarwin: The first commandment says, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." Only God is God. Only he fulfills every desire of the human heart. No creation can do this. Sex cannot do this, no matter how virtuous the marriage and admirable the spouses. A spouse cannot do this, no matter how holy and generous and wise. At some point in every marriage, the spouses, whether fertile or infertile, providentialist or abstinent, no matter their temperament or character or suitability, must accept that the other cannot meet their every need. Our hearts are such that only God can fill them.

Sex is an essentially marital way of showing love -- not that marriage consists of sex, but that sex is only licit within marriage. But the sacrament is more than sex. Sex is procreative, yet not every instance of sex will result in procreation -- due in part to the cyclical nature of a woman's fertility. Sex is unitive, but many instances of sex provoke disunity. A couple desperate to conceive can find that the burden of sex makes the act divisive and unsatisfactory. A couple out of physical sync, or with differing levels of stamina and health, can end up in two radically different states, a deeper divide than the mutual longing of abstinence. This is not necessarily because of sin -- in fact, a couple trying to avoid the stimulating effects of pornography or fantasy can end up, in the short term, less satisfied than those who resort to those aids.

The fact that marriage is a sacrament means that grace is essential to it. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that there are times in marriage in which only grace will suffice, even for the happiest marriage. Casti Connubi states
61. ...There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. "Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you."[48] [emphasis added]

62. This same doctrine was again solemnly repeated and confirmed by the Church in the condemnation of the Jansenist heresy which dared to utter this blasphemy against the goodness of God: "Some precepts of God are, when one considers the powers which man possesses, impossible of fulfillment even to the just who wish to keep the law and strive to do so; grace is lacking whereby these laws could be fulfilled."
As anyone who has lived a millisecond of the Christian life can attest, grace does not mean that living virtuously automatically becomes easy. It simply becomes possible, regardless of our feelings about it. Fertility does not cease be a blessing even when it becomes a burden; it does not cease to be a burden simply because it is a blessing. Acknowledging the procreative nature of sex, whether through trying to conceive or by abstaining in a fertile period, does not necessarily feel less daunting because it is an exercise in honesty. God's grace has a way of revealing to us the parts of ourselves that we'd rather hide: a desire for gratification, the need to cling to illusions of control, the emptiness we try to fill with the admiration or desire of the other. The physical stripping down of sex is also a metaphor for the spiritual stripping down of marriage, in which you are not enough for me and I am not enough for me, but only his grace is enough for me.

Since as humans we do not actually have any control, no matter the means used, over whether a particular act of sex will result in conception, all we can do is to be faithful to God in the moment. Sometimes that moment calls for abstinence when sex would be more satisfying. Sometimes that moment calls for openness when isolation would be more comfortable. Sometimes there's a glorious joy when all things work together for the good for those who love him, and every touch seems inspired, and God's good will is the only desired consequence. What we must not do is decide that the insufficiencies of his grace can somehow be overcome by a condom. If we fail, we fail; the sacrament of Confession is for us sinners. But claiming that rendering sex sterile is not a sin, not in this case, not in my circumstances, if only you knew, is a spiritual setback to sub-Eden levels. Adam and Eve at least wanted to be like God and know good from evil; how embryonic our spiritual state to want to have the control of God and yet not want to know good from evil? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

History in our Library

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a piece from the archives about how our house links us with the Freedom Riders.

The previous owner of our house was the former dean of the local Methodist seminary, a man who was active in the civil rights movement and rode with the Freedom Riders. Tonight, going through some of the books that had been left in the house, I saw a folded paper peeking out of a tome entitled Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65and opened it to find a facsimile of a letter. 
Delaware, OH
September 20, 1963


We the students and faculty of the the Methodist Theological School in Ohio are among your many brothers in Christ who were deeply shocked and appalled by the brutal bombing of your church and killing of your children this past Sunday.

Our shock has been mixed with guilt, for we are part of a large body of professing Christians who have been slow to rise to the call of our faith and cry out against injustice, inhumanity, and oppression. We know ourselves to be among the many whose silence has led to your suffering. We therefore ask your forgiveness as we pray for God's.

Knowing of some of your immediate needs we have collected gifts of money which we are sending to the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whom we were privileged to have among us for a short time a few months ago and to whom we confidently entrust the employing of these funds where he sees the need as greatest.

We would not, however, salve our consciences by sending such gifts. While we were already active in the struggle for freedom and justice for all, we have, since last Sunday's tragedy, rededicated ourselves to this task and redoubled our efforts to break through every wall of silence and separation, of fear and hatred, of apathy and unconcern. For we are determined -- praying that God may hold us to and guide us in our resolve -- that your children shall not have died in vain.

Walter R. Dickhaut, Jr., President
Student Association

Van Bogard Dunn, Dean
The Methodist Theological School in Ohio
On a hunch, I flipped to the index of the book, and as I suspected, there was an entry for Dunn, Van Bogart, on page 271. 
On March 29 (1964), seven white theology professors and two Mississippi Negroes approached Capitol Street Methodist Church of Jackson for the Ester morning service. "That's far enough -- no end runs," announced the spokesman for a line of ushers interposed on the front steps. A standoff ensued. "I guess you'll have to arrest us," concluded Rev. Van Bogard Dunn, dean of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While being led away toward a sentence of six months' jail and a $500 fine, Dunn got the commanding officer to say that police would have taken no action without the explicit request of the church ushers. The reply was legal grist for Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches, who planned to argue on appeal from paragraph 2026 of the Methodist Church Discipline that no Methodist church could ban interracial worship on legitimate religious grounds.
Many of the books left here (and there were many left) contain notes tucked inside or a review of the work clipped from the newspaper, or cards marking the book as a gift. The Dunns were great readers and inscribers, and many of the books were dated on their receipt. I had been gathering up a number of volumes that were of no personal interest to Darwins, but now I see I'm going to have to flip through each book, which means I'll be sucked into reading most of them, and the library shelves aren't going to get lighter any time soon. 

(You may remember one of our previous finds from the library, which involved a minie ball of ill repute.) 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Listening Well

When we read today's gospel about Jesus healing the leper and asking him not to tell anyone about it, the kids and I discussed how Jesus has a reason for everything he asks, no matter how odd it seems. Shouldn't it be a good thing to go and tell everyone how Jesus cured you of leprosy? But as a result, Jesus couldn't enter towns openly anymore, and those who could not go out to him in a deserted place were deprived of his presence.

Then we went to read our meditation on the readings, this one penned by my dad, and discovered that he'd said the same thing, but dug into the scripture more deeply.

"The man went off and began to proclaim the whole matter freely, making the story public. As a result of this, it was no longer possible for Jesus to enter a town openly." —Mark 1:45
The leper was an outcast because of his contagious disease. By the law of Moses, the leper was required to live outside the town, keep his distance from others, and cry out "Unclean, unclean" if anyone approached (Lv 13:45). It is likely that people of the nearby towns recognized the leper by the sound of his voice. 
Jesus, in His great mercy, granted the leper's request. He healed the leper by His touch and His word of command. Jesus again invoked the law of Moses, which required the leper to show himself to the priests and be made clean (see Lv 14:2ff). We don't know from the text of the Scripture whether the leper actually showed himself to the priests. We do know, however, that the leper showed himself to the townspeople. It's possible, and even understandable, that the leper wanted to "clear his image" with the townspeople so that they would allow him to join their company, so they would accept the sound of his voice rather than recoil at it. Possibly the leper wanted to complete his own healing socially. Yet Jesus never heals halfway. By ordering the leper to show himself to the priest, the social healing of the leper would have occurred more gradually, but would ultimately have been more complete and widespread, as well as "legal." But the leper took a shortcut, and Jesus paid the price. Now the leper could enter towns openly, but Jesus could not (Mk 1:45). 
What does your voice sound like to those near you? Does it sound like someone wanting to make himself look good? Or does it sound like that of someone who will do whatever Jesus says? (Jn 2:5)

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Work, Capital, and Value

There's a piece in the Washington Post by Elizabeth Bruenig arguing against the idea of increasing work requirements for federal welfare programs. On the merits, she may well have a decent point. It's a bad idea to have federal programs that give benefits to people who would be perfectly capable of working to provide those benefits to themselves, but we already had moderately stiff work requirements, and like a lot of current GOP thinking this seems to be an example of "it was a policy priority in the '90s, so why adjust to the circumstances now!"

However, an argument that Bruenig deploys is wrong-headed in a way that is interesting if only because it is so spectacularly so, and it's an argument which apparently some people think is pretty convincing, as I've Bruenig and also her husband, progressive writer Matt Bruenig, use it on a number of occasions. Here's the key passage:
But what about that small number of people who could work but, for whatever reason, don’t? Shouldn’t they have to? Well, before deciding whether it’s morally right for them to receive income without working, consider a far larger group that takes in far more money without toil: the idle rich. They soak up plenty of unearned money from the economy, in the form of rent, dividends and capital income. Salaries and wages — that is, money paid for work — only make up about 15 percent of the income of Americans making $10 million per year or more; the rest is capital income from simply owning assets.
In other words, the well-to-do already do what workfare advocates seem so nervous about: rake in money they haven’t earned through market labor....
There's a surface level cleverness to this gambit. "Do you object to giving money to people who haven't earned it through working?" "Yes, I do." "Really? Great! Then you think it's wrong for people to make money via investing capital!" However, it should be fairly obvious to all concerned that the person owning the capital is not getting money for nothing. Think, for a moment, of a transaction that might go on within a friendly neighborhood street.

I have broken leg and I need to make it to a doctor appointment across town because I can't drive with the cast on my leg. I ask my three neighbors Jack, Bob, and Rudolf if they would be willing to help. Jack says he'd be happy to help me but he doesn't have a car. Bob offers the use of his car but says he can't leave his house becsause he's watching his kids. Rudolf has a car and time but he's busy binge watching Stranger Things and says he doesn't want to help. So the result is that Jack drives me to my appointment using Bob's car. Because I'm grateful for my neighbors' help, I give Jack and Bob each a sixpack of good beer.

Now, would it not be odd if someone were to say to me, "Why did you give Bob beer? He didn't do any work to help you. You might as well give Rudolf beer as well."

It's true that Bob didn't do work. Indeed, Bob as "idle" while lending out his capital: a vehicle. However, Bob clearly provided me with value.

Ah, but wait. Perhaps you point out that Bob's car is actually kind of labor because he must have had to work to earn the money which he used to buy the car. Not necessarily, though. Perhaps he inherited the car from his father who died last year. Honestly, where he got the car doesn't really change its value to me. If he owns the car, and he provides access to it to me, then he's providing me with something of value to me whether he bought that car with wage labor or not. In this sense, if I return him something as an acknowledgement of the value which he gave me, I'm compensating him for a benefit that he gave me, I'm not giving him something "free".

Now of course, there's no moral stricture that we only give people money in compensation for something of value we get from them. There is a positive good to providing for the needs of people who cannot sufficiently provide for their own needs, and sometimes that's achieved by providing those people with money. That this money is not "earned" does not make it bad in some way.

However, it's disingenuous to argue that rent, dividends and capital income are money that is not earned. It's not earned by direct labor but it is earned in the sense that a return is earned for providing value to another. Labor is one thing that is valued. If Tom comes over and helps me tile my bathroom, I pay Tom for his labor because he's provided labor that's of value to me and so I owe him some compensation for the value he's given me. If I rent a week at a vacation lodge from Fred, he is giving me something of value (access to his vacation lodge for a week) and I compensate him in return. While in the one case the thing of value given me is labor and in the other case it's access to a capital asset, in both cases I pay the person who provided me value and the payment which I give is earned in that it's compensation for the value I received.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Mild He Lays His Glory By

It was a short Advent this year, only 22 days, but Christmas didn't seem to come too soon. I was ready for Christmas, joyful and expectant (not literally), and as the days passed and each door of the Advent calendar was opened, I realized that a part of my joy was a sense of relief that it was going to be Christmas and not Easter. With Christmas, you slip right from Advent into Christmas, easily -- like light through glass, almost. But before you get to Easter, you have to go through the Triduum -- three days focused on unbearable suffering. I was glad I didn't have to brace myself for Good Friday.

But Christmas involves suffering too. A baby is born, and you don't get a baby without labor. And yet, rightly, we don't have the Feast of Mary's Labor preceding the Christmas festivities. There's no commemoration of Mary's labor to mirror the commemoration of the Passion, because we are not redeemed through Mary's efforts. It is Jesus who saves. 

In a sense, Christmas can be seen as the feast of Christ fully man. He enters into the common denominator of all humans -- birth. He comes into the world without distinction or dignity, pushed out covered in blood and muck like every schmo, like us in every way but sin. Easter, by contrast, is about Christ fully God. He enters the world entirely unlike any human, striding up from death in obedience to no word but himself. Gracious legions of angels light the sky to herald his birth, because a baby is small, hidden, unable to proclaim himself to anyone beyond earshot. Easter gets two angels who hang out by the tombstone and, as is the wont of every human/angel interaction in scripture except the Annunciation, seem to imply that humans are idiots. (As we are.) 

Easter is magnificent, suffering and death and life on a grander scale than anyone could imagine. But it's nice at Christmastime to have a homelier celebration, a quieter feast in which God snoozes all day wrapped up snugly in some old blankets. Let us follow his perfect example.