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

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Sensitive Child

Oh friends, help me out here. 

I have a child who is opposite of me, one whose needs I don't meet well. This child is sensitive -- not to sensory stimulus, but tender and needy. When this child isn't put to bed on time, evenings turn into the weeping hour, with moans of "I'm stupid!" or "Nobody likes me!" Now, nothing pulls my chain like this kind of fuss for attention, and I, being tired too, get over-reasonable, which I know tends to exacerbate this child -- and I just can't stop myself. 

If I ask the child what they want for breakfast, and display the least frustration because of indecision or flopping, the child will declare "I won't have breakfast! I'm not going to eat," in a way that reads as sulking, even though I'm sure that the base need is just for lots of love and patience. But I find that I run low on love and patience with sulking behaviors. As I say, the child and I have opposite personalities, and we probably trigger each other. 

Were you a tender, clingy child? Do you remember what made you feel insecure, or what parental actions made you feel secure and nurtured? Are you a parent to this kind of child? What do you do to help this kind of personality develop to its fullest and feel happy and at ease? What kind of affirmation do you give?

I am not a hands-off parent. I am happy to snuggle with my clingy child, but in the evenings there are other tasks that demand my attention, and other children to get ready for bed. And I know that it's good for my clinger to have to adjust to other personalities -- which is why it's good that we have so many personalities in the house. 

And now the child who refused breakfast just came and whispered in my ear that they put toast in the toaster, and could I make the tea? So I'm off to feed the child the best I know how, but I'd sure appreciate some advice if anyone's got anything for me.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Repost: π with Jesus

Pi day again! Enjoy this post from two years ago, and eat yer pie.

It's the second week of Lent, which means that observance has lost its zest. I don't know about you, but I'm yearning for a bit of chocolate. Not a bright, hopeful yearning; a dry, intellectual, arid yearning, because I know I'm not going to eat chocolate anyway. I just want it because it's better than not-chocolate.

So we search for a reason to celebrate, and not the corny-beef celebration of St. Patrick's Day dispensations (which St. Patrick would have disdained) but something rounder, to bring us full circle. And lo! It is Pi Day, 3.14. But we cannot fudge on Pi Day without bringing it into some greater religious context. And not just the context of "God made it, and it is good," because God made chocolate too, and we're not eating that.

Of course, the key question is: would Jesus have known about Pi? Not known-known as God knows all things, but as a person growing up in a first-century Jewish culture, in the course of his human knowledge would he have been likely to encounter the concept of Pi?

Dr. Google offers us thoughts on "mathematics in ancient Israel pi", presenting The Secret Jewish History of Pi:
The relationship between a circle’s diameter — a line running straight through cutting it into two equal halves — and its circumference — the distance around the circle – was originally mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Kings in reference to a ritual pool in King Solomon’s Temple. The relevant verse (1 Kings 7:23) states that the diameter of the pool was ten cubits and the circumference 30 cubits. In other words, the Bible rounds off Pi to about three, as if to say that’s good enough for horseshoes and swimming pools.

Later on, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who knew that the one-third ratio wasn’t completely accurate, had a field day with the Bible having played fast and loose with the facts, arguing in their characteristic manner that of course it depended on whether you measured the pool from the inside or the outside of the vessel’s wall. They also had fun with some of the Gematria – the numerical value – of the words in the original passage, which when you play around with them a bit indeed come a lot closer to the value of Pi, spelling it out to several decimal points.
"Secret" here might be a bit sensationalistic, seeing as 1Kings is not exactly an occult piece of literature. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture May 2006, V1(1) offers us a more scholarly explanation via Lawrence Mark Lesser's article "Book of Numbers: Exploring Jewish Mathematics and Culture at a Jewish High School":
A value of π can be obtained from I Kings 7:23: 
“He made the ‘sea’ of cast [metal] ten cubits from its one lip to its [other] lip, circular all around, five cubits its height; a thirty-cubit line could encircle it all around.” 
It appears the value of π implied here is simply 30/10 (an error of 4.5%) until a student asks if we need to consider the tank’s thickness -- given three verses later as one-handbreadth, so the inner diameter is 10 cubits minus 2 handbreadths. (Of course, this is also a chance to discuss issues of measurement!) Using the Talmudic value of 1/6 cubit for one handbreadth, the inner diameter becomes 9 2/3 cubits and dividing 30 by 9 2/3 yields more accuracy (error: 1.2%). Applying a more subtle and technical approach to I Kings 7:23 (see Posamentier & Lehmann 2004 or 20 Tsaban & Garber 1998), the ratio of gematrias for the written and spoken forms of a key Hebrew word (for “line”) in that verse is 111/106, which when multiplied by 3 yields a very refined approximation for π : 333/106 (error: 0.0026%). Very few words in the Torah have different oral and written forms.

By Jewish Encyclopedia [Public domain or Public domain]

Jesus was well versed in the law and the prophets, and it is not a stretch to assume that the account of the building of Solomon's Temple and the fashioning of the great pillars and vessels of bronze was known to him. Could he have known about pi? Could he? Should we doubt his scriptural knowledge? Listen to this.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:46-50)
Do you not understand? Jesus, in the Temple itself, astounding the teachers with his knowledge and his answers, and talking of his Father's house -- the very house for which the bronze vessel was created*? Even his parents could not understand Pi, as happens with so many parents dealing with their children's math.

My friends. The Scriptures themselves proclaim Pi. Take and eat.

*Not actually the very house, since it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and not the very basin, since 2 Kings tells us that the Chaldeans destroyed it. But still.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Things That Go Bump In The Night

I came home from a meeting tonight, after dark, and drove down our driveway, which rolls down past the house to the garage at the bottom of the yard, some 100 feet from the house. The garage was never a carriage house, but it is fairly old. It has two huge doors hung on rollers, which we rarely close, and one regular door, painted white, which we rarely open. I suppose the idea was that if you wanted to go in the garage while the big doors were shut, you used the regular door, but since the rollers haven't been oiled in ages, and the big van sticks out of the garage anyway, there's no point in using the small door.

You can't see the garage from the street, or until you crest the top of the drive where it curves tightly past the house. (This makes it sound like we have a grand estate, but really it's that whoever renovated the whole shebang in 1929 gave the driveway a swooping curve from the street that's murder to negotiate with the huge van.) The house is on a rise, and the yard slopes down steeply enough so that the roof of the garage sits below the level of the house.

All this is to say that the garage is a slightly isolated building, though one that's wholly visible if you look out any back window of the house. And it's why I had a slight shock as I pulled up the minivan into its space, which is in front of the small door, and realized that it was hanging open.

Now, there are umpteen reasons I can name off the top of my head why this might be so. It was a warm day, considering, and the kids were running in and out of the yard. Someone might have grabbed something from that side of the garage and gone through the door simply because it was there. It's possible it could have blown open. There was nothing all at all alarming about it, except that a door that was usually closed was open, and that it was dark, and I was alone.

The dark makes a lot of difference. One of my daughters is a sensitive child who stands by my bed at night and tells me that she's scared because no one sleeps with her. (In her bed, that is; her brothers sleep piled together in a twin bed not three feet from hers.) She hears something and doesn't know what it is. And every time I say, "Honey, this is our good, safe house. There's nothing there. I want to you to go back in your bed." And I roll over and snuggle closer to the two men in my bed, and if my daughter decides to climb in with me, I'm generally too sleepy to do anything about it.

I was about to reach out and grab the doorknob to pull the door shut when a fleeting thought caught me: "What if something grabs my hand?" And believe it or not, I hesitated -- in my safe backyard, in my low-crime, settled neighborhood, where no bodies have been found in garages for as long as I can remember. Then I shuddered and pulled the door shut. I walked up the driveway at a disciplined pace. I did not turn around to see if I was being followed. As soon as I stepped into the bright, noisy kitchen, I forgot any nerviness, because what was there to be afraid of in our good, safe house?

Noises in the night never bother me, because I am nestled up with Darwin and with a soft creamy fellow with fluffy curls and a footy sleeper. When Darwin is away on a business trip, then I worry. Every sound is magnified. Still, though, the soft fellow is a comfortable presence next to me, and the house is full of people. In fact, I've almost never lived alone -- I went from college house to newlywed apartment, and I've been making my own company ever since. The last time I slept in a house all alone was in the few weeks before I got married, when I lived at the apartment and Darwin lived at his parents' house. And even then I had a cat.

That cat is still around, sleeping on people's pillows when we don't want him around. I suppose he'll be our resident ghost if he ever dies, but at 19 his attitude is still at bad as ever. And he goes bump in the night, his claws clicking on the attic floor above me before he pounds down the stairs like a herd of elephants, all seven pounds of him. I hear my bedroom door creak open (it doesn't latch unless it's locked) and then the cat jumps up on my bed to join me and Darwin and the baby and sometimes the girl and the other cat too. Just us mammals taking up not enough space, and nothing reaching out to grab me except those I love.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Saints: Virtues not Scripts

I came across an article today about efforts by Catholics to provide appropriate care and support for women in abusive marriages. The piece is good on that topic, and as is often the case what I want to write about is a somewhat tangential topic which struck me. A woman talking about how a priest offered her help in getting away from a husband who had recently expressed his rage by roaming the house with a loaded gun while threatening to kill himself and perhaps others, said of the response her priest had:
“He had no hesitation, and I didn’t get St. Monica’d,” Jessica said. (Her name and the names of others who have shared accounts with America by phone interview or email have been changed to protect them.)

“Getting St. Monica’d” or “St. Rita’d” is shorthand for a common, blithely pious response to abuse from many Catholics: Be more like these holy women! They patiently endured abuse from their husbands, and they were saints!
I'm a little floored that someone would have that response to someone in a clearly dangerous situation, and it strikes me that it represents a misunderstanding of how we should relate to the lives of the saints.

When Theresa of Avila was a child, she ran away from home hoping to be martyred by the Moors -- something which was at least plausible in the 1500s. This childish impulse shows us what I think is the wrong way to emulate the saints. The point of having so many and varied examples of holiness to pray for us and provide us with examples is not to pick one to seems applicable and to slavishly follow their life story as if following a script. If the Moors capture you and demand you renounce the faith, you should refuse and suffer what may.  But that doesn't mean that you should seek out Moors as the only path to holiness.  Rather, the saints are examples of people who showed heroic virtue in particular circumstances. Following the saints in virtue does not necessarily mean reproducing their circumstances or their reactions to them.

Thus, for instance, St. Francis is revered for his willingness to renounce the goods of this world and pursue the mission of the Church, but that doesn't mean that everyone who deals with a parent who desires a more worldly career for him should act as Francis did and strip naked in front of a public gathering in order to hand his clothes over to his father and express complete independence.

Similarly, while St. Rita may have shown great virtue in a particular circumstance where she was forcibly married off at twelve and was trapped with a physically abusive husband, that does not mean that abused wives who have the ability to leave for the protection of themselves and their children should not do so. (Nor does it mean that we should accept girls being married off at twelve, but I trust no one is advocating that.)

What we should copy from the saints is their love for God and for others. The specific ways they expressed that love may or may not be appropriate for imitation in any given circumstance.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Friday on the Links

Some linkage for your Friday.

1. What to give up for Lent, based on your Myer-Briggs type. At our house, people pored over the advice for their types and declared themselves attacked. Here's my advice:
INTJ: Give up the contempt 
To be honest, you’re pretty brilliant. You have that rare, easy ability to solve problems logically in a fun, creative way. You thrive at proving yourself and your competence. That said, you sometimes struggle picking up on social nuances. Navigating interactions with other fellow humans can feel exhausting. Socializing doesn’t always lead with logic, and that can lead to some real frustration — and frankly, a lot of contempt for others because why don’t they understand — they should understand! This Lent, we encourage you to lead with humility and follow-through with patience. Before you roll your eyes at someone who isn’t as quick-witted as you, try to listen to their story. Try not to rush into judgment — instead, learn from their perspective.
I'm fairly attuned to social nuances, actually, though I won't play along if people are being manipulative. But giving up contempt -- that poked me right in the soul, and is in fact a large part of why I gave up Facebook for Lent.

2. Amy Welborn writes about Evelyn Waugh's impressions of New Orleans on Ash Wednesday.

3. Maybe you are a lover of the font Garamond, but it doesn't come standard on your Mac. Never fear, it's stowed away in your fonts library. Here's how I installed Garamond this week, and let me tell you that my documents have never looked better. 

4. What does Garamond look like? Here's a web version designed to display well on screen.

5. Related: why original Garamond isn't used as a screen font, while Georgia is. (I think we normally publish in Times New Roman because that's the default, but I've switched to Georgia for this post, and I may keep it that way.)

6. At the recommendation of Bearing, I'm reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, in the Michael Day translation. At her urging, I bought a used copy of the Michael Day translation.

It's beautiful, a treat to hold in one's hand. The shininess is from the mylar cover that the thoughtful bookseller, Preserving Christian Publications, added. (I added the rather appropriate bookmark, an appointment reminder from the orthodontist.)

Also, the translation is very readable.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Morphine and Moral Courage

Our community theater will be putting on To Kill A Mockingbird in September, and as everyone has ambitions of trying out, we've been reading it aloud. I cringe a bit as I read it unexpurgated, but conviction is essential to acting, and my hope is that if the kids hear the casually contemptuous way the genteel whites of depression-era Maycomb County address their black brethren, a disgust for such language will be seared into their brains.

We just finished the chapter where Jem must read to old ailing Mrs. Dubose in reparation for mutilating her camellias. This burst of temper on his part was the result of Mrs. Dubose's vicious racially-tinged insults of his father, Atticus, who is defending a black man against a charge of rape of a white woman. Mrs. Dubose's cruelty is nothing new -- she savages Jem and Scout every chance she gets, as personally as she can.
"She was vicious. Once she heard Jem refer to our father as 'Atticus', and her reaction was apoplectic. Besides being the sassiest, most disrespectful mutts who ever passed her way, we were told that it was quite a pity our father had not remarried after our mother's death. A lovelier lady than our mother had never lived, she said, and it was heartbreaking the way Atticus Finch let her children run wild. I did not remember our mother, but Jem did -- he would tell me about her sometimes -- and he went livid when Mrs. Dubose shot us this message."
Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose for a month, bearing with her erratic behavior. When she dies shortly after, Atticus tells him that Mrs. Dubose had been trying to wean herself off of a years-long addiction to morphine.
"You know, she was a great lady."  
"A lady?" Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. "After all those things she said about you, a lady?" 
"She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe... son, I told you hat if you hadn't lost your head I'd have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her -- I wanted you to see what true courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
According to her views. 

Last week I tried to elucidate for my eighth-graders the difference between courage and moral fortitude, and I wish I'd had this example to hand. Courage is weaning yourself off of morphine and dying in agony just so you can say you did it (or others can say you did it), so that according to your views you are beholden to nothing and nobody. Moral fortitude is the strength to hold back from belittling children, even if it's to compensate for your pain, and maybe even to speak kindly to them even if they seem dirty and rude; to refrain from insulting members of another race, especially when one of them is your caretaker to whom you are certainly beholden; to repay kindness from people whose views you don't respect with kindness. It's attempting to love your neighbor. It's enduring suffering patiently, even if that endurance requires some morphine.

Atticus Finch is certainly one of the great characters of fiction, but he's not perfect. Jem feels the contradiction. Mrs. Dubose may have been one of the bravest people Atticus ever knew, and she may have exhibited great courage, but she was no lady. Better to love on morphine than to hate sober.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Forgoing The Seven-Week Plan

This morning, while cleaning off my nightstand so that it might reflect a Lenten simplicity, I found an old notebook. And while flipping through it, I found a page dated October 7, 2016. The rather ambitious title of the list was "5 Year Plan -- 2021".

Darwin and I had clearly been blue-skying about the future here. In twelve months I was supposed to sell Stillwater to a publisher; in two years to clean up an older novel for submission and start drafting new story ideas. Darwin was to be presenting at professional pricing conferences within two years; within three years he would write a popular book on the subject and self-publish it as an experiment with marketing and pricing strategies; by 40 he would be promoted to a vice president at work.

On July 8, 2017 -- nine months and one day later -- Paul was born.

Some of our plans have simply not happened. I was hard at work on revising Stillwater even on the very day I made the list; an agent was even looking at it. Once I started morning sickness, everything that was unessential fell by the wayside -- including writing. Nothing like perpetual weariness and nausea to make you reassess what's actually crucial to day-to-day survival. Darwin has not written his popular pricing book, nor is he yet a vice president (though he's still only in his second month of being 40, so who knows?).

Some things did happen, differently than we expected. Darwin spoke at the conference for the pricing society within one year, not two, and he's presenting again this spring. I haven't cleaned up my older novel, but I did write my Hallmark Christmas story/King Lear mashup last Christmas, and we're planning to use that novella as our experiment in self-publishing next Christmas.

And some things were simply not on our horizon, including a bouncy 20 month-old who has a fluff of naughty curls on the top of his head, who can intelligently verbalize his needs to me (as long as those needs are cheese), and can greet and dismiss people with the best of them. Even as I type, he's padding around the living room in a footy dino sleeper, intently dismantling a Transformer. There is, in fact, no finer fellow, only we didn't know that when we were making our five-year plan as if we could predict every good thing.

It's easy to overplan Lent: to make lists of all the sacrifices one ought to be making, and the virtuous practices to incorporate into daily life. I should give up social media, but I should also fast two days a week, and cut out sugar, and no more second helpings, and also I should get up early and read a devotional book and go to daily mass and write every day and spend ten minutes in meditation. All good things, sure. But the penitence of Lent is penitence as preparation. It's a stripping away of what's inessential, so that by Easter my soul is ready to be filled and consumed by the glory of the Resurrection. Committing to a sacrifice as a discipline is a good thing, but the Church does already prescribe a communal discipline: fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; abstinence on Fridays. For me, trying to pile on the practices becomes a matter of control, not of spiritual growth.

In past Lents, I've seen a progressive stripping-away as I move closer to the Triduum. Even without planning it, it seems right to add this practice or cut out this food or habit with each passing week, as the reality of Good Friday draws nearer. Forty days out, the Passion seems so distant. During Holy Week, it's almost impossible not to be in a state of anticipation, where everything unnecessary falls away. And each week suggests its own penance or practice, whether I've planned something or not. The essential thing is to be ready to do the thing placed before me each day. "Ears open to obedience you gave me," as the psalm says in Morning Prayer.

Then I said, behold I come,
To do your will, O God, is my delight.

Friday, March 01, 2019

We Hopeful Monsters

The phrase "hopeful monster" comes from debates about the processes of evolution where it is used (often with gentle ridicule) to refer to the idea that key changes in evolutionary history result from single large leaps, rare large mutations which bring some new characteristic into a population that turns out to be advantageous and thus spreads wide as the mutant has many offspring that share the characteristic. However, the phrase itself is one that's always been evocative to me.

I found myself thinking of the phrase last night, because of a discussion about environmentalism and population control. The common wisdom these days in progressive circles seems to take it as an assumption that humans are a problem. From this comes the suggestion that we need to have fewer people, so that we won't have such an impact upon the planet. Some even go so far as to describe humanity as a blight, destroying the planet. We are monsters, and for there to be less of us is seen as a good thing.

Another related line of thought, though clothed in a certain altruism, is that the problems of climate change and increased population are such that it may not be moral to introduce more children into such a world, due to the suffering they would no doubt encounter. (This strikes me as a rather historically oblivious argument, given that through most of history the likely level of deprivation and suffering for a child was much greater than now, and so the arguments suggests that humanity should have pessimistically snuffed itself out long ago as not worth the effort.)

Humans are one of the most successful species ever to arise on Earth, in terms of our spread from small bands in one area of the planet to a dominant, world-wide population which reforms ecosystems all over the planet by its very presence. Other dominant species also change ecosystems. Some grazers can help creates planes, by eating way the shoots of all larger plants before they can grow. Animals we think of as pests clearly can decimate other plant and animal populations by their plentitude. But it's hard to think of any creatures that have had such a huge impact on the planet as a whole.

Perhaps from an environmentalist point of view, or at least the view of a certain kind of environmentalist, we are thus monsters. But I'd argue that even thus, we are hopeful monsters. Unlike the non-rational animal populations, we are not unaware of our impact on the planet, and we change our behavior and learn new ways as we seek to live happily and productively on the world we find ourselves in. The technology, the ways of life that humans pursued, a mere three generations ago would not sustain the current population of the earth. We have changed our ways radically over the last hundred years, and those changes have been the result of inventions and improvements made by humans. Each and every person has the potential to contribute new breakthroughs, small and large, to the way we live on our planet. So while each person is another human individual drawing upon the resources of our planet, each person is also a source of new ideas of how we might life upon our planet better. To have fewer people is to have fewer ideas. We should see each person, not as another problem, but as another solution to the problems which face humanity.

Does this mean we have some sort of moral obligation to have the maximum number of children possible, an equal and opposite imperative to the claim that it is immoral to have more children? I Kant say that. (Get it? Get it?) No, but it does mean that we shouldn't start to see ourselves and humanity in general as an enemy. We should welcome the next generation as the hope that will continue to move humanity forward, which necessarily means finding ways to continue to live on our planet without making it uninhabitable to ourselves.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Car Talk

A few weeks ago, we had a very pressing and time-sensitive need to practice parallel parking. My oldest is almost 17, and her temps would expire in two weeks -- which would mean taking (and paying for) driver's ed all over again, and getting fifty more hours of practice (ten of which must be night hours). So Darwin went out and bought five orange cones and stored them in the trunk of his commuter car. We had to use his small car for maneuvering practice, as it's a good deal smaller than the big blue van, and somewhat smaller than the beater minivan we bought for cash for the teen driver to learn on (and one day drive to work).

However, on the weekday morning that my 16yo and I planned to practice parallel parking in a nearby parking lot, we found that Darwin had indeed taken the big van to work, but had not left the keys for his car. This was a problem, since my key fob for his car, a big clicky thing, had recently been dropped and broken open, and hadn't worked since.

No matter. We would grab the cones from the trunk and take the minivan, since the goal was to practice in some form. However, Darwin's car was locked (unusual as it's normally parked in the garage), so there was no getting the cones from the trunk.

At this point I considered my options. Sending a passive aggressive text to Darwin about not being able to get into his car to get the cones wasn't going to further our ultimate end of being able to practice parking. What would further that end would be driving the minivan to the store and replacing the battery in my key fob so that we could get into the car.

So my daughter and I took apart the key fob to find out what kind of battery we needed. The battery was wedged in tightly, and it took a lot of shaking and a tiny screwdriver to pry it out. And the long and short of it was that the battery had been put in backwards when the key fob fell apart, and once it was turned around, it worked again. So we were able to take the small car and practice parking, with the ultimate result that my daughter passed her driving test, and now we have three licensed drivers in the house.

And I don't have it hanging on my conscience that in a moment of frustration I took it out on Darwin.


A day or two after the driving test, the beater minivan began to whine and moan at us when we turned the steering wheel. It seemed serious enough to be looked at, and indeed it was: steering fluid had been leaking out, and the work could potentially cost as much as we'd paid for the van in the first place.

So we called a family council and let the kids help us hash out the options:

Replace -- sell the van for parts, use the cash to buy another van. Cons: we wouldn't get much cash; who knows what problems a cheap minivan might come with; if we bought a more reliable used van, we'd be taking on another car payment, which might cut into some people's dance lessons and tae kwon do.

Repair -- fix the van. A faster option than buying a new car, and one that kept a third basic car in the family. At least we'd know the steering would be repaired. Cons: Expense; who knows what might break next on this old car?

Reduce -- sell the van for parts and go without a third car. We already have a large family van, so do we need another car Cons: the big van is much harder for teenagers to handle than the basic minivan, and is hard to learn on; oldest daughter wants to get a job, meaning she'd either have to take the family van and leave me without a car, or I'd have to drop her off and pick her up; another driver is coming up soon.

In the end, we chose to repair the van. Darwin sourced the parts and ordered them from a third party, which cut down the price of the initial work, and then a part that the mechanic had feared was damaged turned out to be fine. So the cost turned out to be half of the initial estimate, and certainly far less expensive than replacing the minivan.


And yesterday my second daughter, 15.5, announced that she would be able to get her temps next week...

Monday, February 25, 2019

Dear Reader,

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return, and that thou shalt hear these somber words on Wednesday next.

As I did last year, this Lent I am giving up Facebook (which I hope will lead to more, and more varied, posting here). And as with last year, I'd like to write letters for Lent. If you, Dear Reader, would like to receive a letter, on real paper, written with a real pen, in which I set forth whatever random thoughts the spirit moves me to express, please email your name and address to darwincatholic (@) (And my sincere apologies to Mr. GB, who last year received a multiple-page missive containing my meditations on a book I'd just read about lynchings in the 1890s.)

I don't often write longform by hand; it's much easier for me to compose using a computer, where I can delete and rewrite to my heart's content. Writing by hand forces me to slow down and consider and polish my words before I put them on a page. As a result, I feel like the end result is slightly stilted and formal. Still, in this day and age of ultra-stylistic informality, it can't hurt to practice being a bit more genteel.

So! I wrote more than twenty letters last Lent, and I'd be glad to write more this year. You needn't promise to write back, or send me anything other than your name and address (though if you tell me a bit about yourself I can tailor the letter to you).

Yours in correspondence,

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Marriage, Suffering, and God

Mindy Selmys, who writes a blog anachronistically titled Catholic Authenticity despite having announced some months ago that she was leaving the Catholic Church, has written a blog post that has been shared around a good bit in which she both recounts her experiences of divorce and cohabitation and also makes an argument that the Catholic Church should change its teaching on the permanence of marriage. Readers of this blog may recall Selmys from a series of three posts I wrote about a year and a half ago, arguing against her series of posts laying out a case for dissent from the Church's teachings on contraception. Those posts actually followed a very similar basic argument structure (following the Church's teaching is hard, therefore God clearly doesn't want us to do it because he loves us), and my response to them can be found here: Part one. Part two. Part three.

Selmys's post on divorce draws heavily on her own personal experiences, but also seeks to make a broader point. The personal narrative describes how Selmys separated from her husband due to the escalating alcohol abuse which he had committed throughout their marriage. This separation left Selmys to serve as a single parent to their seven children, which was incredibly hard. After about a year, during which she and her husband attempted counseling but he refused to stop drinking, she decided their separation needed to be permanent, and (providentially, she feels) at the same time a long time male friend of hers offered to move in with her. Having this man move in relieved her of many of the burdens of single parenthood, and her home life seemed to improve.

Interspersed with this narrative, she makes an argument that the Church ends up encouraging women to remain in abusive relationships, because the Church's teaching that those who are validly married cannot remarry while their spouses are living (even if they have legally separated for good reasons) makes women feel as if they need to remain in abusive relationships in order to have the basic support of another adult in the household. The following is the core thread of her argument, skipping most of the personal detail:

Men, and particularly Catholic men, tend to approach the question of remarriage in terms of sex. In cases where a marriage is abusive, you are of course allowed to leave – indeed, it may be morally obligatory if there is a threat to the life and well-being of the children. But in such cases a woman (statistically, it is usually a woman) is expected to live in continent singleness, devoted to the vows that she made to a man who mistreated her.

This isn’t seen as a problem because “nobody ever died from lack of sex.” Nevermind that an adequate morality cannot treat death as the only relevant negative outcome; the more pressing issue is that for a mother having a partner is not primarily about having someone to rock the bed with.

When the Church says to women “You may divorce – but you may not remarry” they are, in effect, saying that you have two choices: make it work with your abusive spouse, or commit to single parenting until your children are grown. If the woman in question has been faithful to the Church’s teaching about openness to life – or if the abuser has used repeated pregnancy as a means of keeping his spouse dependent on him – then this can create a situation that is genuinely unmanageable.
This means that women, finding themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, end up returning to marriages that are physically or psychologically unsafe – not only for the woman herself, but also for the children. There were several times in the year that my ex and I were separated when I almost caved and brought him back home. The relentless pressures of trying to manage alone were enough that it seemed like maybe it would be a good gamble to hope that things would be different this time round.

By telling women that they can’t find a new partner, can’t build a safe and functional family life, Catholic teaching creates a situation that works in favour of abusive spouses. The institution of marriage comes to be privileged over the actual good of vulnerable women and children. The symbolism of the cross ceases to be centred on liberation from sin and death, and becomes instead an indefinite sentence to suffering where the only possible resurrection lies in the hope that the abuser will reform himself. This empowers abusive people to hold their families hostage and employ the vows of marriage as a bulwark against the necessity of repentance.

I don’t think this is what Christ intended.

It’s now a month since my new partner moved in, and in that time we’ve built a home life that is not only manageable but actually happy. My children’s mental health has improved. The house no longer looks like ground zero of some domestic disaster. I can rest when I’m sick, secure in the knowledge that there is another functional adult managing the household. Alcoholism no longer has a place in our family, or a strangle-hold on my hopes for the future.

According to the Church, this is a mortal sin. I am barred from communion, and so is the man who stepped up to help me pick up the pieces of a family fragmented by addiction and abuse. While the current Pope is trying to create space for people in situations like mine to exercise conscience, for priests to use their judgment so that victims can be protected and included, conservatives continue to fight tooth and nail to make sure that abused and neglected spouses are left without options.

This condition of slavery to another person’s sins is not, I think, what Christianity is supposed to produce. It privileges the law over the actual good human beings, and prevents God’s providence from being able to deliver us into new life.

I think there are several clear problems with the line of thinking that Selmys presents here. However, before getting into those, it's important to note that it is indeed moral (and under certain circumstances morally necessary) for a Catholic to separate from her (or his) spouse in order to escape abuse or for other grave reasons. It's also important to note that in many cases a marriage which has been rooted in abuse and deception will prove not to have been a valid marriage in the first place, and that in such cases the annulment process will give that Catholic canonical permission to marry by finding that no valid marriage was ever in force.

Turning to Selmy's arguments, perhaps the most troubling element is an implicit assumption that a woman must exchange sexual favors for help in taking care of her family, and that the Church should thus step back and let her get on with the transaction. Having a partner, she argues, is not primarily about sex. It's about having someone to help with keeping the household together. But of course, the Church does not teach that it is wrong to have someone help you clean and put the kids to bed and drive people about town. Indeed, it seems clear that it would be a work of mercy to help a frazzled single mother in these ways. What the Church says is a sin is to have sex with someone to whom you are not married. Selmys takes it as a given that no one will want to help a mother who is separated from her husband unless he is getting sex in return for the help, but instead of identifying this demand for sex as the problem, she instead blames the Church for seeing the sex as a sin.

And to the extent that she's trying to make a practical argument -- there are also very good practical arguments for not moving in with another person almost as soon as you decide that your old relationship is not salvageable. People do not tend to make their best decisions at such moments, and this kind of serial cohabitation is, statistically, where a lot of child abuse actually comes from. In a sad number of cases, mom's new boyfriend does not treat mom's kids well. So there is a practical wisdom in not encouraging people to engage in serial sexual relationships in order to get help around the house.

Another problematic aspect of her thinking here is the way that she addresses God's will. It is very hard to live as a mother whose husband has abandoned the family, she argues. Therefore, God must want her to start a sexual relationship with a new partner so that she will not undergo this hardship. Now clearly, God does want the best for us. God created us that we might be eternally happy with Him in heaven. And yet, in the world that God created and the fall corrupted, there are a great many evils that we suffer. Does God will that the widow grow old without the companionship of the husband she hoped to spend her later years with? Does God will that the orphan not see his parents? Does God will that the mother of a dead child be deprived of the chance to see her offspring grow up? God certainly allows suffering, even if suffering is a result of the world not being as God intended it to be. And in that God is all powerful, we cannot even say that the fall is truly contrary to God's will. God keeps the world we live in, with all its suffering, in existence by the active exercise of His will.  He allows the fallen world to be what it is, rather than bending toward some sort of forced happiness.

Some of these examples of suffering -- suffering that also leaves people alone and abandoned-- may seem more impersonal: people die, people become sick, people have disabilities. These sources of suffering are often not the direct result of some other person's action. From one point of view, that may seem to make them more directly God's fault. In the case of a spouse suffering from the abuse of another, the suffering is caused directly by another person. Why does't God step in and allow the victim of abuse another go? But then, why Didn't God prevent any given source of suffering: that cancer, that car crash, that miscarriage?

God allows the sufferings of this world to happen. He allows a husband to abandon his responsibilities to wife and children and devote himself instead to alcohol abuse. He allows a partent to abuse his or her child.  He allows us to wrong each other.

If we cannot imagine that God would allow suffering in this one area, how can we imagine that the rest of the world is the way it is?  I can't see that the problem of theodicy which Selmys poses is more problematic than any other.  Indeed, in that it is so clearly a result of one person hurting another rather than the hostility of the world itself, it seems less hard to explain than many.

We will not heal the suffering of this world through piling more sins on top of the sins that are already here.

From God's perspective, from the perspective of the happiness we are meant to enjoy eternally, euthanasia will not solve the suffering of sickness. Eugenics will not solve the suffering of disability. Abortion will not solve the suffering of poverty. Adultery will not solve the suffering of abandonment. Sin, in short, does not solve suffering. It may paper it over for a time, but if we are to believe God's revelation to us about how we are to live, these seeming shortcuts to happiness in fact do nothing but perpetuate suffering in different ways. 

The happiness that God offers is not a "get out of consequences free" card, but rather the chance to grow in virtue despite a unvirtuous world, and to be happy with Him one day in heaven.  That is the release from suffering towards which we should all strive.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Great American Heresy is "I'm a Good Person"

There was a story that made the rounds recently about the parents of a young man who had committed suicide and their fury about the homily which a Catholic priest had preached at their son's funeral. I'm not here to discuss the issue in depth. I think both sides could have acted better. However, the reason I bring it up is due to this very apt quote in a surprisingly good Slate piece discussing the controversy: “He basically called our son a sinner.”

I think this is an example of a very common problem that our modern society has in talking about sin. We often talk about someone as being "a good person" or "a basically good person", and by contrast we at times accuse someone of being "a bad person" or in one colorful example I saw lately "a totally trash human being". From these categories of "good person" and "bad person", people then reason backwards to categorize actions. Was this thing done by various "good people" that you know? Then it can't be a bad action.

So for example, "You say that getting an abortion because of fetal deformities is wrong, but my friend Sally had to make that tragic choice, and she's one of the most loving and caring mothers I know." or "You say that gay marriage is wrong, but Eddie and Steve are one of the most loving couples I know and they do so much for their community."

There's another (and equally mistaken) form of this reasoning that travels the same rhetorical path in the opposite direction, starting with the belief that some action is wrong and from there concluding that anyone who commits that act is clearly a "bad person". Thus: "He pretends to be a good person, but I heard about how he left his first wife. Total trash human being."

Both of these, I think, miss an important moral reality: The same person is capable of doing both good and bad things, and often individual people are highly complex mixes of virtue and vice. Just because someone is loving and kind and fun to be around does not mean that person is not capable of doing something which is in fact very wrong. And just because someone has done some very wrong things does not mean that they can't also be loving and kind in other ways. To say that someone is a "good person" often means little more than "I like that person", and it is no kind of an argument that any one thing done by that person is right or wrong.

To say that something that someone has done is wrong is not to say that that person is bad or worthless or vicious. It is simply to say that that action was wrong, a sin of which the sinner should repent and for which he should amend. We should drop the categories of "good person" and "bad person" from our moral reasoning. All they do is lead us astray. We are all good in the sense that we all are made in God's image, and that God desires us to know, love, and serve Him and be happy with Him one day in heaven. And we are none of us good, in the sense that we all commit acts that are wrong and hurt both others and ourselves.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Consumer Friendships

I've been thinking lately about the right balance between the desire to find like-minded people and the important of cultivating friendships with specific people even when they are not like-minded.

One of the fascinating things about the internet has been the way it has enabled people to form friendships of interest and intellectual friendships across long distances. Are you passionately interested in Victorian English Literature and also in social justice issues and also a deeply committed orthodox Catholic? Somewhere out there you can find the other people scattered across the globe that share your interests and would love to talk about the intersection for those three things. You may end up with close friends whom you've rarely if ever met, because they live thousands of miles away.

In one sense, this is a wonderful release from the often lonely existence from having interests and beliefs that are outside of the norm in your area. One of the things I remember growing up is our family having no like-minded friends at all in our local parish and school. We would at times drive over an hour simply to meet up with a group of Catholic families who mostly shared our beliefs and interests. That kind of isolation is very hard on people, and the ability to make these friendships long distance should not at all be discounted. Indeed, many of my own close friends are people I've met through this blog and through online interactions in general, and even many friends who were originally "real life friends" at some point in our lives are now long distance friends that we keep up with via the internet, because moves across the country have since separated us.

And yet there's an extent to which this ability to find like minded people out of the vast expanses of the internet can lead to increasing selectiveness, breaking off with people or groups because although you share one interest, you clash on another. To take an example that seemed particularly extreme to me: My mother, who collects and sews clothes for 18 inch dolls, told me at one point about how one of the doll discussion groups that she belonged to had split bitterly along political lines.

At first it seems strange that if the purpose of the group was to discuss dolls, that politics would matter in the makeup of the group. Sure, it might come up once in a while, as people discussed their reactions to historical dolls, or their desire for dolls representing particular ethnic groups or disabilities, but you would think that the interest in dolls would override.

And yet, if the internet can connect you to hundreds of other people sharing your hobby all over the world, and if some of those people are easier to get along with because they also share your politics, while others make you uncomfortable at times because of their contrary politics, you can see how a split might seem desirable.

In contrast, the smaller density of like minded people in a local group requires that one compromise on other issues. For instance, in my town there's a group for people who are learning or trying to maintain their speaking and reading ability in German. There are less than a dozen people involved in the group. And as a result, although it contains both several very progressive members and several Trump supporters, as well as others who are more reticent on politics, people mostly live with their differences and even joke about their divisions. There aren't other students of German in town to go hand out with, so people need to find a way to get along or else resign themselves to not having any communal study at all.

In this sense, the sheer variety of the internet makes it easy to treat friendships as a sort of consumer commodity, specifying exactly what we'd like out of our friends in every detail. Catholic SciFi fans set up a separate group to discuss fandom as Catholics, and then that group in turn splits as different types of Catholic SciFi fans decide they'd rather have their own group with only their own sort of fans. Woke doll collectors congregate separately from conservative ones. I definitely see the attraction. To the extent that I often use interest-based groups on the internet as a way to learn about a subject and to relax, I hardly want to have them invaded by strife with people I dislike or who loudly express their dislike for people like me.

And yet, I don't think that the tendency to pick people out like consumer goods for the maximum comfort is a particularly good one. We need, at least at times, to have ties that bind us to people who disagree with us in many ways, so that we learn to form friendships across those divides and so that people on both sides of the divides are reminded that the others are real people.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Why so silent, Darwins? I hope this surprisingly informative sketch will clear things up for you:

One child confirmed, one more definitely showing symptoms, two more with white spots on their tonsils, and one without white spots on her tonsils but man, are they grotesque. The kids took the flashlight and checked down my throat for good measure.

"I can't even see your tonsils, Mom!" said one, awed.

"Wait a minute -- Mom doesn't have tonsils!" said another.

(True enough: I had them out when I was eleven, but I'd forgotten that until I was saying "aaaah".)

Mono can only be spread through saliva, which doesn't really help us in a house where people pick up any cup off the counter to drink. It can also stay in your system for up to six months. In the meantime you can be feverish and sleepy. I'm watching carefully for signs of lethargy, but so far everyone's attitude status is salty.

Alas, I wish I could blame my own weariness on mono, but it's simply the result of having seven children spread across a range of very eventful ages, from baby who's beginning, at nineteen months, to behave like a big two-year-old, to the eight-year-old who needs special dyslexia tutoring with me, to the oldest who needs extra coaching on passing the maneuverability test. There simply is no time to do the things I want and need to do. Remember that textbook I was writing? I've been thisclose to ending a chapter since November. I need daytime writing time, and I need it away from distractions, away from diapers and sippy cups and drama and dance and dyslexia and dinner time and parking cones and SAT prep and braces and glasses and mono.

And there's no treatment for mono but waiting it out, which is too disgustingly on the nose for me to even comment on.

Allow me to close with this advice: pull the car up through the cones until your mirror is even with the second set of cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees in the direction you want to go, then when your mirror is even with the center cone, turn 360 degrees. Stop when your bumper is even with the center cone. Reverse. When your mirror is even with the center cone, turn the wheel back 360 degrees. When your mirror on the side you initially turned to shows both cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees to straighten out. Back out of the cones. No, straighten up. Straighten the other way! No, you've bumped it already. Let's pull around and try again.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The Cool of the Evening

Fiction for your Wednesday: The Cool of the Evening, by Sally Thomas. Sally is a poet, and this story is full of beautifully resonant images, especially if you've spent any time in the South.

They went away in the old blue Plymouth, Wren and her grandparents. Her grandfather peered angrily over the dashboard as he drove. Every day they made the drive into town for the noon Mass; it was almost the only place they went any more. Mass, the grocery store, the beauty parlor. If Wren’s grandmother wanted to go somewhere, Wren’s grandfather had to carry her there in the car. Nobody in Memphis knew how to drive, Wren’s grandfather said. They didn’t tell you they were going to turn. They didn’t signal with their arm out the window. You had to look for some little blinking light, and by the time you saw it, it was almost too late. The Plymouth had manual steering, and her grandfather dragged the wheel this way and that as though he meant to wrestle the car to the ground. 
They passed the Esso filling station, the last outpost of Wren’s neighborhood, and bumped over railroad tracks. Fleetingly Wren saw the leafy corridor the track ran through, May-green, gold-lit, full of stirring shadows in the spring daylight, not a place in itself but a secret going-away to some other, more real place. Always, no matter how many times she crossed those tracks, this flash of secretness made the hair stand up on her arms. From your car at the crossing, if you looked fast enough, you glimpsed that green tunnel curving into mystery. Then you left it behind. 
Even so, Wren thought, today the secret feeling seemed to go with her. Right now, as she rode in that car, her fourth-grade class was taking their Monday spelling test. She was not taking the test. She was not wearing her blue-and-green plaid gym jumper over her Peter-Pan-collared gym shirt and black stretch shorts. She was wearing regular shorts, with yellow smiley faces printed all over them, and a matching smiley t-shirt, as if this were a vacation. She had not brushed her hair Her mother had not thought to tell her to brush it, and now it hung down her back in rough waves, with tangles underneath that would hurt to comb out. She might have dreamed school; it felt that unreal. When she was at school, all she wanted was to be not at school. But now that she was not at school, something in her longed, just a little, for the vanilla smell of the ditto sheet on which the week’s test would be printed out in purple. Meanwhile, the familiar streets of East Memphis, blinding in the early-afternoon light, were sliding by, strange to her all over again because she did not usually see them at this time on a weekday.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Susan Pevensie and the Real World's Magic

A while ago Melanie Bettinelli had a post which I've been thinking about ever since, about Susan Pevensie and her "exile" from Narnia. If there's one element more than anything else that can get a lot of modern readers riled about the Narnia books, it's what we hear about Susan's defection. The mention in The Last Battle is in fact very brief:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
This is often characterized by angry readers as "Lewis punishes Susan for growing up" or more specifically "Lewis punishes Susan for being interested in sex and boys".

The idea that Susan is either punished by the author or by Aslan is a bit odd, in that the account which Eustace, Jill, and Polly give of Susan is that Susan has lost all interest in them, not that she's been somehow cut off by them or by the divine or authorial powers in Narnia. It's also kind of interesting who mentions which issues with Susan. Eustace, the youngest of the boys, says that she treats their interest in Narnia as a childish game. Jill, the youngest girl (though she and Eustace must be nearing or in their teens by now) says that Susan is obsessed with being "grown-up". And Polly, who's an adult in perhaps her sixties sees Susan as being fixated on "the silliest time of one's life".

But as Melanie points out, going to Narnia (though not interest in it) is apparently something which in the world of the books one ages out of. At the end of Prince Caspian, Aslan takes Peter and Susan aside for a conversation which Peter describes thus:
"There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we're not coming back to Narnia."

"Never?" cried Edmund and Lucy in dismay.

"Oh, you two are," answered Peter. "At least, from what he said, I'm pretty sure he means you to get back some day. But not Su and me. He says we're getting too old."

"Oh, Peter," said Lucy. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?"

"Well, I think I can," said Peter. "It's all rather different from what I thought. You'll understand when it comes your last time."
Edmund and Lucy reach this same point in regards to Narnia at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Please, Aslan," said Lucy. "Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon."

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are-- are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
I'd remembered well Aslan saying that they must get to know him in our own world. I had forgotten the line "you must begin to come close to your own world now", and as an adult, and keeping in mind the fact that although the Narnia books can certainly be read and enjoyed by adults, they were explicitly written as children's books, not as mainstream genre fantasy books, it seems like an important line. One of the themes that children's books deal with is what it means to encounter the world as a child, and how our encounter with the world must change as we begin to grow up. With its emphasis on talking animals, on evils like "always winter, but never Christmas", Narnia is something of a children's world. Written in the Britain of the 1950s, where mass bombing was a recent memory and rationing of basic food and household necessities was a present reality, children's literature was seen more so than now as a way in which children could escape the dreary reality into a more brightly lit, adventurous world. This ethic is almost the exact opposite of what seems to be a common ethic regarding children's fantasy/adventure lit now: that fantasy adventures provide sheltered child readers a chance to encounter the dark and dangerous things they have no encounter with in reality.

It seems to me that often fantasy readers' reactions to Susan and her abandonment of Narnia is filtered through both their own ideas about sexual awakening and adulthood, and also an implicit F&SF fan belief that stories about other worlds are in a sense dealing with things that are more real than our own world and stories focused on the here and now. Luminaries like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis have made this kind of argument in reasonable ways: that through the medium of "fairy tales" (which we can take more broadly as fantastic worlds in general) we are able to see issues painted large and thus more clearly.

Realistic fiction can indeed become so mired in the specifics of experience that it loses track of their meaning. While Lord of the Rings may have a setting which is not "realistic", its characters deal with a world that has more moral realism than Ian McEwan's Atonement or Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, even though these latter two have theoretically "realistic" historical settings.

Of course, a fantastic setting does not necessarily mean a world in which big issues are handled more explicitly. Indeed, the same ability to write a sub-creation which expresses clearly the way the world works from a Christian or more broadly moral realist perspective allows someone with a different worldview to create a word that expresses their own, different beliefs.

This touches both on why I've found myself almost entirely abandoning science fiction and fantasy as I've gotten older. I still turn back to old favorites, and read books recommended by people whose judgement I trust, but given that most F&SF writers have beliefs which are at odds with my own, I often find reading the worlds which they have created (consciously or unconsciously) to reflect their beliefs tiresome. With realistic fiction, there is at least still the basic tie to how the world works, something which I think grounds an honest writer in a certain amount of reality.

It's through this filter that I find myself thinking about Susan in the Narnia books. All of the older friends of Narnia have been pushed back upon our world. They may get together to talk about Narnia, but they live here. Aslan has told them that they must "begin to come close to your own world", and it is in our own world that they must find truth, decide what is important to build their lives around, and discover our world's Aslan. There may not be swords and endless winters and evil wolves to slay in our wold, but in a very real sense the decisions we make in our everyday lives are of greater weight than these fantasy events. We treat those around us with kindness or cruelty, we struggle to earn a living, to find a spouse, to raise up the next generation. We may not be leading armies or founding dynasties or completing quests, but the stakes are in some sense higher.

As someone who writes and usually reads these kind of stories, rather than the latest other-world epic, I sometimes hear a bit of the accusation in Susan's fate. It's in the nature of fandom -- having a deep interest in things which many other people ignore or scorn -- to see outsiders as somewhat blind and clumsy creatures. When people read Harry Potter, they not only enter into the secret world of wizards the Harry encounters, but often see themselves, fans, as the wizard elect, while outsiders who don't understand these things are the hapless muggles.

Growing up around fandom back before Harry Potter came on the scene, terms like "mundanes" or "normals" were thrown around instead of "muggles". Even as the terms pointed to a basic disconnect between fans and others, there was a dismissive edge to them that could twinge the conscience. In a sort of fan self criticism, in Babylon 5 the true believers in the PsyCorps referred to non-telepathic humans as "mundanes", just as fans referred to non-fans with the same term.

Knowing all the explanations why stories of other worlds are important, walking away from the genre feels rather like Susan's betrayal.  And yet, I think there's a better way to think about this, one which points out how both stories of this world and of others are important.

According to Aslan, the reason why the Pevensie children have come to Narnia is to come to know Aslan better: and I'd argue in this sense we should take "Aslan" broadly, they have come to know goodness and nobility and sacrifice more clearly. And yet Aslan tells them that they are not to turn their backs on our world and focus on Narnia. Indeed, at a certain point they must turn from Narnia to their own. For readers, the experience is similar. We come to Narnia in order to understand more clearly Aslan and the virtues he embodies. But while we are meant always to remember Narnia, we're not meant to try to stay there. We're meant to understand our own world and how to live within it. The problem with Susan is not that she thinks about our world. The Pevensies were told by Aslan to do that. Susan's problem is both that she scorns what they learned in Narnia, brushing it off as unimportant and childish, and also that she has adopted a shallow approach to our own world rather than finding meaning in it.  She has disobeyed the command to know our world better, and instead chosen to embrace frivolities.  It's not treated as wrong that she grew up, but rather that she hasn't grown up. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Rent Control

In RENT's second-act anthem to hedonism, our point of view character leaps on a table and proclaims, "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation!" -- this, in a show where sex results not in pregnancy, but in AIDS.

Perhaps if you are one of the people in life who've always paid the rent no matter what, who've never had the option of figuring that other people will pay the bills, take the responsibility, be the adults, pay the consequences, RENT is more liberating and delightful. I don't know what to tell you, folks. That a show so acclaimed, so popular, so award-winning could be so musically banal, so unintelligible plotwise, so backasswards in message -- having a paying job is literally equated with selling your soul; you can continue to do destructive things that are actually, physically killing you as long as you justify it by saying "No day but today" -- that I wonder if I'm being gaslighted. I feel like I didn't give it a fair shake? Maybe the live production on Fox was so badly done that I missed every good point about this show? Will I find it more compelling if I watch the Broadway production? Does the music make melodic sense if I watch the movie?

Are people so desperate to see representations of their lifestyle on stage and screen that they will grasp at any depiction, no matter how bankrupt? We know how that turns out for Christian art. I would have thought that people in step with the zeitgeist could get a better shake.

I watched RENT with my three oldest daughters, 16, 15, and almost 13. They were unimpressed with the main character's poverty voyeurism, the vicious relationships, the misery of sex work, the leather, latex, masturbation, sodomy, etc. They have a friend whose high school will be putting on RENT this spring. We supposed it didn't matter whether or not the students' parents approved of their children being in the show, as after all, parents are only good for paying the bills, but is it universally accepted by theater professionals that all teens want to do on stage is sing of the triumph of sex? If anyone is possibly uncomfortable with minors on stage celebrating sex and drugs, it's simply because they're prudes, right, and not because there's something inherently dehumanizing about the selfish glorification of pleasure at all costs?

I have long held that the entertainment complex, for all its trumpeting of alternative lifestyles, actually is rather contemptuous is its depiction of gay characters, treating them as caricatures or vehicles for point-scoring. (Religious characters are also treated this way, but no one expects that playwrights or scriptwriters believe that religious people are fully-formed humans.) I think it tells you all you need to know about RENT that Angel, the transvestite character, dies of AIDS whereas Mimi, the heterosexual addicted prostitute, dies but actually comes back to life. Who must die? The transvestite. Who gets a second chance? The straight character. (Angel is also a stand-in for Jesus, whose death is supposed to be transformative for the other characters, but that too is Angel as image, not as person.)

I had heard and disliked Seasons of Love, but now I know why it's the enduring song from Rent -- it's one of the few that actually makes any musical sense. 

Meanwhile, from La Boheme, the inspiration for Rent, Mimi sings about how, even in her poor little white room at the top of a building, the thaw of spring brings her the first kiss of April.

In 150 years, sopranos will still be lining up to sing this, and RENT? It will be a footnote in theater history textbooks.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


I like musical theater pretty well, but I've never checked the 90s cultural moment box by watching Rent -- mostly because I've heard Seasons of Love and didn't find it as inspiring as I was told it was. But tonight at 8/7c, Fox is airing Rent Live, and you know I'm a sucker for live theater on TV... 

I'm going to watch it with some of my older girls as a discussion piece; one of their friends is in the chorus in her high school's production of Rent, so I'd rather them see it with me first. I feel like I'm already biased towards disliking it, but let's see if the show itself can change my mind.  Watch along with me, and let's discuss it afterwards.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues

1 Cor. 12:4-10 — There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit… To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge… to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues… 
Acts 2:1-11 — And when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together… Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, and the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites… yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God…”

On a weekend trip to New York City, Darwin and I attended noon Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, on 65th Ave. We arrived early and had a chance to sit in the empty church and pray. It was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, surprisingly intimate for such a massive gothic space. And up behind the altar, an ensemble was practicing the polyphonic motets for mass. 

This group was exceptionally talented, and their practice involved fine-tuning passages and working on the group dynamic. With the reverb in the space, I could not make out the Latin words, but I could follow the melismatic flow of the vowels, or sequences of repeated phrases sung on “i-i-e”. Even uncomprehended, the sound was glorious and transporting. I could have sat in the space for hours letting the harmonies wash over me.

The second reading for this Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:4-12, about the different gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Perhaps the most controversial item on this list is “varieties of tongues”. I grew up in a community heavily influenced by the Charismatic Renewal, a movement first started by students at Duquesne University in 1967. A hallmark of the Charismatic movement is “speaking in tongues”, a kind of vocalization that is a oral outpouring of a form of ecstatic prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard this phenomenon, which sounds like multi-syllabic babbling (unkindly spoofed somewhere as sounding like an auctioneer’s chant: “Shoulda bought a Honda bought a Ford bought a Ford…”). 

The charisms of the Spirit are many, as 1 Corinthians testifies, and “varieties of tongues” are almost the least of the list. Yet speaking in tongues is a baseline indicator of spiritual openness in the Charismatic community, and reluctance to babble is seen as reluctance to the movings of the Spirit, as blocking the free movement of God in one’s soul. And indeed, Charismatic worship relies heavily on an emotional (and often emotionally manipulative) abandonment, what Nietzsche would have termed the Dionysian side of the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of religious experience. Specifically, what is called praying in tongues is supposed to flow from a sub-rational state in which you are free to make meaningless sounds as you are moved because the meaning can only be understood through the Spirit. (It can easily be simulated, of course, and as there is a certain amount of pressure in Charismatic communities to display this gift, who is to say how intertwined are the urgings of the Spirit and the conscious decision of a person to utter free vocalizations?)

Yet the tongues of Pentecost are not sub-rational. The words the Apostles spoke had a specific meaning, not just in the spiritual realm, but in human, linguistic terms. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, all the nationalities who were in Jerusalem for the feast understood the Apostles in their own language. Not only were the sounds not meaningless, they had a concrete, practical, specific immediate application. The Apostles were not speaking some spiritual language, because there is no spiritual language. Angels, of their own accord, do not speak because they have no bodies, no senses. When they are sent by God as messengers in the Bible, their words are always clear and immediately understood (if not immediately believed). 

We are told in the epistles that the Spirit speaks through us through inexpressible groans and longings, because we do not know how to pray as we ought. And it is true that prayer is turning the heart toward God, and so an outpouring of sound and syllables, directed to God as an act of worship, is prayer. But I do not believe that the Charismatic form of prayer which manifests as singing or chanting of inherently senseless syllables is the Biblical gift of tongues.

There are different spiritual droughts in different eras, but it is incredible that God would have withheld a gift important enough to merit a mention in Holy Writ until 1967.  Even before I heard the mass readings this week, as I sat and listened to the singers behind the altar fine tune phrases and start and break off at the prompting of the conductor, it struck me that in some ways the gift of tongues is much like hearing beautiful music without fully understanding what is being said. There is meaning behind the sound, if only you could understand it, but even so the structure and the rhythm and the talent of the singers conveys something significant. It is not an individual babbling, but a highly complex, highly intelligent communication. You can feel the underlying coherence, even if you cannot understand exactly what is being said. It is super-rational, not sub-rational — when the meaning is revealed to reason, suddenly new layers of comprehension are available to the mind and to the senses.

After communion, the ensemble sang the piece I’d heard them rehearsing earlier, and now I had a worship aid that I could consult for the title of the piece, the Latin words, and their English translation. The text was about the wedding of Cana, which had been the gospel reading, and the repeated, interwoven vowel pattern of “i-i-e” I had heard earlier now resolved itself into “bibite”: drink. The head waiter of the wedding feast drank the wine poured from the water jars, the guests drank and were satisfied, Jesus pours out his blood for us to drink, I drank in the music which until then had carried all beauty and emotion of this moment without revealing its meaning. And I praised God for the gift of tongues given to me through the singers, through the conductor, through the composer, through a language I didn’t understand myself. 

Small surprise that in 1967, as that gift of being able to worship in a language not understood was being withdrawn from the American church, people should long for renewal and for the ability to lose oneself in sound and praise. Small wonder that as the liturgy became basic and comprehensible and banalized, people should still long for the emotional release of waves of sound, human voices rising and falling in ecstasy. We have a human need to pray in a way that overwhelms our senses, and the human need to have that experience interpreted to us so that it becomes even richer and fuller and more significant, because worship is not an individual act but a communal event. Like the gift of tongues, worship is something that has an underlying meaning and structure which is immediately apparent, if not fully understood. And once it is interpreted, it stirs into flames which come to rest on each of us. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” asked the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, as he interpreted the scriptures for them. That gift of tongues is, I think, not just the physical gift of making vocal sound, but the burning of our hearts within us as we hear something that is too much for us to comprehend immediately. And may God send us interpreters so that our individual burning becomes subsumed in the larger fire of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Stopping the Outrage Cycle

MrsDarwin and I spent the weekend on a jaunt to New York City, a chance both to see in person some friends we'd been in a book discussion group with online and also to get away alone together for a couple of nights now that the baby is weened. The periods during our marriage when there has been no nursing baby have been fairly short, and so we always try to make sure to use those opportunities to get some time along together.

This meant that I had a certain distance from the social media vortex that kicked into gear as everyone spent twenty-four hours arguing about whether a snippet of video from the intersection of the March For Life and the Indigenous Peoples March represented MAGA hat-wearing Catholic high school boys mocking an aged tribal leader, or a leftist counter-protester provoking a reaction and then perpetrating a scam with the assistance of the media. For a fair-minded description of an entire hour-plus video providing context to the video snippets that were shared on social media, you can read this post at Medium by a liberal Democrat who cares about the facts of the situation.

My purpose here is not to dissect this particular event. In terms of the outrage cycle, it is utterly typical. Someone is accused of doing something which confirms all of the other side's political prejudices about their opponents. Everyone shares around versions of the story, with links and memes sweeping through social media over the course of just a few hours. People assert that to keep quiet is to be Part Of The Problem, and everyone needs to denounce the other side because this is exactly the sort of awful thing they do. Then somewhere out in the more excitable reaches of the internet, which are legion, someone digs up the personal information of the people involved. They post this so that people can more conveniently express their outrage. Half the time they finger the wrong person, but regardless, soon all the people at the center of the outrage are being sent death threats, having their jobs or schools called and asked to get rid of them, etc. By a few days later, the specifics of the case are forgotten by everyone except the couple of sacrificial victims who have had their real lives savaged by the online mob, while everyone else goes back to the constant hum of political antagonism which is the cosmic background radiation of our political climate -- both sides more sure that the other side is made up of villainous haters who treat others badly.

The reasons that people find these stories so satisfying to read and spread are themselves toxic, as the C. S. Lewis quote that everyone is now, the day after, sharing around describes:

"The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

There are two layers of lesson important to take from this. First off, in this specific case, there was an injustice done to a group of young people and one young man in particular, as people whose desire to see right wing pro-lifers look like arrogant racists shared around a story which turned out to be false in virtually every detail. A good lesson from this would be: Stop. Wait. Check your biases. Is this story “too good to check”? Can it be confirmed or will it fall apart within twenty-four hours as other sources and witnesses come forward. Are you really doing the world any great disservice by not sharing and commenting on the story the minute it comes before you, in its raw, unproven form?

It would be good if this particular case, in which many basically fair-minded people have had cause to admit that the first reactions they shared were wrong, caused people to at least slow down and wait until a story is confirmed before passing it on. But I would to propose that our online culture needs a much larger change in behavior. Even when a story is confirmed, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why it is that people are so busy sharing stories of small incidents of hate from across the country.

When someone shares the story of how a synagogue they never knew about before that day was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, or how an illegal immigrant in some far away state committed some heinous crime, we aren’t helping the person injured and we’re seldom changing the minds of those around us. We’re re-enforcing our conviction that the people on the other side are bad. If you know nothing about your neighbor who voted the opposite you did, but paint him with the brush of incidents you read about online about the behavior of “MAGA rednecks” or “Social Justice Warriors”, you are adding to the radicalization of the country. And even if you might think it a good thing if many people were more radically on your side, you need to realize that this controversies always cut both ways, pushing some people more radically to your side while pushing others more radically to the other.

That is bad enough, and I would argue that we should reconsider a lot of the sharing of bad stories that we do simply in order to show how bad the other side is, because it causes us to caricature people in this way. But I think we also need to consider just what kind of beast it is that we’re feeding by sharing these videos and retweets and hot takes. Inevitably, when one of these stories takes off, the real people involved in it are hunted down by online vigilante mobs who post their home addresses, swamp their social media pages, send them threats of violence and death, contact their family and schools and employers, and generally try to destroy their lives just in order to satisfy some primal need for a pound of flesh to be taken from the guilty. These mob punishments are arbitrary, sometimes ill aimed, and usually far more severe than the offense would warrant. It’s typical for the “responsible” social media users to decry the fact that these things happen. “Of course, doxing someone is always wrong.”

So fine, we murmur the pieties. But I increasingly think that we need to consider the fact that doxing, threats, and the destruction of people’s reputations in ways far exceeding any kind of justice are the inevitable result of these outrage firestorms. We need also to consider that there are content sites and social media accounts that make their money and their reputations (and thus owe their existence) to instantly running with any story capable of stoking outrage. The likes and shares and clicks are lifesblood to them. So when we share and like and retweet and comment on the outrage of the moment, we are feeding the outrage beast, encouraging those accounts and media outlets to share faster and check less and distort more in their eagerness to reap the most outrage clicks. And that outrage beast is not just encouraging us and our friends to hate ‘the other’, that beast is also the carrier mechanism for the even more vicious behavior of threats and harassment and personal destruction. Even if we ourselves say we reject the doxing and the threats, by helping to spread the outrage we inevitably help to make the threats and harassment worse.

The solution is to stop feeding these social media fires more oxygen. You’re not saving democracy and decency when you instantly share the latest outrage link or like someone’s hot take on it. You’re chipping one more flake off the foundations of our common civilization and fanning the fire just a little more.

This doesn’t mean that you need to ignore bad behavior or say nothing about how we can do better. Write your take about how MAGA hats have no place at a pro-life march or about the right way to respond to a ‘pro-choice escort’ screaming obscenities in your face. But break the outrage cycle. Don’t share the latest “oh my gosh, did you see this terrible person” story. Don’t thoughtlessly quip that someone should be fired or expelled or made to know what it feels like, because there’s someone out there online who is going to act on that chorus of suggestions.

I know that I am only one small voice against the whirlwind here. The very structure of the technologies that I’m going to share this post on reinforces the behavior that I’m saying we should avoid. But we don’t have to have any realistic chance of stopping all the bad online behavior to curtail our own. Even if it seems like just as many people are sharing toxic takes next week, if we don’t we ourselves will be better people, less poisoned by the need to characterize others, and we will each be doing our own small part to make things better.