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

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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Advertising Masculinity

I finally succumbed to the viral marketing attempt and watched the Gillette ad about toxic masculinity that everyone's been talking about. (embedded below)

It's an interesting example of the attempt to prove that there's no such thing as bad publicity, in that it doesn't talk about all about razors and was probably guaranteed to annoy a lot of men (who in theory would be their target audience, unless this is actually mostly to push their "lady razor" segment, which given its prices may be more valuable.)

I suppose at some level they're trying to create an association of "good men = men who use Gillette" but they don't put much work into that association and I think their message is also probably going to be hampered by the fact that the most memorable parts of the add are the "men are the WORST" images of packs of feral teens and long lines of men behind grills saying in sync "boys will be boys". The images in the second half of men intervening and demonstrating good behavior are not the most memorable images in the spot.

The structure of the ad makes "men are bad" seem like the most memorable message. If they wanted to go with more of a "men should do right" message I think it would have been more effective to have some sort of a throughline to hang the "men doing right' message on. Their final image is of a boy seeing his father intervene to stop bullying. If their throughline was, "I learned a lot from my father..." and showed him stopping bullying, telling him cat-calling was unacceptable, keeping a promise, whatever. And then they could even have wrapped up with the dad also giving the lesson, "Get a shave. You look scruffy." which would have tied it back to the actual product.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The University and the Flash Mob

Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater, proclaims in the proud words of president Fr. Sean Sheridan:
How do we educate and evangelize a culture in crisis? And how do we equip a generation raised in that culture to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.  
As president of Franciscan University, those are questions I think about every day. They go straight to the heart of our mission and the challenges we currently face. 
Recently, Franciscan University has come under fire from critics of our University community who have accused us of compromising our Catholic mission and witness. These critics could not be more wrong. 
Today, as always, Franciscan University is committed to forming joyful, intentional disciples who can proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. Today, as always, Franciscan University remains academically excellent, completely faithful to the teaching of the Church, and passionately Catholic. And today, as always, Franciscan University wants to serve God and the Church by educating and raising up a new generation of humble, holy, faithful Catholic leaders equipped to evangelize the culture.
Academic excellence is the first quality proclaimed by Franciscan, as well it should be. The purpose of a university should be academic excellence, else why should it exist? And how does a university combine academic excellence with passionate Catholicism and a goal of educating and evangelizing a culture in crisis?
Recently at FUS, an upper-level class tried to combine these aims. Five students under the direction of Dr. Steven Lewis, the chair of the English department, studied books that compared and contrasted modern views of Catholicism and faith, including works which exemplified the "culture in crisis" which Fr. Sheridan has committed the university to evangelizing . One of these books was Emmanuel Carèrre's The Kingdom (2018), of which First Things says:
The genius and the apostle are alike, according to Kierkegaard, in that both bring new ideas into the world. But there’s a crucial difference. Geniuses are ahead of their time, and, consequently, the knowledge they bring forth always “disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race.” Thus we take it as a given in the twenty-first century that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Mona Lisa is printed on shower curtains and beach towels. But the apostle’s message is eternal, outside of time. Because of this, it can never be assimilated. The topsy-turvy logic of the Gospels—in which the last shall be first and the meek will inherit the earth—remains permanently paradoxical, never to be absorbed by ideas of progress. Every incursion of eternity retains the power to shock. 
In many ways, Emmanuel ­Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, is about just this irreducible strangeness of ­Christianity: a church in which the low are made high, and the least qualified candidate for any job—the stutterer, the outcast, the murderer—is invar­iably the person whom God chooses to help build his kingdom on earth. Carrère himself is one such unlikely candidate. Born in Paris in 1957, he has achieved success in France as a novelist, biographer, and writer for film and TV. As this truncated CV suggests, he has a penchant for combining genres. The Kingdom is itself half autobiography and half fictionalized account of the early Christian Church. The autobiographical portion centers on Carrère’s early to mid-thirties, when a bout of writer’s block plunged him first into crisis and then into Catholicism with a convert’s zeal. For three years, he attended Mass daily, prayed and observed the sacraments devotedly, and filled twenty notebooks with his own commentary on the Gospels, until the time he now refers to as his “Christian period” came to an end.
Dr. Lewis taught this class once, and then opted not to use The Kingdom again. While it was unquestionably a study of a modern mind grappling with Catholicism, it also contains a scene in which Carèrre, watching late night pornography, indulges in an explicit, blasphemous, banal meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary participating with the actresses. It's sordid and paltry in the way that people who think they are so edgy often are. In a way that the culture which needs evangelization often is.

The website Church Militant, which specializes in a kind of tabloid Catholicism, learned of this incident post facto, and rolled it into a larger exposé on the liberalization of Franciscan University. This article, despite containing no background information about the course, no details of its enrollment, and no interviews with Dr. Lewis, did offer for readers' breathless consideration an explicit section of the book, with only the sheerest cosmetic editing of offensive words. (I won't link to it, and if you're inclined to google it, you should know that Church Militant derives income from people clicking through to their site.) The reason given for sharing this material with the entire internet was to protest Franciscan University's use of it in a class, to lament the outrage to the Blessed Virgin, and to demand the firing of Prof. Lewis and an apology from the administration for having exposing young minds to such filth in an academic setting. Included were anonymous speculations about planned left-wing coups to destroy FUS's Catholic identity, with Prof. Lewis's class being one example of such a direction. (Current faculty member Bob Rice, not speaking anonymously, offers some analysis of these claims.)

I am not sure that the standard practiced by Church Militant would pass muster with Franciscan University's freshman journalism classes, but as a method of sparking pious outrage, it is very effective. A day or so after Church Militant's article was posted, Fr. Sheridan offered a new statement on how a Catholic university should operate:

The existing policy on academic freedom will be revised. Reading material will not be at the discretion of tenured professors, the University's own hires, but at the sufferance of internet lynch mobs who can barely finish one outrage cycle before leaping on a fresh cause. Shortly after this statement, Prof. Lewis was removed as chair of the English department. Not content with the scalp, Church Militant is demanding the whole head, insisting that Prof. Lewis be fired. And the online outrage machine will move on, will demand that Something Be Done about the next cause, and the partisans will be suffused with the righteous thrill of action until the day the machine comes to devour their diocese, their parish, their apostolate, their reputation.

There can be, and should be, debate about how to best understand and engage with a intellectual culture which is often hostile to Catholic moral teaching and practices. Not every student needs to prepare to evangelize the culture in the same way. We need faithful theologians, doctors, nurses, elementary teachers, theater artists, classicists, engineers, computer programmers, biologists, and journalists. And we need Catholic intellectuals. Students from FUS, going on in academia, preparing for graduate studies, will soon be confronted with programs, professors, reading material, and other students who will challenge their faith and their critical thinking skills and clarity of communication.

And make no mistake, even pompous intellectuals who pride themselves on being edgy enough to compare the BVM to porn stars deserve to be evangelized. God considers no person beyond the pale of his love. And so perhaps a few people studying how to evangelize the culture through literature and academia might be called to study that particular culture, to better counter it, and introduce it to God's love in words it can hear.

The point is, if we want magazines like First Things to provide intellectual and spiritual context for us, or reviewers who can intelligently dissect art house films and show the culture how those works are flawed even on their own terms, where do we expect those Catholic intellectuals to come from if our Catholic universities are too tender to train them? Must every professor of literature be a convert who came up on the mean streets of Harvard or U. of Chicago?

If FUS wants to recruit a higher caliber of student, if it wants alumni capable of determining how a crank website is trying to manipulate its readers, if it wants to maintain the morale of its teachers and attract quality talent, perhaps it will consider a stronger brand of intellectual and moral fortitude in the face of a internet flash mob who by next month will have forgotten that this fracas ever took place. 

Quick Takes

1. Swedish Death Cleaning and the Anorexic Home. A good take on the recent trend of de-cluttering and tidying up.
Four years ago, when Marie Kondo’s four-million-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was first published in English, the initial reaction to its extreme form of home minimalism was predictable enough. To her readers, Kondo’s endearingly animistic ethos (famously, she writes that rolling up one’s socks is cruel to the sock, that socks should be lovingly folded, so they can rest after a long day “trapped between your foot and your shoe”) and punishing principle of nothing extra, was a welcome reprieve against the excesses of home-related consumerism. Even though it was an instant best-seller, the book came across as a cult object, countercultural in the way that becoming a monk is countercultural. With Kondo, the key to a happier, more fortunate life is to throw nearly everything away, even useful things, keeping only the very few items that “spark joy” when held. In Kondo’s world, one might only need four teacups and two dishtowels. After so much bullying Nespresso-and-thread-count lunacy, the sort of thinking that could make a temp office worker making $15,000 a year believe a dual climate-controlled wine locker (available at Wal-Mart for less than $400) is a “home essential,” entering Kondo’s ladylike realm of precious spareness, where you always know where your keys are because there is nothing else on your hallway table, ever, could feel like tip-toeing into a quiet patch of sanity. You had been choking under an avalanche of stuff, and look! All you’d ever needed was a single river rock in the palm of your hand. 
It can sound healthy enough, even sensible, with living space shrinking, and open-plan architecture (which does away with those useful clutter containers called walls) still inexorably on the rise. But the problem of a Marie Kondo in a shopaholic consumer society is that even the best-intentioned minimalism turns into more consumerism, just of a more demanding, neurotic sort. The relentless paring down is a convenient and ongoing clearing of the stage for some fresh, as-yet unmet, un-acquired object which—unlike those other familiar ones grown boring or distasteful with time—has the box-fresh ability to give jollies. And neurotic it is; Kondo herself admits that her need to organize and strip down does not come from a place of great mental health. She writes how, by the age of five, she could not help but compulsively clean not just her personal spaces, but those of her siblings and parents as well; how she was once traumatized—to the point of crying at the very memory—by a shampoo bottle that had developed a slimy bottom in a humid bathroom. “From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child,” she writes. “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” No amount of quasi-religious your-socks-have-feelings pillow-talk can turn “It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends” into anything but a good reason to seek therapy. Photos of Kondo’s own apartment show not just a white sofa and rug, but white everything, an anorexic space meant to be viewed as the apex of serene livability that no average person could—and, I would add, should—possibly feel comfortable living in.

2. The Weird Mouths of Finch Chicks. 

3. Brandon with a fantastic post on Structures of Fantasy.
In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn identifies four major forms of fantasy literature, by looking at the way in which the fantastic enters into the story, which might be roughly characterized in the following way, using Mendlesohn's labels:

(1) Portal-Quest: The characters enter by some means into a fantastic world.
(2) Immersive: The story occurs in a fantastic world treated as the real world.
(3) Intrusion: The fantastic enters into and disrupts the real world as something foreign to it.
(4) Liminal: The fantastic enters into the real world as if it were part of the real world.

I think we can generalize this a bit, and a notation would be handy in doing so. So let's take a standard set-up, the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic:


There are a few things that need to be recognized about this distinction. It will be important for later that the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic is relative, not absolute; the mundane is the 'rest state' or 'reference point' in the narrative. 'Mundane' here is not a synonym for 'real' and something obviously real can be fantastic relative to someone else. (And both are common parts of human experience. If you fall asleep and dream and then wake-up, you've from mundane to fantastic to mundane again. If you walk through a dark wood and get creeped out, you're in a fantastic state relative to your usual state.) Despite its possibly counterintuitive sound, the fantastic is also the more fundamental of the two notions -- nothing in a narrative is recognizable as mundane except in contrast to the fantastic, but the fantastic in a narrative is fantastic directly to the hearer or reader. While it's tempting to talk about 'the mundane world' and 'the fantastic world', in many situations we are not talking about worlds, but just states or contexts.

The notation we have so far doesn't of itself constitute any sort of story at all; it's just the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic. To get a story we have to do something to that contrast. There are several things we can do.

A mundane element can move into a fantastic context.

A fantastic element can move into a mundane context. 
A context recognizable as mundane can turn out also to be fantastic. 
A context recognizable as fantastic can be treated as mundane. 
These correspond to Mendlesohn's four major kinds of fantasy (portal-quest, intrusion, liminal, and immersive, respectively). However, again, I want to understand these at a more general level; this is not an empirical classification, but a kind of narrative movement. To these four, I think we need to add a fifth: 
It can be deliberately ambiguous whether we are dealing with the mundane or fantastic. (This is often how writers try to handle Christmas stories in movies and television shows -- everything is mundane and not fantastic, but there's that one strange thing, so that maybe you were dealing with the fantastic all along? That department store Santa couldn't have really been Santa Claus -- and yet....)
4. The kids went on a Harry Potter binge over Christmas, reading all the books and watching all the movies. Of course, we had to watch these as well:

5. It's also a good time to watch this... or did we lose an hour, and so there's no time?

6. Now you can own Ruth Bader Ginsburg's crocheted collar in metal lace form:

7. Amy Welborn writes about the Prosperity Gospel:
You might see and hear some of this: 
Through faith, I came to understand my purpose and look at the success I’ve found because of that. 
Through faith, I came to see and accept how beautiful I am, and what true beauty is. 
Because of faith, I feel great about myself and affirm my life as amazing and accomplished. 
This is hard, this is tricky, and I hope I can tease this apart correctly. Because I’m sure this might be striking you as just wrong. Because isn’t that  part of what faith is? In accepting Jesus as Lord of my life, aren’t I opening myself to a re-orientation, a proper understanding of myself and my relationship to the world that’s going to bear this fruit? 
True. All that is fruit of a relationship with Christ. 
Plot twist: But it’s really not that important, either. 
And it’s certainly not the center of the spiritual life, as traditionally understood. It’s irrelevant to the core of it and, in the end, is a distraction, and – if used as a selling point evangelization tool, only part of the way to that core.
 8. And Bearing responds with a post about consolations as a form of Prosperity Gospel:
Consolations are, in the writings of the saints and in the writings of the magisterium, the opposite of affliction.   These are free gifts of happiness, contentment, felt blessings, confidence in the presence of God, strong feelings of conviction. All bestowed by God on some of the faithful, and occasionally understood to be withdrawn from them by God, as a means of increasing their (or someone's) growth in faith. 
Numerous saints have warned Christians against mistaking the consolation for something it is not. It is not (necessarily) a reward or a punishment; it is certainly not a reliable indication of the holiness of the individual, such that holier people receive more or fewer consolations; and while we may hope for consolations, we are expressly warned against making the consolation the end that we seek. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Working Off Yesterday's Technology

Our second eldest daughter has recently developed an interest in photography and video, for which she bought herself a DSLR camera. However, in the process of explaining things like depth of field, focus, f-stop, and ISO, I'd pulled out my old film SLR cameras which I haven't used in 8+ years in order to explain some concepts. She was interested enough that on her Christmas list she included "rolls of film so I can try Dad's old cameras".

The first thing I checked was whether it was possible to get film developed these days. There were two reasons I finally stopped shooting film. One was that when we bought our first iPhones, I finally succumbed to the convenience of always having a camera in my pocket (even if it wasn't nearly as good) and stopped hauling around the Pentax SLR that was older than I was. The other was that as other people started abandoning film, the surviving local photo labs in grocery and drugstores were clearly decreasing in quality. I had several roles of film ruined by poor handling, and between that and the temptation to have the picture RIGHT NOW in order to email or post it, I'd stopped using the film cameras. The answer is that yes, there are still active photo labs in 2019, both a few down in Columbus proper and also pro/enthusiast labs that do lots of business by mail.

Indeed, as I read around, it turns out that there's a mini-resurgence of interest in film photography in the last few years. Like the resurgence in turntable and vinyl records, film photography is no longer turned to by the mass public as the easiest way to get something done, but there is a community of enthusiasts, both amateurs and professionals, who are now using film cameras not because they're the only way to take pictures, but because they offer specific advantages compared to modern technology: the process of taking pictures and waiting for results is different, the grain of the film emulsion provides a different look from the product of a digital light sensor (though there are apps that can modify digital pictures to have similar looks), and medium and large format film formats objectively gather more detail than even the newest standard DSLR sensors.

There's also a combination of nostalgia and cheapness which is attractive to hobbyists. Because most people have moved on to using smartphones and digital cameras to take pictures, there's a huge number of abandoned film cameras around the country. Thus, the price for buying up old film cameras is very low. The ones which are most sought after now are generally not the highly computerized and motorized auto-everything models which were common shortly before digital photography caused the film photography industry to crash. Because of all their electrical systems, those cameras are hard to maintain in a world where there are no longer many camera repair shops servicing film cameras. Also, they provide a shooting experience not that different from a modern digital camera. The only difference is that all that technology was directed towards exposing film to light rather than exposing a digital sensor to light. Instead, the cameras being picked up used and discussed on "analog photography" sites appear to mostly be older, mostly or all-mechanical cameras of the sort that were made from the 1950s through the 1980s. You can pick up a professional quality all-mechanical 35mm or medium format camera for one or two hundred dollars, and not only have a well-made camera with few electrical parts to fail, but also an interesting, vintage-looking conversation piece. With all metal parts and mechanical controls rather than digital ones, one of these cameras could have decades of use left in it if well taken care of.

But of course, this glut of old cameras coming out of closets and drawers and onto eBay and used camera shops is necessarily a temporary phenomenon. While there are now many more old cameras than there are film photographers, if no one is repairing them professionally and no one is manufacturing new ones, the "my camera is broken, I'll buy another" trick won't work forever. And less visibly, the machinery used by film companies and developing labs is also getting increasingly old. This has caused some worried about the future of film photography to ask, even during the resurgence, is film photography really saved?

The economics of this are fascinating to me. Here there's a devoted but small following of a seemingly out of date technology, and the question becomes: Is their interest sustainable past the the point where they use up the left-over technology to which they're attached. Or can the old technology simply be made to last?

I've seen one version of this play out at a distance hearing my mother talk about the enthusiasm which quilters still have for Singer Featherweight sewing machines: a simply, metal construction, portable sewing machine made from the 1930s to the 1950s and still treasured, used, and maintained by a devoted community of fans. There are now aftermarket companies making parts to maintain singers, and repair shops working on them. But no one has come in to manufacture a new featherweight, despite the fact it clearly has a devoted fan base.

Vinyl records (about which I'll admit I know little) have apparently pushed past that threshold, and there are now companies making new records and new record players.

It remains to be seen whether analog photography fans will make this same jump. A recent kickstarter to build a new 35mm SLR camera to appear to the analog photography community did get funded last year. However it's currently delayed in manufacturing it's camera due to difficulties getting some of the parts needed in sufficient quantities from suppliers used to working with digital camera makers or supplying small numbers of parts to repair shops.

Meanwhile, in the even more exclusive space of large format cameras using sheet film rather than roll film, the Intrepid Camera Company in the UK has got off the ground selling new large format cameras.

I don't know how all this will work out. But it's an interesting discovery, and in the meantime, I'll take advantage of it to try shooting some film again.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Dead People's Stuff

When I heard that one of our local antiques stores was closing, I was stricken with guilt. I am the problem small local businesses face, the person who is rah-rah for independent shops and yet never actually patronizes them. So I hied me down on December 23, the penultimate day, to browse through the booths and see if I could find a Christmas present or two.

What I found was that the store was closing not because local shoppers were penurious, but because the building had been sold out from under them. That's a sign of the real estate market in our town -- pretty hopping among the old downtown area where we live. In the Federalist buildings of our one or two main streets, microbreweries and on-trend restaurants have sprouted like dandelions. In the former newspaper building, a co-working space is under construction, complete with some big metal framework which blocks the historic facade.

Our downtown was built in an era in which buildings were decorative as well as substantial. Some structures will never look better than the day they were constructed -- our former suburban box house was one of them. Others even decay beautifully. Every few months I drive past a huge, elegant, abandoned house, probably past the point of salvage by now, and think how gloriously it could be restored. No one's ever been inspired by vacant strip mall.

It's easy to fetishize the past, to think that if something has endured for a long time, it must be chockful of some kind of significance, if only we could tease it out. The idea of roaming through an antiques store and finding a hidden treasure has a hold on the popular imagination, because why would someone preserve something so carefully unless it were valuable in some way? Lots of reasons, as it turns out. Inertia. Guilt. Personal significance. Family history. All motives that have nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the item itself.

All this was on display at Dead People's Stuff, as the antiques store was so charmingly named. Booths were brimful of things that had been preserved from the past. Some were originally useful -- old gloves, kitchen utensils, farm implements, cookbooks, pie safes, buttons, keys. Some were decorative. A rare few were beautiful. But most of it was just Stuff, the detritus of earlier lives. I have had to furnish a theater set, and know how helpful it can be to find a repository of odds and ends. Yet once those odds and ends are disconnected with the lives that gave them meaning, they are simply ugly junk.

Perhaps a working definition of art is something that has beauty and value in and of itself, without reference to its creation or who owned it. Or maybe that's too subjective still. I looked at the bulging shelf of Hummel figurines and saw kitsch that would be no loss to the world were it to be smashed (which was perhaps the view of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, who reluctantly licensed her sketches of local children [artwork detested by Hitler himself] to a figurines company to help support her convent). Others see adorable innocence immortalized in ceramic.

At my own house, on a shelf in my daughter's bedroom, is one of those figurines of girls in a big ballgown, something like a friend of mine used to get every birthday. Our dancing girl came with the house, and I would have no qualms about throwing it away, but my daughter thinks it's pretty and likes to keep it. It's neither a matter of faith or morals or space or unified design choices or my having to see it all the time, so I allow it. But to me it's Dead People's Stuff, of no worth independently.

All creation should tell of the glory of God. One of my life goals is to keep from bringing into the house anything that, should we all vanish, would just be junk someone will have to dispose of. Certain kinds of plastic toys fit that bill. Books not worth the paper they're printed on. Electronics that will be obsolete in a year or two. Cheap clothes that wear out before they're out of fashion. Craft projects that shed pieces. Hobby equipment forgotten in a closet. You can't take it with you, of course. But often, you shouldn't have gotten it in the first place.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

On The Road

Going all the way back to our years of dating in college, MrsDarwin and I have always enjoyed driving together. We're both calm drivers, and sitting next to each other eating up the miles is a great way to get time to talk together. Talking together is something we always like.

Well, today we drove 2.5 hours to Cincinnati in the afternoon and then the same 2.5 back in the evening and didn't talk at all. The reason is that we were not sitting next to each other. I was in the passenger seat, and our eldest daughter was driving.

Ohio requires 50 hours of behind the wheel practice before one can take the driving test. Eldest Daughter is within five hours of that total after this trip, and we're trying to get her last hours in so she can take the test in the next couple weeks.

We're past the white knuckle stage of driving. I can now relax quite well while watching her drive, and although she's still at the total-focus stage of driving, she's no longer scared by it.

But in a year where we seem to keep having cause to contemplate the shifting stages of life -- it may just be a number, but turning forty seems to take us that way -- this seems yet another milestone.

Depending on who goes to college where, we will have at least one at-home offspring of driving age for most of the next 17 years, so I imagine there will be lots of drives during which we can't sit next to each other and discuss the sorts of things which come to mind when you've nothing to do but talk to each other for several hours at a time. And then, there will, we hope, be long years of sitting in the pilot and co-pilot seat together, having long talks as we drive into the sunset.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

The Holy Name of Jesus

In honor of the Holy Name of Jesus, a repost from 2013:

Today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, one of my favorite devotions. There are so many feasts devoted to Jesus in his various manifestations: The Sacred Heart, Christ the King, Christmas. Yet the richness of this devotion is that it is almost a celebration of Jesus as beloved. The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus is the tenderest prayer I know. It is simply whispering the loved one's name over and over, with various endearments and praises and cataloging of virtues.

Jesus, most amiable.
Jesus, most admirable.
Jesus, the mighty God.
Jesus, Father of the world to come.
Jesus, angel of great counsel.
Jesus, most powerful.
Jesus, most patient.
Jesus, most obedient.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart.
Jesus, lover of chastity.
Jesus, lover of us.
Jesus, God of peace.
Jesus, author of life.
Jesus, example of virtues.
Jesus, zealous lover of souls.
Jesus, our God.

This is a time when names have gained a great deal of prominence. No longer are Mary and John the top ranking monikers -- parents put much time and thought into finding just the perfect expression of their baby's potential personality and ambition. Everyone has a chance to reinvent himself or herself with an online handle or three. We allow names to define us in one little mouthful. The devotion to the Holy Name, therefore, ought to be the ideal devotion now. The name of Jesus is not arbitrary -- it was divinely revealed to Mary as the right name for God's son. It means "God saves", and "God saves" means Jesus. The name itself has power to bind demons and to give strength. The name itself is lovable.

Brandon has posted a lovely poem by George Herbert on the Holy Name.