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

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, for 7th Graders

Tuesday was the feast of St. Matthew, and it was also the third meeting of my Seventh-Grade Bible Study on the Gospel of Matthew. We meet in the cozy attic space on the third floor of the Federal-era parish office building (once the rectory), not in a classroom, because we are not a class. We do not have quizzes or textbooks or homework. No one is required to read in public. Each attendee has a notebook and a pen in case doodling helps them to listen, but no one has to take notes or write if they don't want to. What we do is read Matthew, chapter by chapter.

When I first started in on religious education with this grade level, someone told me, "Oh, this is an exciting time. They have so many questions!" Friends, today's seventh-graders do not have so many questions. What they want most of all is not to stand out in any way. They do not want to venture an opinion that can be criticized. They do not want to sound stupid. They do not want to sound smart. And they do not know enough to have even formulated questions.

Perhaps you are a catechist at St. Brag's School for Gifted Tweens, and your experience is different. I can only speak from my near-decade of working in religious ed. with your average public-schooled middle-American middle-schoolers. They do not need more classroom time. They are glutted with school, even and especially when it's virtually miserable. They need something gentle, led by someone gentle. They need to hear, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourself. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

And they need to hear it from Christ's own mouth, not rehashed in a textbook or explained by a glossy video course. They need to meet God as he wants us to know him: through the humanity of Jesus. And -- get this! -- some people even wrote books in which Jesus's actual deeds and words are preserved in the fascinating format of a story, not a textbook or a manual of ethics. This story is universally appealing. You don't have to be super-intelligent to understand it, or already pious. It transcends all racial differences and class lines and age groups. It is literally how God wants us to understand him.

We are not using a prescribed study guide or a packaged program. These things are all very well and good, and necessary in certain contexts, but it is vitally important for kids to see that reading the scripture is not the domain of professional Catholics --  that someone in their very parish can just open up the Bible and talk about it. The DRE wisely requires me to submit notes a week ahead of time on points I want to draw out of each chapter as we read, which keeps me honest in actually preparing for Bible study and not just winging it each week because I can.

So far we've covered the first four chapters of Matthew. I read a section, and then we go back for a deep dive, verse by verse if it comes to that. I do all the reading, because I know most of my kids are petrified by the idea of reading in front of others, and I am running a Bible study, not a boot camp for self-esteem. (This is no hardship for me because I love reading out loud, and since we're all wearing masks it helps that I'm loud and enunciate clearly.) I ask questions and see if I get any answers, and if not I answer the questions myself. Once a class I will go around and ask each person to tell me something about what we've read so far, even if it's just one word. Sometimes it is only one word, but this past week I got complete sentences, and even some laughs and jokes about the eating of locusts and wild honey. 

This is exactly the engagement I expected with this study, and I am well-pleased. The kids are content to listen to the word of God, and what more can I want? The Word itself is living and effective, taking root in a way that no words of mine could ever do. Some sections, like the genealogy in the first chapter, do need more in-depth explanation, but for the most part, Matthew is not inaccessible. He has a good narrative, and he tells it engagingly. Jesus walks by the shore and says, "Follow me" -- and we do.

Here are my notes on Matthew 1-4. We have three meetings a month through April or May, which is slightly more than one chapter a week. I have it all mapped out week by week, but I don't think much more than a month ahead for planning purposes. I'm very excited for October, when we'll read Matthew 5-7: the Sermon on the Mount.


First Class: Introductions and Matthew Ch. 1


Gather, name tags, get Bibles and get settled.


Begin Introductions



Do you have much experience reading the Bible? Does your family read the Bible? Tell me one thing you know about the Bible.


Introduction to Bible Study

What is the Bible? The Inspired Word of God, written by human authors influenced by their own times and places, but always through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

“Bible” comes from the Greek word “biblios”, meaning “library”. It’s not meant to be read straight through from beginning to end, but like a library, books are in different sections and genres, and have different purposes. And some are easier to understand than others.

What are the parts of the Bible? It is centered on Jesus, with the Old Testament pointing to him, the New Testament examining how to live life through him. (Other kinds of books: historical, Wisdom, Prophets, Epistles, etc.)

What are the Gospels? The heart of the Bible, the “Good News”: the accounts of Jesus’s life and deeds and words. Some of them are written by eyewitnesses; others are accounts written by people who interviewed those who knew Jesus.

Jesus is how God chooses to reveal Himself to us. His words are God literally speaking to us. The best way to come to know Jesus is through His own words, and that’s what we’ll be reading in the Gospel of Matthew.

Questions answered throughout.

Introduction to Matthew

Who wrote the four Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Scholars disagree on which book came first -- the consensus used to be Mark, but there is good evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was actually the first written. 

Who is Matthew? A Jewish man, a disciple of Jesus, writing about what he has heard and has seen with his own eyes for a Jewish audience.  A former tax collector for the Romans -- one of the outcasts whom Jesus welcomed and forgave. Since Matthew is Jewish, he is always making connections to the Old Testament prophecies and stories.

Matthew’s theme is “God With Us”. He starts the book with Jesus’s title of Emmanuel, which means “God With Us”; he ends the Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). This is Good News!


Matthew, Chapter 1

Read aloud and discuss as we go. Questions answered throughout. (Any of these talking points can be skipped or glossed over for time. New points can be addressed as the Spirit moves, or in answer to questions.)


Why does Matthew mention David and Abraham at the very beginning of the book? Have you heard these names before? What do you know about them?

David is the great king of Israel, who truly joined the scattered tribes into a strong country. He was a man after God’s own heart -- not because he was sinless, but because he repented again and again. God promised that David’s line would never end, and that the Messiah (the promised Jewish savior) would come from David’s descendants. David was also a poet who wrote many of the Psalms that prophecy about the Messiah’s coming. Every Jewish man, woman, and child prayed the words of David.

Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. His faith in God was so great that he believed, against all earthly evidence, that God would found a great nation through him. God made a covenant with Abraham to be faithful to him and to his descendants forever.

David represents the earthly glory of Israel; Abraham represents its spiritual glory.

Family tree: Do you know your genealogy? The Jewish people loved family trees and tracing their line back to a glorious ancestor. Are all these people in Matthew 1:2-16 glorious? Are they all good? Are they all famous? Jesus comes from a mixed human family just like all of us.

Four women (besides Mary) mentioned in Jesus’s genealogy, all quite different. All bore children in ways that were strange or unexpected. Some weren’t even Jewish. But they all point toward Mary in different ways.

Three sections of the genealogy: the patriarchs, the kings, and the decline after the Babylonian Exile. The Exile was as important and somber to the Jews of Jesus’s time as the Holocaust is to the Jewish people now. It was a story of earthly persecution and sorrow. Most of the names in this section aren’t mentioned anywhere else. The line of the kings seems to be ended.

Why the focus on repeated sets of fourteen generations? Numbers are important to Matthew’s Jewish readers, and the Hebrew letters of David’s name have a numerical value of 14. 


Have you ever heard this story of Jesus’s birth? What’s the usual story we hear about an angel announcing Jesus’s coming?

Betrothed: The Jewish marriage ceremony has two parts: betrothal and wedding. Betrothal is far more binding, legally and morally, than our modern engagement. After a betrothal, the couple was considered man and wife, but did not yet live together. They formed a new household after the wedding. Matthew is emphasizing that Mary was not yet living with Joseph when she conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no question of Jesus having a human father.

Joseph is called “righteous”, the same word used of Abraham. Abraham is praised in the Old Testament for his great faith in God. Joseph is faithful to God’s commands in the Jewish law, but he’s also faithful to God’s message to him in a dream -- the same way that some of the people mentioned in the genealogy also believed messages in dreams.

Jesus! It means “God saves.” What do we need to be saved from? Why is this good news?

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22) -- Matthew drawing connections with the Old Testament. Find Isaiah 7:14.


Wrap up, answer questions, dismiss.


Matthew Chapters 2-3


Arrival, name tags, attendance, greeting


Check in with kids, review last week’s chapter: what do they remember? What has helped them in the past week?


Chapter 2

(Read aloud, answer questions throughout. Talking points may be elaborated on, or skipped for time or because the kids bring up different points.)

Have you heard the story of the three wise men before? What do you remember?

What details here are new to you? Does anything stand out?

We don’t know much about the magi from the East (does Matthew tell us how many there are?), but Herod is referenced in other historical documents and records. Jesus is rooted in our history. He’s not a mythical character or a fiction. Since we know that Herod died in 4 B.C, we know that Jesus was born before that, probably around 7-6 B.C. The monk who compiled our current calendar a few hundred years after Jesus was born was off on his dates by a few years!

More Old Testament reference! Our Bible helps us find other verses that are referenced -- can you find that section? Who can find Micah 5:1? 2 Samuel 5:2?

An angel appears several times in a dream in the first chapters of Matthew. Is that the same way that an angel appeared to Mary? Check Luke Chapter 1.

Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt, and then brings them back again to Israel. Can you remember any other references to Egypt, any stories that all Jewish people might know? Any references to rulers trying to kill baby boys? Any baby boys who were saved from death who grew up to set their people free? Try Exodus Chapter 1.

Where does the Holy Family settle? A great city? A rich town? Nazareth is hicktown, country territory, looked down on (John 1:46). Jesus is not positioned as a great ruler. He is from somewhere small and despised, and so, as Bishop Barron says, he slips under the guard of the rulers of this world.


Chapter 3

Something new is starting! Let’s fast-forward about 30 years.

Why start with John? What do you already know about John the Baptist?

More prophets! Where can we find this prophecy from Isaiah? (Isaiah 40:3)

Do you think all the people are going out to hear John out of curiosity, or do you think his message is drawing them? How does he tell us to prepare for the kingdom of heaven? What does it sound like John thinks the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like?

Why do John’s clothes matter? Another Old Testament reference, to the great prophet Elijah. 2 Kings 1:8. Why is the comparison with Elijah so important? Let’s check the very last verse of the Malachi, the very last prophecy in the Old Testament: Malachi 3:23-24.

The Jordan River is also an important place in the history of Israel. It’s the river that Joshua led the Israelites across as they entered the Promised Land after they left Egypt. And it’s where Elijah handed on his ministry to his even-greater successor, the prophet Elisha. 

Have you been to a baptism? Tell me about it. Each sacrament uses physical material -- what’s the material of baptism? (Water)

Why does Jesus want to get baptized? Jesus shares in our human nature, and he sets an example for us -- he says it is “fitting” to get baptized, appropriate for someone with a human nature to be baptized. His being God is what blesses natural water and gives it the power to wash us free not only of dirt on our bodies, but of original sin, the weakness of our fallen human nature. 

Can you find each person of the Holy Trinity in Jesus’s baptism?


Wrap up, dismissal


Matthew Chapter 4


Greetings, name tags, set-up

Read Matthew 9:9-13 -- the conversion of Matthew, for the feast of St. Matthew.

Recap of Matthew 1-3:

What does the name “Jesus” mean?

Why is Matthew always bringing up what the prophets say? 

How many Magi were there?

Where did Joseph take Mary and Joseph to escape from King Herod?

What did John the Baptist wear?


Chapter 4

V. 1: The Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. Why is the desert an important place in the Bible?

The Israelites were tempted in the desert after they left Egypt, and they did worship a false god that they made -- a golden calf. Jesus does not succumb to the temptation of boredom to create a new god to worship.

Why does Jesus go into the desert? He's just been anointed by the Spirit, as his ancestor David was anointed king -- and like a king, he's going out to do battle. With whom? With the devil.

V. 2: Forty days and forty nights. What’s the significance of forty? The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert after they left Egypt before they were allowed to enter the promised land. Moses spent forty days and forty nights in God’s presence on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. 

He fasted, and he was hungry. Jesus is like us. He gets hungry, thirsty, tired. But he never loses sight of his Father.

V. 3-4: First temptation -- bodily hunger and appeal to pride (first sin) -- turn stones into bread, if you’re really the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t fall into this all-or-nothing trap. As always, he ignores false choices and goes straight to the main point. He does not use his power for his own comfort or to make himself look good. He uses it to glorify his Father.

Who is the word that comes from the mouth of God? Jesus himself. (John 1:1)

V. 5-7: Second temptation -- big dramatic gesture, proof-texting scripture -- throw yourself down because the Bible says God will protect you. Jesus answers with a more directly applicable scripture passage. He doesn’t bother to argue with the devil about his interpretation of the Bible -- always a waste of time!

V. 8-10: Third temptation -- earthly power in exchange for humiliation. The devil acts like the kingdoms of the earth are actually his to give, and for the first time he asks Jesus to do something directly contrary to scripture. Jesus tells him to leave, and quotes a scripture passage where God commands that only he be worshiped. Satan is a liar, but he has no power over Jesus, and must leave when he is commanded.

Angels minister to Jesus after temptation. They will also minister to us! Ask for their help!

V. 12: John the Baptist gets arrested. We’ll hear more of his story in chapters 11 and 14.

Jesus goes to Galilee to start his ministry -- he begins with the least significant people in Israel. 

V. 13: Why is “Zebulun and Napthali” significant? They’re the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, named after Abraham’s grandson Jacob’s family. (Jacob saw an angel in a dream, who gave him a new name: Israel.) The Jewish people divided into twelve tribes based on Jacob’s descendants. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, like his ancestor King David.

V. 16: “The people who sit in darkness” -- do you know what that’s like? Have you ever felt dark, blue, unhappy, weighted down? Did you long to see a great light? Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

V. 17: Who else preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand? John the Baptist. But Jesus is the Word of God. John could only prophesy. Jesus’s word effects what it says.

V. 18: Jesus sees Simon and Andrew at their work and calls them out of ordinary life. Are you waiting for Jesus to call you in some extraordinary way? Do you think that you have to be different or special or worthy before Jesus will call you?

“Casting their nets” -- how did fishing work? The nets picked up a lot of fish, if there were any fish in the area to be caught. This is way that Jesus works as well: he casts a wide net and brings in everyone. He’s not picky!

At once they followed him. Why are the apostles considered saints? Not because they’re perfect, but because they listen to Jesus. 

V. 21: Simon and Andrew were casting their nets; James and John are mending their nets. What’s the difference here? Maybe the active life and the contemplative life -- we see that distinction other places in the gospels (Martha and Mary). 

Why do they all follow Jesus without even knowing him? There is something about him. We see that all through the gospels. What is there about Jesus that attracts you to him? Is he interesting to you? Do you love him? As we read the gospel, pay attention to the character of Jesus. Learn to love him. He is lovable.

V. 23: teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, curing: this is what God does on earth. This is how God wants us to know him. He makes what was broken whole. Where Jesus is, is the kingdom of Heaven. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Soldier Cultures, Warrior Cultures

 A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how the development of kingdoms into national states had allowed hitherto impossible levels of military mobilization, culminating in the truly mass participation World Wars of the 20th century.  That was a pretty quantitative piece, looking at the numbers of combatants in various battles in comparison to the size of the countries that fought them.  Here I'd like to take a bit more of a human approach and think about different types of society and the way they relate to war making.

The most basic distinction I'd like to make is between warrior cultures and soldier cultures.  Often we use these words as if they were interchangeable, or as if "warrior" just means "really tough soldier", but I'd like to argue that the words have different connotations and can be used to discuss very different types of society.

The distinction I would make is that a warrior is a person whose position within society is defined by making war and more broadly by violence.  I'm not just talking about someone whose job is making war.  A soldier's job is (at least when ordered to do so) making war.  But a warrior's personal definition and place within society is defined by his personal ability and capacity for violence.

Think of the heroes of The Iliad.  Yes, they're part of armies in some loose sense -- a besieging army of Greeks and a defending army of Trojans -- but they fundamentally fight as individuals.  Indeed, most of the plot of The Iliad springs from Achilles withdrawing from the war because Agamemnon has dissed him by taking away his favorite slave girl.  In any modern conception of an army, this would be seen as a dishonorable act.  Achilles is acting selfishly, not as one of a team with a common goal, but according to the standards of a warrior culture he's simply standing up for the fact that he is himself a great warrior.

We also see heroes among the Greeks and Trojans exchange names and histories before engaging in their one-on-one duels on the battlefield.  At one point, Glaucus (on the Trojan side) and Diomedes (among the Greeks) realize that their grandfathers were close friends, and so they refuse to fight each other and exchange armor instead.  

When Odysseus gets home, he's recognized in great part because of his martial skill with the bow, and then he proceeds to mete out violence against all the suitors who have troubled his wife and household during his absence.  He's a ruler, but he's also a warrior, and he addresses his problems as a warrior who deals with assaults against his personal honor with violence.  Odysseus doesn't cease to be a warrior once he's no longer party of the Greek army.  He will be a warrior until his dying day, and so he deals with his problems upon getting home as a warrior.

So to sum up briefly: a warrior's honor and status in society is tied up with his identity as a warrior.  It is not something that he puts away when the war is over.  Whether we think of Odysseus, or a medieval knight, or of a Native American warrior, warrior's had warrior status by virtue of their birth and their place in society, and they were expected to continue to use their warrior skills whenever they were called upon to do so in order to protect their personal honor as well as the societies in which they lived.  

But even within the ancient world, we can see a change between the warrior culture and a soldier culture.  Although the Greeks of the Classical period read Homer and considered his work the foundation of their literature, the warrior culture he was describing was no long the culture in which they lived.  They lived in a soldier culture.  In the Greek city states of the classical era, armies were made up of ordinary citizens who were called up for the duration of a campaign and then returned to civilian life.  

Socrates mentions in his trial, recounted in the Apology, that he had fought for Athens in the battles of Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis.  The playwright Aeschylus had inscribed on his epitaph not that he was a playwright and had won many awards in the annual competitions for tragedies but that he had served in the Athenian phalanx at the Battle of Marathon.

Socrates was not a warrior.  His story ends, not with single combat, but with a court case.  Socrates and Aeschylus and many others were ordinary citizens who were called up to serve in an army, under orders.  At the end of their service, they were sent back to their ordinary lives.  They retained a status as veterans, men with the experience of having served their city state on the battlefield, but they did not retain their status through continued force of arms in the way of a warrior.  And in a very real sense, once they returned to ordinary life after serving, they were no longer soldiers.  They did not retain a social right and duty to settle matters of justice and honor through force of arms and their own authority.

Warriors would appear again on the world stage.  The Goths and Huns and Avars came from the Eurasian Steppes into the world of the late Roman empire were a society of warriors.  The medieval culture which developed through the blending of barbarian and Roman cultures in the West after the fall of the Roman Empire was a warrior culture.  Medieval knights were warriors, not soldiers.  Their place in society was defined by their warrior status.  

Now, that doesn't mean that everyone in a medieval army was a warrior.  The warriors were the knights: those whose place in society was defined and maintained by their ability and willingness to fight.  But medieval armies also included citizen soldiers (peasants or freedman called up to serve under their lord, and then afterwards if they survived returned to their ordinary lives) and professional soldiers (mercenaries who fought for pay.)  

With that variety before us, it's a good time to try to lay out a clear schema.  What are the different types of warrior or soldier a polity might have, and how are they different in their relations to society?

At one end of the spectrum are warrior societies.  These are societies where most men (or most men with any status, such as most men who are not slaves) are warriors.  I'm not aware of any settled urban civilizations where this is the case, but to my understanding you do see this among some of the nomadic steppe peoples (Huns, etc.) and among some Native American cultures.  I'm sure there are others I'm not thinking of as well, but the identifying trait would be these are cultures in which to be a man is effectively to be a warrior.

Next over on the spectrum are societies with warrior elites.  This would include the world described by Homer, the medieval world, and man others.  In these cultures, only a minority of men are warriors, but nearly all elites are warriors.  These warrior elites may fill out their armies with soldiers who are not socially considered warriors -- they fight in the army but when they go back to ordinary life they to not carry with them the social status of warriors, and they fight for the army and the authorities who rule over them, they do not fight for themselves and their own personal warrior honor in the way that warriors do.

These warrior elites should be distinguished from societies with traditions of soldier elites.  These would be societies in which it is expected that people who wield social and political power will also serve (at need) as soldiers.  The Roman Republic and early empire fit this model. Elites were expected to serve when called upon, and those who did well as soldiers tended to win elite status, but these were soldier elites not warrior elites in that their elite status came from their success as soldiers for the state.  The kind of warrior individualism which was celebrated among Homer's heroes would not have been celebrated in the Roman Army.  As the medieval era progressed, northern European elites also turned into soldier elites rather than warriors.  This soldier elite idea held sway for a long time, arguably through the world wars.  

However, these armies were not made up only of soldier elites.  The rank and file were filled out by one of two types of soldier: either citizen/conscript soldiers or professional soldiers.

I suppose one could define this distinction in different ways, but in this case what I want to get at is the length of service.  Citizen/conscript soldiers were men of non-military professions who were called up to serve for a period of time.  This is the kind of service that Socrates and Aeschylus performed.  In Classical Greek city states, all men of a certain class were required to own arms and armor and to train at certain intervals.  If the city needed to engage in war, those men were called up, served in the city's phalanx, and then returned home.  This is also where the bulk of the soldiers in Americas wars came from: men who volunteered or were drafted to serve for a term or for the duration of a war.  They were trained, armed, sent to fight, and then at the end of the war most of them were mustered back out of the army.  

That's what distinguishes the citizen soldier model from the professional soldier model.  Professional soldiers, as I'm using the term here, are long service professionals.  In the later Roman empire, someone who joined the Roman army was signing up for a 20-25 year term of service.  Not only was he signing up, but since jobs were semi-hereditary a man's service in the Roman army made his sons subject to conscription into similar terms of service.  In the later medieval and early modern era, mercenary armies of long service professional soldiers (sometimes recruited from other countries speaking other languages) were widely employed.  The British armies that Wellington and others led in the Napoleonic wars were also long service armies, though in many cases the men were essentially conscripted into long term army service (or assigned to the army as a punishment rather than being imprisoned or sent to a penal colony.)  Our modern American army is built around volunteers (unlike the majority of soldiers serving in wars from the Civil War through Vietnam) and is essentially a long service professional army, though not all soldiers stay for long terms of service.

Each of these come with different relationship between those who fight and the rest of society, and I would imagine that this means they also come with different experiences of integration back into society of those who have fought.  Soldiers are expected to go back to being citizens, whereas warriors retain their warrior status as a permanent part of their social role.  The citizen soldier model means that a much wider swathe of the populace has experienced soldiering, whereas the professional model risks a widening division between those who have spent many years in the army and those who have never experienced it at all.  The later Roman Empire had an especially severe example of this problem in that it came to rely on recruiting outside peoples with warrior cultures into their army.  The Roman army always used a soldier rather than a warrior model (until the empire was truly falling apart) but adding language and cultural divides on top of the natural divide of experience between soldiers and civilians (combined with the key role the army had in supporting and often choosing the emperor) resulted in increasingly chaotic political and cultural effects.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

An Odd Couple of Weeks

(We have discovered that Facebook censors our posts for having offensive images when we post no pictures, so here, a photo-filled extravaganza.) 

Darwin and I have taken turns over the years performing in various community theater productions, but we haven't been in a show together for years. However, for the past two months we've been in rehearsals for The Odd Couple, playing (respectively) Roy the poker-playing accountant, and Gwendolyn Pigeon, the elder of the coo-coo Pigeon sisters. One day we may actually have lines together, but it was fun to be at rehearsals together, especially in a small-cast show like this where everyone is an old hand and can build an instant ensemble. We went up last weekend, and it was glorious.

It took a while to fill out the cast -- the director had to pull all the strings to get eight people who could all perform on the same weekend (and this included me texting Darwin from auditions, while he was at his grandmother's funeral, to say, "I know you weren't going to try out for this one, but I've volunteered you and you're already cast.") Our first read-through involved my reading both Pigeon sisters, the director reading one open role, and our our-of-town guest reading another (because you don't just come to our house and not do something theatrical). Fortunately, our Oscar and Felix are two of the finest amateur actors west of Broadway, who've played together in several shows and have the finest chemistry, and who were already almost off-book at first rehearsal. (Unlike me, who had never seen or read The Odd Couple before the read-through.)

This is what I love about community theater. We are blessed locally with immense talent, people who are living quiet lives as parents, teachers, lawyers, judges, engineers, pricing directors, doing corporate or hands-on work, even stay-at-home mothers homeschooling seven kids. None of us are professional actors (though that's the only thing I myself am professionally qualified to do). We act because we love it, and because we love the camaraderie, and because the people in our small town deserve high-quality theater as much as the people in Columbus or New York. 

And this was high-quality theater. For my money, our Felix Ungar was funnier and more nuanced than any other interpreter of the role, including Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick. Our set may not have been built with a Broadway budget or resources, but it was pretty convincing as a sloppy eight-room apartment in NYC. I'm so proud of my 13yo son, who, alone in the balcony each night with not much more than two spotlights, kept refining the lighting scheme each night. I was worried that we were going to crash at some point, but each performance kept getting funnier and more focused. 

For the longest time we didn't have a theater to perform in, or even a church sanctuary or someone's basement. But one of our cast members who can pull strings got us into the empty theater in what used to be the public high school, then the middle school, and now the school administrative offices. It's a huge old auditorium, nowhere near state of the art and with no back stage, but absolutely perfect for a show set in a ratty apartment with one entrance. During our strike, I brought in my very own vacuum cleaner to deal with the accumulation of crushed potato chips and shredded newspaper that Oscar scattered to the wings each performance. "I'm pretty sure," I told some of the guys, "that this stage hasn't been vacuumed since the Obama administration."

"Try Carter," said one.

"I would have said Ford," said the other.

So no one can say we didn't leave the place cleaner than we found it.

Darwin didn't want to shave his beard despite the rather counter-cultural connotations in a 1968 setting, so he developed the conceit that he was a single Jewish guy who lived with his mother, and wore a yarmulke. Observe: Roy the accountant declines to try the BLT that some of the other guys are raving over. (There was discussion of whether an observant Jew would be playing poker on Friday night, but several cast members attested to knowing yarmulke-wearing Jews who would indeed be of the Friday night poker-playing persuasion.) I'd been planning to wear a staid vintage frock I found at a costume shop, but we had a last-minute substitution for the other Pigeon sister due to COVID, and in the ensuing alterations to the style and chemistry, I ended up in a red cocktail dress which I'd last worn to a wedding in 2015.

Let's talk stage hair and makeup. The above pictures were taken at dress rehearsal, when we were still figuring out costume changes and hair stuff. (I'd been planning to try for that straight-haired late 60s hair smoothed in front of the face and bouffant in back, like my mom's high school picture, but even with a flat iron and a $17 can of hair spray I couldn't get my my hair to hold smooth and non-frizzy.) 

Here we have: full coverage cream-to-powder foundation all over the face; contour on forehead, sides of nose, under cheeks, and under chin; three shades of blush; highlighting on nose, forehead, chin; brown eye shadow applied with a thin brush under eye sockets (NEVER under the lash line like they tell you, or your eyes will look small and insane) and black eye shadow as lid liner; gray shadow for definition on outside of eye, several coats of mascara, and matte red lipstick. This is a million times too much work and too heavy for street wear, but if you want your face to be seen on stage, it's how you have to go.

I couldn't get my hair to bouff for love or money, so I washed it each night and slept on it wet, to get some bizarrely scupltural curls, then I hairsprayed the mess out of it and (against every nerve fiber in my body) brushed it out. Then I rolled the front part under in sections and pinned them for volume. Then I once again aerosoled my head and brushed up the back hair from underneath. Hair was stupid in the 60s and I for one am happy to live in the more permissive 21st century, with our enlightened tolerance for curly hair.

I also l have a significant amount of not just gray, but white hair, far more than is indicated for character described as "that English Betty Boop" and in the stage directions as "early 30s". This is my natural gray distribution, not even accounting for the snowy streaks developing at my temples:

I don't have the desire to grow out a dye job, but one can buy colored hair spray that, at the distance of a stage performance, will provide convincing enough coverage. Brown/Black was a bit startling to my sensibilities:

But light brown looked natural enough. (Compare at temples for unadulterated hair.)

I would in no wise recommend this for everyday use, as it felt weird and made my head itch, but one must suffer for one's art.

One can, of course, count Darwin's gray hairs on less than ten fingers, and somehow gray hair makes men look distinguished and not washed out. 

So! Now we're in a week of recovery, made simultaneously easier and more tedious by the little boys developing Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease on Monday, which meant (after the discovery that older people can also get the highly contagious HFM imperceptibly) that our entire week of plans and classes was canceled. You'd think this would lead to a week of household productivity, but having children in a feverish malaise and then afflicted with copious pustules around noses already afflicted with seasonal allergies has been strangely unrelaxing. Also, just hearing "Hand, Foot, and Mouth" has the same pyschological effect as hearing "Lice" or "Pinkeye": one is pursued by the phantom itch on palms and feet. By next week the boys' faces should be presentable and we shall cease to be a festering hothouse of contagion. I have, however, finally put away all the costume bits, the makeup, the foam wedges and cotton balls and cleansing wipes, the scripts and the props, so bit by bit, life is becoming less dramatic and less Odd Couple-ly.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Austen Second Tier Men Bracket: Final Results

 It was a hard fought contest, but it seems that the Darcy clan just has what it takes.  After all, Colonel Fitzwilliam had the grace and courage to flirt with Elizabeth while Mr. Darcy himself was still being awkward and stand-offish.

But it was a narrow victory.  With final play rehearsals going on here, we left the voting open longer than we'd meant to and in the end the Darcy clan won versus stolid but faithful Robert Martin by a single vote.

Clearly Robert Martin deserved all the faith that Mr. Knightly put in him. 

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Austen Second Tier Men Bracket: Final Round

With a long weekend, a kid turning eighteen, and final preparations to begin homeschooling for the year on Tuesday, we let the third round stretch a little long on the Austen.  Mr. Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam dominated the uniformed bracket against poetic Captain Benwick. And Harriet Smith's steadfast suitor Robert Martin won a narrower victory over the sympathetic Curate from Love & Friendship.

So now we enter the final round.  Who is the best second tier man in the Austen canon?

To give each man his due, it seems appropriate to include a passage in which each is discussed. Thus, here from Emma is where we hear of Robert Martin's engagement to Harriet Smith:

“I am afraid,” said he, composing his features, “I am very much afraid, my dear Emma, that you will not smile when you hear it.”

“Indeed! but why so?—I can hardly imagine that any thing which pleases or amuses you, should not please and amuse me too.”

“There is one subject,” he replied, “I hope but one, on which we do not think alike.” He paused a moment, again smiling, with his eyes fixed on her face. “Does nothing occur to you?—Do not you recollect?—Harriet Smith.”

Her cheeks flushed at the name, and she felt afraid of something, though she knew not what.

“Have you heard from her yourself this morning?” cried he. “You have, I believe, and know the whole.”

“No, I have not; I know nothing; pray tell me.”

“You are prepared for the worst, I see—and very bad it is. Harriet Smith marries Robert Martin.”

Emma gave a start, which did not seem like being prepared—and her eyes, in eager gaze, said, “No, this is impossible!” but her lips were closed.

“It is so, indeed,” continued Mr. Knightley; “I have it from Robert Martin himself. He left me not half an hour ago.”

She was still looking at him with the most speaking amazement.

“You like it, my Emma, as little as I feared.—I wish our opinions were the same. But in time they will. Time, you may be sure, will make one or the other of us think differently; and, in the meanwhile, we need not talk much on the subject.”

“You mistake me, you quite mistake me,” she replied, exerting herself. “It is not that such a circumstance would now make me unhappy, but I cannot believe it. It seems an impossibility!—You cannot mean to say, that Harriet Smith has accepted Robert Martin. You cannot mean that he has even proposed to her again—yet. You only mean, that he intends it.”

“I mean that he has done it,” answered Mr. Knightley, with smiling but determined decision, “and been accepted.”

“Good God!” she cried.—“Well!”—Then having recourse to her workbasket, in excuse for leaning down her face, and concealing all the exquisite feelings of delight and entertainment which she knew she must be expressing, she added, “Well, now tell me every thing; make this intelligible to me. How, where, when?—Let me know it all. I never was more surprized—but it does not make me unhappy, I assure you.—How—how has it been possible?”

“It is a very simple story. He went to town on business three days ago, and I got him to take charge of some papers which I was wanting to send to John.—He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s. The party was to be our brother and sister, Henry, John—and Miss Smith. My friend Robert could not resist. They called for him in their way; were all extremely amused; and my brother asked him to dine with them the next day—which he did—and in the course of that visit (as I understand) he found an opportunity of speaking to Harriet; and certainly did not speak in vain.—She made him, by her acceptance, as happy even as he is deserving. He came down by yesterday’s coach, and was with me this morning immediately after breakfast, to report his proceedings, first on my affairs, and then on his own. This is all that I can relate of the how, where, and when. Your friend Harriet will make a much longer history when you see her.—She will give you all the minute particulars, which only woman’s language can make interesting.—In our communications we deal only in the great.—However, I must say, that Robert Martin’s heart seemed for him, and to me, very overflowing; and that he did mention, without its being much to the purpose, that on quitting their box at Astley’s, my brother took charge of Mrs. John Knightley and little John, and he followed with Miss Smith and Henry; and that at one time they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy.”

He stopped.—Emma dared not attempt any immediate reply. To speak, she was sure would be to betray a most unreasonable degree of happiness. She must wait a moment, or he would think her mad. Her silence disturbed him; and after observing her a little while, he added,

“Emma, my love, you said that this circumstance would not now make you unhappy; but I am afraid it gives you more pain than you expected. His situation is an evil—but you must consider it as what satisfies your friend; and I will answer for your thinking better and better of him as you know him more. His good sense and good principles would delight you.—As far as the man is concerned, you could not wish your friend in better hands. His rank in society I would alter if I could, which is saying a great deal I assure you, Emma.—You laugh at me about William Larkins; but I could quite as ill spare Robert Martin.”

And here is where we spend some time with Colonel Fitzwilliam

In this quiet way, the first fortnight of her visit soon passed away. Easter was approaching, and the week preceding it was to bring an addition to the family at Rosings, which in so small a circle must be important. Elizabeth had heard soon after her arrival that Mr. Darcy was expected there in the course of a few weeks, and though there were not many of her acquaintances whom she did not prefer, his coming would furnish one comparatively new to look at in their Rosings parties, and she might be amused in seeing how hopeless Miss Bingley’s designs on him were, by his behaviour to his cousin, for whom he was evidently destined by Lady Catherine, who talked of his coming with the greatest satisfaction, spoke of him in terms of the highest admiration, and seemed almost angry to find that he had already been frequently seen by Miss Lucas and herself.

His arrival was soon known at the Parsonage; for Mr. Collins was walking the whole morning within view of the lodges opening into Hunsford Lane, in order to have the earliest assurance of it, and after making his bow as the carriage turned into the Park, hurried home with the great intelligence. On the following morning he hastened to Rosings to pay his respects. There were two nephews of Lady Catherine to require them, for Mr. Darcy had brought with him a Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of his uncle Lord ——, and, to the great surprise of all the party, when Mr. Collins returned, the gentlemen accompanied him. Charlotte had seen them from her husband’s room, crossing the road, and immediately running into the other, told the girls what an honour they might expect, adding:

“I may thank you, Eliza, for this piece of civility. Mr. Darcy would never have come so soon to wait upon me.”

Elizabeth had scarcely time to disclaim all right to the compliment, before their approach was announced by the door-bell, and shortly afterwards the three gentlemen entered the room. Colonel Fitzwilliam, who led the way, was about thirty, not handsome, but in person and address most truly the gentleman. Mr. Darcy looked just as he had been used to look in Hertfordshire—paid his compliments, with his usual reserve, to Mrs. Collins, and whatever might be his feelings toward her friend, met her with every appearance of composure. Elizabeth merely curtseyed to him without saying a word.

Colonel Fitzwilliam entered into conversation directly with the readiness and ease of a well-bred man, and talked very pleasantly; but his cousin, after having addressed a slight observation on the house and garden to Mrs. Collins, sat for some time without speaking to anybody. At length, however, his civility was so far awakened as to enquire of Elizabeth after the health of her family. She answered him in the usual way, and after a moment’s pause, added:

“My eldest sister has been in town these three months. Have you never happened to see her there?”

She was perfectly sensible that he never had; but she wished to see whether he would betray any consciousness of what had passed between the Bingleys and Jane, and she thought he looked a little confused as he answered that he had never been so fortunate as to meet Miss Bennet. The subject was pursued no farther, and the gentlemen soon afterwards went away.

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the Parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasures of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither—for while there were visitors in the house, they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the Parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had seen only at church.

The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine’s drawing-room. Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that their company was by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else; and she was, in fact, almost engrossed by her nephews, speaking to them, especially to Darcy, much more than to any other person in the room.

Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much. He now seated himself by her, and talked so agreeably of Kent and Hertfordshire, of travelling and staying at home, of new books and music, that Elizabeth had never been half so well entertained in that room before; and they conversed with so much spirit and flow, as to draw the attention of Lady Catherine herself, as well as of Mr. Darcy. His eyes had been soon and repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity; and that her ladyship, after a while, shared the feeling, was more openly acknowledged, for she did not scruple to call out:

“What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”

“We are speaking of music, madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

“Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?”

Mr. Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister’s proficiency.

“I am very glad to hear such a good account of her,” said Lady Catherine; “and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practice a good deal.”

“I assure you, madam,” he replied, “that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly.”

“So much the better. It cannot be done too much; and when I next write to her, I shall charge her not to neglect it on any account. I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice. I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more; and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room. She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house.”

Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding, and made no answer.

When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument. He drew a chair near her. Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew; till the latter walked away from her, and making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said:

“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

“I shall not say you are mistaken,” he replied, “because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”

Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself, and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, “Your cousin will give you a very pretty notion of me, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit. Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire—and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too—for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear.”

“I am not afraid of you,” said he, smilingly.

“Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of,” cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I should like to know how he behaves among strangers.”

“You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact.”

“I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party.”

“True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders.”

“Perhaps,” said Darcy, “I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”

“Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?” said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

“I can answer your question,” said Fitzwilliam, “without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble.”

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Darcy smiled and said, “You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.”

The time has come. Vote early and often!

Friday, September 03, 2021

Israeli Data: Yes, The COVID Vaccines Are Still Working

I've heard a piece of conventional wisdom going around that with the delta variant, etc. the COVID vaccines just aren't working anymore.  Ironically, this seems to be a view endorsed both by those who want more actions taken to prevent spread (masks, shutdowns, etc.) and those who think that the vaccines, masks, etc. are mostly useless.  

Is this true?

It's possible to find out.  Israel is the example which many of these claims are being made about, because they have a very high vaccination rate and yet they still have a certain number of people who are seriously ill, most of them vaccinated.  There's an Israeli dashboard which provides national health data on COVID patients and vaccinations.  And someone has done a great job of downloading their data and breaking it down by vaccinated/unvaccinated and by age group.  The results underline the effectiveness of the vaccines.

As has been noted, there are more people severely ill with COVID in Israel who have been vaccinated than who haven't been vaccinated, but that's in the context of a population which is 79% vaccinated.  If you break down the number of severe cases of COVID by the number of people who are and aren't vaccinated, what you see is that 16.4 unvaccinated people per 100,000 are sick with severe COVID while only 5.3 vaccinated people per 100,000 are.  Said another way, at this total population level, getting the vaccine reduced your chances of having severe COVID by 67.5%

But it's actually much better than that.  It turns out (unsurprisingly) that vaccination rates are not the same for different ages of people.  This means that on average the fully vaccinated group is older than the unvaccinated group.  And we already know that older people are much more likely to have bad cases of COVID.  So the author breaks down vaccination status and severe cases by age:

Of the people under 30 with severe COVID (seven people out of 2.5 million), none were vaccinated.  So for young people, you're not very likely to get severe COVID, but the vaccination reduces the chances to basically zero.

Among older people, where COVID is particularly dangerous, we see a huge effect from the vaccines.  293 Israelis aged 70+ had severe COVID as of Sept 2nd out of a population of 768k.  (I'm getting these additional details from the full Sept 2 data sheet available for download at the end of the linked article or here.)  44% of those 293 were from among the 4% of Israelis over 70 who have not been vaccinated.  Israelis over 70 were 90% less likely to have a severe case of COVID than unvaccinated people of the same age.  

Even with the delta variant on the loose, even for people who are highly at risk, the vaccines are 90%+ effective in preventing people from getting severe cases of COVID.  

Austen Second Tier Men Bracket: Round Three

It's Friday.  You deserve a diversion, and what better form could it take than wrapping up the brackets for the more obscure heart-throbs in the Austen canon?


It's been a hard fought contest thus far.  Captain Benwick of Persuasion, with his moody appreciation of Byron, narrowly edged out Reginald De Courcy of Lady Susan, while the curate from Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship (a delightful adaptation/expansion of Austen's unfinished Lady Susan, and the only work in the Austen Extended Universe that we are acknowledging to exist for the purposes of this contest) edged out Sir James Martin of Lady Susan.

Other contests are not as equal.  Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Darcy's more easy going cousin, trounced scapregrace Mansfield Park heir Tom Bertram, and rural heart-throb Robert Martin completely shut out Mr. Yates, Tom Bertram's theatrical friend who in the end elopes with Maria Bertram.

So now we come down to difficult decisions.  The warm and easy going Colonel Fitzwilliam is in an Army/Navy bracket against moody and poetic Captain Benwick, who may just recover from his heartbreak to make another young woman very happy.

And the Curate from Love & Friendship, who has done surprisingly well for a non-canonical character who is not blessed with a name in the movie, but nonetheless provides heartfelt advice to young Frederica Vernon (and what young woman who has Lady Susan as a mother doesn't need some sympathy and counsel?) is up against the stolid rural charm of Robert Martin, the man who steadfastly offers his heart to Miss Harriet Smith, even as the exalted Emma causes her to vacillate in her affections.

Who will win?  That is up to you.  Cast your votes as we bring this contest to its close.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

The Ultimate Austen Second Tier Bracket: Round Two


You might as well call it the scoundrel elimination round. Tilney père et frère lost to their wholesome challengers, as did the besotted Lord Manwaring and the unctuous Mr. Elton. Robert Ferrars and Mr. Rushworth must both retire to discuss snuff boxes and pink satin cloaks. And alas, we must bid adieu to such worthy fellows as dear James Morland and the seriously underrated William Price.

Now in Round Two, the choices are not so easy. This time we haven't re-randomized, but will play the brackets as they lay.

Will you persuade Captain Benwick to forget the memory of his lost love, or do you prefer to rescue Reginald De Courcy from Lady Susan's snares?

Will second-son Colonel Fitzwilliam's gentlemanly manners and good health avail against reformed and convalescing eldest son Tom Bertram?

In the universe of discourse that is Lady Susan, can canonical rattle Sir James Martin hope to prevail against the amiability and spiritual consolation of the cinematic Little Red-Haired Curate?

The stage and the plow engage in class warfare as gentleman amateur thespian Mr. Yates goes head to head with the industrious tenant farmer Robert Martin.

Which second-tier heroes will advance to the Final Four? Cast your votes.