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

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

How It's Going

We are slipping. For about two and a half weeks, we went to bed very punctually, every school child tucked in early so we'd be ready to get up sharp. Every morning felt like the morning of a big road trip, a bit of shock and awe and hitting the ground running.

But our family culture has been shaped by 22 years of late nights, and our best conversations and problem solving and inside jokes happen after the rest of the world is in bed. That culture cannot just be shifted on the whim of trying out the school lifestyle, even though the school lifestyle is predicated on getting up early. The question now becomes: do we really want to shift that culture? 

And we still have eight months left in the school year.

Most people who make the shift from homeschooling to institutional schooling do it because in some way, homeschooling has failed them. There's no judgment in that. Everyone's family culture is different and requires different trade-offs, and sometimes school offers a stability or an accountability that serves a family in the way that it needs. But we are not failed homeschoolers. We love homeschooling, and miss it, with a visceral, breathless ache. Our marriage, our family from the very start, our intellectual development, our way of interacting with the world, has been shaped by the freedom and flexibility that homeschooling offers. Our friendships, the way we serve our parish and our neighbors and our families, all of these were strengthened by our easy, gracious way of living and learning, remote from bureaucracy and management techniques. A family is not run like an institution.

Our family culture has also been shaped by having an adult on the ground, able to pivot to meet the day's challenges and pick up the slack. Household maintenance, doctor's visits, emergencies, and the freedom to be gentle with a small human who may not be incapacitated, but may need an easier day than the regimentation of a school day spent out of the home can provide. The freedom to be in house as dinner simmers all day. The freedom to pick up and drive to visit family out of town. The freedom to start something while one is fresh.

I am in awe of my friends who are long-term teachers. They do amazing, necessary work. I also do amazing, necessary work. But I did long-term amazing, necessary work before this year, at home. And that work is still necessary, and I still want to do it.

And there are still eight months left in the school year.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Climbing the Roller Coaster

It's been busy times in the Darwin household over the last week. MrsDarwin did her first two days teaching at the parish school, and the three youngest kids attended school for the first time in their lives, after having been homeschooled up until this point.  I dropped the eldest off at FUS for her senior year of college. And the second eldest is getting ready to start at OSU next week as a sophomore, while the third and fourth kids are gearing up for another year of high school, which includes taking courses at the local community college.

We have four vehicles in the driveway, and we're juggling five work schedules (even the fourteen year old has a job at a country sausage shop on Saturdays) and play rehearsals, music lessons, bible studies, cub scouts, boy scouts, community chorus, and I don't know what all.  It's a busy time of life.

And yet, it has been striking me lately that we are like the cars of a roller coaster, creeping every more slowly towards the peak at which we'll suddenly start hurdling down again.

When we had only very little kids, we were in some ways very busy. People needed diapers changed and food spooned into their mouths, and we had to make sure no one swallowed a magnet or fell off the changing table. But we didn't have to worry about the kids having their own personal commitments and we could talk about adult subjects in front of them or put them to bed and still have hours to ourselves.

At this stage in life, each child has a set of commitments and emotional needs.  I haven't had to change a diaper in years, but there are a lot of other kinds of time investment which come with living in a close community with all of these other humans.

But this will all pass strangely quickly.

It was occurring to me this morning that in five years, our youngest will be eleven and the next youngest fourteen. The thirteen year old who is currently so full of chat will be a legal adult and in her senior year of high school.  And the 21-year-old who is heading into her senior year?  Imagine having a 26-year-old daughter. And the next about to turn 25.  Indeed, it's not unlikely that there will be in-laws and grand kids five years from now.

Ten years from now?  The youngest kid mid-high school and the next youngest in college, while all the rest are our in adult life.

Somewhere in these next few years we'll reach the crest of this parenting roller coaster, moving at an exhausted crawn, and begin to move downwards, slowly at first and then with terrifyingly gathering speed.  The rearing of children which has seemed to take up more and more time as we move through life will suddenly begin to take up less and less, and rather than the busy move through each day with our young charges we'll be watching from a bit more of a distance as these young people launch out into their independent lives.

The roller coaster isn't a bad image, as I'm somewhat excited thinking about it, but there's also a sense of vertigo. Having written this blog since were had only two kids, a lot of our parenthood has been chronicled here, but it seems like in some ways the next few years will see the biggest shift of all, and I both am excited and can't quite imagine it.

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Tale of Two Couches, and Being Worried About Many Things

The Stairwell of (Furniture) Doom

(This is a time capsule post, so at the end of the year I can look back and laugh at myself.)

Last Wednesday we descended on IKEA en masse, in the big van, to buy a loveseat. Our daughter's boyfriend rents our large attic room as a studio apartment, and he'd been wanting a couch for a while, to give him (and my daughter) a place to sit other than the bed. And, rather suddenly, his parents were coming for dinner, so it was a good time to make the space look furnished to an adult level. 

Normally, I would consult Craiglist or Facebook Marketplace for furniture, being of the generation that never bought anything new as a child. But getting things up to our attic involves navigating the attic stairs, a tightly curving passage that has brought many a large item to grief. The last time we tried to get a fully assembled loveseat up there, when our lodger first moved in, it involved six people getting increasingly testy as the couch stuck, gouged walls (we're still missing chunks of plaster), and threatened to jam permanently in the stairwell. The only way anything large gets up those stairs is in a flatpack.

If anyone does flatpacks, it's IKEA. Since the issue was not necessarily price but portability, my daughter and her boyfriend settled on the loveliest settee in the store, a rolled-arm piece in a moody grey-green. We were all jovial as we waited down by the doors for the packages to be rolled out to us, the couch not being in the pack-it-up-yourself aisles. And we were suddenly unjovial when it came out to us in a huge box.

"Maybe it's in pieces inside the box," we said, and we took it home (the van is that big) and opened it. It was not in pieces. It was perhaps the only mostly-assembled loveseat IKEA sells (we had to screw on the legs, but that was it). And we could tell by the measurements that it was simply too big to fit up the attic stairs, legs or no. But it was handsome, far nicer than the tattered loveseat in the living room, and so we did not part with it. My daughter's boyfriend, a good sport, did his best to hide his disappointment. His parents were arriving in three hours.

So Darwin (who was working from home) and I set up shop and did research on how all IKEA's couches are assembled, and came up with a list of five or six that could go through the attic stairs and over the top of the stairwell in flat pieces. I stayed at home and spearheaded the last-minute cleaning and cooking while Darwin and the young man headed back to IKEA, found a full-sized couch that came in pieces (because it was easier to get a disassembled couch than a disassembled loveseat), and arrived home just as the parents pulled up. A delightful evening was had by all, dining and singing and putting furniture together.

That was Wednesday, I say. Thursday morning, I rushed over to my mother-in-law's house to bring her an ice pack (actually, a bag of frozen peas) when she'd fallen and bruised her knees. Darwin was at work, but it was easy for me to help because I was at home.

This is not the way I will be able to spend my days soon, when I will be contractually obliged to be at school from 8-3, teaching. My fears and anxieties about this cycle so rapidly that it's best to just let them wash over me without trying to solve any of them, but I am indeed sorry to lose the flexibility to shape each day to the necessity at hand. At this moment, I wish I were sending the kids to school and staying home myself -- which is exactly the opposite of the way I felt when I first made the choice to teach. As I say, there's no point in reasoning with any of this. 

School starts on Thursday, but my first full day of meetings is tomorrow. We have the school uniforms at little expense, thanks to the uniform exchange, and the school supplies at greater expense. It burns up my homeschooling heart to buy three sets of markers and to write the kindergartener's name on every crayon, though of course I understand why it's necessary. There's going to be a lot of adapting to an institutional setting, if not for the kids, then for me. The amount of new passwords I've had to create in the past week is maddening. 

I'm clinging to the first enthusiasm I had when I wanted more children than my own to have the musical building blocks that will last them a lifetime, and hoping that my first days in the classroom will revive that energy. I'm hoping that at the end of the day, I'll have anything left for my own family, and for the production of Murder on the Orient Express that Darwin is directing, and that I've committed to stage manage. Lots of other people go to work, and some even reenter the workforce after 22 years, and they survive it.

And now we're off to buy school lunch supplies, and tonight is the last round of auditions for Murder, and then maybe I'll sit on my new loveseat before I go to bed and get up early to go to work. 

Monday, August 07, 2023

100 Years of Kids

 At some point over the last month or two, the kids realized that in September there would be a week during which their ages summed up to 100 years. Unfortunately, it was a bad time for a celebration, because by then our eldest daughter would be back at college and unable to attend. So they scheduled a slightly early 100th birthday part for this last weekend. 

I slow cooked 10lbs of chicken with Mexican style spices and put out quantities of Spanish rice, refried beans, and tortillas. Various friends brought food and drink, and I made a large cake and picked up candles in the shape of a 1 and two 0s. Forty or fifty people came through the open-house style event, bringing together the different spheres of our lives: church, theater, the kids' friends, etc.

Even without this particular reminder that we have 100 years of life experience that have sprung from our marriage, I'd been thinking about the next generation lately. Our eldest is heading into her senior year of college, and we have one more in college and two in high school. Going into parenting, you imagine all your children being just like you and your spouse. I'd pictured the kids all reading the same books we enjoyed, taking the same approach to school, and having the same ambitions for their careers.

Instead, the thing you realize as a parent with many children is how staggeringly different these humans can be. We do not simply reproduce ourselves. We produce these completely independent and very different people, whom we sometimes struggle to understand, despite how much we love them and want to know everything about them.

So far, no one seems "just like us" when it comes to favorite books or academics or talents, but instead we find ourselves with people who have a great many interests and abilities which only partly overlap with our own. We are our own crowd, not just in numbers but in variety.

As I watch the kids working their way through school and taking their first steps into working, and try to nudge them in directions that seem like they would be most conducive to being able to support a family, I do worry at times. We've managed to work our way up to making much more than either of our sets of parents have. Will the kids be able to do as well in the career world as I have?

It's natural to worry, because we want good things for our kids.

But there's also a hierarchy of goods. I find that the things the kids have most consistently picked up from us are the things we do as a part of a community, which for us ends up meaning Catholicism and community theater. All of the kids, thus far, seem to have made these things very much their own, though as in all other things they each approach these activities in their own way. 

Perhaps if I'd made my career or my reading and intellectual interests the center of family activity and conversation all the time, those would have been the things that the kids had picked up most from us. But if it's a choice between those and the connection to faith, morals, and arts which they have instead picked from us, I think the path we're on is the better one. 

And clearly, 100 years is not nearly long enough to spend around such excellent people. Although the fact that they rack up another communal seven years to their total for each twelve months by the calendar underlines how exhausting it can often be to serve as the axle from which so many different spokes go out, watching these people grow into their adult selves is one of the best ways I can think of to spend my life.  Here's looking at you, kids.

Monday, July 24, 2023


Second daughter

Daughters One, Four, and Three

Three times this week I have started writing a post, about why I can't write a post because I keep getting interrupted by real life, only to be interrupted by real life -- an emergency molar extraction for a child, the wedding ring being repaired, the million demands on the at-home parent when dad and oldest brother are canoeing with the Scouts in Virginia for a week. This weekend everyone was home, and so we took it in shifts to watch Barbie. I have four daughters, ages 21-13, and they went first, all dressed up because it's fun to dress up sometimes. The girls came home with opinions, but wanted to wait to discuss the movie until we'd all seen it.

So Darwin and I went, not in costume, because although it's fun to dress up, it's also nice not to have to dress up. And we were amused, for the most part. I am not a great fan of Greta Gerwig's oeuvre. Lady Bird left me unmoved by the angsty, self-absorbed teen protagonist, and Little Women was a revision of the literary source ungrounded in historical realities and attitudes (and burdened by the talented but ubiquitous leads, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet). But perhaps, we thought, Gerwig might have the overblown touch necessary for a camp property like Barbie.

In part, yes. The early absurdity of Barbieland, in which the perfectly sculpted characters move and act in ways believable to anyone who's ever watched kids play with their toys, was Technicolor fun -- and fun is the operative word in a movie based on a toy. But you've seen just about all of it in the trailers. Gerwig succeeds, to an extent, in humanizing her main Barbie character, aided immeasurably by the talent of actress Margot Robbie. But the only way she can deal with Ken, or with any male character in the movie, or any character who is not Margot Robbie Barbie, is by making them more, not less, of a caricature. And that's a problem in a movie that's trying to tread the ground covered with far more real human drama by The Lego Movie, which managed a much smaller-scale real-world crisis with surprising humanity.

Humanity is in short supply here. Indeed, Gerwig wants to use Barbie to make a profound point about the role in women in society, but she can't succeed in grinding her pink plastic ax to a razor's edge because she's unwilling to make any profound points about the role of men. Every man in the movie, from Ken to Will Ferrell's cartoonish Mattel CEO to a comically irrelevant husband and father (a toss-off gag), is as plastic and malleable to Gerwig's whims as Gerwig wants to claim that women are to the patriarchy. And this one-note story service isn't limited to the men, who are never presented as actual people. A real-world mother and her teenage daughter become Barbie's guides and co-conspirators, urging her to act and to value herself for herself. The bond shared by Barbie and the mother is surprisingly effective. But the teenage daughter, a vicious little piece of work -- all the abrasiveness and clever self-absorption of Lady Bird without the internal life which gave Lady Bird her context -- is like Barbie herself, only the prop that makes the mother "Mother". 

This movie is, in fact, a middle-aged woman's dream world of matriarchal relevance, where daughters are inexplicably hostile and then inexplicably appreciative, where Barbie can be sexy without sex because men are all emasculated buffoons (Barbie and Ken, as specifically revealed in dialogue, have no genitals), where men seem to be able to take over society simply by uttering the magic word "patriarchy", where women are Supreme Court judges and President and Chemists without having to demonstrate a lick of the grunt work that goes into politics and higher education. One of the few moments in the real world where the humor gives a nod to truth is where Ken is at a hospital demanding to be allowed to do surgery because he's a man, and the tired woman in scrubs tells him no. "Let me speak to a doctor!" he insists. "I am a doctor," retorts the woman, and you believe it in a way you don't believe in Nobel Prize-Winning Barbie. Ken doesn't ever act the way that boys play with corresponding toys such as GI Joe because, as Darwin noted, Ken was never a boys' toy, only an accessory to Barbie. The movie makes this point early on, but doesn't resolve it in an interesting and truthful way on its own terms.

The contrast with The Lego Movie, which did succeed on its own terms, is informative. There, each story line, toyland and real life, resolved honestly in its own world, and that worked because The Lego Movie only attempted to make a small, intimate point about the real world: the conflicts between the ways parents and children interact with beloved toys, and how that crisis of control can be bridged by love and some sacrifice. No matter the scale of the work of fiction, the only true points that it can make about the world are small and intimate and interior, because people are themselves small and intimate and interior. 

Barbie the Movie, however, wants to make a grand point about the necessity of feminism to counteract the oppressive demands society puts on women -- a society, it should be noted, that is 50% women. How do all these highly-qualified Barbies come to be oppressed by a buffoon like Ken? How can a vote to change the Constitution of Barbieland be so scary that the Barbies have to lure the Kens away from voting, when Barbies outnumber, and can therefore outvote, the Kens? Why does the grand plan to defeat the Kens give credence to pick-up artist cons? Why does the unbrainwashing of the Barbies work by capturing each one and forcing her to listen to an impassioned speech, when every intervention I've ever seen on that model in real life mostly makes the intervenee dig in and put up defensive walls? That's fantasy, if you like.

In the end, the movie's frenetic pace grinds to a halt as Barbie is encouraged to actualize herself into being human by the ghost of her original American promoter, Ruth Handler (whose historical significance in Barbie's propagation consisted of manipulating markets by bypassing parental gatekeeping and selling a German sex doll directly to children through the medium of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club). This is the lull where, in sleepovers yet to come, the girls (who mainly want to watch fun Barbieland antics and the Kens' farcical yet satisfying dance-off) wander off to have cake or open presents or check memes together. No one wants to watch Barbie being human in a movie which doesn't have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. It succeeds at moments because Gerwig, who is a talented procedural filmmaker, gives Barbie flashes of real insight. (A moment of wonder, where a stunned, luminous Barbie realizes the individuality of each person at a park, touches transcendence.) But she can't extend that humanity to every character. As a result, where the movie is absurd fun (and that's most of it), it works, and where it tries to be deep -- well, what better time to engage in real-world interactions like cake and sharing memes? Not every movie is so considerate as to telegraph where you can stop paying attention to it.

In case you were wondering: the four daughters (who enjoy the advantage of being surrounded by hard-working, supportive father, uncles, grandfather, and boyfriend) enjoyed the funhouse aspect, but were unmoved by being told how oppressed they were, either by the plastic dolls they don't play with, or by the destructive unfriendly kind of teen girl they avoid in real life. "Why didn't they give her some backstory to show why she's so cruel?" one asked. My 14yo son, disappointed because his parents ruled against him seeing the extended nudity in Oppenheimer at this moment in time, but understanding and accepting the reasoning, decided against seeing Barbie, and I'm glad of that. He's not irrelevant to the women in his life, nor a jerk, nor an idiot, just a guy who knows that a Pitch Meeting spoof will tell you more about the movie than the movie itself.

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Change is as Good as a Rest

No rest, but lots of change coming...


First off: we are not dead, we are just in the theater. And you can be too! We are putting up Fiddler on the Roof this weekend, Friday July 14-Sunday, July 16. If you happen to be in the Central Ohio area, come see us! Various Darwins appear in various roles: I am Golde, Eleanor is the Singing Russian, Isabel is in the Dance Corps, Jack is a Jerky Russian, William is a Jewish Boy, and Darwin is Tech Director. 

Golde is a great role, and I enjoy playing her, especially against our Tevye who is an old pal of mine, but I've felt all along that that I haven't been getting her quite right. Darwin, who's been watching the rehearsals from the balcony as he's setting the tech, put his finger on the problem: "You're softening the lines," he said. "You can't imagine scolding like Golde does in real life, and so you're trying to deliver these lines the same way you would if you found yourself saying this kind of thing at home. But Golde doesn't pull her punches. She's always performing, to an imaginary audience or to God, and she's always projecting, "Can you believe the shit I have to put up with?"

He's right, of course, and I found that it's opened up the role for me to stop projecting my personality onto Golde. Go big or stay at home. It helps to break the fourth wall and kvetch directly to the audience. Being in costume also helps me get into character, as does just running the show every night -- that's where most of my best work happens in terms of building character and picking up business. It's much easier to add bits once you have a set and props.

So come see me (but not my hair; that's verboten) and some of Delaware, OH's finest tread the boards in Fiddler!


And here's the change: 

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at CUA on the Ward Method for teaching music to Catholic schoolchildren. It's the best program you've never heard of, based on quick and simple lessons that build facility with intonation, sight reading, notation, composition, and conducting, leading to fluency with Gregorian chant. Trained vocalists and musicians at the conference were all saying, "I wish I'd had this as a kid!" I'd like my own children to have this excellent foundation in music, and not just my own children, but the children in my parish and in my hometown.

And I told our pastor that I'm willing to go full-time teaching the Ward Method at our parochial school this year, and in order to support that, we're enrolling our three youngest children in kindergarten, fourth, and seventh grades.

This is a leap of faith for me, akin to descending to the Titanic in a bathysphere. Our school is transitioning to a Montessori/Classical model, which is one reason we feel it could be the right time to make this change, but as the transition is ongoing, I don't have any assurances that my youngest will actually be part of the Montessori roll-up. We have never operated in a school environment, with all the regulation and regimentation and schedule that entails. I mourn the disruption of my comfortable, pleasant family lifestyle, in which we operate on a different timeframe than the rest of world, moving at our own pace, free during the days for reading and appointments and workmen and grocery shopping.

I sought the wise counsel of a friend, which helped me to see that in all of this, I'm mainly wrestling with myself. My older children, when I presented the idea to them, all shrugged and said, "Sounds good, you should do that." The younger kids are very excited to go to school, far more excited than I am to send them. Darwin, able to work from home most days, will continue overseeing of the two high-school kids, who will still be taking community college classes. I've been volunteering at the parish with both music and children for more than a decade now, so I'm not an unknown quantity there. This new situation formalizes much of what I've been doing informally for a long time, and perhaps that what is giving me so pause now that the initial feeling of grace and confidence has deserted me: I value informality and flexibility, and now I need to discipline myself and conform to someone else's schedule, to which I will be bound not as a volunteer but as an employee.

Doubtless the excitement of my first decision will return. I've been on an emotional pendulum, crying all morning before I enrolled the children (a sorrow, as I say, shared by no one else), a Martha worried and anxious about many things. I trust that I'm also doing the one thing necessary: listening to Jesus and doing as He asks. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Beauport, for My Own Future Reference

Sometimes you want to share knowledge with people who will appreciate it, and sometimes you want to archive knowledge so that you yourself can find it again. This post is concerned with both purposes. I want to be able to find all this again one day, and I want to you to have seen this at least once in your life.

Several years ago, I read an article about a house. A glorious, labyrinthine house on the sea, designed and enlarged around the Gilded Age by a committed bachelor. Each room led into another. There was no central hallway, no main staircase. Around each corner was something lovely. Everywhere were nooks and views. I wanted to look at it forever.

And I couldn't find it again because I couldn't remember the name of the house or the owner. It was somewhere on the East Coast, in some place where one could find Gilded Mansions, but it was lost to me. I thought the owner's name had been Joshua, or that he was connected with Edith Wharton, but such searches revealed nothing. The house haunted me. I yearned to see the green bedroom room, filled with light and doors to elsewhere. I spent hours googling variations on every detail I remembered, to no avail.

And then recently, without warning, I came across the green room again.

Behold: Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, designed by Henry Davis Sleeper. This verdant color graces several rooms, one of the few unifying design themes in this eclectic house.

There are photos galore at the above link, and biographical info on Sleeper, and the history of the house.  Take, and read, and contemplate. But what you really want to do is tour this magnificent house, and this you can do from the comfort of your couch with this virtual room-by-room walk through Beauport. First, though, you must -- no, you must -- have the floor plan for reference.

You must enlarge these photos and use them as you navigate through the tour. My green room is, I believe, the Belfry Room on the second floor. What, this isn't what you spend your nights and weekends doing, ogling the glamorous houses of yore?

Monday, June 12, 2023

Dorothy Sayers and Classical Education

 Local circumstances inspired me to spend some time lately going back to the sources on Classical Education. In particular, I've been re-reading Dorothy Sayers's 1947 essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" and organizing both an in-person discussion of it at our house this last weekend and an ongoing online discussion via Facebook.  Sayers's essay is available to read for free online here.  It's also available read aloud on Audible (paid) and YouTube (free). (If you're interested in joining the Facebook group, you can do so here, or if that link doesn't work email me and I'll send you an invite, though I make no guarantees as to how much further it will go.)

I thought it might be interesting for some readers to pull together some of the material I've been writing in the group about Sayers and her proposals around what has come to be called Classical Education. So far as I can tell, Sayers is the first person to use the medieval Trivium of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric as the model for stages of primary and secondary education (and indeed for the stages of learning any subject.)

About Sayers

Dorothy Sayers

If you've heard of Dorothy Sayers before, there's a good chance it was due to her mystery novels.  From 1923 to 1939, Sayers wrote 11 mystery novels featuring the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, as well as several plays and many short stories. The Lord Peter novels were international best sellers and brought Sayers a degree of financial independence. The BBC adapted the novels for television once in the 1970s and again in the 1980s.

However, Sayers interests and abilities went well beyond detective fiction. 

Born in 1893, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, Sayers first educated at home by her father (who started her on Latin at the age of six) and later attended boarding school. In 1912 she won a scholarship to attend Sommerville College, in Oxford, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford, at a time when all the established colleges in Oxford were male-only institutions and the idea of women going to elite colleges was still controversial.

This was also the era in education when Latin and Greek were beginning to lose their 2500 year place of honor in Western education. In 1917, just after Sayers graduated from Oxford in Britain, the president of Harvard, Charles Elliot, wrote a piece for The Atlantic Magazine advocating that Harvard cease to require Latin proficiency in order to earn a BA.  (Students earning degrees in the sciences had already been excused from compulsory Latin at Harvard in the 1890s.)  Similar arguments were going on in Oxford and Cambridge, and would intensify between and after the world wars.

Sayers earned her BA and Masters at Oxford in medieval literature and modern languages.  She published several books of poetry shortly after graduating, but in order to support herself ended up taking a job at an advertising agency. She was responsible for launching the "zoo" advertisements featuring the toucan and other animals for Guinness Stout which continue to this day.

The success of her mystery novels allowed Sayers to become a full time writer for the rest of her life.

As World War II loomed, Sayers increasingly began to spend her time on non-fiction, much of it dealing with religion.

In 1940 she published Creed or Chaos, a book of essays on the importance of basic Christian doctrine (such as if found in the Nicene Creed) similar in theme to C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, which Lewis delivered as a series of radio talks beginning the next year in 1941.

In The Mind of the Maker, published in 1941, Sayers looked at the artistic process in the context of Christianity and discussed the way in which the work of a writer could reflect God's creative power.

Also in 1941 she accepted the job of writing a twelve episode radio series dramatizing the life of Christ for the BBC. The series was attacked by secularists for putting religion on the public radio, and by conservative Christians who objected to Sayers decision to have the characters in the Bible speak in the words of ordinary people rather than the high flown English of the King James Version. The radio plays were considered a notable success bringing the story of the Bible to British citizens in wartime. Her scripts were re-produced by additional sets of actors in four additional times over thirty years and the scripts are still in print today.

Later in the 1940s Sayers undertook a massive literary translation project, translating Dante's theological epic The Divine Comedy into English verse. The first volume, Hell, was published by Penguin Classics in 1947. While opinions vary on Sayers's verse versus that of other poets who have translated Dante into English, I think her notes on Dante's theology and cultural references are the best available. The Dante project took up the remainder of Sayers's life.  She published Purgatory in 1955 and died in 1957 with Heaven still only half complete.  Here friend and collaborator Barbara Reynolds completed the translation which was published in 1962. Her translations of Dante remain in print to this day.

In "The Lost Tools of Learning", Sayers argues that the purpose of education is not to feed students specific expertise but rather to provide them with the tools to continue learning new and difficult subjects throughout life. Poet, advertising copywriter, mystery writer, public intellectual, translator -- Sayers's life certainly provides examples of living that principle out.

On the essay

Sayers takes roughly the first 6 pages of her 20 to lay out the problems she believes need to be addressed in modern education.

In one sense, the problems she sees will seem very modern, though she's writing 75 years ago:

"Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press  and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute  over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be  at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?"

Substitute Twitter and TikTok for the press and radio, and the fear that we are in an age when people are constantly bombarded with information in which it can be difficult to sort the truth from the propaganda seems very up-to-date. Given that Sayers and her generation had just lived through two world wars, and that communism had only recently spread across Europe while secularism was claiming to make religion out of date, her concerns certainly seem justified.

I think it's interesting in the age of the "fact check" that Sayers's solution is not that we need to pour ever more facts into students or urge them to always consult the proper authorities. Rather, her concern is that students have become very good at soaking up facts (at least for the time necessary to pass a test) but that they have become less able to teach themselves new topics and as they do so to judge which is true and what is false.

"Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only  forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget  also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new  subject for themselves?


Is it not the great defect of our education to-day...  that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play The Harmonious Blacksmith upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized "The Harmonious Blacksmith", he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle "The Last Rose of Summer". Why do I say, “As though”? In certain of the arts and crafts we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colours and the brush."

This, I think, is the key thing which Sayers is proposing to address with her approach to education. She believes that our world is changing so rapidly that it is not enough to simply teach children the knowledge and techniques they will need in order to get by in the world. Rather, we must focus on teaching them how to learn entirely new areas of knowledge and technique which will doubtless open up in the future.

For example: When I was in school "learning to code" in school meant learning how to program in BASIC. That skill was nearly useless by the time I entered the workforce, much less now. Careful training in writing BASIC would have been no use to me once I started working, when what I needed to use was SQL and PHP.  Nor does using those two programming languages bear directly on the work in Tableau and R that I do now.  However, two things that were very useful to me as I learned these later skills on the job were learning the algebraic mode of problem solving in math and learning the highly structured grammars of Latin and Greek. Mastering both of these structured modes of logic and expression gave me a good set of tools to learn a programming language or an analytics tool.

Sayers illustrates this difference between learning specific things via training and mastering the tools for learning new things oneself with an example dealing with music (an area I'm conscious of because my wife and kids know it and I do not.) She describes how overly specific training is like learning by rote how to play one specific song. You might learn how to play the one song quite well, but if you don't understand musical notation, intervals, chords, etc. you will have no advantage from that first lesson when to you go to learn to play other songs.  Whereas, if you learn the tools of music (reading notation, intervals, chords, etc.) learning additional songs will become quicker and quicker.

In pages 6-9, Sayers lays out a very brief sketch of the classical and medieval approach to the basics of learning, and how she sees these as relevant today.

She lists the Trivium as three disciplines: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric

The Quadrivium she mentions only in passing but for what it's worth they were: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. These were the more advanced subjects of the liberal education (the education of a free man) and it's worth noting in passing that as such the emphasis different from how we might think of those subjects now.  In arithmetic and geometry, the emphasis would have been on proof, in other words on how abstract and geometrical calculation worked. And with music and astronomy, the emphasis would also have been on the workings and theory of the disciplines, what we might think of as something like musical theory and orbital mechanics (calculating where planets and starts would be at given times and places.)

But like Sayers I'll leave the Quadrivium be after this. Aside from noting that the emphasis in these more advanced subjects was in how to make them one's own by doing calculations and research, I think Sayers is right in the way she goes through the rest of the essay with the assumption that the disciplines modern students will apply the tools of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric to will be those of modern fields of study rather than medieval ones.

Sayers then makes a distinction that while grammar is in a sense a subject, dialectic and rhetoric are rather methods of dealing with subjects.

Let me first touch of grammar a briefly.

I had "grammar" or "language" classes throughout grade school, but I often found myself simultaneously struggle and getting good grades. I got good grades because my parents spoke with good grammar at home and read aloud to me (and later encouraged me to read to myself) as a pretty high level. As such, I had a very good grasp of what sounded right in English, and so I was pretty good at "what is wrong with this sentence" or "use the right form of this word" exercises. But I didn't have a very good grasp of how grammar actually WORKED until I tackled Latin seriously in high school.  (Thanks, Bruce!)  Sayers gets into this later when she talks about the importance she puts on learning an inflected language (such as Latin, Greek, or if one must be modern Russian.) I'll do a sidebar post on what is distinctive about Latin vs some of the modern Romance languages such as Spanish or French when I get to that section, but here I just think it's worth noting that by grammar I think we just take Sayers to mean not just "put your comma in the right place" and "knowing to say 'they run' rather than 'they runs'" but understanding the way in which a language allows us to express or decode how many people do a thing, who they do it do, when they did it, how they did it, and what attributes the various parties involved had, based on the forms of words we choose.  Grammar is the set of rules which allow us to convey and discern meaning precisely. Taken in that broad sense, grammar applies not just to a language, but to many things. If grammar is the mechanics of language, there is similarly grammar to everything from mechanical engineering to music.

This leaves dialectic and rhetoric.  

Sayers describes dialectic as meaning the combination of logic and disputation. 

Logic is the mechanics of understanding when an argument does or does not follow from some other thing.  If all bats are creatures with things, and X is a creature with wings, does that mean X is a bat?

Disputation she seems to take as how that basic logic is situated within an argument.  The combination of logic and disputation she describes as, "how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how  to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument".

Rhetoric she describes as "he learned to express himself in language: how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively."

But she describes both dialectic and rhetoric as "methods of dealing with subjects". By this, I think she means that to reason about a thing or to make a persuasive argument about a thing, one must have something worth talking about. Applying logic and rhetoric to "why I should get a nintendo for Christmas" is a sufficiently pointless exercise that students probably won't even get good practice out of it. Reading disputes in history, science, and religion and analyzing them with these tools will be a much more fruitful exercise in that it will both allow the students to participate in real disputes and also show to them how these skills can be used in later life as they evaluate and make arguments as citizens, parishioners, workers, etc.

The next point in Sayers's essay is where she lays out her idea for three stages of childhood development in terms of education.  As she says, she has not personally had extensive experience with raising or educating children, so as we're all parents here it seems like a good time to see if these fit with people's observations.

Sayers's stages are:

1) The "poll parrot" stage, where "learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished". I'd say that this pretty much lines up with the period (which our nine year old is definitely in) where a child is likely to regale you with lists of dinosaur species, facts gleaned from nature specials, etc.  (ages maybe 5-11)

2) The "pert" or argumentative stage, which is "characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders), and the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them)".  (ages 11-14)

3) The "poetic" stage which "is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching-out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others." (ages 14-18)

My own brief take: I think these observations definitely hold some general truth. The poll-parrot stage is most recognizable, in which children seem to be very good and picking up and remembering things (sometimes to an exhausting degree) but where reasoning ability is pretty basic. Kids that age certainly don't shrink from making connections and drawing conclusions, but it's often based on very basic similarities between things or concepts.  "I noticed these two things are similar, so I bet they're connected in the following way which just popped into my head."  In terms of education, this is clearly the age for learning letters and numbers, memorizing math facts, states, countries, capitals, maps, animal classifications, etc.  More in a Classical Education direction, this is probably also not a bad age for memorizing some poems and famous speeches (I still recall most of the Gettysburg address from 5th grade) and Bible passages and prayers.

I can't deny recognizing the argumentative stage, though people who knew me as a kid might say I lived one long argumentative stage from when I learned to talk till some time in my late 20s.  Other (indeed most) kids are must less argumentative than I was.

But even coming from a long argumentative stage, I'd say that there is an earlier stage which is highly imitative.  I would pick up arguments that I heard somewhere, like them, and repeat them to anywho who would listen.  In the middle school years, I started to transition to trying to synthesize my own arguments more, and make my own connections, and was less likely to parrot arguments without examination.  And as I edged into high school I started to move from simply arguing to trying to be more persuasive and to understand how others thought and reform arguments in more imaginative ways to make my ideas attractive to others.

That's also the age when I got interested in writing, and there too my initial forays were incredibly imitative. So even within forming arguments and doing expressive or creative writing, I'd say there's an early stage which is very imitative, and that a big help in one's development in that regard is being exposed to good examples of writing and argument, and helped to understand what makes them good. 

A digression on inflected languages

On page 11, after laying out her theory of the three stages of child development and how they map to grammar, dialectic/logic, and rhetoric, Sayers gets started on some details of the first of these three stages: grammar

She says, "This, in practice, means the grammar of some language in particular; and it must be an inflected language. The grammatical structure of an uninflected language is far too analytical to be tackled by any one without previous practice in Dialectic. Moreover, the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected. I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediæval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent."

She goes on to talk about how Latin vocabulary is found in everything from anatomy to law. Then she goes on to talk about all the other subjects which she thinks should be covered at this age and how.  However, let me take a minute, as someone who studied Latin in high school and college, to talk through what I think her case is for the value of learning an inflected language at a fairly young age (let's say age 8-11) as being something like the poll-parrot age.

In Latin (and in other highly inflected languages like Greek) the endings of words change in order to make clear what the function of a word in the sentence is.

So, for instance, in English, if you wrote the sentence: The boy gives the pretty girl a rose.

You know that "the pretty girl" is the person who received the rose (the indirect object) and the rose is the thing given "the direct object" because of their places in the sentence.  Move the words around, and you could change the meaning:

The girl gives the boy to a pretty rose.

The words in this sentence are almost exactly the same (we've added the proposition "to") but the meaning is totally different -- and also somewhat nonsensical.

In Latin, the endings of the words explain what each word is doing.  So if you say: Puer puellae bellae rosam dat (the boy gives a rose to the pretty girl)

You know that "Puer" mean "the boy" or "a boy" because the ending is just "-r".  If we meant "of the boy" it would be "pueri".  If we meant "to the boy" it would be "puero".  If the boy was the person acted on (the direct object) as in "the girl hit the boy" then the form would be "puerum".

Similarly, we know that "bellae" meaning "pretty" or "beautiful" goes with "puellae" because they are both in the dative form ending in "-ae".  If the pretty girl did something, say that she loved a dog, we would have: puella bella canem amat.

Nouns (and adjectives to match them) have endings that make clear their position in the sentence:

puella (a/the girl, subject)

puellae (of the girl, possessive)

puellam (a/the girl, object)

And verbs also make clear their purpose in the sentence by their endings:

Amo (I love)

Amas (You love)

Amat (he/she/it loves)

Amamus (we love)

Amatis (you plural love)

Amant (they love)

These endings are also pretty regular.  There are some different groupings, but there are 3-4 standard ways that nouns/adjectives end and 3/4 standard ways that verbs end, and if you memorize them (which is why Sayers assigns the memorization of forms like "Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant" to the poll-parrot stage) you simply know how your words work.

The sort of interesting result of all this is that Latin (and Greek) as written 2000 years ago are both more complicated and more systematic than English.  English (and more so languages like Spanish, French, etc.) is like the quickie, simplified version, but with a lot of special rules that you have to memorize.  Latin may be complicated, but all the rules are right up front and visible.

So the reason why Sayers is saying that kids aged 8-11 should be learning a language like Latin or Greek is that:

1) there is a fair amount of memorization, and memorizing is something kids that age are good at

2) these ancient languages are extremely systematic and clearly defined, whereas with English a lot of the meaning has to be understood from the placement of the words, context, and irregular ways that words change.

We've all heard kids make basic grammatic errors such as "I gives it to her" or "I runs fast".  Certainly, the child learning Latin will make grammatical errors too.  But both the systematic nature of the Latin language and the overall experience of learning a different language which you can't simply judge based on "it sounds right" allows the student to learn the function of each word in the sentence and the way of expressing what that function is.

This is the sense in which "teach the kids Latin" is not simply based on the fact that people in the Middle Ages and Ancient World learned Latin.  There is something about the structure of the Latin language which necessitates teaching clearly and explicitly things which native English speaking students can skim by based on "what sounds right" and which English as a language makes clear primarily by word placement, not by very explicit things like word endings.

My plan is to write up discussion on the rest of the essay, which I can post here as well if it is of any use to people.

Monday, June 05, 2023

The Boxes are Just Packed

Darwins, after the funeral.

Are the days just packed? Is it accurate to say that, when I'm sitting here writing on a quiet Monday mid-morning, when one of my children hasn't even tumbled out of bed yet? The cumulative feel of life right now is that there are so many balls in the air, one doesn't even know which one to grab. At most given moments, however, there is time to stop and think, if one will take it.

I type this as I am sitting in a chair in my front hall. This is not where the chair belongs, but it has been dragged there by my almost-6yo, who is performing as The Brownie Band on a stage made of the piano bench, also dragged into the hall. I don't particularly want to watch The Brownie Band at this moment, even though the son is very cute playing guitar on a foam sword and singing about how the brownies are cooking in the oven. (This solves the question of what meaning of "brownie" was implied -- I thought it was the little household elves, and someone else thought it was Girl Scouts, but of course it's dessert.) I am at the tail end of a great household clothing sort, the thing we now call "Kondo-ing", where just about every item of wear has been washed and assessed, and now umpteen bags sit in the hall along with the stage and chairs. 

This great sorting was precipitated by the amount of laundry following our trip to New Jersey for Baby Josh's funeral, but the urge to clean house was in general was a direct result of the AirBnB we stayed at with my sister's family. It was a trick to find a multifamily house in the area on short notice for the Memorial Day weekend, but we found a place in the Poconos that was open. It was suitable for our needs: a place to park our sleeping carcasses within an hour's drive of my brother's house. But as a vacation house, it was DIY hell. "This place looks like a 5-Minute Crafts video," my oldest observed, looking at the cheap glam finishes and the atrocious quality of the work. Every fixture looked like it had been acquired at the last-chance table at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Nothing was level, nothing was even. All trim looked like it had been reused. The neighborhood was a gated mountain enclave of architecturally insignificant houses from the 80s and 90s, and even by the offensive standards of taste on offer, this place was appalling. 

So we returned home with renewed drive to do justice to our lovely old pile with our bathroom renovation. But laundry was an easier task to dive into immediately, and it relies only on my availability. Time is money, friends, and my financial contribution to the household economy is my full-time presence. I don't pay someone to sort clothes or cook meals or clean house or care for children because these things are within my purview as the full-time household-managing member of the family. I am no great shakes as an organizer, but I'm here. And I have the authority to dragoon the non-contributing financial members of the household, otherwise known as my children, to help me by sorting their own clothing. (This is not quite fair to the gainfully employed children, but in the first week of summer break, everyone's time is a bit fluid anyway, so I simply commandeered it.)

The amount of clothing in storage has been vastly reduced, because we also went through all the boxes. There are now two boxes between sons 1 and 2, and one box between sons 2 and 3. There is one box between daughters 3 and 4. Daughters 1, 2, and 3 are in their adult sizes and are stylistically different enough that they don't pass clothes between each other. Daughter 4 can take clothes from 2 and 3, and anything she rejects goes in the donate bag. I don't keep clothing that Daughter 4 or Son 3 have grown out of. This isn't even a fate-tempting strategy any more. If (have mercy, O Lord!) I ever end up needing children's clothes again, I don't know that having a decade-old box of hand-me-downs in the closet will do much. 

I am not a hoarder by nature. I love clearing things out of the house, and the danger I run (and why I don't do wholesale reductions more often) is that I throw out things that have been sitting around for years, and a week later need the one thing I got rid of, or find the missing part that makes the trashed item operational, or discover that I finally need that school book I donated because it had been gathering dust for years. We have a large house and so are privileged to hold on to things against the day of their use. The challenge, as in so much of life, is not to be complacent, but to be always reexamining what we truly need, now or in the future. Do we need to keep this item because of nostalgia, because of inertia, because of a misplaced sense of gratitude? Sometimes the answer is yes (and the gratitude is merited). But often a thing around the house has outlived its usefulness, or requires more work than we have time or ability to give it, before it can be useful again. 

Time is the key word here. We are pulled in many different directions, with obligations to church and to work and to theater and to the Brownie Band. Summer is a season in which some of those daily obligations (to formally educate the Brownie Band) give way to a more freeform use of days (such as a week of clothes sorting). Jobs such as the bathroom renovation, which requires more of Darwin's time than mine, are of their nature prolonged because most of Darwin's productive hours go to the day job that keeps us in tea and crumpets and toilet paper and mortgage payments and college savings. The time we would spend on the job is a function of how much we love our house, and our desire to live with beautiful craftsmanship that does not look like DIY hell. But there are also professionals who could achieve the same fine results, in far less time, for money. A quantity of money, granted, but money that buys us time: another functional bathroom months or even years sooner than we could finish it, while we have a houseful of people who need that right now.

Meanwhile, other boxes sit packed: boxes of elegant subway tile, ready to be applied to walls not ready for it yet. What can I do to hasten this process, what time can I spend? One thing that needs to happen is that a bathtub full of debris needs to be bagged up and dumped in the trash. I can do that right now, instead of writing, or I can set my 14yo son to do this job that requires no special training, only work ethic. Time to get up and get moving, before we hit the evening window in which our time is suddenly packed with dinner, rehearsal, scouts, obligations. The days, and the trashcan, and the donation bags, are just packed.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Arc of History -- How 19th and 20th Century Trends led to Joan of Arc's Canonization

 An interesting element of canonization is that it is the result not just of the Church's assessment that someone is now in heaven, but also that the person has a significant following among Catholics. There are, thus, people who are unquestionably holy, but who are unlikely to ever be canonized because they are obscure. Such obscurity can result from various things, and one potential source is simply that the life of a particular person does not speak to the specific concerns of the age.

An even more fascinating aspect of this can be how a saint becomes more relevant to another age, long after his or her life, and thus is canonized long after death. A fascinating example of this, to me, is the story of St. Joan of Arc, who was canonized in 1920, almost 500 years after her death in 1431.

Inspired by the suggestion of my sister-in-law Annie, I got the chance to write about this topic today for The Pillar.  Have a look!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Stopping and Not Stopping

Tonight we stage at our house: three families, seventeen children, to caravan across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to attend Josh's wake on Friday and funeral on Saturday. 

I say seventeen children, but my two oldest are not minors anymore, and indeed, my oldest daughter just turned 21 and could drink if she felt the least desire to consume an alcoholic beverage. We are cousin-heavy on the younger side. I had four children before any of my siblings were married, and so my oldest ones are a bloc, sometimes included with the grown-ups, sometimes shunted off with the babies. My second daughter is the only one of the cousins to have ever seen little Joshua, when she went out to Philadelphia to help the family during his tracheostomy, and then only for a brief moment, long enough to capture a photo of him as he lay in his mother's lap.

It is hard to write about a grief that is not primarily your own. My brother and sister-in-law bear the hardest burden of all, and Joshua's story is rightly theirs to tell, in their own words. But all of us have been praying for him from a distance, and poring over every photo, and waiting through nights for updates to the family text. On Sunday, we were all avidly following the updates as his vital signs gently but inexorably dropped: heart rate 90, heart rate 30. Heart beat was not detected; in the arms of the Lord now. I had thought, somehow, that I would be at home when the message came, ready to receive it, but I was out in public, in the bright sunshine. Joshua never saw the sun in his 4 1/2 months of life, except perhaps as he was being airlifted to Children's in Philadelphia. Except for the moment of his birth, he was never free of wires or IVs or tubes. He was held once by his parents when he was conscious, as a bright-eyed newborn.

Even trying to find a place to grieve is difficult in a busy house. As I sat in the rocking chair in my bedroom (with the door that does not latch, with the lock that's fallen off and now lives on the mantel) trying to cry somewhere out of the public eye, kids kept coming in, looking for something or wanting to use my bathroom. Darwin had been off on a scout canoe trip. Some older daughters were leaving for work, or getting home from work -- I can't keep straight who's coming or going at what time, no matter how often they tell me their shifting schedules. Life keeps going on.

Even right now, in the silence of the morning (the only time when it is silent), it doesn't seem real that people are descending here tonight, or that we're leaving in the morning. Suits have been mostly acquired for young men, with one holdout who stubbornly falls into a window in which the old First Communion suits are too small, and the Confirmation suit too large. Daughters have taken each other shopping for funeral blacks in their different style essences. I do not have a pair of black dress shoes to go with my dress, having put off looking at Zappos until it was too late, and am pondering whether it's worth it to stage a trip to the mall in the few hours remaining for action. Piano lessons start in half an hour, and no one is stirring. 

It's going to be another beautiful late spring day in Ohio, and Joshua will be buried on Saturday in New Jersey. And then we're into rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof -- did I tell you I'm playing Golde? Maybe we'll stop to breathe in July, after the show, after the Boy Scout canoe trip. Joshua is not breathing, never breathed on his own after January. Life doesn't stop, except for those for whom it has stopped. And even that is only the start of something larger.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Joshua George Egan

 Josh passed away yesterday, very gently as all the medications left his system. His vital signs dropped slowly but inexorably over the course of the weekend until there was no heartbeat detectable.

From my sister-in-law:

2 Timothy 4:7

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

St. Joshua George, pray for us!


Friday, May 19, 2023

Josh on the Verge

From my sister-in-law:

Please pray with us today… we believe Joshua to be actively dying. We will sit vigil with him today and possibly into the weekend.

Joshua 1:9

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

A Baby Josh Update

From my sister-in-law Gail, an update on my nephew Josh from his GoFundMe page:

"This journey with Joshua has had so many ups and downs, sometimes it just feels too exhausting to put an update together.

I apologize for not posting more frequently. The past month has had just that - ups and downs. It seems like just when we were getting to a good spot and Joshua was more stable, a new concern would arise… which brings me the reason for this post.

We have been so eternally grateful for the overwhelming support we have experienced through all this. The care and love we experienced from our friends and family when Joshua first got sick has persisted. Even now - 4.5 months later - we feel just as carried by your prayers and support. And, to be honest, we need them now more than ever.

Last week, Joshua had an adrenal crisis - meaning a chain of events caused his adrenal system to shut down. His blood pressure dropped extremely low, he stopped urinating, and his potassium levels shot super high causing him to have heart arrhythmias. John and I were both in Nj with the kids and the doctor called at 1am and told us Josh had gotten very sick, very fast and she was “very worried his heart could stop at any moment”. We woke the kids at 2am and drove down to Philly to be with him. The days following were scary and unpredictable. They needed to give him an extraordinary amount of different medications to help him. As he stabilized (still on a lot of meds), he started to fight to regulate his body temperature again and his stomach was not responding well to his feeds. Finally over the weekend, he was almost completely at his baseline again and John and I were hopeful.  

I drove the kids home to NJ and John was going to stay with Joshua. By Monday morning, Joshua was having some of these same issues reoccurring. He was showing signs of a potential adrenal crisis again… with his blood pressure dangerously low and his GI tract backing up again, they started him on hydrocortisone again. This has caused him to have dangerously high blood pressure.

The doctors believe that the various systems in his body just might simply be shutting down - a result of the progression of his brain injury. They are running out of options to treat him and we think he may be going home to be with Jesus soon.

We will be having some significant conversations with the doctors tomorrow to determine if any future treatment can help being Joshua to a place of stability or not. We are also meeting with a priest tomorrow so Joshua can be anointed and we can discuss any potential end of life issues that may arise.

Please pray first and foremost for Joshua’s healing. If God’s will is to heal his body earthside, we will joyfully be the recipients of this miracle. Fr. Kapaun pray for us. But if it be God's will that Joshua receive total healing by being reunited to Christ in heaven, then our prayer is just that. To be at peace."

Thursday, May 11, 2023

More Next Things

The Darwins after Saturday's Confirmation, plus Grandma

Today, this very afternoon, we are going to the lake. I have to keep telling myself this, because it seems unreal, and thus the vast list of things that need to be done before the van can pull out of the driveway also seems unreal.

Why am I so tired and checked out? I ask myself. And then I think about my day yesterday.

3:00 -- the previously-unafflicted child dashes into my bathroom and throws up. We blow up the air mattress, only just stowed away from the last bout, and pull out all the bedding that had been laundered the day before.

4:00 -- someone replies to a group text, which I'd slept through at 2:30, which reveals some potentially very bad news.

4:30 -- the child throws up again, but I am attuned to the sounds a sleeping child makes before throwing up suddenly, and am also up saying a rosary (badly), and get there in time with a bowl.

6:00 -- the bad news is somewhat ameliorated, but I haven't been sleeping anyway.

7:30 -- the community college child leaves somberly for her final.

9:00 -- Darwin leaves to pick up the private college girl, who is also the birthday, turning 21! We'd been looking forward to six hours in the car together (three there, three back), but now I need to stay home with the child, who, if the previous pattern holds, will be lethargic, lightheaded, and prone to sudden projectile vomiting.

Morning -- Laundry and Dishes, always. Also, I mopped the kitchen floor, or did I do that the day before? Also, I scrub all the toilets, and the appalling attic shower, or did I do that the day before? I turn off the the TV several times and kick people to various tasks. Darwin's mother and brother, who now live close enough to walk over, drop by to deliver a present for the birthday girl.

12:30 -- Young Mister has not thrown up since 4:30, has slept many hours since then, and is cheerfully quarreling with his brother. I take them both to the store and the car wash. There is minor sadness at the store when it turns out we are NOT buying a package of Spider-Man masks for sister's birthday party, but the car wash is a success. The group text is still active, and worrying.

2:30 -- An older child comes to talk to me privately about a friend facing a life-changing crisis. We keep having to throw out younger siblings who wander in to say irrelevant things. I refuse to let people have computer time because it is a beautiful day.

4:30 -- I start dinner, but I've timed it wrong, so a child goes to work before everything is ready, and another must be run to drama club with a sandwich.

5:30 -- Darwin arrives home with the birthday girl, and the car must be quickly unpacked in the driveway because at 

6:00 -- Drama Club. I get home and have dinner quickly with the family before

7:00 -- I run out to a script reading for a new play that a few of the community theater gang are workshopping for the playwright.

9:00 -- Pick up from drama, home to birthday party. After delightful family fun (everyone is home! At the same time!), Darwin and I walk his mother home and take our own stroll, the first time we've had all day to talk. 

11:00 -- the bed has been cleared of laundry, Miss Chat has finally betaken herself to bed, an insurance situation has been discussed, the private college child has arranged her next semester with her advisor, next Monday's auditions for Fiddler on the Roof have been gamed out, the laptop has been acquired from the attic child, the vacation house has been discovered to come with towels, Darwin has planned to mow his mom's lawn in the morning, the college child's belongings have been tripped over in the hall, the air mattress is left up just in case. One daughter will take another to get a haircut in the morning, and tell the stylist exactly what needs to happen. The birthday child will go renew her driver's license. Piano will be practiced, because the teacher is coming tomorrow at 10:00.

(This is not a comprehensive list of the day, because there are also plenty of situations, small and large, that children would not care to have discussed online --nothing bad, but just life shaking itself out.)

For once, I sleep all night, and no one interrupts me. The Lord be thankit!

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

The Next Thing

I breathed deeply as I looked through the diamond pane window at the washed sky, fresh after last night's storm. The houses across the street showed charmingly through the branches of the big tree down by the sidewalk, and neatly tucked by its trunk were the blue bins ready for this morning's pickup: two recycling bins, and a sturdy square trash can, lid hanging open to accommodate the living room rug folded so that it mostly fit inside.

The rug was the final casualty and culmination of a stomach bug that swept through and threatened to disrail this weekend's Confirmation. When I called up our DRE Saturday morning, after the Confirmand spent all night throwing up, she said ruefully that there were three options: find another parish having Confirmation later, wait until next year, or muscle it out. We muscled it out, the correct option as Miss Confirmand was on the way up. But her brother spent all evening throwing up, and subject to diarrhea. As he slept it off, another brother succumbed, more violently than the other two, and lightheaded to boot. But even he began to recover, finally fortified with a sleeve of crackers, and 7-Up, and Gatorade, and was well enough to come down to the living room, where he sat watching Wild Kratts with the subtitles on, as the sound remote wasn't working and no one felt compelled to walk over to the speaker and turn it physically, like we had to do back in my day. And then he sat up and vomited explosively all over the living room rug, and the afghan, and a library book, and his sister's shoes. The afghan could be washed, and the shoes, at the outskirts of the blast zone, wiped down, but the library book will have to be paid for, and the rug -- well, I'd been thinking about replacing it anyway.

There was no warning, and hence no saving the library book, but my reflexes were slow anyway because I'd been awake all night, listening to the child on the air mattress in my bedroom for the first sounds of retching. We'd run three loads of bedding already, and the last was the worst, since the boy had sneaked a portion of mac and cheese from his cousin's first communion party in Cincinnati and had eaten it in the car on the way home. We'd arrived home at midnight, and by 1:30 Darwin was in the back yard, shaking the chunks out of the comforter and sheets while I scrubbed the groggy, weeping boy. I was determined not to miss the next bout, especially as the child was now on the air mattress, and so I turned on the lamp and read Georgette Heyer all night, pausing at intervals to hold the bowl for the heaving lad. This was a three book illness, spanning Cotillion (quite good) and The Unknown Ajax (highly recommended, one of her finest), and The Grand Sophy (an enjoyable lark), though the last was a recovery read throughout Monday as I slogged through my day in pajamas and ran laundry. 

Monday had been slated for preparations. We're going on vacation this weekend! to a lakehouse! a block from Lake Erie! The eldest Miss Darwin is coming home from college on Wednesday, which also happens to be her 21st birthday. Then Thursday it's off to the lake with the whole family plus the boyfriend of the second Miss Darwin, a fine fellow who is living and working in town for the summer. Living, I say, in our attic in a bachelor pad with the eldest Mr. Darwin, a strapping lad of 14. These living arrangements were all settled out shortly before the Confirmation, but they weren't the only moving-in we were assisting. Darwin's mother and brother have just moved a block away from us, relocating from Los Angeles, and so the last month has been prep work on their new house, and getting settled, and waiting for the moving truck to arrive, and introducing to town and such. They arrived in town a week and a half after our final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, just as we'd finished sorting the costumes and moving all the tech equipment up to storage in the attic. 

All of which is to explain why there hasn't been much posting here lately. Life seems to keep happening, one thing after another, all good things (except vomit maybe, but that's not evil, just chaotic). Stillwater, by the way, is out with a proofreader, and we hope to make strides on that front over the summer. And I've just learned that our parish is changing up the way it does Confirmation prep, making it a two-year program, which means that next year I won't be needed to run 7th-grade Bible Study. Every year I pray, "Lord, give me a sign that I can stop teaching," and here we are! I'll only have two children in religious education, and they'll be in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which has other volunteers. And no one is making sacraments next year! 

Darwin and I have promised ourselves to do more writing than is physically possible over our three days at the lake. What will really happen is that we'll read our books some, and walk by the lake some, and spend lots of time chatting with the kids. As soon as we get back, it's auditions for the summer musical (Fiddler on the Roof, July 14-16, be there or be square). After that, perhaps, it will be time to breathe -- until the next thing. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

No, Sex is not a Spectrum

 National Catholic Reporter had a recent piece in which the author tries to pull a big "but ACTUALLY!" on Pope Francis on the topic of what the pope called "gender ideology", and what might be more bluntly called transgender ideology. There's little new ground broken in their piece. The most notable thing about it is that it is so typical a recitation of the claim that modern understandings of biology show that sex is a spectrum not a binary, and that it then goes from there to urger the Church to reassess her understanding of sex in light of this modern biological "insight". However, the NCR piece is a useful jumping off point in that it's claims are so very typical of this line of argumentation, and so it's a good place to start from in showing how these claims simply do not follow.

To extract the piece's line of argument, here are the relevant milestones:

"I was trained to believe that it was. In my college philosophy classes, I was taught that there can only be two sexes, that gender identity was based exclusively in biological sex, and that the male/female distinction was not only about physical characteristics but also about immutable essences of "masculine" and "feminine," rooted in the unchanging mind of God, and informing all of nature.


So I began reading about how maleness, femaleness, sex and reproduction occur across different species and kingdoms in the natural world, and what I found was that the "truth" I had felt obligated to defend was a simplistic fantasy. The categories of male and female, as they exist in nature, are not an either/or, nor an absolute binary. Rather, they reside on a spectrum. Maleness and femaleness manifest in different ways depending on the species. It is difficult to pin down any set of conditions or characteristics we could point to as the sine qua non for identifying an organism as one or the other. Additionally, some species can change sexes. Others are hermaphrodites.

In the human species, male and female categories also exist on a spectrum. There is no singular cluster of necessary or sufficient conditions for male versus female identity. So sex organs can't be used as absolute determinants for gender identity. Chromosomes also won't work as determinants, because individuals can be chromosomally male or female while presenting characteristics typically associated with the opposite sex. Intersex people exist, and some researchers argue that intersex conditions are more common than once believed.

The gender binary I had long considered a way of categorizing all living beings was, I realized, more like a general taxonomical marker signaling a fluctuating set of characteristics on one side of a scale. As a kind of organizational shorthand, it is useful. But this does not mean that "male" and "female" are fixed and immutable metaphysical categories, or even fixed and immutable natural categories. What people refer to today as "gender ideology" is closer to accurately reflecting reality than the traditional binary view I grew up with.

The debate over gender is framed by traditionalist Christians as a struggle between "reality" and "ideology." But the church already has a preferred ideology of gender, which is complementarian, essentialist and committed to a rigid binary view of the entire natural world. The real debate is not over whether gender ideology is bad but over which ideology about gender aligns better with reality.

There's still a lot we don't understand about sex and gender, in the natural world and in humans. But a view of gender as existing on a spectrum and allowing for flux and change more closely corresponds to what we do know."

First off, it's important to note that this piece, performs a subtle change of terms part way through its argument.  First it claims that biological sex is itself a spectrum rather than a binary, saying that this is based in the findings of modern science about the natural world.  Then it introduces another topic which sounds similar but is in fact totally distinct and argues that therefore male and female "identity" are also on a spectrum, and that there is not "gender binary".

Let me start by talking about the question of whether science has broken down the biological sex binary.  Is that true?  No.

Consider how it is that organisms on earth reproduce. There are two models: sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction. 

In asexual reproduction, the animal is capable of splitting off (or being split external forces) into two distinct organisms with the same genetics aside from any copying errors from the process of the split. 

In sexual reproduction, an egg is fertilized by a sperm (to use the relevant terms in human reproduction) with the result that the genetics from both are combined to produce the new organism. 

Some organisms can reproduce both through sexual and asexual reproduction. An example many of us have practical experience with is plants which can both be reproduced through cuttings (which essentially produces a clone of the original plant) or through flowering and politization (one of the plant solutions to the problem human organisms solve with egg and sperm) which results in sexual reproduction and the combination of genetics from both parent plants.

However, although science fiction authors have imagined all kinds of complicated ways in which three or more sexes might exist in some imaginary biology, on earth we find these two basic means of reproduction, asexual and sexual, and sexual reproduction involves the combination of a small (male) sex cell and a large (female) sex cell to produce a single offspring which combines the genetics of the two.

Around this basic duality of sexual reproduction, there is a lot of variation between species. Some organisms can have individuals capable of producing either kind of cell (for example, plants that are self fertilizing) and some individual organisms can produce only one kind of reproductive cell at a time but can change which type they produce over the course of their lives. So while a clown fish or a copperhead snake may at one point in its life produce sperm and at another produce eggs, it always functions as one of the two sexes. There is not spectrum of sex on which they exist. Rather, they oscillate due to time and circumstances between the two binary points.

When we talk theologically and philosophically about how humans interact with sex, we are looking at how the human experience is shaped by the way this sexual reproduction binary is expressed in the human species.  And while there is wider variety in the animal and plant kingdoms, humans do not oscillate between the sexes. Not only does our reproduction follow the same sex binary as other species on Earth, but a given individual will be able to provide only one half of the that sex binary (or in some cases of sexual disability, none at all.)

I think it's useful to think about human sex in terms of what sex actually accomplishes in biology (reproduction) rather than in terms of other characteristics, because it helps us avoid the types of confusion that can spring up.  For instance, a Scientific American piece which the NCR piece links to attempts to obscure the nature of human sexuality with this opening example:

A 46-year-old pregnant woman had visited his clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia to hear the results of an amniocentesis test to screen her baby's chromosomes for abnormalities. The baby was fine—but follow-up tests had revealed something astonishing about the mother. Her body was built of cells from two individuals, probably from twin embryos that had merged in her own mother's womb. And there was more. One set of cells carried two X chromosomes, the complement that typically makes a person female; the other had an X and a Y. Halfway through her fifth decade and pregnant with her third child, the woman learned for the first time that a large part of her body was chromosomally male. “That's kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis,” says James.

This is fascinating in terms of what can happen to a human being over her lifespan, but it's important to note that while the woman in question did carry some cells which had both X and Y chromosomes (and indeed, which had different DNA than her own, being the result of a second embryo which fused with her at a very early stage of development) she was still functioning completely normally as a human female in terms of reproduction.

Saying that human sexuality is a spectrum rather than a binary is somewhat like saying that the number of hands a human has is a spectrum. Yes, there are some human individuals who due to injuries or genetic defects have less than two hands, or perhaps even more than two, but these pretty clearly represent cases where the individual has some injury or disability. Indeed, if anything, in terms of sex the human organisms is even more rigid than in number of eyes or number of limbs. Each human either 1) produces sperm and has the ability to deliver it to a female, 2) has eggs and the ability to carry a pregnancy, or 3) is incapable of reproducing.  Thus, in the blunt terms of biological reality, there are three types of human: male, female, and evolutionary dead end.

And yet all of this is in fact a bit of a sideshow to the real argument. As I noted, the NCR piece slides from one argument to another which appears in some sense to be related but does not in fact follow.  It starts with trying to argue that modern biology has discovered that sex is not a binary but a spectrum, but then moves sideways and asserts that therefore gender identity is also fluid and a spectrum.

But does "gender identity" actually have anything to do with these questions of whether biological sex is on a spectrum?

It does not seem so. When someone claims that they are "gender non-binary" does the person they are consulting proceed to order up medical tests to see if he has some XX and some XY tissue in his body?  Do they check to see if he might have an extra sex chromosome? Do they, indeed, validate the claim with any sort of test of his biological sex?  No. Claims to be non-binary or trans-sexual all have to do with what sexual identity the person feels.

Treatments which are described as "gender affirming" do not successfully transform the patient into a functioning member of the other sex. Rather, they consist of to some degree simulating the appearing of the other sex, while sometimes destroying the person's ability to continue to function as their sex at birth. For instance, a male who seeks surgery and hormone treatment to make him into a female does not become capable of conceiving and bearing children. The treatments can reproduce some of the secondary sexual characteristics of a female, but he remains a male, though a mutilated one who may no longer be capable of fathering children.

Whether it is morally right for a person comport or even modify himself to assume the appearance of the other sex is a question worth pursuing (and the Church provides answers to the question, which the author of the NCR piece perhaps does not like.) But one thing we can say with certainty is that sex itself is not a spectrum, and that the attempt to make it look like a spectrum does not in fact further the argument for transgender identity or for gender reassignment.  Discussions of sexuality which attempt to portray sex as a spectrum rather than a binary are simply a smoke screen deployed to obscure the issues at play and then to slide sideways and assert wholly unrelated claims about gender identity which it not itself a question of biological sex.

Perhaps a more fruitful area of inquiry, and one which would indeed to be rooted in the biological realities which the NCR author purports to consider important, would be to interrogate our notions of gender identity and see to what extent they actually conform to the realities of being a human person who functions either as one sex or the other in the reproductive sphere (or suffers a sexual disability such that he or she is unable to reproduce.)  It may well be the case that much of what people describe as sexual identity does not necessarily relate to being a human with one set of sex organs or the other.

But on the core issue: yes, sex is binary and sex is complementarian. It will only achieve its function of reproduction through the combination of male and female sex cells (sperm and egg).  To claim otherwise is to break with biological reality.