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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Southeastern State Study for Fourth-Graders

I was staring at the screen, trying to find the right phrases for an old project I'm revising -- a play based on the book of Esther which I wrote at the ripe age of 16, to be finished by Monday so my brother can announce casting to his youth group for a summer performance -- when I registered that the baby's babbling was coming from an unusual location. I ran up the stairs and there, around the landing, on the 15th step, was 9 month old Pog holding onto the railing and looking unsure whether he should keep ascending the last two steps or just throw himself down.

"Baby, hi! Hi, baby!" I said, picking him up. "Hello! How did you get up here?"

"Mam," he said, and spit up all down my front, cleverly avoiding his bib.

This child and his death wish notwithstanding, I have to have this play finished by Monday because I have another project due by the end of April. I'm going to write a textbook, a state study for fourth-graders on the Southeastern states (former Confederacy minus Missouri, minus Texas, plus Maryland and Delaware), 25,000-30,000 words. The outline is due at the end of the month. That would be in a week and a half, during which time we'll trust that Pog doesn't choose to go down the basement stairs and learn to operate the table saw.

I'm putting together my list of topics to cover in a history of this region, for this age, and while I still have concentrated reading to do, I've been discussing with Darwin and scribbling ideas. This textbook is for a Catholic publisher, and while it is not intended to be "Catholicky", I don't need to shy away from Catholic contributions to the development of the South.

Here's my list of topics, not organized into a narrative structure. Some obviously need more words than others, but it seems that these should at least be touched on.

Indian Tribes and Settlements
The Spanish mission at St. Augustine
Spanish Florida
The Indians of the Southern states
English Settlements and how they differed from the northern settlements
Maryland, the Catholic colony
Indentured servants and the first slaves
Farming and backwoods
Mason-Dixon Line
Virginia and the Founding Fathers
Revolutionary War
French Louisiana and the Louisiana Purchase
The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears; Seminole Wars in Florida
Tobacco, Cotton, Sugar: Plantations and the agricultural economy of the South
Confederacy and Border States
Civil War: North vs. South
War Zones and Reconstruction: Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Klan
Jim Crow
Poverty and Public Works
Electricity, TVA
Civil Rights Movement
The South Becomes Cool: the rise of air conditioning, new industry, population growth

Knowing that we have an erudite readership, I welcome your input. What's the most important thing you think fourth-graders should know about their Southern state? Feel free to add details even if I've already touched on a topic.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Angel that Troubled the Waters

Thornton Wilder, author of acclaimed plays such as Our Town, enjoyed writing short plays, little scenelets that could be read or staged. His interest in the form dated back to his schooldays, when he used the flyleaf of his Algebra book to scribble a proposed table of contents for a future book of plays, tentatively titled "Three-Minute Plays for Three Persons": "Quadratics in those days could be supported only with the help of a rich marginal commentary."

The final collection was titled The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. The Library of America's Story of the Week site is posting that title selection, about the Biblical story of the healing waters of Bethesda, written after Wilder had won the Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It is indeed a lovely playlet that takes not much more than three minutes to read and enjoy.

As the Angel says, "In Love's service only the wounded soldiers can serve."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Moral Bandages over Moral Outrages

It is said, with truth, that the Church is not a preserve for the holy, but rather a hospital for sinners. That's good, because we're all sinners, and the Church does indeed offer us both God's law, which tells us how to live to a holy life, and the graces of the sacraments which make it possible for us to follow the path of virtue. This is important to remember in a culture which makes much of 'meritocracy'. We do not earn our own salvation through our own virtue. Grace is given to us freely and unearned. All we have to do is be willing to cooperate with it.

And yet, this hospital imagery often seems to attract those wedded to another idea, people who see the Church not as a hospital in which people are healed of their sins, but as a sort of homeopathic clinic in which people take vanishingly small doses of trendy virtue and then insist that they are healed, without believing that any real application of the Church's powers of healing is necessary.

This struck me today when I ran into a piece of the "here's what's wrong with the Church's teaching on contraception" genre. MrsDarwin and I have both written posts over the years dealing with NFP and the overly rosy way in which it is sometimes pitched as the solution to all ills: improving communication and filling your marriage with romance and divorce proofing your relationship all in one happy-happy system. This, of course, is not true. Natural Family Planning is a means of very much decreasing (or used the other way, increasing) a couple's chances of getting pregnant by timing when in the wife's cycle they have sex. It is considered a moral means of spacing or avoiding pregnancy by the Church, and like any discipline the practice of it can (undertaken in a virtuous spirit) be a way of growing in moral strength and virtue, but it's by no means magic.

But making the equal and opposite error to this magical thinking approach, there seems to be a mini-genre these days of pieces arguing that the Church's teachings on sexuality must be changed because using NFP is too hard and so people should have the option of using artificial birth control instead. Often, what these articles propose to do is apply birth control as some token cure to a relationship which sounds to have much deeper problems. This is no exception. The author describes the plight of a friend as follows:
My friend is a wonderful person, a devout Catholic, and very pro-life. She and her husband were using NFP, and had been for years. Unfortunately, over the course of her married life, my friend has suffered several traumatic miscarriages. She has struggled with severe depression and PTSD related to pregnancy loss. In addition to her miscarriages, she also has four living children who suffer from a variety of physical and emotional ailments. Her children have been in and out of specialists’ offices, therapist appointments, and hospitals. Given these circumstances, her anxiety surrounding the possibility of another pregnancy was extreme. It seemed like every time we got together, all she was able to talk about was how afraid she was of becoming pregnant. To make matters worse, her husband had minimal tolerance for the periodic abstinence required by NFP. The possibility of her becoming pregnant was actually quite high. I began to be afraid that, if she did become pregnant, she would attempt to commit suicide.

Now think for a moment about what's being said here: Her friend has suffered multiple, traumatic miscarriages and is terrified she will get pregnant, so terrified that the author fears the friend will commit suicide if she gets pregnant. And yet the friend's husband has "minimal tolerance" for the restrictions of his free access to sex whenever he wants it which might result from practicing some periodic abstinence.

If this is an accurate account of the relationship, isn't it a horrifically bad one? If the topic were anything other than sex and contraception, and you think of an area of activity where it would be considered okay for a husband to have "minimal tolerance" for something essential to prevent his wife's bodily harm or suicide? Could insisting on sex which seemed likely to lead to such grave consequences seem like anything short of abuse?

To drive her point home, the author recounts:
One weekend in early autumn, I suggested that we take a trip out to the Blue Ridge, just the two of us, to go apple picking. I hoped that an afternoon away would give her a respite from her anxiety, and a change in routine, though I also knew that it was only going to be a temporary break. As we drove away from the city, we were chatting cheerfully about recipes and movies we’d seen recently. But the time we were driving home, tired after an afternoon out, we had returned to the familiar subject.

As we neared home, she became more anxious, and she finally told me that she had decided that if she became pregnant, she was going to have an abortion. I was not shocked. I knew how much she feared another miscarriage, and I knew how wholly overwhelmed she felt. I also knew that this would be absolutely catastrophic for her. She was passionately pro-life. She was terrified of losing another child. For her to have an abortion would, I felt, simply be a step on the way to her becoming suicidal.

I told her that I thought that this was the time for her and her husband to consider using contraception. I didn’t say this lightly. I have my religious commitments. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that using contraception would be temporary, something to give her peace of mind so that she could have some time to heal before going back to following the Church’s teachings. But I knew that contraception was absolutely necessary to her, at least short term. Things could not go on the way they were heading. She needed a break from constant fear.
So the friend is driven to the point of considering abortion as her only way out if she gets pregnant, and the author thinks this would be just a stop on the way to suicide. And yet, her solution to for a friend whose husband is apparently driving her thoughts of abortion and/or suicide is not, "You should get help. He's treating you badly," but rather, "You should use artificial birth control against your moral convictions so that you can keep giving him the sex he demands."

For the Church to act this way would not be acting as a moral hospital, because to act this way is not to offer healing. This is the moral equivalent of putting a few drops of essential oils on a gaping chest wound and saying, "Be healthy!" The husband in this scenario is being treated as some impersonal force of nature, but he needs to have the full moral weight of the Church's teaching power turned on him, telling him that he is treating his wife badly and needs to do better.

The author reports that she had a few moral worries about her advice to her friend, so she discussed it with two priests:
Part of me was, and is, certain that the advice I gave was good. But, I am prone to scrupulosity, and so I soon made an appointment to talk with my parish priest. He was very encouraging. He told me that things happen that are very difficult for couples. Sometimes, this really is the best advice for a given situation, even if the Church’s teaching is true. I was relieved, but my conscience was not satisfied. We had talked so long that I had run out of time, and I didn’t get to ask him to hear my confession. My conscience was still bothering me, and it sent me to confession to a different priest when I was traveling a few weeks later.

This priest had a different assessment of the situation. He told me that I had not said the right thing. He said that this was something that my friend and her husband had to work out on their own. He also told me that I could not control whether or not my friend committed suicide, and I shouldn’t try. All I could do, he said, was make sure that she committed suicide in a state of grace, without the sin of contraception on her soul.

I consider this the worst advice I have ever been given. I was shocked. I was horrified. I have been re-evaluating my relationship to the Church’s teaching on sexuality ever since.

One priest offered a way of accompaniment. He encouraged me to accompany my friend, and offered to speak to her himself. He did not reject the Church’s teaching outright, but he did advocate flexibility.

The other priest insisted on rigor, and he considered women’s lives an acceptable price to pay for this purity and rigor. All the criticisms that the Church devalues women seemed to be vindicated by his words.
Now, one should never rule out the possibility that people are deeply confused or stupid or even just plain wicked, so I can't say that it's impossible that the second priest said what the author recounts him as saying. But let's be clear, the statement that all she could do was, "was make sure that she committed suicide in a state of grace, without the sin of contraception on her soul." has to be either the author's hyperbolic misrepresentation of what the priest said, of the product of a deeply, deeply confused priest. To commit suicide is itself one of the gravest sins possible. That is why for much of the Church's history it was the practice to refuse a Christian burial to those who committed suicide. Modern practice varies from this out of respect for the possibility that a person who commits suicide may well repent and ask God's forgiveness in the moment of death. Surely God could welcome into His present event such a late repenting person.

So the idea that we are responsible for making sure that someone commits suicide in a virtuous state is a complete crock. If the priest did indeed say that, he's wrong in an incredibly disturbing way.

That said, there's a really big problem with the author's reasoning that she's defending, and it has to do with the way in which too often people do not treat all moral prohibitions as if we really mean them.

I'm reminded of an incident many years ago when a friend who was vegan was visiting. Knowing that he was vegan, we made extra efforts to make sure that no meat, fish, dairy, etc. were served. Then we were shocked to hear him relate an anecdote about eating meat recently. When we asked him about it, he said, "Well, you know. I usually don't eat meat. But if it's really inconvenient..."

But if we take any kind of moral prohibition seriously, that's not how our morals work. Something which is seriously wrong does not become okay because there's a compelling practical reason for doing it. Often we're tempted to think that way, especially with sins that seem particularly socially acceptable at the moment. But pick a sin which we rightly have a moral horror of right now, but which might have passed as darkly romantic in the past:

You come upon young Wolfgang prowling picturesquely back and forth along the battlements of a brooding Gothic castle. Wolfgang says to you, "I am so consumed with desire for Federicka that I am tempted to throw myself from these battlements and make an end of it all! But still she refuses me. I saw here in the street the other day, and I thought of seizing her and forcing myself on her. But no, that would be a sin. And so I walk the battlements and wonder if I should kill myself." Do you tell Wolfgang that he should seize Federicka and have his way with her, lest he be tempted to do some desperate outrage upon himself? Or do you take it as your job to make sure that he commits suicide while innocent of the sin of rape? NEITHER! To assault the fair Federicka would be wrong. To kill himself would be wrong. You cannot encourage either one. You cannot enjoin one to avoid the other. His claim that refraining from the one sin may force him to commit the other is a false claim. He is at moral liberty to do neither and if you are going to "accompany" him, you need to accompany him in doing neither of these terrible things.

If we can see the flaw in the moral logic of Wolfgang's Gothic struggle, we should be able to see the flaws in the quandaries trotted out here: We better approve of birth control or she'll abort. We better approve of birth control or she'll commit suicide.

Perhaps the readiness to engage in these kind of trades shows that even for a lot of Catholics who say they take the Church's teaching on contraception seriously actually think of not using artificial birth control as a sort of moral taste rather than an actual moral law. If we treat using birth control like a vegan who eats meat for convenience when traveling, we don't actually think it's a sin.

I do think that using artificial birth control is a sin, and that's precisely why we can't engage in some sort of moral barter, blessing one sin on the argument that it will make it possible to avoid another.

We are sinners, in that we have all sinned. But it is also possible for all of us, with God's help, not to sin. A husband can not pressure his wife for sex when he knows it is contrary to her physical and mental health. A wife can resist the urge to kill herself or her child, even when the world seems to be imploding around her. However fallen we are, God always will give us the strength to not sin if we ask for his grace and if we do our own part by using our active will to choose not to do what is wrong.

What we must not do is try to turn the Church into a fake hospital, putting a frail human bandage and a few murmured words of "accompaniment" over a wound which needs real healing.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: The Day the Mojo Died

Today was our second-to-last Confirmation class -- although since Confirmation has already happened, perhaps we're just eighth grade religion class. And perhaps that's the reason why attendance is down 50%, causing me to declaim, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," as I put down the roster. No one nodded in recognition. My quote-fallen-flat didn't really bother me, though, because we were about to have movie day, an easy win for any teacher.

A digression, here, about the cottage industry of G- or PG-rated live action films, usually with a faith-based theme. I've realized why they exist. It's because sometimes a teacher needs to show a group a movie, and there is such a mix of personalities and abilities that a movie of more unquestioned excellence may be too much: too slow, too ambiguous, too thoughtful to hold attention, or too violent, or too real. These "clean flix"-type movies are a step further removed from reality, hence more easily digestible. And the content is so unobjectionable that you can pick one off a shelf with your eyes closed.

That's not what I did, of course. I selected a few movies from a stash in the DRE's office, previewed them, and picked a film called The Mighty Macs, about a scrappy girls' college basketball team winning the National Championship in 1972. It had the newbie coach whose husband thought she shouldn't be working, and the college in danger of being closed, and the nun questioning her vocation, and the poor girl, and the girl who just wanted to be engaged, and the girl who didn't get the basketball scholarship to the bigger school. A grab bag of dramatic elements, sure, but it was workmanlike. It was too long, but I realized that I could start the movie about twenty minutes in (filling in the missing exposition before we started), and that would buy us enough time. I did wonder if it would hold the boys' attention, and then I thought, sheesh, I've watched enough boys' sports movies in my day and enjoyed them well enough. Let the guys deal with it.

Part of movie day is snacks, and I'd bought snacks for 40, knowing that 40 wouldn't show up and so there would more for everyone else. As some of the students laid out the food, the DRE wrestled with setting up the multi-thousand-dollar projection system, installed a year or two ago to bring our parish's media situation into the 21st century. No more unwieldy carts with TVs and DVD players. Even our tech-jaded kids' eyes lit up when they watch the projection screen descending majestically from the ceiling.

And they watched as we struggled to turn it on, and the projector refused to light up. They watched as we flipped through the menu, trying to figure out why we were getting no input. They watched as we finally got sound, but no picture. I narrated through the trailers we were hearing: the school bullying movie; the one about policemen trying to be better fathers; the one where the surfer gets her arm bitten off by a shark. (That's the one I would have liked to have shown; the mix of bikinis and sharks would have been a sure-fire hit.) Finally, after 25 minutes (during which the DRE generously put her own third-grade class on hold to help me out), we had: nothing. We could not make the system work.

A multi-thousand dollar investment, which failed at the moment when I needed it. A looming hour and five minutes of class time, for which I had prepared no talk, no activities, no games, no anything but a movie in a case, laying uselessly on the table. And me, me with nothing.

At the beginning of the year, I could extemporize. I could compose entire classes in the shower, with anecdotes and thematic transitions. I could speak in class at the drop of a hat, and what I had to say was coherent, entertaining, and theologically correct. Those days, alas, are in the past. My teaching mojo has been braking to a clanking, poorly-oiled halt. In fact, I had been considering divesting myself of my pride and moving to a packaged series for next year, perhaps the acclaimed Chosen series, well-reviewed and full of pithy, presentable speakers known for their youth ministry.

A series that relies on playing a DVD every class.

"Hit the gym, kids," I said.

As they charged around with the basketballs, I considered and prayed and supervised my four-year-old running in and out among the boys. (Had I mentioned that I brought my four-year-old along to class today to watch the movie?) We couldn't spend the rest of the time in the gym, and there are kids in the class who don't enjoy gym time as much as the others. Perhaps some parents are paying for a glorified babysitting experience, but most of them expect their children to be learning about the Catholic faith, or doing some kind of religiously-themed activity, even if it's faith-based movie day.

Eventually, I put together a plan in miniature. I could legitimately end the class 15 minutes early, giving me half an hour still to fill. We cleaned up the balls and sat back down in the cafeteria, and I asked if anyone had had anything bad happen to them that week. I had a few people volunteer responses -- a near-miss with another car, a drowned backhoe, a broken waterline, drama with friends. Then I told my own story of how within the course of two hours I killed two phones: my own I dropped in the toilet (it fell out of my pocket, honestly), and after Darwin lent me his, I pulled it out of my pocket and discovered that the screen was inexplicably, irreparably shattered. I asked about good things that had happened and had a few more answers: qualifying for a big event, a winning sports game, good time with friends. And then I talked about how we could view all the events of our lives, good and bad, in light of the cross; about how the cross put everything into perspective, and how examining our day and spending time in prayer was crucial especially now that the kids were ending their religious-education time; about maintaining a relationship with Jesus. I was ineloquent and desperate, hunting for words and watching the clock and praying for the inspiration that eluded me. Finally, we prayed a chaplet of Divine Mercy, since the kids remembered the responses from last week. Before each decade I suggested intentions.

1. with each prayer think of a family member or friend who needs mercy.
2. with each prayer think of someone you hate, and pray for mercy for them.
3. with each prayer think of someone you love, and pray for mercy for them.
4. with each prayer think of your own sins, and ask for mercy.
5. with each prayer think of a wound of Jesus -- his hands, his feet, his knees or shoulders or a slash of the whip, and ask for mercy.

We finished our prayer. Twenty-five minutes of class time left.

Reader, I dismissed them. Those with parents waiting left. Most others called their parents to come. Some went off to the gym, and some, who had to wait for siblings, watched the baby as I filed my attendance sheet.

And that was it. The last of my teaching mojo has evaporated. By myself, I could not put together a coherent theological reflection for a group of bored teenagers, even if I tried. Now the Holy Spirit can work freely through me for our last class two weeks from now, because I've run out of my own steam. It's all you, God, because it's not me anymore.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Repost: Writing about Writing about Writing

So sorry for the lack of posting. Real life intrudes, in many good and some less good ways. For starters, the least trying, and least consequential, aspect of my last 24 hours is that I've ruined both my own and Darwin's phones, in two separate incidents. In any event, this post from 2016 seemed like a good one to re-run.

Pray for us as we pray for you!


Perhaps in your life, you've heard someone pray for a "secret intention" or request prayers in some way that sounds so mysterious that you're dying to know the cause. Some people have a tendency to amp up drama, of course, but it's often true that people find themselves in situations in which they need prayers, but can't reveal the details, or know that the details aren't theirs to reveal. Even mentioning the subject invites speculation, so much so that often it feels like the better option to keep a situation to oneself.

Darwin and I were talking recently about the things that we'd like to write about, but can't. Not because they're bad things; not because they're scandalous; not because they even have to do with us at all. Everyone has some topic they can't breach with the general public. Perhaps that's because one's take on a subject would be painful to someone who might read it, and with whom one does not wish to burn bridges. This is a tricky thing for us especially, who have been processing ideas in public for eleven years, and find it a strain not simply because we like to write and discuss, but because it goes against the goad not to be able to write openly and honestly.

And yet, people are more important. Is it better that I add one more viewpoint to an issue, however unique my insight and experience may be, or is the work of prudence that I remember that people I know and love may find my words painful? If I want to process something, should I do it at the expense of another? Is discretion really the better part of valor? All things will be revealed, the scripture tells us. But until then, we delete that angry post or that thinkpiece or the lyric autobiographical essay because cold prudence is better than hot righteousness.

How mysterious, how worrying this all sounds! So vague and dramatic, and it really isn't. But one simply doesn't get to talk about everything in life. Not everything needs to be aired or can be aired, and perhaps that's all for the best.

And no, there's nothing wrong here. But in this case it did seem better to write vaguely than not write at all, if only because this is something I've thought about for a long time. How clear we want everything in life to be! How cut-and-dried, how black-and-white! Only in heaven do we get total clarity and full understanding.

Prayers for you all today, without needing any reasons or explanations.

Friday, April 06, 2018

It Does Get Better

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I had more little children than I had hands. Children do not need as many things as magazines and retailers and websites would have you believe, but what they do need is what cannot be bought: your time, your attention, your love, your protection. These things, though every parent wishes to give them to the best of their ability, are costly. They require vigilance and quick reflexes, and an almost superhuman energy investment. And though love multiplies easily, energy is finite.

Once upon a time, I had no backup. I don't count Darwin as "backup"; a father is an integral part of family life. "Backup" means extra help that frees up both parents, or at least fills in for one parent to some extent. We couldn't afford much help, and sometimes even when we desperately needed a babysitter we couldn't find one. The kids were not old enough to be much help, and trying to get them to do things around the house was far more work than doing it myself.

My friends, those days are in the past.

It is remarkable to me how easy it is to forget the trials of the past. It's been several years now since I had to worry about finding a babysitter. None of my children are of an age to drown themselves in the toilet (though that time is coming around again). I can run out to the store by myself, or go out for hours with just the baby. I can set a timer for ten minutes and reasonably expect to see an appreciably cleaner room at the end of that time. I can ask my oldest child to bring the van up from from the garage so that I can find the four-year-old's jacket while someone else puts the baby into the carseat. On Sunday morning, we make it to mass on time because most people dress themselves.

This week we took a road trip to Maryland to visit the cousins. We had to leave on Easter, and yet I had to sing at mass on Easter morning. We were able to leave within an hour of my getting home, because everyone had packed their own bag and loaded it in the car and helped with the laundry and put together the bag of snacks. We made terrific time because the baby slept most of the trip and the four-year-old is potty-trained. People did not fight in the car because they were singing or writing or reading A Wrinkle in Time or a biography of The Wright Brothers. It was... pleasant.

Parenting older children requires different time investments and different sacrifices. Many's the night Darwin and I have had to give up our own quiet time to chat with a teenager and listen to the triumphs and agonies of her day. The judgment of a nine-year-old boy is generally better from that of the toddler, but it's still dopey in different ways. The children still need your time, your attention, your love, your protection, but they start to give those things back as well.

It gets better!

Sunday, April 01, 2018

He Is Risen!

Christ has conquered death! A blessed Easter to all our readers.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Future is Now

When I was growing up, Fiddler on the Roof was a staple of the family's record collection. My siblings and I would put it on and sing and dance (but not too vigorously, so that the record wouldn't skip.) We knew the whole original cast recording by heart. We watched the movie, starring Topol and not Zero Mostel, but still effective. Fiddler on the Roof was part of the fabric of my childhood, and it's a show that I still love dearly.

Ever since our local community theater announced that our summer show would be Fiddler, I've been getting ready. In the past shows, I was content to be thrown in wherever a body was needed, chorus or ensemble or background face, but this time I'm ready to express a preference: Golde, the mother, a role that doesn't require the figure of an ingenue or the voice of an angel -- a role in which it's an asset to be a grand multipara. Being a grand multipara is the reason I'm often ineligible, unavailable, or too tired to do the things that I wish I could, and here is a case where it actually gives me an edge.

I've even found the perfect audition songs: Little Girls, from Annie ("Some women are dripping with pearls", sung with just the right amount of contempt for and envy of the late Fruma Sarah), and Something Wonderful, from The King and I. Not only that, but in order to make sure that I was on my A-game, I booted my daughters from their voice lesson slot and spent an hour with their teacher honing my delivery. She advised me to raise my soft palate and provided me with a lot of helpful images, which I share here with you in case you're considering auditioning for a musical:

Sing down a ski slope
Verge of tears
Falling forward
Like a sneeze, or a yawn
Imagine an egg in the back of your throat.

And what do you know? These things made a difference! I've been practicing reaching down for the high F in Something Wonderful and working the phrasing and the dynamics, and it's sounding not inadequate for a community theater production in central Ohio. I could do this. It could be me.

Yesterday my girls came in and told me the news that our theater company wasn't able to obtain the rights to Fiddler and is instead doing Big River this summer.

George Eliot says in Middlemarch:
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts -- not to hurt others.
We all have these little mortifications, disappointments to our hopes and our plans and our wills. They're too insignificant to be fully explained to anyone else, and too petty to be indulged in. They can't be taken out on others, and are not even always anyone's fault. And yet the pain is real.

This is the trying-ground for dying to self: not the big ordeal or the major suffering, but the tiny interior relinquishment of my own will. These minor battles are a blessing -- they offer no consequences or trial or pain to anyone else but me, to no real loss to myself, no actual hardship. I only offer up the future I thought I could create.

Jesus tells us that he who is faithful in small things will be faithful in large. I've had a number of these small mortifications lately, adjustments to the image I had of how I might accomplish things or the ways I wish others would perceive me. They pale into nothing at the foot of the cross, and it's when I move away from the cross that they take on an exaggerated significance. Only the cross brings healing and relief from the inflation of my own will. The reality of the cross, the eternally-present sacrifice, grounds me and protects me from trying to manipulate the future to suit my own ends, and the pride that hurts others.

Behold, the cross.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Friday, 1865

I'm sure I'd heard this somewhere before, but it was as I was reading Chernow's Grant biography during the last couple weeks that the fact struck me that President Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, 1865. The president was out at Ford's Theater watching a comedy, Our American Cousin.

I often think of the past as having been more religious, and less inclined towards everything being open all the time despite holidays or holy days. Thus, it seemed odd at first that Washington DC's high society was all out watching a farce on the evening of Good Friday. But then, of course, the it's not necessarily the case that the past was more religious than the present, and also celebration of Good Friday as a solemn day is fairly uneven among different Protestant denominations and at different times.

Regardless, God rest the soul of one of our greatest American presidents.

Reflections on a Lent Without Facebook, II

Darwin wrote about being off Facebook for Lent. My own perspective is similar: I felt that online interaction was taking up too much mental and spiritual space, and wanted to pull back for forty days, and I've found it very beneficial. But I haven't had the same results as he has, in regards to productivity.

I'm not one to have a lot of background sound: music, TV, podcasts, etc. My life, perhaps, has enough background noise. And yet, Facebook was serving as background noise for me -- something that filled the empty time. I tended to scroll a good deal while nursing the baby. I haven't stopped nursing the baby, but now I tend to do it in silence.

The result of cutting out online chatter has been a great mental and spiritual silence. Not the silence of dryness, but of peace. I'm not meditating on other people's drama, or composing my next clever status. I'm quiet.

Along with the quiet has come a sort of forced inactivity. Baby is working hard on making the transition from infant to toddler. He crawls and pulls up and cruises. He needs to be watched constantly because he's ever putting things in his mouth, and this is a Lego-rich environment. Time that I had been spending holding him in an arm while clicking around is now spent on more direct supervision, because you can't trust the guy's judgment. In addition, he's gone from having not a tooth in his head to sporting two fine pearly whites, and he's presently in a great deal of agitation about his emerging top teeth. Yesterday and today in particular have been days of intensive baby soothing, as he whimpers and flails and tantrums over the unhappy lumps in his mouth where that top tooth is going to break through any day now. Baby is my job right now, and all other jobs have to be put on the back burner. Writing has fallen by the wayside, and so has reading almost anything but what's within arm's reach of the bed or chair that I happen to be nursing him in. For the past two weeks, I've read almost nothing but my Bible and my grandfather's collection of Rex Stout's mystery novels.

This all comes at a time when I've suddenly acquired several writing projects besides my ever-present novel revisions. These projects involve deadlines, and one even is for pay. Baby is absorbing much of my free time, and generally puts me to bed each night. How and where will I find the time to get my work done?

These questions agitate me much less than they ought, perhaps. It seems somehow fitting that the last days of Lent should bring an intensification of my Lenten retreat, in ways I didn't count on. Giving up Facebook has been almost too easy. I've neither missed it nor been once tempted to log on. Giving up the time I thought I'd gained for myself has been more of a dying to self. But these few days before Easter have become a time of waiting. It seems right that I'm suspended in anticipation. Everything is poised for action, but the moment isn't now, and the timing isn't mine to choose.

Spiritual warfare isn't the first lens I reach for to view the world, but it also seems as if temptations and trying circumstances are pressing in more keenly here at the finish. Temptation is, in a way, a gift: a chance to assess where you're weakest by observing at which point the enemy thinks he has an opening. Better yet if you can remember, in the midst of it, that it is an temptation and not an imperative, lest you look back and realize, "Well, shoot, I failed that test." I don't have to be strong enough to fight temptation without God's help. I'm often tripped up by forgetting that. If temptation causes me to rely on God's strength and not my own, then it is a gift.

Like Darwin, I need to figure out my plan for engaging with social media post-Lent. I don't want to cut off a valuable avenue of communication with many friends. At the same time, I don't want to be sucked into the whirlpool of everyone sounding off about cultural and political agitation that seems expressly fomented for the purpose of being clickbait. In the past weeks, as I've lived outside the echo chamber of hashtag campaigns, I've fought and witnessed the real-life battles of humility and dying to self that come every day with family and parish life, no less important for being small and mostly unattested. In writing my letters for Lent, I've had the space to listen to the prompting of the Spirit as to what to write, the pleasure of knowing that I was making direct contact with another person individually, and the humility that comes of pouring yourself out without the instant gratification of response, or the need for response at all. It was a valuable and enjoyable exercise I'd like to sustain.

As we move into the Triduum, I'll be praying about what boundaries to draw to maintain the peace and internal silence of a social media fast while preserving valuable friendships.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mindsets: Growth, Fixed, and Realistic

While most of my reading consists of novels and history, I also end up with the occasional business book recommended by someone connected at work. On a business trip last week, I took one of these with me, the psychology/self-help best seller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Like a lot of pop insight books of this type, Mindset consists of one idea which is then illustrated by numerous examples, drawing what could conceptually be a 5-10 page article into a 300 page book. In this case, the idea is that success is achieved through having a 'growth mindset', the idea that skills/abilities are increased by experience and learning rather than stemming from innate qualities. To someone with a growth mindset, you might try something difficult and fail, but so long as you learn from the experience you can become better at it in the future and master it in the long run. This idea that you can grow and improve inspires one to hard work, the development of greater ability, and thus success. The opposite of this is a 'fixed mindset', the idea that abilities are mostly the result of innate qualities that we have little ability to improve.

According to Dweck's schema: people with a fixed mindset who try something new and find themselves not very good at it will often conclude that just isn't something they have the ability to do and not try again. Someone with a fixed mindset who tries something the first time and does succeed may conclude that they are naturally good at it and may put a good deal of work into it. However, they may be tempted to avoid circumstances that could lead to failure (since failure would prove that they aren't actually all that good) and when they do have occasional failures they'll be tempted to blame that on some outside factor rather than learning what they did wrong and improving. Someone with a growth mindset will learn from failures rather than concluding that they are a failure at some deeper level, and thus be much more inclined to put the hard work in to get better at some given activity over time.

This basic concept is then illustrated by may examples: business, sports, education, leadership, relationships, etc.

The main place I'd read this kind of thing before was in articles advising parents that it's better to tell a child, "You did really well on that math test, you must have worked really hard on that. Good job." rather than "You did really well on that math test, you must be really smart and gifted at math." on the theory that the latter suggests to the child that mathematical ability is fixed and not expandable, and thus as soon as the child hits something in math that he can't master, he'll conclude, "Well, that's the limit of my ability. I guess I just can't do that."

The basic concepts make a fair amount of sense, though I find this structure of book a little frustrating in that it seems like one one to get through a lot of examples to get through the author's entire thought structure. As I say: it seems to me this could be a 5-10 page article rather than a 300 page book if the extra re-enforcing examples were removed.

Of course one of the things one does when reading a book like this is try to measure oneself against it and see how one measures up. In this sense, it struck me that I have a pretty split way of addressing this topic. On the one hand, I do tend to assume that putting lots of time and work in is the primary way of getting good at something. Sometimes this means that I put lots of time into an activity and get better at it. Other times it means that I recognize my lack of progress on something is a result of not putting in enough time. One of my major problems is limited time, so it's not unusual for me to decide, "I could get better at this if I put the time in, but the fact of the matter is that getting good at this is not a high enough priority for me right now to do that work." In relation to myself, I pretty much have a growth mindset.

I also have a growth mindset, in general, about the people I am most directly responsible for. I am in charge of setting the weekly (sometimes daily) task list for our oldest three children in their schooling (6th, 8th, and 10th grades). Each student has her own particular strengths and weaknesses. However, I'm confident that even if one is not a prodigy at language or a math, with sufficient work (and searching for an approach that works) she can reach a functional level of competency.

However, as I think about it, I also have a tendency (which I think of as realism) not to assume that people will change in major ways unless they appear to be working on it.

At work, I have several people who do not have good command skills when dealing with small groups. If a 5-6 people are discussing a project, even if one of these people has the expertise and knowledge to speak up and guide the others, they will not do so, beyond perhaps a hesitant suggestion. (This contrasts with my approach, in that in those circumstances I almost always speak up and start guiding the discussion.) Now, I do think that this kind of group leadership can be a learned skill. I've seen people work hard to improve it and get better at it, and so when I know someone who works for me is taking steps on improving presentation and leadership skills, I have faith that they will in fact improve and I'll put them in the way of opportunities to do so. But most of the people I've had work for or with me who lack that skill (or others such as ability to do abstract data analysis, ability to write clearly, etc.) show very little interest on working on those skills. They have (at least in relation to those skills) what the book describes as a fixed mindset. And given a situation like that, where they're not working on those skills, I in turn tend to assume both that their skills are fixed and also that their lack of interest in them is fixed. Sure, I'll occasionally point out, "You could do XYZ," but I tent to accept that if someone isn't interested in improving, they won't improve, and thus not expect them to do so.

Is this fair?

The more intensive approach to "developing people" management would say that it is not. By this theory, I should be consistently pushing everyone who works for me or with me to do better, and if they don't put i the work to do better, marking them down for not putting in the effort. And this shows the double edged sword aspect of this mindset. Assuming that everyone can get better at everything means that you don't put someone in a box of "not good at presenting" or "not good at analysis". However, it also means that you're constantly blaming people for not having exerted themselves to improve then they could.

When people act like fixed quantities, I tend to treat them as fixed quantities. If they're making no moves to get better at leadership, I won't put them in a position where I need someone to exert leadership. If they aren't working at their analysis skills, I won't put them in charge of an analysis project.

I'm not sure whether this is fully fair to people or not. If you asked HR, they would say that developing people means guiding them towards wanting to improve as well as helping those who want to improve actually do so. However, I don't tend to see much other than frustration in trying to change what people want.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: Confirmation

As I watched from the choir loft this past Saturday, my Confirmandi were sealed with the Holy Spirit. The loft offers a fine vantage point. I was able to identify all my students (and even put names to most of them) and pray for them as they came down the aisle. God bless her. God bless him. God bless That Guy. Everyone seemed to be standing straight, as we practiced. Yes, we practiced standing straight -- when people are nervous, they tend to hunch down into themselves, and instead of making them invisible, it only draw attention. Standing straight doesn't draw attention. And most of my students aren't eager to draw attention to themselves.

The bishop came down and asked questions, as always, and the kids did an acceptable job of answering them. And then, and then, the bonus question:

"Can anyone tell me," the bishop asked, "the names of the first twenty-five popes?"

And Tim P. -- the man, the myth, the legend -- stood up and reeled off all twenty-five, much to the astonishment of the bishop. I was up in the choir loft, counting along, cheering him on, exulting. The bishop was astonished.

"Well, that's the last time I ask that question," he said. And he was true to his word. Much to my dismay (and the dismay of the two or three people who were prepped), at the afternoon Confirmation mass he switched it up and asked about the four major prophets. Still, it happened once, and someone in a position to know told me that it was the first time anyone had ever answered this question the bishop has asked every year at every confirmation. And as the word is that the bishop is retiring this summer, I think that St. Mary's PSR is primed to go down in the history books as The Class that Knew the First 25 Popes. Extra credit to Tim P.!

I suppose I ought to say more about the sacrament itself, but I've always found that my encounters with the one-time sacraments are very human moments. At baptisms, the concern is holding the baby so that the water doesn't go up its nose. My own First Communion and Confirmation were moments not marked by any strong emotion or spiritual revelation. At my wedding, I was in agonies walking up the aisle with everyone looking at me (I hunched) and at the moment of the vows I had to concentrate on making myself look at Darwin instead of looking down. This Confirmation was no different. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon the kids, of course, but much of the mass for me was taken up with juggling hymnals and trying to sight read the alto part, because our music ministry  is in a transition period and so I didn't know what we were singing until the day of.

This is one reason, I think, why the much-maligned Law is so valuable. We don't control our emotional responses to grace, but we can offer our obedience to God's commands. You don't know when you attend mass if you're going to have great consolations or spiritual dryness or just a run-of-the-mill experience -- and God's grace isn't determined by any of those experiences -- but you can be obedient and attend mass regardless of "what you get out of it". You can be obedient and go to confession and be forgiven, whether it's exciting or frightening or just something you do. God isn't constrained by our human experiences of him, and thank God for that.

We have two more classes left in the year, and I'd like to make them fun for the kids, but right now I'm taking a breather. Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reflections on a Lent Without Facebook

When MrsDarwin decided to get off Facebook for Lent, I did not originally intend to do likewise. I wasn't not entirely pleased with the place that online socializing served in my life. I felt that my tendency to scroll down the feed in moments of spare time ate up more of my day than I wanted and also took up a good deal more mental space that I would prefer. Even if I wasn't actually online, the memory of some frustrating argument or simplistic meme that a friend has posted, or some long thread of comments which had turned into a nasty pile-on, would stick with me and continue turning over in the back of my mind as I considered possible rebuttals or simply felt down about how frustrating people could be.

And yet, online discussion and friendship has served an important purpose in my life for a long time.

Part of this is simply because of lack of time. I'm at a point of life (and likely will continue so for another ten or fifteen years as I have the last ten) where work and family life take up virtually all of my time except for the few hours late at night when I write. I enjoy discussing books and ideas and the issues of the day with MrsDarwin at home, and it's even beginning to be possible to do so with the children as well. But I enjoy the the chance to discuss things that are important to me with people other than members of my own direct family, and the tendency over the last decade is that this mostly only occurs online.

Why don't I have those conversations in real life more often? As I mentioned above, there's the lack of time in my current state in life, but there's also the constriction of trying to maintain amicable relations with people I interact with in various real life circumstances. I've long had an absolute policy of not discussing contentious subjects such as politics, religion, etc. at work. Indeed, since my interests in history and literature are fairly obscure, I mostly end up restricting myself exclusively to talking about work itself, and about harmless topics such as "How was your weekend?" Perhaps I'm giving up the chance to have deeper conversations, but I'm also giving up the chance to turn work relationships toxic by expressing opinions which are potentially offensive to other people. The same calculus often comes into play on the occasions I interact with people at the parish, other scout dads, etc. The online world seems a decent place to have these kind of potentially contentious discussions, because people can always walk away if they don't like the conversation.

And yet, my problem was, I clearly wasn't walking away enough. Much more so than during the years when my primary online interaction was through the blog, the world of Facebook seemed to bring out the worst in others and in myself. The pressures of the online herd mentality wrongly encourage people to display their group membership by sharing the latest pat slogan or smug meme, and my own argumentativeness then leaves me either wanting to argue the point or else feeling frustrated with the whole experience. Much as a value the may friends that I've made online (many of whom I've since had the opportunity to meet in person) it seemed that the venue of social media was not bringing out the best in me or in people that I otherwise liked.

So I decided to stay off Facebook for Lent, with a brief dip in every Sunday to post links and catch up on news from friends. To the extent that my goal was to disconnect from the outrage cycle, the fact that this meant I logged off right before the Parkland school shooting only served to reinforce my reasons for getting offline. If it had seemed before like online discourse was degenerating to high school levels, now the political discourse of high schoolers with all its simplification and hyperbole was being held up as a better and purer standard that adults needed to listen to and emulate. Between that and the continued antics of the White House occupant (whose own behavior often reflects all the worst aspects of a middle schooler), national discourse have reached new heights of immaturity.

What have I done while unplugged? I've read more. I've worked more on revising the novel I shortly want to send out for submission. It's also aligned with a period when I've been busier than ever at work and engaged in several interesting projects there, so lacking distractions has been beneficial.

And now as Lent draws to a close, I need to decide what I should do after Lent. I'd disengaged from Facebook over Lent not so much as a sacrifice but because I thought it was becoming an obstacle to good will and piece of mind for me. I've indeed found that being unplugged has been a great improvement. And yet, I don't want to lose track of all the friends that I hear from primarily via the venue, many of whom I met either through the blog or through Facebook itself. And yet I don't know that I myself have changed enough to return to daily engagement with Facebook without returning to my old bad habits and frustrations. It's not a simple matter of disconnecting from toxic groups and people, because it seems to me that the big issue is that the medium itself encourages myself and others that I like to behave more toxically than we otherwise would do.

I do not have an answer yet, but I'm going to need to come to one.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Arts, Liberal and Servile

Economist Bryan Caplan definitely deserves points for being an interesting and provocative intellectual voice. His proposal for ideological Turing Tests is one of the best recommendations for understanding across divisive issues that I've heard, and inspired Leah Libresco's series of religious Turing Tests between Christians and atheists. Several years back he wrote the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which was an interesting run at some sacred cows of current US upper middle class culture. His latest book is also provocative in its approach: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. To quote the blurb:

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative―education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

This is the sort of thing which is likely to draw multiple conflicting opinions out of me, so I've been following coverage with interest. Yesterday I ran into an interesting interview with Caplan which was posted at the American Enterprise Institute. If you want to get a sense of where he's coming from, it's a worthwhile read.

Obviously, Caplan's issue is not with education as a whole. He highlights basic skills like math and reading as essential to getting along in life. However, he contends that much of the content included in the K-12 curriculum is not actually necessary. For example, he points out that most high schoolers in the US are required to study two years of foreign language, and yet although people are put into classes that allegedly teach language, there's clearly little real concern about people learning it. The classes themselves do not in fact get people to reach fluency in the language being studied, and colleges generally make no effort to establish that students actually speak or read the language which their transcripts say they studied.

Here's an exchange on what he'd like to see change in regards to pre-college education:
Question: Let’s say policymakers have really bought into your thesis and made big changes. What is the education system, the work-training system, however you want to describe it? What does that look like?

Caplan: So the main difference is just that people spend fewer years in school. And when you are a little kid you learn the stuff that you need like reading, writing, literacy, numeracy but you have a lot more free time to enjoy your childhood. But then anyways the people who are going to be doing cognitively demanding jobs, they are going to be needing to do something similar to at least high school. I think for a lot of other people they are just going to get vocational education when they are in their mid-teens like countries like Germany and Switzerland often do. And then finally of course there is always going to be a small number of people who are going and doing your very traditional college education, you know especially people that are going to be doing vocational majors, or if you have parents who just want to go and spend an enormous pile of money for you to go and have a hobby for a few years. There are some people like that; that was true in the 19th century.

Basically the main picture is that people start adult life at a much earlier age and parents do not have to support people until they are 30.

There's an extent to which I can agree with this. One of the things which has struck me, given that my own primary education was half in normal schools and half homeschooled, and now guiding my children through homeschooling while many of their friends are in public or parochial schools, is that there's not actually massive amounts that one needs to teach in the younger years. Learning to read, write, and do arithmetic only takes an hour or two a day for kids in the first half of their school careers. The sorts of history and science which are learned in K-5 or so are also very basic and perhaps best taught informally.

And yet, as we start to deal with older students, my views begin to diverge from Caplan's quite a bit. He has this to say about history and literature in college:
Question: I feel like, for instance, English literature has made me a better writer. Therefore my writing is better today because I read all that, and poetry too I imagine would have helped in some fashion. Maybe it’s hard to figure out the exact chain of the relationship but I feel like if I had not taken those classes I would not be as good a writer.

Caplan: So here is what I say: Most professors, when they go through their educational career, are able to take a lot of classes where not only do they not use them but it’s pretty foreseeable that you would never use things like Latin. And the thing to remember is that if you are a professor or are working at a think tank, you do have a job that’s much more closely tied to what you learned in school than most people. So again if you work at a think tank or are a professor, maybe you do use history on the job. But if you are a business person the odds that you would ever rely upon history to make a business decision in any way that would be useful is very slim. And the same goes for so much of the academic curriculum. So you have to learn Shakespeare, the English that was spoken 500 years ago, and you have foreign language. Even higher mathematics is useful only in a narrow range of jobs. For most people, they never use what they study after the final exam, yet employers care, and that’s the key part.
This reminds me a bit of the Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes tells Watson that his memory is so valuable that me makes an effort never to learn anything he won't need for his profession. Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes does not realize that the Earth orbits around the Sun, while far from valuing this information Holmes tells Watson he'll endeavor to forget the fact as quickly as possible so it won't take up space that could be used for some more valuable fact.

I'm sure there's a great deal that I've learned which I have never and will never use in my job. However, even if my employer has not particular reason to care whether I learned about the Peloponnesian War or read War & Peace, I think that it's very good for me as a person that I did.

When writing about education, classical and medieval authors talked about the "liberal arts", by which they meant the studies which were appropriate to a free man. While in modern usage "liberal arts" includes 'soft' subjects such as literature, history, and languages as compared to fields such as math, science, and engineering, the traditional seven subjects of liberal education were: the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and finally at the top of the educational pyramid philosophy and theology.

The point of the label 'liberal' was not to distinguish one set of academic subjects from another, but to distinguish the tools of knowledge with general application which a free man ought to know in order to prepare him for all endeavors in life from servile arts, what we might think of as job training. I wrote a set of three posts dealing with the liberal versus servile arts and a rough attempt at updating the concept a few years ago: one, two, three.

We live in an age of specialists. Perhaps this is why, while up until the 1800s there was still some credibility to the idea of a liberally educated person making real contributions to multiple different fields as his interests drew him, in our modern world were most advances are made by people who are specialists in sub-fields within fields the idea of the liberal arts has fallen on hard times. And while many of the people seeking a university education a couple hundred years ago came from a class which did not really expect to maintain themselves by labor, today we have a majority of Americans at least attempting college (though the number who finish a four year degree or a more advanced degree is only around 35%.) While I'd argue that the reason why someone ought to go to college is to get a liberal education, the reason that most people actually go is "to get a good job".

If that's the reason for getting a college degree, is Caplan right that we should turn our focus away from getting more people to go to college and more towards job training programs that could get people ready for a career more quickly and at lower cost?


I might try to make a pragmatic argument for the liberal arts, saying that flexibility and the ability to learn new systems of thought is both valuable on the job and also imparted by the traditional fields of liberal arts. But I'd at the same time have to admit that studying many of the fields often derided for impracticality does not necessarily get one the sort of broad liberal arts education which I would tend to advocate. In modern America, sectors of many academic fields have worked hard to make themselves irrelevant, at times even attacking the old categories of knowledge on which the classical liberal arts centered.

The interviewer does a good job of asking Caplan what he thinks the world should look like, and he describes one that, while utilitarian, is not necessarily unreasonable. What would my own suggestion for changes in the world look like?

I do think it would be good employers stopped the credential arms race, first expecting everyone to have a four year degree, and then increasingly expecting them to have a masters degree. I think that some sort of much more focused practical training in various job related areas would be a faster and cheaper way to meet the needs of work than the inflation of fields like "business administration" into a four year college degree and a two year graduate degree.

And perhaps, with people no longer using "you need it to get a job" as an excuse to constantly inflate the cost of a college education (a cost which to a great extent is not going to the actual teachers, libraries, labs, and classrooms which are actually essential to the theoretical educational mission of a college) it would become less of a financial obstacle for a person who has the interest and aptitude to pursue an education in the traditional liberal arts or one of the modern fields that are their successors to do so without incurring ruinous amounts of debt.

In the meantime, I'll continue to be a proud Classics Major turned Director of Pricing Analytics. And even if there is no direct path from mastering Greek and Latin grammar to being the person willing to build databases and teach myself machine learning while others who took the MBA route complain to me "numbers make my head hurt", I think that at some level the mental habits and abilities I learned back in college have allowed me to become the self-taught analytics person that I am today.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

General Grant as Persona

I've been reading Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses Grant as an audiobook during my commutes lately. I'm enjoying it a lot.

It's an interesting contrast to his biography of Hamilton, which served as the inspiration for the famous musical. You can see why Hamilton is popular as a persona with the musical's fans. Hamilton is a perfect avatar for today's young elites: Brilliant, eager, forward thinking, flawed yet conscious of his flaws.

Chernow chose to write about both Hamilton and Grant, and in both cases he took on a major figure of a period of American history who came to be dismissed by the common wisdom of following periods. Hamilton was dismissed by the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of American democracy as an aristocrat and elitist. Grant was spurned by the post-reconstruction school as a corrupt, bumbling president and a general who was only great in his relentlessness.

The picture of Grant which Chernow paints is more interesting than Grant the bumbler, Grant the butcher, or Grant the drinker. I also find myself wondering if he's a person whom many of Chernow's Hamilton fans would find it hard to like, particularly if he did not have the distance of being in the past.

I had known that Grant struggled against alcoholic tendencies. He was someone who showed the effects of drink after just one or two drinks (those who knew him in that condition described him as a stupid though amiable drunk) and who found it almost impossible to stop at one drink. Once he had any alcohol, he was likely to continue on to a several day spree. What I had not known before was that because he recognized this tendency in himself Grant was a strong temperance advocate, repeatedly taking the pledge to totally abstain from alcohol and supporting the temperance movement which would eventually lead to Prohibition in the early 20th century.

Grant's support for the temperance cause aligned his with strict Methodist religious principles, principles that were apparently also expressed in his strong dislike for swearing and any sort of talk which he felt cheapened women.

Aside from his occasional relapses into heavy drinking, Grant was also extremely staid in his personal life. Unlike the flirtatious Hamilton, who became the epicenter for the first great American political sex scandal, Grant was very much a one woman man, utterly devoted to his wife Julia -- a woman whom many of his contemporaries described as ugly and who remained attached to the slave owning society in which she grew up, but who also was devoted to Ulysses and a great fan of literature. Julia found reading hard because of a problem with one of her eyes (the result of a childhood injury) so in their home life Ulysses often read aloud to her.

Chernow clearly finds great humanity in Grant, the man of strict temperance principles who nonetheless fell to his alcoholic weakness at intervals, the brilliant general who was such a failure at business in civilian life that he had to live off his father and father-in-law's charity. I agree. However, it also struck me it would be easy for many modern readers to despise Grant, particularly if they saw him as a modern type rather than a period one: A strictly religious military man who encourages people to "take the pledge" never to drink, who dislikes all swearing and jokes with sexual overtones, yet is also known to at times get drunk for days at a time. He could as easily be painted as an up-tight hypocrite as a sympathetically flawed and human character.

I'm glad that Chernow resisted any urge to scoff at Grant in that way, and I hope that his readers will as well. The man who emerges from these pages is worthy of admiration.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Repost: Orphan Opening: Unless A Grain Of Wheat Fall To The Ground

A post from 2015 that fits with yesterday's Gospel reading.


The initial coolness was like the peace of death. Before, she had felt and tallied Brian's every thoughtless act or wounding word. Now, real and perceived grievances all beaded up and rolled off of her like rain down a marble monument. It was so liberating to put the pain behind her, to move to a state in their marriage in which she could hide herself away and play the role of wife. They still did all the same things. They got up, danced around each other in the bathroom, went to work, had dinner together, had sex. The sex was better than before, actually, because now there was a corner of her mind where she could watch herself and improve her performance and adjust her mental game when necessary.

But even death is not static. Repose becomes decay. She had thought that she was preserving the marriage by closing herself off. One day she realized that Brian had ceased to expect anything from her. He had become other to her, and now she was other to him. They were two people in a house, partners in management, marking the time with manners. She had died to him, but she had not counted on him dying to her. It was frightening to realize that she was interchangeable.

One day at the office she stopped by Sofia's cubicle to drop off a report. A faded inspirational poster was tacked up to the divider, a backlit image of a stalk of wheat with the caption, "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

"What does that mean?" she asked Sofia.

"I don't know? It was my dad's, it used to hang in his office. I think it's that... the wheat can't grow unless it's transformed? The grain by itself doesn't change, but when it's planted and starts to grow, it bursts open and warps out of shape and is destroyed, and in the process it becomes something bigger and better, something it never could have become on its own. It has to die to go on living."

"That sucks."

Sofia shrugged. "Most living feels like dying anyway."

"But it doesn't really die," she said. "How can it grow into a plant unless it's alive?"

"I guess the grain of wheat part of it dies."

"That's pretty lousy for the grain," she said, unreasonably annoyed on behalf of an anonymous seed.

"It's not like it was going to last forever on its own. Get planted or get eaten."

"And those are the only two options?"

"Or decay in storage," said Sofia, turning back to her computer.


On her way home she picked up Chinese food from a place Brian liked. At home she pulled out dishes and candles and plated everything up just like she'd read about in an article about reviving the spark in your marriage. Brian called her as she was throwing away the containers.

"I'm going to be late, babe," he said. "The project is running late, and you know how it is. Don't wait for me to eat. I'm just going to grab a sandwich somewhere up here."

It was like him to spring this on her. Several cool replies simmered within her, and she considered which one would be most effective.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground...

"Okay," she said. "What if I come up there and eat with you?"

"You want to come all the way up here?" he said. "I'm only going to have about ten minutes."

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

"I don't mind. I'd like to."

"Um, okay. Sure, if you want."

"Thanks." She swallowed. "I love you."

There was silence on the line for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited.

"Yeah, you too," he said shortly. "See you."

She picked up the plates and started scraping them in the trash, wondering at the strange bitter pang of the first blade of wheat piercing through the confines of the dead husk.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Repost: π With Jesus

(A repost from last year, when Pi Day was at the beginning of Lent, and St. Patrick's Day on a Friday. This year, we're eating both cherry and pumpkin pies.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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