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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Orphan Opening: Dream Edition

Last night I dreamed that I was with a group going to visit a large abandoned book warehouse. We'd feared that everything would be damp and moldy, but the warehouse had been shut up tight and air conditioned. It was dry and cool, and filled with shelves stretching out as far as one could see in the dim space.

There were two staircases going down to the lower floors, and rumor swirled that there were rare books on the deepest level, a first edition of Jane Austen or so. A large contingent went down one staircase, but I went down the other with my three-year-old, holding his hand tight so he wouldn't get lost. The manager of the space was with me. On the lower level, we wandered a bit, always staying near the group, and then prepared to head down again. The manager took one last look around, shining his flashlight over the floor.

I saw a baby rocking in a swing.

"Stop!" I said. "There's a baby over there."

The manager played his light in the direction I pointed.

"I... don't see anything," he said.

The baby's blue eyes sparkled in the light.

We headed down behind the rest of the group.

Then I woke up, and it was a great relief.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Spelling Test

1. Banner
It's a fine life, carrying the Banner.

2. Fame
Fame, I'm gonna live forever.

3. Later
When a girl says later, she really means, "Not ever".

4. Hammer
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

5. Seven
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone.

6. Barrel
Perhaps your horse's name was Barrel.

7. Dollar
A day late, a dollar short.

8. Letters
She receives letters, Mrs. Bennet, because she writes letters.

9. Silent
Silent E is a ninja.

10. Wild
The wild things roared their terrible roars and showed their terrible claws and rolled their terrible eyes and gnashed their terrible teeth.

11. Swift
Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels.

12. Bottle
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

13. Pineapple
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

14. Traffic
Everything that traffic will allow.

15. Eleven
It goes to eleven.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Fr. Martin: Nihil or Obstat?

The current controversy over Fr. James Martin and his book (lengthily titled: Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity) seems odd to me. In rough outline:

Various loud (and honestly, mostly unpleasant) conservative groups have been waging a campaign to get Fr. Martin dis-invited from giving talks about his book at Catholic institutions, on the theory that since he scrupulously fails to discuss Church teaching in his book on the Church and the LGBT community, while calling for greater charity between the two, he must clearly be advocating a soft-pedaling of practice or change in teaching.

Fr. Martin has responded with some vigor that his book does not contradict Catholic teaching, and he has pointed to several Catholic authorities (the Jesuits, various bishops) who have stated as much.

Thus far, so good. But here is where I fail to understand: If Fr. Martin is in fact not suggesting any change in Catholic teaching, then his book is a flowery exercise in saying nothing much, a 150 page David Brooks column. The problem between the Church and the gay community is not one of schoolyard taunts which can be easily resolved by the kindergarten teacher telling everyone to play nicely. The Church's teaching on sexual morality is the substantive reason for the strife between the two groups. The Church says that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage can only be formed between one man and one woman, while most people in the gay community believe that this teaching is both wrong and hurtful. Civility is good, of course, but it comes nowhere close to dealing with the core of the issue.

If Fr. Martin is not in fact in favor of some kind of change in Catholic teaching, then there's really very little reason to ask him to speak about his book at all. He has nothing much of interest to say, and there are others who have already written much more interesting books actually tackling the question of how LBGT Catholics can live in tune with Church teaching and how the Church should change the way she speaks to and about them to recognize that they are indeed called by our doctrines to a difficult life requiring support and fellowship from the Church.

On the other hand, if Fr. Martin is in favor of some kind of distinct change in Church doctrine or practice, then it's hardly surprising that Catholics who believe that the Church's teachings on this matter are correct would object to him being brought in as a speaker. And if that's the case, dissembling about one's actual beliefs is a pretty poor tactic all around.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Could Trains Have Saved Irma Evacuees?

In the tenth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's satiric tapestry of mid-Twentieth Century British intellectual and artistic circles, several characters set up a left wing publishing house, yet are stymied by how to make a commercial success of a novel of socialist realism in translation which is near to the heart of one of the their patrons. That they are trying to make a commercial success of a piece of socialist realism is, of course, one of the understated sources of humor, as is the unwieldy title: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers (Eventually this is shortened to the more marketable title Engine Melodies.)

There's something about trains which seems to appeal to ideological and technological Utopians across ideological boundaries. Affection for trains is a staple of progressive thinking these days, and yet Ayn Rand also idolizes trains in her massive novel Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that someone over at the World Socialist Web Site wrote a piece asking: Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?

The author complains at people being forced to use cars and planes to leave Florida due to the "abysmal, anarchy-filled state of transportation in America."

Why haven’t passenger trains, which could carry a thousand people a time, been sent to Florida to help? Residents without money or the ability to travel by car or plane could be taken to designated points of shelter and food.

Prior to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, there was a small successful example of this, as some 2,000 residents of New Orleans were taken to Memphis, Tennessee on special trains. A worker who participated in the rail operation noted that “At least 50% of the passengers were elderly, many in wheelchairs, on walkers or canes and generally unable to move very well without some assistance.” On a return trip, many passengers brought more luggage, as they could buy essential supplies in Memphis that would have been out of stock or priced-gouged in New Orleans. With baggage cars and plenty of space, the train accommodated this for free—compared to an airline that would charge $50 per bag.

That operation was minimal compared to what could be done, and yet with Irma, nothing similar has been attempted, despite a far larger forced evacuation. If the state and federal government, FEMA, and corporations cared to, dozens of sets of passenger train equipment could have been sent south during the week and made several trips from South Florida to points farther North. This would require workers trained in advance to conduct the operation, and designated points of shelter established in places like Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; and other cities.

As one example, the commuter rail system of Chicago, Metra, has a daily ridership of 295,000 riders. If equipment on that scale were provided to a region at risk of a hurricane, an enormous number of people could be taken to safe shelter. Instead, all that has happened is that Amtrak ran its regular trains out of Florida up until Friday, which, of course, were sold out.

There are some pretty basic reasons why this wouldn't work, and they have to do with how trains as a mode of transportation work. Trains are good at moving predictable numbers of people over predictable routes. That's why commuter train systems such as the one in Chicago cited above are a moderately efficient means of moving people. You know that every work day basically predictable numbers of people will want to move from specific residential areas to specific business areas, and you build your tracks and schedule your trains accordingly. For this kind of highly predictable movement through dense areas, trains can indeed be more efficient than cars. While the train itself may get very full, the tracks do not get overloaded and backed up the way that a freeway does at rush hour, so the schedule can be somewhat more predictable, and a full train uses less fuel per passenger to move people over a given distance than having all those people take separate cars.

However, trains are only good at moving people over expected routes. Imagine that there was a sudden need to evacuate most of Chicago's residents to cities nearby cities like Peoria and Indianapolis. The commuter rail system vaunted above would be of no use at all, because the tracks don't go there. Trains are far less flexible than cars. You could use the same car you used to drive in to downtown Chicago to evacuate to Indiana, but you could not use the same train you took to downtown Chicago to evacuate the metro area instead.

This is something I encountered a good deal in doing research for the novel, in that a great deal of military planning done prior to World War One centered around trains. With the mass use of trucks and automobiles still in its infancy, mobilization plans made by the European powers centered around moving soldiers on trains. Even in the relatively dense confines of Western Europe, the standard rail system would not have remotely sufficed for Germany to move over a million soldiers to the French and Belgian borders during the course of a few days. They had to build massive redundancy into their rail network leading to the West, with extra sidings to allow trains to pass each other and rail heads with a dozen or more sidings where trains could stop and disgorge the soldiers who had just spend a couple days in cattle cars. All of this rail infrastructure was built just in case Germany went to war with France, and it allowed for only approach to doing so. The German high command did not have the option of choosing to attack in a different place than they had planned years in advance, because the rail lines had been built to support the planned route of attack.

If this was a massive undertaking to support moving a large number of people along one planned route of military attack, imagine trying to build a network capable of performing natural disaster evacuations. The sort of slightly increased high speed rail network which train enthusiasts suggest to replace Americans' habit of driving or flying when they want to go somewhere a few hundred miles away would not do. Such a network would be build to carry the normal number of people who wanted to travel in a given direction for business or pleasure at normal times. To be able to accommodate a significant portion of the population suddenly needing to evacuate elsewhere, you would need massively redundant rail lines in order to accommodate the sudden burst of travel in one direction. You would need to have this excess rail capacity in many places going many directions: Do you need to evacuate New Orleans toward Houston or Houston towards Dallas? Do you evacuate Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas, or the opposite direction? Not to mention that you'd also need contingency plans to actually get the needed trains to wherever it was you suddenly needed to evacuate so many people from.

Messy as it looks, the highway system and the use of cars, trucks, and buses is actually a much more efficient means of responding to unexpected surges of transportation needs. Yes, results in traffic jams and gas shortages, but despite the apparent chaos it's actually a much more flexible means of moving people around, because the same vehicle and roads which are normally used and be instantly repurposed to evacuation.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench
There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Weeping Time, by Anne C. Bailey
An advance reading copy of a book Darwin was sent to review, about the largest slave auction in American history. Very sobering, and makes the evil and corruption of slavery vivid.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons
subtitled: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection. To be honest, I picked up this book because as I walked by it on the library shelf, it looked too beautiful to pass up. These are tales from a manuscript discovered in a library in Istanbul and first translated in the 1930s. The aged manuscript, with a torn first page, is thought to be an earlier collection of some of the tales from the 1001 Nights. The book is as advertised: the tales are pretty marvelous and strange. We tried reading them aloud, but they're rather convoluted, not helped by the fact that some of the pages were too damaged to decipher. It's easier to read them myself than try to make sense of them to the kids.

1a. Readaloud

Victorian Cakes, by Caroline B. KingA delightful memoir about a Victorian girlhood in Chicago, framed through the cakes and other delectables baked in the family's ample kitchen. I tried to get a child to read this herself, but found it easier to read it aloud. The kids are fascinated, and indeed, there's been a spate of cake-baking in an attempt to recreate some of the recipes in the book.

2. What book did you just finish?

I was considering this for my readaloud to the kids, but it had been years since I'd read it myself. After consideration: no, this is not one for the kids. Wilde was one of the Decadents, a movement of writers and artists devoted to outré experiences and the pursuit of sensation without consequences, and there's a unsavory undercurrent to the book. Interestingly enough, Dorian Gray flirts with Catholicism because he's drawn to the aesthetic, sensual elements, but he has the idea of Sacrament directly backward: he believes that the elements of the Catholic sacraments are merely symbolic, though powerful in their symbolism, but that his other obsessions, such as perfume or gemstones, have some kind of sacramental power that effects what they symbolize. He thinks there can really be some magic or alchemy such that a topaz gives long life or a ruby can poison or an emerald enhance sexual pleasure. (I just made up these examples, but the actual text isn't much different.)

Anyway, The Hound of the Baskervilles would have the same feel but be a lot more acceptable for reading to children. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie
The girls just watched this on Netflix, so I wanted to read the book to see how Christie told the tale.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
I took this on vacation with me to copy quotes for my novena, and it hasn't made it out of my bag yet.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Darwin narrated this to us at the dinner table a few years ago when he was listening to it, and I've seen the Masterpiece Theater version, and I've bought a copy of the book, which sits on my shelf now. But I've never cracked the cover.

6. What is your current reading trend?

I don't know if I have one right now.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Twenty Years

September 5th, 1997, these twenty years ago, I put on a tie and bowler hat and went to the Courtyard Rock, a freshman mixer dance. With me were a few friends, similarly attired. We'd gone to some other, earlier dance wearing the same thing, being a bit odd as a youthful affectation and because none of us had anyone in particular to impress. This second dance was three weeks into the semester -- an eternity -- and was the end of the getting-to-know-you shindigs Steubenville threw on its own dime. After that, you had to meet people on your own.

As I say, this was the second dance we went to in our hats and ties, so we must have been recognizable. At least, someone had noticed us before, and as it happened, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. "You probably already know each other," she said. "You're both in Honors." We didn't know each other, not being in the same section, but we set about remedying that posthaste. We talked class. We talked hats. We talked I don't know whatall -- nothing of great import, really, except that everything he said was interesting. He was funny and easy to talk to. That's a freshman way to describe a freshman attraction, the sort of thing that a lot of students said about each other in those early days. But I say it because it's true. He was funny in the exactly the way I found most amusing, and easy to talk to in the way in exactly the way that appealed to me most. If there was an immediate click, it was the click of two pieces fitting together perfectly.

We danced together, and since swing was the style of the late 90s, we swung. I've never been a crack dancer, and he was less so than I was, so we spent more time laughing than getting the steps right. After a while the party shut down, but we weren't done talking. So we went to the student center -- the old JC, for those who were around before it was gentrified -- and sat in ugly corporate seating and talked, and talked, and talked. And then a friend I'd known before I came up to college passed through, and said hi, and asked about my boyfriend back at home.

Proving that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, my annoyance made me realize that I'd actually had no intention of mentioning that I had a boyfriend at home. We'd gotten together hastily and perhaps ill-advisedly before I left -- we'd shared some common life experiences and needed someone to talk to about them, proving that unhappy families are all unhappy in the same ways. That was not a reference he would have gotten. He was not a great reader, nor of an markedly intellectual bent, but a nice and gentle guy who deserved better than a girl who got together with him and then went off to college. I'd had plenty of time to meditate on this fact three weeks into the semester.

As it was, this revelation didn't change anything, because there was still plenty of conversation to be had. At 2 am we were kicked out of the student center and headed back toward the dorms. "The time has come," he said, "to talk of many things..."

"Of shoes and ships and sealing wax..."

"Of cabbages and kings..."

"And why the sea is boiling hot," we finished together, "and whether pigs have wings!"

I didn't know any guys who'd read Louis Carroll, and none of them would have admitted it if they had.

At his dorm we parted, but he had in his pocket a card with his dorm phone and mailbox number on it, and he gave it to me, and you can read the rest of the story here.

Steubenville was a small place, and Honors was a small set. We'd have met eventually, and the same sort of thing would have happened, but we happened to meet on September 5, twenty years ago.

Almost immediately after we got together, a week and a half later, I put things on hold. "I need to break up with my boyfriend," I said, "but I can't do it until Saturday." This won't make much sense to the youth of today, but those who had reached their majority by 1997 will remember the days of phone cards and reduced rates on the weekend. I couldn't afford to call long distance until the lower weekend rates. Saturday evening, I was sadder but wiser after discovering that breaking off a relationship even for many good and rational reasons is a wrenching thing to do.

"I asked him, " I said in a muffled voice, "if he could like reading and theater and all the things that I loved. And he said, 'I would if you wanted me to.'"

And he winced in sympathy, because he knew that that wasn't enough. I didn't want someone to love these things because I loved them. I wanted someone to love them because they were good things themselves, so that our shared loves could be a participation in something bigger than ourselves.

And for twenty years now our shared loves have grown and multiplied many times over, until we needed a huge house to contain all the little bodies that keep turning up. Tonight we went out and talked and talked again, only this time we had a sleeping, snorting baby with us, and we came home together to a passel of children talking as fast as their parents. In a few years our oldest is going off to college. Perhaps I'd better buy her a bowler hat.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Age of Faith, Age of Virtue?

I got into a discussion about the Middle Ages on Twitter last night, which is a bad idea because I seem to be too middle aged to succeed in doing anything with Twitter other than posting the occasional link or quip. So I'm going to be like the old fashioned creature that I am and write a blog post instead.

What initially caught my attention was this comment from a friend:

I should admit right off that a portion (perhaps the major portion) of what rubs me the wrong way on this is that I tend to distrust any speculation about who is and is not in heaven. There's an appealing sort of Catholic triumphalism about imagining the Middle Ages as a period when everyone was on our side, while in modernity we face a fractured Christendom and many people who aren't Christian at all, but I'm very leery of saying that the people 'on my side' are actually more likely to get to heaven than others. It smacks of a bit of presumption, and also it being 'my side' I'm in a good position to appreciate all those people's worst points.

However, the other thing which strikes me here is historical. The more time I spend on history, the more it strikes me that when we look at a past time and note that certain vices common in society now were less accepted then, what we often miss is that other vices sprang up instead to take their place. Human beings are a fallen bunch, and I can't see it that we're notably better in one era than another. This is something which has struck me a lot when doing novel research, admittedly dealing with the era only a hundred years ago. One frustration I have with a lot of modern historical writers is that they write their characters as if they were really exactly the same as now in their family and moral attitudes. A basic amount of primary source reading makes it clear that this was not the case. But it also makes it clear that while some of our chronic modern problems were not common then, there was a whole other set of problems in their place. People were neither better, nor worse, nor the same: they were different.

As Brandon expanded on his thesis, however, it proved to mostly center on closer connection with the sacraments and the graces which they provide:

To expand my comment above in non-Twitter language: I think that there are two questions to consider here.

The first is whether people were really as steeped in the sacraments and the life of the Church as we might like to imagine. It's certainly true that there was no distinction between the secular calendar and the liturgical calendar. Holidays were just that: Holy Days. Times of fast and penance also shaped the year, as did the cutting loose which preceded such sober times.

And yet, we also know that this did not necessarily look like the practice of people who devotedly live the liturgical year now. Reception of the sacraments was not necessarily all that frequent. When the Fourth Lateran Council made clear the necessity of going to confession and receiving communion at least once a year, that was because it was fairly common for people to receive the sacraments even less often. There were major problems with corruption and ignorance among the clergy, and thus in turn among the flock they were supposed to be guiding. It's late to be truly medieval (1500s) but Carlo Ginzburg's classic study The Cheese And The Worms about the inventive heresy developed more or less through ignorance by a small town miller in northern Italy (which eventually led to his burning at the stake) helps underscore that however pervasive the Church was as a structure, even somewhat educated people (the Miller could read) often knew startlingly little about their faith.

There was also the difficulty that the integration of the Church into everyday life could actually make people resent it. We think of anti-clericalism as something which broke loose in many traditionally Catholic countries in the modern era, but it's arguably that it was the toppling of old structures in modernity which allowed much older resentments to be expressed. When very poor people owed significant portions of their labor or the products of it to the local institutions of the Church, it's natural that the Church would become a target for economic resentment. We see some of that in the humorously derisive anti-clericalism in works like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. I think this history is also arguably why modern age revolutions in Catholic countries (France, Mexico, Spain, etc.) often involved repression of the Church and mass killing of priests and religious -- resentments against power and the rich inevitably ended up becoming tangled with resentments against the Church because the Church was seen as (and was) powerful and rich.

The second question is whether, granting that people were more deeply connected with the Church and her sacraments on a daily basis, that actually led to people being more virtuous.

This reminds me of questions I've struggled with in the past in regards to prayer: On the one hand, we believe that prayer does actually accomplish something. To pray for someone's healing or someone's conversion is actually to do something which has an effect on the other person. And yet, when we turn that around, I'm hesitant to make arguments like: "He didn't convert because not enough prayers were said for his conversion." or "She didn't recover from her illness because not enough people prayed for her healing." And yet, if we can't say "This person was healed because he was prayed for, and if he hadn't been prayed for he wouldn't have been healed" then what exactly do we mean by prayer having an effect? (I don't know the answer to this.)

Similarly, I believe that it is good for people to receive the graces of the sacraments and to know the teachings of the faith. And yet, we also know that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. I believe that it's a good thing that I go to mass every week and receive the Eucharist. But it seems a very dangerous presumption to say that because of this I'm more likely to go to heaven than my neighbor who doesn't. The Bible and the saints often speak of the great dangers faced by those who believe they are righteous. Does that mean that one is more likely to make it to heaven if one doesn't participate in the sacraments and the life of the Church? Certainly not. But I'm also hesitant to say that we know we're more likely to be saved if we're active in the Church.

Again, I think we see some of this in medieval history and literature. The Canterbury Tales are the story of a group of people setting off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a great saint. And yet, they're actually a fairly worldly bunch, and remain worldly on the journey. Perhaps it's still more of a force for virtue in their lives than if they were moderns embarking on an Alaskan cruise. Or perhaps not. I don't know.

I've spent much of my life around social groups defined by active participate in the life of the Church. I think there are benefits to living in that way. And yet I'm also very much aware of the resentments, pettiness, selfishness, and abuse of power which is fairly common in those groups, and sometimes seems to be all the more vicious because people believe they're doing it all for God.

I want to believe that it could be (and was) different. But I'm not sure that I do.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Eli, Eli

Not an Orphan Opening, exactly.

Out of the depths I call to you, Lord.
When the prayer chain began to light up -- baby drowned, heart stopped for almost half an hour -- Kaye sprung into action. Within moments she had alerted the support group, found a contact email for the mother, written a blog post, and created a hashtag: #prayingforbabysam. The first familiar pangs of panic and grief subsided beneath the flurry of making a difference. As long as she was doing something to make things better, she could look at the pictures of little Sam in his hospital bed and keep breathing.
Like water my life drains away.
The support group buzzed with prayers and sage counsel, wisdom dearly bought. Each person knew the pain the parents were feeling, knew it in their bones, had buried it in tiny plots in small hometowns or manicured city memorial parks. Kaye had brought them together. She monitored the prayer line, moderated the comments, posted the memes, wrote the columns about What Not To Say to a Grieving Parent or Five Ways to Support Your Bereaved Friend. Within private forums, she gave the good advice about allowing yourself to mourn, about celebrating the anniversary, about visiting the grave, about seeking help when the waves of agony pulled you underneath as you tried in vain to reach your baby.
Save me God,
For the waters have reached my neck,
I have sunk into the mire of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have gone down to the watery depths;
the flood overwhelms me.
Kaye understood.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents,
And all your waves and breakers sweep over me.
She had lived each step of the process. She knew everything that Sam's mother was going through. She knew the shock of discovery, the horror, the deadly hope, the helpless vigils over the small still body covered with tubes, the beeps and then the silence of the monitors. She knew the stresses that could tear a marriage and a family apart. And she knew how to rebuild, to channel her grief into something good and productive: a support network for parents like her, so that no one should have to go through the worst moments of their life alone. Eli's Miracle was named for her own son, the miracle being that life could go on after death. She couldn't save Eli, but in his name she did everything possible to save other parents. Time brought wisdom and solace. God's will was inscrutable, but now that Kaye was on the other side she could see how far she'd come. She was a #survivor.
He reached down from on high and seized me;
drew me out of the deep waters.
And now baby Sam's mother needed her. Kaye kept vigil with her, constantly monitoring for updates. In the middle of the night she checked her phone for fresh news to share with the support group. Sam's anguished mother was keeping in constant touch. Kaye knew too well not just her present sorrow, but the horrors of the coming days as the family would have to make decisions about removing life support. Nothing, nothing could prepare them for that awful moment, but Kaye would walk with them every step of the way, praying when they prayed, crying when they cried. And when they needed it, the GoFundMe account was there as well to cover the hospital bills. Kaye did not talk yet about the funeral expenses. The family was still choking on hope. It was wise to let them take the time they needed. After all, everyone was #prayingforbabysam, praying for that miracle.
I shall not die but live
and declare the deeds of the Lord.
Talitha koum, and Sam's eyes opened. He spoke. He ate. His brain activity was off the charts on the high side. "I'm not a religious man," Sam's doctor proclaimed, "but the only word for this is 'miraculous'." The hashtaggers, the memers, the prayer warriors on the other side of the screen watched the miracle unfold and proclaimed it #blessed.  His mother posted photo after teary photo of the child as each day some new wonder unfolded, and day after day Kaye shared them with all who were #prayingforbabySam.

But Kaye was not praying.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us,
the seething water would have drowned us.
She had sought for so little. Nothing unreasonable or extraordinary. The basic, common, decent process of healing for the shattered parents and sobbing siblings was all she requested of God. And God betrayed her, and betrayed Eli, by sending some other family a literal fucking obscene miracle. The years she'd spent in coming to terms and reaching peace and transmuting her suffering into ministry were a timeline of mockery. Everyone's suffering had been wasted. Baby Sam stirred in his bed, and walked, and talked, and said, "Mama", but her baby, her own sweet Eli for whom she prayed, was only in goddamn heaven.
Cast them into the watery pit never more to rise.
On the day that everyone posted the pictures of Sam toddling out of the hospital, Kaye went to Eli's grave. She smashed a vase of flowers against the small flat stone. She lay her body over the patch of earth that covered her son and begged God to give her baby back to her. No answer came but the prick and sting of shattered glass. As the blood trickled down her forehead, she lifted up her voice and cried, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

8th Grade American History: A Reading Course

Many wonderful people who provided book recommendations as I put together the reading list of our second eldest's eighth grade American History reading list, and so it seemed only fair to share out what I've put together.

The student in question professed herself bored by history, perhaps in part due to a poor textbook selection last year, and in part due to lack of desire to put in effort. Needless to say, this sort of statement puts pangs in my heart as someone who has history as a primary interest. My main goal this year was thus to put together a reading list of highly readable popular history books for adults (rather than a grade school or high school text book) and show the student that history can be involving. Because several of the books I've picked are very long, and I wanted to set the history reading quota at ~100 pages per week, this meant only covering a few major topics in American History. However, my hope was to make up for this by covering these with interesting enough books to make the student want to eventually go back and read more about other connecting topics.

I'm also trying to cover some gaps with my selections for reading/literature and for science. The student's main science course this year will be a video based astronomy course, but I'm also including some inventions/technology reading to cover elements of history that relate to science and technology.

History Books

Eyewitness to History (selections) I struggled with a number of options dealing with the Spanish discovery of the Americas and the following conquest, etc. However, I couldn't settle on something which looked interesting and balanced enough yet also wasn't hugely long, so we're going to start out with several short selections dealing with the discovery and conquest of the Americas from the collection of primary sources Eyewitness to History which I happened to have sitting around. It's a useful (though often British/European focused) collection of short primary source selections which I've turned to at times over the years.

One Small Candle: The Pilgrims' First Year in America by Thomas Fleming deals with the journey on the Mayflower and the first year in America in vivid narrative form. Fleming came highly recommended by Jay Anderson.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow The kids were all big fans of Hamilton the musical, and when she flamed out on her textbook last spring I had this student start reading Chernow's book, which although brick-like in length reads almost like a novel. She read the first part and said she liked it, though she dropped it over the summer, so I'm going to have her finish this to cover the American Revolution.

Selected Founding Sources: Declaration of Independence, Selected Federalist Papers, Preamble to the Constitution, Washington's Farewell Address

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson This is a fairly opinionated account of the civil war (and I actually haven't read all of it, though I'll be reading it along with the student to discuss it) but I picked it for two reasons: 1) It's only one volume, while Catton and Foote are three each. 2) Due to the nature of the course I needed a Civil War history which dealt in depth with slavery and racial issues as well.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes Again, a pretty opinionated history, but I wanted a history of the Great Depression which was heavy on anecdote and yet fairly sound on economics. This seemed to cover both.

Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War Two by Robert Leckie This was a tough one for me, because the world wars and their interpretation is a topic which I care a lot about. However, looking over a number of general histories of the war, this looked like the most readable one for someone who is not currently a history geek. Thanks to Rich Leonardi for this recommendation. I knew of Leckie but not of this book.

High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Krushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis by Max Frankel This was a bit of a coin toss. I was looking for a short (200-300 page) book on a post-WW2 topic: Cold War, Civil Rights, 60s Revolution, Vietnam, Nixon, Gulf War & Middle East, 9-11 I struggled to find something which was a short, contained work that did a good job with it's topic. This looked like it would fit the bill.


End of Track Autobiography of a man who lost a leg as a teen soldier in the civil war but went to a career as a work gang manager building the railroads across the west.

By the Shores of Silver Lake Of the Little House books, this one is set when Laura is the student's age (and she mostly has only read the early books) and also deals with railroads and the westward expansion.

The Last Days of Night I discovered this recent novel set in 1888 when looking for a biography of Westinghouse. It deals with the War of Currents; Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison; the industrial barons, and the boom in business and technology of the late 1800s. I found it an enjoyable read and surprisingly for a modern novel for adults there's nothing at all one would hesitate to put in front of an eighth grader in it.

My Antonia or One of Ours I'm still trying to decide whether to go for the famous Willa Cather novel or the one that also gets in World War One.

To Kill a Mockingbird Somehow I didn't read this classic till a couple years ago, but 8th grade seems like a traditional time for it.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March Since the Civil Right Movement didn't make it into the history list, this autobiographical work seemed like a good one to include. (Thanks to Mar Grady for suggesting this and also the next one.)

A Night Divided Okay, so this isn't about American history, but I was a sucker for the idea when Mar pointed me to a historical novel for the age group which was about the building of the Berlin Wall, especially since my recent kick has been histories of post-war Europe. And it's not a bad idea to get in a book dealing with communism as it actually existed.


The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

Confirmation #1

Given Topic: Faith and Baptism. What I actually talked about: Baptism and Confirmation, compare and contrast.

First off: We recited the first five popes. Every year the bishop gives the same confirmation homily -- why not? It's generally a different audience each year -- and each year he asks questions. This past year at my daughter's confirmation, I diligently wrote down each question so that I could cover them with my confirmation class. Of course the program on which I wrote them went missing the day I needed it, after weeks of floating around the library (don't ask me why I didn't put it in a safe place. Just don't do it.), so I'll have to wing it on the rest of the questions, but one thing I do know is that every year his gag question is to ask the names of the first x popes. I'd remembered the number being five, so my daughter memorized the first five popes, and then that year the bishop went and asked for the first 25 popes. So, this year, St. Mary's PSR is going to memorize the first 25 popes, and when the bishop asks, I want every kid to stand up and start reciting. Let's do this thing.

From memory, and assisted by my notes:

Why are we here? What's the purpose of sitting here in this Confirmation class? It's the same reason we're here at all, that we exist: to love God, to learn to be better able to respond to his love, and to share it with others. That's the reason for this class, for the Church, for your whole life: to love God. The Church provides us with the surest way to know and respond to God's love, and Confirmation is the sacrament that completes our initiation into that church.

Lots of great things come in trilogies: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings -- and the sacraments of initiation are no exception. Can anyone name them? Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation. This reflects another great trio of our faith: the Trinity. Baptism is the sacrament of the Father, the Eucharist is the sacrament of the Son, and Confirmation is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. In some dioceses, they've restored the original order of the sacraments so that you receive Confirmation before your first communion, because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.

But why do we need Confirmation to be fully initiated into our faith? Isn't that what Baptism does? Why do we need an extra sacrament for that? Come to that, why do we need Baptism at all? Why couldn't God have just made us members of his family already without needing a special ceremony? He can do that, right?

Well, consider my co-teacher Baby Paul here. God could have made it so that he came into the world already able to feed himself and dress himself and change himself. But as it is, Paul relies on me for everything. All he knows is that he's warm and fed and dry and feels secure. I feed him, I change and clothe him, I protect him from dangers he isn't even aware of -- being too close to the edge of the bed, or his three-year-old brother coming at him with a lightsaber. We stand like that in relation to God. He guards and guides us in ways we don't even realize, and he provides us with a family, the Church. Baptism is our entry into that family. It also washes us free from the stain of original sin, that human urge to separate ourselves from God and do the wrong thing. You all know about this. You understand the temptation to do something wrong. Sometimes we even do the wrong thing while wishing we could do the right thing. Saint Paul says, "I do what I do not want to do." (From memory, so no citation.) Baptism makes us a new creation in Christ, 2 Cor. 5:17. Also, Jesus commanded us to baptize and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matt. 28:19. So we're baptized in obedience to that command.

But why Confirmation? How is it different from Baptism?

Confirmation is the deepening and completion of our Baptism. Let's look at it this way. Who here is involved in sports? Okay, wow, that's a lot of you. So, is it enough to just make the team? Are you ready then to go out on the field and win your first game? No, of course not. What sorts of things do you need? Yes, equipment, uniforms, practice, drills, coaching, the rules -- all these things go into making you ready to play the game. Making the team is necessary, but to fully play the game you have to go deeper.

Here's one I like: theater. How many of you are involved in drama? Okay, not enough of you. Why aren't you all in drama? Anyway, is it enough just to be cast in the play? Are you ready then to go out on opening night and perform? No, of course not! What else do you need? The script, a director, rehearsal, props, costumes, sets, lights, makeup... All these things are necessary for being able to put on a show. Getting cast is the necessary first step, but you have to go deeper if you want to give a good performance.

Let's try one more that ought to be increasingly relevant: college. The first step is getting admitted, right? Is that enough to be able to graduate? What else do you need? Intelligence, books, study, teachers, a library, room and board, financial aid -- and lots of that! To go to college of course you have to be admitted first, but if you want to get the most out of your experience you need more than just that acceptance letter.

In Confirmation, we receive the graces that we need to go deeper into the Christian life. We receive the Holy Spirit, and he gives us his gifts. Can anyone name them? Well then, good thing I have them written down here: Wisdom, Counsel, Knowledge, Understanding, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord. Let's try our college example again and see how these gifts might play out there, to get a feel for what they are.

Wisdom: an example of that could be knowing not to party hard, or to start your paper well before the deadline.

Counsel: counsel is the giving of good sound advice. Advisors fill that role, helping students know what courses to pick and how to get the most out of their class selection so they can graduate in four years instead of eight.

Knowledge: knowing the facts. Books, class, study -- all these things help you gain knowledge.

Understanding: But knowing just the facts isn't enough. Understanding helps you to order them, to see how they work together, to make connections and really get to the heart of what you're studying.

Fortitude: Anyone know what fortitude is? It's strength, but not physical strength. It's moral strength, courage. It's being able to say no when everyone else says yes, or to say yes when everyone else says no. It's being able to stand up for what's right and for those who are weak. Pretty applicable to college, or high school, or middle school for that matter.

Piety: the old Roman virtue of piety had to do with reverence for ancestors, parents and grandparents, etc. We can see that here as respect for teachers and those in authority -- administrators, bosses, RAs. Also it can be seen in love of your alma mater, such as when you cheer for Ohio State over Michigan (cheers from the class).

Fear of the Lord: What's this? Anyone fear your parents? I don't mean being afraid of being beaten or abused -- if that's the case, please talk to me after class! But when you obey your parents, often there's an element of knowing that they have the authority to discipline you if you don't listen to them. We know that God loves us, but we also fear him because he is all powerful and holds life and death in his hand. God makes himself weak and small for our sakes, so we can relate to him and also learn compassion for the weak. He comes as a tiny baby, or as a small round piece of bread. You can smash the Eucharist. You can spit on it, or break it. But does that mean that God himself is weak and mockable? No!

Did anyone see the eclipse? I did. When you look up at the total eclipse, you can look at it with your naked eye. The sky is all dark, and there's the black moon looking huge, and behind it the sun's corona is all white and flaming. You can look at the sun's light directly, because the round disc of the moon shields you from its blinding power. And the Eucharist is a small disc that allows us to look directly at God himself and live. We should have a healthy fear of that power and glory, and respect and love God in every form.

Oh yeah, how's that apply to college? You turn in your papers not just to please your professor and to know your knowledge of the subject, but because you know that if you don't, you might fail out. You respect the rules because there is power behind them. You can be thrown out of your dorm, or fail out, or be expelled if you don't have a healthy fear of the authority behind the rules and regulations and the syllabus.

Hey, look, it's break time! Ten minutes outside!

(I know that this isn't the most in-depth treatment of the gifts of the Spirit, but we do have another class devoted to that topic. I just wanted an intro so at least people would have something to hang the concepts on.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

In The Moon's Shadow

As MrsDarwin wrote, one of the legs of our recent family road trip was visit Nebraska and see the total solar eclipse.

It wasn't my first time going to try to see an eclipse. My family wasn't much of one for big vacations. To support a family on a planetarium lecturer's salary, my father always worked a patchwork of several side jobs, and since people visit museums and planetariums when they are on vacation, the times when other people were taking time off were often when he was busiest. There was, however, one big exception. In 1991 a total solar eclipse crossed over the tip of Baja California and also the Big Island of Hawaii. The community college where Dad worked agreed to send both Dad and one of the astronomy professors on eclipse viewing expeditions: Dad to Hawaii, the professor to Baja California.

With the college paying for Dad's travel and hotel room, the rest of us just needed plane tickets and other traveling expenses to tag along, and so we spent about a week in Hawaii: hiked through a rain forest, visited the volcano, tasted sugar cane, played on a black sand beach. We did all of the satisfying tourist things. And on the morning of July 11th, we got up early and boarded the buses with the rest of the big eclipse tour group, many of us wearing our eclipse tour t-shirts. (Being a tourist destination already and the only part of the US when the eclipse would touch, Hawaii was loaded with eclipse merchandise.)

They bused us out to an open field before sunrise, and we spread out picnic blankets, set up telescopes and cameras, and looked nervously up at the broken clouds overhead. Through the gaps between clouds, we saw most of the partial phases of the eclipse, but then a few minutes before totality the sun went behind a thick, low, cumulus cloud. Right on schedule the sky got dark. It stayed dark for the four minutes of totality, then it gradually brightened again. Several moments after totality, the sun emerged from behind the cloud.

Of course, the thing about missing the eclipse by such a small margin is that across the island experiences varied quite a bit. For us, it was during totality that the sun went behind a cloud. For others, including the staff back at our hotel, the sun had come out from behind a cloud just in time for totality.

Still, we had at least been in Hawaii. The astronomer who had led the group down to Baja California saw the eclipse, but on the way back their buses broke down, people suffered heat and lack of water, and the astronomer ended up in the hospital for a week with malaria. Perhaps in the end, missing the eclipse was the better part of the deal.

In the following few years, we managed to see partial and annular eclipses. We watched the spectacular comets of the 90s: Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, Comet Hyakutake, and Comet Hale–Bopp. But we never did see a total eclipse.

My father died in 2006, still never having seen a total solar eclipse. When my faithfully science minded brother reminded me that there would be an eclipse crossing the US in 2017, I decided that I owed it to family memory to try again. The older kids were also agitating for a visit to their friends in Texas, and so the great Darwin cross-country road trip was born.


My Dad used to describe his fatalistic streak as "being Irish", after his mother, who faithfully reared him in the Irish-American experience of the depression even though he was born in 1948. It's not surprising. Grandma was 19 when the stock market crashed in 1929. She came of age in the depression. Her family lost their farm in Iowa and drove out to the West Coast, where her father sold various things door-to-door in order to put food into his children's mouths. Eventually he hit upon selling insurance, and opened the first State Farm office in San Diego. Post-war, this would lead to security and something a bit like prosperity, but by then Grandma's view of the world was already formed.

I have have this fatalistic streak myself. Dad used to tell a story about how Grandma was convinced she wouldn't live past some age (I forget what exactly) in her mid-sixties, for the simple reason that everyone else in her family had died before that age. As it was, she lived into her 90s, but apparently right up until the night before that record-making birthday she was convinced she wouldn't last. Since I knew Grandma as someone who remained alert and tough past 90, this seemed a funny story to me. But now, as someone whose father died of cancer before turning 58, I myself find it hard to imagine that I'll turn 60.

Through some similar sense of fatalism, even as I planned the eclipse trip, I never quite imagined it would come off. This fear was not helped by the fact that as soon as a 10-day weather forecast became available for the eclipse day at our planned viewing location of Lincoln, NE the weather services predicted "partly cloudy".

It was going to happen again, my heart told me. I now had kids the age I had been when we were clouded out in Hawaii, and I was going to take them to be clouded out in turn.

The morning of the eclipse itself did not reassure. The sun was in blue skies overhead, but the wind was from the south and clouds were blowing up from that direction. As the hours passed, the clouds closed in. They were, at least, high, thin clouds. As we looked up through our solar filters, we could see the sun, but we could also see wisps of cloud passing in front of it. Here's the view six minutes before totality:

We gathered under partly cloudy skies at the Lincoln Diocese's seminary.

As the remaining exposed part of the sun narrows to a sliver, the quality of the light changes. Like everyone, I'd heard all the warnings not to look at the sun without a filter, lest the image burn into my cornea. Yet, catching brief glimpses from the corner of my eye, I could see that rather than its usual brilliant disk the sun now had the quality of a very brilliant star. A star brighter than any in the real sky, bright enough to cast crisp shadows. But now very close to a point of light rather than a disk of fire.

The older kids were worried that baby would in his bleary way stare at the sun in this condition, so they put a hat over his head while he slept:

At last, it went dark. You could no longer see anything through a solar filter. And to confirm what we already realized, the leaders of our viewing group blew a whistle to let everyone know that for the next minute it was safe to look directly at the sun.

I lowered the filter I had been looking through and saw perhaps the most beautiful natural sight of my life.

I'd seen plenty of photographs of the total phase of a solar eclipse, the black disk of the moon surrounded by the ghostly white corona of the sun -- the sun's thin upper atmosphere which is normally invisible because it is so much dimmer than the sun itself.

Those photographs are beautiful, but they don't at all capture what you see with your eyes during a total solar eclipse. The human eye is an amazing thing, able to deal with differences of brightness and scale which a camera cannot. You've probably noticed this if you've ever tried to take a picture of a full moon rising over a landscape. To your eye, the moon looks huge, and you can see all sorts of detail on the moon itself while at the same time seeing the landscape in twilight. Yet if you try to take a picture, you'll notice several things: The moon looks much smaller if you have a wide enough field of view to see the full landscape. Also, you either see the landscape, with the moon burned-in as an undifferentiated bright blob, or else you see the moon clearly and the landscape is dark.

In camera terms, your eye has the ability to zoom in and out instantly, giving you a sense of the moon looking huge against the landscape features it's rising behind and also of the wider landscape. Your eye is also hugely adaptable to different levels of light, so it can both focus on the bright surface of the moon and make out details on it and also see the dimly lit landscape in the foreground. The only way to reproduce this in a photograph is to take two different photographs (one getting the moon clearly and one getting the landscape clearly) and combine them after the fact. And even then, a photograph can't reproduce the ability of your eye to see both narrow focus and wide angle at the same time.

So when the eclipse becomes total and you lower your solar filter to look at the sun with the naked eye, you don't see the totally black sky and the fringe of corona around the sun such as you see in up close photographs taken through telephoto lenses or telescopes. You see a dark but not black sky, with a few stars dimly visible, like the twilight sky half an hour after sunset. All around the horizon, however, you see the orange light of sunset, because in every direction you are seeing areas of sky not in the path of totality.

The sun (covered by the moon) is itself small. Just as at any other time, you could cover the sun with a thunbnail held out at arm's length. And yet the ghostly light of the corona seems to light up the sky around the black disk of the moon for a good eight or twelve solar diameters in every direction around the sun. And since your eyes can both zoom in on that sight of the sun itself, and also zoom out to look at the wider landscape, you perceive the sun and the halo around it as huge even while seeing the landscape, the horizon, and the sky all at once.

I tried to take a quick picture with my iPhone, but the sun is totally burned-in so that you can't even see that the moon is covering it, and really all it does is give you a sense of how perfectly the clouds parted to make it visible for us.

I've been searching like crazy for an photograph which gives even a slight sense of what seeing totality looks like. I found examples like this:


However, reading the description of the photograph I see that even this (which does not fully capture the effect) is in fact a "composite of simultaneous telephoto and wide angle frames".

Seeing a total solar eclipse is different from seeing a partial one (or a lunar eclipse) in kind, not in degree. Having finally experienced it, I want very much to do so again. The only thing that strikes me might be similar might be seeing the northern lights (something I have yet to experience.) However, even that is a strange effect during a normal night. This is something that sweeps down upon you in the middle of the day.

I can see now why some people travel the world to see eclipse after eclipse, and why they were taken as signs and portents in the ancient world. I can see why ancient peoples developed mathematics in order to calculate celestial events such as this. If you ever get the chance to see one, do not pass it up. It is one of the most wondrous things you will see.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Dear Teacher, on my summer vacation I took a road trip across eleven states with seven children, including a seven-week-old baby, to see a total solar eclipse.

One feature of a long drive is the company you keep on the road. All across Tennessee, we kept pace with a compact white Hyundai towing a U-Haul and a horse trailer full of equines. Over 100 miles we bobbed and weaved, now passing each other, now being passed in our turn, jockeying for position. We began to look out for these friends and call them out when they surfaced. For a while we settled behind the horse trailer so we could watch the horses stamp and toss their heads and nudge around a little foal. Then we'd pass them so the kids could see all the horses further up. And then the little Hyundai would dart ahead, probably elated to pass up the big blue van from Ohio. We were saddened when we finally pulled off for dinner and fell behind our faithful companions. Goodbye, Hyundai; we hope your moving went well. Goodbye horses; may your manes grow ever thicker.

Other company was less congenial. We were stalked by turbines across the central Midwest. There may be things creepier than an oversized turbine rotating mindlessly, as oblivious to mere mortals as the eldritch gods, but I don't want to meet them. Not content to stand and haunt the farmland of middle America, they pursued us on trucks: vast blades arcing and tapering, flexing as we pulled alongside them, baring the serrated teeth along the thin edge of their fins. The size of them was all wrong, too big for comprehension. They lay in wait  us, though ever we fled them and their "Oversize Load" retinue forcing traffic into unnatural patterns, 65 in a 70 mph zone.

Perhaps due to being hounded by turbines, perhaps due to the motivation of the older girls, we made excellent time down to Texas. A joy of traveling is the chance to see old friends. We've known our hosts in Austin since college (and in Darwin's case, high school), and our children track in age. The kids are cultivating their own second-generation friendships now, emailing and video chatting and staying up too late when together. While the children were thus amused, Darwin and I were able to have some excellent and all-too-brief conversation with Brandon Watson, and at one point I stepped out for coffee with Leticia Adams. But the youngsters had other Texas friends to run around with too. We had dinner at Jennifer Fulwiler's house, where Darwin and I, just recovering from a laryngitis kind of cold, croaked out a radio interview about going eclipsing with kids, while the actual kids charged in and out and slammed the back door in a kind of aural punctuation. At one point Jennifer's husband Joe, out grilling on the porch, called in to his oldest son, "Bring me the blow torch!" And no one batted an eye.

On Sunday we joined the Great American Migration of 2017, heading up into the path of the eclipse. I have never seen such fertile grounds for the license plate game -- 40 states and 3 Canadian provinces. Perhaps it's because the eclipse lines up with that other great lifetime event, Back To School, but the nation seemed to be converging on certain trails. Certainly the highway managers were aware of the coming traffic -- interstates across America had up signs that said, "No stopping during the eclipse. No parking on the shoulder." We trekked due north across the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln is uniformly charming. The Capitol building stands like a beacon, the dome capped with a farmer sowing visible for miles over the prairie. Blocks of trim cottages give testimony to the homey work ethic of the Nebraska citizen. "I could leave a pile of hundred-dollar bills on my porch, and someone would come up with an armful of them and say, 'Your money is blowing away,'" said our host JD Flynn.

JD and his lovely wife were remarkably good sports about hosting a family of seven, considering that the last time we saw him was 16 years ago in college. It was a trip for old school reunions: just hours before the eclipse, which we were going out to view at a school event at the diocesan seminary, I discovered that a pair of college drama classmates, now married and coaching speech for two of Nebraska's famously competitive high school teams, were going to be chaperoning their school groups there. We had a delightful reunion -- just one more example of old friendships blossoming again when you least expect it.


Weather conditions on the day of the eclipse were iffy. Layers of clouds drifted across the sun, muting shadows. We sat out on unzipped sleeping bags, adjusting eclipse glasses and binoculars and passing around the big solar telescope filter. The filter was mostly used by the three-year-old because it covered his face. Baby napped with a big hat shading his eyes. Through our glasses, the waning sun was more and less visible through the haze, and anxiety and excitement grew apace. We could only expect about 67 seconds of totality. A wayward cloud could blot the entire eclipse, and it would be too late to seek bluer skies.

I didn't see the bands of shadow racing along the ground, but it started growing cooler. As the darkness approached, the quality of the light began to change and desaturate. The sun shrank to a sliver, then flared out in one last protest -- the "diamond ring" effect. A whistle blew, and we took off our glasses.

In a deep sky, the disc of the moon was surrounded by waves and flares of pure white light -- a phenomenon of incredible beauty and power. Just enough clouds remained to glow silver and violet in a halo behind the corona. The entire horizon glowed sunset orange. Two or three stars, less than I'd expected, twinkled. Voices all around were gasping and exclaiming, or choking with emotion, but it was impossible to look at people, to look anywhere but the sky where the black moon glowed.

And the whistle blew again, and we all covered our eyes, and the blinding light of the emerging sun was filtered and dampened to something dull and inconsequential. The crowd of students dispersed under the lightening sky to their buses, but we stayed. The sun emerging was not less impressive for being the mirror image of the sun disappearing a few moments earlier. And the clouds burned off, ushering in a beautiful, blue, breezy Nebraska day.


Our trip home was more leisurely than the long drives out. We had two days of easy treks, finally rid of the company of a fly we'd picked up in Texas and transported across three state lines. And we amused ourselves. On the drive out we'd listened to Northanger Abbey, part of The Odyssey (read by Dan Stevens, sigh), Hamilton, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and a vacation playlist created for a trip four years ago. Coming home, we played car games. Someone finally wrote up an itemized list of the license plates we'd seen. We tracked turbines. I resolved to write down the roadside jingles posted in fields, and virtuously made a note of what turned out to be the last one we saw on the trip:

Got a gun
It's pretty and pink
Made the bad guy
Stop and think. (altered to
--Vermilion County, Illinois

We also expanded our family vocabulary of Mad Lib quotes, most of which come from Penguin Classics Mad Libs.

Mr. Rochester to Jane Eyre: "I owe you a McDonalds."
Little Women: "Say what, Jo! I can never show my bum at the party now."
Pride and Prejudice: "In vain have I lounged."
"In the name of Wog."
"punishable by mandate"
"buried in a plot hole"

Thanks to the miracle of iPhones, we learned about the landmarks we were passing:
The Nazareth Convent and Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia
The Holy Family Shrine
The Amana Colonies: self-sufficient villages founded by German immigrants, known for a tradition of handiwork (and also Amana refrigerators).

And the miles of farmland rolled on.


But all good things must come to an end. The first thing to end was the easy traveling. The kids had been real champs up until the last night, but at our hotel the three-year-old started unraveling in the way children his age do: by bouncing off the walls. Half an hour in a local park took a little steam out of him, but he revived and tormented his sister and baby brother until forcibly suppressed. There's not much you can do in a hotel room to take a young man down a few notches, without provoking screams that will get you reported to the authorities. So we spent all evening hushing him. Hushing has its own irritations. Frequently it's louder than the noise it attempts to quell. Only total lights out would stem his unvanquished spirits, so we all went to bed ASAP.

On our last day of the trip we had one more unexpected joy: a two-hour layover with Elizabeth Duffy at her farmhouse, where we sat in comfy chairs and chatted over coffee and tea. The children tore around again, the once-a-year friendships revived as if they saw each other every weekend. We get snapshots of the other family's growth. Every time we see them, her older sons are taller and broader, whereas my daughters have gotten curves and lost their braces. The changes are more noticeable from the outside. No one can see such incremental changes in the course of day-to-day life. It is a gift to know the golden age while you're living in it. Usually we can only see the rapidity of the sun's progress when it's being eclipsed.


The next total eclipse will be in 2024. To our delight, our hometown, our very house, is in the path of totality. By our calculations, we'll only have four children at home by then, so the house will be practically empty. You're all invited to Delaware, Ohio in seven years! Everyone should experience a total eclipse if they can -- such beauty must be viewed, and viewed with friends, their awed voices in your ear as you gaze together at the hidden sun.

Monday, August 21, 2017


We're in Nebraska, anxiously watching the clouds in hopes that our eclipse experience will not be... eclipsed. But no matter! I've just discovered that an old college friend and family will be watching the eclipse at the same place we will be, so it will have been worth it to travel this far just for that happy reunion. Natural phenomena are all very well in their place, but the chance to see old friends -- that is worth venturing any distance.

                'If the stars should appear one night in
                a thousand years,  how would  men  believe
                and  adore,  and  preserve  for  many  generations
                the remembrance of the city of God?'

Isaac Asimov, after reading this quotation, said: "I think men would go mad." In 1941, he wrote the short story Nightfall, about the effect of an eclipse on a six-sunned planet that only experiences total darkness once every two millenia. The inhabitants are already fearful of the dark, and scientists are excited that they may be able to see the mythical objects called stars -- maybe as many as a dozen!

In 1990, the story was expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg. The novel is an entertaining read and better written, but the story is compact and effective enough. You can read it here.

I beg of you all not to go mad today.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 9

My dear souls, you are seeking for secret ways of belonging to God, but there is only one: making use of whatever he offers you. Everything leads you to this union with him. Everything guides you to perfection except what is sinful or not a duty. Accept everything and let him act. All things conduct you and support you. Your way is lined with banners as you advance along it in your carriage. All is in the hand of God. His action is vaster and more pervasive than all the elements of earth, air and water. It enters you through every one of your senses so long as you use them only as he directs, for you must never use them against his will. God's action penetrates every atom of your body, into the very marrow of your bones. The state of your health, whether you are weak or strong, lively or languid, your life and death, all spring from from his will, and all your bodily conditions are the workings of grace. Every feeling and every thought you have, no matter how they arise, all come from God's invisible hand. There is no created being who can tell you what his action will achieve within you, but continuing experience will teach you. Uninterruptedly your life will flow through this unfathomed abyss where you have nothing to do but love and cherish what each moment brings, considering it as the best possible thing for you and having perfect confidence in God's activities, which cannot do anything but good.  
...How, my Lord, can I make people value what I offer them? I possess so great a treasure that I could shower wealth on everything, and yet I see souls withering like plants in an arid waste.
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 4, 2.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 8

If we wish to reach the state of abandonment, we must get rid of any love for created things. 
No thought, no mental effort will teach us anything about pure love. We can learn of it only through the activity of God, and God teaches us, both through our reason and through difficulties and setbacks. What we learn by these teachings is that there is nothing good except God. To know this we must get rid of all we hold dear. We must strip ourselves of everything. We cannot be settled in the state of pure love until we have experienced a lot of setbacks and many humiliations. We must reach the stage when all that the world contains ceases to exist and God is everything to us. Now for this to happen, God destroys all our personal affections. It does not matter what they are. We may take up some special kind of devotion, a particular pious practice, try to become perfect by following certain paths and seek the guidance of other people. No matter what it is we attach ourselves to, God will step in and upset our plans so that, instead of peace, we shall find ourselves in the midst of confusion, trouble and folly. As soon as we say, "I must go this way, I must consult this person, I must act like this," God at once says the opposite and withdraws his power from those means which we ourselves have chosen. So we discover the emptiness of all created things, are forced to turn to God and be content with him. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 4, 2.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 7

So, dear souls, let us love, for love will give us everything. It gives us holiness and all that accompanies it. It is all around us and flows into every receptive heart. O what a thing is this holy seed which ripens into eternal life! We cannot praise it enough. But why even speak about it? How much better it is to possess it in silence than praise it in wholly inadequate words. But what am I saying? We must praise this love, but only because we are possessed by it, for, from the very moment it seizes us, reading, writing, speaking and everything else mean nothing to us. We can take or leave anything, we can stay at home or go out into the marketplace, we can be fighting fit or ill, dull or lively -- according to what the heart dictates. For this love-filled heart governs the rest of us. We are a mixture of the flesh and the spirit, and the heart reigns supreme over both, and all that is inspired by love delights it.

--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 6

We are on vacation, so I've scheduled the novena to post until Saturday. I'm still praying it, even on the road, but this way I don't have to type it up while traveling.

Come, then, my beloved souls, let us run and fly to that love which calls us. Why are we waiting? Let us set out at once, lose ourselves in the very heart of God and become intoxicated with his love. Let us snatch from his heart the key to all the treasures of heaven and then start out right away on the road to heaven. There is no need to fear that anything will be locked against us. Our key will open every door. There is no room we cannot enter. We can make ourselves free of the garden, the cellar and the vineyard. If we want to explore the countryside, no one will hinder us. We can come and go, enter and leave anyplace we want to because we have the key of David (Rev. 3:7), the key of knowledge (Luke 11:52), the key of the abyss (Rev. 9:1), in which are all the hidden treasures of the divine wisdom (Wis. 8:14). It is this key which opens the doors of mystical death and its sacred darkness. By it we can enter the deepest dungeons and emerge safe and sound. It gives us entrance into that blessed spot where the light of knowledge shines and the bridegroom takes his noonday rest (Song of Songs 1:7). There we quickly learn how to win his kiss (Song of Songs 1:1) and ascend with confidence the steps of the nuptial couch and learn there the secrets of love -- divine secrets which must not be revealed and which no human tongue can describe.
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Riding Shotgun

Heading out across country today in the name of education: we're going eclipse-viewing, like most of the country. We're going to spend long hours in the car with teens, tweens, youngsters, and a newborn. I expect to spend a good portion of the drive holding Shotgun Court.

Don't blow up the internet while we're gone, please.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 5

A pure heart and perfect abandonment bring us all the treasures of grace. 

If we wish to enjoy an abundance of blessings we have only one thing to do: purify our hearts by emptying them of all desire for creating things and surrender ourselves wholly to God. By doing this we shall get all we want. Let others, Lord, ask you for all sorts of gifts. Let them increase their prayers and entreaties. But I, my Lord, ask for one thing only and have only a single prayer -- give me a pure heart! How happy we are if our hearts are pure! Through the ardor of our faith we see God as he is. We see him in everything and at every moment working within and around us. And in all things we are both his subject and his instrument. He guides us everywhere and leads us to everything. Very often we do not think about it, but he thinks for us. It is enough that we have desired what is happening to us and must happen to us by his will. He understands our readiness. We are bewildered and seek to find this desire within ourselves, but we cannot. He, though, sees it very clearly. How silly we are! Surely we know what a well-disposed heart is: one where God is found. He sees all the good intentions there and consequently knows that this heart will always be submissive to his will. He is also aware that we do not know what is useful for us, so he makes it his business to give it to us. He cares nothing about thwarting us. If we are going eastward, he makes us turn to the west. If we are about to run onto the rocks, he takes the helm and brings us into port. We have neither map nor compass, know nothing of winds or tides, yet we always make a prosperous voyage. If pirates try to board us, and unexpected gust of wind sweeps us beyond their reach. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8. 
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.