Friday, February 2, 2018

SQT 2-2-18 – On the Other Hand

"Seven QuickTakes" is hosted at "This Ain't the Lyceum."

1.     Number One Son now has not handed me weights during my workout, tried to feed me peas for lunch, and beat my breast during the penitential rite at Mass.  Nothing like an oldest child to keep his parents in line!  On the other hand, he flipped out when a latecomer to Mass did a full prostration next to our pew.  Apparently too much devotion is upsetting to the toddler mind?

2.     Fun money fact: If you have an IRA, you cannot transfer it to anyone else as long as you are alive.  No, not even your spouse.  No, not even if you’re unemployed.  No, not even if the account fees are slowly draining away your tiny balance so that it will be halfway evaporated by the time you can withdraw at age 59.  On the other hand, you can withdraw early and avoid the tax penalties if one of a few choice situations applies in your case.

3.     Dr. Seuss now lives in the drawer that we never open where the good silverware lives.  (Don’t ask me why we have good silverware; we haven’t used it yet because our ordinary silverware is pretty dang nice, and because I haven’t gotten around to ever washing the good silverware, ever, in three years of marriage.  #firstworldproblems)  It’s not that I am morally opposed to Dr. Seuss.  Nor am I actually opposed to anyone else reading Dr. Seuss while I’m around.  I’m just opposed to reading it myself.  I have no problems reading “I Am a Bunny” 2,347,891 times in an afternoon, but there’s just something about “Fox in Socks” that makes me want to curl up and die after the third repetition.  Part of it is probably the shortness of the lines and the similarity of the rhymes (see what I did there?), since ordinary Mother Goose is no problem for me.  Part of my repulsion, no doubt, is due to the ugly pictures.  (Really.  If they don’t corrode your soul on some level, maybe you ought to see a spiritual body mechanic about the damage that’s already been done.)  Whatever the reason, I’m not pretending it’s logically defensible.  As the Italian Mama says about her cooking, “You must feeeeeeeeel the love, Gino!  You no feeeeeeel it, you no coooook it.”

4.     On the other hand … It occurs to me that some people may feel that I am selfishly depriving my son of one of his chief joys in life, namelich, hearing Mama read “Fox in Socks” very fast with perfect diction and (depending on how insane she’s turned today) either the Boris and Natasha accent or the Julia Child voice.  Sorry, folks; I feel no guilt.  Here’s the thing about toddler desires: they’re pretty malleable, as long as you keep things out of sight.  Sometimes even if you don’t keep things out of sight.  A sixty-second snapshot of Number One Son’s brain this morning (expressed in whines, grunts, running, pointing, and the occasional “Pwee! pwee pwee pwee!”): I want … milk!  What?  No!!  I want … outside!!!!  Daddy, read book!!!! Mama, read book!  I like my stacking bowls.  Ice?!!!!  Is that my milk?!!! Outside?!!!!! OUTSIDE FOOLISH PARENTS!!!!!!!!  Oh, we’re going upstairs now??  OK.  Great!  My favorite place.

 *                    *                     *

Don’t feel too bad for him.  He’s just a little bipolar, like all toddlers.  And believe me, as long as he doesn’t know Dr. Seuss is in the drawer, he—and Mama—will be juuuuust fine.

5.     A little more fallout news from Hawaii:  (For those not familiar with XKCD, language and content warning—this installment is clean, but on the other hand there are plenty of others that are not.)

6.     It’s very sweet when all your high-energy sick child wants to do is lie in a blanket on your lap and babble at you.

7.     On the other hand, when said child tries to express his affection and gratitude by giving you open-mouthed kisses on the mouth …

"A Man Grimacing Grotesquely"

Bonus take: Another place to find old free images!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Purity of the Turf

There’s an old P.G. Wodehouse story titled “The Purity of the Turf,” which features respectable British gentlemen fooling around by placing substantial bets on the (pseudo-)athletic events at a local “school treat.”  A good part of the hilarity arises from the gravity with which protagonist Bertie Wooster and antagonist Steggles treat the situation: with all the seriousness of habitual horse race gamblers.  At one point, outraged by Steggles’ dishonesty, Bertie (also the narrator) uses the racetrack expression which gives the story its name: “‘And they talk about the Purity of the Turf!’ I said. And I meant it to sting, by Jove!”

Of course, when Bertie’s valet Jeeves snatches victory by similarly “impure” means (falsely confessing to having bribed participants of the egg-and-spoon race, thereby ensuring their disqualification) all is right and just.  Steggles, after all, cheated first; and anyway, the raison d’être of a Jeeves and Wooster story is that when J&W win all is right with the world.

It is also a natural human reaction, no doubt traceable to some scientific mechanism like the survival of the fittest, to feel that My tribe must win, no matter what the cost.  Interestingly, few My Tribe Firsters are willing to say aloud “The Purity of the Turf be hanged!”  They’re far more likely to pretend it’s still pure—or, when they no longer can bear ignoring its impurities, to leave for (hopefully) greener and purer pastures.

Of course, when the turf defiled is merely the grounds for a schoolsgirls’ egg-and-spoon race,  My Tribe First does little harm.  Problems arise in weighter affairs, when not only the manner but the matter of the contest is grave.  Whether your tribe is a particular family, a workplace, a school, a political party, or a segment within the Church, the temptation to overlook the sins and failings of the tribe, personal and institutional, can be nearly overpowering.  Sometimes, if the sins involve paperclips, it is well to overlook them.  Sometimes, when the sins involve poor men’s pensions, it becomes morally compulsory to speak out.

Unfortunately, there’s a large space between paperclips and pensions, and discerning when it’s time to “betray” one’s tribe or even abandon it is not easy.  And because deciding to speak out against a group for which one has or had some sympathy requires so much personal torment, it is particularly hard for this kind of whistle-blower to take accusations from those who remain staunchly My Tribe First that they are “virtue signaling” or “were never really one of us” or “don’t care about the goals of the movement,” etc., etc.  Hence the bitterness of many internecine quarrels: for My Tribe Firsters, it is hard to perceive the good will of the Purgers involved in preserving the movement(s) from itself, while for the Purgers who have left, it is hard not to feel that the My Tribe Firsters are willfully blind to the impurities of their turf.

Two late examples of this phenomenon are (1) the ongoing ire in a few quarters against those in the pro-life movement who have allied themselves with Trump and (2) the recent debates regarding Christendom College’s handling of some harassment cases.  Watching both cases unfold, one of the sadder elements has been the inability of both some Purgers and some My Tribe Firsters to recognize that their former compatriots may, despite differing opinions in a grave case, retain some faint degree of moral fiber.  That is a great pity, especially as problems like these are hard to judge because institutions designed to do good but made up of human beings are intrinsically complex.  Prudence is key; but even wise men make prudential mistakes on occasion.  When does your Tribe turn too piratical?  When and how do you jump ship?  When is the turf hopelessly defiled?  When is it time for a purge?  And what sort of purge is desirable?  Obviously, sometimes it is right to be silent about the sins of one’s Tribe.  Equally obviously, sometimes it is right to expose them, as much for the good of the Tribe as for the good of those who have been injured.  And it’s hard to conceive of a hard-and-fast rule that would cover a variety of complex moral situations and tell you how to act rightly in each and every one of them.  In other words: again: prudence.

But when prudence fails to emolliate such cases, as it seems to have failed in the two cases mentioned above, there is always the greater virtue of charity.  No matter how imprudent one my consider one’s opposing My Tribe Firsters or Purgers to be, it is foolish and wrong to behave as if they are lost.

Let us say (for the sake of argument) that some prolife leaders sinned grievously in supporting Donald Trump.  Let us say (for the sake of argument) that some Christendom faculty sinned grievously in their handling of harassment cases.  While concern for the victims (those injured by Trump or prolife leaders or Christendom faculty or students) should be paramount, that does not, that cannot exclude a simultaneously concern for the very people who are committing the sin.

Christ threw the moneychangers out of the Temple.  He was righteously indignant concerning their predatory and impious behavior.  But I don’t recall Him saying anything about how they had committed unforgiveable sins.  Indeed, he took action but as usual his words were remarkably short and pithy—certainly nothing that would amount to a “rant”.  He was merely and straightforwardly descriptive: “You have made [this house] a den of thieves.”

Contrast that to some of the opprobrium spewed in internet debates over the previous two issues over the last few weeks.

Now.  So what?

Nothing really, except a personal resolution on my part about what actions to take the next time one of my Tribes sins.  When it comes to leaving the Tribe, accusing the Tribe, or what have you—when it is my turn to make that move, be it through a well-researched article in some respectable and remunerative venue, or a passive-aggressive blog post here, or merely through a single comment on Facebook—whenever the time comes to take a stand against the Tribe, there’s a simple check to perform first.   Do I really want the good for the villains in this case?  Do I really desire their eternal happiness?  Or am I so involved in the plight of the victims that I see the villains as hopelessly irredeemable?

I’m not suggesting that this check ought to change anyone’s mind about what to do.  I’m not saying that more people need to ignore tribal victims for the sake of Tribes, to preserve some spurious illusion of the Purity of the Turf.  Much better to actually work to make it pure, which sometimes involves opening a vein—yours, or the Tribe’s.

But it is important that the surgeon, the Purger, not enjoy opening the vein.

There is more than one way to idolize the Purity of the Turf.  The common way, certainly, is put on the green glasses and loudly announce its greenness to all and sundry.  That is one kind of idolatry, the idolatry of My Tribe Firsters.  The other kind is when a Purger becomes so bent on seeing that the Turf Stays Pure that he constantly seeks infractions in order to boycott the race.  That too can be idolatry, of another kind.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Secondhand Temptation

In an examination of Guardians of the Galaxy II, one of the Marvel franchise’s more recent movies, I spent some time discussing the movie’s failure to portray a convincing villain, a failure which damaged the story as a whole.  If the villain in Guardians had been able to more effectively sell his masterplan to the hero (instead having to resort to hypnosis), it could have been a much better film.  A hero who has to make good intellectual and moral choices using his full capacities is a more interesting and on some level a nobler character than one who acts merely instinctively.  A villain who can almost convince a sound man to follow him is more interesting and on some level more useful character than one who is easily refuted.
Since the screenwriters had time in this case to make the villain more effective (they had only to change a rhetorically weak speech for a strong one), I assumed that the screenwriters were simply unable to write convincingly villainous rhetoric.  Upon further consideration, however, I wonder if that was the only thing, or even the main thing, holding them back.  It is at least conceivable that some of them had ethical scruples about portraying a villain whose tempting is nearly effective.

The problem with a good, solid temptation scene is that it operates differently upon different viewers or readers.  Even the story of the Fall in Genesis has this imperfection: I’ve known non-Christians to genuinely feel that God’s test is tremendously unfair to Adam and Eve.  In the Gospels, Christ refers to that sort of spiritual blindness using Old Testament references to those who lack “eyes to see, and ears to hear.”  Nor is the blindness always spiritual: during the latency period of childhood, which lasts from about age five to twelve, there is generally a diminished ability to comprehend and process certain adult knowledge (a diminished ability which, incidentally, ought to be respected).  And of course, there is always the question of intelligence pure and simple: the annals of history are full of evil men who rose to prominence in part because people were simple enough to believe them.

When it comes to literature, there are plenty of examples in which right and wrong portrayed subtly have led to confusion.  Evelyn Waugh’s masterful and very Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is adored by numerous secular critics only because they fail to see its Catholicity.  Waugh, writing from the point of view of a narrator who is (for most of the story) not Catholic, is too subtle for his advocacy of the Faith to be grasped by many readers.  A still more grave example of this phenomenon is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton asserts rather grandly near the beginning of his biblical epic that he intends “to justify the ways of God to man,” an intention which even a minute scholarly knowledge of Milton’s life and opinions supports.  But over the centuries since Milton wrote, scores if not hundreds of readers have felt (in the words of William Blake) that Milton was “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”  Milton has been rolling in his grave ever since.

This gives the writer a conundrum that is not faced by other creative artists.  If he is called, as some writers are, to write simple stories, stories that deal with good and evil on a level that a child can understand, then there is little or no danger that he will tempt readers beyond their strength.  But if he is called to produce anything more complex—if it is part of his secondary vocation to reproduce moral conundrums with anything like the complexity they sometimes have in real life—then there is always a danger, almost the inevitable danger, that some of his readers may (to paraphrase Blake) take the devil’s side without his intending it.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Seven Quick Takes, 1-19-2018

"Seven Quick Takes" is hosted at "This Ain't the Lyceum."

1.     If you are one of the three people who has been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that recent posts include a “Source” link under the picture captions.  This is because, after a conversation with a family member who happens to be a lawyer, I began to question my hitherto somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards pictures, and towards classical (by which I mean “painted probably in Europe between 1000 and 1900 A.D.”) artwork in particular.  Apparently (contrary to Wikipedia’s blithe assurances) just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s legally showing up in your web searches.  Fortunately for me, the Met recently decided to declare much of its collection public domain.  To view, go here, scroll down for the options on the left, under “Show Only” make sure to select “Public Domain Artworks,” and proceed to enjoy legal use of images of everything from Greek pottery to Dutch masters to random bits of armor—just make sure that you source the images back to the Met.

2.     I have discovered the (a?) secret to not going over budget: Don’t buy anything until after you’ve run out.  No, seriously.  You don’t need plastic wrap.  Or cooking spray.  Or a new rug for the bottom of the stairs down which your toddler is threatening to tumble.  Cavemen didn’t have plastic wrap, and they survived just fine.  OK, but seriously, there probably are alternatives in your house to almost anything that you might happen to run out of.  And if you run out of it first, you might discover that some of these alternatives are actually cheaper than you thought, and work just as well … Even if you decide to go back to your precious canisters of Pam, however, the trick of not buying until you run out should enable you to make it to the end of the month without crossing the red line when you’ve already maxed out your “household goods” column.

3.     I am sure this does not apply to all children and all ages, but if you are a new mom of a non-walker, let me promise you: some things do get a easier when they learn how to walk.  Yes, they’ll get into everything.  Yes, they’ll want to climb your couches, chairs, bookshelves, piano, and any other platforms more than .5 square feet broad and three inches high (“platform” being defined loosely, of course, to include such objects as Christmas trees and bags of fruit).  Yes, they’ll whine for those just-out-of-reach items until you drill it into them that they can’t have everything they see (and drill it into yourself that sometimes substitution or removal of the desired object is prudent).  But don’t children whine for and destroy things before they walk too?  And once they can walk, they can play sooooo much more easily—and hence happily.  On the whole, a worthwhile tradeoff, n’est pas?

4.     In world news, Hawaii’s random false nuclear warning last week was not the first such incident.  (In fact, there are several stories of nuclear near-misses, as you’ll find if you google for more information about the 1960 Thule event.)

5.     Meanwhile, the other kind of nuclear power—the power plant kind—is losing in California, winning in Minnesota, and providing interesting environmental benefits, even if you ask sincerely concerned environmentalists.

6.     Alright, alright, since we walked down this road, we’ll go all the way: Yes Prime Minister - Bernard Woolley on defence capabilities.

7.     And for a lighter sort of button game, which might perhaps be useful at your January Christmas parties … Remember that line in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, “Button, button, who’s got the button?

8.     Finally, a bonus take, in the form of a reminder that if cavemen don’t need buttons, neither do you.  Unless, of course, you’re still under budget for the month.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Which Good Screenwriting Just Makes Sense

It is a truth universally acknowledged by all who have the misfortune to know them that writers view movies with a jaundiced eye.  It’s not so much that we’re deliberately looking for what the screenwriters have done wrong, as that we’re on the lookout, even unconsciously so, for mistakes that we might make ourselves.
It will thus come as no surprise that I thought Guardians of the Galaxy II was less than stellar.  To be sure, this isn’t just a writer’s critique: friends also thought that Guardians I was generally better and specifically funnier.  Despite my hesitance to level that criticism from a distance of months, I’ll confess to having noticed more tastelessness this time around.  Possibly the tastelessness was there during the first round too, but I don’t remember it so vividly.

Likewise, the violence.  About halfway through I turned to my husband and said, “Does this even have the same rating as the last one?”  As with the humor, this installment of the series just felt rougher.  Once again, though, I’m not confident that the body count was higher, or the killing portrayed more lightly.
A third element of the film that made a definite difference in viewer comfort was the character of Groot.  Groot, an ancient tree in Guardians I, has been splintered into a baby shoot in Guardians II.  He’s undeniably cute.  Too cute.  Especially if you happen to be a female possessed of a baby or so, seeing anything bad happen to Baby Groot (even if he does look more like a pint-sized Ent than a human being) is incredibly painful.  The “mascot” scene was almost unwatchable.

None of these, of course, are critiques of the competence of the film’s writers, or not directly so.  But …

You knew this was coming.
Spoilers ahead.

One of the good things about Guardians I, people said, was that it didn’t take itself too seriously; by comparison, some friends felt Guardians II took itself too seriously (ironically—see above point re humor).  The real problem for any movie, of course, is rarely its seriousness, but rather its failure to do serious well.  And on this count, I think Guardians II may indeed be guilty.

I said spoilers ahead, right?
You all read these captions, right?

In its favor, the film is attempting to do something that its predecessor did not, in treating the theme of family ties and especially of fatherhood.  If the Yondu plot is the center of the fatherhood thread, then that is actually interesting.  But if the Ego plot is the center—and the amount of screen time rather seems to indicate that it is, even though the film ends with Yondu—then the film fails.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic setup.  Peter Quill, a.k.a “Starlord,” is the son of a human being from earth and a hitherto unidentified extraterrestrial.  Early in Guardians II his life is saved by a mysterious being who soon identifies himself as Peter’s father, and who turns out to be a “celestial” (think minor Greek god) going under the moniker Ego (hmmm …).  Ego warmly invites Peter to his home planet and, with varying degrees of suspicion, Peter and two companions go.

Once on his home planet, Ego reveals his masterplan to his new-found son Peter.  For—centuries? millenia?—he has deposited bits of his planetary magical stuff …

It’s blue and glows; what more do you need to know?

… onto other planets, along with fathering lots of children on said planets.

I told you he was basically a minor Greek god.

Ego’s masterplan is to grow himself over all these planets and turn the universe into—you guessed it—Ego!!!
But there’s a catch.  Ego isn’t powerful enough to do this on his own; he needs a second celestial to help him.  All of his children so far haven’t had enough god genes to be of any assistance, and so they’ve been painlessly euthanized.  (Nice guy, right?)  But Peter Quill, well … Peter has the god genes, as his handling of the Infinity Stones in Guardians I proved.

Of course, it would take a monster to listen to this recital unprotesting.  Since Our Hero Peter is instead a Very Nice Guy, the screenwriters evidently figured he needed some excuse for being tempted.  Thus, prior to the recital of the aforementioned Fiendish Scheme, Ego essentially hypnotizes Peter.

… whose eyes, of course, turn totally blue.  Paging Frank Herbert!

Thus, Peter is able to listen to the recital, be genuinely tempted by the prospect of joining with Dear Old Dad, and only snaps out of it when he learns that Ego, as a minor element of the Fiendish Scheme, had to off Peter’s mother.  This breaks the spell numbing Peter, and enables the commencement of the Final Battle (which according to custom takes perhaps a quarter of the movie, with brief respites for character development and comic relief).
It’s not a terrible solution—it’s better than some alternatives, e.g., changing Peter’s character such that he petulantly considers Ego’s Fiendish Scheme because, say, he’s mad at his friends for some trivial or not so trivial reason.  Still, this would have been a much better movie all around if Peter had been genuinely tempted.  But would have required a better Ego.

Recall C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.  If you read the speeches of Lewis’s tempter Weston, it’s actually very hard to detect surface ethical issues.  As a reader, you can almost approve some of his arguments for disobedience.  You can admit to yourself while reading, “Wow, maybe that’s wrong in this situation … but I dunno … Would it always be wrong?”  Of course, Lewis gives us enough external information to know that the Bad Dude is in fact a Bad Dude and ought not to be agreed with.  But it’s a strength of the novel that the Bad Dude is almost persuasive.  Lewis pulls a similar thing off with his narrator in Till We Have Faces, who is credible until near the end of her story.  Dostoyevsky’s Ivan is another excellent example of the character whose false arguments are powerful and all but irrefutable.  Similar things have been done in literature from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Milton’s Satan to (some say) Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  Unreliable narration, whether for a speech or for an entire book, is a basic tool in the writer’s kit.
Ethically speaking, I think unreliable narration is oftentimes to the good.  In a story where the readers or viewers are eventually disabused of their error, the awareness that they were tricked or tempted has a cautionary effect—“I shouldn’t judge people so harshly,” “I didn’t realize I could find power so attractive,” etc., etc.  And regardless of the ethical implications, it just plain makes for a better blasted story.

That is why Ego’s narrative in Guardians II is so terribly dissatisfying.  We the viewers don’t agree with him for a moment.  He isn’t interesting anymore.  And we can sit smugly in our couches and shake our heads in righteous scorn at Ego and roll our eyes at the stupid, drugged Peter, in a lively exercise of Better-Than-Thouism.  It is stultifying for the intellect and not much better for the soul.
What’s more, this story thread is paired with two other family-themed threads: the reconciliation of sisters Gamora and Nebula, and the emergence of Yondu as Peter’s true father-figure.  They’re worthy stories, but they suffer by being juxtaposed with Ego’s.  Yondu is a clear alternative to Ego—a flawed but ultimately loving character, who at one point tells Peter, in re Ego, “He may have been your father, but he wasn’t your Daddy.”  But Ego is so bad that, attractive exterior aside, he hardly works as a foil for Yondu: there really isn’t a choice between them.  It would be more interesting for the audience, and require more discernment on Peter’s part, to recognize Yondu’s virtues if Ego were less appalling.  As for the Gamora-Nebula story, the root of their quarrel is a father who played them off against each other (literally—as gladiators) from childhood.  Although their father, Thanos, is not obviously juxtaposed against Ego (he’s offscreen for this entire film), once again a subtler portrayal of Ego could potentially have led to more interesting considerations about Thanos.  (For example, how is Ego’s plan to use Peter for his Fiendish Scheme like and unlike Thanos’s desire to train his daughters for his own empire?)

With so much to be gained by strengthening Ego’s character, why didn’t the screenwriters make him more interesting?  The usual answer, that character development takes too much time, won’t work here.  True, the film is, like all of its genre, devoted to providing an entertaining spectacle.  But it still takes time to outline at length Ego’s activities, past and future.  All the screenwriters needed to do was to substitute some plausible rhetoric for the dull pennyworth of  Nietzsche they used instead.  (E.g., Ego could have began by appealing to the corruption of fallen beings—wouldn’t it be better to wipe out certain planets, etc., etc.?)
I think the only possible reasons for failing to ante up Ego’s rhetorical skill are either (1) it didn’t even occur to the screenwriters that his rhetoric could be better, or (2) they realized it could be better, but didn’t know how to convincingly write such a speech.  Either possibility is a sad commentary on the state of their art, and the unfortunate result of their apparent incapacity an object lesson to the rest of us.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

To Live Is to Follow the Light

Christians throughout the world recently celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, some on the traditional date of Jan. 6 (the “Twelfth Night” of the twelve days of Christmas) and others on the nearest Sunday (this year, Jan. 7).  In many cultures, Epiphany is a little Christmas.  Just as Dec. 25 commemorates Jesus Christ’s manifestation to his own people, the Jews, so Epiphany commemorates his manifestation to the gentiles, in the person of the wise men whose arrival is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

The wise men or magi, sometimes called “kings” in reference to Old Testament prophecies of kings of the East visiting the Messiah, followed a star which led them to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus lay.  They had some knowledge of astronomy, enough to know that the star was unusual; and the astrology to which the ancients gave credit led them to believe that this astronomical phenomenon heralded the birth of a new king of the Jews.

Still, they must have felt there was something more to the strange light than that.  After all, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (as tradition names them) were not Jews themselves, and the Jewish people were not prominent in world affairs.  Why did the magi care about the birth of a new king in a minor foreign nation?  The star boded something more, suggested some ramifications personal to them, or larger than what they admitted to Herod.

Perhaps one indication of what they expected, or at least what they found, lies in the gospel for the earlier epiphany.

The Gospel for Christmas Mass during the Day does not come from the infancy narratives, but from John: “In the beginning was the Word …”  As John continues, clarifying the relation between the Messiah and God as one of identity, he adds the following:

“All things came to be through [the Word], and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” —from the USCCB readings for the Mass for Christmas Day.

John explains the Word’s creative role in terms of two fundamental things: life, and light.  Unfortunately, this is one of the many places where translation confuses.  The USCCB translation says that “What came to be through him was life,” but the Douay-Rheims has the more familiar “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  This is a straightforward translation of the Vulgate, which reads “In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum.”

Read the rest at the Register.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On Being Fair

A recent foray into the world of parenting books led me to the painfully familiar concept of being “fair.”  While this is not (yet) a personal concern, I can well remember times growing up when things seemed “unfair” amongst my siblings.  Without doubting that our parents intended the best for all of us, it was easy to feel that they had on this or that occasion made a mistake.  More mature years sometimes corrected that impression by validating the parental point of view; at other times, not.  In either case, the fact stands: however good the parents are as parents, their children will oftentimes think them unfair.

The parenting expert whose work I was reading encouraged parents not to worry about this—in fact, he made it a life lesson for the children.  Parents, he wrote, should tell their children from an early age that they (the parents) will not always be fair—indeed, when children complained, he suggested that the parents flaunt their “unfairness” rather than back down.  After all, the expert observed, parents are better judges of situations than children; and anyway, quite frankly, life itself is not fair, so the kids should get used to it!

Interestingly enough, in the concrete examples the expert gave, he did not actually suggest unfairness.  In counseling a couple with two boys, he proposed that one week they buy shoes for one and next week a shirt for the other; another time they might choose to take one boy out bowling, and a few days later take the other out to the movies.  Depending upon which boy coveted which item or experience more, this behavior still might be perceived as unfair by the boys.  But it was quite evident that the expert was concerned that there should be no real inequality between the children in terms parental treatment.  He was advocating tough rhetoric, but not meanness in action (which is, whatever else one may say about it, a better balance than the reverse).

The curious thing about this subterranean fairness is that the expert ignored the possibility (which he elsewhere acknowledges) that sometimes children really shouldn’t get comparable things from their parents (much less the same things at the same time).  And this apparent unfairness may actually be fair.  If, for example, one child shows a real talent for music and a willingness to work hard at it, must you ensure that his sibling has an equivalent hobby, even if that sibling has shown less interest, aptitude, and enthusiasm?  This goes still more for academic expertise: some kids are smarter than others, and it’s not unreasonable for parents to invest more in the schooling of those who take to schooling.  Similarly in sports, it is not necessarily the case, though one child is on a team K through twelve, that every other child must also be, in Fairness’ Name.  To be sure, the parents may decide that two or three years of a sport or instrument are necessary enrichment, and that all their children must finish high school.  But it hardly follows that that every child needs to get the same amount of “enrichment points” (assuming that those could be accurately calculated, which I rather doubt).

This may not feel fair when you seem to have gotten the short end of a particular stick.  But maybe a short stick was all you were equipped for—maybe you really didn’t have the talent for a longer one.  And if so, the unfairness is God’s fault (pardon the expression), not your parents’.

This is all sounding rather harsh; let me put it another way.  Consider the etymology of the word “fair.”  Recall how Tolkien uses it.  “Fair” in older literature (or literature which adopts an older style) does not mean “just.”  Indeed, the first sense of “fair” given by the Oxford English Dictionary is “Beautiful, agreeable” (AI); secondarily, fair means “Beautiful to the eye; of attractive appearance; good-looking” (AI1).  It is only after a long series of applications of this sense of fair to various objects, from women to animals to words, that we arrive at AII, where “fair” is defined as “Favourable; benign; unobstructed,” e.g., “fair weather” or “fair circumstances.”  All the way down at AII14 we get the modern sense of “fair”: “Of conduct, actions, methods, arguments, etc.: free from bias, fraud, or injustice; equitable; legitimate, valid, sound” (AII14.a.(a)); “Of a person: characterized by equitable or lawful conduct; honest, just; reasonable” (AII14.a.(b)); “Of conditions, circumstances, etc.: providing an equal chance of success to all; not unduly favourable or adverse to anyone” (AII14.b.).

This exercise is not designed to delegitimize the concept of fairness.  The point is rather its connection to the beautiful and the agreeable.  To understand what “fair” means in the modern sense, it is important to understand the older sense of the word, and thus also to understand what is meant by beauty.  Traditionally, beauty was defined in terms of proportionality, integrity, and clarity; the element of proportionality is most relevant here.  To be fair (old sense) was to have a proportionality, integrity, and clarity to one’s appearance or actions.  To be fair (new sense) is to act in a proportional way.  One does not give a five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old the same size meal—that would not be proportional; it would not, in fact, be fair!  Admittedly, the five-year-old might complain that things are unfair when he sees big brother is getting two hamburgers and he only has one.  But the fact is (as his parents know) that if he starts with two hamburgers on his plate he’ll end up with a bellyache.

It’s easy to see this with respect to things like food, because the proportionality in terms of size is visible, tangible to even the most prosaic adult mind.  It’s harder, perhaps to see in other areas; but the fact of the need for proportionality is no less real.  The Communist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is as necessary in personal family dealings as it is damaging when applied to political life; for parents, unlike the government, are in a position to judge the abilities and needs of those whom they govern.  Perhaps they do not always do so perfectly, but they have both the right and the duty to make the attempt.  And if, at the end of the day, something truly disproportionate and unfair transpires … Well, kids, in the words of the expert, life isn’t fair.

Also, more importantly, your parents probably love you anyway.  And love from parents to children, beginning at birth and extending sometimes for far too long afterwards, is perhaps the ultimate case of unfairness, because it is frequently all out of proportion with the object’s just deserts.

I don't know about you, but I wanted to sit on the dog!

Monday, December 25, 2017


John 1:4:

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.”

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

—from the Douay-Rheims.

“In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum.”

—from the Vulgate.

“εν αυτω ζωη ην και η ζωη ην το φως των ανθρωπων.”

—from the Greek.

The precarious word here is “en” which, like a lot of Greek prepositions (and for that matter, English and Latin ones) is slippery in meaning.  It could stand for in, by, or with—and probably a lot of other things I don’t know about.  Jerome, obviously, chose to translate it “in.”  I suspect the USCCB translation is relying on the other meanings, especially “by”.  “By him was life” sounds very much like a clumsy or idiomatic way of saying “By his power, life came to be” (or, as the official translation says with more circumlocution, “What came to be through him was life”)—and this is especially true in the context of the preceding verse, where “He” is described as responsible for the making of all things.  So—with apologies once again to Jerome—“in him was life” is kind of weak sauce by comparison.

Why is this interesting?

Well, what does it mean to say that the Word of God, Who Is God—now incarnate as Jesus Christ—made life?  (Think for a moment about the curiosity that is life on the merely biological level, of its inexplicability; think too of the thing that we mean when we say “Now that’s really living life.”  This “life” is Divine in origin.  Explains quite a bit, doesn’t it?)

And further, what does it mean to say that the life that God created is “the light of men”?  (Light is that by which we see; it is also that by which we live, physically—not just because our sun happens to be hot and light coincidentally, but also because E=mcc and so forth.  That by which we live is also that by which we see; that by which we see how to live.  Is it too much to find in this line the seeds of the notion of natural law?)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Boredom and the First Fifteen Minutes

This November has taught me a lot about productivity—not that this blog has much to show for it; the productivity has manifested elsewhere.  Among other things, I have been reminded yet again that deadlines and (still more) competition are excellent ways to make myself write more and better than I otherwise would.  And writing, like workouts and daily prayer, is beginning to share more and more of the characteristics of a habit: one of those things that grows easier with frequency, with the ease fading as the exercise of the habit lapses.

Most of all, however, I have gained a greater appreciation for the fact that writing is one of those activities that are difficult for the first five, ten, or even fifteen minutes.  It is unlike movie watching or eating good food—activities that appeal immediately to the appetites, require little effort, and are almost universally described by human beings as “fun.”  Many people, indeed, would express outright disbelief that the word “fun” could possibly apply to so laborious a pastime.

And writing isn’t fun, in the sense that watching a movie is fun.  Perhaps “rewarding” would be a better word; but that too is inadequate.  There is a writer’s high, just as there is a runner’s high and a musician’s: a place you reach when the words come fluently and without difficulty, and the end product is none the worse for all that.  And nothing is more “fun” than reaching that state of “work.”  The effortless activities that we usually call fun cannot even compare.  We become sated and stuffed; we feel we have over-somethinged when we conclude them, and turn in disgust away from the screen or the plate, disgruntled by the thought of how much time we have wasted.  There are no such regrets, and no such feeling of overindulgence, from scaling a peak with writing or making music or exercise.  But of course, to be the sort of runner or writer or pianist who finds this wonderful and perilous place, once needs to be pretty good already: one needs to have achieved a state of fluency, rather than mere competency.

I don’t mean that one needs to be playing late Beethoven sonatas
or writing War and Peace to enjoy this high.  One may achieve it
with Clementi and Nancy Drew fan fics.  But even in that case,
one needs to be fluent with the idioms concerned:
fluent in the twists and turns of Clementi and Carolyn Keene.

Even once one has achieved fluency in a certain idiom, however, there is still a dragon at the gate.  There are still the first five, or ten, or fifteen minutes.  The fifteen minutes, when the most fascinating project, if it requires but the slightest bit of effort, is dull.  The fifteen minutes when the internet, the couch, and even the dishes have more appeal.  The fifteen minutes when the only word for the thing you love is boring.

Children, it seems, don’t have this problem.  Because they are just discovering the world around them, they are endlessly fascinated by it.

Or are they?  I can certainly remember plenty of late mornings and afternoons growing up when I felt bored.  I’ve seen one-year-olds, having exhausted what Mrs. Elton would call their “resources,” wandering about rooms and whining plaintively in search of something to entertain them.  No, the wonder with children is not that they don’t get bored.  The only wonder is that the things that catch their interest are mostly simpler than those that tantalize adults.

If anything, children are more in danger of being bored than adults are.  When you live in a state of wonder which is partly due to incomprehension, it is easy to grow used to being entertained by things that catch the eye.  Instant gratification oftentimes works, and with the simplest of objects; and so instant gratification becomes the rule, the constant desideratum.  Once a thing’s been handled a minute, dropped, licked, and stuffed into the available containers, it’s aged.  It’s become boring, and the incipient toddler is bored.  He hasn’t yet learned—nor could he comprehend an explanation—that with a little effort the boring block could become interesting again: could become part of a tower, a wall, a path, even (heaven help us) a projectile.  In other words, he hasn’t learned to play.  He needs an adult or an older child to teach him how to get past the first fifteen minutes (or, given the length of his attention span, the first two) to find that place where imagination and joy take over.

The terribly sad thing about modern life, of course, is that most adults have never learned not to be toddlers, or else have regressed to the toddler state.  (If you doubt me, consider briefly America’s two great addictions, one manifested in obesity and the other in private, usually solitary, vices.  The plate and the screen.)  We could blame the fact that schools don’t let children play, speak of “the hurried child,” suggest more Tiger Parenting, find fault with Baby Boomers or Millennials, and of course declare that Apple is to blame.

I don’t think any of those explanations are necessarily false, but they are negative—being mere diagnoses of the disease by which we reached our present state—rather than constructive.  The only real constructive solution, I think, begins with a personal dedication licking those first fifteen minutes in the interest of something worthwhile.  In other words, it would behoove each of us to learn again to play.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and see about those Thanksgiving leftovers, and maybe hit up a Black Friday sale or ten.