Friday, January 31, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 29: Ceratosaur Punching Edition

1.     Writing’s a funny art: things seem to just kind of happen without your intending them to. Some people take this too far and say things like “but that vital plot element just wasn’t there when I wrote the scene!” but certainly the story takes on a life of its own at times.
This week, completely without any planning, my hero ended up punching a ceratosaurus. 
Just in case you didn't catch that: he punches a ceratosaurus!
I briefly considered renaming the book Ceratosaur Punching: a Novel. I now want to have the blurb on the back cover simply read “the hero punches a ceratosaurus at one point.”
Yeah. Writing is fun.

2.     I am officially determined to leave this job whether or not I find a new one in time; I cannot stand one more year of this job! Hell, I’ll be lucky to make it to June without pulling a “Mr. Poppins” and racing out the door in the middle of a work day (though remembering the fact that I’m the kind of person whose go-to illustration is a seventy-five-year-old Frank Capra movie does provide some comfort).

3.     For those who have seen Office Space, do you remember the scene where the three protagonists go postal on the printer? I’m thinking of asking for that same kind of thing as my final request when I leave the company. Our office printer is my nemesis, and I daily fantasize about taking a sledgehammer to it. 

4.     This week I took the plunge and bought a keyboard. It was on clearance, because apparently it had already been bought and returned once and was not very cleanly repackaged. The keys are much too sensitive, so if my fingers twitch I get two notes, but I’m enjoying it a good deal so far, and I’m learning quickly.

5.     Read this:
Seriously. Read it. Here is laid out the best dissection of the secular left from a Christian perspective that I have read in a long, long time. I almost feel like I should give up blogging, because this guy said pretty much exactly what I’ve been trying to say. I have got to track down some of this guy’s fiction.

6.     Speaking of reading, if I ever do end up becoming a teacher (which I doubt, though anything’s possible), the very first thing I would have my students read each year is My Bondage, My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. Or perhaps one of his other autobiographies, in any case, Frederick Douglass. I’ve been finally retackling it, having begun it in college but fallen off about half-way with other commitments. Lord, what a man! Not only is his story fascinating and important in itself, but he makes one appreciate the power of reading and writing better than anyone I’ve ever read.

7.     Oh, in other reading news I’ve finally (about six hours in) gotten interested in Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester rocks! Not ‘Mr. Darcy’ rocks, but pretty close.

Lots more at Conversion Diary

 Vivat Christus Rex!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

For the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

(This really should have gone up a few days ago, but better late than never)

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, January 24, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 28

See Conversion Diary for more.

1.       Well, it’s beginning; I’m starting to look about me for a new job. My lease is up in July, and I don’t plan to renew it. As a matter of fact, I’m strongly determined to quit and move out whether I find another job or not. It’s not that my current job is really hard or unpleasant; it’s just a very bad fit for me. To quote from a great work of literature: “It’s not that I’m lazy; it’s that I don’t care.” And really; I’m twenty-five years old, single, with no debt and a decent bank account: now is not the time for sticking with jobs I don’t care about for the sake of financial security. 

2.       As for what kind of job I’m looking for, that I don’t really know; maybe I’ll start up that rattlesnake-sanctuary I’ve been dreaming about. Or I might just end in retail. The world is my oyster!

3.       I have this odd habit where I’ll conceive of a job – usually an eccentric one, like “street-performing ventriloquist” – and get all excited about it for a week or so, do a lot of research, maybe even start some experimental forays into it…then settle down and realize it’s probably not going to work out. My current ones include “wild animal removal in Texas” (I can see myself wrestling snakes and ‘gators for a living, though I’m not crazy about the ‘killer bees’ aspect) and “lounge musician” (because my mind works that way: “You know, I think I’ll invest in a keyboard so I can learn piano” = “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man!”)

4.        Incidentally, the street ventriloquist thing is not made up: I actually started planning for it at one point before I remembered that I hate cities and have trouble going two sentences in a row without cringing at the incoherent mess that I just said.

5.       I have a new ally in my quest to conquer the world: the almighty Egg-Timer! (I got the idea from my brother, who casually alluded to his employment of the device). With the aid of Egg-Timer, I will no longer wonder “have I been working at this long enough yet?” or “how much longer would be reasonable?” Egg-Timer will tell me; Egg-Timer will dictate when I can or must stop. It’s Egg-Timer and me against the world!

6.       I finally finished Brideshead Revisited, and my conclusions are 1). I enjoyed it a good dead, for the most part 2). I really can’t picture how it could be adapted for the screen at all, and 3). I’ve read that the 2008 film version omits or subverts the Catholic elements. I haven’t seen it, but I really have to wonder how the heck they would manage that, and if so, what was the bloody point of adapting the thing was in the first place? As far as I can tell, the story is pretty much nothing but Catholicism. I mean, that’d be like making a chaste and sexually restrained version of Stranger in a Strange Land: it isn’t just that it’s contrary to the book, it’s that you really can’t see what the story is about with that element removed.

7.       It’s Polar Vortex 2: Electric Boogaloo! ‘Boogaloo’ here meaning “I seriously don’t want to think about what my heating bill is going to look like this month.” And, at work, I still don’t bother putting on my jacket to get the mail at the end of the driveway! I’m hardcore like that.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Catholicity of Columbo

                  A suave, sophisticated figure of high society has committed a crime; a most ingenious crime, ridding him of some pestering trouble that threatened to upset his cozy little world. The figure is wealthy, well-educated, and intelligent, and he’s confident that no one will even suspect him of the crime.
                  Then, little by little, his elaborately constructed scheme is pulled to ribbons by a chatty, disheveled, cigar-chomping, one-eyed Italian in a dirty raincoat. 

                  That is a summary of both the formula and essential appeal of Columbo: the long-running detective series starring the late Peter Falk as the ultimate unassuming detective. Columbo (no first name is ever given, though sharp-eyed viewers might spot it on his badge) is an expert at employing what is known as “obfuscating stupidity.” That is, he deliberately acts much dumber than he really is. Or rather, he doesn’t bother to bring his personality up to the level of his intellect. He acts pretty much like he looks; a blue-collar cop with little formal education and not much culture. But behind this he has a mind like a steel trap, and though he has only one eye, it’s a sharp one.
                  Columbo himself denies being especially intelligent; rather, he credits his success to two things. One is that he puts in the time to learn and understand the facts of the case, and to pay attention to every detail. In this he has a kind of philosophy; it’s the little details, the things you pass over, that you don’t think of that hang you. The murderers are usually done in by things they simply didn’t consider, or didn’t think worth noticing: the ink ribbon on a typewriter, the sound of a clock striking the half-hour, or even the way someone’s shoelaces are tied. Just as they didn’t think Columbo himself was worth noticing…until he makes himself impossible to ignore. Columbo works in stages; usually he’ll pick up on some small clue or inconsistency right away that points him to his target. Then the rest of the episode is working this one hole in the story bigger and bigger until the whole thing comes down on the murderer’s head.
                  The other thing? Even simpler: murder is his job. He’s an expert. The murderers are all amateurs, usually on their first or second attempt. Smart as they are, this is his game and they’re out of their league. But since Columbo gives off such a convincing air of befuddlement and unsophistication most don’t realize how out-classed they are until the last moment. In at least one episode Columbo confesses to the murderer that he suspected him the moment they met. When the man protests that this is impossible, Columbo explains: having been told that the man he had just eaten dinner with was poisoned, the murderer came right over to help the police. Any ordinary man would have rushed to the hospital to have himself examined. These are the things the murderers never even consider, but which Columbo sees through immediately.
Columbo’s investigative technique owes quite a lot to Chesterton’s Father Brown, who was one of the inspirations for the character (they also share a dumpy, unassuming appearance and both rely on their extensive professional experience as much as any innate intelligence). The technique involves slipping under the radar and getting into the perpetrator’s head to figure out what kind of person they are, and what sort of person in what frame of mind would do the kinds of things the facts indicate. Columbo focuses as much on the why as on the what and how. In some cases, even more. It’s always a question of why: why wouldn’t someone be relieved to hear he wasn’t the target of an assassination attempt? Why would someone angrily demand to see a subordinate in the morning and then genially brush him off in the afternoon? Why does a man suddenly break a long-standing habit just about the time another man disappears?
To answer these questions, Columbo ingratiates himself with his target by using his own unassuming nature to his advantage: flattering and complimenting the killer, inviting suggestions, often pretending to go along with their version of the events even as he silently collects the clues he’ll use to destroy them.
                  Though Columbo’s persona isn’t completely put on either; he really is a simple blue-collar cop. He likes football and the movies, can’t sing, is a good cook, and he plays a mean game of pool. He makes near-constant references to his never-seen wife and other family members, occasionally calling up the former to ask about dinner or what he should pick up on the way home from work. He drives a beaten-up old car (which Falk himself discovered and brought to the set as suitable for the character) and is sometimes accompanied by his shiftless basset hound, Dog. He served in the Army during Korea, and he estimates his income at $11,000 a year. The point of the series isn’t that a brilliant detective might act like a simple man; it’s that a simple man can also be a brilliant detective. 
                  Meanwhile, his opponents are, almost to a man, wealthy, sophisticated, and well-educated society rollers. They’re the kinds of people who attend black-tie parties, run multi-million-dollar businesses, or have several books in print (Columbo often asks for an autograph). Once he tackled a foreign diplomat, and on another occasion, a Senator. Some were facing exposure for past crimes, others faced the prospect of losing their life’s work, still others wanted to get rid of a rival or an irritant or someone who stood in the way of their growing even richer. Whatever the reason, they all commit murder, and so bring Columbo upon themselves. And all their wealth, power, and influence doesn’t change anything. Indeed, in some of the best episodes the thing that gets the villains is the very cleverness of their schemes; in attempting to divert any suspicion from themselves, they in fact trap themselves. It is the sense of their own superiority and sophistication that finally destroys them. “You tried to contrive the perfect alibi,” Columbo tells one particularly unpleasant murderer with evident relish. “And it’s your perfect alibi that gonna hang you.”
Another interesting point is the contrast between the oft-chaotic and deviant family and sexual lives of the suspects and Columbo’s own cheerfully unseen domesticity. The detective often relates rueful or humorous anecdotes about his wife, but the idea of his being unfaithful or leaving her is as ridiculous as the ide of his committing a murder himself. We never once doubt that, for all we never see them, Columbo loves his wife and kids and is perfectly happy in his marriage. He also sometimes lists off anecdotes about his broad extended family; his nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, in-laws, and so on, all of whom he appears to be on perfectly good terms with (he claims that advice from one of his nephews – a botanist – was key to cracking at least one case).
Meanwhile, the killers tend to have unhappy or immoral family habits: most are in the midst of non-marital or extra-marital affairs. Many also have strained or hateful relationships with their siblings or parents or in-laws (this state of affairs supplies many a victim and motive). In short, they live the stereotypical ‘glamorous’ lifestyle of the rich and powerful: no rules, no boundaries. And this is often the exact thing that leads them into murder.
Columbo himself never judges or admonishes them for this kind of behavior, usually acknowledging it with little more than a grimace and an averted eye. But the fact is that the easy-going, blue-collar domesticity we glimpse in Columbo’s anecdotes is really a good deal more attractive than the no-rules, no-boundaries lifestyle of his opponents. As a matter of fact, several of the murderers – most notably Johnny Cash’s Gospel singer – commit their crimes in order to achieve this kind of glamorous life, only to find that it isn’t as glamorous as they thought it would be.
                  Columbo is, really, a wonderfully Catholic character. I don’t just mean that Columbo himself is, presumably, a Catholic (being a thoroughbred Italian). I mean he is universal; he looks at everyone and everything as though it has value, and he can find goodness even in the murderers he hunts. In one episode he has a rather remarkable speech in which he admits (to a bunch of mystery fans) that he admires many of the people he pursues, because they’re often very smart, talented, and even nice people. He quickly clarifies that this doesn’t mean he approves what they do, only he sees that they are not just murderers, but people. He hates the sin, but he often loves the sinner.
                  Indeed, there are a number of episodes where he genuinely bonds with the killer. Among the most poignant are Donald Pleasance’s wine connoisseur, with whom he shares a taste for excellence, Patrick McGoohan’s dignified Army Colonel, who sees in Columbo a kindred spirit, and Theodore Bikel’s Mensa member, who finds in the end that the detective is the only person in his life he can really connect to. Other times, when faced with truly cold-blooded or overly-smug villains, Columbo is quite capable of expressing his disgust with them. “I respect your talents,” he tells one. “But I don’t like anything else about you.”
Columbo is a relatively rare fictional detective who remains firmly aware of his opponents’ humanity, even as he works to have them arrested. The episodes are almost as much character studies of the murderers as they are mysteries. We get to know them very well; their hopes, fears, desires, and generally the things that make them tick. In this it preaches another important Catholic message: that murderers are not inhuman monsters, but just ordinary people; people who, under normal circumstances, would be perfectly pleasant and even virtuous. Murder, we see, is not an identity, as though there were murderers and non-murderers; it’s just a sin like any other, a conscious choice that a man makes. A man doesn’t commit murder because he is a murderer; he’s a murderer because he chooses to commit murder. And a man commits murder for the same reason he commits any other sin: because it would be convenient for him and he thinks he can get away with it. Sometimes a man becomes a murderer because he is already an extremely proud or unpleasant person. Other times he’s as upright or even kind a person as you could hope to meet.
Thus, Columbo studiously avoids the problem that many other police dramas fall into of turning the murderers into gratuitous caricatures. They may be unpleasant, but the villains are never caricatures, nor do they ever feel like the writers had any particular axe to grind. Even the escaped Nazi has a degree of humanity to him. He replies to a reminder about his past with a weary “I was 21; I was merely a boy.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time that any movie or TV show ever allowed a Nazi to actually make a plea for himself that, in other contexts, is often held to be a viable excuse.
That is the great thing about Columbo: it’s all about a working-class Joe taking down rich and powerful snobs, but it dares to extend its sympathy to the snobs. Here is a show that never loses sight of the common humanity of the rich and the poor, and even the criminal. No one, not even the most repulsive, is simply dismissed as beneath notice, just as no one, not even the wealthiest and most talented, is above the law.

And one more thing…

Another source of Columbo’s appeal is the sheer caliber of acting talent on display. One of the three distinguishing ‘marks’ of the show’s formula is to have the murderer of the week played by some of the most famous and talented actors of the time (the other two were the ‘reverse-mystery’ style and Falk himself). I already mentioned Donald Pleasance, Patrick McGoohan, and Johnny Cash, but other stars included Vera Miles, Dick van Dyke, Robert Culp, Ricardo Montalban, Jose Ferrer, Leonard Nimoy, and Joyce Van Patten. That’s just off the top of my head. The supporting casts also tend to be strong, and have featured the likes of Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Mako, and Vincent Price (who surprisingly enough does not play the murderer). It’s a parade of talent that, more often than not, is very well served by the writers and makes the show a joy to watch just for the sake of the acting talent.

Vivat Christus Rex! 

Friday, January 17, 2014

7 Quick Takes vol. 27

1.     More studying personality types! Masha and I are having an e-mail based conversation about it, and she’s convinced me not to be so coy about my type. So, I can say that I seem to be INFP, though I also have traits of ISTJ. Which, I suppose, is a way of saying that my only really strong trait is introversion; the rest are all a muddle and a morass. But, on the whole, I find INFP descriptions tend to fit me better than ISTJ ones, so I’m fairly confident in claiming that as my type: I’m not particularly ordered or practical, nor am I very insensitive (rather, I’m insensitive in the abstract: I fantasize about being insensitive, but I can’t bring myself to be so when I’m actually dealing with people).
So, my current self-assessment is that I’m an INFP who idealizes and tries to imitate ISTJ traits.

2.     Speaking of which, our esteemed hostess mentioned an advanced personality program called the “Birkman Method.” Unfortunately, it costs $475, so it must remain a mystery to me. 
Though I did consider it anyway. 

3.     When it comes to TV shows, I have a habit of ‘binging’ on one, where I’ll watch two or three episodes a night for a week or so. My current taste is Columbo. I’ll probably do a post on that soon, because I really love that show. It’s a delicious cocktail of humor, puzzle, and good-natured social-commentary. It doesn’t demonize the rich, but it does attack all manner of the snobbery and entitlement that often comes with wealth. There are few things more satisfying in fiction than seeing a smug ‘elite’ type taken down a peg by the common man, and Columbo is pretty much based around that concept.

4.     I reworked the opening of Lost City of the Dimetrodons (LCD) this week, which put me in a quandary as it ended up in such a form that it will require me to basically re-do the entire first act! I just started figuring out somewhat how I’m going to do that, after a few days of working on other things. As a bonus, it’s helping me straighten out the hero’s character a bit. Still, the whole sequence remains a mess, with me unsure of what I ought to try to keep and what I ought to abandon, and how to make the things I keep work without the things abandoned. ‘Tis all a muddle.

5.     More snow and cold up here; couple bad days of roads. I really like snow, but I prefer not to have to drive in it.

6.     Starting to take up drawing again, though my first attempt at ‘upside down’ drawing was rather disastrous. It took me four tries to even get through the darn thing, and even then Stravinsky looked more like some kind of fish-man from the eight underworld than anything else. But a half-drawn picture of a horse and knight and some doodles at work turned out better, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.

7.     Let’s end with a Chesterton quote: 

“To be everlastingly passing through dangers which we know cannot scare us, to be taking oaths which we know cannot bind us, to be defying enemies who we know cannot conquer us – this is the grinning tyranny of decadence which is called freedom.”

Vivat Christus Rex!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The City of New Orleans and the Vanity of Progress

            Have you ever heard the song The City of New Orleans? It’s an American folksong (written, I believe, in 1971) about a trip on the train “The City of New Orleans.” The song is equal parts a plea and an elegy; a meditation on the vanity of technology and progress and a paean to a vanishing way of life. 

            The first lyrics go:
Riding on the City of New Orleans
            Illinois Central, Monday morning rail.
            Fifteen cars, and fifteen restless riders.
            Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.

            The shadow of the disappearing railroad is cast right away; the train has fifteen cars, but only fifteen passengers, who are looked after by three conductors. Not only are there only fifteen riders, but they’re ‘restless;’ presumably they’re thinking about how much faster a plane would have been, and they’re impatient to get to their destination.  
            Time has compressed; a two or three day journey from Chicago to New Orleans ought to be considered quite fast, but in these days it’s not fast enough. We want things faster, faster, faster! We feel like we’re owed that speed, that any delays are nothing short of thefts of our precious time. No one wants to ride the railroad anymore because it’s too slow.

            All along this southbound odyssey,
            The train pulls out of Kankakee
            And rolls along past houses, farms, and fields.
            Passing trains that have no name
            And freight yards full of old black men
            And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

            The train rolls along past ‘houses, farms, and fields;’ other relics of a disappearing way of life. The world is urbanizing, and farms, fields, and even houses are becoming just as obsolete as the train itself.
            ‘Trains that have no name;’ railroads continue to exist, but only in the most flat, utilitarian fashion. The glory days are over; no one cares enough about them to name them. Names are what you give to things you love, that are special. These trains aren’t special; they’re just machines. People can take them or leave them.
            The train then passes two other things that have been discarded; old black men, weary with their long toil, reaching, like the train, the end of their working lives, to be cast off just like the train itself. ‘Rusted automobiles;’ again, once the pinnacle of technology, once marveled at, sought after, and coveted, these are now nothing more than junk. The effort, the desire, the inspiration that led to their creation has come, in the end, to nothing but a pile of rusted metal.
            We then go into the refrain, which we’ll examine last.
            The second verse starts off:    
            Playing cards with the old men in the club car
            Penny-a-point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
            Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
            Feel the wheels rumbling ‘neith the floor.

            The club car, or lounge car, is where riders can purchase refreshments. Often times, they were one of the more ‘upscale’ regions of the train. The fact that this club car has nothing but old men playing cards is part of the desolation. Not only that, but their games are for such low stakes that they don’t bother even keeping score. Keep in mind that this club car must have known its share of high-rollers; businessmen, gamblers, politicians, the kind of men who would play for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Underlying this fall into poverty is the fact that their passing around a bottle in a paper-bag: a symbol of destitution. The choice wines and liquors are gone now. It’s just the mystery drink shared among the listless and destitute.
            We can imagine that at least some of these old men were once the very same rich and influential passengers who rode the train in triumph, who played those high-stakes games and drank those fine drinks. Now they’re just sad old men going through the motions. Their wealth and power is all gone, just as the power and glory of the train is gone. The trains made possible their rise to power; they rose together, and now they’ve grown old together.
            This is further nuanced by the next part of the verse:

            And the sons of Pullman Porters and the sons of engineers
            Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.
            Mothers with their babes asleep, rocking to the gentle beat
            And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

            The passengers are the sons of ‘porters’ and ‘engineers:’ the heirs to the great legacy the railroad men built. But the magic is gone. To their fathers, these were “magic carpets made of steel.” They labored over them, sweated over them, perfected them, before finally bequeathing them to their children…who threw them out. They weren’t useful anymore. All the devotion and effort put into the railroad was only so that it could be superseded by something better. Progress, the same desire that gave birth to the railroad, has now killed it. Saturn, the god of time (almost, you might say, the god of progress), has eaten his children, as he always does.
            And now the “mothers with their babes asleep” are riding the trains of their fathers. The interesting thing here is that the babes, unprejudiced by progress, enjoy the train-ride; they are rocked to sleep by the motion of the train. In this, the train is likened to something safe and comfortable. The train is familiar, proven, and to the children who know no better, almost like a kind of crib. It’s the region of our childhoods; the region of innocence when we don’t care about speed or progress, but only about comfort and security. In this we see that the train is still good, still perfectly serviceable, still worthwhile, if only we could see it.
            Now we come to the final verse:

            Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
            Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
            Half-way home, we’ll be there by morning
            Through the Mississippi darkness, rolling down to the sea.

            Nighttime: the end. The close. The train’s sad journey has almost reached its consummation. “We’ll be there by morning,” the words the friend of a dying man might say to comfort him: “Don’t worry; it’s almost over.” They’re rolling down through darkness to the sea; the symbol of death, the great gathering of all the waters. All rivers flow down to the sea, where they vanish forever. The train is rolling down to the sea, taking its appointed route along the river of time to its destined end.

            But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
            And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
            The conductor sings his songs again, ‘the passengers will please refrain’
            This train has got the disappearing railroad blues.

            As the train’s malaise comes over it, all that it has been and experienced fade together “into a bad dream.” But it still doesn’t know its fate; it hasn’t yet confronted the final fact that its time is over. The conductor ‘sings his songs,’ does his performance again, as he has no doubt done innumerable times before. But this may be the last time. Soon his song will be silent forever, and the railroad as the Pullman Porters, the engineers, and the City of New Orleans itself have known it will disappear.
            And thus we come to the refrain:
            Good morning, America, how are you?
            Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son!
            I’m the train they call ‘The City of New Orleans’
            And I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

            Here the train itself speaks out; the ‘native son’ pleading for recognition, acknowledgement by its parent. “Do you not remember me?” it asks. “Have you forgotten what I once was to you? Why are you turning away from me? I am yours! You made me!” America was once so proud of its railways, its lifeblood, but now it barely notices them. Their time has passed and they are cast off. It’s too late now; the last line is both literal (the distance the train will cover) and symbolic: soon the train will be gone beyond sight and mind; forgotten. 
            Such is the way of progress; of the new, the exciting, and the innovative. Its beauty fades as swiftly as a flower's, and before long it finds itself set aside, put on the shelf, forgotten, while the sons of its creators race on to build their own creations to replace it with. And so goes the endless sad cycle of time: Saturn devouring his children.  

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, January 10, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 26

Welcome Conversion Diary readers! 

1.     Obviously, everyone’s talking about the big cold-snap that rampaged across the country (and, I believe, is still going strong as it makes its way East: stay warm, Masha!). I was one of the only people who bothered to come to work on Monday (because I live only a few miles away), and both I and the only other such brave soul left before an hour had passed. Likewise, my resolution to start actually attending the monthly KOC meetings was derailed by it being cancelled.
Of course, the best thing that came from the cold weather is enjoying the rather pathetic attempts of certain people to keep pushing Global Warming while half the country froze solid. I especially enjoyed the story of Climate Change researchers in Antarctica who had to be airlifted out because of the unexpected surge in sea ice (they made it out safely, so I can laugh at them).

2.     My main intellectual pursuit recently has been studying my personality type. I’m really bad at personality tests, and I tend to get a different result every time I take one (I over-think the questions, until I become muddled over whether my answer is what I really think or what I’d like to think). But, after examining a few likely types and taking the test a few times, I’m now more or less convinced of my own type. And no, I’m not revealing it online. At least not just yet.
Anyway, with this settled, I’ve been reading as much as I can about the type and especially about career advice regarding it. All I’ve read pretty much confirms my desire to get out of the corporate world as soon as possible.

3.     Meanwhile, I’m taking a break from the online-dating scene, at least for a couple weeks. It’s not like it was particularly successful anyway. I’m going to work on business ideas and reflect on what I’m looking for in a woman before I decide whether I’ll go back to it.

4.     Re-reading St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. I like it so much that I think I’m going to be making that a yearly tradition. In a decade or two the lessons ought to sink in. And man, I love that I’m reading something written four hundred years ago which is entirely relevant to my own life.

5.     Also been listening to Jane Eyre. Frankly, I don’t really get the appeal so far. Also been listening to Apologia pro Vita Sua, by Cardinal Newman, and that I do get.

6.     Why do we need a Richard Pryor biopic? I mean, no offense to him or anything, but are there really that few biographies available that we’re turning to seventies-era comedians (and how much of the movie will be dedicated to Superman III)? I also hear of a Hugh Hefner biopic in the works, but I’m pretty sure they already made that under the title Leprechaun (apologies to Warwick Davis for the comparison).  

7.     Actually, what I’d really like to see (and am considering trying to write) is a biopic on Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes; first Archbishop of New York City and consummate badass. It’s got everything; oppressed minorities rising against all odds, larger-than-life hero, riots, and bawdy Irish humor. What more do you want? As a bonus, he looked a little like Russell Crowe, so that’d further the actor’s scheme to conquer Hollywood and make it his personal fiefdom (a plan I wholeheartedly support, by the way).  

Vivat Christus Rex!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Minecraft and the Last Things

                I’ve been meaning to blog about Minecraft for a while now. The part-fantasy-adventure, part-creativity tool just lends itself to analogy and interpretation.

For better and for worse

                As I work to build my giant tower of ominousness, it occurs to me to reflect how much the landscape and world of Minecraft changes as you work it. Where once was a small field on a peninsula is now an enormous quarry leading straight down to bedrock, in the process of making which an entire subterranean river of lava has been scooped out and filled in. Before I’m done, I shall have a massive tower stretching to the sky, way above the clouds. And beyond that I’ll probably be making great roads, railroads, and goodness knows what else.
                The point is, the world of Minecraft is the raw material that you can make pretty much anything you like out of. Some people build giant statues or mosaics. Others vast palaces or cities. Still others recreate movie sets and so forth. The world is what you make of it.
                And it seems to me the real world is much like that; it is what we make out of it. I don’t mean just cities or art or the like; I mean our whole lives, our personalities. We’re given raw material that follows certain laws and we set to work making something unique and beautiful out of it. Creation, you see, is still going on. We are, this moment, participating in the act of creation. We are creating ourselves.
                We can think of our lives as our participation in our own creation, of which our lives in Heaven will be the completed model. A Saint can be defined as a completed person; Earth is the factory floor in which new Saints are manufactured.
                Or think of it this way: remember the parable of the talents, in which a nobleman entrusted certain property to his servants to see what they made of them. The property (talents in Matthew’s version) could be said to represent our being: our bodies, psychology, temperament, likes, dislikes, and all that was provided to us via heredity and psychology. Our ‘being’ is entrusted to our ‘selves’ to make what we can of. Some of us are gifted with more being, others with less (as the one man was entrusted with five talents, another with two, and the third with one), meaning stronger bodies, more amiable temperaments, and so on. But the point is what each self makes of what he was given. This core ‘self’ (which I like to imagine as a kind of string connecting all the rest) is charged with rendering back a better being than it was given; of turning a man into a Saint. The blessed are the ones who succeeded; who multiplied whatever being they were given into something more like Christ. Then the self is given the being permanently, but now stripped of all the imperfections and elevated beyond imagination, though not beyond recognition. In Heaven St. Thomas is still taciturn and thoughtful and St. Francis is still energetic and joyful, though they would now appear more like gods themselves to us. They have the beings they built for themselves on Earth out of the materials they were given. They are now completed; finished works of art.
                This also means that those who talk about God creating such a cruel world full of horrible people are a little like those who would go into a half-constructed building and complain about the mess and noise. It’s not that it’s a bad building; it’s that it’s not done yet. Most of what they see will be taken out or filled in before the end, and some of it will be torn down completely. When it’s complete, it’ll be a palace.
                You can even think of bodily necessities; food, sleep, toilet, and so on as something analogous to the mould or struts holding up your sculpture as you carve it out. They’re necessary for your work, but you know that when the work is done you’ll throw them away. Food is for the belly, but God will do away with both. In Heaven we neither marry nor are given in marriage. Eating and reproduction were earthly necessities; props to hold up the walls while we worked on them, but in Heaven we will be complete and these purely practical supports will fall away to reveal the final work in all its glory. The Great Pyramid wouldn’t be half as impressive if it still had the giant ramp they used to haul the stones up to make the thing.
                But marriage itself – the two becoming one flesh, as opposed to the act of marrying or having sex – that will be part of the finished being in Heaven. Indeed, it will be manifest in a way more clear and intimate than any mere sexual experience. A married saint will be noticeably different than a celibate saint, though in a way we cannot now picture. Suffice to say, the fact that he was married, with all the effects that had on his soul, will be apparent. Every action he made, every moral choice, even every sin (forgiven) will be a part of the overall ‘effect,’ just as every tiny tile in a mosaic or every line and shade of a painting is part of the overall image.
                And the damned? The damned are ruined people; the ones who have mishandled their creation so badly that they are beyond repair. They are the people who, having done nothing or worse with their beings, are stripped of them and thrown out “into the outer darkness.” While the Saints are glorious creations, with their selves and beings united into a complete creature, the damned are nothing but remains; the debris of what might have been a man if it hadn’t been spoiled by bad handling.
 Lewis suggests that Hell means a person becomes trapped within himself; that all society and distractions removed, he finds himself alone with himself and must ‘make the best of what he finds there.’ A damned person is not really a person at all; it is the remains of what was once a person. A small, tightly bound string of self growing more compacted in upon itself forever.
The Earth itself is not just our home, but our project; our art. She undergoes creation from our hands; sometimes made better, more often made worse, but in the last days she will be presented perfect, with all her blemishes and scars etched out and all her improvements in place. The completed Earth will be presented to us as our eternal home. I like to think that all the places we loved – I mean really loved – will be presented to us. The childhood home that was torn down to make a parking lot? That special forest we would go to be alone? The cathedrals, palaces, and buildings that seem almost to have souls? They will all be there as part of the finished Earth. Here, during construction, some things have to be torn down to make room for others, but when the Earth is finished it will not be so; the Old and the New St. Peter’s Basilica will both stand in all their glory. Anything that made men better or the Earth more beautiful will be there. Anything that made men worse or the Earth uglier – prisons, gulags, parking structures, and so on – will be thrown aside and forgotten, just as the struts that made it possible to build the Empire State Building are long forgotten
God gave us free will so that we could join Him in creation. We join Him in the process of making ourselves with every move we make and every choice we take. It all adds up to either a glorious completed creature – a Saint; something we would be tempted to call a god – or to the ruined debris of a soul, depending on what we craft ourselves to be.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Behind Closed Doors

                I’ve noticed an interesting fallacy crop up pretty often in discussions about morality and the like. It’s what I call the “Closed Door” fallacy. Basically, it assumes that, since we don’t know what goes on in someone’s private life, it’s safe to assume whatever would best suit our case. Thus, if I say that many priests are perfectly happy with celibacy and are able to shoulder the burden quite tolerably, the answer is “well, how do you know what goes on when they’re alone, or how secretly miserable they might be behind that fa├žade of cheerfulness?” And therefore my adversary is allowed to go on with his assumption that celibacy is impossible or unhealthy having, in one stroke, dismissed the cumulative testimony of millions of people throughout history. Then, if he actually comes to know a priest who tells him that he’s perfectly happy with being celibate and so on, he can dismiss him as either A). lying to avoid coming to the inevitable conclusion that he’s actually miserable, or if he’s of a more charitable temperament, B). dismissing him as “an exception,” because the vast majority whom he does not know can still be assumed to be miserable or unfaithful.
                This can be applied in pretty much any case of inconvenient testimony. Want to say monogamy is impossible and unhealthy? This gets rid of all the millions of happily married couples throughout history. Want to claim that it’s impossible to rise from poverty in today’s America? This dismisses the thousands who do so as “exceptions.” I suspect that half the current academic ‘theories’ about morality, society, and politics are based on this principle.
                The reason this is a fallacy is that it takes lack of proof for confirmation. It says “it’s true that the vast majority of cases are outside my knowledge, and as reported they appear to contradict me, but if we knew more about them they would confirm my assertions.” Rather than allowing the evidence to speak for itself, they take it for granted that the evidence ought to confirm their assumptions and so make out that it would if we only knew more about it. It’s rather like the people who say “since the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, it’s possible the words recorded aren’t exactly what He said. Therefore, we can assume what He actually said was much closer to my own views.”
                The same issue applies; you can accept evidence or reject it, but even if you reject it you can’t just rewrite it to suit your own ideas. If you reject the Gospels, you’re obliged to say that you don’t know what Jesus said or did, or take evidence from one of the other first or second century writings that have come down to us. Rejecting the Gospels doesn’t mean you get to just make up whatever you like because it “seems reasonable” to you.
                Likewise, if you reject the testimony of the thousands of celibates who have been content and happy with their state in life, you don’t get to assume that they are, in fact, miserable. If you reject them, the only honest thing you could say is that you don’t know whether they’re happy or not. You can either accept the testimony or plead ignorance, but you can’t re-write the testimony to say the opposite of what it says just because you assume it ought to.
                That’s incidentally the reason why arguments for celibacy or monogamy and so on are much more convincing than argument against them. It’s like someone arguing that it’s impossible for man to reach the Moon. If no one ever had, we might be inclined to accept the arguments of the man who hadn’t. But if once someone does reach the Moon, he proves that it is at least possible. The man who does not reach the Moon does not, by the mere fact of his inability, prove that it is impossible. All that he has proven is that he himself cannot or has not. An adulterer or a man living in an “open marriage” does not prove that monogamy is impossible, only that he himself has given up attempting it. A man living in a loving monogamous marriage proves that it is possible, just as a joyful celibate priest proves that celibacy is possible. The counterargument is a bizarre kind of double-illogic; it not only argues for a universal negative (already technically impossible), but does so in the face of overwhelming positive evidence.
                That’s where the Closed Door fallacy comes in. It argues for a negative by the reverse of the usual answer to such a proposition. Instead of saying “prove that there isn’t” it says “prove that all these are what they appear to be.” Since it’s impossible to achieve the necessary level of intimacy with the vast number of individuals required by the proposition, it’s unanswerable. But it’s unanswerable because it’s unreasonable, like saying “prove that everyone living in New York City is not living under an alias.” Very likely some are, but it’s absurd to assume that everyone is unless you can prove that most of them are not.
                Not only is it unreasonable, but by its very nature it cancels itself out. If a man says “prove that there are a significant number of priests or married men who keep their vows and are content to do so,” I can answer him “prove that there aren’t.” The one is just as rational (or irrational) as the other and so both arguments are useless as evidence. The real point of difference is that the one acknowledges both the negative (that some priests and spouses don’t keep their vows) as well as the positive (that many do and are happy to do so) while the other claims a universal negative (that no one can keep these kinds of vows and be happy at the same time). The first embraces the whole of the evidence, while the second has to work hard to dismiss a good deal of it.
                The point of all this is that we mustn’t simply assume a lack of evidence to be evidence for our own views. If we dismiss contrary evidence, for whatever reason (and it ought to be a good one and not just “this doesn’t correspond with what I’d expect”), we can’t just ‘fill in the blanks,’ so to speak, by assuming the truth behind the evidence corresponds with what we would like it to.
                It’s interesting, but I notice that many of us (myself included) are rather afraid of admitting ignorance in the internet age. Rather than saying “I don’t know about that, so I can’t say for sure either way,” we have a habit of picking and choosing facts or more likely hearsay that suits us and rejecting anything that calls those views into question, piling ever-more extravagant nonsense on top of nonsense until we make absolute fools of ourselves. Whereas if we had just bowed out with an “I don’t know; I’ll have to look at that,” or “that’s something I really don’t’ know much about,” we’d save ourselves a good deal of trouble (and probably shut down three-quarters of the net forums currently in existence in the process). The Closed Door fallacy is part and partial of this habit. It’s yet another manifestation of the ancient and perennial assumption that theories are the substance and real life the shadow.
            We Christians must not be afraid of real life. God made reality and it attests to Him. Our Lord became Man in history. Christianity is perhaps the only religion that is based on solid, basic, historical facts. Therefore we must never be afraid to look reality in the face, however unpleasant or confusing it may be. Because our hope is not in a theory, but in a Person; a person who faced these same unpleasant and confusing facts without blinking and so conquered them. It is in Him that we place our trust, and whatever may happen behind closed doors doesn’t change that.

Vivat Christus Rex!