May 06, 2013

Various & Sundry

Read a fascinating piece in New York magazine about how Hasidic Jews took over the local school board and cut the public schools' money way back (all the Jews go to private schools). Didn't paint the Hasidics in a very flattering light but very interesting, the politics of it. Lots of inbreeding led to many kids in need of special education which the Jews couldn't afford so they took over the school board partly in order to allow their handicapped kids to get state funding for help which the previous school board was hesitant to do. (Apparently for understandable reasons since now the Hasidics are getting in trouble for drawing too much.) We see lots of unintended consequences: the old school board awoke the “sleeping giant” by not catering to the emergency majority (i.e. the Jews). The Hasidics then exacted their pound of flesh when they came to power. It makes me wonder if that's what life will be like when minorities (Hispanics) come to dominate our politics. Will it be payback time for Republicans not catering to minority demands of European-style socialism?



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The Dispatch mentioned how a petition to rehire a fired gay teacher at Columbus catholic high school has gotten 100,000 signatures. It mentioned that a new petition supporting the diocese has only 500, but I added mine just now. The paper says the story has gone international. Wow have times changed. This would not even be a story at all twenty years ago. The thing I never really got when I was in my teens and twenties and even into my thirties was just how fast-moving cultural norms and mores are. How much more dramatic the change must feel to those of my parent's generation, who witnessed even greater change.

I don't think our bishop knew what hit him given the backlash. It feels par for the course given the Church's painful record with public relations. Cardinal Dolan recognizes this which is why he hired Lino Rulli has his communication consultant. Bishop Campbell didn't even offer a statement until like three weeks after the firing which is a lifetime in the current communication environ. God bless him though. One thing it brings home is that you can't pick your fights. The gay rights controversy is surely not what the Church would like to be talking about. And he probably should've been prepared just given the circumstances, how the lady put her significant other on her mother's obituary. It paints the stereotype of the church being out of touch as well as cruel and secularists love that.

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Book by Kenneth Clark on nudes arrived yesterday and there's a lot to digest even in the first few pages. The author emphasizes how rare this form of art is in the history of art, how it is limited to just a few periods, and how it was invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.. Clark says that it falls out of favor for various and sundry reasons, including a penchant for asceticism. He says that the form is most congenial to those countries on the Mediterranean and is almost completely opaque to the Chinese and Japanese mind. Which is really a startling statement. It seems as though Greek influence is the key. What is it about Greeks, as opposed to the Chinese, that went the full monty in depicting the nude human body? Is it a mere accident of history?

He says this is partially because painting nudes is different from any other natural subject. He aim to perfect, to idealize, not simply draw. Imperfections in trees or animals are not seen as unpleasing, but in a naked human it's different. It's kind of interesting in that we see the same thing on a moral plain; we are critical of moral flaws in humans that we aren't in animals. It's almost like inborn within us there's this drive not only towards physical perfection but moral (my gloss, not Clark's).

Clark also admits forthrightly that it's simply impossible to eliminate the erotic element given we have a biological drive to perpetuate ourselves. Thus he disdains a famous and oft-quoted art professor who said that any nude painting that incites base desires is not art.

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Read a Thomas Friedman column in which he said that he feels an unease over this world where you can't just show up for work anymore:

I find a lot of this scary. We’re entering a world that increasingly rewards individual aspiration and persistence and can measure precisely who is contributing and who is not. This is not going away, so we better think how we help every citizen benefit from it.
That last sentence is kind of humorous on the face of it: “let's think about how we can help every citizen be aspirational and motivated” (dream on, lib Friedman). I'm thinking he means: “let's think about how everyone can be in the top twenty percent in terms of contribution” - a mathematical impossibility of course.
But his column rings true, and he mentions how much skills matter and how much we need networking and mentors. In other words, you need the constant refresh of “hard” skills as well as the “soft” skill of networking. Makes me glad I'm toward the end of my career. But what's interesting about this hyper-measuring is that if it's true that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, I'm not sure how being able to measure the 80 versus the 20 is going to change things that much (other than remuneration potentially). It seems there's safety in numbers inasmuch as they can't fire 80% of the employees (although they could, of course, outsource everything to India so it's not as though we're only competing against our fellow workers).

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The bright shine of May, days long with light, I hie to a town historical walk where I learned that  the trains came through on Tuesdays and they didn't do the laundry then because the clothes would get smoky. There was a really good lumber mill and a Masonic lodge as well as one for the Oddfellows, another male fraternity. Apparently they were Really Big on fraternities back then.  They used to have a town “character”, a guy like Otis Campbell but not a drunk, a homeless guy with one tooth. Was a hard worker - used to clean the streets for free. Eventually the town fathers thought it was wrong that ol' Johnny was homeless, so they set him up in an Airstream-like trailer on some vacant ground. And they bought him meals at the one restaurant in town.


We toured the Lodge, bought by the Masons soon after WW I, and built as a “consolidated school” back in 1870.

It's nice that our guide had such a sense of “place” and seen the radical change such that it's almost unrecognizable. How much can history influence the current zeitgeist of a town when the town ballooned from a few hundred to 30,000 in a very short time? Can the Methodist influence, for example, be felt at all still? Regardless, it helps put a soul in the soulless suburb to see these fine folks trying to provide history where so little exists.

It reminds me of how my employer is now emphasizing it's roots by displaying the original office of the long-dead founder, and by hiring a company historian. I like this sudden interest in history by previously ahistorical institutions. Back in the 90s, there was no interest in anything that happened before last Tuesday and my suburb was likewise an amnesiac. I wonder what has happened that has made it suddenly fashionable to seek roots. It can't be a coincidence.

The Masonic lodge was alluringly creepy. Old posters with the famous "eye atop a pyramid" staring at you. Chairs arranged all along the sides; up front a stage with a throne chair with two smaller side chairs. A big “G” hanging down for reasons unknown (I asked the Mason guy what the “G” signified and he said he didn't know. Which seems fishy.) In the center of the room a strange-looking monument apropos of nothing. Upon entering I'd said to the Mason, “Into the secret room!” and he smilingly said, “no, the room where there are secrets.” He was then quick to add that no alcohol was permitted in the lodge, which seemed a bit of a non-sequitor.

Joe K. later said he was surprised I didn't turn into smoke, a Catholic going into a Masonic lodge like that.

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Read a bit of a book called Manufactured Depression, the latter about the rise of depression from part of the human condition to a disease. The author says that his post-divorce depression was perhaps “my initiation into the reality of how hard life really was.” He says: “I just figured I'd had a disaster in my life and my unhappiness was the consequence of it, as surely as whacking my thumb with a hammer would have left me injured and in pain and really mad at myself.”

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Was thinking today about Taylor Swift's astonishing popularity and I think it can at least partially be ascribed to her authenticity, or what appears to be at least. Watching her perform a song live in Canada, there's never a false note. Her face and body language are completely convey the ingredients of a performer: energy and enthusiasm. Her face radiates joy or pathos such that you could never tell that this was a job for her (and I find it hard to believe that she feels emotion 100% of the time on stage).

The Letterman generation grew up on irony as the mark of the authentic (Letterman had a sort of meta-awareness of the schlock of show business), but Swift seems to have found a way to be authentic in a wholesome, non-ironic way. Regardless whether authenticity is of the Letterman or the Swift sort, it's clear that it's what this generation longs for. Which, of course, makes it even more crucial for Christians to be authentically Christian and why this pope perhaps has a chance to get through to this some of the young (even though John Paul II was authentic in the way kids define authenticity – Benedict being too cerebral for their tastes – but without too much impact).

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Curious about Argentina, I looked up the country in the CIA World Fact Book and learned that although the country is “90% nominally Catholic, only 20% are practicing.” (So now the CIA is determining whether someone is a CINO? Hmmm….). But if the figures are close to be correct it's a bit discouraging that our pope wasn't able to turn the situation in Argentina around. That's surely an unfair burden to put on him, especially since conversion is a work of God and of man's free will. Perhaps the lesson of Pope Francis, like Mother Teresa, is that success is not the measurement but fidelity instead, and both Cardinal Bergoglio and Mother Teresa were nothing if not faithful. The “little way” of convented St. Theresa seems now the way even of popes and missionaries! No wonder she's considered such an important saint of the modern age.

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The gospel the other day had one of the most amazing statements in all of Scripture in it: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Unfortunately it's not left to stand on its own but is caveated/fine-printed with “…if you keep my commandments.” But then it ever has to be in order to ward off the twins of presumption and despair. The gospel is for everybody and every possible fall.

But glorious is “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” I immediately thought about something that had nagged me in the past, the Father's affirmation at the Baptism of Jesus: “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

I read the meditation from Word Among Us:
When I think of how the Father looks at you, Jesus, I am speechless. I can try to imagine the Father gazing on you with deep pleasure and joy, but words fail me. And then to think that you, Jesus, look at me with the same love, seeing the goodness I was created to have in your image, seeing your approval of every step I take toward you—I can only bask in this love, filled with wonder and awe.
Yes, the Word Among Us seems the right tonic for pessimists like me!

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