Fear, and the Assessment of Risk

I took perverse delight, when my kids were little, in letting them climb as high as they wanted to on the toys at the park, when there were moms present. If I let a toddler get more than about 12″ off the ground, some panicky woman would be sure that, despite the cushioning layer of wood chips and despite the success of the human race in surviving lo these many millennia, I was risking that child’s life, and was an evil, bad parent.

Since we have multiple kids, my usual response, if someone brought it up, was: ‘It’s OK – we have spares’ – intending to cement my rep as a monster.

(Side note: once, our 2nd, a daughter, grabbed a snow disk thing and shot down a hill far beyond her level of competence and ended up spiraling off into a wood at high speed – miraculously missing all the tree, and coming out mere scared and scraped up. At that point, I stopped with the ‘spares’ joke – no, we don’t have any spares. Please, God, forget I even ever said that in jest!)

We have a trampoline. We just tell the kids to be careful, and let them have at it. Other than a few bangs and bruises, we’re about 8 years in without a serious injury. My kids – imagine – climb trees, often to see just how high up they can get. As soon as they are big enough to control them – around 10 or 12 – I let them use the cordless power tools, including the saw.

Add this to the whole family bed, no mandatory classes style school, and general disdain for what the world counts as ‘achievement’, and, clearly, I’ve RUINED our kids.

Except for the part where they are all happy, healthy, intellectually active and doing very well at whatever it is that interests them – including, in the case of the 17 and 19 year olds, college.

We buckle seat belts. We wear bike helmets. We only eat mushrooms obtained from reputable commercial sources. But – 6 kids on the trampoline? 6 year old 20′ up in a tree? 12 year old cutting a 2X4 with a cordless saw (after instruction and supervision by Dad)? Sure, we do that, too.

I worry about my kids’ souls, and worry about raising competent kids who are not afraid of their own shadows. But shark attack level risks? Not so much.

“Be not afraid” after all.


I Found the Priest Whose Fault It Is…

… that a large percentage of priests not only believe that it’s OK to spontaneously improve on the Church’s liturgical prayers, but that they, personally, are capable of doing so.

At a baptism a couple years ago, the priest simply couldn’t read the black – he ad libbed everything and – here’s the distressing part – he was really, really good at it. The new stuff he was making up flowed nicely, was in complete sentences, and even seemed appropriate and made sense. I was impressed. Not saying the new, improved spontaneous prayers were profound or even orthodox – but they weren’t obviously stupid or obviously inappropriate either.

I imagine that other priests think that that’s what they sound like when they wing it. Let me just say this to them: No, you don’t. Generally, what you make up is inconsistent, hard to comprehend and just plain silly. Of the hundreds of priests I’ve listened to over the years, exactly *1* could pull it off. You are not that one.

And to that one: This is all your fault!

TMI: Why I’ll Never Divorce…

Complaining to my beloved about having to go in for a further medical examination of the embarrassing sort us old guys seem particularly liable to:

“The last time, they discovered I still had a little dignity left, so I’m going in to have it removed.”

“You sure keep your dignity in an odd place.”

This, while she still likes me. I’m too cowardly to find out what it would be like if she didn’t.

All Right Thinking People Can Agree…

That, while the Marvin Gaye and Credence versions are very fine, the Gladys Knight version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grape Vine’ is the rockingest take on that song.

So why is it, when I’ve gotten an ear worm, that my mind keeps moving back to Marvin’s or Credence’s version? Why can’t I have Gladys’ version in my head on endless loop?

It’s Just Impossible

Thinking about an odd thing that I think anybody engaged in discussion about life issues or morality will find familiar: the unshakable, heart-felt belief that celibacy and sexual self-control are not possible. For many people, it is a core, foundational belief that, for a healthy human being, chastity in any of its forms is delusional and harmful. People who promote it are insane, and only the psychologically imbalanced could ever practice it.

If you truly believe this, then all those Catholic people, especially priests and nuns vowed to a life of celibacy can be nothing other than horrible lying hypocrites or sexually tortured lunatics. Or both.

Here’s where reality has no chance of breaking through – this belief becomes a filter, so that nothing that might contradict it is allowed to enter the mind. So, for example, among my friends are many happily married couples who have been faithful to each other for decades, even some who practice Natural Family Planning (meaning: they practice a particularly challenging form of sexual self-control: sharing a bed with a desirable and licit spouse with whom you have agreed to refrain from sex for a week or so at a time, for decades on end). There are evidently millions of couples around the world like this – and, in my unscientific sample, they are among the happier people on earth.

The True Believer, most often revealed in comments such as: “sex is natural, like breathing or eating”, has got to quibble with or out and out deny that this state of fulfilling and voluntary delayed sexual gratification is 1) possible, and, more important, 2) that it is desirable. The character of uptight sexually repressed bigot is as much a stock character in the comedy of the true believer’s life as Harlequin is to comedia dell’arte. More important, there is simply no place in their world for happy chaste people.

This makes conversation, let alone agreement, difficult. Like anyone who has spent half a century around all different kinds of Catholics, I’ve come across some bad ones. However, I’ve also been blessed to know dozens of happily celibate priests and nuns, and dozens of chastely married people. Some are just blessed – celibacy or chastity is not all that difficult for them, just as resisting greed or sloth or gluttony isn’t very difficult for some people. Others fight the good fight, and fight it and fight it until, exhausted, they die.  But theirs is a noble martyrdom, not a waste. I’m thinking of those priests and nuns I’ve know with the energy level of a nuclear power plant – there’s some mighty sublimation going on.  On the whole, even the ones who find it hard are not sexually tortured – they still laugh and smile and enjoy the company of people.

Now, this is of course anecdotal and personal, but it explains why, even as I struggled to behave well sexually, I never believed is was impossible, and, more important, I believed that chastity is a good thing. And I think many Catholics share this experience.

So, when we are challenged (I almost wrote ‘taunted’) with the claim that no sane person denies themselves sex any time they can get it, we think not of some white-knuckled fanatic with forehead veins throbbing, but we think of our friends, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and uncles and so on – and we know, first hand, that chastity and celibacy are worthy goals, and that many good and sane people succeed in them.

Unless this issue is addressed, I don’t see how conversation is even possible between, for example, many pro- and anti-abortion people. If one side believes that sexual self-control is, while difficult sometimes, completely within the capacity of normal men and women – and a good thing – and the other believes that sexual self-control is out of reach for healthy men and women, and a bad thing in any event – that’s your quandary, right there.

West Coast Walk for Life

2nd year I’ve participated with my family.

Very moving.

Something like 35,000 – 40,000 people, on a lovely spring day in the middle of winter, showed up to walk. Maybe a few dozen people showed up to counter protest. As always, the very good and moving speakers spent as much time and emphasis on loving, healing and praying for the mothers and fathers and abortion providers as was spent mourning the children lost. This is a good thing. The babies are beyond our reach, but the people who make this horror possible are still our brothers and sisters, and it is they with whom we must work  and for whom we must pray if things are going to change.

And things do seem to be changing.

Years ago, we lived in San Francisco for a couple years, and I’ve experienced various protests and demonstrations staged there. The most prominent participants were totally confrontational – right in your face, often dressed bizarrely, clearly trying to challenge and dehumanize their perceived opponents. The Gay Pride parade springs particularly to mind here.

Walk for life is different. Sure, there are a few nuts – very few – but your typical walkers are a mom pushing a stroller, a gaggle of teenage girls, or priest in a cassock, who are much more likely to pass in silence than to give the occasional hooting counter-protester so much as a frown.

Final note, for both ‘teams’ – bullhorns are like tin-foil hats: it’s not written in stone anywhere that somebody wearing a tin-foil hat or wielding a bull horn is a nut, but that’s how the smart money is betting.

A Note on ‘Academics’

I often disparage ‘academics’ with quotes around the word. To be clear:

I’m totally down with books and studying and languages and music and art and all that. If that’s what was being taught under the label ‘academics’ in good schools, I’d have no problem.

But, is that what ‘academics’ means, in a good school? It should be obvious from a brief discussion with most any graduate from a good high school that little, if anything, worthy has been learned. Reading, writing and basic math can be taught to a willing student in a matter of months – what actually goes on over the 11+ other years? We should expect schools to crank out thousands of polyglot kids doing vector calculus between performances with the symphony orchestra, if in fact they were really learning anything during those thousands and thousands of hours.

Instead, we get graduates with 4+ GPAs and dozens of AP credits taking remedial writing when they get to college (about 50% of incoming students at Cal, according to one of their admissions officers). Compare and contrast, as they say, with people of actual distinction, both now and historically, and one thing repeatedly stands out: real high achievers get that way outside of school.

So, when I say ‘academics’ need to be de-emphasized, I mean that whatever passes for academics in the schools has to be gotten out of the way, so real learning can take place.

Education: Buying Manhattan, Square Pegs & Round Holes

We’ll use the well-known legend of the Dutch buying Manhattan from the Indians as a jumping off point. Similar stories abound.

In order to buy, as the Dutch understood the concept, an island, there must be someone or some group that owns the island as the Dutch understand ownership. If a Dutchman owned a piece of land, he’d assume he could put a wall around it, say who can or can’t use it and how, say who can pass through it and when, and so on – and the law would back him up.

It’s an open question, I think, if the Indians the Dutch bought the island from shared this understanding. (It’s been argued that the particular tribe they cut the deal with were not even from Manhattan, but lived out in Queens. It’s the original ‘want to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?’ story.  I’ll leave it some native New Yorker to insert an appropriate quip here.)

In American history, there are a number of stories about treaties with the native Americans where the two sides had a very different understanding of what the treaty meant, even apart from any dishonesty or double-dealing. To put it perhaps a little simplistically, Europeans were, naturally, looking for the Indian equivalents of kings or landed gentry, from whom they could buy land fair and square, to own, use and enjoy European style. Regardless of how the Native Americans organized themselves and viewed ownership, our Europeans ancestors were almost fated to see them through a filter.  It would have been hard for the settlers to grasp that, while the Indians may have had very clear ideas about whose land was whose, and who could use it and for what, those ideas could be very different from and incomparable with European ideas.

When modern Americans think of school, we have a similar set of assumptions about what education looks like. For generations now, the kings and landed gentry of education have been a set of professional ‘educators’, who sell us graded classrooms and standardized tests – and the law backs these educators up.

But is that the only way it can be? Here’s where true ‘multiculturalism’ can help us – we can ask the very enlightening question: in other cultures we admire, how did people educate their young? Or, in other cultures we loath, how did people educate their young? Because real multiculturalism passes judgment – not all cultures are equal. Continue reading “Education: Buying Manhattan, Square Pegs & Round Holes”

“Let the Children Come” – the Heart of Catholic Education

As parents, we decided early on that there was no way we’d be sending our children to public schools, and, not much later, that there was no way we’d be sending them to the Catholic schools available in our neighborhood. I’ve got a lot to say on this topic, but let’s, as they say, get back to basics:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

– Matthew 19:14

Several things to note here:

Jesus is attractive. His instruction to his followers is most definitely NOT ‘Make the little children come to Me’ – children, being people, are attracted to Jesus, and will want to come to Him of their own volition. Our job, as parents, teachers and fellow Christians, is to STAY OUT OF THE WAY.

The disciple’s natural reaction to kids trying to climb all over Jesus is to restore order – and Jesus rebukes them for it! We are similarly rightly rebuked if we think order  is the chief characteristic of solid Catholic education. As GKC says: children will learn what it is you assume, while doing their best to ignore what it is you say.

Catholic education consists first and essentially of being loved by good Catholics. Let me repeat that: Catholic education consists first and essentially of being loved by good Catholics. That’s how children, in the natural order of things, come to know and believe in a loving God. Only then does catechetical instruction work, and only by way of explaining and expanding on the experience of God made possible (secondary cause at work here!) by the example of loving Catholics.

So, what would a good Catholic school look like?

– Adults – teachers, parents, administrators, the custodian, the coaches –  who clearly and consistently love the children – as Paul says, patient, kind, enduring all things;

– a certain consistent disorder. This one is hard for most people to grasp. (John Bosco, for one, got it.) If the primary impression of school is, as is so often caricatured, of tidy little kids ruled with a ruler by a stern nun – well, that’s WRONG. The primary characteristic of a truly Catholic school – like any truly Catholic family, parish, or community of any kind – is joy. Joy tends to be a little messy – like little children climbing all over Jesus.

– DE-EMPHASIS of ‘academics’. See, for example, this post. Instead of learning from their teachers and families that they are unconditionally loved and infinitely more important in themselves than any particular honor they may achieve, many ‘high achieving’ kids from ‘high achieving’ homes are killing themselves – sometimes literally – over grades and test scores. A Catholic school would eschew homework (any interference in family life is flat out unacceptable) and denigrate tests, especially standardized tests meant to grade children like so much lumber. (There’s a very clear practical difference between, say, a test of French vocabulary or basic fractions meant to help the teacher and child see what needs to be worked on, and the sort of crap that makes up standardized tests. What this test is saying, for example,  is that a 7 year old is behind if they can’t translate tally marks into appropriate bar graphs. Really? What lunatic, using what insane methodology, decided that piece of information is critical – to a SEVEN YEAR OLD? In what alternate universe is that sufficient reason to label a kid ‘behind’? Behind what? JUST SAY NO!)

– Emphasis on the liturgical life. Again, children, being people, are attracted to the Church’s liturgy, because it is the primary place we meet Jesus – the place where we are not hindered coming to Him. Again, St. John Bosco understood this. Not only was Mass celebrated daily in his schools, but – ready? – kids weren’t forced to attend.  He knew that trying to enforce holiness was doomed – you can only invite, and show your own joy in the Church’s prayer. So, a Catholic school first and foremost lives the liturgy every day.

Let’s address a couple common objections up front:

1. Children need to be guided with a firm hand. We have to make them go to Mass and make them do homework and threaten them if they fail to perform ‘at grade level’ on tests or they will rot away as derelicts and ne’er do wells!

On the contrary, says who? Jesus? I think not.The problem here is not so much misunderstanding education as it is misunderstanding our faith.

2. No Homework?! Our kids won’t learn, they’ll fall behind, the sky will fall!

On the contrary, there is no evidence that homework contributes materially to academic performance k – 8. There is little evidence it helps very much 9 – 12. But what it does most certainly do is rob families of the quite enjoyment of each others’ company every night. If the phrase ‘quite enjoyment of each others’ company’ and ‘family’ don’t go together for you, then maybe your problem is bigger than anything school can help. Anecdote: We’re 2 for 2 at getting our kids who are college age into the colleges of their choices – and we never had a single argument over homework nor wasted a single evening doing busy work imposed by some little academic Napoleon. So, what, exactly, is the point of homework, again?

3. Ho Ho Ho! You really live in a fantasy world, there! How will kids ever get jobs and survive in the real world if we don’t toughen ’em up through a lot of dumb make-work and arbitrary control? *I* had to do lots of homework and take lots of idiotic tests designed to make me either feel like a failure or to justify me lording it over the other kids who didn’t do as well, and look at me! I came out JUST FINE. So fine that I’m willing to force my kids to relive the misery I went through, hardly see them during the week as they do extra curricular activities and homework, and ship them off to a good college once they’re old enough so that they can be just like me!

On the contrary, ’nuff said.

P.S. – I attended Catholic schools 1 – 12, and am grateful to the numerous loving nuns, priests, brothers  and lay people who showed me a Catholic life could be joyful and kind.