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 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

-1 Samuel 8:19

Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.

As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.

It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important. 

There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this.  I’ll take the political first.

So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”

The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.

He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.

Here is Article II of the Constitution, which delineates the powers and responsibilities of the president. 

He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.

But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.

I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification. 

washington

How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!

The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.

The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped.  Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”

But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.

Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.

But it’s too much. 

There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.

It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.

And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.”  It’s all part of the same thing.

Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.

Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.

When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.

There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.

No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.

It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important. 

But for some reason, it is. Why?

Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.

Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out  #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.

It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged  and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.

Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.

When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical.  I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.

I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.

I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly  “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today. 

So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ?  Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”

So yes, resist.

Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.

Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.

Resist…and be free. 

 

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Busy week. Let’s get started.

First off, Publisher’s Weekly carried a brief notice about the book I’m working on with Loyola – the exciting completion of the Loyola Kids trilogy! Well, at least the third book I’ll have "amy welborn"written under that brand. It’s simple – a collection of Bible stories, but with an angle that I hope will make them particularly helpful to Catholic children, parents, families and catechists. When I wrote the Loyola Kids Book of Saints sixteen years ago, I never thought it would still be selling as well as it does – usually one of the top two or three titles in children’s religious biography on Amazon, and really still unique in approach.

My deadline for this manuscript is early February, so I’ll be working to get that done over the next few months as well as on some smaller projects.

— 2 —

The past week has been busy, with an odd recurring theme of organization and information – or really, a lack of it.

High Point climbing gym is one of my youngest son’s favorite places. It’s a huge gym in downtown Chattanooga, notable for the outdoor climbing wall.

They’re building a branch here in Birmingham, and last weekend, they had an open house for their still-under construction facility. So we started there – it looks good, although not as large as the Chattanooga place and sadly, no outdoor climbing wall. It’s also a bit far from our house on road that is often marked by horrendous traffic, but I told my son that if got up early on Saturday mornings to go, I’d take him once in a while. He was all in. What have I done?

— 3 —

After a brief stop back at home, I headed out and up the hill behind our neighborhood to the Altamont School, which was hosting a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth. You’ll recall that he was born here in Birmingham, and it was from here that his mother moved the family after his father’s suicide. Percy attended a school that was the predecessor of Altamont, which explains the event. Unfortunately, it was barely advertised – I only knew about it because someone in my parish sent me an email saying, “Whenever I see something about Walker Percy, I think of you. Have you seen this?” No, I hadn’t. Neither had many other people, for the panel discussion part of the afternoon, which is what I attended, featured four people on stage and ten in the audience. Even with the Crimson Tide on the field at the time, that’s surprising. A few days later, I spoke with someone local who is a big Percy fan, well-connected into the local cultural scene and he was astounded that this event had occurred – he’d heard nothing about it.

Anyway, what I took away – besides marketing, people – was, first of all, how challenging it is for people to get a hold of Percy’s Catholicism, probably because hardly anyone understands Catholicism properly, not getting the fundamental point that a character who defines himself as a “Bad Catholic” is actually expressing a sort of ideal Catholicism. Secondly, I was struck again by the Percy Effect, best summarized on this occasion by the young academic on the panel who described his feeling upon first encountering Percy’s writings. “I was splayed open” – he said, and then filled with an urgent sense that Percy was onto something and that it was important, even essential, to follow and see where he led. The person I was talking to a few days later said that when he was in campus ministry he would often give The Last Gentlemen to students, and after reading three chapters, they would return to him wondering…was Walker Percy in my dorm room? How does he know?

Something I wrote about Percy for CWR a few months ago.

 — 4 —

Then it was back down the hill, fix dinner, and then my younger son and I headed out to the Alabama Theater to see Post Modern Jukebox. It was a good concert – even with a couple of dicey moments that I think went mostly over his head anyway. The talent level is amazing, which you know from watching the videos. Two of my favorites – Casey Abrams and Aubrey Logan– were both in the troupe for that performance, although a major, major disappointment was that Scot Bradlee himself was not. My 11-year old pianist son was quite let down by that – the pianist performing that night was excellent of course, but my son has really enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s stylings and style and was a little stunned that he wasn’t actually there – I wouldn’t say I was stunned, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing.

— 5 

Sunday morning – serve Mass at Casa Maria.

In the afternoon, we went to a big local state park – Oak Mountain State Park – for an advertised “reptile program.” Here’s what was advertised – come see reptiles from noon to three. Really not much more than that. We arrived at the interpretive center at 1:30 to an room empty but for refreshments. The program would be across the road in the other building, at would start at 2.

Which it did, to a full room, and with lots of interesting animals and expert educational offerings. But it was far more formal than advertised and did go on. So instead of the drop-in and see and chat about animals at your leisure during a time frame experience I thought we were getting, we sat in chairs for 90 minutes – including thirty minutes past the advertised ending time. Yes, snakes, lizards and tortoises are well worth our time – why do you think we were there? – but there was certainly a big difference between advertising and reality. Do people not even read their own copy and think about how it matches their plans?

amy_welborn5

6–

Back to school on Monday, and then Tuesday night, Birmingham – in the form of Rev. Peter Leithert’s Theopolis Institute – welcomed Joseph Bottum to town.

I had met Jody years ago at an informal event First Things organized for me on a visit to New York. He was here from his South Dakota home to speak on “The Novel as Protestant Art” –  the article upon which his talk is based is here. It was a good talk with interesting engagement from the audience. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed that kind of in-person adult intellectual engagement, and what made it even better was that Avondale Brewery, where it was held, is about two minutes from my house. Always a plus.

amy_welborn2

We won’t have that level of activity this weekend. What’s on tap? One kid gone Friday and much of Saturday at a robotics competition, the other serving a Saturday retreat Mass and having a make-up piano lesson (his teacher was on a short recital tour earlier in the week and had to reschedule). A family Halloween party Saturday night – almost forgot about that! – and then..it looks like Sunday is going to be what I hate most – Finish The Project Day – around here. One has an Archimedes project, the other on The Scarlet Letter.

"amy welborn"

Have a Happy Halloween, Slash.

— 7 —

Oh, I did do a bit of television watching, aside from Rectify. I have been poking around for a show to binge on – I missed the Stranger Things fad. By the time it had cycled through from New Hotness to Old and Almost Busted, I lost interest. But then I started hearing about this Australian show called Glitch just come to Netflix, so I thought I’d try it out.

And I did, and I watched the whole thing, sort of hating myself by hour four. Not exactly hating, but knowing by that point that this was going to be a Lost kind of experience in which an initial intriguing hook ends up taking you for a fairly contrived ride. And Lost was a lot better than Glitch.

The conceit is that several people have risen from the dead, crawling out of their graves in the cemetery in a small Australian town. Those first scenes are quite arresting, and a couple of the story lines are affecting, but the writing is formulaic and stiff, serious questions are glossed over and really, it all comes down to the fact that the reaction of a widower to his once dead, now-standing-in-front-of-him wife is not much more intense than if she had surprised him by arriving  home early from work. It’s clear by the end that this event has not been caused – as the devout Catholic among the resuscitated exclaims – by any miracle – but by pharmaceutical hijinks of one sort or another, and there’s a major twist at the end of the series that makes the, er, dead affect of one of the non-risen characters finally understandable – and so that’s where this first season ends. So yes, I kept watching for that dumb reason we all do – just to see what happens – but I’m not proud, especially in light of the intelligent, nuanced experience of Rectify a couple of nights later. I should have spent those six hours reading a book instead. Walker Percy, probably.

“Yes. Death is winning, life is losing.”
“Ah, you mean the wars and the crime and violence and so on?”
“Not only that. I mean the living too.”
“The living? Do you mean the living are dead?”
“Yes.”
“How can that be, Father? How can the living be dead?”
“I mean their souls, of course.”
“You mean their souls are dead,” says Max with the liveliest sympathy.
“Yes,” says Father Smith tonelessly. “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.

 

— 2 —

 

I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.

photogrid_1477066028446.jpg

I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —

 

When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.

 

6–

I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"

 

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Earlier this week, I read the book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons, a former Newsweek tech writer and editor and now a writer on HBO’s and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. I picked it up from the “new books” section mostly because I have a like-hate relationship with Silicon Valley – I think it’s brilliant satire at times, but at other times it’s just stupid and too filthy for its own good.

I enjoyed Disrupted. It’s an entertaining and even enlightening evening read – a longish Atlantic article could have probably covered most of the same ground, and Lyons’ Disrupted by Dan Lyonsidealization of journalism is annoying but that’s fine, and the time I spent with the book was more entertaining and fruitful than a couple of hours furiously scanning furious political commentary online. Although almost as frustrating, considering the insanity Lyons is writing about.

Short version: Lyons was fired from Newsweek in his early 50’s – the story of so many journalists – and eventually landed at HubSpot, a company that sells marketing software to other companies – as a “marketing fellow,” a title which sounds kind of cool but actually, as he discovers is expressive of the shadows of this tech-based economy in which no one is really committed to anything or anyone and everyone is landing somewhere for just a bit, until the next thing.

The book is very funny, not only because Lyons is funny, but because the culture he describes is so deeply insane and he’s a 50-something thinking he might be able to fit in, just a little bit.  HubSpot’s workplace is culture is just what you expect: 20-somethings brought in to have meetings and stare at screens for not a lot of money, but hey – there’s a music room! And a candy wall! And Tequila Tuesday!

Moving past the employees – er, team members – Lyons takes a look at those behind all of this craziness, from the founders of start-ups who sometimes have an idea for a product or service, but just as often don’t – to the venture capitalists.  Lyons’ description of DreamForce – a huge networking/pep rally/afterhours orgy sponsored by Salesforce.com  in which literally tens of thousands of online marketers get together in San Francisco – is jaw-dropping.

The whole thing makes me depressed, in part because Benioff is a buffoon, a bullshit artist, and such an out-of-control egomaniac that it is painful to listen to him talk. He lives in Hawaii and signs his emails “Aloha.” He’s a Buddhist and hangs out with Zen monks from Japan, and he gave his golden retriever the title “chief love officer” at his company. He is the Ron Burgundy of tech…”have you transformed the way you innovate?’ was Benioff’s big line at the 2012 Dreamforce show. Note that you can switch the two buzzwords in the sentence and it still sounds good and still means nothing.

And Dreamforce continues with Huey Lewis and the News, Green Day, Alec Baldwin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfels, CEO’s of Dropbox, Facebook and Yahoo, and the President of Haiti. It’s crazy.

If you’ve watched Silicon Valley, you’ll recognize some of the types and quirks, but I have to say – I think the world Lyons describes is even wackier than its fictional version.

Lyons’ critique is of an economy built on non-profitable entities selling intangibles – again, at a loss, most of the time – so that a few people can profit from this weird transfer of wealth going on. It’s of workplace cultures that are not only lame and distracting, but attract and sustain immaturity and are among the least diverse workplaces in the country. It’s about deception all around, about claiming, “no, we don’t send spam,” when actually, you facilitate sending millions of pieces of spam every day, it’s about calling aggressive selling “lead nurturing” and selling “lovable marking content.” That you’re not selling product, you’re leading a revolution…a movement.

It’s about this new thing, but it’s also about the old thing that has always characterize most workplaces, everywhere: Egomaniacs with tunnel vision exercising power over other human beings just because, whether those egomaniacs be CEO’s, department managers or the two blog editors twenty years your junior who have declared war against you – the turf being a blog run by a company that’s read by no one except a few hundred customers. Because that’s worth a war, definitely.

The stupid workplace trends that Lyons eviscerates are amusing to read about, but raise some serious points. First, what Lyons himself constantly points out – it’s almost like a shell game. Employees being given treats instead of more pay and greater job security. He tries to point this out to the employees three decades his junior: that instead of the treats they could actually be paid more..but they will have none of it. They prefer the candy.

The whole scene also made me think (of course) of (surprise!) church and faith and such.

The appeal of new management and marketing trends, bursting with buzzwords and exclamation points is strong for churches. Evangelical churches, with their emphasis on, well, evangelization, have always been particularly strongly tempted by American business culture, narrowing that line between evangelism and marketing to the point of invisibility. And because American Catholicism doesn’t trust or understand its own tradition of evangelization, and might even despise it, a few years after the evangelicals have pounced and wrung a trend dry, you can trust that the Catholics will be along to mop up the puddles and squeeze out what’s left in lameness that is no less lame for being two generations removed from the original and having schematized rosaries on the Awesome!
Engagement! Materials! with which they can hack  and blow UP this ministry. 

Not to speak of the management stuff, which too many Catholic school systems, in my experience, embrace. I mean…this was…familiar, even if the characters we encounter in the church world have a bit more years on them.

Try to imagine the calamity of that: Zack, age twenty-eight, with no management experience, gets training from Dave, a weekend rock guitarist, on how to apply a set of fundamentally unsound psychological principles as a way to manipulate the people who report to him.

And then, there is the question of the soul and what seeks to bind it and what it mean to be truly counter-cultural.

It is not a new story: in seeking security in this world, we find ourselves bound to entities that want to claim more than our labors, that set themselves up as idols demanding our highest loyalties. That might be the lord of the manor, the factory owner, the farmer, the office manager. That might be elements of a culture that don’t demand our labor but rather the fruits of that labor as they work hard to convince us that our wholeness and happiness depends on how well we fit.

It just seems to me that it’s the role of this Church of Jesus Christ to stand astride all of these idols, knock them over and quietly, constantly, faithfully point to the truth. Yes, this the world in which we live and work requires running and doing, and sometimes all of that is creative and interesting, but most of the time it’s not, and most of the time it just is. Work hard, give your best, make good things, no matter how small they are, and build each other up. But don’t be fooled. If this entity – this job, this organization, this culture – asks the world of you so it can save the world – remember that it can’t do that, you don’t have to and only God is God, and yeah, well, he’s…awesome.

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

 

It is the best time of the year in this part of the world. Daytime highs in the 80’s and low 90’s , evening temperatures in the 60’s. No mosquitoes – perhaps because it hasn’t rained in a month, it seems. I don’t mourn their absence. It makes sitting outside under that crescent moon, finding Venus and Saturn, the only way you want to spend your evening.

— 2 —

Our Charleston people have evacuated. They were going to come here, but they both work for companies with offices in another, inland city, so they’re going to be put up in that spot for the duration by the company, waiting with millions of others to return, dreading what they’ll find.

Returning from travel, that last mile or so before getting home always has my insides in knots. I dread pulling up to the house. What will greet me? Will we have been broken into? Will a tree be on my roof? A flood in the kitchen?

(Nothing like that has ever happened, by the way. And having good neighbors who would communicate with you if, well, a tree fell on your house, takes away the worry, if you’re rational about it. Which is not always easy to be.)

Anyway, imagine how that dread is multiplied by coming home after a hurricane has moved through.

 

— 3 —

 

We got a new piano. Finally. I had the slightest twinge of sentiment as the old one was loaded up and carted away..but really only a twinge of a twinge, if there is such a thing. It was not that I didn’t want to replace it. Of course I did. It was terrible, and my son, who is quite talented and promised that indeed, he is all in with the piano stuff – deserved something better to play. It was just that feeling of letting go of something that had been in my life for decades. My grandmother had given it to me probably around 1970, I imagine because my parents convinced her to fund it. It was a Storey and Clark spinet, which is not even made any more and which, experts agree, was not a good piano.

Honestly, why I had hauled that thing around the country for thirty years, I don’t even know. For what it cost to move it, I probably could have just bought a new/used piano at every stop, and sold it again when it was time to move on.

But now…we have a decent one. We also have it upstairs, and not in the basement. When we first moved into this house three years ago, it was just the path of least resistance to put the piano in the basement, which, because the house is built on a slope, is actually ground level. It just slipped right in.

In piano shopping, I had been apologizing for this, not that any of the salesmen were demanding explanations, much less apologies, but one did tell me that if there is no moisture problem, a basement is not the worst place for a piano. After moisture, temperature variation is the enemy of good piano health, and since the temperature in basements tends to be more consistent than other areas of a home..it can work.

But we just wanted the piano up out of the Lego Emporium and up where we spend most of our time. (Yes, I think Lego Days might be approaching twilight…can it be true?) I had explained the front door situation to the guy at the piano store and he assured me it would be fine. In retrospect, I see that I probably should have taken a photograph and shown him. For when the delivery men arrived, they took one look at the slope of those measly five steps and the angles up past them and said…Nope.

O…kay.

What aboimg_20161006_231003.jpgut the back patio? I had mentioned this to the piano salesmen and he said that no, since there was a large patch of yard that would have to be navigated, that wouldn’t work. The piano would have to be brought over a paved surface – it would sink in the ground.

The delivery guys said he was wrong. They had an all-terrain dolly that would do the job, no problem. But they didn’t have it with them, and would have to go get it. Which they did, and an hour later, there it was.

It’s so much better. My son is really enjoying it, and guess who else is playing again? Yeah, me. It’s such a better instrument, plus it’s upstairs…I’m back in business, and even re-ordered that book of Gershwin piano music that was waylaid either in Williamsburg or Germany – where ever my daughter took it that time she took it.

 — 4 —

Well, I couldn’t put it off any longer, so we have embarked on Orthodontic Adventure #4 for my family. It’s been a while – ten years, I guess. I was going to let #4 Kid take care of it on his own when he became an adult, since the issues seemed cosmetic to me, and not that serious. But then this summer, a couple of teeth started trying to come in…unsuccessfully…and it became clear that this wasn’t just cosmetic. And that I am not qualified to diagnose teeth.

But man, I hate orthodontic practices. I hate the buzz of profiteering cheerfulness, I hate the matching polo shirts, I hate the little fountains and beige tones.

So when I heard that an acquaintance of mine was a huge fan of the local university’s dental school clinic, which includes an orthodontic section, I was intrigued.

And, after two appointments, I’m a fan, too.

First, it’s about half the cost of private treatment. That cost must be paid up front, but I’m telling you – when I walked away from that desk, knowing that the next couple of years or so were paid for, from records to retainers..it was a great feeling.

Secondly, the whole process is very interesting. You have a resident assigned to you, and he or she works under a supervising orthodontist. In the initial assessment, the resident worked alone at first, and sketched out a treatment plan. Then the supervisor came in. He asked, “So what’s your treatment plan?” But then he stopped and continued, “No, don’t tell me. Let me look, then I’ll sketch out a plan, and we’ll compare.” Which is what they did, and it was fascinating to observe the teaching that was going on – and good for my son to see it to, to see that this is not magic, nor is it cut-and dried and always obvious. Medical treatment of any kind is not just a matter of matching items from different columns, and it’s good for him to observe that process.

— 5 

I read two novels over the past week. I enjoyed both as light reading that’s a little though-provoking.

I’ll begin with the one I enjoyed less – The Leftovers by Tom Perotta. Perotta is the author of Election and Little Children, both of which are very good and have been made into great movies. The Leftovers has been adapted by HBO as a series – two seasons have aired (I haven’t watched it.).

The novel is about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event,in which about 2% of the world’s population just…disappeared. There’s never any explanation given of the event, and since we enter the story three years after it occurred, we don’t see the characters wondering about it themselves – when we meet them, they are simply trying to cope, to deal, to move on.

So what the book is about is grief and loss. Really, that’s it. It’s about how human beings live with the reality of loss. What the characters of this novel live with in a very focused way is what all of us live with: this or that person was here one day, and then gone the next. What does that mean for my life? Do I dishoner that person by “moving on?” What about if I discover that person wasn’t who I thought he or she was? Where can I find meaning? How is respectful or even possible to live a “normal” life, knowing that people – including yourself – will someday be gone?

It was okay. The choice to not make the “why” or “where did they go” an issue is intended, I suppose, to put the emphasis on the responses of the leftovers. This makes a sort of sense, but the ultimate effect, I felt, was a flattening of the events of the book. It really was just about a bunch of people responding to the losses of loved ones in various ways, but because the peculiar circumstances are not an issue, there seems to be no reason why the loss couldn’t have been via a flu epidemic or chemical leak.

It was an interesting device to explore grief, but done in, I fear, by a kind of spiritual and intellectual reserve.

6–

Much- much –  better was the quirky novel Amp’d. I won’t say, “I recommend it,” because I don’t say that – people have different tastes, and recommending books usually gets the recommender in trouble from someone who imagines they will be getting one thing because they have an image in their mind of what kind of person they believe the recommender to be, but of course they actually have no idea, and the book is in fact quite different from what they expected, and possibly has swears and drugs in it, and maybe sex. Surprised and disappointed email to follow.

So. Don’t read this book.

It’s the story of a guy – Aaron – who has lost his arm in an car accident and returned to his father’s house to recuperate and figure out what to do with his life. It was funny – often hilarious, and just page after page of succinct, on-point observations. Making frequent appearances are a pet alligator, Cancer Boy and various lost and seeking friends and family members, as well as the fish Aaron is hired to count as part of a ..fish counting project. Also a presenter of short radio bits on scientific trivia, and the content of these bits is simply perfect. You can hear the voice as you read.

I think the best way to communicate what the book is about is to tell you that it begins and ends with lists. It begins with a list called “Things you can’t do with one arm” and ends with “Things I never did with two arms.” The second list is far more intriguing , and there’s the point, right there.

You know what? Everything is better with humor in it. Even life-affirming lessons. Especially life-affirming lessons.

— 7 —

Melanie Bettinelli recommends a children’s books…and it looks great!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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A Birmingham-based writer and acquaintance of mine had a piece about mental illness and faith published in the Washington Post today. It’s very good, and I’d recommend anyone in any kind of pastoral ministry read it:

The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.

I was right.

Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.

I don’t want to hijack Charlotte’s excellent piece for my own purposes – but, well, old habits are hard to break. My tangent is to observe how this attitude reflects the dangers of superficial religious practice in which definitions of things like “joy” and “peace” have been untethered from hundreds of years of tradition – which means, basically, “human experience” – and come to mean not much more than what the culture-of-the-moment says they mean.

For indeed, traditional, historic Christian spirituality may not have understood the nature of mental illness the way we do today, but it did embody an understanding of the complexities of the human person, accept a mystery of how our particular personalities interact with the transcendent, and provide understanding pathways of how to navigate that.

It also points out to me, once again, why emotion-based religious events are so terrible. Usually I say something like “inadequate” or “flawed” when I talk about this, but I think I’ll just move on and say that gatherings in which individuals are manipulated into a certain emotional state by music, environment, rhetorical tricks, guilt and even personal witness are terrible.  Defining “great worship today” by the tears shed or emotions felt by the hundreds swaying along to your music makes me think, Fascist! 

Back to Charlotte’s point. This is an important one, and I think her treatment is balanced and fair. It’s not, she says, that every word spoken should revolve around the reality of mental illness, but neither should it be ignored, especially when speaking of the practice of spirituality.

Therese Borchard has been writing about the issue of spirituality and depression for many years.

I know someone who read this book – A Catholic Guide to Depression –   and found it very helpful.

****

This brings another, somewhat related point to mind.

I was talking to someone who knew a younger teen who was experiencing some faith questions. In fact, this young person had reluctantly determined that he must be an agnostic. Why? Because he didn’t and couldn’t seem to feel anything. 

When I heard this, my heart cracked a little and then I experienced a moment of clarity, in which my sometimes inchoate skepticism about youth ministry all pulled together and made sense.

I thought about all of the youth ministry programs that I see and am somewhat familiar with, that my kids are invited to participate in. They’re all emotionally-based. One one level, they’re about the emotion of enjoyment and fun, based on the assumption that this is necessary in order to just get them in the door. Moving to another level, they tend to emphasize other emotions – joy, remorse, connectedness, excitement –  from retreats to Adoration events that feature praise music and personal witness.

What if you’re a kid who searches for evidence of truth mostly through your head and not through your emotions? 

Adults can look at all of this with some perspective. We can separate the emotion from the core of faith. We can understand that for a lot of us, that emotionally-based stage – the affective stage  – is important and maybe even necessary. It was for me, when I was a senior in high school, and was deeply moved and felt an individual, very emotional encounter with Christ at a class retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta. But that was one moment, and perspective taught me that there was more to faith. The holistic nature of Catholic spirituality taught me that this type of intensity was rare, and didn’t define faith – my faith.

But teens?

Most of them probably don’t understand this. I’d say that the vast majority don’t. They just haven’t lived long enough. And so picture a kid whose personality and character is not oriented towards truth-seeking via emotion. Perhaps this stuff even makes them feel uncomfortable. They’re in all of these youth ministry events in which they’re constantly preached at about feelings of joy and happiness as the definition of faith, in which other kids are crying because Jesus is so real to them…

…and they’re not feeling it. They’re not crying. It’s not intense for them.

Does that mean I maybe don’t have faith? At all?

*****

(What helps? Correctly defining faith, to begin with. Start here.)

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You may or may not have heard about a controversy in the Diocese of Nashville about sexuality education. Some parents at Father Ryan High School are protesting the content of the 9th grade theology program, and the bishop has told them straight up too bad. No opting out allowed.

I looked at some of the material that’s been posted online. (warning…)

I’m a mother of five kids. I’m a grandmother. I’ve taught high school theology. I’ve written for Catholic teens and young adults. I’ve stood up at meetings and defending the teaching of sexuality education in a Catholic middle school program.  Here’s my response.

Wow. This is some really, really weird s***.

Not inherently, mind you. It’s just basic sexual mechanics and physiology. But in context? Of 14-year olds in classrooms? In between Algebra and History class? In a Catholic school? Right after Mass?

Weird.

Work with me here.

You’re the parent of an 8th grader. Maybe not a sweet innocent 8th grader, but just your normal 13-year old. You’re all pretty excited about next year.

High school!

And what’s more…

Catholic! High school!

There’s going to be Mass and crucifixes and people are going to talk about Jesus and there’s going to be praying and saint-talk, not to mention algebra and history and literature and Spanish….

Awesome!

Oh, and did you get the memo on this class?

OUTER LIPS (Labia Majora) a. The outermost hair-covered folds of skin surrounding the genitals. b. They vary greatly in size. c. Like the scrotum, the outer lips swell slightly with  stimulation; in their stimulated state they pull back and expose the Inner Lips.

That’s happening too.

Is that what you envisioned for next year for your kid?

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Now, in the official responses from All The Officials, I’m reading a lot of consistent with Church teaching…sanctity of human body….the…and…maybe…shut up…

And words like that.

Guess what?

Nope.

Classroom lessons and tests for teens on the effect of stimulation on lady and gent parts? Not sane Catholic pedagogy. Pretty much not sane pedagogy at all.

But you know what? I’m not even going to focus on the Catholic part of this, because it’s seriously so stupid that anyone thinks that “Instruct the Ignorant” means “Provides schematics of spread-eagle Views of Vaginas for Teenagers to Share.”

One Mad Mom has all of that covered, and very well, thanks. Oh, and the parents, too. They know what’s right.

They’re articulating all of that very well.

I just want to focus on something else.

The weirdness.

Maybe just distance yourself from this for a minute. Pretend that you don’t know anything about culture wars, Catholic or otherwise, or that you don’t have a stake in any of these issues.

Now. Consider this.

Consider the possibility that it’s a little …weird for an adult to stand in front of a group of young teen boys and girls and teach this material:

CLITORIS a) This is the most sexually sensitive part of the female body. It corresponds to the glans or head of the penis. b) Though there is no reproductive purpose, the clitoris is made of erectile tissue and contains a high concentration of erotic neural receptors and blood vessels. c) When flaccid or unaroused the tissue is c.1” long; when aroused, it swells to 2” to 3”.

Not weird in a counter-cultural Albanian-nun-picks-up-dying-poor-from-Calcutta-streets kind of way.

More like…what adult in their right mind wants to talk to other people’s 14-year old kids about the clitoris? kind of weird.

And more like…with all the fascinating things to learn about the world that will help kids find a unique way to help make the world a better place, YES let’s spend time on the mechanics of sexual activity with 14-year olds kind of weird.

(Imagine you are a parent of a teen. And then you stand up in front of your kid and his or friends and give this lesson.

GLANS 1. Located at the tip or head of the penis is a structure which contains a highly concentrated amount of neural receptors sensitive to stimulus; it is the center of sexual pleasure for the male.

That would be weird of you. Your kids would die. You might even get arrested.)

And no nonsense about “What they already know” and “what they see on their smartphones.”  No kidding. And you think this helps? 

It’s not weird at all to want to help kids navigate this culture and their own desires and questions. It’s not weird to want to share the Good News of the truth about sexuality in a reasoned, understanding, realistic way. It’s really important to do this, as a matter of fact.

But again…context. Which is SCHOOL. Required attendance. Grades. Mixed gender groups.

More context:  14-year olds, boys and girls of varying levels of maturity and awareness, going to school as part of a system in which modesty and discretion are still key values and parents have prime responsibility for education. There are many ways that a Catholic school can and should work with parents on fighting this battle and helping kids. Sniffing that  parents should just bug off because they’re not keen on your program that tests their  son or daughter on the physiology of sexual simulation and even subtly encourages them to envision their classmate’s bodies on that level is perhaps not on the top of that list.

Have some mercy for pete’s sake!

Let me share a couple of experiences that might make my perspective clearer.

(Perhaps beginning by reminding you of my fundamental school-skepticism on every score. Remember that?)

Many, many years  ago, the Catholic middle school that one of my kids was attending was going to incorporate some sexuality education in the 8th grade. Very mild, general stuff, really, but there were some who objected, and made that clear at a meeting. At the meeting I defended the curriculum, partly because it was fine, in my opinion, and also because the teacher was a much-beloved, trusted, deeply faithful Catholic woman whom the kids all loved as a firm, calm, charitable person of faith. I felt really good about Theresa affirming in the classroom what we were doing at home, and it was not explicit at all. It was spirituality. 

(But some objected nonetheless, and that was their right! And their kids didn’t have to participate!)

Flash forward a bit. Now it’s another kid in 7th grade parish religious education. Theology of the Body had been mandated, and there was a parent meeting. Things went okay until the actual instructor stood up to talk. I had no idea who she was . My kid didn’t know her. A woman in her mid-40’s, a mom, a parishioner known to many, but not to me – not that that matters.  But this is what she said, in the most casual, hey you guys!  tone about what was coming up for the 12-year olds, and as I recall it, it was almost as if she was chomping gum – “Now I don’t know what you all have told your kids  about the details of sex, but you need to get caught up before we start the class. They need to know everything because we’re going to talk about everything– we’re gonna  talk about masturbation, we’re gonna to talk about porn…”

mad men 6x03 betty draper season 6 field trip

Who are you???? 

Yeah, so that didn’t happen for us.

This is about more than this particular situation. It gives anyone working on these issues in parish or school settings something to think about.

So if you’re in charge of things like this in your school or parish, you might want to consider the weird factor. You might want to consider that the parents who are not down with your plans don’t hate sex, don’t want their kids to be ignorant about sex and don’t want them to be ignorant of the Church’s teaching. The parents of kids in your school might even have had some sexy time themselves recently.

Maybe, just maybe…they think it’s…. odd …for random adults to be bound and determined to talk to young teens  – who are required to be in this setting, without parents present and are graded on their responses- about the mechanics of  sexual activity, diagrams and aroused clitoral dimensions helpfully included. 

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