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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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— 1 —

Travel plans:  In a few weeks, we will be heading to Guatemala – Mayan ruins and wildlife are the destinations, a guide’s services have been retained (more on my motivation for that when I write about the trip) but here’s a question for you – if anyone knows of any Catholic charitable causes in the areas of San Ignacio, Belize or Flores, Guatemala, could you let me know? If there are any small needs that we might be able to help meet, we would like the opportunity.

(We will be flying in and out of Belize City – a lot cheaper from here than Guatemala City, and closer to the sites we want to see.)

— 2 —

This evening, we went to a performance of Fiddler on the Roof by one of our local companies, the Red Mountain Theatre. I’m continually amazed at the high quality of local theater – it really was an outstanding production, in every way. The actor who portrayed Tevye was the same fellow who played the lead in another company’s excellent Music Man last year (or the year before? Can’t  remember.) and there was just the slightest tiny hint of Harold Hill every once in a while, but really – if I hadn’t known it was the same guy, I wouldn’t have known. If that makes sense.

Bonus: Michael’s piano teacher played the keyboard, which we didn’t know until we got there and looked at the program.

It was the first time I’ve ever seen Fiddler – really. I liked it, but I was struck by a couple of things.

IMG_20170622_192514First, the sanitization of history gives me rather a sick feeling. Hey, we’re friendly Tsarist forces here to warn you about the coming pogrom so you have time to escape to America.  It gave off a very mid-century, post-WWII America vibe in that regard.

Although I will say that the very last scene was effectively done with just the right balance of resignation, hope and grief – and made me regret, just a bit, my decision not to go to Ellis Island on our last NYC trip.

Secondly, is there an “great” American musical that has a strong second act? Because I can’t think of one. That pesky problem of plot machinations and resolution seems to bog everything down, including the music. What do you think?

— 3 —

Current Read: How did this one catch my eye? Well, one of the things I try to do is read academic journal articles in religious history. It’s random on my end – I don’t have a particular period or area of study I’m focused on. It’s more about general knowledge and curiosity. How were people different? How were they the same?

(Spoiler alert: They are mostly the same.)

So to that end, I poke and prod the Internet, trying to find journals I can access at no charge. For example, via JSTOR, you can “store” three articles at a time on your “shelf” – but must keep an article for two weeks at a time. It works.

It was there I ran across an article by Dr. Emily Michelson, which led me to her book, which I purchased. Amazingly, since I rarely purchase books, relying instead on, you know, the library.  I just was too lazy to go through the interlibrary loan process on this one, plus I suspected it might be a keeper – at least for a while.  I’ll write a full post when I’m finished, but know for now, it’s a fascinating look at post-Reformation preaching in Italy, carefully dismantling our stereotypes about what the “Counter-Reformation” was all about. History, as it gets filtered through secondary and tertiary sources, is taught to us in school and then finally filtered through culture, ends up being a set of bullet points acted out by stick figures reflecting the narrative’s ideology. What really happened is far more complex and, if ultimately unknowable except only to God, still much more interesting than the stick figures acting out our preferred narratives.

Her basic point: These preachers understood the challenges of the era. They saw and accepted the gaps and weaknesses in Catholic life and saw it as their mission, not simply to defend Catholic truth against Protestant de-formations, but to encourage reform of Catholic life at both the institutional and personal level. It was a pastoral program in which there was flexibility and diversity of views and approaches – not a monolithic, defensive fortress of apologetics.

More to come.

— 4 —

Listening:

It’s been pretty rainy this week (a relief from last summer’s drought, to be sure), so walking has been limited. The one time I got out, I listened to In Our Time’s recent episode on Christine de Pizan. 

Who?

That’s what I said. As I listened, my question changed:

Why hadn’t I ever heard of this woman before? 

Who was she? A 14th/15th century woman, born in Venice, moved to Paris with her family by her father, who took a position in the court of Charles V.  Married – happily and willingly – at 15, by the time she was 25, she was widowed, her father had died, as had the king, and she was left with three children and an elderly mother to support. What to do?

Write. 

Christine de Pisan was one of the first European women – if not the first – to make a living at her writing. She had been well-educated by her father and in the court, and took to writing poetry and other literary forms, including works that took misogynist interpretations of history to task. Her Book of the City of Ladies is no less than a medieval her-story, galloping through the past, correcting negative interpretations of women’s actions and celebrating what the culture defined as weakness as, rather, strength.

Look, I’m not expert on anything at all, including French medieval history, but I have done my share of study and women’s history has been an important part of the picture – beginning back in the late 1970’s when her-story was at the center of much of what I encountered in college and then in graduate school in the mid-80’s. I can’t recall ever hearing of this woman before.

Why?

The question is actually addressed in the broadcast, near the end, in which the scholars admit that she doesn’t quite fit the narrative – the secular feminist narrative, I’d add. She was not an absolute rebel against her own culture, and she didn’t reject religion.

(But neither did Hildegard of Bingen, and she’s celebrated, even by secular feminists….so I’m still a bit stuck.)

Anyway, here’s the link to the program – and – great – one more thing to read. 

— 5 —

Oh, wait – I forgot. Add this. I also listened to the episode on American Populists. If you have any interest at all in American history – and if you’re an engaged American citizen, you should – this is worth your time. It puts a great deal of post-Civil War history into a helpful context, explains many of the current fault-lines an offers thoughtful insight into the dynamics of political parties and pressure groups – particularly important in a time such as ours in which both political parties are becoming increasingly indifferent and irrelevant to ordinary citizen’s concerns.

— 6 —

Well, much more time for reading now that My Shows are over – Fargo and Better Call Saul both wrapped up their seasons this week, and I’ll have more to say about both soon.

I’m thinking I’m going to go back to the queue and tackle The Americans. I have friends who say it’s great. I’ll take a deep breath and plunge in.

 

— 7 —

Ah, wait. I posted this, then I realized that I only did six takes. Well, here’s seven. Done.

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

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— 1 —

 

Back from NYC Sunday night, and nowhere near as productive a week as I had hoped this week, especially with one kid in piano camp all day every day. I’m hopeless. Well, maybe not. I did get a sample for a book proposal done, and will send it off to the editor today for his perusal when he returns from vacation. But that’s about it. Sad!

— 2 —

We have some ch-ch-changes in store for the next school year, about which I’ll write more when August hits. Short version: we are returning to Homeschool Land with my youngest for 7th grade.  The situation is disappointing for him (it was basically his

"amy welborn"

Never cleaned it up…a good thing.

decision) because he wanted to like it, and it’s possible that in the future, things will refashion themselves and it might work out for him. It’s difficult to discuss – impossible to discuss without getting specific, which I don’t want to do and would be unfair. Who knows what will happen in the future? We don’t know – for right now, he’s looking forward to next year – Mom has promised  – promised – that except for math, it will be Unschooling all the way, plus he doesn’t have to get up so darn early, he’ll be able to maintain the friendships he forged during the year, he’ll have more time to work on his music and it will be quality time – not I’m-exhausted-from-school-and-I-have-to-squeeze-practice-in-before-homework time, and he gets to start off the school year in September with a photography class at the local Catholic homeschool co-op – a far better way to spend your Thursday mornings than parsing participial phrases.

— 3 —

I got a little frustrated with myself last night because it occurred to me I haven’t been reading many books over the past few weeks. I spent several minutes searching the house for Doctor Thorne, which I never did find, and can’t even recall the last time I saw. What? How did this happen?

Then I realized…television. After a desert time, over the past few weeks, good (to me) shows have been airing again – namely Better Call Saul and Fargo, and, at a far lesser level, Veep and Silicon Valley. Seriously – far lesser level. But BCS and Fargo have been absolutely intriguing this season (I watched season 1 of Fargo but not 2, btw), but since they are structured like novels, with an endgame in sight, I find it impossible and fruitless to try to write about them until the season finale has aired. It’s that way with Fargo in particular, which is either a pretentious collection of arresting images about truth, falsehood, 1960’s LA, Peter and the Wolf and Communist East Germany or something almost profound – but I’ll only know when I see how it all turns out this coming week.

— 4 —

That said, I was interested in something the AV Club guy wrote about Fargo (don’t read the original if you plan on watching and don’t want to be spoiled for a major plot event – I’ve chosen the excerpt so it doesn’t reveal it)

[Reference to a feud between two brothers….]  without understanding that the feud wasn’t a cut-and-dry case of extortion, it was just some cartoons poking other cartoons. I appreciate that this reveal was always in the cards, but the timing of everything means that not everything lands quite as it should.

Image result for fargo season 3What the writer is referring to is a conflict between brothers – he is saying that the feud didn’t seem to him to have depth as it played out because we didn’t know the specifics about the events causing it until this second-to-the-last episode.

But here’s the thing: What we did know was that the basics of the feud involved one brother trading something of value in a moment of weakness.

Does that sound familiar?

Yeah, it’s Jacob and Esau, blindingly obvious to me since we first met these two.

So this interests me. The feud had some resonance and more depth for me over the season because I understood it as an expression of another story I know very well. Perhaps the series creatives could do better in not assuming that familiarity and drawing themes out more explicitly, but it’s interesting to me that they don’t think they should have to, and what people are missing without that familiarity.

 

— 5 —

That said, and without seeing the last episode yet, I have hope that I won’t be disappointed in a series which has the Worst Bad Guy With the Grossest Teeth admitting:

The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is that there is good. Because otherwise, who would care.

And it happens in an episode called “Aporia” – which forces me to look stuff up and get a little more knowledge in my brain. Always a good thing.

— 6 —

 

I was talking to someone who has another high-school age kid, and this kid is an athlete. The parent was telling me some things about the experience and it took me a second to process what he was telling me…I thought I didn’t understand…I thought he was kidding…but…

Every family is responsible for raising $2000 for the team, plus there’s a $300 fee for participating, plus we’re responsible for selling a certain number of ads for the programs….plus..

…there was some other fee, but I don’t remember what it was.

You know, there are a lot of aspects to American culture I look at and grumble, That’s what’s wrong with us today…but this? This expectation that for a high school sport for which a family already sacrifices much of its summer and free time during the school year….that family still has to raise/fork over $3000 or more??  Really?

Stop. Step away. 

— 7 —

My book sales are certainly seasonal – the saints books and Friendship With Jesus peak from Easter to early June, Bambinelli Sunday at Christmas (duh), and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days around Mother’s Day and Christmas.

The Prove It books have a couple of bumps during the year as well – in the early summer when schools publish their textbook lists for the coming school year, and then August-September when more people (like me) are paying attention and finally getting with the program.

If that’s you – I have a few here for sale. Check it out!

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

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Rectify returned last night.

For those of you who don’t know, Rectify is a television series seen on Sundance TV that’s “about” a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for a murder he may or may not have committed.

The point is not really that particular mystery. The point is the impact the incarceration and the re-entry has had on this character, Daniel, and his family. Rectify is about human connection and how we do or don’t live with ambiguity and change. The acting is magnificent, the pace is meditative.

I like Rectify for a lot of reasons. I appreciate the southern setting. It’s filmed in Georgia, in a town a bit southwest of Atlanta, and a couple of the actors have Birmingham connections. I once saw and chatted with actor Michael O’Neil, who plays the corrupt senator in the series, in the Whole Foods here in town. The accents are good – even though two of the leads are Australian!

It’s a profoundly spiritual piece, with more than a hint of Flannery O’Connor.

If you want to catch up, the first three seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ve written about it a few times before – the last time here, I believe.

So let’s get back to this first episode of this fourth and last season of Rectify.

When the third season ended, Daniel Holden was leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia for Nashville. He had been convicted of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, but released from Death Row on an evidential technicality. He had confessed to the crime rtfy_401_jld_0415_-0142-rtat the time, but we have seen in flashbacks over the course of the series that this confession was almost coerced and that there are certainly others who might have committed the crime. But what we see of and hear from Daniel in the present has never been enough to lead us to conclude on his guilt in one direction or another.  In fact, our general impression has been that he is not sure himself.

In any case, for various reasons, after a few months out of prison, Daniel has admitted to the murder and, as part of the plea, has been exiled from his hometown and the state and is taking up residence at a halfway house in Nashville, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the fourth season, which seems to be taking place a few months after the end of the last.

This first episode focuses solely on Daniel up in Nashville. We don’t see anyone from Paulie, and we have no idea what’s going on down there. The question is – how is Daniel adapting? The answer: he is walking and talking, but as if he is still in his death row cell that has shrunk, encased him and which he wears like a cloak.

At least in Paulie, he had his family, and as fraught and awkward as his relationships with them were, at least he had some degree of familiarity. Here in the halfway house and at his warehouse job, he functions, but he doesn’t interact. He just doesn’t know how, and in Aden Young’s performance – in his eyes, body language and strangled voice – we perceive that struggle and honestly, it makes us a little afraid.

Alan Sipenwall has reviewed the first two episodes of this season here, and I can’t add to that except to share a bit of last night’s episode that struck me on a spiritual level.

Near the end of the episode, Daniel returns to the halfway house, and is pulled into conversation with one of the counselors. One of the core events of the episodes has been that Daniel’s roommate tested positive for drug use and left the house in the middle of the night. This initially seems like a tangential event that has nothing to do with Daniel.

But doesn’t it?

Daniel was his roommate. Daniel even saw him leave and did nothing, said nothing. There have been no fireworks or drama about this, but as the episode builds, the central question emerges:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, yes, you are. “New Canaan” is the name of the halfway house and here, in this community of hope and new beginnings, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

But this is not something Daniel knows a bit about, not because he wants to be cruel, but because almost two decades of isolation have malformed his soul.

This comes out in a cathartic conversation with the counselor, in dialogue that might seem a bit overwritten from Daniel’s perspective at first, but does make sense when you consider it as the fruit of twenty years of introspection and reading. It is not surprising that he would talk this way about his own existence and the stripping of his soul.

But even this is not what I want to focus on. For the core of Daniel’s dilemma comes down to this:

He doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know anymore if he killed Hannah or not. That uncertainty, that unknowing about the past, makes living in the present impossible.

Here’s what this made me think about last night, then:

Do any of us know the impact of our actions/ Do we have any clue to the reality of our own sins? Is there even any way for us to grasp every sin of omission and commission, what we have done and what we have failed to do? How the words I spoke in the grocery store yesterday helped or hurt and what they led to in someone else’s life a minute or an hour or ultimately a week down the road?

How tangled and mysterious is human history, activity and experience.

This is not to diminish the impact of sin. It is not to say there is no space for justice or requirement for restitution or judgment.

It is simply a recognition that there is only so much we can do for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we can’t even begin to count the ways. God must do the rest. All of our efforts to make sense of our impact on others fall short not only because they are weak and limited but also because we don’t know what to do. We do not know how to pray as we ought, Paul says, and not just because human words are limited, but because we can’t comprehend the scope of our lives and our impact, for good and for ill, on others. We don’t know what we should be asking forgiveness for, not all of it, not really.

How can we rectify when our sins are either so great or so unknown to us?

So how do we live? In continued isolation, separating ourselves from others because we are afraid, we feel unworthy of them in our guilt, real or imagined, or we feel superior to them in our innocence, real or imagined?

Or do we do what we can, hand the rest over, and edge from the door to the side chair to the place waiting for us at the table with the other sinners in the house that is half way?

Rectify season 4

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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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This is sort of long, and offered, not because it’s fascinating, but because I known many parents are working over these same issues. Here’s how I got to the place where my conscience couldn’t say anything but “yes” to homeschooling at a particular moment in time. Others have different experiences: they never considered anything but homeschooling or the school options were all so very bad, they really had no choice. That’s not my experience – this is, and perhaps it will resonate with someone else’s dilemma.

And I really didn’t need to write this post. Not really. Because yesterday, in a comment, Sally Thomas said it all in the succinct way a poet does:

And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.

 

But since, I started…..

At some point in the winter of 2012, I made a suggestion, asked a question, wondered aloud.

“What would you think,” I asked the first and fifth grader, “about homeschooling next year?”

They were horrified. Honestly, even though I’d been the one asking the question, so was I.

But there it was. The equation had become unbalanced. It had seemed to be for a while, but now the tilt was undeniable.

It wasn’t that something had to be done. Nothing had to happen. But as life and school kept happening the way it was, it seemed more and more clear to me that something should happen. It was becoming a conscience issue for me.

As I said yesterday, and have written before, I see this formal education thing as an agreement. A deal. It’s no different than any other aspect of life: a job, for example. The question is: what are you willing to put up with in order to receive the benefits? Hardly anyone adores their job a hundred percent, and many can barely stand it, but most of us do what we have to do in order to be support ourselves and our families and make some tiny contribution to …something.

Another way to put it is: How would you like your aggravation served today?

For there will always be aggravation, stress and frustration, today and every day. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about it, but sometimes you do. With the last two kids’ educations, I did have a choice, and that’s the way I had finally settled on working out the question.

How do I want my aggravation?

Do I choose to take it as I deal with an institution’s structures, rules and procedures – the folders, the particulars of supply lists and uniforms, the inadequacy of curricula – or…

…do I choose to take it in the form of having us all together most of the time, of planning, of teaching almost everything myself, of sorting out their learning, of being on 24-hour alert for resources and opportunities?

In other words, do I want to be annoyed about what others aren’t teaching them or do I want to be stressed about what I’m not teaching them? Do I want to be worried about what I feel they’re missing by being at school or do I want to be worried about what they’re missing by staying at home?

What had moved me to this point at which something I had never even considered in over twenty-five years of parenting was suddenly looming as a real possibility?

Mad Men Gifs

Long-term Dissatisfaction

Before I get going on this, let me make clarify what wasn’t an issue:

  • Concerns about instructional content that outright violated my principles.
  • Learning issues.
  • Concerns about social or cultural context.
  • A preternaturally  gifted kid who needed and wanted ten hours a day to develop his talent

None of that. Nothing odd was being pushed, neither boys experiences learning difficulties, we don’t have figure skaters or genius violinists, and we liked everyone and didn’t feel any need to be set apart. That, by the way, is not a part of my mental framework anyway. I simply mention it because homeschoolers are often accused of want to put kids in a cocoon. My issue was, as you’ll see, actually the opposite. I was concerned that school was narrowing their vision and experience, and I wanted to give them more, not less.

I suppose I should also mention that this was an elementary school issue for me at the time. The boys were in first and fifth grades, and I was not thinking about high school. The question was about the rest of elementary school.

Oh, and a word about other options. Public school isn’t an option , even given my own background – I have just really come to believe that the daily faith formation offered in Catholic elementary education is invaluable for a child. The only classical schools around here, sadly, are those offered by Reformed churches, so that’s not happening. A Catholic Montessori school would be great, too, but there’s none of that around here, either. The one local Catholic school that is not of the parish model, St. Rose Academy, is run by the Nashville Dominicans, might have been an option (and is indeed where my younger son will be going next year), but at the time, as you’ll see, it wasn’t so much which school, but school in general that was the problem, and I didn’t think that making the kids change schools and adapt to a new set of kids and teachers was really the answer to the question hovering over our days.

So, I’ll start with matters that had been festering for a while – the basics are in the previous post, but let me take it in a slightly different direction. Go grab a snack and settle in.

As is the case with many of you, I’m sure, I have never been impressed with contemporary pedagogical fads, movements and materials. So that was always there: A grudging acceptance of the reality of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator materials. Catholic schools that for the most part embraced secular curricula and made not attempt to integrate faith into the entire program. Catholic schools that, if they were not appealing to the lowest common and non-denominational denominator, were running in the opposite direction, anxiously pursuing “blue ribbon” status in order to appeal to upper-middle class striver parents.

Over the years, my kids had experienced many good teachers, but always in the midst of systems that seemed determined to undermine authentic Catholic education by emphasizing the priorities of the Secular Pedagogical Flavor of the Month. I remember once going into one of my kids’ Catholic elementary schools in which for a couple of weeks, they had been all about the rainforest. They had been reading about the rainforest, writing about it, and were super proud of the hallways bedecked as little rainforests in between cinder block walls. So much effort put into the rainforest in a school that could not be bothered to celebrate a single saints’ feast day in a memorable way. But hey, they were a Blue Ribbon School, right?

And then time went on, everyone got older, and my concerns and issues focused and got more specific, nagging me and not letting go.

First, I was just tired. Of all of it. I had been doing elementary education as a parent for twenty-five years. I confess, this did play a part  in the decision. Six different Catholic elementary schools, hundreds of weekly folders and envelopes, thousands of hours spent quizzing, checking planners, interpreting teacher and administrator instructions, running over spelling words, going over the water cycle, looking at one more unit on the rainforest, and oh don’t forget endless fundraisers, one after the other, coming at me in fat envelopes and bleak, empty order forms.

I was 51, my husband had been dead for three years, my parents were dead, my older children were moving on, as they should, and here I was, still checking those freaking weekly folders. Older than most of the teachers and other parents, I was over this routine, tired of their systems and rules and tired of being frustrated by and paying for lame curricula and well-meaning if superficial Catholicity.

Geez, I would think, we could do so much more at home, couldn’t we?

Which of course was then promptly answered.

So. Why don’t you?

Wait. What?

Listen. I was not opposed to homeschooling – for other people. In fact, I admired and stood in awe of homeschoolers.

I didn’t know many in real life, but it did seem to me that everyone I “knew” online professionally homeschooled. I mean – everyone.

So why not us? Well, a few reasons.

  • As I had raised the older kids, it never really occurred to me. It wasn’t a thing among anyone I knew in that stage, and I didn’t meet any serious homeschoolers until we moved to Indiana in 2001. I didn’t think it was crazy or weird, it’s just that it wasn’t a part of the lives of people I knew for a very long time.
  • I didn’t see the need. Up to that point, it seemed as if the balance was still holding. School was school, and while imperfect and not my ideal, it still left space for the rest of life.
  • Finally, even as the possibility seemed more possible, and my conscience spoke more and more insistently, there was just a simple, Are you kidding? I don’t…want to.
  • I’m an introvert. I get my energy from being alone. It takes me about three hours after everyone has gone to bed at night for me to recalibrate and feel like myself. What was going to happen if we were together? All day? Every day? Would I just….go insane?
  • Finally, I was skeptical about how healthy it would be for them to be with me all day. Not that we would be alone, stuck in the house or inactive, I knew. But still. I came from a rather intense , controverted family situation and knew that being homeschooled would have been disastrous for me. Basically, would my kids…go insane?

(Almost done. Be patient)

So there you have all the vague dissatisfaction, the fears, the suspicion that there was a better way, but inability to see the way there. It might have continued, but for some rather specific moments during that 2011-2012 period. Some of these things are going to strike you as silly, and perhaps they are, but taken all together, along with a zillion other small school-related aggravations piled up on a quarter of a century of the same, they were enough:

  • This actually begins a couple of years before, when my older son started at this school. As one would expect, he had spelling words. The first few weeks, he was a spelling ninja, and then his grades started to fall. He was missing more and more on the spelling tests, having assured me during the week that he didn’t need to study, no thanks. Finally, after he almost failed one test, I asked him what was going on. He admitted that he didn’t study the words. Okay, but didn’t he study in class? Doesn’t the teacher go over the words, break them apart and talk about them? Oh no, he said, that’s not the way it works. They give us the words on Monday, and we’re just supposed to study them at home. We never talk about the spelling words in class. And I thought…wait. I’m paying you so I can homeschool my kid in spelling? What?
  • The reading program was horrible. All the parents hated it. For all I know, the teachers hated it, too. I’ll just straight out say that it was Pearson’s Reading Street and it sucked: Boring stories written in flat prose, with, worst of all, impenetrable and ridiculously random comprehension questions. And I thought…we could be reading Treasure Island. Charlotte’s Web. Shakespeare. Poetry.
  • The “special” classes – that is, music, art, computer, foreign language and PE classes – that my children were experiencing were all unfortunately mediocre, rifled with discipline issues and makework. I thought…we could be going to concerts and plays, studying Latin, going on hikes, learning instruments, taking quality art lessons, music…

Mad Men - Peggy Skates, Roger Plays

  • I had various and more or less constant questions about matters of Catholicity and other issues of curriculum including Common Core, which was starting to rear its head with no one batting an eye about it.
  • For a couple of years, one of my son’s classes were quite small. As in, fewer than fifteen children, all capable and motivated, in a class. A perfect opportunity for lots of hands-on learning which did not happen. He’d say, “We talked about plants today.” I’d say, “What plants did you look at and examine?” He’d say, “None. We just looked at diagrams.” And I thought, plants..microscope, kitchen chemistry, botanical garden classes, science center classes, homeschool classes at the zoo….

  • And then finally, two relatively small incidents gave me the final push. First, my older son complained about being bored in class when he got his work done. I said, “You always take a book to read to school. Just read your book.” He said, “We’re not allowed to. If you get your work done early, you have to put your head on your desk and just wait for everyone else to be finished.”
  • A few weeks later, there was a big, school-wide event for which all students spent much time preparing. It was a good event. The theme of this even this particular year was related to Eric Carle. It was late April, as I recall, and I was going through homework with my fifth-grade son. I said, “Social Studies?” And he said, “Oh, we’re done with social studies for the next couple weeks, probably for the year. We’re going to be working on our projects for the program.” Oh, I thought, they’re going to be writing and peer editing and such. Nice!

    No, he said, they (fifth graders, remember) were going to need the time to CUT OUT TISSUE PAPER CIRCLES FOR THE ERIC CARLE PICTURES.

 

Image result for hungry caterpillar book

 

 

I was done. That was it. We were out. Nothing personal, but these were my last two kids that I would ever be given the opportunity to raise and form, and if I can give them more than this…I have to.

We have to change this up. And just maybe…we can. 

Rainbow Jimmy has arrived.

It was not about rushing them home, slamming the door, and shrinking their world, but about blowing it open, throwing out worksheets and textbooks, getting outside, getting dirty. I was privileged. I didn’t have to work at a job, I had no other family responsibilities, I was healthy and had the means..I had no excuses anymore. What was I doing, sending them off to well-intentioned mediocrity while I sat at home doing a bit of work that really didn’t even need to get done? I’d written over twenty books by then. Who cared if wrote more. I didn’t.

It might not be forever, but they were frustrated and felt as if their time was being wasted. They were hesitant mostly about leaving the social setting, but they would stay connected to all those kids through the parish, scouts, sports and other social outlets, so it wasn’t like they’d never see anyone again. In the end, by that spring, they were ready to try a new way of learning and daily life, that the initial horror gave way to openness to the possibility that this ride might not be too bad, after all. Right?

Right?

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Not even two months after her death on March 27, Easter Sunday, Raymond Arroyo has published  another book on EWTN founder Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence. The Last Years and Living Legacy.

The first part of the book has clearly been written for a while and, I’m guessing, was intended  as an addendum to the original biography. It is a thoroughly researched and well-told account of the stresses and fractures that developed within the community from Mother Angelica’s initial 2001 stroke onward. It’s quite interesting and even startling reading. Startling not because such fractures are news – anyone familiar with religious history and the history of religious orders is familiar with the dynamic of a religious order undergoing change after a founder’s death or after an original charism has faded into memory.

No, it’s just startling – but in a good way – to see these matters concerning a still-existant community written about (seemingly) so forthrightly. The divisions, the dynamic, the personalities are all explored. It makes sense. The monastery was subject to a Vatican-ordered visitation, a matter of public record, so there is no reason to pretend otherwise.

This was also interesting to me on a personal level because these events came to one of their climaxes shortly after we moved here in 2008. I knew something was going on and all was not well at the monastery, but no details. In the fall, a young woman who had left the monastery became Mike’s secretary – a lovely young woman who has since found her place in another religious community – and the events described in the book – which came to a head in the spring and early summer of 2009, after Mike had died in February  –  helped all of that click into place for me.

And the story of Mother Angelica’s trip to Japan in 2004 is fascinating in a borderline horrific way. I had no idea this had happened.

The rest of the book, however, is almost a patische of various elements. Her life story is retold. Again. Arroyo’s own connection with her is narrated again. Many pages are taken up with letters testifying to the impact Mother Angelica had on people’s lives. Arroyo discusses what he sees as how she lived out heroic virtues. He discusses some of her mystical experiences, including a tentative “I’m just throwing this out there” suggestion about bilocation. Hmmm.

Since Mother Angelica had let go of the reins of EWTN in 2000(a still-controversial decision made to prevent influence by elements in the Church – aka bishops – who opposed her vision), the network doesn’t enter into the narrative much, except in places where Arroyo is recollecting his relationship with Mother Angelica. It seems that in that last decade and a half, she was not even interested in the network, wanting the channel changed to Fox News or reruns of I Love Lucy from the station she’d founded. To the extent that she was invested in events, it was the conditions and direction of her sisters that concerned her the most, as far as she was able to be concerned about what was happening around her.

What there is related to EWTN, I was most interested in his description of a tussle regarding Pope John Paul II’s 1997 visit to Cuba.

At the network there were certain individuals (long gone) who wanted to shape our coverage to suit their own political perspective – mainly to establish that Cuban president Fidel Castro was a neutral or even positive actor in the region. This tracked with the views of some in Latin America, markets where EWTN was attempting to secure carriage….” (162)

The narrative of Mother Angelica’s last few years – her health, her daily life and care – is actually sketchy and scattered throughout the book. What is there is a good reflection by Arroyo and her caregivers about the nature of suffering and the different ways that we, throughout our lives and at different levels of physical strength and ability – can use our time for God and for others. But it’s not at the level of detail or spiritual depth that one finds, for example, in accounts of Mother Teresa’s life.

It’s 224 pages  – a short book – I read it in little over an hour – and Mother Angelica fans will undoubtedly enjoy it. If you’re interested in contemporary church history, it’s worth checking it out from the library to read over that first section.

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