I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there! Continue reading “Corrupting the youth”
A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.
Gospel: Luke 13:1–9
It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.
And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.
Doesn’t sound like good news.
I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.
It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.
There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.
If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”
Sales of breakfast cereal are down, and I have trouble being sad. I eat boxed breakfast cereal for the same reason everybody else does — it’s convenient – but generally only as a midnight snack. For quick breakfast I’m more likely to eat homemade granola or oatmeal or a PBJ. I would not be terribly sad if boxed breakfast cereal went away entirely. Not only is it bizarrely processed, but it’s probably the worst remaining artifact of late nineteenth-century thinking about food: deliberately stripped of flavor and over-sweetened to make it palatable. And I don’t care a whit about the profits of giant corporations that manufacture it.
And yet this tidbit from the original New York Times story is more than a little disconcerting:
Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.
In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman comments:
Few things are as painless to prepare as cereal. Making it requires little more than pouring something (a cereal of your choice) into a bowl and then pouring something else (a milk of your choice) into the same bowl. Eating it requires little more than a spoon and your mouth. The food, which Americans still buy $10 billion of annually, has thrived over the decades, at least in part, because of this very quality: its convenience.
And yet, for today’s youth, cereal isn’t easy enough….
The industry, the [Times] piece explained, is struggling — sales have tumbled by almost 30 percent over the past 15 years, and the future remains uncertain. And the reasons are largely those one would expect: Many people are eating breakfast away from the home, choosing breakfast sandwiches and yogurt instead of more traditional morning staples. Many others, meanwhile, too busy to pay attention to their stomachs, are eating breakfast not at all.
But there is another thing happening, which should scare cereal makers — and, really, anyone who has a stake in this country’s future — more: A large contingent of millennials are uninterested in breakfast cereal because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don’t clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned.
Let’s be clear what we’re talking about, then: The problem isn’t that people are overworked, busy raising families in two-income households. Nobody doesn’t have time to wash out a cereal bowl. I ran a test this morning, scientific in precision of measurement if not in design: To get up from the table, carry a bowl to the sink, squirt detergent, wipe it out, rinse, then use the soapy rag to wash the spoon, set them both on the counter to air-dry, and return to the table to check the stopwatch took me exactly 36.97 seconds. That’s with no particular hurry. If you eat over the sink, you can eliminate the transit time and cut a good ten seconds off that time.
So we’re not talking about social and economic structures that make it hard for people to cook for themselves. We’re talking about laziness. Continue reading “Building an ethic behind the food movement”
Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.
For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.
Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.
To close it out — for now, at least — I’ll stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie below the jump. Continue reading “Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)”
First, a note of explanation: What follows is not a post on “getting things done” or on the merits of various productivity tools. It is, rather, some thoughts on the ways I’ve found those tools to shape my thinking and my work.
After almost four years of trying to keep track of all my various projects with various apps, I’ve given up and gone back to a combination of a paper journal (hardbound, dot-printed rather than lined) and, for long term planning of specific projects, various homespun electronic documents and spreadsheets. It’s working wonderfully; I find I’m far better able to keep track of what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Having made that change, here are some of my observations.
- The promise of having continuous access to my project information was… well, promising, but I never did get around to using my smartphone in that way. I hate typing on my smartphone. I have fairly big hands, and staring at little screens makes me feel boxed in, almost claustrophobic. A hardbound journal meets the same need; it’s always with me. Better, it’s always open on my desk; I don’t have to push buttons to access it. I can’t, therefore, ignore it. (If I tried, it’s orange.)
- Apps swallow their past. Once you check an item off as completed, it disappears from view. There’s nearly always a way to retrieve that information, but not typically in a way that I find conveniently displayed. Loose sheets of paper are worse; they get thrown away. A journal, as long as you mark entries rather than crossing through them, preserves the past in readable fashion. That’s of some practical value: I can, for example, see when I last gave the dog her heartworm preventative or note a tendency to put off certain tasks. I can learn from my mistakes in a way that’s impossible if I hide or erase or throw away (or even cross through) what I’ve done. But there’s also something philosophically worrisome to me about the ease with which productivity apps move you inexorably into the next task. It encourages presentism, an emphasis on what’s important now and on what’s next, and I think the culture already encourages far too much of that. Hardbound journals, by contrast, encourage reflection and a vision of oneself as a whole over time.
- An app, no matter how flexibly it’s designed to be used, is inherently algorithmic. Computer code is algorithms. And if I’m using that code, I, too, have to follow the algorithm; my own thinking must shape itself to the algorithm. Now, it’s true that processes of work must always adapt to fit the tools at hand, but some tools are more flexible than others. Blank sheets of paper, dotted rather than lined, bound into a journal, give me tremendous flexibility. I can choose my own symbols and systems, index as I wish, organize as suits my preferred ways of thinking, planning, remembering, and visualizing. As my thinking about my thinking evolves, my processes can evolve with it. With an app, I’m stuck in someone else’s head. (There’s also a difference, I think, between a tool and an algorithm, but that needs more thought.) A simple table in an Open Office document serves that end when paper doesn’t.
- There is some satisfaction to writing, physically writing, the X next to a task completed. It serves the same purpose as checking a box on a computer screen and watching it disappear, and so they may be functionally identically, but to claim that the two actions are thus identical and interchangeable reduces human experience to mere functionality. I’m not an algorithm (see #2, above); I have a body, and I think with it.
- I buy the blank books and ink for my fountain pens from a local stationary shop — yes, I still have a local stationary shop, an amazing thing, and I’d like to help keep it in business! Both come ultimately from some company or other, I don’t know where. (France?) So I’m not claiming any sort of purity. But to use them, I don’t have to support my cable company, my phone company, or one of the world’s largest global corporations (e.g. Apple). And when I stock up I get to have a chat with a guy who calls himself, professionally, Crazy Alan. So there’s that.
Dan Cohen’s “review” of the Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (HT: Alan Jacobs) is primarily a meditation on the nature of art and ephemerality, but I have trouble getting past the story that sparked it.
This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.
Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.
Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.
Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.
This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.
Setting aside the matter of what the Buddhists of Shaolin would prefer us to do, I think Cohen is giving the Wu-Tang Clan a little too much credit.
- WTC made, after auction fees, at least a cool million off of their album, which is pretty good money for doing what you (presumably) love. They got more publicity selling it this way than they would have by releasing it traditionally. What they did is indistinguishable from a publicity stunt, and from good business.
- Their method of selling their work doesn’t demonstrate ephemerality; the album still exists, it’s just that no one is listening to it. It has not, unlike some of the other art Cohen mentions, ceased to exist, nor is it expected to, except in the sense that all digital work will someday become unreadable (which is, given Cohen’s work, surely in the back of his mind—but that’s no reason to single out this album).
- It is, on the contrary, all about possession. Someone paid $2 million for a unique recording precisely so that he could possess it, and so that no one else could. This isn’t about non-possession; it’s about exclusivity of possession, and specifically about exclusivity of possession by the rich. It is, in that regard, less a statement of Buddhist philosophy than an expression of America’s Second Gilded Age.
- The tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Buddhism (see also: tech companies teaching meditation to make their employees more productive) ought to trouble American Buddhists, as the tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Christianity (see: much of U.S. history) ought to trouble American Christians. Likely it too seldom will, as it too seldom has. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the defect isn’t with Christianity.
While I was writing this a sparrow perched on the rail of a chair outside my window and sang. I took no photograph and made no recording; his song was unheard by anyone but me and himself. It was a gift, unexpected and unearned, and now it is memory. And nobody made any money off of it. I am not an expert on Buddhist philosophy, but I’ll take the sparrow as my emblem of ephemerality over a hip hop album any day.
Last Tuesday in the Western Christian calendar was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s murder of the children who might have been Jesus:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. —Matthew 2:16
Even Christians who devoutly proclaim the Incarnation, the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ get squeamish about whether this actually happened, but arguing about historicity misses the point of the story and of the commemoration: horrors of this nature have happened, and do happen, and children suffer most for the schemes of adults. The Catholic and Anglican traditions keep plenty of days to remember martyrs and saints who are praiseworthy because they chose their paths; this is a day to recall those who were too young to choose or even to accept their fate.
It’s also a day to bless and ask blessings on children, and I found this old prayer for Catholic laity, which I believe came from one or another version of the Baltimore Book of Prayers:
O God our Father, whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, once embraced the little children who were brought to him, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father;” Look now, we beseech thee, on the innocence of these children: Bless them and protect them this night and throughout their lives; (the parent makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child) in thy grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for thee, knowing thee, and loving thee, that they may at the last come to their destined home and behold thee face to face; through Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Then, taking the head of each child in both hands, a parent says to each one: May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you both now and for evermore. Amen.
This is a beautiful prayer, the sort of thing (like the Feast of the Holy Innocents) I’d never been exposed to in my days of Methodist Youth. If I was prayed over, and I assume I must have been, I don’t remember it, because the prayers made no impression. The language of this prayer is lovely, and serious; what’s even lovelier and more serious is that it isn’t about the person doing the praying. There is a Protestant belief that if you aren’t
making it up as you go along immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit you aren’t sincere in your prayer, but not everyone is a professional writer, not everyone has a way with words, not everyone is extraverted or sufficiently fearless to speak aloud for others their hopes and fears and feelings — or even necessarily to know what they are, until they’re reminded. Though that strain of Protestantism is meant to be egalitarian — no top-down directed praying for us! — I’m increasingly inclined to see it as elitist: The theological and literary rich, unfettered by tradition, can fly as high as they like, while the poor in spirit flounder in a sea of dull maxims and half-baked banalities.
Here, by contrast, is a beautiful, direct, concise, sincere prayer available to any parent. Surely we don’t need to question the sincerity of parents’ love for their children, and even a father who does write well, and who has composed prayers and poems for his daughter, appreciates (maybe more than most) the blessing of not always having to roll his own. Why not stand on the shoulders of giants, when you can?
And so Tuesday night at bedtime I sprung this on my kid. I might have changed thee and thou to you and converted the -eth to -s, but the formality served as a clue to the seriousness of what I was doing and asking. She understood the gesture; YMMV. Your kids may just be embarrassed by this sort of thing; but then again you’re going to embarrass them regardless, so why not do it with style?
Be warned, though, that it may be hard to make the sign of the cross on your child’s forehead without choking up.
A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on December 20, 2015.
That’s a heck of a greeting Mary gets from her cousin. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Still, you don’t meet a lot of people who would respond even to that by crying out “My soul magnifies the Lord!”
If you tried that, people would smile pacifically and back slowly away.
On the up side, you’d have that seat on the bus all to yourself.
Seriously, though, did you ever wonder what kind of person Mary really was? We know so little about her, and we have so many agendas. Growing up Methodist I didn’t hear much at all about Mary; we didn’t have pictures of her hanging up in the church, she barely got a mention. Except at Christmas — when suddenly she’s everywhere, loitering on front lawns with her husband and the kings and the lone representative shepherd that came packaged with the Wal-Mart crèche. It’s hard to learn much about her from most of these setups, and those you can… well, let me give you an example.
Take the people who used to live next door to me in my old neighborhood. I knew they were churchgoers, because the bumper sticker on their car said so. They had the polite but stern and unhumoring quality I had learned as a child to associate with certain classes of evangelical Protestant. They had a perfectly maintained lawn that they never, ever used, not even the clean white porch swing in the side yard. And every Christmas they put a crèche out front, a simple one: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manger, and a tiny shelter representing the stable. There may have been an angel; I don’t remember. What made this display noteworthy was that all of them — Jesus, Joseph, and Mary — were represented as babies. It was the complete inversion of the Medieval practice of representing the infant Messiah as a miniature adult, with adult proportions and an adult expression. Out on my neighbors’ lawn, even Mary and Joseph had disproportionately large heads, like babies of almost any mammalian species—it’s how you can tell Charlie Brown is a little boy and not a balding old man, and how the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were made to look safe and innocent instead of weird and scary. Worse, they wore the placidly idiotic expressions of baby dolls. They were cute, like pandas or someone else’s puppy. If they hadn’t been made of cheap plastic they might have been cuddly.
When my former neighbors bought that house and I saw their crèche for the first time, I was not a Christian. I was coming out of a long atheist interlude, drifting in a direction people call “spiritual but not religious” — sensing that something was missing, casting about for it, open to ideas and suggestions and potentially convincing narratives.
What I saw in my neighbors’ front yard was not a potentially convincing narrative.
At best, it was nice. Pleasant. Polite. Sentimental, yes. Safe? Very safe. But I didn’t need pleasant and polite. I didn’t need sentimental. I could find those things elsewhere, plenty of places — and they weren’t enough. I didn’t need a god who was merely pleasant. Although I may not have recognized it at the time, I didn’t need a god who was safe. I needed a god who could shake things up — who could change things — who could change me, who could save me. I needed a god who could kick some butt — mine, when necessary. And that was going to take more than a really super nice guy. It was going to take more than a god who would pick a babydoll to be his mommy.
Now, having been raised Christian, having been exposed in my collegiate singing career to Latin masses and the works of Thomas Tallis, and having studied and written about the Old Order Amish, I was aware that Babydoll Crèche did not represent the full breadth and depth of the Christian experience.
Nevertheless, when I saw that crèche… well, I thought, if these people don’t take their god seriously, why should I? Continue reading “Children of the (Christmas) Revolution”
Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with people with autism argues that yes, we do need a cure for autism:
Would something be lost if autism were banished from the world? Probably. Autistic people have a unique way of looking at things that lets them solve problems differently from everyone else, and we all benefit from that insight. On the other hand, everyone always gives the same example of this: Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is pretty great. But I am not sure that her existence alone justifies all of the institutionalizations and seizures and head-banging and everything else.
Imagine if a demon offered civilization the following deal: “One in every hundred of your children will be born different. They will feel ordinary sensations as exquisite tortures. Many will never learn to speak; most will never work or have friends or live independently. More than half will consider suicide. Forty percent will be institutionalized, then ceaselessly tyrannized and abused until they die. In exchange, your slaughterhouses will be significantly more efficient.”
I feel like Screwtape would facepalm, then force him into remedial Not-Sounding-Like-An-Obvious-Demon classes.
I didn’t know that there was a movement against cures for autism, but Alexander objects to the notion that people with autism who spend much of their time banging their heads against walls or trying to chew off their limbs are that way because they’ve been treated badly. He argues, reasonably, that (1) some children with autism are that bad off at home with parents who love them and are doing their best, and (2) this society isn’t going to come up with fantastically functional institutions any time soon (see: nursing homes). His best point, the one I want to focus on, is this:
Let’s taboo whether something is a “disease” or not. Let’s talk about suffering.
Dropping the binary distinction that assigns various people various mental diseases or disorders would seem to me to be a step forward in our thinking about how the mind works, at least in many cases — I’m thinking of depression, for example. And I agree that it is far better to approach people by considering whether they are suffering than by assigning them an identity.
Autistic people suffer. They suffer because of their sensory sensitivities. They suffer because of self-injury. They suffer because they’re in institutions that restrain them or abuse them or just don’t let them have mp3 players. Even if none of those things happened at all, they would still suffer because of epilepsy and cerebral palsy and tuberous sclerosis. A worryingly high percent of the autistic people I encounter tend to be screaming, beating their heads against things, attacking nurses, or chewing off their own body parts. Once you’re trying to chew off your own body parts, I feel like the question “But is it really a disease or not?” sort of loses its oomph.
Here’s the problem, though: If you want to talk about a “cure,” then it seems to me you had better be talking about a disease. Continue reading “Some thoughts on suffering, “cures,” and ethics”
Alison Gopnik reports in the Wall Street Journal: “Two large-scale surveys done in 2007 and 2013 in the Netherlands and Bermuda, involving thousands of adolescents, found that teenagers who engaged in more online communication also reported more and better friendships.”
That’s a heartening correlation to anyone who doesn’t want to have to worry about the consequences their kids’ technology use, but it isn’t causality. It should not be surprising that people who have more and closer friendships would communicate with those friends by whatever means their society and economy provides, and that “more online communication” would thus correlate with “more and better friendships.” I do wonder what, exactly, “more and better friendships means”; in particular I wonder if the researchers’ construction of that idea ultimately collapses into a definition of extraversion, but I’m not interested enough to dig up the original article. I’m more interested in Gopnik’s use of the study, which is to dismiss the worries of parents (or of anyone else) as mere nostalgia. Continue reading “Technological change and the hard work of parenting”