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Board retreat

This month marks the start of my fifth year with the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia as a board member.

The Pro-Life Union is one of countless organizations across the country that came alive in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, and whose mission and scope can basically be summed up as “proclaiming the sanctity of all life.” While a lot of the Pro-Life Union’s activity centers on providing mothers and fathers with alternatives to abortion (like housing, job opportunities, financial literacy, spiritual resources, etc.) it is just as much focused on promoting the basics for strong marriages and healthy sexual experiences and how to preserve the dignity of self and others throughout life, particularly at its natural conclusion. 

As vice-chair of the board for the past few years, I’ve been grateful to be a part of the Pro-Life Union’s evolution over the past five years and a number of key changes in its structure that have equipped it for the years and decades to come. I’m also looking forward to elevating new leadership later this year. 

I’ve been wanting to put together a board retreat for the Pro-Life Union for a while, and with much of the board having been refreshed in the past few years the right moment came to try this. We held a healthy and fruitful social retreat for ~4 hours in Mount Airy, Philadelphia—specifically at St. Raymond of Penafort church, where one of our board members is pastor. Afterwards, a number of people took me aside to comment that it was a great opportunity to get to know each other better. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, and I hope this can be the start of an annual board tradition to ensure board members know each other as human beings, rather than just as peers who come together periodically to discuss/vote on corporate issues.

Why are you pro-life? What led you to the Pro-Life Union? What do you want to leave behind? What do you think is your greatest strength as a pro-life witness? What’s your greatest weakness?

A day without yesterday

Commonweal published a great article on the history of the Big Bang theory a while back called ‘A Day Without Yesterday’: Georges Lemaitre & the Big BangI had a dozen years of Catholic schooling, and don’t ever remember learning about Georges Lemaitre.

And if I don’t remember learning about the origins of the Big Bang theory and its Catholic developer during my Catholic school years, I’d guess it probably wasn’t taught in the typical public school, either:

Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) [was] a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang. Lemaitre described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading out in a growing sphere from the center of the burst. He believed this burst of fireworks was the beginning of time, taking place on “a day without yesterday.”

After decades of struggle, other scientists came to accept the Big Bang as fact. But while most scientists — including the mathematician Stephen Hawking — predicted that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe and make the universe fall back toward its center, Lemaitre believed that the universe would keep expanding. He argued that the Big Bang was a unique event, while other scientists believed that the universe would shrink to the point of another Big Bang, and so on. The observations made in Berkeley supported Lemaitre’s contention that the Big Bang was in fact “a day without yesterday. …

In January 1933, both Lemaitre and Einstein traveled to California for a series of seminars. After the Belgian detailed his theory, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Duncan Aikman covered these seminars for the New York Times Magazine. An article about Lemaitre appeared on February 19, 1933, and featured a large photo of Einstein and Lemaitre standing side by side. The caption read, “They have a profound respect and admiration for each other.” …

It took a mathematician who also happened to be a Catholic priest to look at the evidence with an open mind and create a model that worked. Is there a paradox in this situation? Lemaitre did not think so. Duncan Aikman of the New York Times spotlighted Lemaitre’s view in 1933: “‘There is no conflict between religion and science,’ Lemaitre has been telling audiences over and over again in this country ….His view is interesting and important not because he is a Catholic priest, not because he is one of the leading mathematical physicists of our time, but because he is both.”

A fascinating article for understanding how one man’s ideas (initially derided by the scientific establishment) came not only to win the praise of luminaries like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but ultimately to transform our understanding of the universe. Like so much else with scientific discovery, I’d bet someday we’ll realize that this theory is terribly wrong in important ways.

To keep Penn State great

I don’t know the author of the poem I’m sharing here, but I in light of the five year anniversary of Joe Paterno’s death I wanted to share it. I first received this in an email in July 2012, months after the coach had died and just as the (since repudiated) Freeh Report was making its impact. It was a dark time for Penn Staters, when a poorly managed crisis was leading to so much institutional destruction and heartache that continues to provide the basis for confusion. This captures a time that I’m thankful is behind us, though the rebuilding will take the rest of my life.

The witchhunt is over
The mob got their wish
To land a defenseless
Carcass on their dish

Because no one would stop them
No one would say
There are still unheard players
In this tragic play

So they asked for an arm
And a leg and a head
And were given a statue
While all our hearts bled

The hypocrites blathered
With hate and disdain
They wanted us dead
But they’ll still show our games?

But I know they can’t kill us
They can’t keep us weak
We will not be cowered
Because our leaders were meek

Penn state is just football?
Not on your life
It’s because we are more
That we will beat this strife

The professors will research
Will find the next cure
The students will party
Of that I am sure

Rose’s girls will keep spiking
Cael’s boys keep on pinning
And despite what “they” say
It won’t just be ‘bout winning

They’ll do it the right way
As has always been done
They can vacate the wins
But we know what we won

Tell it to MRob
Tell it to Poz
To Sean Lee and Connor
Then protect your jaws

Penn State’s about people
Penn State’s about pride
NCAA can’t govern
What we feel inside

They can’t kill our memories
Can’t take back our friends
And they can’t force our story
To a premature end

The haters can hate us
Our leaders can cave
But our student body
Can’t be made to behave

They’ll still dance for cancer
Their studies won’t cease
They will change the world
If not solve world peace

How to move forward?
JoePa knows that play
Written worlds only hurt
If you believe what they say

We all know the truth
Where the failings occurred
And won’t let our entire
Culture get slurred

Coach OB is staying
A man with some courage
Who faces a challenge
And won’t be discouraged

The fans back with a vengeance
Led by a great leader
Though they MIGHT be fewer
The wins will be sweeter

When each season is over
And the games are all played
The players can proudly say
I’m one who stayed

They’ll mean more in our hearts
Than any past team
Because they all hung tough
When Prez Rod made us scream

Kick us while we’re down?
Do at your own risk
Because we will be back
Like a tornadoes’ twist

You learn more about people
When you’re at your worst low
Who is behind me
As I get up and go?

Go harness your anger
Let it drive you each day
To keep Penn State great
And make our enemies pay

We will get our revenge
When we just won’t die
When we don’t limp away
To our bedroom and cry

The last chapter’s not written
We still own our fate
It’s up to us to decide
Are we still Penn State?

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Joe Paterno, gone five years

Joe Paterno died in January 2012. It feels like yesterday, yet five years have passed since that time. A beautiful video tribute to him, set to Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” first marked the one year anniversary of his death but is just as fitting now.

Mark Dent wrote after the first year anniversary of the coach’s death. Aside from a few oddities in the article that give away his out-of-towner status (like referring to the State College Borough repeated as a “city”) his piece is a good introduction to the historical context from which Paterno came. (In some ways, Dent’s piece is better than Joe Posnanski’s book-length mess of a biography.) Dent writes:

dsc_0875_med_sidewalk_joeOf all the places in the world, Paterno lived in this town. Of all the neighborhoods in this town, he lived three blocks from campus in this one-story house. A million-dollar man lived like he still made the $20,000 he claimed he did in 1969, when the games always started in the afternoon, the coaches ate and drank with everyone else at the Tavern, and Paterno wanted a place to raise his growing family, a place to call home. …

There was no gate at the street’s entrance, and no security guard to check for identification, read license plate numbers or scan names on a guest list. The leader of one of college football’s best teams surveyed his kingdom from a ranch house.

College football coaches don’t live like this — current Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, for example, lives in Boalsburg, several miles from campus in a house that cost $1,225,000. Only the ancient coaches did. Penn State’s Bob Higgins had a house just up the street, near McKee and Adams Avenue, in the 1930s. Joe Bezdek, who coached one year in 1949, lived near McKee and Mitchell Avenue, a block away. Paterno was like them, residing in a bygone era.

When reporters came from around the country to share his story with a national audience, they highlighted the house. Sometimes they sat across from him at the round table in the kitchen. They remarked: “You should see his house. Then you would know this is real, this is not an act.”

You should see his house. You would know this is real. This is not an act.

Paterno was an old timer, for sure. But living in a real neighborhood and being a real person isn’t a symptom of “residing in a bygone era” as Dent writes. No, Paterno didn’t reside in a bygone time, but rather in our time. He simply chose to live the way of always had lived, and in doing so ended up carrying the style and manner of those “ancient coaches” along with him. And isn’t that so much of what attracted us to him? (Before the stupidity and banal evil of the Sandusky scandal made it impossible to talk with non-cultists (both pro- and anti-cultists) about him.) He chose not to let the old ways recede into a quaint and pointless nostalgia. He chose to live in a normal way, that ended up becoming exceptional in the context of different times.

At some point, reminiscing over the greatness of the past, the good old days, and bygone times shifts from a virtuous exercise into a vice. I think this occurs when we repeatedly choose to praise goodness without learning how to emulate it. We might be stating truth in saying that “water is wet,” but if we’ve forgotten the joy of jumping in the water and actually getting wet, we’ve entered the realm of harmful nostalgia.

The trick is this: We can live in the same style and manner. We can make friends, and build our kingdoms, and coach each other along in the game of life. And even if we become the million-dollar man we can choose not to live like the money has changed us because in reality it hasn’t changed us—only our means, and hopefully not our circumstances.

If the ideas that have given Joe and Sue Paterno the power to attract us with authenticity (You should see his house. You would know this is real.) are dead, then our lives are only destined to ever become a part of a pointless nostalgia.

If… if… if we want to honor Joe and Sue Paterno, we can choose like they chose to carry the style and manner of old times into new times. We can be human to one another. We can choose not to forget our roots; not to isolate ourselves; not to fall into artifice; not to withdraw.

It’s a choice not between whatever we decide is bygone or timely, but over whatever we choose to make real in our own lives.

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Winter office view

I snapped this from my office window last night, which looks out onto Logan Circle and in the distance to University City on the left and the Philadelphia Art Museum and Fairmount Park on the right. It’s a beautiful view, especially at twilight when the darkness masks the accumulated wintertime filth on the windows.

It’s already nearly the end of January, and New Years feels like it was a long time ago. I’ve been feeling great this month and have been executing against a lot of my priorities for this year. I hope this year has been great so far for you, and if it hasn’t I hope you figure out how to shape your time to make it great.

Especially with President Trump taking office today, there are lots of people feeling discouraged and too many people choosing to be depressive. Choose to get past all of that and start acting on what will make your life better for you, your family, and your work. You’re in control of your life.

Books age, like us

In My 6,128 Favorite Books Joe Queenan writes:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.

Ben Novak wrote this in an email to me a few years ago:

…just having them evokes the experience of reading or studying them. The pages are yellowing, as I am, but the experience of touching them with my hands and eyes is still vivid. They each bear part of my soul on their pages. Their words etched in ink on fading paper are etched on my fading mind as well.

Retronaut’s slogan? “The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.” Physicals books are a territory all to themselves, and one whose secrets aren’t easy to translate in the context of electronic culture.

Charles and Bella Schlow

If you’re a Penn Stater, you’ve walked by Schlow Library in Downtown State College countless times. At the corner of Beaver Avenue and Allen Street, it’s in a beautiful newish brick building that adds some verve and character to Allen Street’s otherwise mostly perfunctory aesthetics.

As with so many names on a map, “Schlow” was always just one of those things that existed in Happy Valley, and I never thought to explore the history of it. I’m sharing the text of this old article on Charles and Bella Schlow because it tells a bit of their life, but also because it’s such a perfect illustration of how much a familiar place can nonetheless feel foreign only a few decades later. Very little of the specific names and places mentioned is recognizable today, other than the town and the street names.

I’ll smile whenever I walk by Schlow Library now, thinking of Charles and Bella and the life these two transplants chose to make in Mount Nittany’s shadow.

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Mr. Schlow: Amazing

In 1919, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Schlow purchased a small ladies shop from a Miss Newman at the corner of Bishop and Allegheny in Bellefonte. From time to time he brought small exhibits of his wear to an upstairs room of the State College Hotel. At that time there was a very small store catering to the State College women, known as the Imboden Shop, located across from the old Post Office.

Mr. Schlow was advised by one of his clients, Hassel Montgomery who had a prosperous men’s shop located where the Juliet Room is now, that State College had great prospects ahead of it and was badly in need of a ladies’ store. A few months later, a small empty rom became available in the middle of Allen Street next door to the present Murphy’s. Mr. Schlow established his business there and the store prospered … small as it was. Following a fire which destroyed all of the old stores existing on the corner of College and Allen Street, Mr. Schlow purchased from the Metzger Company the piece of land where the Schlow Shop is now located.

Mr. Schlow had ideas of grandeur, hoping to develop a chain of ladies’ shops but then discovered that unless one has unlimited numbers of capable personnel it is best to stick to one store.

The addition of a gift shop to his ladies’ shop led to further expansion with the result that his son Frank, who died two years ago, established an interior decorating and furniture store as part of Schlow’s. It was located in the site of the present TwelveTrees Theatre and was operated until Frank Schlow’s death.

Prior to coming to Centre County, Mr. and Mrs. Schlow both taught. After her college work, Mrs. Schlow taught elocution. Mr. Schlow graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia, had a two year course in the School of Pedagogy and was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Among his numerous associates in school were Harry Sherman, president of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and Alexander Wolcott, the first “Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Once Mr. Schlow moved to State College he became very interested in the community with the result that for several years he was a member of the State College Borough Council, and its president for four years.

At the death of his wife some 10 years ago he and his children along with several friends made it possible for the library organization to build and operate the present Bella S. Schlow Memorial Library. In the very near future it will be located in the old Post Office at the corner of Allen and Beaver Avenue.

Mr. Schlow’s hobbies include collecting books. He has over 3000 in his home, many autographed by author or illustrator, and many limited editions. The three he cherishes the most are those autographed by President Eisenhower, Mrs. Roosevelt, and King Edward.

Mr. Schlow likes State College and repeats as one man has told him … “State College makes me feel of a little bit of heaven. It is hard to reach but once you get there you don’t want to leave.”