March 2015

  • Folklore

    Siobhan Maloney writes in Humane Pursuits on the “three functions of fairytale,” relating those functions through her father’s annual reading of J.R.R. Tolkien:

    Tolkien isn’t suggesting the denial of or escape from reality. Instead, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales provide “…an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.” (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2). Fantasy enables you to escape the boundaries of time and space, in order to remind you that you are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is the human attempt to satisfy the desire for a world that is deeper, richer, and more beautiful than the present one. It’s the recapitulation of our longing for a “paradise lost.” Fairytales make you remember.

    This reminds me of a line from Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary “Why Beauty Matters.” At one point he remarks (I’m paraphrasing) that the purpose of art is “to show the real, in the light of the ideal, and so transfigure it.”

    This is also what fairytales like Tolkien’s can do, and what folklore more generally can do. They can take our everyday experiences and help us see those real things in a fuller context. That enhanced perspective can transform our experiences by suggesting there is value in them beyond the obvious.

  • Maureen Mullarkey on the soma of art and sex education, relating an event that is to my perhaps naive perspective a culturally diminishing event: “…when a grown woman plays… by herself in the Musée d’Orsay, under lights, and in full view of other grownups, we know we are not in a playroom anymore.”

    I’m not interested in getting into the specifics of that event, but Mullarkey offers a critical perspective on our present sex ed approach:

    Children will hear nothing of courtship or tenderness. Instead, there will be much about prophylactic measures to avoid pregnancy and HIV. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, tells The National Post that “our organization is very much in favour of the curriculum and all of the changes that will be made.” By the time Ontario’s little scholars reach puberty all reticence will have been vanquished. Steeped in government run sex-ed, they will understand sex as a value-free, mechanical activity, a recreational choice like any other. They will know all about the social construction of “gender” but nothing of morals, self-control, or commitment. Any lingering sexual shyness will have been coaxed out of them. Sexual shame will be the only sin left. Children will enter adulthood as the free, consenting, rutting species that Huxley anticipated.

    We’ve reached the point where any conversation of this sort is so calcified between the poles of abstinence on one side, which supposedly many remain intent on advancing, and a necessarily value-free, scientific/mechanistic perspective on the other.

    Another problem is that it’s more or less impossible to discuss this subject as an advocate for anything other than value-free immersion without being cast as a would-be paragon of chastity or sexual integrity. Which is to say in most cases, anyone who advances a particular set of values is suggested probably rightly so to be something of a hypocrite.

    And that’s the problem with values, and with advocacy of ideals. It’s human nature to fall short of our values. It’s also human nature, since hatred remains one of our indelible aspects, to respond with sanctimony rather than tenderness toward those we disagree with especially when we know they advocate for something which they themselves do not consistently achieve.

    Yet I’ll risk these things to affirm Mullarkey’s point:

    When we promote sex education, are we promoting a comprehensive approach?

    Are we conveying the values of genuine personal commitment in addition to the medical, chemical, and scientific approaches toward resolving issues inherent to personal longing and fertility?

    Are we advancing not only knowledge of reproductive prevention, but also knowledge of the productive roles of courtship, tenderness, ethics, responsibility, and charity within the context of loving relationships?

    If not, we’re not really transmitting an education that’s inclusive of the scope of human knowledge about sexuality. We’re just advancing our team’s version of the normative, which we’ll justify through whatever means we’ve lately decided.

    Which is as dogmatic and fundamentalist as anything that yesterday’s advocates of restraint alone should be rightly criticized for.

  • Silence as a value

    Matthew B. Crawford writes on The Cost of Paying Attention:

    The benefits of silence are off the books. They are not measured in the gross domestic product, yet the availability of silence surely contributes to creativity and innovation. They do not show up explicitly in social statistics such as level of educational achievement, yet one consumes a great deal of silence in the course of becoming educated. …

    Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

    Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.

    I think the name “attentional commons” is completely unattractive. But the concept of creating spaces in our communities that defeat distraction and the market-driven impulse to capture every waking moment is excellent. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few years.

    Specifically, I sketched out a concept for a physical membership club that would cultivate relationships among members for the purpose of strengthening the community. No screens allowed. No televisions.

    Implementing that in State College is a question mark, but hopefully something like it can happen there or elsewhere and become a model for other places.

  • Enforced time off

    The work never ends, unless someone mandates otherwise:”

    TED is one of the few organizations that grants employees the gift of a forced two-week summer break. Visit and you’ll see no new TED talks until August 4. Try getting in touch with employees this week, via email, phone, or carrier pigeon. You’ll have some trouble. …

    The New York City nonprofit has been doing its two-week summer shutdown since 2009 (it also takes off the week between Christmas and New Year’s). The other week, I caught up with June Cohenexecutive producer of TED Media right before she took off on a cell phone service-free trip to a rainforest. “We all know how hard it is to plan a vacation. Most of us would feel too guilty to even take two weeks off, if it weren’t pre-planned for us. And we’d be likely to cancel when something inevitably came up. This creates an enforced rest period, which is so important for both productivity and happiness,” she dashed off in an email.

    … Cohen says she’d recommend the TED policy to other companies. “The impact on morale, productivity, and overall happiness is stunning. Plus… imagine how relieving it is to take a two-week vacation when all your work email stops.”

    This makes sense. Filing this away for future reference.

  • Hamilton


    Noah Millman’s review of Hamilton is worth reading. And MSNBC’s feature with Chris Hayes on Hamilton’s creation is worth watching. From Millman’s review:

    Hamilton, the wildly unlikely new hip-hop musical about the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” based on the Ron Chernow biography, has been hyped so much I almost didn’t want to see it. But believe the hype: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical is truly revolutionary – and also a deeply moving work of art, and a sincere love letter to a particular vision of America. …

    … But this is a historical play, about a period far removed from our mores as well as our music. Or is it? The most unexpected achievement of Hamilton is that it genuinely bridges that huge gap in time. It doesn’t make us feel like we are in a period piece, nor does it engage in cutesy anachronism. Instead, it makes us feel like what happened then, with these people, could be happening right next door; that the founding fathers were our close cousins in spirit; that we would know each other if we met.

  • Civic entrepreneurship

    Entrepreneur has a short article on Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal and the idea of social entrepreneurs focusing on the public sector. Blumenthal democratized the eyewear industry to selling for $95 and donating a pair internationally. The thought experiment is: what if the same sort of things could be done in specific areas of the public sector?

    “Where we need innovation and where I think we are going to finally see social entrepreneurs spend more and more time is the public sector, because the big challenge that is facing every community on the planet is that government and public policy are not moving at the pace of technology or even meeting expectations of constituents,” says Blumenthal. …

    Entrepreneurs and governmental agencies can cross-pollinate in a number of ways, as Blumenthal sees it. For example, social entrepreneurs can go work in the government for a stint. Or, social entrepreneurs might build their own independent enterprises working with governmental data. For example, Civic Hall is a co-working space in New York dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build social-minded businesses that solve public issues.

    The key for aspiring social entrepreneurs is to look for a problem in the world — preferably one that they understand well, Blumenthal says. In many ways, the Warby Parker model came out of his previous work at VisionSpring, a nonprofit that provides eyeglasses to the developing world.

    A few years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, Gavin Keirans and I worked with Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service. We were hosting a Catholic service initiative and neighborhood cleanup in West Philadelphia.  The initiative went well, and the city staff was helpful, but there wasn’t a sense that systemic issues were being addressed that could solve neighborhood problems in a sustainable way.

    In thinking about civic entrepreneurship, I think as with most things there are real opportunities on the fringe. In other words, I there are opportunities to solve public sector problems by ignoring the political infrastructure entirely to start with, hacking away at a specific and limited problem in a specific place, and in solving that problem discovering whether the solution can scale.

    I like where Blumenthal’s head is at, and it’s something I’ll continue to think about.

  • Hell

    Michael Novak on Hell:

    The Gospels picture Jesus warning that some people are casting themselves into the fires of Gehenna. Note: it is not fair to say that Jesus cast them there. Rather, no one goes to hell who does not reflectively and deliberately choose to turn away from God of her own free choice. And the real fire of hell is the acute consciousness, too late dawning, that you alone have chosen to be where you are, banished, as you chose, from His presence. …

    To my way of thinking… the most terrifying and bitter punishment that could await me in hell is the deep, deep regret that I have chosen my own banishment from the source of all beauty, all joy, all goodness, all truth. To have deliberately and consciously separated myself from all the pleasures and good things of life – from laughter and good red wine. To have sundered myself from communion with all brothers and sisters in the travails and blisses of human life. Not even Macbeth felt such bitter remorse. Hell is being trapped inside oneself. Or as Dante showed in his Inferno, trapped and immobile in the frozen ice of one’s own self-centeredness.

  • Periscope

    I’ve been fascinated by the rapid rise of Meerkat for Twitter-driven live streaming. I blogged about it twice in the past two weeks, and I continue to use the app. Watching the SXSW action in Austin is great.

    I was an early adopter of Meerkat and became a major advocate to a number of friends who initially ridiculed the concept and have since confessed that they’ve become “obsessed” with it. Their words, not mine.

    That said: “Move fast, break things” is the mantra of digital tech and live streaming is no exception.

    Twitter’s rumored acquisition of stealth live streaming app Periscope was confirmed on Friday and hopefully the public confirmation means Twitter will bring Periscope out of private beta sooner rather than later.

    It’s supposedly a much more polished app (Meerkat was thrown together in ten days), and—critically for certain use cases—Periscope allows both limited-invite streams to small groups of friends as well as saved versions of streams rather than Meerkat’s “once and done” ephemerality.

    In my best case mental scenario Twitter would acquire Meerkat and its team too, but God knows if that’s really the best approach. I do wonder though, given the enormous amount of traction and affection Meerkat has earned in the past two weeks.

    Whatever happens, true live streaming is nearly here which is great.

  • I’m a fan of term limits for nonprofit boards. When you’re a part of a volunteer board for a mission-driven nonprofit, you’re there to help ensure it can change the world in some way.

    But without a ticking clock, it’s easy to look over at a beautiful mission statement, pour yourself a drink, and admire that beautiful thing. And especially as a volunteer board member, it’s easy to take a leisurely approach. It’s your free time you’re volunteering, after all. So maybe let’s not rock the boat too much and just take it easy. And without that ticking clock that a term limit represents, who is there to judge?

    What a terrible attitude. If you’re joining the board of a nonprofit to do anything other than help take it to the next level, you owe it to everyone involved to think twice.

    As with any corporation, there is enormous variation in terms of nonprofit mission scope and demands on its board and leadership. But a great nonprofit with a great mission is going to demand your time, your money, your connections, and potentially all three.

    I think 12 years is a perfect ceiling on nonprofit board service, with 6-9 years probably being ideal in many cases.

    It’s both more rewarding and more challenging to substantively impact a nonprofit than it seems, and so even relatively modest changes can take many years to be successfully engrained into a nonprofit’s organizational culture.

    If you take a nonprofit where board members serve 3-year terms, you can approach your commitment sequentially, like four quarters in a game. How many points are you going to score in the first quarter? Can you build on that lead in the second quarter? Is there a plan for stretching that lead in the second half? Do you have a plan for the fourth quarter, or are you going to limp through the final minutes?

    A proactive, relentlessly positive, and strategic approach for volunteer nonprofit board service from a single member can transform a board and equip a nonprofit for significant impact.

    Run onto the field with intention and keep an eye on the clock.

  • Running in New York

    I went for a decent outdoor run this week for the first time since December, running from Hell’s Kitchen past the Battery and back. For an evening in March, it was perfect. Low 50s and light to steady rain on an uninterrupted path along the Hudson River Park waterfront.

    It’s a beautiful part of the city along the waterfront, especially when you’re down near the World Trade Center where even the fringes of the city start to feel like the edges of a canyon. Along the Battery where you’re closest to the new shoreline you can lean over and see the water lap the rocks, and in the rain the sand envelopes section of the boardwalk and pavement. The wet that hangs in the air combines with the sand sticking to your feet, moving you mentally far from the scene.

    When it comes to routines, I’m highly impacted by environment. In 2013, I lived in Ave Maria, FL for a few months. That January, I ran 111 miles—more than I had ever run in month. It was consistently beautiful, with temperatures in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. The hotter the better. Starting or ending the day with a run through the swamps of Southern Florida was novel, but it was also an easy routine to slip into. Comparing that experience to the Northeastern winter, the triggers for that habit disappear.

    So I’m looking forward to the warmer weather in New York, but I’m also starting to think seriously about whether I want to make a life in the Northeast knowing that so much of the year requires a sort of social and environmental hibernation.