Little renaissances

Are you watching Stranger Things this summer? I did. I loved it, and I love Gracy Olmstead’s reflections on why so many have.

Among other things, Stranger Things “reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything.”

Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end. …

“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes [Josef] Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.”

This is the thing about tradition, so often maligned as the milieu of the dead or the playpen of the romantics. Properly encountered, tradition isn’t a means of robotically re-enacting the past, but rather it’s a means of entering into a way of being, or a way of experiencing, the world in communion with the past, but with a character and tone wholly distinct and particular to the time.

Every little renaissance is an echo of the past as much as it is an echo of the future.

Institutions are not designed for revolutions

Alex Hillman writes On Economic Development and Coworking, where I came across a quote he paraphrases from Geoff DiMasi that is fantastic: “Institutions are not designed for revolutions.” Alex Hillman elaborates in the context of city government trying to spur innovation:

If you are in an institution, you’re not leading the revolution. I promise.

In fact, you’re probably what the revolution is working to change. Look outside of your institutions for leaders on the fringe, and support them the best way you can: stay out of their way.

In the best cases, look to the trenches for collaborators. Let them know they’re doing a good job, and see if they need help. Give them an opportunity to ask for what they need. Help them understand what it is that you can provide. But don’t build it for them.

“Institutions are not designed for revolutions.” This might be obvious, but often major institutions speak the language of change, innovation, and implicit revolution. By their nature, their purpose is the opposite—stability.

Revolutions are messy things, and tend to destroy and disrupt as much as they create and sometimes more than they create. (This is why conservatives are cautious about this sort of disruption. Distinct from cartels that seek always to thwart it.)

While “disruption” is thrown around a lot, “iteration” is not. And if there’s something institutions can do well, it’s iteration—incremental, systematic improvement in brand, board, processes, product, whatever.

Once a revolution is won, the winning social entrepreneur or nonprofit should probably focus more on answering the question, “How can we consistently iterate?” rather than cling to the mantra of disruption.

Clinging to that mantra, once you’re an institution, is just a series of loud noises.

Forming Catholic consciences

Archbishop Chaput’s column this morning continues his reflection on this year’s national presidential dilemma. I’m going to take a moment to excerpt most of his column and offer my own reactions, because +Chaput is reflecting on important realities in an important way:

Wealth, of course, can result in great generosity. And it needn’t disqualify a person from national leadership — but in a real democracy, belligerent egotism, political-class derision for whole blocs of the voting population, and an elitist, insider sense of entitlement to power, clearly do.

All three of these behaviors are prominent in this year’s election. And American Catholics, however they end up deciding to vote, have good reason to be frustrated with the choices they face in both major parties.

“Elitist, insider sense of entitlement to power” seems to sum up what Angelo Codevilla calls “the ruling class” in this country. The news media whose job it is to be so close to them day-to-day would naturally forget how strange this class is over time.

Politics involves the exercise of power for good or for ill. Therefore politics always has a moral dimension. And while politics is never the primary focus of a Christian life, Christians can’t avoid applying their faith to their political reasoning without betraying their vocation as disciples. Christians should never be “of” this world, but we’re most definitely in this world.  We have the privilege and duty to engage the world, including the public square, with the truth of Jesus Christ.

To put it plainly: The separation of Church and state does not mean, has never meant, and can never mean, the separation of our religious faith from our political, economic and social lives.

The entire point of the religious toleration on which we were founded was to tolerate the faith of others in its wholeness, and in their wholeness in the public square. The idea of American liberty as necessarily neutering any faith for the sake of a more agreeable public square is a worthless idea.

Eight years ago, “conservative” Catholics were criticized by Catholic “progressives” as culture warriors and apologists for the Bush presidency. But Catholic progressives have played the same role, often more effectively, for the Obama presidency. And if we hold the Bush years responsible for the consequences of a naïve and disastrous war in Iraq, we also need to hold the Obama years accountable for a systematic, ideologically driven attack on the unborn child, on our historic understandings of sexuality, marriage and family life, and on religious liberty.

This is a well stated, fair, and frankly damning observation that I haven’t heard anyone inside or outside the church make so directly. Cultural warriors on both sides diminish the faith by allowing their politics to co-opt it.

The deepest issues we face as a Church and a nation this year won’t be solved by an election. That’s not an excuse to remove ourselves from the public square. We do need to think and vote this November guided by properly formed Catholic consciences. But as believers, our task now is much more difficult and long-term.

We need to recover our Catholic faith as a unifying identity across party lines. And we can only do that by genuinely placing the Church and her teachings — all her teachings, rightly ordered — first in our priorities. Larger forces shape our current realities. If we fail to understand those forces, we’ll inevitably cripple our ability to communicate Jesus Christ to generations not yet born.

Larger forces than politics shape our current realities. The shaping of a distinctly Catholic conscience seems to be priority one.

Helping indebted dropouts

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a White House report on student debt with an interesting twist on the claims that student loans represent the next economic bubble. That twist? That $1.3 trillion+ in debt is helping rather than hurting the economy:

The White House just released a big report on student debt that contains all the familiar horrors about for-profit schools, indebted dropouts and students defaulting on their loans. But it has an interesting conclusion: That growing stack of $1.3 trillion in student debt is helping, not hurting, the U.S. economy.

The White House report, as with other studies, largely divides student borrowers into two groups: Graduates and dropouts. The first group, the majority, are doing just fine, even though tend to carry the heaviest student-debt balances. They are among society’s highest earners, thanks in large part to the degrees that the debt financed. They’re well-positioned to buy homes, and they’re helping improve the nation’s productivity because they learned skills that employers need.

The dropouts—a sizeable minority—are hardly doing fine. They’re making very little, they’re not buying homes and they’re damaging their credit. But because they are a contained group—there are about 7 million people in default on their federal student loans, out of a nation of more than 321 million—they don’t represent a systemic threat to the economy. And the White House concludes that many of these borrowers would still be suffering financially even without student debt, suggesting other factors are holding them down.

To highlight this divide, the White House points out that borrowers owing the smallest balances are the ones most likely to default. Take the cohort of borrowers who were first required to start making payments on their debt in 2011. Two-thirds of those who defaulted in the following three years owed less than $10,000, the White House says. More than a third of defaulters, 35%, owed less than $5,000. These borrowers owe little because they typically attended college for one or two years and then dropped out.

It seems like the just thing to do is to help indebted dropouts, regardless of whether they represent a “systemic threat” to economic stability. I don’t think it’s right to give a damn about whether “these borrowers would still be suffering financially even without student debt.”

It seems straightforward enough that we should offer a clean financial slate to those who walked away from college without a degree.

If they’re the least indebted cohort, and also the most likely to be harmed day-to-day by that debt, why not offer them a clean slate?


Reclaimed public space

This compilation came across my Twitter stream. It captures the impact of creating great public spaces. Too often these sorts of projects—bike lanes, little parks or parklets, bike racks, etc.—are presented in terms of the resulting loss of roadway or parking. Yet intuitively we know these tend to be great efforts, and ones that help strengthen the community because they provide new spaces for social interaction.

They also work to create space that isn’t entirely commercial in nature. We need more spaces for thoughtfulness, contemplation, and hopefully even beauty. Lady Bird Johnson helped ensure the U.S. Interstate Highway system would be free from billboards because she realized that the shrillness of advertising seriously harms our ability to enjoy our shared spaces.

Frequent metrics for judging communities include things like total square feet of new commercial space, residential space, etc. It would be innovative to see total square feet of “reclaimed public space” (or whatever) to convey how much new public space a community is creating for itself.

Princess Nittany Mural

One of my favorite Michael Pilato works of public art appears in State College above Panera Bread at the intersection of Allen and Beaver. It’s his “Princess Nittany” mural, which was commissioned by the building owners for the purpose of depicting scenes relevant to local life. It’s a beautiful addition to State College, and it’s especially special for me.

While living in State College, I would often work from my office in the building across the street. It had great views of both Allen Street and Beaver Avenue, and from my second floor window I could see Old Main peaking out over the trees of campus. It was my habit to keep the windows open during warm evenings, and the frequent creak and groan of Panera’s front door still echoes in my memory. The scene here is what I would see from that office window—except that brick wall is a lot more beautiful to look upon now.


It was in this same office that I jotted down the first legal-pad notes outlining the concept for a book on the local folklore and American Indian legends specific to the Nittany Valley. It was in looking out the windows of that office that the first rough plans for presenting Henry Shoemaker‘s legendary stories of Princess Nittany, Lion’s Paw, King Wi-Daagh, and other narratives like the story of Grandfather Pine and the Stream of Never Ending Love became a definite plan. Eventually, that plan was realized through Nittany Valley Press’s “The Legends of the Nittany Valley.”

Seeing Michael Pilato’s mural above Panera brings back all those memories and hopes of just a few years ago, and I’m still sort of amazed that Nittany Valley Press has been able to bring the book out in the way it has. Pilato’s mural of Princess Nittany tells some of the same stories as in the book.

If I could have known that the blank wall I would stare out upon when dreaming of a book telling these stories would itself start telling those same stories, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet here it is, and I can’t help but marvel at the magic of the coincidence.


Witness, with less preaching

When Catholics speak about a “Culture of Life,” how many who hear the phrase have any experiential context for understanding what it describes? After a year on the board of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia and affiliation with other pro-life efforts, I’m increasingly wondering at the strategic priorities of the pro-life movement, because I’m doubtful that Catholics, for instance, are sufficiently incarnating the meaning of the philosophy in the context of their communities.

I mean, in other words, that speaking about respect for life is experientially meaningless in the context of a community rocked daily by murder, poverty, and drugs. I mean, in other words, that speaking about respect for the life of the family has no resonance with even most Catholics, whose lives have been impacted by the same pregnancy, contraceptive, and marriage/divorce problems as the wider culture.

From a strategic perspective, I’m wondering if the pro-life movement might be emphasizing the wrong things as its core strategy—that is, emphasizing things like crisis pregnancy response rather than working to enculturate a joy for large families among those who already perceive the Culture of Life’s meaning. There is a strategic worth to making the Culture of Life about actually incarnating its philosophy—that is, building up large families and working to make joy their hallmark. With such a focus on crisis response and public political activity, I can sympathize with the idea that the Culture of Life is a reactive rather than proactive movement. I can also see how hearing the words “crisis” coupled with “pregnancy” one too many times can make it sound like pregnancy might be something other than an event fundamentally to be sought and celebrated.

At minimum, I’m increasingly thinking that the “Culture of Life” won’t be genuinely convincing if it doesn’t give rise to an obvious, tangible witness in the form of joyful and healthy families. And in the drive among our core believers to wage battles in the civic and cultural square, I fear we might be losing focus of the first priority of our philosophy, which is encouraging, sustaining, and supporting joyful, healthy families.

If those who expound on the Culture of Life end up having one or two kids like the rest of their community, their philosophy won’t seem terribly compelling—and I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard pro-life leaders explicitly celebrate sex and family as a first-order priority.

Seven Deadly Sins

Forget about the other six, says Pride.
They’re only using you.
Admittedly, Lust is a looker,
but you can do better.

And why do they keep bringing us
to this cheesy dive?
The food’s so bad that even Gluttony
can’t finish his meal.

Notice how Avarice
keeps refilling his glass
whenever he thinks we’re not looking,
while Envy eyes your plate.

Hell, we’re not even done, and Anger
is already arguing about the bill.
I’m the only one who
ever leaves a decent tip.

Let them all go, the losers!
It’s a relief to see Sloth’s
fat ass go out the door.
But stick around. I have a story

that not everyone appreciates—
about the special satisfaction
of staying on board as the last
grubby lifeboat pushes away.

—Dana Gioia

Mormon Temple

The Mormon Temple and accompanying meetinghouse and visitor center are now complete just off of Logan Circle in Center City Philadelphia. Their apartment tower is under construction now and like the rest of what they’ve brought to this part of the city, it’s a welcome sight. This area used to be parking lots, scattered trash, or worse.

When a Mormon temple is consecrated, only certain Mormons are allowed entrance. Philadelphia’s temple isn’t being consecrated until this fall, and until then the Church is running public tours. I did my tour yesterday. I had reserved a spot, but no one actually checked my reservation when I got there.

I’ve visited Salt Lake and seen Temple Square, so I’ve been familiar with the Latter Day Saints aesthetic and theology for a few years. It’s a fascinating, Americana sort of Christianity—what I think of (respectfully) as a sort of folklore Christianity.

It takes the Jesus Christ any Christian would recognize, but assumes that God’s authority was absent on the earth between the death of the last of Christ’s Apostles and the revelations to Joseph Smith in ~1830. This would mean Catholics and any other Christians are mistaken in their apostolic and doctrinal traditions.

Distinctive aspects of Mormonism are a much manlier, more playful, even boyant Christ than I’m used to seeing. This is probably a consequence of him always depicted as the resurrected Christ. In the Mormonism I saw at the temple, the cross (let alone the crucifix) doesn’t seem to exist. Its place is central to Christians who understand it as the symbol and tool by which Christ defeated death and created the possibility for life—so its absence was jarring to me.

Mormons also believe, unlike their Catholic or Christian brothers and sisters, that their president (equivalent of pope) is also a prophet, and as such can experience direct revelation from God, and so has the ability to alter doctrinal teachings of the faith, even to the point of contradicting past teaching.

Families, and particularly the concepts of eternal marriage, an everlasting family life, baptism of the ancestral dead, and integrated services, including counseslors, for families, saturates the experience of a visit.

A tribute to my grandfather

John Shakely, my grandfather, died in December 2001 after a multi-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I was barely a teenager at the time of his death, but his life, his adventurousness, his western Pennsylvania humility, and his presence haven’t ever really left me even if my experiences with him were only a child’s experiences. He’s one of those figures in your life that grows larger with time and distance, rather than smaller.

A connection we share is Penn State and Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, where he went after serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps. When I first found out that Michael Pilato’s Inspiration Mural was raising money for conservation a few years ago, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my grandfather there. The Nittany Valley Heritage Walk is creating a beautiful brick pathway surrounding the landmark mural, and I’m thrilled to be able to leave a little sign of my grandfather, of Pop, in a place where he spent time.


I saw my grandfather’s paver stone in person for the first time in December 2013. We had cremated my grandfather, and until recently there was no grave or site to visit. Because of this, this marker has been all the more meaningful to me. His marker is one of the set of five in the foreground of the above photo, roughly front and center.

He majored in Geology at Penn State and worked for many years as a geologist in the Middle East and elsewhere. Eventually he came home, earned his master’s degree, and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to raise a family. He taught high school history at Central Bucks West for nearly three decades.

I hope this marker can become something special far into the future for new generations of our family to make an increasingly distant ancestor feel a bit closer to reality.


A member of Penn State’s Class of 1950, he graduated the same year Joe Paterno arrived in State College. In this respect, it’s appropriate that his marker has ended up directly in front of Joe Paterno’s mural visage.

While I’m reminiscing about him (as I did somewhat in Conserving Mount Nittany), two other things:

In a very direct way, I’m thinking I might owe Penn State my life. When Pop joined Sigma Phi Alpha he cemented a friendship with fraternity brothers. Three of these brothers were heading from State College to Philadelphia one night for a group blind date with sorority sisters at the University of Pennsylvania. Pop ended up coming along because they needed a ride, and he had a car. He met the woman who would become my grandmother that night.

And finally: another fraternity brother named Paul Linvilla (who would later take over Linvilla Orchards in Delaware County) became his first mate when Pop bought Skoal, his 30 foot Tahiti ketch sailboat. They sailed from Miami across the Pacific and chronicled some of their journey in a surprisingly vivid way for two young 1950s adventurers.

These are some of the memories of both personal experience and history that come to mind when thinking of my grandfather, and now each time I return to the Nittany Valley and see his marker.