Adolescence

Newt Gingrich wrote almost ten years ago:

Adolescence was invented in the 19th century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history: consigning 13-year-old males to learning from 15-year-old males. …

The fact is, most young people want to be challenged and given real responsibility. They want to be treated like young men and women, not old children. So consider this simple proposal: High school students who can graduate a year early get the 12th year’s cost of schooling as an automatic scholarship to any college or technical school they want to attend. If they graduate two years early, they get two years of scholarships. At no added cost to taxpayers, we would give students an incentive to study as hard as they can and maximize the speed at which they learn.

Once we decide to engage young people in real life, doing real work, earning real money, and thereby acquiring real responsibility, we can transform being young in America. And our nation will become more competitive in the process.

Remove Gingrich’s politics and his tendency to be provocative for its own sake, and you’re still left with a worthwhile thought. Some people talk about the problem of “extended adolescence,” but why not help (emotionally, socially, and educationally well adjusted) kids avoid adolescence altogether? We have one life.

Listening to the rain

We seem determined to let no part of nature remain truly natural—for no part of the environment to remain truly untouched by our hands. Even our natural spaces are increasingly tamed and managed and planned, which means they’re not really natural spaces any longer.

So I thank God that we still have the experience of rain showers to provide a sense of the natural and timeless and lovely amidst our landscapes.

Fire this gentle

It’s been a while since I shared poetry I’ve liked, so here’s Las Animas by Dana Gioia:

Fire everywhere, soft fire of brushwood, fire
on walls where a faint shadow flickers
but lacks the strength to imprint itself, fire
in the distance rising and falling across the hills
like a bright thread through the spreading ashes,
fire in flakes from the trellised vines and branches.

Here neither before nor after its proper time,
but now that everything in this festive,
sad valley exhausts its life, exhausts its fire,
I turn back and count my dead,
and their procession seems longer, trembling
leaf by leaf from the first felled tree.

Grant them peace, eternal peace, carry them
to safety—far from this whirlwind
of ash and flame that twists choking
through the ravines, wandering the paths,
spinning aimlessly, then disappears.
Let death by only death, nothing other
than death, beyond struggle, beyond life.
Grant them peace, eternal peace, appease them.

Down there where the harvest is thicker,
they plow, they roll their barrels to the spring,
they whisper in the quiet transformations
of each hour. A young dog stretches out
in the corner of the garden for a nap.

A fire this gentle is barely enough, perhaps
not even enough, to cast light long
on this life’s undergrowth. Only another fire
can do the rest and then more—
to consume these remains, to change
them into light, clear and incorruptible.

Requiems from the dead for the living, requiems
in each flame for the living and the dead.
Stir the embers: night is here, the night
that spreads its pulsing web between the mountains,
now the eyes fail, but from the heat,
from the darkness, they know what remains.

(From the Italian of Mario Luzi)

Conserving as much as creating

When I think about conservation, I think about the necessity of being creative in order to be successful. That is, I don’t think it’s possible to conserve something without also to some degree changing the thing you’re conserving—and in that change, creativity emerges.

What a conservationist exists to do first and foremost is conserve something—speaking in the broadest way, this is usually a way of life, or a way that people or a community relate to one another. A conservationist is guided by creativity and principle, but only secondarily concerned with things like institutions or abstract ideas. And a conservationist’s interest in being creative and the principle of the thing he’s trying to conserve usually comes from his relationship with his other people, his neighbors.

In life, in family, in the church, in schooling, in social clubs, in recreation, all these things require actively recreating a way of being that has been lived before and born the fruit of the present—or at least born fruits that are no longer present but at least vaguely remembered. A dilapidated but historic house crying out for renovation is one example. A run-down neighborhood once made vibrant by an economic or intellectual strength is another example. But the essential point is that every choice in and of itself is an act of creation, or writing the next chapter. In this, we are creating the good life as we understand it with those we love.

A tangible example of the way that both conserving and creating relate to one another can be seen at Philadelphia City Hall. There is the mighty old building herself, but there is also the conservationist’s creative touch in the cleaning and restoration of the original white of the building’s tower. Its cleaning certainly helped conserve the building, and simply in cleaning it did not change the tower. And yet, in cleaning that tower the conservationist created an entirely new experience of City Hall that is altogether different than the one that generations had before of a filthy, pollution-covered symbol of the city.

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The same idea can be seen around City Hall in what is now called Dilworth Park. This was a concrete and marble skirt for the building until a few years ago, when the entire thing was transformed by Center City District into an inviting and attractive public space. Achieving this transformation required a great deal of creative thinking, and in executing the change Dilworth Park was born as an entirely new space. And yet Dilworth Park also in some form conserves Centre Square, one of William Penn’s five squares laid out hundreds of years ago.

To conserve something is rarely a passive thing. It requires as much vision and thoughtfulness about what’s value and good as the newest thing under the sun. Maybe more so, given human tendency to prize novelty over the proven and timeless.

Suspension in Ave

A few years ago I shared one of my favorite E.B. White passages from Here Is New York, his great public diary of the city. I want to share the same passage again, because I was out on a walk in a light (but steady) rain after midnight in Ave Maria, Florida not too long ago, and a particular trees branches created a sort of curtain of vibrant green and electric light that immediately called to mind these words:

In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language.

The context for this is below. This is one of the gifts of reading; the ability for a simple thing like a solitary nighttime walk to transport you in spirit or transfigure a simple, unremarkable moment into one that bursts with an enchanted feeling.

It is seven o’clock and I re-examine an ex-speakeasy in East 53rd Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed). How dark, how pleasing; and how miraculously beautiful the murals showing Italian lake scenes—probably executed by a cousin of the owner. The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation. From the next booth drifts the conversation of radio executives; from the green salad comes the little taste of garlic. Behind me (eighteen inches again) a young intellectual is trying to persuade a girl to come live with him and be his love. She has her guard up, but he is extremely reasonable, careful not to overplay his hand. A combination of intellectual companionship and sexuality is what they have to offer each other, he feels. In the mirror over the bar I can see the ritual of the second drink. Then he has to go to the men’s room and she has to go to the ladies’ room, and when they return, the argument has lost its tone. And the fan takes over again, the argument has lost its tone. And the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin.

Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. Overhead a plane passes dreamily, its running lights winking. On the bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes…” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins—the Queen Mary announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro; they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of the girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.

American binge

I remember watching Ken Burns’s Prohibition when it came out years ago. Like all of Burns’s work, Prohibition paints a portrait in a very detail rich way and through human stories rather than through dry raw information.

The first episode really soars in explaining the rise of temperance as a response to the permeation of hard liquor and drunkenness that hit after the 1830s, and the factors that caused temperance to morph into abstinence societies, the rise of female activism, and ultimately the conflicting, raw, machine-style politics that led to Prohibition as federal amendment and the varying calculus of those responsible. From the series intro:

“Virtually every part of the Constitution is about expanding human freedom. Except prohibition, in which human freedom was being limited. When people cross the line between our essential character as Americans and some other superseding vision of what we should be, then we get in trouble.” —Pete Hamill

A great companion to Ken Burns is W.J. Rorabaugh’s 1979 book The Alcoholic Republic. It focuses not on Prohibition but on the Revolutionary period to 1840, conveying what historians still really haven’t in terms of popular consciousness—which is how, why, and to what ends drinking in America has permeated our sense of ourselves:

The truth was startling: Americans between 1790 and 1830 drank more alcoholic beverages per capita than ever before or since. (pg. IX) … between 1800 and 1830, annual per capita consumption [of distilled spirits] increased until it exceeded 5 gallons — a rate nearly triple that of today’s [1979] consumption. (pg. 8)

Also worth reading is Joseph Mitchell‘s New Yorker essay on McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon, New York City’s oldest bar. McSorely’s was so full of character that when Prohibition hit, it continued to operate and city police continued to drink there.

Some customs are more powerful than law.

Restoring a crucifix

A few years ago I connected with an artist named Matthew Szczepanowski at the Conservation Studio for Art in Philadelphia to restore a family heirloom. Specifically, it was a crucifix that’s been in the family for nearly a century. I liked Matthew immediately, and he did tremendous restoration work. Before/after:

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The crucifix was is pretty poor shape after so many years, and was literally coming apart at the seams. I particularly like that the cross itself was returned to its natural wood color, rather than its original black paint.

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Matthew is a tall, almost imposing man with a quick smile and a friendly nature. He’s worked on many restoration projects for Catholics in Philadelphia over the years, and religious art is a speciality of his.

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The restoration of the Christ figure was most impressive to me, since there was extensive damage to his right arm in particular and chipping and fading in general.

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Matthew told me of a pilgrimage he was taking (leaving the next day) across Poland to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. I forget which city he was leaving from, but excitement lit up his eyes as he told of the 10+ day journey across the country, hundreds of miles.

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I grew up seeing this occasionally underneath my mother’s bed. It was stored there for years, in need of repair. I hope it will live for at least another century in our family now that it’s restored and an active call to prayer again.

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Where this crucifix came from is a story in and of itself, and one that I’m sharing partly for public enjoyment but mostly for any family members who might be interested in it in years to come…

At some point in the early years of the last century (after the Spanish-American War but before the 16th Amendment instituted taxation on earnings and paved the way for Prohibition to be financially feasible) a craftsman-salesman arrived on the stoop of a row home in Mayfair, Philadelphia and knocked on the door.

Grace Roth, wife to Charles, answered the door. A first generation American, and specifically a German Catholic, she was a likely buyer. The large and elegant crucifixes this man was selling became somewhat common in her time.

We don’t know anything about the man, about what motivated Grace’s purchase, or precisely when the crucifix came to hang in Charles and Grace Roth’s home. But it has survived through time, and as long preserved objects tend to, become an heirloom in my family—because Grace turned out to be my maternal great, great grandmother. After Charles died in the 1920s she lived with her daughter (my great grandmother Nana) in Philadelphia. She came to love Phillip Bruce, her son-in-law. Phillip was a city policeman and provider but who died young and suddenly in the line of duty. Elderly by this point, Grace died within a week of Phillip.

Her crucifix, and its having been passed down through time to her daughter and to my grandmother and now to me, has had the effect of creating an enduring gift and a point of memory in our family. It’s an heirloom because it connects us across time; connects us to those who came before us and points toward those who are yet to come.

A year later, another visit

A year ago today I spent the afternoon at Hollywood Beach while I waited for friends to join me for a visit to Ben Novak in Ave Maria ninety minutes west. And a year later I’m back where I was, having flown into Fort Lauderdale and enjoying a beautiful day. This weekend I’ll be in Ave Maria with Ben again, along with Alex Smith from Philadelphia and Kevin Horne from State College. I sat beneath a palm tree, leaning against its trunk and drifting in and out of sleep for a little while; woke up at one point to capture this scene:

A visit to Old Heidelberg is in the calendar for this evening.

Faith and reason > passions

When the film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia debuted in 2005, Joe Sobran wrote:

Belief is something you have or don’t have; but faith is an act of will and fortitude, which is why we speak of “keeping” or “breaking” faith.

A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the water when he actually gets into it. The problem isn’t the child’s “beliefs” about the water; it’s his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.

When our faith fails, it isn’t usually because of any rational doubt. Reason isn’t opposed to faith; it’s opposed to the passions (the word is cognate with passive; we’re truly active only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesn’t occur in the intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this…

When we talk about things like “culture” or “refinement” or “manners” we’re talking at least to some degree about restraining our animalistic passions or inclinations. When laziness overcomes us—when the leather of the couch is warm, and our eyes heavy—we’d much rather not go out. Our reason is overcome, even as it tries to tell us to keep our appointment, or to arrive on time, or whatever. Same with avoiding a workout, and any other dozen instances where a sort of lie (“This other thing would be better for you…”) replaces a truer purpose.

Ben Casnocha introduced me years ago to the idea of a “resilience quotient,” basically meaning fortitude. C.S. Lewis, as Sobran explains it, is arguing similarly about faith in Christ as a means to withstand the vicissitudes of our baser instincts.

An incredible map

Seth Stevenson writes on “the greatest paper map of the United States you’ll ever see.” It’s David Imus’s work of art and it really is beautiful. Here’s Pennsylvania:

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What separates a great map from a terrible one is choosing which data to use and how best to present it. How will you signify elevation and forestation? How will you imply the hierarchy of city sizes? How big must a town (or an airport, or a body of water) be to warrant inclusion? And how will you convey all of this with a visual scheme that’s clean and attractive? …

David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. … Your standard wall map will often paint the U.S. states different colors so their shapes are easily grasped. But Imus’ map uses thick lines to indicate state borders and reserves the color for more important purposes—green for denser forestation, yellow for population centers.

“Yellow for population centers” is one of the keys for grasping both the utility and beauty of this map. Looking at the entire nation with this map gives you an immediate sense of just how big the big cities are, and where the population splays itself out across the terrain. It turns raw facts like “325 million Americans” into something as practically useful as it is visually impressive. And seeing how little concentrated yellow there is on the thing reminds us of how much room we have to grow.