Full Moon Party

We’re in the Florida Keys for New Year’s Eve, specifically staying on a houseboat at Mangrove Marina in Tavernier near Key Largo, and later in Islamorada for a New Year’s Eve “Full Moon Party” at Pierre’s on the beach. I’ll post scenes from throughout the day.

First from Lazy Day’s in Islamorada, where we had a late lunch, then from Mangrove Marina on our “Starfish” houseboat, where we spent the last daylight hours of 2017 and watched the sun set over the water and the full moon grow increasingly bright in the darkening sky, and finally from Pierre’s on the beach in Islamorada, where we spent the final six hours of the year:

A parade weaved its way through the beachfront crowds probably a dozen or so times throughout the evening and night, past midnight. I captured this scene from our Morada Bay table-on-the-beach:

And the midnight fireworks were a fitting way to finish the year, especially in the Keys which suffered a fair amount of devastation from Hurricane Irma earlier this year:

Happy New Year.

Nearly New Years

We’re heading to Fort Lauderdale today to meet friends for New Years, and stayed at the Sheraton in Center City, Philadelphia last night before this morning’s flight—in part due to the forecast of snow that would have slowed the roads. Here’s the scene from the Sheraton at night, before the snow, and in the morning, after the snow:

Our flight ended up being delayed out of Philadelphia by about an hour, but the flight itself was smooth and I slept through most of it.

It’s my first time to Fort Lauderdale By-The-Sea, which seems lovely and retains perhaps a bit more of 1950s-era Florida than does Fort Lauderdale proper. Scenes from a walk to Assumption church for mass:

We’re heading to the Keys for New Years Eve, specifically Islamorada and Tavernier, near Key Largo.

Loneliness and daily life

Aaron Renn writes:

If you are one of those people in a big city who is feeling lonely or disconnected, I’ve got a nearly sure-fire way to change things. Go look for someone who is even lonelier and more hurting than you, and go be that person’s friend.

I’m always astonished that there could be so many lonely people in the city. This would seem to be an easy problem to solve; just go be each other’s friends. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I think in part that’s because we’re always looking for relationships that are going to deliver value to us, instead of us looking for how we’re going to deliver value to others. We always want to network up. We seldom want to network down. (Though we often stay in our lanes on social media, as I noted above).

This is an area where I part ways with a lot of the secular self-help gurus. Most of those guys tend to recommend pruning the deadweight relationships out of your life, and purging the losers, energy drainers, etc. There’s a place for that if you’re in unhealthy relationships. But Christians simply can’t apply that as a rule for life. We are called to be there for those who have nothing to offer us (or at least that we think don’t have anything to offer).

Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35). Living in New York, I constantly see people who are obviously lonely and looking for friendship (and romance, and other kinds of relationships). I see them in my own church. Presumably there are many people in NYC I don’t meet who are even more disconnected. There are a lot hurting people in the big city.

The best way to find a friend for yourself if you’re lonely is to be a friend to someone who’s even lonelier and more hurting than you. As I discovered, this often isn’t even very hard if you’re simply willing to regularly spend time with the person. The relationship itself will then often just happen. (If you have some severe social interaction problem or disability, this might still be very challenging for you. I want to acknowledge that some people do have genuine problems here).

I think you’ll find that when you think you’re helping someone else, you actually end up helping yourself too. That’s the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. We’re called to do things contrary to our natural (sinful) inclinations. But this has a tendency to end up being the best policy for ourselves over the long haul. The gospel isn’t a rulebook for life, or a set of if-then precepts for getting what we want. The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. But God’s ways aren’t just arbitrary commands designed to make us practice jumping through hoops. They are also the best path to human flourishing properly understood. Even some of the secular self-help people get it when they point out that you first have to give before you can get.

So don’t be surprised that if you decide to befriend someone in need that you think has nothing to offer you that you end up getting way more out of it than you ever thought you would.

Aaron is writing about loneliness and city life, but I think this applies equally to daily life for most people, anywhere at this point. In very real ways, daily life in suburban communities is not only as segregated and atomized as it might be in cities, but it’s also more difficult to meet your neighbors, because there’s not the physical closeness for spontaneity and for running into one another.

Jack Bogle’s values

A portrait of Jack Bogle, Vanguard’s founder:

As living legends go, Bogle is a modest fellow, or at least he tries to be. “Call me Jack” is his normal conversation starter. He’s old-fashioned, even for an 88-year-old — the kind of guy who has simple rules for living a good life, codified in the aphoristic style of one of his heroes, Benjamin Franklin. “To be called an 18th-century man is to me the ultimate accolade,” Bogle has said. …

This fall, Jack Bogle released an updated version of his primer, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing. First published a decade ago, it is one of 11 books he has written (the 12th, his own history of the company, is in the works) and according to the author has sold about 250,000 copies. In it, Bogle sets out his fundamental ideas on successful wealth accumulation for the average person: Invest in indexed mutual funds mixed between stocks and bonds, and hold onto them. Bogle is convinced — and he has done lots of research to support his case — that it’s almost impossible to beat the market over the long run, and that “average” returns combined with low management expenses and fees (which Bogle made sure were the core of Vanguard) are the best deal for investors.

“From almost the first day of Vanguard,” Bogle tells me in a recent interview, “I’ve seen so much of this industry and so many phony funds and so much money pouring in when your performance is hot and pouring out when your performance is cold. That’s not a very good way to make money. The first thing I demanded is that we were going to have funds with relative predictability.”

It has taken decades, but what was once called “Bogle’s Folly” — a so-called “passive” approach to investing that buys and holds a widely diversified basket of stocks representing a broad portion of the market as a whole, rather than one that tries to pick winners — has become certifiably trendy. We appear to be experiencing a rare outbreak of the contagion of common sense.

“In the last 10 years, investors have put around $2 trillion into index funds,” Bogle reports. Yes, that’s trillion. Other companies offer index funds, but Vanguard has long dominated the market. “Since January 2015,” Bogle adds, “Vanguard has taken in a cool $793 billion. The entire industry has taken in $815 billion. It’s amazing.” By the end of 2017, the house that Jack built was on track to have $5 trillion in assets under management.

Jack Bogle started Vanguard in difficult personal circumstances. He’d been fired from the top job at a money management firm called Wellington (the founder had handed him control when he was 38) by the very partners he’d invited to join the firm. Something of a sailing buff, he picked his new company’s name as a reference to the flagship of the famous Admiral Lord Nelson. Nautical touches have long been a staple of the company culture. Now, as he goes to work each day at the four-person outfit known as the Bogle Financial Markets Research Center, which Vanguard set up for him as consolation for adhering to the company policy of 70 as mandatory retirement age, the original little skiff of a company has grown into a giant money supertanker.

Bogle is in a peculiar situation so late in life. After he’d staked his career and reputation on an untested notion that was the financial world’s version of sailing against the wind, the wind reversed. Now he’s lionized as a financial sage, and the company he started has grown and prospered beyond anything he might have imagined when he reluctantly handed over control two decades ago. Yet he’s unable or unwilling to quell his contrarian nature and a strong moralistic streak, and he can’t help but question whether Vanguard is shipshape to weather its own phenomenal success.

I remember seeing Vanguard’s logo in my grandmother’s mail every month growing up. She was a long-time investor with Vanguard and believer in their index funds, and that faith—along with her and my grandfather’s frugality, social security, and school teacher’s pension—ensured they lived decently even to their deaths. Vanguard’s Jack Bogle-created culture of thrift, frugality, and modesty is a template for how corporations, and especially financial institutions, can be model corporate citizens.

Appearance and human persons

William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life is a great book for understanding the basis for pro-life advocacy and the vision so many have for a life-affirming culture rather than one which grants liberties procured at the expense of the rights of others.

Concerning human rights and the appearance of human persons:

[A] common set of claims … deny the humanity and a fortiori the personhood of the human zygote and early embryo [and] appeal[s] to the fact that these organisms do not “appear” to be human or persons. Pictures and drawings of human beings at these stages of development seem to support claims of this kind. “How,” they ask, “can you say that an organism with no face or hands or feet or organs can possibly be a human being, much less a person?” Or, “How can an organism no larger than the period at the end of a sentence possibly be regarded as a human being, a person?”

Germain Grisez points out that arguments of this kind are plausible, “because they use imagery and directly affect feelings. Usually, in judging whether or not to apply a predicate [such as human being or person] to an experienced entity, one does not examine it to see whether it meets a set of intelligible criteria; instead, one judges by appearances, using as guide past experience of individuals of that kind.” However, he continues, such claims can be falsified by pointing out that, “while the particular difference [between a human zygote or early embryo and embryos and fetuses at a later stage of development] is striking because of the normal limits of human experience, (nevertheless) entities that are different in that way certainly are living human beings.”

Stephen Schwarz, whom Grisez commends, has identified the element common to these denials of humanity and/or personhood to the zygote and early embryo and has responded to it decisively. He points out that all these objections are “based on the expectation that what is a person must be like us. It must be the right size (a size like ours); it must have a level of development comparable to ours; it must look like us; it must, like us, be conscious.”

But, he continues, “these are not true criteria for being a person [nor for being a human being].” They are rather “simply expressions of our expectations, of what we are used to, of what appears familiar to us. It is not that the zygote fails to be a person [or human being] because it fails these tests; rather, it is we who fail by using these criteria to measure what a person [or human being] is.”

It is unreasonable to expect that a human being in the first stages of his or her development will look like a familiar human being, or like a newborn baby or a four-year-old or a teenager, or a mature adult or a wheelchair-bound elderly man or woman. The way these persons “appear” during the early stages of their development says nothing of the status of their nature or being. Each of us develops and unfolds his or her inner essence and personality every day of our lives, and we were developing and unfolding them before we were born just as we do afterwards. This ought not to cause anyone surprise. “Horton,” one of Dr. Seuss’s lovable characters, hits the nail on the head in Horton Hears a Who when he says, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

And concerning the problem of “personhood;” of the idea that persons acquire their personhood from their recognition by their peers:

Another claim denying personhood to the unborn, or at least to many unborn human beings is widely held today, but it too is readily falsifiable. It is the claim that personhood is a status conferred on entities by others, and it is, surprisingly, held by many in our society. Proponents of this view contend that personhood is a social status conferred on an entity by others and that an entity is a person only when recognized by others as a person. They believe that this view is supported by the truth that persons exist only with other persons—personhood is relational in character.

One advocate of this view, Marjorie Reiley Maguire, proposes that the personhood of the unborn “begins when the bearer of life, the mother, makes a covenant of love with the developing life within her to birth … The moment which begins personhood … is the moment when the mother accepts the pregnancy.” And, if she does not accept it and decides to abort the “developing life within her,” that life must be regarded as not a person, for personhood has not been bestowed on it.

This position, of course, leads to the absurdity that the same being can be simultaneously both a person and not a person; it is a “person,” for instance, if at least one person, say its father, recognizes and esteems it as a person; but it is not a “person” if another person, say its mother, refuses to consider it a person. This claim presupposes that human meaning-giving constitutes persons; the truth is that human meaning-giving and human societies presuppose human persons.

We need a broader spectrum of choice as a way to heal a culture that presently and capriciously denies the basic humanity of all its people, often for material reasons that a society as fortunate as ours should be strong enough to resolve.

Jackson Magnolia

Kate Bennett reports:

The south facade of the White House will undergo a dramatic change this week: the historic Jackson Magnolia, a tree that has been in place since the 1800s, is scheduled to be cut down and removed.

The enormous magnolia, one of three on the west side of the White House and the oldest on the White House grounds, extends from the ground floor, up past the front of the windows of the State Dining Room on the first floor and beyond the second-level executive residence. The tree has had a long and storied life, yet has now been deemed too damaged and decayed to remain in place.

Specialists at the United States National Arboretum [wrote] … in part: “The overall architecture and structure of the tree is greatly compromised and the tree is completely dependent on the artificial support. Without the extensive cabling system, the tree would have fallen years ago. Presently, and very concerning, the cabling system is failing on the east trunk, as a cable has pulled through the very thin layer of wood that remains. It is difficult to predict when and how many more will fail.”

Another excerpt on the history of this tree:

After a brutal presidential campaign in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died just days after his election; according to historians, Jackson believed the particularly divisive campaign contributed to his wife’s untimely demise. When he took up residence in the White House as a widower following his inauguration, it is believed Jackson insisted on planting a sprout from Rachel’s favorite magnolia tree from the couple’s farm, Hermitage, in Tennessee.

That tree eventually grew into the sprawling magnolia the American public has come to know and recognize to this day. (A companion magnolia was planted on the opposite side of the South Portico years later for symmetry.) The official Jackson Magnolia has been in the background for numerous historic events, from state arrival ceremonies and Easter Egg Rolls, to thousands of photo ops, social and athletic activities, and countless Marine One departures and arrivals. …

From 1928 to 1998, the tree was featured prominently on the back of the $20 bill.

In 1994, a single-engine plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House, sending debris from the wreckage into the Jackson Magnolia, cutting off one of its larger branches.

Laura Bush commissioned a set of White House china inspired by the tree, called “The Magnolia Residence China,” painted with magnolia leaves and blossoms.

In 2016, Obama also clipped a seedling as a gift to the people of Cuba; it was planted during the Obamas’ visit there. Various other dignitaries and first ladies have gifted or replanted seedlings from the tree throughout history.

A view of the Jackson Magnolia on the $20 bills of my youth. The magnolia can be seen on the reverse bill below. These bills were phased out in the late 1990s.

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Despite this end of the Jackson Magnolia, a new generation will follow:

…the silver lining of its demise is that White House groundskeepers were prepared. For several months, at an undisclosed greenhouse-like location nearby, healthy offshoots of the tree have been growing, tended to with care and now somewhere around eight to 10 feet tall. CNN has learned the plan is that another Jackson Magnolia, born directly from the original, will soon be planted in its place, for history to live on.

Trees like this can be symbols and focal points for a nation or a community’s history, memory, and identity. They remind those who admire them across time and over so many human generations how short the sweep of seemingly-long time can be, how close we really are to those who came before, and how near we are to passing from the scene. In this way, they remind us to be stewards of the best of what we’ve received, and to strive to pass along that best for the better of those yet to be.

Sweet and silly Christmas things

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
“The church looks nice” on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says “Merry Christmas to you all.”

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad,
And Christmas-morning bells say “Come!”
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman

‘Christmas is about two caves’

I’m sharing Fr. George Rutler’s Christmas reflection, emailed by his Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Hell’s Kitchen, my once-upon-a-time neighborhood, along with a photo I snapped from my friend Alex’s 21st and Walnut Philadelphia apartment lobby. What does it mean that Christians believe in the bodily resurrection? Fr. Rutler sheds some light on this absurd-seeming belief:

Saint Paul was converted by the risen Christ, who appeared as a blinding light. Later, he would meet Peter and James who had seen the actual risen body, which had changed from the way it appeared during Christ’s three years with them.

The body of the resurrected Christ had four characteristics. First, it could no longer feel pain. This “impassibility” was a triumph over the horrors of the Passion. Second, by “subtlety” the body was no longer subject to the laws of physics. During his earthly life, Christ had to knock on doors to enter, but in the Resurrection, he could appear in a room though the doors were locked. Third, the “agility” of Christ’s body had a strength that freed him from the constraints of motion and enabled him to bi-locate. Fourth, the “clarity” of the risen body radiated a brilliance that emanated from the divine intelligence: “light from light.” This was glimpsed in the Transfiguration, and was what blinded Paul on the Damascus road.

These lines would seem to be an Easter meditation, but they are a Christmas meditation as well, for the two mysteries are inseparable. Without the Resurrection, the Nativity would be just another birthday, for even extraordinary people like Alexander the Great or Mozart had ordinary births. Because Christ is the Divine Word who created all things, the restrictions of his human nature are no less wonderful than the glory of his divine nature.

The infant in Bethlehem was not impassible: he hungered and cried like any other baby. Without subtlety, he was confined to the stable. While in the Resurrection his agility could cast aside the shroud, in the manger he was bound by swaddling clothes. And as for clarity, his infant body could be glimpsed in the darkness only by frail lamplight. As he has no beginning and no end, his divine glory was not something he attained as he grew up: rather, it was what he allowed to dim when he came into time and space. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).

So Christmas is about two caves, and the birth in a stone stable would be only a sentimental reverie without the fact of the burial cave burst open. The Holy Infant in the manger is a kind of graphic hint for our limited intelligence, of the indescribable Ruler and Judge of the Universe. And the qualities of his risen body intimated what he would let us become in eternity.

That youngest of the apostles wrote in his old age: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Bountiful, but fake

I was walking through Wegman’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania earlier today, and at some point I stopped to observe the scene I’m sharing here.

What struck me about these scenes from Wegman’s were, on the one hand, how this section of the grocery store is designed to resemble both an Old World-style public market and a smaller feeling town square. Looking straight up at the ceiling to see warehouse style sheet metal and electrical breaks this spell, but on the ground level the aesthetic is convincing as far as it tries to be. It does succeed in making Wegman’s feel like a “place,” rather than just another frontage in a faceless, memory-less asphalt and concrete suburbia.

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Another thing struck me, though, standing there: this place that’s constructed to appear solid and substantial—despite being fake—is more bountiful in both the quantity and variety of ready to eat meals, meats, cheeses, deserts, foods of other varieties, and beer, wine, and liquor than any typical, authentic Old World market of this kind ever was. Asian chicken, a dozen varieties of turkey lunchmeat, freshly cooked breads and cookies of all varieties, gourmet bagels and cream cheeses, live seafoods, organic fresh raspberries in winter, etc.

Places like this are in some sense places of unreality, yet they are also places of plenty on a scale that the Old World realities generally couldn’t hope to offer. You might live in a truly solid place, in the heart of a village that’s been there for a thousand years, but where your daily life is far less varied and less culinarily interesting than places like Wegman’s now offer.

Christmas and ‘downtowns’

As Christmas nears, it’s natural to want to experience the spirit of the season, and that usually means visiting a place that is festooned with Christmas trees, garland, twinkling lights, and frosted storefronts. In other words, it means visiting a traditional downtown, and Matthias Leyrer suggests why that is:

The architectural beauty and community space found in classic American downtowns is far superior to what we build now. Streets lined with structures designed to last centuries highlight traditions of generations past. This connection to history is an essential part of creating a community, especially during Christmas when old buildings are made to sparkle and shimmer, sharing the holiday cheer as they have for decades.

But it’s not just about history and tradition. Classic cities are built for humans and beget human interactions. So while you’re busy with holiday shopping and appointments, you’ll be out walking among other people, following the advice of A Holly Jolly Christmas as you “say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”

The traditional cities that are sung about in our Christmas music don’t just highlight the spirit of the holiday, they create it. They make us take things slower. They get us walking amidst the lights and decorations on the buildings. They put us on the street, interacting with the other people enjoying the Christmas atmosphere. They are part of the season itself—free and welcoming to all.

For so many families around the country, Christmas is still rooted in tradition. Whether it be meals, songs, events, or the simple act of being together, it is a time where we turn our eyes to our family and acquaintances. Many people work hard to instill their Christmas traditions in their children. Why not ask the same thing of our cities? Do we want our children to associate Christmas with spending hours at the mall or lazily clicking through Amazon? Or do we want them to realize that our physical structures can be part of their heritage and have a lasting impact for generations?

As we deemphasize the role of the cityscape in our lives, we remain giddy about decorating our own houses with images of traditional community. People spend hundreds of dollars on ceramic models of Christmas villages with corner stores, decorated public squares, and open-air Christmas markets. They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots. Imagine how ghastly a ceramic model of WalMart or Toys ‘R Us would look perched upon a piano at Christmas time. Yet these are the buildings our city governments often support with generous tax credits.

Some conservatives will dismiss these reactions to the contemporary retail landscape as mere nostalgia: Big-box stores are good and in keeping with the creative destruction of capitalism. Likewise, they might claim that our downtowns fail because they aren’t competitive, and traditionally patterned cities are “not what the market wants.” Such naysayers appear tone deaf to the idea that conservatism might also balance these concerns with the preservation of beauty, place, or tradition.

There is no question that our built environment underscores the idea that as a community feast day, Christmas is no longer important. Our poorly constructed cities are encouraged to overconsume, while the lack of quality public space has eroded our sense of community. The charm of Christmas now only lives in black-and-white movies, where it harkens back to a time and place that people have forgotten how to build. We’ve lost the “Main Street” that made it possible to frame public celebrations and holidays. Is Christmas now limited to plastic trees and lights in the front yard that we put up haphazardly because it’s the social norm?

As you run your errands this holiday season, pay attention to your surroundings. Ask yourself if these built environments are really emblematic of the “greatest nation on earth” or if they serve the purpose of interests—Wall Street and global corporations—not in line with your own best interests and those of your community. We vote with our pocketbooks. If enough of us reject the seeming enticements of the malls and strip centers, we can restore a more humane holiday season. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cold parking lots, and sterile big-box stores, you might again have a place where you can tell that it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Global capitalism, to a large degree, seems almost necessarily to corrode culture in order to expand markets in an efficient way. But community life, and sacred times like Advent and Christmastime that only people in community can experience meaningfully, need physical place to be distinctive and real, rather than derivative and abstract, in order to be healthy.