Past year reviews

Tim Feriss writes that “past year reviews” are more helpful for him than New Years resolutions:

I have found “past year reviews” (PYR) more informed, valuable, and actionable than half-blindly looking forward with broad resolutions. I did my first PYR after a mentor’s young daughter died of cancer on December 31st, roughly eight years ago, and I’ve done it every year since. It takes 30-60 minutes and looks like this:

  1. Grab a notepad and create two columns: POSITIVE and NEGATIVE.
  2. Go through your calendar from the last year, looking at every week.
  3. For each week, jot down on the pad any people or activities or commitments that triggered peak positive or negative emotions for that month. Put them in their respective columns.
  4. Once you’ve gone through the past year, look at your notepad list and ask, “What 20% of each column produced the most reliable or powerful peaks?”
  5. Based on the answers, take your “positive” leaders and schedule more of them in the new year. Get them on the calendar now! Book things with friends and prepay for activities/events/commitments that you know work. It’s not real until it’s in the calendar. That’s step one. Step two is to take your “negative” leaders, put “NOT-TO-DO LIST” at the top, and put them somewhere you can see them each morning for the first few weeks of 2019. These are the people and things you *know* make you miserable, so don’t put them on your calendar out of obligation, guilt, FOMO, or other nonsense.

I haven’t done this for the past year and probably won’t get to it, but am going to return to this at some point in the future.

George Bailey, realist

Niall Gooch writes on It’s a Wonderful Life, making the point that the film is a “wise tribute to everyday heroism:”

Some critics question the film’s status as a warm-hearted celebration of life, suggesting that it is really a tragedy, portraying an individual crushed by the trivialities of parochial life. The man who was going to transform the world becomes a glorified bank clerk, scraping by in a small town while real life goes on elsewhere.

This view seems to me one-eyed at best. It operates on the highly questionable assumption that personal happiness should be our main ambition (a belief to which no Christian can assent). Of course George has unfulfilled dreams and secret sadnesses. Which of us does not? Yet he leads a good life, despite his disappointments and faults. He is a loving husband and father, a devoted son, a steadfast friend and a decent bank manager. His world – the little world of Bedford Falls – is an immeasurably greater place with him in it. He excels in the heroism of everyday life; he shows the difference one man can make.

Others criticise George on utilitarian grounds, arguing that he has made a moral miscalculation by remaining at home to help a small number of people, when he could have benefited millions by building bridges and skyscrapers. George is right, however, to conclude that his direct and clear moral duties to his family and his neighbours – real people with whom he is involved in existing networks of love, friendship and reciprocity – outweigh an indirect obligation to possibly increase the wellbeing of distant strangers. In his essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”, GK Chesterton notes that “We have to love our neighbour because he is there … He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is routinely accused of sentimentality, of encouraging excessive or glib emotion. But at heart it is a morally serious story. You might even say that it is a morally serious film disguised as a sentimental one (in contrast to a good many films which are the exact opposite). Woven throughout George’s story is the recognition that we cannot have all the good things we would like in life, and so our ambitions and loves must be ordered and prioritised correctly. Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.

George succeeds by committing himself to the concrete and the particular, and comes to understand the paradoxical and deeply Christian truth that to make a positive difference as an individual you need to let go of attachment to yourself.

“Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.”

Politics v. political science

I was reading about The Soul and the City: A Reader in Moral and Political Philosophy, and Thomas Achord’s introduction does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of describing the difference between studying “politics” versus studying “political science”:

“The study of politics is not what many assume. It is not the study of daily media headlines. It is not the study of candidate speeches, policy platforms, and meticulous legislation. Nor is it the study of party factions, social ideologies, and political programs. Least of all is it a scientific experimentation with reality to achieve imagined utopias. These are all the facets belonging to political science in the modern sense. Rather, political philosophy is the study of the the value of Light, of moral truths such as justice, right, law, duty, order and liberty. It asks what is the good life and how we can best position ourselves collectively to pursue it. The purpose of this reader is to restore in the mind of people generally, but Christians especially, the connections between the family and the nation, virtue and society, the soul and the city.”

This distinction is one I understood too late in my own time at Penn State, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish I had an immersion in history and philosophy more than in political science, per se.

Anchor’s Korean pine

As the Christmas season leads to the Epiphany, one of the ways I’m keeping the season is enjoying Anchor’s Christmas Ale, this year featuring a Korean pine. It’s a somewhat difficult to find Christmas brew, and an annual tradition:

Our annual Christmas Ale is a subtly spiced and sumptuously smooth winter warmer. This year’s brew marks the 44th annual release of this Anchor holiday tradition.

Back in 1975, Anchor released the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition. Year after year, Anchor creates a new, secret recipe with a unique hand drawn label for their Christmas Ale, but the intent with each brew remains the same: joy for the changing seasons and celebration of the newness of life. With a heavily guarded, confidential recipe, Christmas Ale is sold only from early November to mid-January. This highly anticipated seasonal delight is complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and strong aromas of resinous pine.

Our 2018 Christmas Ale has varying specialty malts, lending rich flavors of brûléed sugars, holiday spices and freshly baked banana bread with a velvety finish. The aromatics are quintessential for the holiday season: nutty candied yams and resinous pine. It pours a nice mahogany brown color with a fluffy, tan head.

As each Christmas Ale recipe evolves, so does its hand drawn packaging, created by long-time Anchor Illustrator Jim Stitt, who has been creating Anchor’s Christmas Ale labels since 1975. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. For the 2018 release, Stitt created a brimming Korean Pine Tree for the label. Native to both North and South Korea, the Korean Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and a reminder of the spirit of the season. It flourishes in the picturesque botanical gardens just north of San Francisco, Anchor’s home base.

One of the pleasures of an Anchor Christmas Ale tradition is reminiscing about the different times and places and people you’ve shared their annual variations with: a close friend at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco in late afternoon, with a running partner the night before a 200-mile Ragnar Relay race in Miami, as part of a smoke-filled conversation on a friend’s Southwest Florida lanai, on Notre Dame’s campus before a football game, and with family and friends on Christmas.

Marcinello

Andrew Chamings writes in The Bold Italic on Marcinello, a thankfully failed project to transform the wilds of the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco into a 1960s suburbia. Here are the Marin Headlands with San Francisco just visible, from Flickr with a Creative Commons license:

In the 1960s, when the suburbs were taking over America, a keen real estate developer from Pittsburgh, Thomas Frouge, dreamed about building a city on top of the Marin Headlands—Marincello.

His vision: a city rising from the slopes of the Tennessee Valley, where residents could gaze across the shimmering water, past the Golden Gate Bridge and on to San Francisco. Frouge described the headlands as “the most beautiful location in the United States for a new community.”

But thanks to some persistent conservationalists, red tape and shoddy planning, that vision never came to life—and those rocky headlands just north of the bridge remain a natural haven. The open hilltops and ridges are still cloaked in coastal shrub. The flowing, open natural landscape is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Northern California. …

In 1972 the land was sold to the Nature Conservancy for $6.5 million, and the area soon became part of the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

I’d rate running through the Marin Headlands and experiencing that natural landscape for an afternoon as probably one of the best experiences of my life. San Francisco can fix its population probably by fixing its zoning and density problems.

The world did not know him

Merry Christmas. I’m sharing a photo from my arrival back at Reagan Washington National Airport earlier this month, but I’m visiting family near Philadelphia for Christmas today.

Last night attended Midnight Mass at Corpus Christi. In the final hour of Christmas Eve, Corpus Christi’s choir performed. Here’s a brief bit from last night’s performance:

And here’s Bishop Robert Barron reflecting on Christmas, specifically on John 1:1-18 in his Gospel Reflections:

“The world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” In that pithily crafted line, we sense the whole tragedy of sin. Human beings were made by and for the Logos and therefore they find their joy in a sort of sympathetic attunement to the Logos. Sin is the disharmony that comes when we fall out of alignment with God’s reasonable purpose.

Then comes the incomparably good news: “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” It is a basic principle of nature that nothing at a lower level of being can rise to a higher level unless it is drawn upward. For example, a plant can become ingredient in a sentient nature only if it is devoured by an animal. By this same principle, a human being can become something higher only when a superior reality assimilates him. The Church Fathers consistently taught that God became human so that humans might become God—which is to say, participants in the divine nature. In a word, we can become children of God precisely because God reached down to us and became a son of man.

I’m thinking of my friend today, who grew up with the challenge of his father to “live every day as if it were Christmas.” What lies at the heart of that challenge is to live every day with a closeness to the essential mystery that this life is, and to the reality of Christ’s revelation of himself as the root and cause of this strange and continent universe.

Advent precedes Christmas

Jody Bottum proposes that, to the extent that we feel a poverty of Christmas spirit, it is due to a loss of Advent as an antecedent:

What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, that day’s Mass begins:  Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives. 

More than any other holiday, Christmas seems to need its setting in the church year, for without it we have a diminishment of language, a diminishment of culture, and a diminishment of imagination. The Jesse trees and the Advent calendars, St. Martin’s Fast and St. Nicholas’ Feast, Gaudete Sunday, the childless crèches, the candle wreaths, the vigil of Christmas Eve: They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that otherwise would shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder till it finally snaps off its axle. …

We’ve reached a point in American culture where any recovery of both Christmas and Advent probably require a breaking of the economic hysteria that a “healthy American economy” pretends to require and a spirit of sacramental withdraw that authentic Christian encounter necessitates. That is, the culture of more and more and more that precedes Christmas stands in opposition to the spirit of less that characterizes Advent and the discipline that Bottum speaks to.

Bottum also shares his own nostalgia, and wonders whether the strange difference in time’s passage was just something of his (or any) childhood, or whether that’s something we stand at risk of losing generally as only a thin patina of Christmas (as a sacramental holy day) remains to cover the new reality of Christmas (as an economic holiday) that dominates December:

When I was little—ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir—I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: The hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was somehow like a flavor even to the air we breathed. 

I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that the feeling comes over me more rarely than it used to, and for shorter bits of time. I have to pursue the sense of wonder, the taste in the air, and cling to it self-consciously. Even for me, the endless roar of untethered Christmas anticipation is close to drowning out the disciplined anticipation of Advent. And when Christmas itself arrives, it has begun to seem a day not all that different from any other. Oh, yes, church and home to a big dinner. Presents for the children. A set of decorations. But nothing special, really. 

It is this that Advent, rightly kept, would prevent—the thing, in fact, it is designed to halt. Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before. I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.

The “Christmas season” begins on Christmas and lasts through the Epiphany, but in the secular and popular experience the Christmas season begins at Thanksgiving and is largely economic—and so it has little of any transcendent value, as far as I can see. It’s worth reading Bottum’s entire piece.

Why trees at Christmas

Nancy Bilyeau writes on Christmas trees:

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England. …

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

“On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough … and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.”

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom’s leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how “from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.” He said that “after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.”

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.

I got into 30th Street Station in Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, and saw this tree when coming up from the platform.

Lime-E bikes in Washington

I was walking to my office in Arlington earlier this week and I passed by a dozen or so brand new Lime-E electric bikes. News later in the day confirmed that Lime had just launched its e-bikes in Washington and the surrounding area, joining JUMP bikes as the only electric, dockless bikes in the area. There are a handful of electric Capitol Bikeshare bikes, but I haven’t come across any to try. It was a beautiful, only somewhat chilly day that day, and there were still a few of these left outside the office at the end of the day, so I hopped on one and rode it home to Georgetown:

Rode as well as the last time I was on one, which was in Seattle over the summer. Total fare come to roughly $3.50, which is a bit more than Metro would have been (but which would have involved a substantial walk from Foggy Bottom), and a bit less than the typical $4.50 Uber Pool from my office to my apartment.