Wondering on the train

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia this morning, on Amtrak Northeast Regional #88 that will get me into the city a bit after 1pm. I snapped the photo above of the Phoenix Park Hotel as I waited for the light to change on my walk to Union Station.

As we’re riding along these tracks, I look out at so many little homes and communities and junk yards and docks, and across semi-frozen water as we occasionally stretch ourselves over a bridge, and wonder if there will be any of this to see in a future where the Hyperloop becomes a reality, likely underground. I wonder what the experience will be like as a passenger of an underground vacuum tube at such high speeds and relatively short durations. And I wonder whether the experience of all those in the little homes and places this Amtrak train passes today will become better or worse, and more or less interesting, when trains like this one diminish in frequency or stop although some day. In any event…

When we get into Philadelphia, I’ll head to my office at Logan Circle for a few hours of work this afternoon after a full few days in Washington, and a full week to come, to be spent partially at Penn State and in State College.

The Philadelphia Eagles meet the Minnesota Vikings tonight at 6pm to decide who wins the NFC Championship and gets to advance to the Super Bowl.

Students for Life conference

I visited the First Baptist Church of Glenarden today near Upper Marlboro, Maryland for the 2018 Students for Life conference, where I spoke with Catherine Glenn-Foster of Americans United for Life on human dignity and how best to serve those facing or considering euthanasia and assisted suicide.

It’s looked like a vibrant and beautiful Christian community, based upon the sanctuary itself and the photos lining the outer hallways. Today it played host to hundreds of young people from around the country who are hungry to serve vulnerable women and men who, across the spectrum, are too often told they have choice yet are handed only one or two real options.

The vigor and service mentality among young people to provide real alternatives to abortion, to euthanasia, to forms of suicide, is inspiring and precisely the sort of service needed to build a more humane culture where authentic autonomy and personal liberty is no longer achieved at the expense of a less fortunate brother or sister.

March for Life and Rose Dinner

This morning and afternoon marked the 45th March for Life in Washington, and tonight the March for Life’s Rose Dinner took place with Pam Tebow as keynote at the Marriott Renaissance. Pam spoke about human dignity broadly, her family’s international humanitarian work, and the story of her son Tim, whom physicians had recommended she abort:

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Afterwards, I walked the mile or so from Mount Vernon Square back to the Phoenix Park Hotel, through Chinatown, past Clyde’s of Gallery Place where the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board met last night, past the National Portrait Gallery, and ultimately which a brief glimpse at the beautiful Capitol dome, which inspires with the ideals that our politics aspires to in its better moments.

Terry Mattingly offers perspective on the March for Life’s historical lack of media coverage, even compared to similar marches and demonstrations. He excerpts the following Medical Research Project summary of a history of indifference:

The March for Life is a powerful event, one that sheds a spotlight on human rights and dignity. It also brings together men and women of all ages and races, Catholics and Protestants and the religious and scientific communities who believe that life starts at conception. It’s a message those on the political left don’t want to broadcast. It’s also one they don’t want to help further with the help of any meaningful news coverage.

A study conducted by the Media Research Project, a conservative watchdog group, found that CBS, NBC and ABC spent an hour and 15 minutes combined covering last year’s Women’s March held in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. That’s the same Women’s March organizers made sure did not include any pro-life groups.

By comparison, the same group found that the March for Life in 2016 had earned only 35 seconds of coverage from the same three major TV networks – just 13 seconds before it took place and 22 seconds after it was held. The Women’s March had garnered 23 minutes of coverage before it took place.

The situation was similar when it came to online news stories. The phrase “Women’s March 2017” garnered 7,650 mentions on Google News. The same search term for “March for Life 2017” saw a similar disparity – just 474 results.

President Trump became the first president to join the March for Life with a live address from the Rose Garden, where he underscored the stark reality of our laws:

Roe versus Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, in the United States, it’s one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions along with China, North Korea, and others. Right now, in a number of States, the laws allow a baby to be aborted from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month. It is wrong. It has to change.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, passed the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” today. It will fail in the Senate, where it requires 60 votes to pass, but it is an important step on the road toward protecting human beings who survive failed abortions, ensuring they are transferred from abortion clinics to legitimate medical facilities for care. It’s a fact that today, persons accidentally allowed to be born during an attempted abortion are sometimes simply left to die rather than provided basic care.

And finally, the Department of Health and Human Services today announced the creation of a first-ever “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division meant to “protect doctors, nurses, midwives and other health care workers who refuse to perform, accommodate or assist with certain procedures on religious or moral grounds” and also provides a mechanism for those persons to “file complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their religious or moral convictions.”

That such executive and legislative actions are necessary in the face of the clear and straightforward language of the constitution’s acknowledgement of the right to life, not even to speak of the cultural refusal to acknowledge embryological science as it relates to human rights, is a testament to the fact that ours is not an age of reason, but rather one of power and feeling.

Warm-looking, cold-feeling

The view from Room 807 at the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I’ll be thru Sunday for the March for Life. Union Station (to the right) and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum (left) look great in this sunny, albeit cold, weather.

Tonight the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board will meet for the first time this year. I’m proud that we not only grew the reach of our National Crisis Lifeline in 2017, which serves patients and families at risk of denial of care, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, but that we grew our mission while also achieving a second straight year of budgetary positive net income. I set this as a key performance goal when I came onboard as executive director, and we’ll work to make this the third straight year if we can be similarly fortunate and impactful.

Tomorrow, the 45th March for Life from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court.

Try to love the questions

In Washington tonight thru Sunday for the March for Life and Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network reasons. Rainer Maria Rilke, meanwhile, provides consolation in difficult moments:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved
in your heart and try to love the
questions themselves, like locked
rooms and like books that are now
written in a very foreign tongue. Do
not now seek the answers, which
cannot be given you because you
would not be able to live them. And
the point is, to live everything. Live the
questions now. Perhaps you will then
gradually, without noticing it, live
along some distant day into the
answer.

 

Humanae Vitae

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical concerning human life and the regulation of birth. Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this anniversary in this Word on Fire reflection:

When I worked my first real job at The Philadelphia Bulletin in 2008, whose motto was “Philadelphia’s Family Newspaper,” we published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The Bulletin went out of business by 2010, but I have a number of digital editions saved from those years, including that section.

We can do all sorts of things with and to the human body and to the human person. The essential question is always, “Should we?” And equally as important is answering that having considered the immediate costs and longer-term consequences of our decision. Humanae Vitae remains controversial, but true things tend to remain controversial in every time.

Winter blues

Gracy Olmstead writes on January, and how to brighten it:

Many have talked or written about hygge: the Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” People associate hygge with mulled wine, warm blankets, hot stew, and brisk snowy walks—as well as with a more abstract conception of personal joy and hospitality, warmth and openness. The word and its meaning have grown in popularity here in the States, as many have realized the role such cozy rituals can play in cheering long winters.

Atlantic reporter Kari Leibowitz spent a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, where the sun doesn’t rise between November and January. Despite the bleakness, she learned that the people of Tromsø have lower rates of seasonal depression than those in less dark and less cold climes. How is that possible? She traveled there to find out—and quickly realized that her assumptions surrounding winter were entirely incongruent with what she saw:

“[I]n New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.

“I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. … After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.”

Much of this same positivity and coziness filled my childhood winters, winters that otherwise might have felt cold and dreary. We did our homework next to the fireplace in the evenings, and bundled up to play in the snow on weekends (and then enjoyed cups of hot cocoa when we came inside). We made wintry desserts like gingerbread and nutmeg-sprinkled sugar cookies. My grandmother mastered the art of hygge: the steaming cider and soups and pies that filled our holiday season, the soft hum of a football game in the living room, created a texture that enveloped our spirits with warmth. There were pictures of my father and his siblings proudly lining her walls, rose-embellished china on her counters and in her cabinets. Her bedrooms abounded with pillows and stuffed animals, beckoning to grandchildren with their comfort.

Home can be a haven in January. It requires very little: a blanket, a candle, a warm cup of tea, a well-worn favorite book. But these little touches of comfort can help banish the emotional and physical cold we can otherwise feel throughout the winter.

One of the things I like least about the American attitude is how easily we shift from “sharing” to “venting” to “gossiping/complaining”. I find January and February to be a particularly unattractive time to live in Pennsylvania, or to be in the Northeast in general. But this change of attitude, of attempting to see the light in things, and perhaps to speak a bit less if only to avoid the temptation toward banality or complaining, seems worth emulating.

‘Oh, those were simpler times’

Harrison Scott Key remarks to the 2017 St. Andrews Society of Savannah, Georgia meeting. This particular excerpt on qualities of a “real man” struck me:

“Oh, those were simpler times,” I can hear you saying. “Back when a man could solve geopolitical questions with food.”

But were the times simpler? My grandfather grew up amid lynchings. In his home of Tate County, Mississippi, he saw black men pursued with hounds by lawless mobs and hanged for crimes they did not commit. His neighbors across the fence-line were a black family, and when they were ill, he called on them with food and prayers, and when he or my grandmother were ill, they paid him in kind. How instructive for a young boy like me, from the very heart of American racial evil, to see this bold witness from his white grandfather?

Of all the memories of Monk, I remember one most vividly, when my parents were out of town and he took my brother and me to the swimming hole.

It was a wide sandy creek. You could see to the bottom in places, little bream darting in clusters. Monk fished upstream, as we played down. Soon enough, our horseplay turned into horse-fighting, when my brother and I attempted to express our fraternal love by drowning one another. Monk told us to cut it out, but we didn’t listen.

“If I have to tell you boys one more time,” Monk said, “I’ll whip the both of you.”

We had been whipped many times, at school, at home, never with fists or open palms, usually with items purchased at hardware stores, flyswatters, canoe oars, fan belts.  But Monk had never whipped us. He was the peacemaker, the Good Cop to my father’s Bad, and so we ignored him and commenced to murdering each other again, as quietly as possible.

And then the water turned dark with his shadow.

“Boys, get out,” he said, prying the leather belt off his trousers.

I felt such grand shame, that our behavior had made Monk no longer the lover of mercy but the doer of justice. I said a prayer, and looked up to see a miracle: Just as he raised his hand to whip me, over his shoulder, poking through the leaves, I saw the face of an angel.

No, not an angel.

It was Monk’s son. My father, Pop. He stepped into the clearing.

“We just drove in,” Pop said. “I seen the truck and reckoned you all was swimming.”

Bird and I waited for Monk to explain our terrible malfeasance, but when I turned back to look at my grandfather, the belt was back in its rightful place, caged and quiet.

“We was just fishing a little,” Monk said.

We all drove back to the farm. Monk never said a word, from then to the day of his death.

In that moment, so very long ago, the just act would have been to punish my brother and me, and then to tell our father what we had done. Monk probably wanted to drown us both just for ruining his fishing. Justice would have felt good to him. It often does.

You read the papers, you check Facebook, and it looks as if today’s men want justice for others and mercy for themselves. But Monk did not choose justice. He chose mercy, for us.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts his readers like some kind of juiced-up ball coach, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong!” And then he says, as if in rejoinder to himself, quiet, calming, “Let all your things be done with charity.”

At this point in my life, where I am statistically halfway between birth and death, I have finally come to see that being a man has much less to do with chopping your own firewood or growing your own tomato and far more with this impossible marriage of strength and compassion that Micah and Paul write about.

Together, these impossible qualities are what made my grandfather a man, and all the good men who have come before us.

Pale Blue Dot

Maria Popova reflects on living in turbulent times:

When the Voyager completed its exploratory mission and took the last photograph — of Neptune — NASA commanded that the cameras be shut off to conserve energy. But Carl Sagan had the idea of turning the spacecraft around and taking one final photograph — of Earth. Objections were raised — from so great a distance and at so low a resolution, the resulting image would have absolutely no scientific value. But Sagan saw the larger poetic worth — he took the request all the way up to NASA’s administrator and charmed his way into permission.

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And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1990, just after Bulgaria’s Communist regime was finally defeated after nearly half a century of reign, the Voyager took the now-iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — a grainy pixel, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan so poetically put it when he immortalized the photograph in his beautiful “Pale Blue Dot” monologue from Cosmos — that great masterwork of perspective, a timeless reminder that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was… every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician” lived out their lives on this pale blue dot. And every political conflict, every war we’ve ever fought, we have waged over a fraction of this grainy pixel barely perceptible against the cosmic backdrop of endless lonesome space.

In the cosmic blink of our present existence, as we stand on this increasingly fragmented pixel, it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment. It is worth questioning what proportion of the news this year, what imperceptible fraction, was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves — the single most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo. After centuries of knowing the universe only by sight, only by looking, we can now listen to it and hear echoes of events that took place billions of lightyears away, billions of years ago — events that made the stardust that made us.

I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.

I love Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin”, the Bulgarian folk song from Carl Sagan and Voyager’s “Golden Record”. That sort of folk song is something I can imagine our earliest ancestors being moved by, tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago. And someday maybe it will move others, too.

American economic growth

Warren Buffett is optimistic:

I have good news. First, most American children are going to live far better than their parents did. Second, large gains in the living standards of Americans will continue for many generations to come. …

We can be confident that births minus deaths will add no more than 0.5% yearly to America’s population. Immigration is more difficult to predict. I believe 1 million people annually is a reasonable estimate, an influx that will add 0.3% annually to population growth.

In total, therefore, you can expect America’s population to increase about 0.8% a year. Under that assumption, gains of 2% in real GDP–that is, without nominal gains produced by inflation–will annually deliver 1.2% growth in per capita GDP.

This pace no doubt sounds paltry. But over time, it works wonders. In 25 years–a single generation–1.2% annual growth boosts our current $59,000 of GDP per capita to $79,000. This $20,000 increase guarantees a far better life for our children.

In America, it should be noted, there’s nothing unusual about that sort of gain, magnificent though it will be. Just look at what has happened in my lifetime.

I was born in 1930, when the symbol of American wealth was John D. Rockefeller Sr. Today my upper-middle-class neighbors enjoy options in travel, entertainment, medicine and education that were simply not available to Rockefeller and his family. With all of his riches, John D. couldn’t buy the pleasures and conveniences we now take for granted.

Two words explain this miracle: innovation and productivity. Conversely, were today’s Americans doing the same things in the same ways as they did in 1776, we would be leading the same sort of lives as our forebears.

Replicating those early days would require that 80% or so of today’s workers be employed on farms simply to provide the food and cotton we need. So why does it take only 2% of today’s workers to do this job? Give the credit to those who brought us tractors, planters, cotton gins, combines, fertilizer, irrigation and a host of other productivity improvements.

To all this good news there is, of course, an important offset: in our 241 years, the progress that I’ve described has disrupted and displaced almost all of our country’s labor force. If that level of upheaval had been foreseen–which it clearly wasn’t–strong worker opposition would surely have formed and possibly doomed innovation. How, Americans would have asked, could all these unemployed farmers find work?

We know today that the staggering productivity gains in farming were a blessing. They freed nearly 80% of the nation’s workforce to redeploy their efforts into new industries that have changed our way of life.

You can describe these develop-ments as productivity gains or disruptions. Whatever the label, they explain why we now have our amazing $59,000 of GDP per capita.

This game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better “stuff” in the future. The challenge will be to have this bounty deliver a better life to the disrupted as well as to the disrupters. And on this matter, many Americans are justifiably worried.

Let’s think again about 1930. Imagine someone then predicting that real per capita GDP would increase sixfold during my lifetime. My parents would have immediately dismissed such a gain as impossible. If somehow, though, they could have imagined it actually transpiring, they would concurrently have predicted something close to universal prosperity.

Instead, another invention of the ensuing decades, the Forbes 400, paints a far different picture. Between the first computation in 1982 and today, the wealth of the 400 increased 29-fold–from $93 billion to $2.7 trillion–while many millions of hardworking citizens remained stuck on an economic treadmill. During this period, the tsunami of wealth didn’t trickle down. It surged upward.

In 1776, America set off to unleash human potential by combining market economics, the rule of law and equality of opportunity. This foundation was an act of genius that in only 241 years converted our original villages and prairies into $96 trillion of wealth.

The market system, however, has also left many people hopelessly behind, particularly as it has become ever more specialized. These devastating side effects can be ameliorated: a rich family takes care of all its children, not just those with talents valued by the marketplace.

In the years of growth that certainly lie ahead, I have no doubt that America can both deliver riches to many and a decent life to all. We must not settle for less.

I share Buffett’s optimism for America’s economic growth, with the caveat that history would suggest that our meager birth rate might be a signal of a cultural malaise that could diminish economic growth. I also agree with Buffett’s point that the gains from wealth must start trickling down more than they have for most of the past half century. If they don’t, the next generation of Buffetts will (probably rightly) face pitchforks and torches.